northern ireland assembly
Tuesday 3 July 2007
The Assembly met at 10.30 am (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClarty] in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes’ silence.
Racial Equality Strategy
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for this debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes for the winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes.
One amendment has been selected and published on the Marshalled List. The proposer of the amendment will have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes for the winding-up speech.
Ms Lo: I beg to move
That this Assembly urges the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to ensure that the second Implementation Action Plan of the Racial Equality Strategy fully and rigorously addresses issues of racial equality for minority ethnic communities in Northern Ireland.
Racism is not a new phenomenon in Northern Ireland. A couple of years after I arrived here in the 1970s, I was kicked in Belfast city centre, in broad daylight, while walking to catch a bus home. When legislation was extended to Northern Ireland through the introduction of The Race Relations (Northern Ireland) Order 1997, a comprehensive survey of the three main minority communities here found that one in 10 minority ethnic residents had experienced physical racial violence. One in two Chinese people had had their properties damaged, and two thirds of them had experienced verbal abuse. A social attitudes survey in 2001 indicated that racial prejudice is twice as significant as sectarian prejudice in Northern Irish people.
Racism is on the increase in Northern Ireland, and police recorded more than 1,000 racially motivated crimes last year. Under the New TSN promoting social inclusion (PSI) initiative, the idea of a racial equality strategy was first mooted in 2000. After several years of deliberation, the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) published ‘A Racial Equality Strategy for Northern Ireland 2005-2010’ in July 2005, which was to be a sister document of ‘A Shared Future: Policy and Strategic Framework for Good Relations in Northern Ireland’. The five-year strategy sets out a vision of:
“A society in which racial diversity is supported, understood, valued and respected, where racism in any of its forms is not tolerated and where we live together as a society and enjoy equality of opportunity and equal protection.”
The strategy has six aims: the elimination of racial inequality; equal protection; equality of service provision; increased participation; promotion of dialogue; and building capacity in minority ethnic communities. The racial equality strategy is the first Government policy to acknowledge the changing cultural diversity in Northern Ireland and the need to tackle racism. It fosters an attitude of zero tolerance of racism in all its forms.
However, given the dramatic increase in inward migration over the past few years, the delay in publishing the strategy has caused concern that it is already out of date. There was also disappointment that the strategy commits only Departments, and not all strategy bodies and the wider community, including the business sector, to maximising the strategy’s effect in promoting racial equality. Implementation of the strategy’s aims therefore relies heavily on Departments producing annual action plans. The first annual action plan was published in April 2006, but we still await the publication of this year’s plan.
There is no doubt that the strategy offers the potential to make Northern Ireland a better place for minority ethnic communities. However, last year’s action plan, as a first attempt, was criticised by many as a mere mapping exercise by Departments to list their existing initiatives, many of which were commitments that amounted to meeting the minimum requirements under section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Many of the 200 actions in the plan were process-orientated rather than outcome-focused and with measurable targets, so there was concern that, even cumulatively, the actions proposed last year would not effect change.
In a piece of academic research that I conducted, several Departments agreed that the process of formulating the plans was mechanical for them. Although they say that racial equality is important, many Departments still have a limited understanding of the depth of change that is required. However, many Departments stated that, from now on, they must do more and must engage with minority ethnic communities to identify needs. It is therefore important that the next action plan contain a radically reduced number of actions, and that those actions must focus on improving service provision and dialogue with communities. Those actions must be matched with appropriate funding for building capacity in minority ethnic groups.
The Racial Equality Forum, which was established to develop and monitor the strategy, has been welcomed and supported by minority ethnic communities. However, it has grown to include all Departments, minority ethnic communities, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) and the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland (ECNI), the voluntary sector, Churches and the trade unions. Although that wider involvement is appreciated, the forum has become too big to allow members to engage meaningfully or to exercise fully their role in monitoring implementation.
Moreover, information that the forum secretariat has provided in the past has been insufficient to enable members to scrutinise progress adequately. I appreciate that the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister is reviewing the forum, and I urge it to consider those concerns.
Northern Ireland is a divided society that for decades has been dominated by the conflict between, and the politics of, two major traditions. Anyone who is non-white, non-Christian or non-English-speaking can feel excluded from public participation or public-service provision. The long-awaited racial equality strategy sets out a vision for racial equality that should benefit all who live in Northern Ireland. As Lord Rooker stated, there must be an improvement in the quality of life of minority ethnic people. The realisation of the vision demands a change of hearts and minds, and the strategy is a tool that must be sharpened if it is to be effective.
Mr McHugh: I beg to move the following amendment: Leave out all after “to” and insert
“review, as a matter of urgency, progress on implementation of the Racial Equality Strategy for Northern Ireland 2005-2010 and the First Annual Implementation Plan; and to bring forward proposals for its own detailed plans for the period 2008-2011 to achieve racial equality and an inclusive society for our increasingly diverse community.”
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the opportunity to participate in this important debate. The amendment addresses more effectively than the motion the issues that are involved. The First Minister and the Deputy First Minister have clearly signalled their commitment, and that of the Executive, to achieving racial equality and an inclusive society for our increasingly diverse people. Indeed, that is not an issue. The motion is poorly phrased and refers to:
“issues of racial equality for minority ethnic communities”.
However, we seek racial equality for everyone. Racial equality is not divisible, and we do not want to send the message that we are giving preferential treatment to, or are positively discriminating in favour of, ethnic minority communities. We simply want to ensure that they get what they are entitled to. It is not about integrating the immigrant but about creating an integrated society that encourages inclusion and participation. Everyone must be given a real chance to participate in all aspects of our society and to avail themselves of all services, including education and health provision. Integrated education is a service that presents a tremendous opportunity to assist in creating an integrated society. Children can be educated together, and, through such education, some of the nastiness that is created by ignorance of each other and of people who have moved — recently or earlier — into our society can be avoided.
The racial equality strategy and the first annual implementation action plan are legacies of direct rule. The strategy provides a firm basis on which to tackle racism and racial inequalities. It was developed in partnership with minority ethnic representatives.
It is right and proper that the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister and the Assembly engage fully in mapping out the implementation of the strategy and in developing action plans. Those might take longer to complete, but it will be important to get it right rather than get it done quickly.
As the previous Member who spoke said, minority ethnic groups and their representatives have criticised the first implementation action plan as being only what Departments were going to do in any case. For example, lots of translated leaflets were published. That is good, but it only scratches the surface. Departments need to plan properly to deal with racial equality and not just reach for what they have in stock. Racial equality must be factored into departmental planning; proper financial provision should be made; and needs should be aligned with the business-planning cycle.
Migrant workers are often exploited, and although legislation is in place to stop such exploitation — including housing legislation and section 75, which councils and Departments are responsible for enforcing — it is often not implemented. In general, it suits society to turn a blind eye, and that is especially the case among those who are making vast sums of money at the expense of ethnic minorities.
In my constituency, I have seen cases in which employers insist that migrant workers rent property from them at extortionate rates. Those rents are then taken directly from the workers’ wages. Such workers are moved to properties across the border when complaints are made. That example highlights the need for co-operation and an all-Ireland strategy to stamp out such racial abuse.
Recently, I spoke out against racially motivated attacks against Asian families in south Belfast, Enniskillen and in other areas of the North. We want to stop that type of attack, and I encourage the PSNI to take all racially motivated attacks seriously and do everything that is necessary to bring the perpetrators before the courts.
Ireland’s history shows that often its biggest export was people who looked for work and a better way of life elsewhere. Today’s immigrants are no different. They come to this island looking for a better way of life, and many of them are entrepreneurial in spirit and in work ethic. They bring a lot of good ideas with them, which we should support. Such people have made an effort, perhaps in their own countries where there was no work, to do something about their situation. We should welcome them. They will be very useful to an economy — North and South — that is growing very quickly when compared to those in other countries.
Migrant workers have a great deal to offer our society. They fill the skills gaps, especially in the construction industry, and they can teach us new ways of looking at life. We should do everything possible to welcome them, and it is the Assembly’s responsibility to implement strategies to achieve that. As my party’s spokesperson on ethnic minorities, I welcome the motion, and I urge everyone to support my amendment. Go raibh maith agat.
The Chairperson of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister (Mr Kennedy): I join with others in warmly welcoming the motion, and I congratulate and thank those who tabled it. It is important to debate equality. Unfortunately, I may not be able to be present for the entire debate due to the meeting of the Assembly and Executive Review Committee, and I apologise for that.
The Committee for the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister has received a general briefing on the work that is being undertaken by OFMDFM’s equality directorate, including its work on racial equality. The Committee has indicated its desire to be updated on progress so that the second implementation action plan can be developed properly early in the next session.
The aim of the racial equality strategy attracts widespread support. However, the key issue will be to ensure that there is effective action to provide racial equality by Government, wider society and the communities in which minority ethnic groups live and work.
I make the following remarks on behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party. As tensions between the two main communities in Northern Ireland have eased, new forms of prejudice are becoming apparent, and they are racially and ethnically based. Our society is in transition, and we are modernising, but perhaps more slowly than expected due to the conflict we have endured. It would be useful, and convenient, to underpin our rejection of racial prejudice and discrimination with a legal framework, but that must not be the whole story. A process of information and education is also needed, and that will take time. However, it should be embarked upon urgently.
Economic reasons, or perceived economic reasons, can cause racial and ethnic prejudice. This is particularly the case in areas of multiple deprivation where there may be a history of educational underachievement or where unemployment is high and job skills are low. Such areas probably exist in all countries — they certainly exist in England, Scotland, Wales, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. The problem is not unique. Nevertheless the situation is unacceptable and must be dealt with urgently.
It is clear, therefore, that there is a correlation to be made between economic deprivation, racial tension and attacks, and we all rightly condemn such attacks.
There have been indications that members of the British National Party (BNP) will try to actively recruit in Northern Ireland over the Twelfth celebrations this year. I condemn such efforts, and I welcome indications from the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland resolutely condemning and opposing such a move. On behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party, I say to the BNP that we do not want, or need, imported hate mongering in Northern Ireland.
Low educational achievement, coupled with the fear of negative economic impacts due to new nationals gaining jobs at the expense of locals, and a general lack of knowledge about ethnic minorities can feed the fears that stoke racial prejudices leading to attacks. The task confronting the Assembly is as much about putting those wrongs to right as it is about legislating against race hate itself. I, and my party, support the motion.
Mr Moutray: I welcome the motion and I thank the Member for South Belfast Ms Anna Lo for tabling it. I also welcome the opportunity to bring to light the integral role that ethnic minorities play in Northern Ireland: our society has become richer as a result of the cultural diversity and expertise that they contribute.
The ethnic minority workforce has also made a difference to local industries, such as food-processing, and to the nursing profession. Those who bring their talents to this country are very welcome, especially as they are contributing so much to our local economy. In this day and age, it is disgraceful that there is still such small-mindedness and ignorance leading to attacks and intimidation of those who come here to work, live and belong as part of Northern Irish culture.
Although it is a minority of people who are responsible for such attacks, attacks of any form cannot be tolerated by society. I echo the call to urge OFMDFM to continue its work of ensuring that the racial equality strategy is implemented to the benefit of all members of our community. We should be proclaiming the message that Northern Ireland is open for business and that it welcomes visitors as well as those who are interested in living here and contributing to the economy. We cannot afford any sort of racially motivated attacks, and no one should have to put up with such atrocities.
It is worrying to read that ‘The Guardian’ has termed Northern Ireland the “race-hate capital of Europe”. We must take strong action against antisocial behaviour and see to it that racism will end, not only on our streets, but, most importantly, in the mindsets of our people. I call upon local community workers and representatives to tackle the issue head on, and the courts must be seen to deliver tough sentences to perpetrators.
We have seen how effective awareness of racism has been at other levels, especially in football where the “Show Racism the Red Card” initiative has been introduced and has had positive results. Further implementation should involve effective marketing in areas most affected with the publication of helpline numbers and names of local representatives who can be contacted in the event of racial abuse incidents. The scourge of racism must be stamped out quickly. We cannot let it lie any longer, nor can we sit back while people from ethnic minorities feel as though they are being left alone and that no one is interested in helping them. I support the motion.
Mrs D Kelly: I support the motion, as amended. All too often, Members talk about lack of resources. At last, we are debating a strategy that will, if implemented, bring cultural and more immediate riches. We are beginning to see peace dividends through the diversity of those who choose the North as a place in which to settle or work. Many people who work in this Building are from the new enlarged European Union, and I welcome that. The Member for Upper Bann Stephen Moutray mentioned the number of people who are choosing to work in Northern Ireland, and, as he said, many of our hospitals and many industries within the agrifood sector would be unsustainable in the short to medium term if that labour force were not available.
Migrant workers also contribute to the economy by spending their wages in Northern Ireland, and some of them are choosing to bring their families and children to be fully integrated here and to attend our schools. It is, therefore, imperative that the strategy is implemented and that it does not become just another strategy that merely lies on a shelf. That will require a focused piece of work by OFMDFM, plus the necessary resources.
The racial equality strategy, on which the action plan will be based, aims to allow all members of society here to participate fully in their communities. In combination with the implementation of ‘A Shared Future’, the action plan will bring about a future without the segregation and intolerant hatred that has blighted us in the past. The implementation plans are about building a prosperous economy on an inclusive foundation. It has been said that all communities have something to offer; not to take advantage of that would be foolish and insulting.
The first action plan brought with it some noble ideas — some of which have come to fruition. For instance, the publication of ‘Your Rights in Northern Ireland: A Guide for Migrant Workers’, in association with the Human Rights Commission, was a welcome and useful step.
I note that some local authorities, through their good relations policies, have invested in material welcoming people to their boroughs. I am pleased to say that Craigavon Borough Council — in which I must declare an interest — has taken the lead on that. However, there is much more to be done, and there is an urgency upon us to do so.
As Europe grows and we prosper, there will be more at stake as regards how we maximise the contribution of a migrant workforce. One may look back on the experiences of the first Caribbean immigrants to Britain, or the Irish to America, and see how well they fared. We must not make the same mistakes.
The experiences of Manjet Sadu, which came to public attention last week, showed how far we have to go. It is a shame that swastikas have been displayed in Belfast in 2007. The SDLP has been working with Manjet for months and will continue to do so.
We will continue to offer our help to anyone who suffers that type of sickening hatred, until it is finally eradicated. I welcome the stated aim of the racial equality strategy to eliminate racism and racial inequality and hope to see it clearly reflected in the action plan.
I welcome the comments of other Members on their hopes for the eradication of racially motivated crime. I particularly welcome the comments of Mr McHugh of Sinn Féin, who urged the PSNI to bring to justice all those who perpetrate race-hate crime. We all recognise that we need the help of the community to do that. I hope that Sinn Féin’s aspiration on hate crime extends to all crimes. Specifically, Mr McHugh and his party must do all that they can to assist the police in bringing to justice the murderers of Robert McCartney.
There is a clear need for all arms of Government to work properly to make the racial equality strategy work. The Housing Executive, social services, and the Equality Commission must all be at the top of their games if the strategy is to succeed.
The strategy provides a great chance for Members to learn about co-operation and the success that that can bring. Let us remember that the racial equality strategy is not aimed only at the new Irish; it is also the means by which we can return to Travellers some of the opportunities that are currently denied them. I call on the Executive to examine preschool and childcare provision for minority ethnic people, and the Travelling community in particular, as places begin to become available. That investment will pay off not only culturally, but financially. We must bear in mind the morbidity rate in the Travelling community, and its particular healthcare needs.
I shall conclude with a quotation from the racial equality strategy, and a quick thought. Remember that this matter, including funding, is entirely in the hands of the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. The strategy states that all Northern Ireland Government Departments commit themselves to:
“recognise and appreciate diversity within minority ethnic communities in terms of, for example, age, gender, disability, sexual orientation, religious observance and life choices, and take account of it”.
Mr Weir: I support the motion and I welcome the debate, which allows Members the opportunity to flesh out with practical measures the good message signalled by the Assembly on this matter during the early days of its current mandate. It was of great significance that one of the first actions of the Assembly after devolution was to host a reception for the various ethnic groups of Northern Ireland.
My constituency of North Down is home to a wide range of people from various backgrounds. Many communities in North Down pre-date the immigrant arrivals of recent years. As a result, there is a number of very active groups in North Down, such as the Oi Yin Chinese women’s group and the World Wide Women. Recently, Assembly colleagues Mr Stephen Farry and Mr Brian Wilson and North Down Borough Council colleagues joined me in holding an evening of cultural celebration with a group from the Malaysian community.
Generally, community relations in North Down are good. In particular, the council and a range of other groups have done good work. However, during any casual conversation with people from various ethnic backgrounds, the same message is heard: although the vast majority of people enjoy good relations, unfortunately, a small minority still indulges in casual latent racism. Some might say that whenever the drink goes in, the wit goes out. Unfortunately, sometimes, when the drink goes in, the true attitudes of certain people come out.
Let me make it clear that the DUP recognises racism as a problem in Northern Ireland and has consistently sought to do what it can to help to eradicate it. It has been mentioned that the focus in Northern Ireland has been so heavily on sectarianism — not unnaturally, given the events of the last 30 years — that the issue of racism has tended to be ignored.
I echo the remarks of Danny Kennedy about the BNP. As someone who has been publicly criticised by the BNP, I believe that the Assembly must send out a clear signal that there is no place in our society for the racial hatred that the BNP promulgates.
I trust and hope that when the BNP carries out a recruitment exercise, it will fall on stony ground. The vast majority of Northern Ireland people are hostile to its behaviour. However, we must realise that a level of racism is endemic in our society. That is demonstrated at a practical level by the high levels of racially motivated attacks that take place each year.
We must ensure zero tolerance of such attacks. People can be educated to move away from such attitudes, but we must also make it clear that racism cannot be tolerated or excused.
It is difficult to see how the Province could function without immigrants from eastern Europe and other parts of the world. Many work in our Health Service and deserve our immense gratitude — many hospitals could not manage without them. We benefit greatly from the presence of people from other parts of the world. Individuals from more than 60 nationalities now contribute to our economy and society. In towns such as Portadown, Dungannon and others throughout Northern Ireland, they make a vital contribution to industry.
With respect to practical measures, there must be awareness and adequate provision made for people from other parts of the world. It will be difficult for them to adjust to life in Northern Ireland in some respects. Simple tasks such as sending letters or filling in forms can prove difficult for those whose first language is not English. Employers should run induction and training programmes. Helpful advice relating, for example, to landlords and employment should be made available, as well as information on driving offences, car insurance and DVTA vehicle-test requirements.
Today, the Assembly must send out a clear signal that there must be no toleration of racism. We should all aspire to an inclusive society.
Ms Anderson: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom labhairt ar son an rúin. I support the motion. A state or country must be judged by how it treats its most vulnerable people: the weakest, poorest, most disadvantaged, most marginalised and most excluded. That is the core of Members’ work in the Assembly — addressing the inequalities that have characterised decades of British direct rule. Among the most vulnerable are migrants and asylum seekers.
Nothing points more clearly to the way our society cares — or does not care — for its most vulnerable than our failures to deal with the indisputable growth of racist attacks and hate crimes. During the year 2006-07, the PSNI recorded 936 racial incidents. That is more than twice the number reported in the two previous years. A decade ago, it might have been possible for the police, the housing authorities, politicians and others to conclude that racism was not a problem in the North. That smug conclusion is no longer tenable. We must recognise reality.
In the North, racism has its own history. The Six Counties statelet has been subordinated to British rule. Britain has notable race problems, which the British state was obliged to recognise with the death of Stephen Lawrence. The report of the Macpherson Inquiry identified institutional racism. We in Ireland have been a part of Britain’s colonial history; and, with partition, an institutionally racist state was established: a Protestant state for a Protestant people.
There is much evidence to suggest that some loyalists are behind a significant proportion of racist incidents, and, despite what Peter said, there has been a failure on the part of unionist parties to address that. This state, now branded the racist capital of Europe, has its own autonomous racist logic, which we now have the chance — and the obligation — to address through the Good Friday Agreement, the Assembly and our work on a bill of rights. Through those, we can move forward to a society that respects all traditions and that values all human beings simply by virtue of their humanity.
We have a long way to go. The notion that we have all moved on, purely because some of us aspire to live in a non-racist society, and that a post-sectarianism, post-racism shared future awaits us, is false. Aspiring to create such a society does not make it a reality.
We live in a state that hides its incapacity to address rising levels of racism and sectarianism under the fig leaf of good relations. It is a state that refuses to confront racism and holds to a useless, outmoded community relations model. It is a state that imprisons its asylum seekers, who come to seek sanctuary from persecution. It is a state that teaches the population to fear others, and denies basic rights to migrant workers who have come from other lands to contribute, through their work, to our prosperity.
A most glaring example that shames each and every one of us is the case of the Ukranian lady whose leg had to be amputated because she developed frostbite as a result of sleeping rough. She had lost her job, and no one took her in or cared for her when she became destitute.
Last year, a report by Dr Robbie McVeigh on racism and criminal justice in the North, which was commissioned by NICEM, documented numerous interviews in which people talked of the police failing to act rigorously in cases of racist trouble; not dispersing attacking mobs; losing victims’ statements; and urging victims not to pursue a matter for fear of retaliation. The problem is not merely that there is evidence of failures to pursue prosecutions or to achieve convictions, but that the prosecution service does not even keep a record of the processes involved.
Mr Shannon: I support the motion proposed by Ms Lo. It is an appropriate motion for the Assembly to debate.
As other Members have said, the 2001 census showed that just under 15,000 people from an ethnic minority background live in Northern Ireland. However, it has been established that the true figure is probably double that, and is in the region of 30,000. It should be noted that the census figures do not include people from eastern Europe. Tony Blair’s open-door policy on immigration, combined with the peace that we have enjoyed in Northern Ireland over the past years, has resulted in an unprecedented number of asylum seekers, refugees and eastern European migrant workers coming to Northern Ireland.
I shall focus on eastern European migrant workers. Over the past few years, Strangford, like areas such as Dungannon and Ballymena, has experienced an influx of eastern European migrant workers. They have shown themselves to be incredibly hardworking and, on the whole, have adjusted well to life in Northern Ireland. They have sought to integrate themselves into our society.
My constituency has the largest Bengali population in the Province, and it is also home to a very active Chinese community — not for nothing is Ards called “Little China”. Those people have moved into the area, married, started businesses and created jobs. They have provided an economic boost for everyone in the area and they clearly contribute to society.
Of course, there are some people who refuse to accept outsiders and lambaste the Government for allowing them to enter the country, and, as they put it, “take our jobs”. I want to make one point clear by using the example of Willowbrook Foods, a food-processing company in my area. The work at the company entails standing all day and sorting through fresh vegetables, which migrants and immigrants do without complaint, and without taking sick days.
The business has large contracts with supermarket chains in Northern Ireland, in the Republic and on the mainland. The owner of the firm has told me that, due to the contribution of migrant workers, productivity levels have increased and that he can rely on his workforce to work hard and to get the job done.
That is another example of how important and integral those workers are to the overall process in Willowbrook Foods.Before Willowbrook Foods began to employ people from eastern European countries, the owner found it difficult to recruit local workers who were prepared to stay with his company. Some locals found the work to be particularly unsuitable.
As the company’s productivity has increased, so have the numbers of migrant workers that have been hired. Indeed, the owner recently hired more workers and his business is increasing. Those people work hard. They come into local towns to buy their bits and bobs, and they greet locals with a smile and a wave. They are integrating themselves into local society.
Last year, I attended a meet-and-greet event in Newtownards town hall, which was designed to allow locals to get to know the people who are involved with ethnic minorities in the area. I had a chance to talk to some migrant workers who told me that they have a happy life here and that they are content with their jobs and welcome being able to send money home to their families.
Not only are migrant workers in the Ards area employed in firms such as Willowbrook Foods, they work in nursing homes and similar establishments; often they speak amazingly fluent English. Therefore their integration is progressing, and Ards Borough Council is keen to promote their abilities and to help them to integrate further into local society.
Obviously, some of the people who come to Northern Ireland have different values and backgrounds. By no means can we endorse those who come here to carry out illegal activities; such people should have their licences to live here revoked and they should be sent back home. There is no space for those who wish to prosper through nefarious means and to the detriment of their countrymen who have migrated with them and of those who live in the Province.
That minority of opportunists and con men should not be allowed to reflect badly on the majority of good workers who want to use hard work to provide better lives for themselves and their families. That is why I urge not only the further endorsement of the racial equality strategy, but further consideration of the place in it for those from eastern European backgrounds. Many of those people come to my advice centre in Newtownards to ask about housing, benefits and other issues, and we are happy to point them in the right direction.
People who come to work here deserve to be accepted and integrated into our society. It is the Assembly’s responsibility actively to promote good relations with those who want to live and work peacefully in the Province. I support the motion.
Mr Elliott: It would be unfortunate if I did not respond to some of Ms Anderson’s comments and her misrepresentation of Northern Ireland’s unionist and Protestant communities in their attitudes to racial equality. Of course, although the Ulster Unionist Party has been proactive in its attempts to address racial hatred through membership of the Policing Board and the district policing partnerships, her party failed to take on those challenges for several years. At the same time, I am pleased that her party has decided to support a racial equality strategy, particularly after many years of ethnic cleansing throughout the Province.
Members from various parts of the Province mentioned how much we owe to our ever-increasing racial diversity, and that applies to my constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone as well. In my constituency, several successful businesses would fail to operate without the input of many hard-working migrant workers.
Racially motivated crimes reflect an underlying lack of awareness of the benefits of racial diversity and flag up the existence of barriers between the various communities. It is right that the Province is experiencing increasing racial diversity and that the Assembly addresses the racial inequality problems that can present themselves.
The police must not allow crimes committed as a result of racial intolerance. Discrimination and harassment on the grounds of race, whether in employment or the provision of public services, such as health, education or housing, are also unacceptable. However, it is unlikely that Government are always best placed to use rafts of legislation to impose changes.
Research suggests that legislating to reduce racial inequality does not always work. Work on the subject, which was published in 2005 by Middlesex University with the support of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, pointed to the inability of many policy initiatives to address the underlying attitudes and beliefs that form the foundation of racism.
‘Tackling the roots of racism: Lessons for success’ drew several pertinent conclusions, including:
“few organisations have any real evidence of what interventions reduce racism.”
“Anti-racist legislation, including action against racial harassment, has not significantly improved workplace conditions for people from black and minority ethnic groups”.
As one might expect, such harassment frequently goes unreported by employees.
Successful interventions on tackling racism are largely education-based. Improving communication and mutual understanding through education has a huge impact on many of the preconceived ideas that one community holds about another. Education will lead to increased knowledge of the diversity of cultures and beliefs that exist in the Province. More importantly, addressing prejudices through improving knowledge will highlight what the different groups have in common.
The book also noted the important role that schools, universities, museums, and arts and sports venues play in reducing occurrences of everyday racism. Most importantly, it states:
“there is no one cause of racism or one solution to racism.”
Sport and recreation is one of the best forums for people — be they young or old — from differing backgrounds to integrate and build friendships across perceived divides. We in Northern Ireland have come to recognise that over the past 40 years.
The Irish Football Association (IFA), through, for example, its successful Grassroots programme and ‘Football for All’ community-relations campaign, is diligently working against sectarianism in sport, and that has a major knock-on effect for the wider community.
Sport and youth clubs have a part to play in improving racial integration and multiculturalism. Prejudice and misconceptions surrounding race are more likely to be eroded through voluntary and, dare I say, fun initiatives than through the imposition of more rules and legislation.
A strong element of individual responsibility is necessary if there are to be real and lasting improvements in racial equality. I am glad that that requirement has been noted in the racial equality strategy for Northern Ireland.
‘Tackling the roots of racism’ also calls for an honest debate on the issue.
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Member’s time is up.
Mrs Hanna: I support the motion and the proposed amendment to it. An attack took place in South Belfast last Saturday morning on a house in Dunluce Avenue in which seven Asian people live. Whatever the motive was for the attack, it was potentially murderous and could have had awful consequences. Those who carried it out must be brought to justice, because there can be no justification for, or understanding of, such behaviour.
The people who live in the house are professionals who came to Northern Ireland to contribute to our society, and we can benefit from their expertise. It is a shame that they were attacked by those who have nothing to offer society.
Dunluce Avenue is in the Windsor ward, which has seen significant demographic change in recent years. Its proximity to Queen’s University and Belfast City Hospital makes the area a magnet for immigrants, who bring new cultures, religions and life experiences to our society.
The latest demographic information available comes from the 2001 census, which is six years out of date. Northern Ireland is not in the same situation as the Irish Republic, where 10% of the population is foreign-born. However, that statistic may apply to the Windsor ward, but we simply do not know.
There is a lack of vision and strategy on migration and integration policy. There is also a lack of statistical data, which must be centrally collated before proper planning can be undertaken for schools, housing, health services and infrastructure.
I was shocked at the viciousness of the attack on the house in Dunluce Avenue. When I stood in the rain looking at the mess, I felt angry and depressed, so what must the victims have felt? I saw the burnt frame of a couch that someone had deliberately pushed up against the house and set on fire. All the windows were broken, and smoke had filled the house.
In light of the events of the past few days in London and Glasgow — indeed, we know a little bit about terrorism here, too — what must it be like for strangers to our land who are feeling deeply uncomfortable and isolated, especially in a society such as Northern Ireland, which is not exactly a byword for tolerance? To put it in common parlance, we do not do difference well.
We know, however, that economic and social well-being is tied to our success. That means that we must engage with all newcomers so that we get the best from one another. We could have a win-win situation, but we desperately need statistics to allow us to plan ahead as part of an immigration and integration strategy that anticipates future needs.
I am personally concerned about the people who sell the ‘Belfast Telegraph’ at road junctions. I do not see them selling many papers, so I assume that their pay must be very poor, and they suffer fumes from all those cars. And what about asylum seekers and illegal immigrants? We have responsibilities towards anyone who lands on our shores, especially those who are fleeing persecution. I have a moral concern for their welfare. We may be in danger of creating more poverty here unless we deal with those issues.
We need to get to grips with the issue. First, we need to implement fully the racial equality strategy. We in the Assembly and Executive need to get our act together in the form of an action plan. We must have a vision for a better place that can, and will, be enriched by new cultures, new religions and new experiences.
The Deputy First Minister (Mr M McGuinness): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome today’s debate and am grateful to Members for the many constructive contributions that they have made. I have listened to Members very carefully indeed, and the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, in its plans for implementing the racial equality strategy, will be guided by what they have said. In the time that is available to me, I will try to respond to as many as possible of the points that have been made, but I will follow up later any points that I have not had time to cover today. In particular, I thank Anna Lo, who obviously has a very particular interest in the issue. She brings a wealth of experience to the debate that we disregard at our peril.
I remind Members that work is well advanced on the second year’s implementation action plan. At the request of the NI Council for Ethnic Minorities and other minority ethnic representatives, OFMDFM has allowed additional time before publication for discussions to take place between minority ethnic representatives and Departments about departmental contributions to the plan. We are convinced that those discussions will lead to a more strategic, focused and long-term action plan for racial equality across all Departments. I am also conscious of the point that was made by the Member for South Belfast about the need to extend the scope of the action plan beyond the Departments and into every section of society.
There are five key action areas that we can move on. We have asked officials, as a matter of urgency, to consider, in consultation with the Equality Commission, how we might introduce a system of minority ethnic monitoring. The two junior Ministers will also attend the next meeting of the Racial Equality Forum and report back to us in light of the criticism that has been made that the forum has become too big. NICEM will be asked to continue working with all Departments to deepen their understanding of the actions that are required to support racial equality. We will review progress on the strategy and the first action plan, and, in consultation with the Committee, we will bring forward a new three-year action plan for 2008-09 to coincide with the first year of spending after the Priorities and Budget exercise. The action plan needs to focus on a small number of important actions in key policy areas that will make a real impact on the lives of minority ethnic people.
Gerry McHugh compared emigrants from these shores in past centuries with our recent immigrants. All Members know the history of Ireland and how many Irish people, including people of Ulster-Scots origin, had to emigrate and make lives for themselves elsewhere. We would all do well to learn from the experience of those emigrants. Gerry McHugh also spoke about immigrants being made welcome and called on the PSNI to be more robust in tackling racism. He considers the contributions made by immigrants to be vital to our economy. I subscribe to that sentiment, which was a theme in most of today’s contributions.
Danny Kennedy made pertinent and important points about the racial equality strategy attracting widespread support. I agree that that is the case, both with the public and in the Chamber. He spoke about legislation not being enough to deal with new forms of prejudice and also about the important role of education. He alleged that the British National Party (BNP) is trying to organise here in the North over the Twelfth of July period, and I particularly welcome his condemnation of the BNP.
Stephen Moutray was absolutely right to say that our society is becoming richer because of the contribution that immigrants make to our economy, and I welcome his condemnation of attacks on immigrants. He rightly said that we are open for business; a recent visit by some Executive Ministers to the United States of America, where cities such as Washington, DC and New York have very diverse societies, underlined the importance of that message. I agree that we cannot afford to sit back.
Dolores Kelly pointed out that many of the staff in Parliament Buildings are new immigrants. Members have daily contact with those workers, who make a vital contribution to the running of this important establishment.
The Member for North Down Peter Weir rightly praised the organisation of ethnic minority groups in his constituency, and he referred particularly to the Malaysian group. I am pleased to hear that MLAs from a range of parties attended the evening event to which he referred. I welcome his criticism of the BNP and agree that it is to be hoped that its hate-filled words fall on stony ground. He is absolutely right to say that it is hard to imagine how we could function without the contribution of our new arrivals. He also said that the Assembly must send out a strong signal; all Members who have spoken in the debate have done that.
The Member for Foyle Martina Anderson said that the PSNI had received 900 complaints about racist behaviour. In 2006, there was a 60% increase in reports about racist attacks. The position of the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister is clear: we demand zero tolerance. Everyone should take on board Robbie McVeigh’s report on racial violence and criminal justice.
Jim Shannon made a particularly important contribution when he spoke about eastern European immigrants who live throughout the North and work incredibly hard. They, as well as the Chinese community and other groups, make a huge contribution to our economy, not least in the food-processing industry.
The Minister for Employment and Learning, Sir Reg Empey, regards racial equality as a priority. He wants to ensure that we have a modern and effective employment rights infrastructure to provide protection for workers and immigrants. The Department for Employment and Learning is consulting on a range of measures that are designed to protect workers’ interests.
The Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone Tom Elliott appeared to argue against the need for legislation; I cannot accept his argument. However, legislation alone will not solve the problem.
Martina Anderson and Tom Elliott had a bit of a tiff about their contributions. However, I stress that no section of society has a monopoly on racism. We must act to eradicate racism as quickly as possible.
Carmel Hanna spoke about the recent attack that took place in South Belfast. Whatever the reason for that attack, I agree with her condemnation of it. Mrs Hanna also spoke of a lack of statistical data. To address that problem, the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister has set up an indicators working group in which representatives from relevant Departments and other external stakeholders participate.
The First Minister and I deliberately decided that the first public event after devolution would be a reception for minority ethnic people and migrant workers. Indeed, the Member for North Down Peter Weir referred to that event. The aim of that reception was to celebrate the contribution that those people make to life here.
In the past number of years, increasing numbers of people have arrived here to visit, work and settle, and they have provided us with their valuable skills. The Health Service and many of our industries — particularly agriculture, food manufacturing, leisure and tourism, and construction — now rely heavily on the skills and labour of our new communities. Previously, the flow of international labour passed us by, but now we are definitely in the mainstream of that vital economic resource.
Thankfully, we no longer export so many of our brightest individuals, who once left because of a lack of employment, opportunity and a future. In the past, our outward migration enriched communities and strengthened economies elsewhere. Our community is now being enriched — and our economy being strengthened — by our new arrivals. If the economy continues to grow, as we intend it to, we will become increasingly dependent on workers from other countries. That will result in more businesses being owned by people who have recently come to our shores.
The talent, innovation and new perspectives that immigrants bring to us create enormous economic, social and cultural benefits for our society. However, we must acknowledge that the arrival of significant numbers of migrant workers has profound implications for existing — and planned — public services. The challenges of those implications will increase significantly as the planned investment in infrastructure takes shape both here and in the South. Inevitably, many of the workers that we need to help to renew our infrastructure will come from eastern Europe and further afield. The development of the Titanic Quarter is an example of that renewal. For instance, how many workers will be needed to regenerate that historic brownfield site? Where will they come from? Where will they live when they arrive? Will they bring their families with them? Where will their children be schooled? What about the availability of GPs and other medical services? Perhaps the most important question is: how do we support the host community?
When Dublin’s Croke Park was refurbished a few years ago, a roof was built on part of it. The GAA president told me during a match that all the workers who built that roof came from Russia and European countries. That highlights the challenge that we will face as we develop the Titanic Quarter.
All those questions — and many more — need to be addressed. The answers to those questions must become the foundation of our forward planning and policy making for the North. We cannot, therefore, avoid seeking answers. Such planning will be a significant and pressing issue for the Executive and the Assembly to deal with. A great deal of hard work is in front of us.
Many Members will be aware that a Ballynafeigh family suffered a horrific onslaught simply as a result of the colour of their skin. The House has heard of other similarly sickening stories from across the North. Minority ethnic people and migrant workers are too frequently subject to violence and hate at the hands of a small number of bigots. The tiny minority of perpetrators may feel threatened by difference and target those who they perceive as vulnerable. However they seek to justify their actions, their activities are shameful. They have nothing to offer, and they have no place in modern society.
The police and criminal justice agencies are at the front line of tackling racist thugs. The Executive have pledged to do all in their power to combat racism and sectarianism, and they will continue to work with the police and criminal justice agencies to do so.
However, as Jim Shannon rightly said, it is vitally important that communities and neighbours take the brave step of standing alongside victims to demonstrate that it is not just rhetoric; but a cause that moves us all to action.
As I speak today, Niall Ferrin — a 15-year-old child from north Belfast — is critically ill in hospital as a result of a vicious attack in north Belfast on Friday evening, in which he was beaten unconscious. The House must stand united — and I believe it is united — in condemning that terrible assault as totally unacceptable.
A LeasCheann Comhairle, widespread violence is thankfully a thing of the past. However, sectarianism, racism and intolerance are still all too evident and continue to mar our reputation and blight our economic prospects. Unless they are tackled, they will poison the body politic. There is a need to be clear-sighted about the nature and scale of the challenges that our increasingly diverse society poses to all of us — Government, wider civic society, communities across the North, and to each of us individually.
I am proud that there are numerous examples across our society where individuals, church groups, community associations, trade unions and others have extended a friendly and helping hand to minority ethnic people and migrant workers who have come here to throw in their lot with us. Councils are also carrying out some excellent work. I have been privileged to see some of that work at first hand; the recent opening of the Multicultural Diversity Centre in Derry, where local people have come together with those who are new to our shores to work to ensure that their integration is satisfactory for them and everyone else.
In one of his first engagements as a junior Minister, Gerry Kelly was last week involved in launching an excellent report at the Jethro Centre in Lurgan, which set out how the Southern Health and Social Services Board intends to rise to the challenges posed by our increasing diversity.
Therefore, we have to act on the lessons that were all too painfully learnt elsewhere. The issue is also every bit as much about how we provide services, or fail to provide services to minority ethnic people and those who hold different beliefs. Therefore, the services provided by the Executive and its agencies must — and will — promote racial equality. If they do not, those services risk creating or reinforcing racial inequalities.
The racial equality strategy was developed in partnership with representatives of minority ethnic people, including the Member for South Belfast Anna Lo in her former job. Therefore, the actual plan was also developed with the involvement of those representatives.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Time is up. Thank you. I call Mr Gerry McHugh to give the winding-up speech on the amendment, and I remind him that he has five minutes to do so.
Mr McHugh: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I was wondering if I would get up to 15 minutes — I would actually need that amount of time to cover the issue. The motion as amended would show that the Assembly is keen to deliver something that is focused as regards the first annual implementation action plan and other plans.
It is important that the Assembly is specific about that and that it is open to doing things differently. Peter Weir talked about sending a positive signal from the Assembly. We can act differently — like the Scottish Parliament, which has been a role model in how to act differently — from our direct rule predecessors. Direct rule Ministers, although talking about this issue, may not have delivered much that would make a difference to the people involved.
I thank everyone who spoke on the issue plus the Committee members, Chairpersons and the Minister. Everyone seems to be taking the same line in condemning attacks. Members from all sides of the House are saying that we should be moving towards zero tolerance of any such attacks.
Carmel Hanna pointed out the effect that such attacks have on the victims — and that they are not just statistics. That is important. Communities need to make it clear that they will no longer tolerate just talking about the issue; being against what is happening, and standing idly by while their neighbour is attacked — as happened in Enniskillen. I ask communities to support that family and show the local thugs that such attacks are not going to happen in the future.
That that happens is important. MLAs who have spoken in this debate must show leadership. We also need leadership from members of the community, who should stand up, be counted and show that such attacks are not to be tolerated.
Danny Kennedy said that education is urgently needed in order to deal with the situation. A sense of underachievement and how they perceive themselves can lead people here to misread what is happening. Those who have moved here fill very important jobs, which often cannot be filled by anyone else, so they have a powerful contribution to make to the economy.
We remember the Celtic tiger economy, as it is known, in the South. I go so far as to say that the growth rate here in the North could not be sustained without the input of all those who have moved here. People need to know that, and they need to know that our continued growth will very much depend on everyone in society.
If only we would embrace those who come in. If only we would embrace people from ethnic minorities. It is a bit like the argument from years ago, when many societies did not embrace women for decades, or even for centuries. How much stronger would a society be were it to embrace all those people who contribute to its daily running? It is important that people realise that.
Stephen Moutray referred to mindsets, and that is an important factor. Community groups and others, including the political people here, can break those mindsets down.
Too many points were made by Members for me to refer to them all, but condemnation of the British National Party was certainly one that stood out. It is important to condemn that party. It is unacceptable that the BNP should be allowed to operate in any society.
Martina Anderson probably made the toughest speech, given all the points that she made. She talked about people who are marginalised, deprived and vulnerable. Hate crimes and attacks simply cannot be tolerated, no matter what the religions involved are. Figures show that Fermanagh has had no such attacks in recent years. The reality, however, is completely different.
I thank all Members who contributed to the debate and ask Members to support the amendment.
Dr Farry: I thank Anna Lo for proposing the motion on what is a very important matter. The debate has been very useful, and some important issues have been flagged up. I am sure that this is the first of many debates that the Assembly will have on the racial equality strategy in the months and years to come.
It is important that we look at the reason behind our tabling the motion and focus on its substance. We are trying to get across the message that the racial equality strategy and the first associated implementation plan, although in place, are, in some respects, deficient. Much good work has been done, and progress is being made, but the voices that we are hearing in ethnic minority communities in Northern Ireland are telling us that gaps and deficiencies exist that must be addressed. It is important that we focus on what Anna Lo said at the start of the debate about that. She said that we are too process-orientated, when we should be concentrating on what can be delivered. Racial equality has become too much of a tick-box exercise, and it is overly focused on our 11 Departments. It does not place sufficient obligations on the different statutory agencies that fall within those Departments’ remits.
We must move from a situation in which we are supplying more and more information leaflets in different languages to one in which training is provided for those people who must deliver services. That includes their learning languages so that they can deal with all the people who want to avail themselves of those services. We want to ensure that people, irrespective of their background, have full and equal access to the services on offer. We need to deal with participation in public and private life from the top down. Although Anna Lo has broken the mould in politics — not just in Northern Ireland but in Europe — she must be the first of many. Many people need to follow in her footsteps in politics and in other aspects of public life. We must ensure that there are voices in all the public bodies across Northern Ireland.
Education must be addressed and our information-gathering improved. Carmel Hanna made reference to the information from the 2001 census being badly out of date. Another census is not due until 2011, four years from now, and that simply will not do with regard to making good, sound, public-policy decisions.
Those considerations should be mainstreamed throughout our policy. Historically, public policy in Northern Ireland has been based around the notion of two communities: a British, Protestant, unionist community, and a Catholic, nationalist, Irish community. Insofar as those models were ever relevant, with the growing diversity in Northern Ireland, they are certainly not now. We must think very carefully about how we address public-policy issues, and change our mindset to reflect a much more diverse society, including not only the traditional, indigenous population, but those who have come to join us.
Much has been said about the importance of diversity. It is important that we do not simply tolerate, but actually respect, difference, and appreciate the value that diversity brings to our society. Integration must be considered, as well as diversity. People who now live in our community want to join it. We do not want an “us” and “them” situation, in which we try to break down barriers to improve services but retain that mindset. We need to move from “us” and “them” to “we”. We are all part of the same community in Northern Ireland, a community that is becoming much more diverse, and we should value that. Under that umbrella, we respect and recognise the richness of the diversity, not just from our own traditionalist cultures, but from the new cultures that have joined ours.
The Deputy First Minister referred to the experience of the United States. I have spent considerable time working there and recognise the huge progress — especially in the large cities — in building an integrated society, and that the service sector is based, fundamentally, upon a large number of people who have come to live in the United States in recent years.
With regard to the scale of the problem, we must be clear that racist attitudes are more deeply ingrained in our society than even sectarian attitudes have been, and research from the University of Ulster bears that out. Members have made reference to the BNP, and it is important that we soundly condemn their activities. I have no intention of giving any further oxygen to that organisation, except to say that if its members ever raise their heads from the shadows and put themselves forward for election, I would like to think that the people of Northern Ireland, through the ballot box, would tell them, in the strongest terms, where to go.
There has been a very high level of hate crime in Northern Ireland, not only based on racism, but on sectarianism and homophobia, and we should appreciate that it is a very wide issue. There is a higher rate of incident per head of population in Northern Ireland than in England and Wales. Some improvement has been made in the services. For example, the PSNI is to record such offences and deal with the victims; however, a lot more work needs to be done.
I have great concern about the failure of the courts, so far, to employ legislation, that was passed in 2004, that allows for a racist motivation to be considered as an aggravating factor in sentencing. That is based upon the same legislation that applies in England and Wales, and in Scotland. To my knowledge, that legislation has not been employed by our courts. That is a major omission. Through that failure, we do not send out the message that a hate crime is not only an offence targeted against the individual victim or his or her family, it is an offence against all of society and the notion of a diverse, multicultural Northern Ireland. In order to get the proper deterrents, we must send out, through the courts, and in the strongest possible terms, a tough message that such actions will not be tolerated.
Martina Anderson referred to the British state as being institutionally racist, and that those from a Protestant background are more inclined to engage in racism. We must be extremely careful in what we say. Racism is a problem right across our society; it is not unique to any one section of society. Moreover, with regard to the British state’s being racist, yes, the British State has been institutionally racist —
Ms Anderson: I remind the Member of what I said. I did not talk about the Protestant community. I said that loyalists — and people in NICEM support that view — have actually been involved in such attacks.
I was challenging the unionist parties, which I and many others believe have not done enough to address that matter. I was not talking about the Protestant community; I was talking specifically about loyalists who are involved in attacks, and there is evidence to suggest that what I have said is correct.
Dr Farry: There may be clear evidence of an association between loyalism and racist attacks, but that is not the only source of racism in our society. There has also been racism from republican circles. Therefore, we must ensure that we take a balanced approach to this matter.
The British and Northern Irish states have been institutionally racist, and the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry bears that out. However, that is not unique to the British state, and we must be careful to prevent this debate from becoming a Brit-bashing exercise. All states around the world, including the Republic of Ireland, have problems with institutional racism. The French even refuse to acknowledge that there are racial differences in their society — that highlights the scale of the problem. We must address what the state is doing, but let us not say that the British state is guilty in isolation of racism.
Some Members have stressed the importance of diversity and the important contribution that migrant workers have made to our economy. Danny Kennedy made the point that they are not here to take our jobs, but that we need more people to work in our economy for it to grow. We all know that Northern Ireland has a small private sector compared to the public sector. We cannot fill posts from our levels of potential workers — we need more people to come, so we should be open to that. The recent economic strategy, flawed as it is in many other respects, recognises that.
Members made other points about the importance of good relations at council level and about taking on board issues that relate to a more diverse society. Members also pointed out that the phraseology of “community relations” has now become “good relations” — it is no longer a case of Protestants versus Catholics.
Mr Deputy Speaker, can you clarify whether I have another minute to speak?
Mr Deputy Speaker: I can clarify that you do not have another minute.
Dr Farry: The amendment does not add much to the motion, but we are prepared to accept it, rather than divide the House because it is important to send out a united message.
Question, That the amendment be made, put and agreed to.
Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.
That this Assembly urges the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to review, as a matter of urgency, progress on implementation of the Racial Equality Strategy for Northern Ireland 2005-2010 and the First Annual Implementation Plan; and to bring forward proposals for its own detailed plans for the period 2008-2011 to achieve racial equality and an inclusive society for our increasingly diverse community.
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for this debate. The Member who moves the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes.
Mrs I Robinson: I beg to move
That this Assembly demands improved respite provision for those with special needs.
It is my privilege to propose the motion, which is timely because a report has just been published which confirms what we all knew: that expenditure per child on personal social services in Northern Ireland was £287, compared with £513 in Scotland, £429 in Wales and £402 in England.
Respite care is vital to ensure that families are equally and fully supported. Respite care allows for much needed breaks for carers, but also provides the opportunity for children and adults with disabilities to have a change of scene and a change of carer, which can be a positive and welcome new experience for the individual.
Only last week, the Assembly unanimously passed the motion:
“That this Assembly calls upon the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to ensure that all carers, formal and informal, can access services and support to maintain their own health and well-being, to recognise financially the vital role they play and ensure uptake of all entitlement benefits.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 23, p42, col 2]
Respite provision is a major problem for carers, many of whom are the sole caregiver for a family member. Eight out of 10 families provide more than 15 hours of care every day. Such a high level of constant and intensive care, without pay or holidays, places an enormous burden on the carer. Family relationships often suffer, and time spent with other family members, including other children, may be severely limited. Without adequate respite care, a carer’s physical and mental health is at risk, as the endless pressure of providing care takes its toll.
Yesterday, I spoke to a woman who highlighted one of the many problems that she and her family face. I, and many others, had not fully appreciated the problem, and it is one that most in the Chamber would not tolerate. She told me about her inability to plan for breaks or holidays because confirmation that respite care will be provided is not always forthcoming. Having submitted a request for respite care in February, to date no decision has been made that will allow her to make arrangements for a well-deserved holiday for her and her family.
There are an estimated six million carers throughout the United Kingdom and a staggering 200,000 in Northern Ireland. Eight out of 10 families have reached, or come close to, breaking point because of the lack of respite care services. As of December 2006, 19 adult patients across Northern Ireland had been waiting for over a year, and 52 for between six and 12 months, to receive respite care.
There are concerns about the provision of services and facilities for young adults with special needs or learning disabilities, particularly those who are profoundly disabled and have complex needs. There has been a lack of age-appropriate respite care in Northern Ireland for many years. When young adults with special needs or learning disabilities turn 18 or leave school, they are moved from children to adult support services at an average age of 18 or 19.
That often causes young adults with special needs to lose contact with their social workers from child support services. Such upheaval can cause considerable distress to a young adult who has established a relationship with a particular social worker only to be assigned a new one who may not have the same skills and experience of working with young adults with special needs.
There are considerable gaps in the provision of adult support services. There is a lack of appropriate facilities for young adults with special needs. There is a particular lack of age-appropriate respite and/or day-care facilities to provide the support and assistance that young people with special needs require.
Several weeks ago, Mrs Margaret Butler from Bangor, whose 19-year-old son has severe learning difficulties and requires 24-hour care, contacted my office. Stephen and his parents have been assessed as requiring 72 days of respite care each year. Since Stephen turned 19 in April 2007 and is no longer able to access care in a children’s unit, the family has been unable to access age-appropriate respite care facilities. The Law Centre (NI) has also assisted the Butlers to try to get their case examined in more detail. However, the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust advised the family that in the Bangor area, young adults aged 19 and above are generally offered respite care in a range of registered residential or nursing homes. The majority of residents in such facilities tend to be older people. Young adults would have no peers to communicate with.
The Butler family has been offered respite care at one facility, but that option is not only age-inappropriate but unsafe, as Stephen loves to crawl and would be unable to do so safely there.
The South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust proposed a new four-to-five bed respite unit at Stewart Memorial House. That was originally planned several years ago. The building was completed — but remains vacant. The trust has put a proposal to the board for funding for the unit. I urge the Minister to pursue that matter with the utmost urgency. As I am sure Members will agree, that is a scandal, never mind the cost incurred for a building sitting idle.
A further problem is the lack of gender-appropriate facilities for people who require respite care. That is particularly evident in the provision of respite care for women with brain injuries. As most road traffic accident victims tend to be men, there is a lack of appropriate facilities for female victims who require respite care for brain damage.
Day-care facilities do not provide residential care, but they do provide a welcome change of scenery for an individual with special needs, and a break for his or her carer. Once again, there are insufficient day-care facilities available, and places are strictly limited.
The Carers and Direct Payments Act (Northern Ireland) 2002 gives carers the right to request an assessment of their individual needs and places an obligation on trusts to meet the needs of carers as assessed, including the need for respite care. The Act contains a duty to provide the services — yet no extra funding was earmarked to meet its requirements.
Carers represent one of the most socially excluded groups of people. To date, the Government’s inclusion policy appears to have failed. Many carers remain unaware of their rights under the Act, and further awareness raising is required regarding the right to an assessment of need.
The health and social care trusts must consider the allocation of resources to ensure that when assessments are completed, funding is in place to carry out the recommendations, including any need for respite care.
The right to assessment for people in need of respite care is contained in section 4 of the Disabled Persons (Northern Ireland) Act 1989. Section 3 of the Act contains a duty to make written statements if requested; to specify the need as assessed; and to specify how the assessed needs will be met. The section was never enacted in Northern Ireland.
Furthermore, no equivalent provision was enacted for carers’ assessments. Instead, a good practice guide was issued by the Eastern Health and Social Services Board in 1999, but was largely ignored. Section 3 of the Disabled Persons (Northern Ireland) Act 1989 must be enacted. An equivalent section could be enacted within the Carers and Direct Payments Act (Northern Ireland) 2002. If enacted, those sections would ensure that both carers and those in receipt of care have the right to request a written statement. That would clarify the extent of assessed need and how it should be met and would also create a more open and transparent system.
Ms S Ramsey: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I commend Iris Robinson for bringing this important topic to the Assembly. One of the first debates that we had in the new Assembly was about the lack of services for children and young people. It is ironic then that one of the last debates before the summer recess is dealing with similar issues. I thank the Minister for Health, Social Services and Public Safety, Michael McGimpsey, for attending the debate. I look forward to what he has to say.
As children’s spokesperson for Sinn Féin, I am particularly concerned at the impact on children, young people and their families of the lack of provision of respite care. However, the picture is not an unfamiliar one. When it comes to children’s services, there is not enough provision for all the children and families who need it. This puts substantial pressure on existing provision.
The reason why the Assembly so often raises the difficulties and issues faced by families and their children is due to the underfunding of children’s services. I commend the Department of Finance and Personnel and OFMDFM, and I commend the Commissioner for Children and Young People who is launching a report on the lack of spending on children and young people in the Six Counties.
As well as the overall lack of provision, the range of services required is not sufficient. That is why young people — particularly once they reach 19 years of age — are put into services that are not designed to meet their needs but the needs of older people. The proposer of the motion has covered the stark statistics involved, so I will not repeat them.
I thank Mencap for its recent report outlining the effect of respite provision on families, and I recommend it to all Members, as it makes for stark reading. We need a more individualised package of care and range of services, which would enable us to wrap a package of care around the child or young person to support them in having as full a life as possible. Respite provision should not be about papering over the cracks or holding a family back from breaking point. It should be about the kind of experience that will enable a child or young person to enjoy a more fulfilling life. For instance, it might be more appropriate for a young person aged 15 or 16 to have a mentor or peer support worker who could accompany them to an inclusive facility for a planned weekend, rather than simply having a residential-based service that cares for a range of children with complex needs.
Sometimes there is tension between the experiences of young people and the needs of their carers. If we only take a family-support approach to respite provision, then the danger will be that the views of young people will be isolated and sidelined, which is something that we do not want to happen. There can be tension between the parents’ need for support and the children’s and young people’s needs for normal experiences. Therefore, it is vital to listen to the families and young people involved before developing the kind of service that will allow the needs of both to be met.
There is also the need to address the policy and legislation involved. Some respite-based services are regulated and inspected on the basis that they provide a service for looked-after children or children in care. Other services are regulated and inspected on the basis of a private residential system. Trusts can sometimes be viewed as the corporate parent, and children can be treated, in policy terms, like children in care, but that approach is not appropriate and does not work.
In Scotland, the policy is much clearer: disabled children needing respite care are not treated as looked-after children. It is essential that legislation and policy on respite provision be reviewed to clarify the regulation of services and the responsibilities of trusts, providers and parents.
Further services must also be developed. For example, a range of accredited organisations has been developed to provide services directly to families. As the previous Member said, parents should receive direct payments and have direct contract with such services, rather than always having to go through the trusts. As things stand, the current services are mixed and are not flexible enough to meet the needs of young people who reach 19 years of age and therefore fail to get the type of response they need.
If we are to improve our response to the children and young people with special needs who need respite care, we must maintain the current level of provision while providing extra investment to develop new services and the clear policy and legislative framework needed to sit alongside that. Our children and young people deserve no less. I have great pleasure in supporting the motion.
Mr B McCrea: This is about the third time that I have spoken on this important subject. I want to speak on an issue for people with severe learning disabilities — what they themselves would refer to as the “mentally handicapped”; and that is something that can be said without fear of contradiction. There is a danger that when learning difficulties are talked about, people think that it refers to dyslexia. However, some people have severe problems from the day they are born. It is not something that will get better or that they will grow out of, and those who look after them must to do so for the rest of their lives.
That does not detract from the other issues that hon Members raised. Jim Shannon and I agree on the issue and have talked about it at length.
Imagine the peculiar and awful situation in which an 83-year-old is expected to look after someone who is 60 years of age. At that time of their lives, people are supposed to be retired or getting some help. However, those carers feel that they alone must take up the strain because of the very special needs of the person for whom they are caring. A person who has special needs requires 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week care. It is almost impossible to comprehend what dealing with that situation is like for someone who is aged 83.
I look forward to hearing the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety’s comments. His attitude and approach to the issue are commendable. One of the first things that he did when he took up his ministerial post was to meet some carers from my constituency in Lagan Valley.
I mentioned that meeting because people who care for those who have special needs bring practical assistance to the situation. A little bit more thought and planning would make life so much better for those people. I note that during Question Time yesterday — which, unfortunately, I was unable to attend — the Minister accepted that current respite provision is inadequate and unsatisfactory. Undoubtedly, he will address those issues.
When I read through the Hansard report and saw the range of ways in which respite provision might be addressed, it was clear that one size does not fit all. Indeed, I know that from my own experience. Very properly, the Members who spoke before me have mentioned the need for gender- and age-appropriate facilities. It is a problem that someone who has severe learning difficulties may be aged 25 but has a mental age of a six- or seven-year-old. If such people are put together, en masse, there may be occasional inappropriate behaviour, and that causes all sorts of tensions. We must find a way to resolve those issues. Although I fully support the suggestions on gender- and age-appropriate respite provision, we must also make special provision for those who have learning difficulties.
Quite often, people who have learning disabilities present with multiple problems. As a result, nursing home staff and those who might otherwise be expected to provide respite care run a million miles from those people because they do not have the specialist skills and facilities to look after them. That makes it even more difficult for the carers to get the respite that they require.
I talked about some very good examples of respite care that works; for instance, people who have learning difficulties may be housed together. However, just like the rest of us, people who have learning difficulties do not necessarily get along with everyone else. There must be flexibility in order to get the right people together in the right rooms. Otherwise, there will be tensions.
I am encouraged that there are examples of good practice, albeit limited. I encourage the Minister to have a look at those examples. His doing so will inform our thinking on the way forward. I am hopeful that he will be able to provide some reassurance on the matter. It is important to discover what works and what the practicalities are. Let us not be grandiose. Let us take them in the order that gives the maximum benefit for the minimum investment: so little would do so much for so many people. I would just like to finish —
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. The Member’s time is up.
Mrs Hanna: I support the motion. The spectrum of need is very wide, and it must be remembered that each person — the carer and the cared-for — has his or her individual needs and personalities.
Organisations that work in the interests of people with special needs — and their carers — have carried out research that demonstrates a shocking lack of available, accessible and appropriate respite services in Northern Ireland. There has been a failure to prioritise and to meet the needs of people with disabilities and their families.
Respite provision is the most important service for people who have dependents with special needs, yet it is the most difficult to obtain. Carers are sometimes forced to refuse offers of respite because the service is so unsuitable for the needs of the person who is being cared for, or because of the system’s impossible restrictions on time and availability. Carers who are seeking respite are often made to feel that their request signifies their inability to cope with their responsibility and that only those who speak up forcefully and threaten court action are likely to receive attention.
Carers often have to face excessive bureaucracy — there are meetings after meetings, from the front-line manager to the programme manager to the multi-disciplinary team, and still no decisions are reached, month after month. Carers cannot plan, yet the person who comes into the home to lend a hand can chat about their impending holidays. It should be the same for the carer; they deserve respite, need it, and are entitled to it.
I spoke to a woman who graphically compared her life as a carer to Nelson Mandela’s time in prison. She said that she spent the same number of years caring. Stuck in isolation as a carer, she has had a great deal of time to read the equality strategy, the carer’s strategy and about her human rights. She asked about her rights: where was the evidence-based practice? Carers do a job out of love and responsibility that would cost the Health Service a fortune.
Research has shown that fear of a postcode lottery exists because of inconsistency; in care assessments across health trusts; in the processes of assessment and evaluation; and in informing carers of the services that are available. There have been instances in which carers have been discouraged by social workers who, because there are insufficient resources to support the identified need, demonstrate the pointlessness of the assessment exercise.
According to a 2006 Mencap survey of families with dependents with disabilities in Northern Ireland and England, only one in 13 children with a disability receives a regular support service in the form of a break or direct payment to their carers. That situation has to be considered alongside the fact that seven out of 10 families of those surveyed provide more than 15 hours of care every day. Five out of 10 families of those surveyed provide care during the night. The lack of carers’ assessments is the main element of the paucity of provision. Half of the families surveyed had not been subject to a carer’s assessment, and half of those who had been assessed had still not received any services at the time of the survey.
Other Members have mentioned the growing number of ageing carers in Northern Ireland whose children with special needs have left the school system, entered adulthood, and have developed more acute levels of need due to deteriorating mental and physical health. Currently, 37% of carers of adults with a learning disability are themselves aged 65 and over. Indeed, if the carer dies, it is often the case that no emergency bed is available for their dependent. Think of the worry for those ageing parents —
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Member’s time is up.
Mr McCarthy: On behalf of the Alliance Party, I support the motion — I note its use of the word “demands”, in relation to the provision of respite care for those with special needs. The motion expresses the urgency of this matter, and I hope that, after resolution of the motion, the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety will act immediately to carry out the will of this democratically elected Assembly.
Speaking from experience, I can assure the House that respite care to provide a break for people who look after someone with a severe or profound learning difficulty, or even with mild special needs, is a lifeline. The service must be expanded across Northern Ireland without delay.
I pay tribute to all the professional people in specialist-care settings who do an excellent job caring for special-needs people, whether young or elderly. Even if only for a few days, those members of staff, who are trained to a high standard, face the same complex and behavioural problems as the families of people with special needs. On behalf of those of us who need that service, I thank those people; we are extremely grateful. However, more must be done in the provision of respite care.
The people who need respite care are also grateful to those members of staff because the care takes them out of their homes and allows them to get used to new staff and different environments. That can only be good for everyone concerned.
Unfortunately, respite-care facilities are grossly underprovided for in Northern Ireland. As a public representative, I am continually being asked, or told, to campaign for more respite-care places. Therefore, I take this opportunity to inform the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety — who I am glad is here today — of what is happening in our communities. Yesterday, in an answer he gave to a question on the inadequate level of respite facilities in Northern Ireland, Mr McGimpsey recognised that the shortfall in those services is unacceptable.
I am also informed that another attack on the most vulnerable in society has been thrust upon carers by the health authorities. People are now being charged for the provision of such necessities as incontinence pads and sheets. How low can the health authorities stoop? Those items are essential requirements for many people, particularly those with special needs and learning difficulties, and our elderly. They are necessary to keep people free from skin infections and bedsores, to increase hygiene and to keep them out of hospital. I appeal to the Minister to ensure that all essential items that are required to enable all our people to enjoy good health are provided through our National Health Service, whether at home or in a respite-care facility. Any question of charging for those items must be abolished immediately.
I fully support urgent action to provide extra respite care throughout Northern Ireland.
Mr Craig: I commend my party colleague Iris Robinson for bringing such an important issue before the House. The debate provides a good example of the benefits of devolution and the real changes that can be made to people’s lives. It shows that our own Health Minister can make real decisions that affect real people.
Members are all too aware of the concerns and fears that carers have about the provision of care for their loved ones who have learning disabilities. Anything and everything that can be done to help carers to look after their sons, daughters, brothers, sisters or close family friends should be done to ensure that help is at hand, where and when it is needed. That is why quality respite provision is essential if we are to help carers to continue to deliver the loving and professional care that they are deliver every hour, every day and every week, and, in the case of most carers, every year.
In many cases, care is not provided by the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety or by the trusts: it is delivered solely by family members and close friends.
Carers have other commitments that the rest of us take for granted. Whether those are family or work commitments, or simply mundane tasks such as going to the shops, it can be a real struggle to find someone to step in to provide much needed help.
If one considers the lack of provision of respite care in my constituency of Lagan Valley, one can clearly see the job of work that lies ahead for the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. In Lagan Valley, 830 people require respite care, and 18·2 beds are available to provide it. Last year, 145 people used those beds, which means a startling figure of 689 individuals did not receive respite provision. Unfortunately, those numbers are replicated throughout Northern Ireland. That leads carers to feel isolated and without the necessary support and help.
The new Assembly faces many challenges. If Members are to make a difference to the quality of the lives of people with severe learning difficulties and their families, we must act, and act now, to provide proper respite care throughout Northern Ireland.
I commend the Minister and the Chairperson of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety for meeting carers from my constituency. Those carers were deeply moved by the interest that was shown in the issues that they raised. I appreciate that this debate is just the start of a process that will bring to the fore issues that affect people with learning disabilities in the Province, but I look forward to developments.
Mrs O’Neill: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the opportunity to speak to the motion. I agree with what has been said about respite care. It is vital in order to ensure that everyone in families is supported equally. Respite care provides those families with opportunities for much-needed breaks and the disabled person with a potentially positive experience.
The provision of respite care must be accessible, appropriate and adequate. That has not been the experience for many families, and there appears to be a common theme occurring. A family from Mid Ulster who have a 19-year-old son with severe physical and emotional needs recently contacted me. Throughout those 19 years, the family never sought help or assistance from social services. However, due to her being diagnosed with cancer, the young man’s mother, who is the primary carer, asked for respite care. That lady was told that there was no appropriate local provision and that the nearest facility in Magherafelt could not cater for her son’s needs. As an alternative, the family were offered a place in a respite facility in Bangor or three days a week in an adult day-care centre. The family felt that both those options were inadequate. After weeks and months of speaking to social services, the family sought support from their elected representatives, and it was only then that they were made aware of the availability of the direct payment facility. They are now proceeding down that route, but, nonetheless, that is an example of a family in great need who were let down by the system.
I also have concerns about age-appropriate facilities. I met with a group of disabled young adults in their twenties and thirties who were forced to accept respite and/or day care in residential accommodation that was designed for the older population. That is unacceptable and the Assembly must address the matter as a priority.
I welcome the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety’s comments in response to my question in the Chamber yesterday about unsuitable accommodation for young people with disabilities. He deemed accommodation designed for older people not to be acceptable for people with disabilities; however, he recognised that there has been a history of that being the case in the Department. He also suggested that the Department is endeavouring to move away from such practices and that strict protocols are now in place. Despite those comments, I still have concerns that the Department continues to display the same mentality. The case that I have mentioned is a prime example of that.
As elected representatives, Members have a responsibility to the people to ensure that proper respite care is provided and that those with disabilities, and their carers, are not marginalised further by the Department’s policies and practices. With that in mind, I support the motion.
Mr McCallister: I support the motion. I concur with the majority of comments made by other Members. A big concern of mine is how lack of respite care can affect the health of carers. Almost 21% of carers who provide over 50 hours of care each week say that they are in poor health, compared with 11% of non-carers. Respite care is critical because the last thing that anybody wants is for carers to fall into poor physical or mental health. I am delighted that the Minister is present to address the issue.
Some Members, such as my colleague Mr Basil McCrea, mentioned cases in their own constituencies. As a member of the Health Committee, I am pleased that we had the opportunity to meet and have lunch with carers and hear first-hand accounts of their experiences. I hope that the Committee will avail of the opportunity to visit them and see some of the work they do.
Carers play a vital role. Mrs Hanna and Mr McCrea mentioned situations in which an 80-year-old is looking after a 60-year-old. Carers have additional worry and stress from thinking about what will happen in the future and who will look after the disabled person when they are gone. The Assembly must overcome those hurdles and endeavour to alleviate the added stress that cares experience.
Mr McCarthy mentioned the need for more respite-care places. That might be an option. However, the Assembly must consider all options in order to decide the best way to deal with the issue. Mr McCrea spoke about best practice. The Assembly must consider the options and the areas in which respite services work better and aim to replicate that across Northern Ireland. That is vital.
Ms S Ramsey: My point was that the answer is not simply to throw additional money at services, but to consider the circumstances of individuals and their families and design the services to meet those needs.
Mr McCallister: I thank the Member for her intervention, and I have no difficulty with her suggestion. I agree wholeheartedly with her view that cases must be considered individually in order to establish how best they can be dealt with. There should not be a one-size-fits-all approach. Nor should it be assumed that provision of more respite-care places in certain areas is the answer. The Member is absolutely right: a broader approach must be taken in order to tackle all the issues. I support the motion and look forward to the Minister’s comments.
Mr O’Loan: Like other Members, I want to consider the situation from the point of view of families who are directly affected. Let us put ourselves in the position of the main carer of a child with severe learning difficulties — in this case, that person is the child’s mother. The child is a teenager who needs constant care every waking minute. There must be 24-hour vigilance and readiness to respond, which continues seven days a week, 52 weeks a year and has been the situation since the moment the child was born.
As is so often the case, the parents are trying to maintain a normal life for themselves and their other children. We can only begin to imagine the pressure of such a regime. Although everyone in the household loves the child, the demands on it are colossal.
In families such as that, respite care is needed. We should consider the reality of such a situation. Parents are told that a local centre can provide respite care for their child, but demand for its services is huge. In practice, the centre can offer very few overnight stays. When offered, respite care is cancelled repeatedly, often hours before their child is due to be admitted. The parents might be advised that because the centre’s other clients have behavioural difficulties, its facilities would not be suitable for their child. The parents are then offered a place at another centre, thirty miles away — it is not ideal, but they accept that place. They are offered two weekends a month, but, shortly afterwards, they are told that because the centre is short-staffed, it can only offer one weekend a month. Their child attends the centre for one weekend’s respite care. However, a few days before the second weekend, the centre tells the parents that that place is no longer available. Can Members imagine the parents’ desperate need for the break that that weekend of respite care would provide? Can they imagine the let down felt, and difficulties faced, by those parents, who may have booked a much-needed weekend away?
The parents begin to look to the future: their child will soon enter adulthood. Everything that they know suggests that facilities for adults are even worse than those for young people. The local day-care facility is a prefabricated building in an industrial estate, with inadequate resources. Is it any surprise that those parents feel a sense of dread about the future?
I have raised this scenario with the Northern Health and Social Care Trust, the management of which I hold in high regard. The following quote is from a letter that the management sent to me:
“The Trust acknowledges the need to modernise and reform daytime support to adults with learning disabilities and to this end has reviewed current arrangements and produced a strategy for future provision. This strategy covers the period 2007-2011 and sets a challenging agenda for the Trust”.
Members know what a trust is really saying when it states that it “sets a challenging agenda”. Although I have much confidence in the Northern Health and Social Care Trust’s management, what confidence can we have that the strategy will produce results over that period?
The example that I outlined earlier highlighted the real problems that exist at the delivery end of the healthcare system. We must do better. At the crux of the issue is a lesson that the Assembly must learn in all aspects of its work: if public-expenditure funding is higher here than in other parts of the UK, we must find ways to better use our resources. That is the fundamental challenge for the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety on respite care, and for the Executive on all issues.
Mr Savage: I thank Mrs Robinson for tabling the motion. I am delighted to join with fellow MLAs to debate respite care in Northern Ireland. Respite care is important. It is essential to thousands of people in families across the social and political spectra of our community. We must work together to identify ways to provide appropriate respite care for the elderly, the sick, our fellow citizens with mental-health problems, the disabled, and, in particular, our young people.
For a long time, the Government have relied on the generosity of the silent — almost invisible and forgotten — army of carers, who have taken on work and responsibility, and given their own time to care for loved ones. Do we even know how many people care for family members who have Alzheimer’s disease, an elderly parent, or, more increasingly, a family member with a mental-health issue? In response to a question from Lady Hermon, Paul Goggins stated that:
“In 2007-08 the Government will invest an additional £11.5 million in community care services designed to help vulnerable people to live independent lives.”
Do Members believe that that is enough money? Where is it being spent? How much of it will be swallowed up by administration? What are the benchmarks of success against which we will be able to measure the effectiveness of how the £11·5 million has been spent in helping those in need and in assisting the army of carers who have to carry out the same tasks every day while discussions are going on and plans are being considered?
I have long been associated with the Buddy Bear Trust Conductive Education School in Dungannon, which specialises in helping children who have cerebral palsy. Many Members met the school’s chairman, Mr McConville, and one of its students, Daniel Murphy, when they were invited to sign the pledge of support photograph — which had been signed by the leaders of all political parties. The parents and children at the Buddy Bear Trust school hope that Members will be able to help them.
The parents of children who attend that school said that they realised that their lives would never be the same again when they discovered that they had a baby with a disability or with special needs. Those parents claim that their child’s disability was compounded when they saw that family members were nervous about babysitting. That is when the social isolation began. The absence of a babysitter and respite care means that parents are not able to go out together to social events, functions or even weddings or funerals. As their child develops, parents have to make alternative arrangements for their other children so that they can accompany their disabled child to meet consultants, principals and psychologists. There is a time delay in the statementing process, so the parents and child will be lucky to see those professionals.
Those parents complain that education and health services did not provide them with a comprehensive pack of information including full details of the education options and the available health and social care provision. They are particularly angry and disappointed that the education boards did not inform them about the availability of special care schools. The parents of some of the children who attend the Buddy Bear Trust school are planning to raise those and other issues with the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People, Patricia Lewsley; the Chief Commissioner for Human Rights, Monica McWilliams; the Health Minister; and the Education Minister. Those parents want good-quality respite-care provision and well-equipped accommodation that is well staffed by qualified and caring professionals who can meet the various needs of their children.
In the Upper Bann constituency, the Southern Health and Social Care Trust has stated that the dermatology and respite care facilities at Lurgan Hospital will close. That is a serious matter, because that hospital provides valuable facilities and care. That closure was reported in the press earlier this week. I do not believe everything that appears in the press, but I urge the Minister to put people’s minds at rest.
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Mr McGimpsey): I thank Mrs Robinson for tabling this important motion. The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety is aware of the statistics, which have been well rehearsed. There are an estimated 16,500 people with a learning disability, and 4,500 of them have a severe or profound learning disability.
I acknowledge that respite provision has, historically, been underfunded. There is not enough respite provision available, particularly for those with complex needs. Those individuals with special needs are living longer, their needs are becoming more complex, and the demand for respite provision is increasing. That is the challenge that is facing us.
There were 400 children awaiting respite at the end of March 2007.
Let me be clear: waiting times are not acceptable under any circumstances. I am seeking to address that issue in order to ensure that needs are met. I am also examining ways in which respite services can be extended and improved when setting budgetary priorities — that is one key way in which progress can be made.
Mrs Robinson mentioned the report of the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People on expenditure per child. In comparison with the rest of the UK, spending per child in Northern Ireland is very poor.
Declan O’Loan mentioned the levels of funding and public expenditure. Health and social services in Northern Ireland are underfunded to the tune of £400 million — and I am not the only one to say so. That is the amount that would be required to provide parity of provision with England, Scotland and Wales.
The Commissioner for Children and Young People, Mrs Patricia Lewsley, made comparisons between health and social services provision here and in England, Scotland and Wales. As citizens of the UK, the people of Northern Ireland are entitled to exactly the same provision as people in England, Scotland and Wales.
It is a fact that health services are underfunded to the tune of £400 million. That figure was arrived at as the result of an exercise that was carried out by the previous direct rule regime and it was accepted by the Department of Finance and Personnel, and by the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. That exercise was spearheaded by the then Secretary of State. An independent expert was appointed to assess needs and examine funding. When examining public expenditure against the entire block grant, one might be able to make an argument on the per-head figures, but one must also examine need. However, the assessment exercise was carried out specifically on health.
That does not explain under-provision, but it does, to an extent, explain why priorities are crunched. Sometimes priorities are crunched in a way that is not universally acceptable — certainly not to those in this Chamber.
Health and social care trusts provide a wide range of respite care throughout Northern Ireland in residential and family settings. Respite care can take many forms; it can be delivered in a person’s home or through day facilities and residential care homes. Many Members will be aware that respite care can be provided to meet a client’s personal needs or the needs of carers and their families.
In answer to Ms Ramsey’s point about family care, respite is based on a family-care plan. That is the key building block that has been adopted in the provision of respite for carers and their families. Respite care offers valuable time for carers and families to alleviate the stress that comes with always being on call, and it offers learning-disabled people opportunities for a change of environment and stimulus. That important point was raised by John McCallister.
Mrs Hanna mentioned the Mencap campaign ‘Breaking Point’, which specifically argued for short breaks, and followed a campaign in the rest of the UK that examined the value of such breaks.
There are many ways in which the Health Service is striving to improve and develop respite care services, including: increasing non-residential respite schemes for children, such as after-school clubs; developing respite services that are provided in a family setting by specially trained host families; and specialised child-minding services to provide parents with a break from caring.
I am aware of the constantly changing needs and trends in respite care and of the continual increase in costs. Further resources will always be needed for care, and we must seek innovative ways of delivering services. Several trusts have appointed a manager to act as a co-ordinator for residential respite for adults with learning disabilities. I am disappointed that Mr O’Loan’s experience in interaction with the trusts has not been as positive as it should have been.
That has already had a significant impact on improving efficient use of respite beds across the statutory and voluntary sector and in providing parents, carers and professionals alike with a better access to the service.
In 2007-08, my Department will invest a further £11·5 million in community services across Northern Ireland that are designed to support independent living for everyone with a disability. Respite care will be an important element of those additional services.
There are many plans to develop learning disability services across board areas, and I will offer some examples: there are plans to provide additional respite beds for adults and children, many in new purpose-built facilities; a new eight-place respite unit is due to open in January 2008 in Dungannon, and there are further proposals for similar units across Northern Ireland; work is underway to reduce reliance on hospital-based respite for adults and to provide it in more informal, community settings, and new tailor-made services are being designed and introduced by the Eastern Health and Social Services Board associated with the caring break service, which provides individually designed day and evening respite and is complemented by the Southern Health and Social Services Board’s “Wraparound” scheme.
Despite Member’s reservations about provisions — and I have already acknowledged that there is not enough provision — efforts are being made. It may also be possible to make direct payment to people who need help from social services but who want to arrange and pay for their own care and support services instead of receiving them from a trust. That would be a more flexible way of approaching the problem, and a growing number of people are finding that that option provides the independence and flexibility that they require.
The Bamford report entitled ‘Equal Lives: Review of Policy and Services for People with a Learning Disability in Northern Ireland’ is a key document in helping us to improve learning disability services. I am committed to its objective of enhancing and strengthening the community response to and support for people with learning disabilities — not least because its recommendations point clearly to the need for cross-departmental co-operation.
Mr McCrea and others made the point about the need for age-specific respite provision, and that approach must be adopted in the provision of respite places. Mr McCrea is correct: one size does not fit all. Some 150 age-appropriate day-care places were created in 2006-07 using moneys from the funding package for children and young people. Those places also cater for the needs of young people who are in transition at the age of 18.
Voluntary and community sectors also have a vital role to play in providing quality and responsive services by working closely with family groups. They are better placed to identify needs and to respond in constructive and innovative ways. I have already referred to the successful “Wraparound” scheme developed in the Southern Health and Social Services Board area, which involves partnership working between statutory, voluntary and community groups. It includes outreach services to families in their own homes, and the emphasis is on a creative and flexible approach. I want to see greater innovation and creativity in the development of those services. The ideas are there: the problem is in finding resources.
Mr McCarthy said that Members are demanding better respite services and that my Department should therefore provide them. I would love to be able to respond in that way; but resources play a key part. Families desperately need high-quality respite provision to give them the break they need; and I recognise the benefits that respite can provide for a family that has to cope with extra pressures. In my budget-bidding process, I will seek to address under-provision for carers and respite care.
Mr Buchanan: I commend Mrs Iris Robinson for proposing such a worthy motion. Many of the families across Northern Ireland who care for children and adults with severe and profound learning disabilities find themselves at breaking point because of a severe lack of respite provision. It is estimated that 2% of Northern Ireland’s population has some form of learning difficulty, which amounts to more than 33,000 people. As the Minister mentioned, 4,500 of those people have a severe or profound difficulty, and caring is therefore an essential part of their lives. However, that puts a lot of stress on the family members and loved ones who care for them. It is thanks to their dedication that many of those being cared for are able to retain some form of independence and can continue to live in their own communities.
My brother and uncle are disabled and are being looked after by elderly parents, so I know something of the difficulties and the stress that caring places on family life. It must be recognised that carers have a right to a life beyond their caring role. A range of respite care must be provided to suit the needs of the carers and the people who are being cared for. That should not be seen exclusively as alternative residential care. It is most important for carers to know that, when they take a break, the person for whom they usually provide care is being well looked after and is secure. Carers’ needs should be considered on an individual basis, and they should have a choice about the type and timing of services available to allow them to take an appropriate break.
As the proposer of the motion said, it is unacceptable that eight out of 10 families have come close to breaking point because of the lack of short-break services. According to figures from the Commission for Social Care Inspection, only one in 13 disabled children receives a regular support service from their local authority. Further research from Mencap found that, despite the influx of legislation for carers enacted since 1995, half of all carers who have had an assessment of their needs still receive no service. New figures have exposed the long delays that patients across Northern Ireland face while waiting to be admitted into respite care.
In my constituency of West Tyrone, it is alarming to see that the Western Health and Social Care Trust has the worst record of all trusts for respite care provision and that many who have already been assessed as requiring care provision have to wait over 12 months for that provision. That is unacceptable.
I commend Mrs Iris Robinson for proposing the motion. She highlighted the lack of finance over the years and the gaps in appropriate funding for young adults. She has worked tirelessly over the years, lobbying for respite provision and care for mentally ill people and those with learning disabilities.
Many other issues have also been highlighted. For example, Sue Ramsey mentioned that services must be designed to meet families’ needs. Basil McCrea mentioned best-practice models, which the Assembly should examine. Carmel Hanna mentioned that 37% of carers are over 65 years of age, which is an alarming statistic. The big difficulty is that those carers are well on in years, and they wonder who will care for their relatives when they are gone. That huge concern must be urgently addressed.
Jonathan Craig mentioned the work that lies ahead for the Department, and, obviously, the Department has much work to do to address all those issues. I was encouraged that the Minister said that he will give a lot of attention to respite provision when he sets out his budget priorities. I welcome that.
The Department must ensure that respite provision for people with special needs is afforded urgent priority.
Mr McCarthy: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I was rather disappointed that the Minister did not reject the proposal to charge people for essential equipment to keep the good health of their —
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. Mr McCarthy, that is not a point of order. It is an issue for the Minister.
Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly demands improved respite provision for those with special needs.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Members will know that the Business Committee has arranged to meet as soon as the Assembly suspends for lunch. I propose, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm, when the motion on victims will be debated.
The sitting was suspended at 1.05 pm.
On resuming (Mr Speaker in the Chair) —
Mr Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make the winding-up speech. Other Members will have five minutes each.
Two amendments have been received and published on the Marshalled List. The proposers of the amendments will each have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes to make their winding-up speeches.
Mr Elliott: I beg to move
That this Assembly urges the Executive to implement the recommendations of the final report by the Interim Commissioner for Victims and Survivors, entitled ‘Support for Victims and Survivors: Addressing the Human Legacy’.
I welcome the opportunity to move the motion. However, I must attend a Committee meeting this afternoon, and I may have to leave during the debate. I hope that Members appreciate that, but I will stay for as long as possible.
Over a generation, many horrific events occurred in Northern Ireland, and they have had an impact on the lives of many thousands of people in the Province. The ripples of those events, some of which happened decades ago, are felt to this day by the bereaved, the traumatised, the injured and the lonely.
Over the years, I have been in regular contact with victims and survivors, all of whom suffer in different ways — physically, emotionally, financially and psychologically. Unfortunately, the common denominator among many victims and survivors in Northern Ireland is that they feel that they have been forgotten. To many, the neglect of the past is a serious impediment that prevents them from moving successfully into the future. When talking to victims and survivors, the words “angry” and “frustrated” often arise. Who can blame them for having such feelings? Many victims and survivors have lived through the terrible pain of losing a loved one or of being injured.
There is some substance to the argument that no one who lived in Northern Ireland through the unhappiest period of its history will have escaped some damage. Many people who, fortunately, escaped death or injury have been exposed to threat and danger. Certain localities have experienced an enduring atmosphere of tension and menace. Social life has been constrained, and economic progress has been impeded.
Nevertheless, we must aim our efforts at considering the needs of a coherent and manageable target group. I define that group as the surviving injured, those who care for them and those close relatives who mourn their dead.
On 24 October 1997, the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mo Mowlam, announced that a commission was to be established:
“to look at possible ways to recognise the pain and suffering felt by victims of violence arising from the troubles of the last 30 years, including those who have died or been injured in the service of the community.”
Compared to the darkest days of the Troubles, the decade since that announcement was made has, thankfully, been relatively free from violence. However, the victims issue is still in limbo. To the community’s collective shame, it has been allowed to drift.
The report that stemmed from that announcement almost 10 years ago was Sir Kenneth Bloomfield’s ‘We Will Remember Them’. One of that report’s 20 recommendations was that:
“victims must, as the barest minimum, be as well served as former prisoners in terms of their rehabilitation, future employment etc”.
That clearly separates prisoners from victims. I strongly suggest that many victims would agree with that ideal, but it is still far from reality. Members only have to look round the Chamber to see many people who are victims or ex-prisoners.
The victims community had to wait until 2005 for the next significant development, when the Interim Commissioner for Victims and Survivors, Bertha McDougall, was appointed. That was a belated but positive step in the right direction; I hope that the community will not need to wait another eight to 10 years for the next significant progress on this issue.
Bertha McDougall’s subsequent recommendations were formed after she and her team consulted a wide range of survivors, victims and groups representing victims’ interests. Those 36 recommendations are therefore based on the needs of genuine victims and survivors. It is vital that the measures that she outlined should come into effect as soon as possible so that the needs of victims, which have hitherto received minimal attention, can be addressed.
I use the term “genuine victims” because the very definition of a victim is a difficult matter. No doubt some Assembly Members will have a definition of “victim” that is widely different from my own. Even Bertha McDougall indicated that there is no consensus on the definition in the community. I strongly urge that the interpretation and definition of the term “victim” is clearly defined. The real victims who have suffered at the hands of terrorists should not be merged into the same category as the perpetrators of violence, murder and mayhem. That would be a travesty of justice for those who have already suffered. Indeed, it would involve a re-traumatisation process for victims.
I have grave concerns that, during a recent meeting of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, the First Minister stated:
“The new Commissioner will not, of course, be bound by Mrs McDougall’s recommendations”.
I believe that it has been proven that the complex nature of the role requires not just a commissioner for victims, but a commission for victims. That role requires a small group of people; such matters should not be left to just one person.
I will be interested to hear from the proposer of amendment No 1 how the role of a commissioner — or, indeed, of a commission — would fit in with the bringing forward of proposals from the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister as soon as possible after the recess. I wait to hear that with some anticipation, as I must put on record my serious concern at allowing the process for dealing with victims to be left in the hands of people such as the Deputy First Minister and the junior Minister from his party, both of whom have a record that clearly speaks for itself.
Returning to the report of the Interim Commissioner for Victims and Survivors, I believe that the time lag that would be involved in further consultation would be unacceptable to the many people who are in need of immediate help and who are long overdue meaningful, tangible support. The fact that we are, as yet, unable even to put an accurate figure on the number of victims and survivors in the Province shows how poorly advanced we are in providing for victims and survivors.
The Interim Commissioner’s recommendations are divided into the three main areas of services, funding and the victims and survivors forum. I am pleased that dealing with trauma is at the top of the list of service priorities. The suggestion that the work should be done in conjunction with the recommendations of the Bamford Review can only be positive. We also need to be careful that we do not, as I mentioned earlier, end up with a process of the re-traumatisation of victims.
The issue of funding is, in many respects, self-explanatory. One need only listen to the personal stories of many victims to understand the extent to which many of them were poorly financially treated. Many women who became widows when their husbands were murdered had to take on extra employment to help to raise their young families. I know that money can never repay for the loss of a loved one, but that situation should never have happened.
I pay tribute to the many genuine groups in our community that carry out a positive role by helping victims. The South East Fermanagh Foundation deals very positively with victims in the County Fermanagh area.
The question of the forum outlined in the recommendations is an emotive one. If, or when, victims are ready to move to that position, they will need time and space, and I urge that they are not forced into something of which they do not wish to be a part. A key step to building a future that is more at ease is to acknowledge the past and address issues that have impacted on countless families in the intervening years.
Many victims are amazed that so much money can be spent on a small number of inquiries, with little or no effort being made to address their pain and suffering. Many victims have a different method of dealing with the past and the way in which they wish to proceed to the future. Some people want to expose everything from the past, and others want to move on with their future quietly, remembering the past in their own private way.
Mr Campbell: I beg to move amendment No 1: Leave out all after “urges” and insert
“the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to bring forward proposals, after the summer recess, for a new policy for victims and survivors, having due regard to the recommendations in the Interim Commissioner’s report ‘Support for Victims and Survivors: Addressing the Human Legacy’.”
The way in which we deal with victims is an emotive issue. Many victims exhibit a range of emotions, which is testament to their enduring problems. A reading of the Interim Commissioner for Victims’ report highlights the problems that she faced. Nonetheless, she has produced a commendable report that addresses victims’ issues and contains a range of recommendations, to which Mr Elliott has referred. The DUP amendment simply urges the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to have due regard to those recommendations in the formulation of a new policy.
What can we do for the close relatives of those who have died? What can we do for those who continue to suffer because of terror and criminal activity? We will always struggle with those questions if we are unwilling to grapple with the definition of what is a genuinely innocent victim and what is not. As a society and as an Assembly, we must never equate the perpetrators of atrocities with the victims of atrocities. To take one example, it cannot be the case that Sean Kelly, who murdered innocent people in the Shankill bombing, is equated with those whom he murdered. That cannot be the case. Those who set out to take innocent life and perished at their own hand are not innocent victims. They are not innocent victims in 2007, and they will not be innocent victims in 2107, in spite of any amount of revisionism.
Some people try to dress up the problems of the past 30 years by describing that time as a “conflict”, as if, to a greater or lesser extent, we were all guilty of murder. We were not all guilty; the people who pulled the trigger or perished by their own hand were guilty — they are not innocent victims.
We need a clear definition of “innocent victim”. It does not matter on this side of the House whether people were Protestant, Catholic or any other religion; if they were in the wrong place at the wrong time and were murdered by a bomb or were shot dead, they were innocent victims and should be regarded as such.
If we get there, I am confident that there will be substantial desire for making progress and that there will be a foundation upon which we can build a future for the innocent victims. To do otherwise would compound the grief, anger and anguish that many victims’ relatives feel. They want to know that their relatives did not die in vain. They want to know that some progress can be made for all the community, given the sacrifice that their genuinely innocent relatives made.
The report from the Interim Commissioner for Victims gives significant food for thought and a foundation upon which we can build. Unfortunately, we cannot stop people voting for those who murdered others in the past. That is their choice, but it will not change our opinion of what is an innocent victim. If certain people have to come to terms with their part in the past while they are dealing with the future, so be it. If their guilty conscience pricks them, so be it. They have to come to terms with their past. We must all move together into the future with a genuine regard for the innocent victims of the past.
Mrs D Kelly: I beg to move amendment No 2: At end insert
“; and further urges the establishment of a Victims’ and Survivors’ Forum.”
Despite the controversial manner in which Bertha McDougall was appointed, a process that not only did her an injustice but also called into question the public-appointment process, she has performed her duties creditably and with a great deal of sensitivity. Mrs McDougall was correct in her assessment of the Troubles when she said that:
“The real cost needs to be considered within the context of human suffering and the physical, emotional and psychological trauma inflicted on individuals and society as a whole.”
The previous two Members who spoke will acknowledge that the tears, trauma and psychological damage for those who survived remain the same regardless of how they became victims. All the families’ tears are the same.
Mrs McDougall referred to a forum for victims and survivors in the report. The SDLP has tabled the amendment because it strengthens the motion and gives a clear signal to victims and survivors that something will be done. I know that the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister hope to announce the appointment of a Commissioner for Victims before the end of this week. I trust that they will also give a commitment to establishing a forum.
There was consensus among those who were consulted that a forum would be positively received by victims and survivors. Victims and survivors want a forum to address a range of practical issues; in the report, Mrs McDougall made specific recommendations for financial support and access to health services. A forum could also act as a platform to enable victims and survivors to come together and have a voice on aspects that they believe are not being dealt with. They would be able to tell politicians what their needs are, where the gaps are and how they could be filled. A forum should be independent, effective, inclusive, accountable and productive, and it should enable victims and survivors to share their experiences and co-ordinate good practice.
In the report, Mrs McDougall tells of the importance of storytelling and how she sees a forum enabling people to tell their story. I recently met with the family of a victim — a mother whose husband was murdered by the UVF because he was a Catholic and whose youngest daughter was two years old at the time. Looking at the financial contribution that society should make, a judge said that the child was too young to know the loss of a father. That was clearly wrong. In my constituency, there are fathers who lost sons and were so traumatised by the brutal nature of the murders that they had to give up work and lost their homes as a result.
The loss of a loved one therefore has a wider impact, as there are everyday issues to deal with. Those stories must be told, because we all need to hear them.
In her report, the Interim Commissioner adopted a needs-based approach, which deftly allowed her to avoid creating priorities or perceived alignments. That approach also allowed her to produce a report that can be welcomed by all Members. To oppose the report would be to oppose any further discussion of a fund for widows of members of the UDR and to oppose improvement in mental-health provision for all our children.
The report draws attention to transgenerational post-traumatic stress disorder, identification and diagnosis of which will be essential if the North is to succeed. We can create a stable peace, but the next generation must not be left with mental scarring that could prevent them from maintaining that peace. A co-ordinated and comprehensive response from Government, which should include the border regions, will be required to address that issue.
The Commissioner drew attention to that fact that victims’ services tend to be centred around Belfast. I welcome her commitments to provide outreach services and to decentralise conflict transformation. That issue was not born in Belfast; neither will it rest there. Victims who live in rural areas have specific needs that must be addressed, not soaked up with promises of better transport provision.
Dealing with victims’ needs can be viewed as also dealing with their societal needs. For example, the Government need to learn how to tackle mistrust among victims. In doing so, they would gain favour from everyone in the Chamber. Each side of the community feels that the other side is better treated on the issue of victims. Co-ordinated information and a cross-community approach should therefore help the rest of society. It would also create models of best practice that could be applied elsewhere.
The report also addressed the issue of the past, and the Interim Commissioner quite rightly noted the hurt and the anger that would exist if a line were to be drawn under the past. However, she also recognised the difficulty that exists in any truth recovery process. Victims should not be railroaded — it is important to be sensitive to, and cognisant of, their needs. There have been pleas from across the Chamber that not all victims are equal. However, the establishment of a forum for victims and survivors is a must. As an Assembly, we must show political leadership at an early stage and let the victims lead us to the right place from which to tackle this issue.
Mr Molloy: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I support amendment No 1 and oppose the motion.
This is a highly sensitive issue that should not be used as a political football. That is why it is important to recognise the issues faced by victims. Many victims feel that they have been forgotten, and that the issues that they have raised over the years have not come to the fore in any of the victims’ reports that have been published. Many victims feel sidelined as a result.
It is therefore important not to rush into implementing Bertha McDougall’s report. Amendment No 1 would allow the issue to be considered in the long term. As a new Victims’ Commissioner has yet to be appointed, it would be premature to implement the Interim Commissioner’s report, as that would tie the hands of her successor. It is important to consider the issue in the long term and to develop a new strategy for victims, rather than simply repeating what has already happened.
Many victims had serious reservations about Bertha McDougall’s appointment. There were also concerns about the consultation on the report, and about the report itself and how it was finalised. Those important concerns should be addressed, because the report’s conclusions clearly dealt with victims from one side of the community. The report also concentrated on aspects of security. It did not deal with issues faced by victims from all sides, and the different roles that victims can have. As I said, it would be premature to implement the report’s recommendations now, without due consideration and without allowing the new Commissioner to address those issues.
The British Government must also acknowledge the role that they played in the Troubles —
Mrs D Kelly: Will the Member give way?
Mr Molloy: No. The Member has had an opportunity to say all that she wanted to say. I shall use my time to do the same.
We must start to acknowledge the issues involved, as well as the many thousands of victims of collusion and state violence who were not taken into account in the findings in the Interim Commissioner for Victims’ report. Victims need equality of treatment. There should not be a hierarchy of victims, yet there appear to be many interpretations of the meaning of “victim”.
We must examine the role that state violence played in the lives of so many families. Probably thousands of individuals and hundreds of families were affected by it. There was collusion, and people were set up by members of the security forces themselves. A structure was in place that directed and drove those members of the security forces. Even last week, we had a situation in which it was clear that there was a case to be answered, yet the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) decided not to prosecute anyone. Those people will now go free. There will be no justice for their victims, yet it is clear that collusion occurred between state forces and loyalist paramilitaries.
Not only did the security forces not stop killings from happening when they had prior knowledge of them, in one instance they even handed the gun back to loyalist paramilitaries to let another six people be murdered by it.
Victims have serious concerns about how they have been treated. Amendment No 1 deals with the present situation and looks to a new situation. If it is made, the First and Deputy First Ministers and the new Victims’ Commissioner will be urged to deal with the victims issue, taking into account the Interim Commissioner for Victims’ recommendations. We will have in place a new policy for dealing with victims and survivors that will meet their needs.
If amendment No 2 is made, however, we will be deciding in advance that victims should have a forum. Surely we should not be dictating to victims what structure any outlet for their views should take. Instead, let us put the matter out to consultation, talk to the victims, consider their needs and see how we can accommodate them to ensure that their needs are recognised in future. Go raibh maith agat.
Dr Farry: It is important to stress that, up until now, the needs of victims, and the past generally, have been dealt with piecemeal and divisively. Judging by the debate so far, we are in danger of continuing along that path. We must try to deal with victims holistically and comprehensively, recognising the diverse range of needs and the different levels of support and funding that are available. We must also consider the diverse demands of justice versus truth recovery. We need to introduce a policy that is capable of proceeding in a manner that promotes reconciliation and that is consistent with building a shared future, rather than one that will become a political football and perpetuate people’s suffering.
Like others, I pay tribute to Bertha McDougall’s work as Interim Commissioner for Victims. Notwithstanding the controversy surrounding her appointment, her work was comprehensive, and she had direct dealings with victims’ groups from right across the political spectrum. Her report reflects what she heard from them. In many respects, the report is not simply Bertha McDougall’s report but a report from the whole range of victims across Northern Ireland.
It is important that we do not get caught up in trying to define a victim. If we do, we are unlikely to get past stage one. One point that I wish to stress, however, is that a wide range of people can be considered to be victims, and victims can also be perpetrators. People who were killed while engaging in terrorism still left a family grieving over their passing. That said, that does not prevent society from saying, rightly, that what those people were engaged in was fundamentally wrong and that those who survived should have been amenable under the law for what they did. Those who passed away would undoubtedly have been answerable under the law had they survived. I do not think that those aspects are mutually exclusive.
There has been talk of a hierarchy of victims. Both sides of the community are guilty of producing different hierarchies of victims: one seeks to deny victimhood to other sections of the community; the other elevates victims of state violence above all others. We must move away from those different interpretations.
The Interim Victims Commissioner’s report is largely based on individual victims’ needs. However, there are many wider issues that the report does not deal with in much detail. That said, the report is a valuable piece of work that fits into the broad spectrum of issues that we need to address, such as support for health, benefits, access to funding for individuals and groups, and the wider issue of the victims’ forum. The report has reflected that there have been major deficiencies in those areas over the last number of years.
The report makes particular mention that people who suffered during the very early years of the Troubles have been badly neglected and let down. As time has progressed, we have become much more sophisticated in recognising the trauma and mental-health difficulties that people have faced. However, there is a large backlog of work that must be addressed. Many people have been suffering in silence for many years, and it is time that we recognised what they have gone through, and address their needs.
There are also broader issues that we must consider, such as the day of reflection, how we acknowledge the past in general, addressing people’s demands for justice, and how realistic that will be, given that limited resources are available.
Mr Storey: Will the Member indicate how he can believe in a day of reflection, when, in society and in this House, there is a party that still believes that what some people did during the Troubles was right? How can that circle be squared? Some people would not reflect on a basis of sorrow, but on the basis that it was unfortunate that some people happened to be caught up in what occurred?
Dr Farry: I thank the Member for that intervention. I was referring to the Healing Through Remembering group’s day of reflection, which is a private day of reflection that is designed to be inclusive. People participate in whatever manner they wish. Over time, perhaps we can move on. However, I fully recognise Mr Storey’s point that people have certain feelings about those who were responsible for many things that happened during the Troubles.
Truth recovery is an important issue that needs to be considered. The forum proposed in the Interim Victims’ Commissioner’s report suggested the issue of support and funding as a starting point, with the possibility of moving on. We must also bear in mind the commission that was set up by the previous Secretary of State, headed by Robin Eames and Denis Bradley. The commission will seek to devise a more holistic approach to the past. Consideration will need to be given to how the work of that body will fit in with that of the Interim Victims’ Commissioner and her successor, and whatever initiatives the Executive wish to take forward to support that. It must be a wide-ranging process.
Mr Spratt: I support the amendment in the name of my colleague Gregory Campbell, and reaffirm my support of the substance of the substantive motion.
This House has a duty to the victims of our past. With that in mind, I commend the work of the Interim Victims’ Commissioner, Bertha McDougall. In producing her report, Mrs McDougall has been a fair and impartial advocate of the rights and needs of victims, and she should be applauded by all Members for her dedication and hard work. The report provides, for the first time, a real and meaningful support structure for victims and their families. That is to be welcomed.
A legacy of hurt and suffering as a result of the terrorist campaign in Northern Ireland was —and, indeed, is — a difficult issue to tackle. For many, it is probably a question of where to start. However, in Mrs McDougall’s report, there is a positive framework and recommendations that, I believe, can make a real and tangible difference to the lives of victims. The fact that the report is driven and moulded by the victim’s voice makes it a suitable guideline to dealing with victims of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Who would know better than the victims themselves?
The three main areas of the report — funding, services, and the establishment of a forum — cover the broad concerns and desires of victims.
Long-term funding is vital, both for the individuals and the dedicated hard-working victims’ groups who, despite struggling with financial sustainability, provide invaluable support to those who are in need. We must ensure that adequate resources are made available, and I welcome the proposals in the report of the Interim Commissioner for Victims and Survivors for a flexible long-term funding strategy.
The report is right to state that current funding has proved inadequate to meet identified needs. It is dangerous for groups to rely too heavily on peace funding. Rather than money being directed to those ex-prisoners’ associations that comprise many who created the victims, we should always give priority support to those who have suffered. Victims should be able to avail of assistance in applying for funds, and, indeed, when an application is made, it should be dealt with sensitively and with flexibility.
The Interim Commissioner for Victims and Survivors recommends that those who have been mentally scarred by our past have their needs provided for. Accredited counselling services are a must as we seek to give those who need help the standard of support that they deserve. An effective delivery model must be implemented and given the necessary financial resources to comprehensively deliver what is required. The Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister must at all times give the necessary support to ensure that there is delivery. I agree with the report’s recommendation that, as a matter of urgency, a new fund be established to cater for the needs of victims. Financial gain can never compensate for physical loss or suffering, but we should provide for those who have lost so much.
For too long, the victim’s voice has not been given the platform that it deserves. I welcome the recommendation to establish a forum, and I encourage OFMDFM to press ahead with implementing that. The DUP believes that victims’ voices should be heard and that we should provide the means to make that possible.
Amendment No 1 does not detract from the report’s recommendations. We seek to create an opportunity to add further provisions to ensure that victims get the best possible outcomes as the situation evolves. I support the call to implement the report of the Interim Commissioner for Victims and Survivors, but I firmly believe that amendment No 1 gives us an opportunity to further widen the scope of provisions.
Victims may be victims of the past, but they must be cared for and provided for in the future. Victimhood never ends. We must make the hurt and pain easier to live with on a day-to-day basis. I support amendment No 1.
Mr Speaker: I remind Members that a ruling was made several weeks ago that if Members speak for fewer than five minutes and take an intervention, they will be allowed an extra minute to speak. It is important that we continually say that; I know that Members are beginning to rush through their speeches as they watch the clock.
Ms J McCann: I oppose the motion, and I support amendment No 1. I also support my party colleague Mr Francie Molloy.
The discussion on the victims and survivors of the conflict is very sensitive and emotive. We are speaking of the people who have lost their lives in this conflict, and we are speaking in particular about their relatives — the survivors who, every day of the week, have to live with the trauma of their bereavement. The circumstances of the death of the person concerned should mean little to us. Our priority and focus should be to ensure that all relatives are treated with respect and that every effort is made to support them all. I object — and I know that many relatives also object — to any notion of a hierarchy of victims, and the idea that some relatives are less deserving than others, simply because the circumstances surrounding the death of their loved one do not fit some people’s biased political outlook.
Over the years, there have been many examples of relatives and relatives’ organisations being insulted and abused by those speaking on behalf of political parties outside this Chamber. Families who are the victims of state violence and collusion feel that they have been demonised because they dare to seek the truth about how their loved ones died.
The combined actions of the British state and loyalist forces are responsible for 1,414 deaths. That figure represents a little over 39% of the total number of those listed as having been killed. Some of those deaths include young children who were killed by plastic bullets, yet the British Government have never acknowledged the hurt and pain that they were responsible for in their dealings with the relatives of those who were killed.
Accountability, truth and justice are paramount for all those who have been affected by state, and state-sponsored, violence. It is now firmly established in the public domain that the British Government armed loyalists and that British intelligence agencies directed them to kill people. That is what collusion was all about: it was part of the British Government’s military offensive against nationalists. The British Government’s use of loyalists gave cover to their armed forces to secretly operate in an illegal arena in which the Crown forces could not be publicly seen or risk being caught. It is obvious to most reasonable people what the British Government were at, and the British Government must accept that fact.
The past decade has seen investigations into collusion by highly respected individuals motivated to uncover the truth surrounding state approved and directed murder campaigns. Lord Stephens conducted three investigations; Canadian judge Peter Cory investigated collusion, and Nuala O’Loan, the Police Ombudsman, produced a damning report that exposed the intimate, friendly and deadly relationship between RUC Special Branch and loyalists.
Recently, the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) announced that no serving or retired members of the British Crown forces will be prosecuted for their involvement in the murder of seven people — one Protestant, six Catholics — including the human rights lawyer Pat Finucane. That decision and the manner in which the PPS informed the families concerned caused great offence and hurt. Those benefiting from the decision were involved in those murders and are in high office inside the British political and military establishment.
Families who have been directly affected by the policy of collusion are entitled to the truth about why a state agency that is supposed to uphold the law and protect citizens was instrumental in killing their loved ones. The dignity with which those families have conducted their campaign to uncover the truth, and the determination that they have shown when political representatives have attempted to trivialise that campaign by engaging in the politics of denial, has to be commended.
Nowhere in Bertha McDougall’s report is there any mention of collusion or acknowledgement by the British state of its responsibility for and its role as a protagonist in the conflict. The British Government need to acknowledge and take on board the feelings and sensitivities of all victims, particularly the victims of collusion and state violence.
Mr Beggs: Will the Member give way?
Ms J McCann: No, I will not give way. I am nearly finished.
If we are to move to a society that is based on equality and justice and where human rights are respected, then we should not fear the truth. The families of all victims of the conflict deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. There must never be a hierarchy of victims. When taking forward initiatives relating to victims and survivors, we should take our lead from the victims and their families and endeavour to make a positive contribution towards helping them come to terms with their circumstances.
Mr Storey: I support the amendment.
The DUP appreciates the work that was carried out by Bertha McDougall. The Government have indicated that the report by the Interim Victims’ Commissioner is the platform on which victims’ services should be built.
On 7 February 2007, in a Written Answer to a Question from Mr Dodds, which asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what assessment he made of the most recent report by the Interim Victims’ Commissioner, David Cairns stated:
“I welcome Bertha McDougall’s report as a detailed and thorough examination of the key issues affecting victims and survivors.
It provides a good platform for the incoming permanent victim’s commissioner to work on.”
The 36 recommendations put forward by the Interim Commissioner for Victims provide comprehensive coverage of a wide range of needs that victims across Northern Ireland have and the problems that many of them face. Funding is one of the key areas covered by the recommendations in the report, which, rightly, highlights the importance of long-term funding for individuals and victims’ groups. I want to place on record that I believe that the pittance given to victims of violence in Northern Ireland, to date, is a disgrace, considering that millions have been squandered on the Bloody Sunday Inquiry. That discrimination and inequality must be addressed as a matter of urgency.
Victims’ groups across Northern Ireland say that their work is hampered because they do not have the certainty of funding. Valuable time and effort is taken up trying to secure funding rather than delivering the service that victims require. The importance of funding to victims is highlighted by the fact that 24 of the 36 recommendations in the report relate to that particular issue.
The proposal that consideration be given to the establishment of a UDR fund, similar to the Northern Ireland Police Fund, is one that is warmly welcomed by many in this House. When the UDR was amalgamated with the Royal Irish Rangers to become the Royal Irish Regiment (RIR), it was the largest serving regiment in the Army and had been on active service longer than any regiment since the Napoleonic wars. The men and women who served in the UDR were on the front line and at the forefront of protecting the community, and they suffered heavily at the hands of terrorists.
Between 1 April 1970 and 30 June 1992, 197 UDR soldiers and officers were murdered. Sixty-one ex-soldiers were murdered after leaving the regiment, and a further five UDR soldiers who transferred to the RIR were killed after the merger with the Royal Irish Rangers on 1 July 1992.
The first of those to be killed was Mr Robert Irvine from my constituency of North Antrim. He was taken out and shot in front of his family. The sad reality is that I have asked this question numerous times in this House, and there has been silence from the party that is sitting opposite: does it believe that the murder of people like Robert Irvine, who was on his way home from a hard day’s work, was legitimate, right and justifiable? All those in their right mind know that that is not the case.
There are those in this House who claim that they were commanders of the Provos during the time that people were being murdered in this country. Today, a Sinn Féin Member said that those in high office in the British Establishment must be held accountable. I say that, equally, those who hold high office in this Assembly must be held accountable for what they have done in the past. Furthermore, there should be no ground given or taken.
More than 40,000 people have served in the ranks of the UDR, and there is no doubt that many former members of the regiment require the kind of help and service that is provided by the Northern Ireland Police Fund to former police officers. While the UDR Benevolent Fund does invaluable work —
Mr Speaker: The Member’s time is almost up.
Mr Storey: — it could be enhanced and developed further through the establishment of a UDR fund. I support the motion.
Mr O’Loan: I welcome the motion. It has been unhelpful that there were those who saw the issue of victims as belonging to one or other community. That was a false division and led to many problems. However, discussing the issue together can be a step towards resolving those problems, although not all of today’s debate has been constructive in that regard, and I may return to that point.
I begin by drawing attention to the need for urgency with regard to the full implementation of the report’s recommendations.
One of the most important of the recommendations, to which another Member referred, is that which advocates a better replacement for the Northern Ireland Memorial Fund by the end of 2007. It is now July, and the restored Assembly approaches its first recess. The harmony with which the memorial fund is phased out and its replacement developed will impact on the success of what is to come. I urge the Executive to note that and to act without hesitation.
The ideas set out in Bertha McDougall’s report are balanced and stand to benefit everyone. They do not depend on which model of truth recovery is adopted. Therefore, I urge the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister not to wait for the consultative group’s report on the past. That would not be in anyone’s interest, except perhaps anyone who fears the recovery of the truth. It certainly would not be in the interests of victims, and they must come first.
A central message of the report revolves around the need for a victims and survivors’ forum, one that the SDLP argues should be independent, effective and inclusive. There has been great progress on equality, as both communities come to realise that they gain from it. That should also be the case when it comes to acknowledging and addressing the needs of victims.
The report contains some horrifying statistics on the numbers of injured and bereaved. It makes clear that everyone is the product of the Troubles and that, in one sense, we all need help. However, the Assembly must start by helping the people in most need — those who feel the deepest hurt because of what the Assembly has done or has failed to do. I urge the House to support the motion and amendment No 2.
Mr McGlone: Members have listened intently to a discussion on the victims of violence. Does the Member agree that more Catholics were murdered by the Provisional IRA than by the combined activities of the British Crown forces? Rightly, the subject of collusion between British Crown forces and loyalist paramilitaries has been raised. However, Members must give similar consideration to the collusion between the senior ranks of those forces and the Provisional movement — collusion that unscrupulously sent IRA volunteers into an SAS gun ambush.
Mr O’Loan: Mr McGlone has made valid points that tie in with what I hope to say on the broader issue of dealing with the past.
I have concerns about amendment No 1’s reference to a “new policy” and merely having “due regard to the recommendations” of the report rather than its implementation.
Anyone who reads a history of Ireland over the past 200 or 300 years can only be amazed by the degree to which it is repetitive. By simply changing the names, the history of 100 and 200 years ago can seem like the history of the recent past. People seemed to be caught in a vicious circle from which there was no escape — until recently. There is every chance that future historians will describe the events from 26 March to 8 May 2007 as having had truly historic import. However, the process is ongoing and is still to be tested.
Some say that, in the context of the Assembly and the dramatic events of the past few weeks, a line should now be drawn under the past. We dare not do that. The consultative group has been set up, but there are strong signals that some want its function to be to close the door on the past. To use Seamus Heaney’s metaphor, the scaffolding should not be removed until the wall is securely built.
The wall is not yet securely built. Dealing with the past properly is vital for reconciliation in society. What happens in the Assembly and the business of dealing with the past are intimately connected. The Assembly must send out signals — and I hope that those will be united signals — as to how it wants that process to move forward. Those two elements are potentially mutually reinforcing and, therefore, also potentially mutually destructive.
Ultimately, the Assembly will not progress well or successfully without a sound process to deal with the past. Equally, those who work on dealing with the past will not succeed unless the Assembly works as a co-operative political environment. A direct expression of support for the victims, as stated in the motion and in amendment No 2, and the establishment of a broad process for dealing with the past combine to complete the entire picture.
In a way, we are all victims in this deeply hurt, fractured society; putting it together again will be a huge task. A huge responsibility rests with the Assembly and every Member who speaks in it.
The First Minister (Rev Dr Ian Paisley): I would like to start by giving my personal commitment and that of the Executive that dealing with the hurt, pain and anguish of the victims in our Province is to us an absolute priority.
We have listened for many years to the stories of those who have lost loved ones. I have seen at first hand the tears shed by mothers, spouses and children. A terrible legacy of loss and pain has been borne by our people.
I have a clear message to those victims who still suffer: you are not forgotten, nor will you ever be forgotten. I have discovered that tears have no political colour and no religious colour. They are all tears — tears from the anguish of broken hearts and everlasting partings.
Victims and survivors are part of our society; their problems are our problems; their issues are our issues; and their concerns are our concerns. How we deal with victims and survivors will not be an additional task for the Assembly and the Administration: it will be the central task to which we must apply ourselves, and it will test the resolve of all parts of this Government and the public sector to provide adequate help and support.
I have listened to the many contributions today. I treat with contempt the remarks by the Member from Enniskillen. They are not worthy of comment. The depth of feeling and sympathy that the Members of this House hold for victims should be clear to them. This is an important issue, and there is an enormous responsibility on us to get it right.
I assure the House that the Office of the First and the Deputy First Minister is working to address that difficult issue. We hope to appoint a new Victims Commissioner shortly. The Commissioner will ensure that the voices of victims are heard, and he, or she, will take forward the establishment of a victims’ and survivors’ forum to support the work. The Commissioner will also carry out a work programme. That programme will be agreed between myself and the Deputy First Minister to ensure that victims’ and survivors’ issues remain firmly on the agenda. The programme will be developed in consultation with the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. We look forward to working with the Committee in — I was going to say, collusion, if I would dare use that word — the interests of all our people.
There are three things that we need to keep in mind. The first is services and practical help for victims; the second is dealing with the legacy of the past; and the third is building a better future.
We want to make greater progress in providing services that will address the anguish that afflicts our people. We also want to make sure that we meet the basic practical needs of those who have suffered and those who care for those who suffer. Carers need our sympathy, our help and our support.
In some cases, all people need is recognition that they are not forgotten, and that there is someone who understands what they have gone through. In other cases, practical help is needed, such as befriending services that can alleviate feelings of isolation, or information so that people know where to seek more specialised help. Those people must know that that help is theirs by right — they are entitled to it, and we, as citizens, have a duty to give them help that meets their needs.
The new strategy for victims will direct available resources to the areas of greatest need; it will emphasise the importance of ensuring that what is done by all service providers makes a real difference to the lives of victims. However, such work can be taken forward only on the basis of much better information on victims’ needs.
Mechanisms must be in place to ensure that individuals, victims and survivors’ groups can play their parts. Moreover, we must recognise the importance of those groups in the process. With that in mind, we will ensure that their efforts are appropriately directed and that they can plan ahead with confidence, knowing that finance will be made available to help them meet their aims. That means working with them in the context of a clear financial framework.
In dealing with the legacy of the past, Members will be aware of the recent initiative that was announced by the former Secretary of State Peter Hain. I do not wish to comment on that now, but I want to emphasise that this Assembly must be fully engaged in the consideration of the past. It is our past; it is not Peter Hain’s past, or the past of previous Secretaries of State — good, bad or indifferent. It is our past, and we must face up to it.
Mr D Bradley: Will the First Minister give way?
The First Minister: No, I will not give way, for I have no time. I am sorry, but for a preacher to run out of time is the greatest sin in the world.
Our approach must also take account of the need to move towards a new and less divided future. Many victims may feel that recent political developments mean that their pain and hurt will be forgotten. Some may feel that they are being treated as obstacles to be pushed aside in some rush towards a future in which they will play no part. I wish to make it absolutely clear that victims have a very important part to play in building a better future, and that we have no intention of forgetting their suffering.
In conclusion, detailed proposals for a new strategy for victims and survivors will be brought forward early in the autumn. As I said, those proposals will cover services for victims, the legacy of the past, and the part that victims will play in building a better future. We wish to see those proposals considered in Committee as soon as that is practicable. Moreover, we wish to engage fully with the Committee in mapping the way ahead so that real improvements can be made in that important area.
I ask the Assembly to extend its understanding to us, and to the new Commissioner for Victims, when he or she is appointed, in facing the challenges ahead. I know that there are many differences of opinion: we are not so unrealistic as to expect universal support on everything.
I pay tribute to the considerable and hard work of the Interim Commissioner for Victims, Mrs Bertha McDougall. The work that she has completed will prove invaluable as a foundation for moving forward.
The Interim Commissioner for Victims and Survivors of the Troubles’ report has been roundly welcomed by many involved in the victims sector, and I thank Mrs Bertha McDougall sincerely for all that she has achieved.
We cannot, and would not, insist that those who have suffered should do anything that goes against their deepest feelings. At the same time, with the new devolved Administration, there is a real opportunity to take new and bold approaches that would not have been possible under direct rule. We must seize this opportunity and ensure that we bring energy, commitment and the deepest sympathy to this job, and, please God, with His help, we shall succeed.
Mr Attwood: I thank all the Members who have contributed to this difficult and demanding topic. I cannot respond to every comment, so I will seek a broad thrust around some of what has been said.
When he opened the debate, Tom Elliott was right to say that there is deep anger and frustration among victims and survivors, and that addressing their issues has been allowed to drift and drift. That is why the SDLP tried to put a hard edge on the UUP motion by calling for the establishment of a forum for victims and survivors. I reassure Tom Elliott, and everyone else, that in making that call, the SDLP is not saying — as some might suggest — that people should be railroaded into a victims’ forum, or that all victims have to gather together and face each other. That is not the point. In creating a victims’ forum, victims and survivors will be allowed to define how they want to engage, or not, with each other.
I assure Tom Elliott that the SDLP has a number of formulations on how the forum for victims and survivors would work in order to give them the strength to be the alpha and omega in facing the difficult choices that they, the Assembly, and others will have to make over the next few years.
As usual, Sinn Féin gave a partial version of history and the truth of the past. That was best characterised by Jennifer McCann’s contribution. She commented on the British having launched a military offensive against the nationalist people, a sentiment with which, to some degree, I concur, but she — and Francie Molloy — failed to refer to the IRA’s paramilitary offensive against the Irish people over the past 30 or 40 years. That was a missed opportunity, and Sinn Féin must reflect on that.
I have some sympathy with Francie Molloy’s comments about the scandalous decision that the Public Prosecution Service made last week on the Stevens inquiry. That was a denial of the truth and a suppression of the past, and it does nothing to heal our divisions. I say to Sinn Féin that when the British and the Public Prosecution Service decided on that course of action, they showed that they had learned well. They reintroduced the essence of autumn 2005 regarding the on-the-runs and state-killings proposals, which were welcomed and justified by Sinn Féin, even though they would have allowed any member of the police or Army who was guilty of a serious scheduled offence to not have to face one day in prison, see their victims in open court, or account in any proper way for the actions for which they were responsible.
Last week, the Public Prosecution Service buried the Stevens inquiry because the political system knew that others had previously justified such an approach to dealing with the past and with the truth.
At this late stage, for the reasons outlined by Dolores Kelly, the DUP should support the SDLP’s amendment. It would send out an immediate and strong message to victims and survivors that they will be at the heart of anything that happens over the next year, either in the Assembly or in the study group chaired by Lord Eames and Denis Bradley.
Jimmy Spratt said that he would encourage the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to press ahead with the recommendation for a forum and to provide the means to do so. From the First Minister’s comments, I understand that his Office would take the proposal forward. Let us remove any doubts and create certainty. Let us send a message to victims and survivors today that, whatever else may happen, a victims’ and survivors’ forum — that Sinn Féin said should be established in the long term — will be established in anything but the long term.
The overarching reason for such a forum is that many people are trying to ensure that Denis Bradley and Archbishop Eames make proposals that do not deal with the past through a proper inquiry. For such people, that would be a bridge too far. By establishing a victims’ and survivors’ forum, the Assembly would send out the message that it does not believe that to be the case.
Mr Shannon: After reading the comprehensive report by Bertha McDougall, which several Members mentioned, one’s heart could not fail to be troubled by the plight of those who still suffer the side effects of terrorist violence after many years. Indeed, for many of us those hurts are real and personal, in the Chamber and outside it.
We always remember those who have gone on before us and those families that were left to grieve or to take care of a loved one or those who were left with horrendous injuries of body or mind. There is no way to change what has been done. That is not to say that those people should be left to face their difficulties alone, every day. Mrs McDougall’s report tries to address those issues. The DUP is happy to support the SDLP amendment; we feel that it complements ours.
It is important to know what is happening with victims and with the memorial fund: in the past three years, £11 million has been allocated to the memorial fund; and over the past nine years, £44 million has been allocated to victims. Fifty-five million pounds shows the financial commitment to what we are trying to achieve.
Mrs McDougall’s report makes many valid points and recommendations, and I will highlight a few that I feel are pertinent and important. The physical effects of the Troubles are saddening as we see those who were maimed, blinded or otherwise affected. Those are only the physical side effects of the bombings, kidnappings and shootings; the emotional trauma and the psychological damage, although hidden from the naked eye, are no less devastating.
We must have compassion for those who are hurting, whether physically or emotionally. The mentality in the Province has always been the stiff upper lip, grin and bear it, and do not think about it. Do not think about holding your best friend in your arms as he died; do not think about the children of those who have been murdered, standing by the graveside in bewilderment and grief; do not think about the bodies with dismembered limbs; do not think about searching frantically to find the person who is screaming under the rubble. Just do not think at all.
For too long that mentality has reigned, leaving a generation of men and women trapped in living nightmares. They are trying to move on but are held back by something that they cannot control. They are thrown into a world of pain and turmoil by flashbacks that are triggered by something that others would consider trivial — a car door being slammed, a loud shout, running feet or fireworks — yet devastating to them. They may be everyday occurrences, but they renew a bitter experience from the victim’s past.
Mrs D Kelly: Does the Member agree that it would be remiss of us, when speaking about victims and survivors, not to mention the disappeared and the fact that their families do not have a grave to visit? Every day, for them, is a living nightmare.
Mr Shannon: I thank the Member for her timely intervention. I agree, as we all do — at least, on one side of the Chamber — with her. The ripples affect the spouse, the family and the relatives, who only want to help but who are unsure of the victim’s mood. They feel helpless as their loved one suffers.
The report shows the importance of a strategy for those suffering from emotional and mental torture to provide them with a dedicated, qualified staff who can offer help. However, as I said earlier, that needs substantial funding.
Simply talking to someone who understands can make a positive difference to a person’s life, and ease the pain just a little. I urge the immediate implementation of a strategy to enable doctors to refer people to specialist professionals who deal with issues resulting from the Troubles. That would replace the sometimes hit-and-miss nature of past efforts.
I was particularly encouraged by my colleague Mervyn Storey’s comments on the UDR fund. It is good that such a fund is being promoted. Many of us who served in the UDR and whose friends and colleagues in the regiment were murdered will look forward to the establishment of that fund and the opportunities that it will create.
Many of us have lost friends or relatives. I well remember the Ballydugan four, who were murdered outside Downpatrick. They were friends of mine from the Newtownards and Ballywalter areas. Those memories are important for all of us. My cousin Kenneth Smyth and his Roman Catholic colleague, both of whom were members of the UDR, were also murdered. As an SDLP Member said, the IRA killed more of its co-religionists than any other group did.
There are no easy solutions to victims’ problems. The people who suffered will never be able to fully disengage from their experiences. Throwing money at the issue will not change things, but it certainly helps. Funding can ease the burden for bereaved families. It can provide essential, dedicated care to show that we will neither forget nor leave behind those victims. I support both amendments. I also hope that the recommendations of the Interim Commissioner’s report will result in the immediate release of funding and implementation of the victims’ strategy.
Mr Kennedy: I thank all Members who have contributed to this important debate. It has, at times, been a difficult discussion. In last week’s debate on pension provision for RUC reservists, I said that there was unfinished business from the Troubles. Nowhere is that more true than in dealing with the victims of the conflict. Proper provision for victims must be made. We need a coherent, comprehensive and well-thought-out approach to address one of the great legacy issues of our time.
We realise that we can never fully compensate anyone for the loss of a loved one — even our best efforts will never be good enough. However, we are very fortunate to have at our disposal a clear road map in the form of the report produced under the expert supervision of Mrs Bertha McDougall, the Interim Commissioner for Victims and Survivors of the Troubles. I join others in paying tribute to her for the highly professional, well-thought-out and well-researched report that she has produced. Mrs McDougall was uniquely qualified for the task and, in spite of much personal abuse and totally unwarranted and uncalled-for criticism, she produced a worthy report, which I commend.
I turn to the report’s recommendations. I am grateful to victims’ groups in my constituency for sharing their views with me on important issues such as better co-ordination between statutory agencies, especially those in the health sector, and the role of general practitioners and other medical professionals who give ongoing advice and assistance. Many people remain deeply scarred by their experiences, and we must urgently consider how best to address their problems.
Mrs I Robinson: Will the Member give way?
Mr Kennedy: Unfortunately, I do not have enough time.
Many victims remain concerned about the overly bureaucratic nature of the services provided by statutory agencies. We must ensure that bureaucracy is replaced by a lighter, kinder, more people-centred touch — indeed, a more human touch.
An obvious ongoing concern will be funding for groups and individuals. There is a clear argument for the establishment of a new fund to replace the Northern Ireland memorial fund.
A solution is also needed to the problem of long-term funding, which is currently provided largely under EU measures, and which cannot be relied on indefinitely.
One recommendation from Mrs McDougall’s report is the creation of a new forum for victims. The Ulster Unionist Party will support the SDLP amendment, on the basis that the implementation of the McDougall recommendations would include the creation of a forum for victims. However, any such forum should be an independent body. Work for victims must be co-ordinated with the work of the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People (NICCY) to address specific problems associated with child victims of the Troubles.
The new fund should be created by the end of this year, and finance to underpin it should be available from the Executive. The fund should be victim centred and not simply a cross-community reconciliation mechanism. Now that the conflict is over, the victims of that conflict must be properly catered for. That must be done now, at the beginning of the new mandate so that victims and survivors can see that there is a place for them in the new scheme of things.
I shall cover some of the points that Members raised during the debate. My colleague Mr Elliott, in proposing the motion, reminded us of the great suffering of many victims. They feel quite forgotten, but they must not be forgotten. The Member for East Londonderry Mr Campbell said that we must never equate the perpetrators of atrocities with the victims of atrocities, and I strongly agree with that. Mrs Kelly paid tribute to the role of Bertha McDougall, but if nationalists and republicans had been a little less begrudging over her appointment as the Interim Commissioner for Victims and Survivors, it would be easier to accept the tributes that were made today.
It is clear that Mr Molloy — a Deputy Speaker — spoke on behalf of his party because his senior political colleague the Deputy First Minister remained seated and did not demur during Mr Molloy’s contribution. Mr Molloy appeared to rule out any implementation of Bertha McDougall’s report and talked instead about state violence and collusion. He gave his support for amendment No 1, tabled by members of the Democratic Unionist Party. I fail to understand how the DUP can sustain that position, but I look to that party for an early decision when the Question on the amendment is put.
Dr Farry broadly supported the McDougall recommendations and referred to dealing with the past. Mr Spratt was right to highlight the financial assistance that is required through EU funding. Jennifer McCann returned to the Sinn-Féin-speak of there being no hierarchy of victims and blamed the British state and loyalist forces, but indicated that she would support the DUP amendment. All of that does not square.
I join Mr Storey in paying tribute to the security forces. I also endorse Declan O’Loan’s comments that we need a full and early implementation of the Interim Commissioner’s report. I thank the First Minister for his attendance and for his contribution. He indicated that victims’ issues are a priority for the Administration and that they would not be forgotten. However, he also indicated that the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister would agree the work programme for the new Commissioner for Victims, when that appointment is made.
That throws up genuine concerns for the UUP, which will not be able to accept amendment No 1, as tabled by the DUP, because it would mean that control for all matters relating to victims, including the work of the new Commissioner for Victims and Survivors of the Troubles, would be vested in the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister and would result in direct day-to-day interference and guidance by people such as the Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, and the junior Minister Gerry Kelly. Many victims, particularly those from the unionist community, will find it bizarre that such individuals could ever be given charge of victims’ issues.
Mr Donaldson: Will the Member give way?
Mr Kennedy: I am sorry, I do not have time. Members of the DUP should reflect on the fact that, by signing up to the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister’s dealing with victims’ issues, many people will find it unacceptable and intolerable that people such as Martin McGuinness and Gerry Kelly should have any responsibility for those issues. [Interruption.]
Mr Speaker: Order.
Mr Kennedy: I reject amendment No 1, and I ask the House to support the motion and the SDLP’s amendment No 2.
Mr Speaker: I advise members that if amendment No 1 is made, I will still put the Question on amendment No 2.
Question put, That amendment No 1 be made.
The Assembly divided: Ayes 56; Noes 27.
Mr Adams, Ms Anderson, Mr Boylan, Mr Brady, Mr Bresland, Mr Brolly, Mr Buchanan, Mr Butler, Mr T Clarke, Mr Craig, Mr Doherty, Mr Donaldson, Dr Farry, Mr Ford, Mrs Foster, Ms Gildernew, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Irwin, Mr G Kelly, Ms Lo, Mr A Maskey, Mr P Maskey, Mr F McCann, Ms J McCann, Mr McCarthy, Mr McCausland, Mr I McCrea, Dr W McCrea, Mr McElduff, Mrs McGill, Mr M McGuinness, Mr McHugh, Mr McKay, Mr McLaughlin, Mr McQuillan, Mr Molloy, Mr Moutray, Mr Murphy, Mr Neeson, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O’Dowd, Mr Paisley Jnr, Rev Dr Ian Paisley, Ms S Ramsey, Mr G Robinson, Mrs I Robinson, Mr P Robinson, Mr Ross, Ms Ruane, Mr Shannon, Mr Spratt, Mr Storey, Mr Weir, Mr Wells, Mr B Wilson.
Tellers for the Ayes: Mr I McCrea and Mr Shannon
Mr Attwood, Mr Beggs, Mr D Bradley, Mr P J Bradley, Mr Burns, Rev Dr Robert Coulter, Mr Cree, Mr Dallat, Mr Durkan, Mr Elliott, Mr Gallagher, Mrs Hanna, Mrs D Kelly, Mr Kennedy, Mr A Maginness, Mr McCallister, Mr B McCrea, Dr McDonnell, Mr McFarland, Mr McGimpsey, Mr McGlone, Mr McNarry, Mr O’Loan, Ms Purvis, Ms Ritchie, Mr K Robinson, Mr Savage.
Tellers for the Noes: Mr Elliott and Mr McNarry
Question accordingly agreed to.
Some Members: Shame. Shame.
Mr Speaker: Order.
Some Members: Absolute shame.
Mr McNarry: The shames have it.
Question, That amendment No 2 be made, put and agreed to.
Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.
That this Assembly urges the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to bring forward proposals, after the summer recess, for a new policy for victims and survivors, having due regard to the recommendations in the Interim Commissioner’s report ‘Support for Victims and Survivors: Addressing the Human Legacy’; and further urges the establishment of a Victims’ and Survivors’ Forum.
Mr Speaker: The next item on the Order Paper is the motion on rural dwellings. The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes for the winding-up speech. All other Members will have five minutes. Two amendments have been received and published on the Marshalled List. The proposers of the amendments will each have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes for the winding-up speech.
Mr Shannon: I beg to move
That this Assembly notes that members of the farming community can apply for retirement dwellings, and asks the Minister of the Environment to apply the same rationale to other countryside businesses, such as pubs and restaurants, allowing them to apply for the same occupancy tie relief, or replacement dwellings, and to have the same rights as other rural businesses.
This bes a gyely straight forrit question an’ hit shudnae tak’ ap owre mich tim’ the day. Hit cums doon tae a matther o’ common wit. Fairmin bes a bag pairt o’ oor cultur an’ heirskeip an’ bes a baag pairt o’ the economic balance i Norlin Airlan theday, bit nae matther aboot the historical ties hit hes, hoo monie faither tae sinn – an’ noo tae dauchter, generations hae pleyed this role, hit bes, aa hit’s hairt, a business. A gyely haird wrocht bit fulfillin’ joab o’ waark.
This is a simple issue, and it should not take up a lot of time, because I think that most Members are of a mind to support the motion as amended. It boils down to common sense. Farming is a rich part of our culture and heritage, and it is an essential part of the economic balance in Northern Ireland today. However, regardless of its historical ties or the role that different generations of a family have played through the passing of the farm from father to son — or to daughter — it is a business. It is a hard, but fulfilling, job.
Owing to the nature of the work — and unlike some other jobs — it is recognised that the full burden of farm work cannot be carried by people in their old age. However, the farm is all that some people know. Consequently, when the next generation begins to do the heavy work, where will the parents settle down? People have a right to privacy — even from their own children and parents. With that in mind, therefore, legislation is in place that allows the parents to build a dwelling on the farm site and live out their retirement in the place that they know. That enables the farm work to continue to be done by those who live on the farm, and it allows those who retire to have the opportunity to live around the farm. It makes perfect sense to all those involved, but the question must be asked: why should it apply only to farming? That is why I was prompted to table the motion. Why should those who are involved in the generational jobs of machinery fixing, mechanics and engineering not be allowed the same rights?
Why have the Government restricted “rural employment” in PPS 14 to mean only farming, when many other facets of countryside life also contribute to rural communities? A farm cannot operate without the necessary machinery, so what happens when the machinery breaks? Must it be sent to the city — the centre of the governmental universe — or should it be sent to the farmer’s family, members of which may have been fixing tractors since they were first introduced? Are such people any less essential to country life because they do not till the soil? Certainly not: they are very much a part of the countryside.
What about the vet who needs a surgery? I am sure that many Members recall ‘All Creatures Great and Small’, a television drama of the past, which focused on a rural veterinary practice. Although it was humorous, it demonstrated the importance of skills and expertise in a rural community that make all the difference between successful farming and life-changing failure.
What happens when the vet’s hand is no longer so steady, and he recognises the need to pass on the mantle to someone else? How will his successor get planning permission for a new surgery? The answer to that is simple: he probably will not, if his predecessor is retiring. Planning restrictions will prohibit it. I do not have time to go into the precise reasons for that, as they are complex. The old vet would have to give up his home to ensure that the community did not lose out, and that is scarcely fair. Were he a farmer, he could build a retirement home on land that he owns close to the surgery, but he is not allowed to do so. He is faced with either giving up his home or letting down the people who need him.
There are also many residential and nursing homes in the countryside, some of which have been there for 20 or 30 years. As an elected representative, I have been involved in planning for 22 years and have had many opportunities to help residential homes, nursing homes and nurseries in the countryside. I have been able to help engineering businesses and those involved in the equine industry. Many have been able to get dwellings; but they will not be able to get a retirement dwelling. Their businesses are not seen as an integral part of countryside life, so they do not have the same opportunities that farmers have.
In the Ards Peninsula, there are 24 residential and nursing homes in Strangford alone. Several of those are in the countryside — the countryside being part of the attraction for such businesses. However, they cater not just for rural dweller but for those who have come from the towns. In nursing homes, unavoidable problems occur. To deal with those, one must live nearby. However, when owners are no longer capable of running the homes, they must choose between leaving their own homes and staying to serve the community.
I have thus provided two examples of difficulties that can arise. Common sense indicates that where there is land on which a replacement dwelling could be built, such a building should receive planning permission as a matter of course and not as an exception to the rule. There are many rural businesses without which the rural community could not manage. When those businesses cease to operate, rural employment declines and the adverse effects are felt in all aspects of farming communities. People involved in essential businesses should not be forced to close or to give up their homes. Where no sons or daughters are able or willing to carry on the business, the owner must sell the business without being able to offer the possibility of a home on the land or nearby. That restriction thus ensures that the business will lose money or close down more easily.
To be successful, businesses, whether small or large, must keep their fingers on the pulse and be aware of everything that is going on. That may apply all the more in rural, isolated communities. Neglect of a small business will lead to its demise. To deny owners the right to live on the site or close by in order to give their businesses the proper attention is to sound a death knell for any such enterprise. To restrict access to the business will diminish its value.
A similar case could be made for established restaurants, pubs and bed-and-breakfast accommodation. In their amendment, Mr Dallat and Mr P J Bradley refer to “established rural businesses”. Those are the businesses that I have in mind. They may have been running for 20, 25 or 30 years. They are countryside businesses that do not milk cows, rear sheep or feed chickens, yet they do provide a service to the countryside. Those are the businesses on which we must focus.
Another example is those who work in quarries. Where are the quarries? Of course, they are all in the countryside because that is where they should be — they cannot be located in towns. Many of those who work in engineering, forestries and preservation provide an essential countryside service, yet none of those workers is recognised and given due respect when it comes to the retirement requirement.
I could mention every aspect of country life and show how adversely the relocation or closure of businesses would deaden the thriving hub of country villages. However, the examples that I have already mentioned adequately show the highly restricted and unfair options available to business owners in the country. They deserve the right to build a business and enjoy their retirement in the home that they have made for themselves.
I do not advocate a business being opened one year, sold the next and a retirement dwelling then built in its place. That is not what the motion is about — it is about firmly established rural businesses that have served the community for many years and which are essential to the smooth running of country life.
It follows that the allowances and the rights of one business serving the community should be the same as the allowances and rights of another — hence the reference to equality.
Restaurants and pubs are dotted throughout the countryside, and many have been established for perhaps 25 or 30 years — indeed, their history can date back further. Many of those business owners have been established in the countryside for 20 years or more and have been involved in their community, contributed to country life, attended church and shopped in the country shops. Is it right that they should not be able to stay in the countryside, where their children have grown up, married and now live with their grandchildren? That is an equality issue, too.
I ask that it be acknowledged today that it is no longer an option to hold back those basic rights from members of the rural community. If they have been filling the breach in a locality for years, that is where they should be allowed to have a place — legally. We owe much to those who contribute to country life but who do not fit into the category that the Department has laid down.
Let us not continue with the double standards that have been all too evident to date. Those countryside businesses need attention. It is not right that people whose place of business is also their home should be expected to give up their home when they can no longer run their business. They should have the right to a retirement dwelling, and this unfair practice must stop today.
Mr Dallat: I beg to move amendment No 1: Leave out all after “notes” and insert
“the right of eligible farmers to apply for retirement dwellings, and asks that the Minister for Regional Development (a) consults with the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to review the present farm viability criteria; and (b) carries out an assessment of the extension of that eligibility to other established rural businesses.”
I tabled the amendment to place on record that it is the fundamental right of eligible farmers to apply for retirement dwellings rather than simply note that they can apply for retirement dwellings. In a changing environment, particularly in the farming industry, it is appropriate that consultation be carried out with all relevant Departments. The need for such consultation was never clearer than when the Department for Regional Development introduced the infamous Planning Policy Statement 14 (PPS 14), with its draconian measures that systematically and unilaterally imposed a ban on rural planning.
As the decline in farming continues and rural diversification becomes critical to the survival of the rural community, it is essential that the Department for Regional Development and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development consult to review the present farm viability criteria to take account of the needs of small and part-time farmers, and that they carry out an assessment of the extension of those eligibility criteria to other established rural businesses.
Many farmers have attempted to supplement their farm incomes by diversifying into other small businesses. A variety of businesses would be eligible for grants from LEADER and other programmes if planning permission was granted. Government policy is contradictory; inappropriate planning enforcement is acting as a disincentive for farm diversification projects and completely fails to recognise the innovation and ingenuity of those rural communities that wish to protect and plan for their future and for the future of their communities.
In frustration, some have forfeited the right to grant aid and gone ahead with plans only to find that they face fines of up to £30,000 for breaches of planning regulations, which are totally out of touch with reality. In addition, many young rural dwellers who, in a previous life, could have expected to work in the agricultural industry now look to other means of income. Again, they are driven from the countryside or are living under the threat of prosecution for starting work without planning permission.
One of my constituents, a man with a young family, supplemented his farming income by making number plates for the motor trade. He received six visits, seven letters and countless telephone calls from the enforcement officer. Another farmer who repaired agricultural machinery suffered a similar fate, and another who set up a rural transport service was told that he must park his two buses in an industrial estate in Coleraine, 10 miles from his farm. Even a mobile chip van fell prey to overenthusiastic enforcement officers.
In the meantime, developers run amok building apartments in the seaside towns of Portrush and Portstewart, without raising as much as a squeak from the lads and lassies in County Hall’s enforcement department.
The amendment that I am proposing will help to put in context the real dilemma that rural dwellers face. The blanket-ban approach of PPS 14 has been roundly criticised for failing to take account of the complexity of rural communities and rural livelihoods, as has been demonstrated by the examples that I mentioned.
The Department for Regional Development must work closely with local communities and key stakeholders in developing a policy that better addresses the localised requirements and complexities of rural dwellers.
Furthermore, paragraph 4.24 of Planning Policy Statement 14, under the heading “Farm Viability”, states:
“The Department for Agriculture and Rural Development will be consulted on all applications for dwellings on farms.”
It is imperative that the Assembly should take note of that paragraph and demand that the same principle of cross-departmental working be applied to all aspects of the planning process that impact upon rural communities and not solely those involved in traditional farming.
The assessment of farm viability as specified in PPS 14 must be reviewed on a cross-departmental basis. The requirement that a farmer must prove the level of investment and commitment to the business, apparently on a long-term basis, and the use of the words “hobby farms” have caused outrage in agricultural and rural communities. They demonstrate the lack of understanding of the complexities of rural life and livelihoods and a lack of empathy with the deeply engrained attachment to the land and to rural areas felt by those who live and work there.
There has been a consistent failure to effectively implement rural proofing in Government policies that affect the rural community. The overzealous implementation of inappropriate criteria through the infamous PPS 14 demonstrates that, as does the lack of attention paid to the needs of rural dwellers who run non-agricultural businesses.
In a recent reply to me the Minister for Regional Development indicated that rural planning policy is a priority. While I welcome that, I stop short of agreeing with him that PPS 14 is a complex and topical issue. PPS 14 is one of the greatest injustices ever imposed on the rural community, and it must be addressed now rather than after more debate, as has been suggested.
Mr G Robinson: I beg to move amendment No 2: Leave out all after “Minister” and insert
“for Regional Development to consider applying the same rationale to other countryside businesses, when the need exists.”
This subject has caused much ill will among those who live and work in the countryside. Although I have no wish to add further to the controversy, countryside businesses have a case for equality of treatment in line with that given to the farming community who also live and work in the countryside and deserve all the help and assistance that society can afford them.
There has been a trend in recent years for farmers to diversify into associated countryside ventures to aid their farming businesses and livelihoods. Therefore, a grey area exists in business terms. There is little point in encouraging farmers to diversify if they find it difficult to get planning approval for a dwelling for a family member who is vital to the running of the business.
Planning approval is necessarily hard to achieve in rural areas, but there is surely a case for those who work, reside and provide a service in the countryside to be treated equitably in respect of retirement dwellings, regardless of their business type or classification.
I ask Members to support amendment No 2.
Mr Boylan: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Member for Strangford for highlighting the inequality of a policy that gives benefits to one industry but not to another. However, I will support amendment No 1.
I recognise that farming is still at the heart of rural industry, but rural areas also have many other businesses, such as pubs, restaurants and light engineering. Indeed, those have arisen in part because of the decline of the farming industry and the need for diversification. Those businesses are all part of the social fabric and economy in rural areas.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Molloy] in the Chair)
It is acceptable that farming should be classed as a priority case given that farmers are regarded as custodians of the land, but weighting must also be given to other businesses and services that contribute to the economic viability of the rural environment. Like farmers, in the vast majority of cases the people who run those businesses have a kinship linkage. However, if such businesses are not permitted the same rights as the farming community, rural development will not be sustainable and communities will die out.
There are some 39,000 rural businesses. For example, 1,000 licensed premises make a contribution to the community and the economy. Should those people not be given the same consideration as that which is afforded to retiring farmers? The farm viability test under PPS 14 clearly states that:
“New houses on farms will not normally be justified on agricultural grounds, unless the existing farming business is both established and viable. In order to assess farm viability, it may be necessary for the farmer to provide information on the level of investment and commitment to the business.”
However, the type of farming that takes place in rural counties such as Armagh, Down, Fermanagh and Tyrone is not reflected in the farm viability criteria. I could probably count on both hands the number of such farms that would be viable.
Mr Brolly: Let me give an example of a case that I dealt with involving two brothers. The younger man was the farmer so he was left the farm, but his older brother was left the house. Therefore, when the younger man planned to get married and applied for planning permission, even though the Planning Service had no trouble with what was a perfectly viable site, he ran up against this criterion of agricultural viability. He now has a farm but no house. That exemplifies just how unfair the viability clause in PPS 14 is.
Mr Boylan: I thank the Member for that intervention.
Proposals for dwellings associated with hobby farms, or for enterprises in which the proposed occupant’s main source of income is from another job, or from people who are semi-retired will generally fail because of the farm viability test. I feel that the term “hobby farm” is unfair and insulting to those farmers who have had to seek other forms of employment to supplement their incomes due to the decline in the farming industry. To me, the term “hobby farm” brings to mind a person who keeps a few chickens or ducks for their own personal enjoyment rather than someone who makes a contribution to the rural economy.
I would like to think that any comprehensive review of PPS 14 would include reconsideration of the viability criteria and extend rights to all rural businesses. I support amendment No 1. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr Savage: I thank the mover of the motion for providing the opportunity to speak in this debate. At the outset, I declare an interest as both a farmer and a rural dweller.
It is important to note that for generations — and now more than ever, as they have to act in keeping with European Union law — farmers have been custodians of the countryside.
Farmers recognise the beauty of their area, wishing to maintain and enhance it. Agriculture is by far the biggest industry in Northern Ireland. Bearing that in mind, having given their lives to the farming industry, and having sown and reaped the harvest on the land, farmers deserve to use part of their land on which to enjoy a new home. They should be given the opportunity to build homes that are modest in size and appearance, but are a fitting reward for their hard work over the years.
The purchasing and demolishing of old, possibly derelict, farmhouses by developers, speculators and investors, who build mansions that are perhaps two or three times the size of the original dwellings, must be stopped. Such a dwelling is not only a blight on an area but an eyesore. That is simply not acceptable. Genuine people who want to provide homesteads for their families must be given the opportunity to do so. More must be done to protect the natural character of the countryside and to prevent architectural vandalism by developers.
Some of the most successful countryside businesses began in backyards in Northern Ireland. It is important that successful entrepreneurs and people who have a stake in the countryside have the opportunity to live beside the businesses that they have created and watch them grow and prosper.
Mr Ford: I had grave concerns when I first read the text of motion because it seemed that Mr Shannon was trying to find a way to say that he opposed PPS 14 without actually saying those words. Unless I misheard Mr Shannon, I did not hear him refer to PPS 14 at any stage during his speech. It would perhaps have been more honest had the Assembly been debating a motion rejecting PPS 14, instead of fiddling around and citing specific instances.
Mr Shannon’s speech began by asking, “why farmers?”. Yet, he answered his own question, because farmers are tied to the land. With the exception of farms, the vast majority of rural businesses are not tied to a piece of land. Although pubs, hotels, nursing homes and small engineering works have been mentioned in the debate, the vast majority of those are not tied to a specific location. As urban businesses do not need anyone living on the premises, neither do their rural equivalents.
If the issue of rural dwellings is to be realistically addressed, and if the specific exemptions for farmers who wish to build retirement dwellings are to be recognised, it is necessary to recognise why those specific exemptions exist. Farming is not the same as other industries, which can be as easily established in urban areas as in rural areas. Mr Shannon therefore answered his own question.
Service providers and a range of small businesses are almost the same in rural areas as they are in urban areas, yet there are no specific requirements that someone in an urban area must live in a certain place, or that someone can sell their home and build another in their back garden. The motion does not recognise the reality of the situation. It seeks instead — for whatever particular local exemptions exist for nursing homes along the Ards Peninsula — to redraft a set of policies, when we should actually consider the wider issue.
Therefore, although I have difficulties with much of it, Mr Dallat’s amendment is an improvement on the original motion.
Several Members have made the point that, in the past, unfair and unrealistic tests have been produced regarding farm viability. I remember dealing with the interests of a neighbour whose son, as inevitably happens, wanted to build a house on land belonging to the farm. For some reason, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development said that 1·9 standard labour units did not constitute a requirement for two people to be involved in that business. Fortunately, on that occasion, the planning officer had more wit than the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.
There are real issues, and succession planning for farms must be considered. These days, very few farms are viable purely for farming activity for one family, never mind for a potential second family — when the son or daughter comes along. Therefore, farm viability must be considered. That should apply clearly as an incentive to encourage the transfer of a farm to the next generation. Ancillary activity may be required to make a farm viable. However, if a rigid definition is applied, the result will be a countryside that is denuded of farms. Recognising that, however, does not mean that we should assume that every rural business should get an exception.
Mr Dallat, at least, referred to PPS 14 and made clear what the debate is about. However, he did not explain why we are considering PPS 14 in a piecemeal way, rather than as a whole. His arguments for extending eligibility to other established rural businesses were little stronger than those from Mr Shannon. However, if Mr Dallat is seeking merely an assessment of that extension, maybe there should be an assessment of the potential extension of that eligibility to other businesses. Based on the evidence that has been produced in the Chamber today, there is little reason to extend that eligibility.
My colleagues and I will accept Mr Dallat’s amendment, as it moves matters forward a little. However, that is not to suggest that there is any valid ground for breaching the fundamental principles of PPS 14. It seems to me that there is a danger that, if we do not accept that the basic principle of PPS 14 must stand, we will create bungalow blight by the back door. The issues that must be re-examined are related to rural society and farm viability — Members should be realistic about that.
In that sense, Mr Robinson’s amendment suffers from the same problems as Mr Shannon’s original motion. He may have got the Department right, but there is no improvement on the basic criteria.
Mr McKay: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I support amendment No 1 and am in favour of the rights of our rural communities. As someone from a rural background, I can identify with a community where different services and businesses, such as garages, post offices, restaurants and pubs, are located in the countryside and spread across different townlands.
That is not uncommon. As my colleague Cathal Boylan outlined, there are some 39,000 rural businesses in the Six Counties. In England, businesses such as those are more commonly based in hamlets, villages and towns. That highlights what is wrong with PPS 14 — it is an English law, from an English perspective, brought in by an English Minister, and imposed on a rural Irish way of life. It is destroying rural communities, unnecessarily putting rural services at risk, and pushing house prices through the roof.
The only option available to people from rural communities is to buy houses that are being crammed into as small a space as is possible in our towns and villages. I know of at least one example in which a single home is being knocked down to make way for eight new houses. People are being forced to live like sardines in a can in new housing developments — that is wrong, and planning policy must be changed to take proper account of available infrastructure and living space.
PPS 14 must be rescinded. When it is, measures must be taken to ensure that houses built in the country are not out of tune with the local environment. Sinn Féin is against bungalow blight, and fully supports the implementation of measures that deal effectively with sewerage provision for one-off housing developments. The environmental footprint of houses in the countryside should be as small as possible. To that end, geothermal heating systems and solar and wind energy should be used to the maximum effect.
Those who have a well-established connection with a rural community, who send their children to rural schools, and who avail themselves of rural services, must be given the opportunity to live in their own communities. Anyone with countryside businesses should be treated the same as farmers, as they all play an integral and vital part in our rural communities. Tacaíonn Sinn Féin leis an leasú.
Mr McCallister: Like my colleague Mr Savage, I am a farmer. I want to protect and preserve our countryside, but I do not want it to become a vast track of uninhabited wasteland. I am equally concerned about rural depopulation and the provision of affordable homes for young people so that they can get onto the property ladder.
Owners of rural businesses should enjoy the same rights as farmers for replacement dwellings. They are part of the rural community that I would like to see grow and expand. No one wants to go back to the free-for-all of building bungalows everywhere. Perhaps Mr Ford is afraid that that is where we are going, but his fear is unfounded.
The Assembly should focus on regenerating rural communities that have been through an absolutely dreadful time over the past few years. Since we are discussing rural development and how best to develop farm diversification businesses, it is imperative that people are enabled to build in the countryside and stay in the rural community. I do not accept Mr Ford’s argument that all rural businesses should move to town. Where would that leave us?
Mr Ford: For the Member’s information, I did not suggest that all businesses move into the towns. I pointed out the contrast between what is assumed to be the rights of rural businesses compared to the rights of urban businesses.
Mr McCallister: I gathered from Mr Ford’s speech that many businesses need not locate in the countryside, despite being managed by someone who lives in the countryside and who farms part time. I also make the distinction between, as Mr Boylan pointed out, a “hobby” farmer and a part-time farmer; perhaps the Minister could ask his colleague in the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development to consider how those criteria work.
Even while diversifying their farming business, many people may be farming part time; they may have started up a light-engineering business on the farm or have opened a pub. In my constituency we are focusing on attracting tourists into south Down and the Mournes area. Many people in my constituency will consider diversifying into tea rooms, bed and breakfasts or other tourism enterprises; however, they may be farming as well. The UUP is happy to support the motion and amendment No 1.
The Minister for Regional Development (Mr Murphy): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank Jim Shannon for the motion and the other Members for their amendments.
In response to the motion and the amendments, I am pleased to assure the Assembly that I consider a review of rural planning policy a priority. As the Department for Regional Development has responsibility for rural planning policy rather than the Department of the Environment, I, and not Arlene Foster, am responding to today’s debate.
In my statement I will refer to some of the issues that were raised in the debate, but Members made points that struck me. In proposing the motion, Jim Shannon referred to issues that many Members are aware of: the difficulties that farming communities face, the evolving nature of life in a rural community, and the introduction of small businesses to help farmers to diversify and to sustain life on the farm. That is something of which we should all be conscious.
John Dallat, Cathal Boylan, David Ford and John McCallister spoke about farm diversification and farm viability criteria.
Some of the issue that John Dallat highlighted are matters for planning enforcement offices, which are on the Department of the Environment side rather than the planning policy side; however, I am sure that he will present those issues to the Minister of the Environment. He also referred to key stakeholders. People will be aware of the limitations of progress and movement in relation to PPS 14, and I intend to engage with those stakeholders on that issue when I present a paper to the Executive.
I do not agree with Mr Dallat’s assertion that this is not a complex issue — David Ford also referred to that — because today’s motion and amendments refer to only one section of what pertains under PPS 14. The idea of replacement dwellings or the ability to live next to farming businesses is only one section. Other matters — the area plans, for example — cross-cut into the Department of the Environment.
Farm viability was mentioned, as was social housing in rural communities, the ability to expand villages to allow people to sustain rural communities, infill in existing ribbon developments and the number of houses that are permitted in them. There is a range of issues in relation to PPS 14, and they are complex. I am not seeking an end to this debate, and I am sure that Mr Dallat, as a member of the Committee for Regional Development, would be the first to complain if that Committee were not involved. Perhaps I could try to make changes by diktat, but I am sure that Members will wish to have an opportunity to debate the issue and have an input into it. That does not mean that this is a long-term, open-ended debate; however, it is a more complex issue than perhaps today’s motions or amendments managed to address, even though they were a worthy contribution to that. The matter certainly requires further debate and an input from the many representatives who have a keen interest in it.
Some Members mentioned farm viability, and one of the first Ministers to speak to me on the issue was the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, who would like to examine that as part of a review into PPS 14. Members expressed a desire to re-examine the strict farm viability criteria and the number of farms, particularly west of the Bann, that would meet those criteria.
David Ford highlighted the broader nature of this debate. Today’s discussion concerned restrictions on building in the countryside, but there must be a much more wide-ranging debate on PPS 14. Daithí McKay’s contribution touched on other planning issues, one of which will interest the Minister of the Environment, and that is the notion of cramming, whereby single dwellings are knocked down and replaced by a condensed housing development. Even under existing guidelines, the Department of the Environment has a negative view of that, as it takes away from the nature of the surrounding countryside or the amenity of the residential area that it is built in. I am sure that that will form part of future discussions on rural planning issues.
John McCallister reflected on the fact that there is no strong desire to revert to the previous policy, even with all the criticisms of PPS 14. There was a recognition that the previous policy did not serve the best interests of the countryside and its residents, or of the preservation of the nature of the countryside. The test for the Assembly and for myself as a Minister with responsibility for this issue — until such times as a judge gives his ruling at the end of the month — is to get a planning policy that fits the needs of the people and which strikes a balance between what went before and what currently exists.
The proposal that people whose businesses are located in the countryside should be able to obtain permission for retirement dwellings in the same way as farmers raises some interesting challenges. To accept that proposal will challenge a long-standing policy position, but there has been an underlying shift in the structure and economics of rural society. It is right that we should take stock and make sound, sustainable policy decisions in the interests of the whole community.
When direct rule Ministers published the draft PPS 14 in March 2006 it attracted a storm of protest from many rural communities. They felt that their way of life was being threatened by policies that limited their opportunities to build new homes in the countryside where they had been brought up. An unprecedented 8,513 responses were received to the public consultation, with 95% opposed to draft PPS 14.
However, many people also supported the view that there could be no return to the old policy and felt that a revised and refreshed rural planning policy is needed. In January 2007, a subgroup of the Committee on the Programme for Government published its ‘Report on Review of Public Administration and Rural Planning’. The subgroup agreed by cross-party consensus that draft PPS 14 should be fundamentally reviewed. I agree, and I intend to do exactly that. Later this week, I will put to the Executive proposals on how to take the process forward. Rural planning cuts across several Departments, and I want to build a common view across the Government and the Assembly on how to tackle the issue.
I intend to work with the Committee for Regional Development, and I want to hear its ideas and contributions so that those can properly contribute to a revised policy. It will not be an easy process, because rural planning is a contentious issue. People hold strong views both in support of, and against, draft PPS 14. However, through the process that I propose, a better rural planning policy can be developed, one that is based on the principles of sustainability and that strikes a better balance between the need to protect the countryside from unnecessary development and helping rural communities to flourish.
No one wants developers to spoil the countryside by building huge houses in every field; that would do little to address local needs. Sensitively designed homes for local people that integrate into, and complement, the environment are required. Draft PPS 14 is subject to a judicial review. The hearings have now taken place, and the judgement is expected later this month. Members will understand that I must take account of the outcome of that legal process before a final policy can be published.
The motion explains that members of the farming community can apply for retirement dwellings and asks that the same rationale be applied to other countryside businesses; it cites pubs and restaurants as examples. The motion also asks for such people to be able:
“to apply for the same occupancy tie relief, or replacement dwellings, and to have the same rights as other rural businesses.”
Farming is a vital part of the economy, and it is important that the planning policy supports the needs of farms and farmers. Currently, planning permission can be granted for a new dwelling or farm in cases where the proposed occupant works mainly on that farm. It is essential for him or her to live on the farm rather than at a distance, and applicants must pass a farm viability test.
During the consultation, many people expressed the view that the test was too stringent and that many smaller farmers were unable to satisfy its requirements. The Committee on the Programme for Government’s report expressed concerns about the farm viability test and felt that the development of a new policy on farm dwellings was required. I concur with that, and I wish to explore the issue further.
Farming families have a key role in sustaining rural communities over many generations. When a farmer retires from agriculture or dies, planning permission may be granted for a house to be built on the farm to enable the retired farmer, or surviving partner, to continue to live on that land.
Established non-agricultural business enterprises that are located in the countryside sometimes require attached residential accommodation. The presence of such a business is not sufficient justification to grant permission for someone to live on the site. A site-specific need must clearly demonstrate that it is essential for one of the firm’s employees to live on the site of their work, as opposed to there being a general desire to have a dwelling associated with the business. Planning permission granted under that policy is subject to a condition that restricts occupation of the dwelling to an employee of the firm in order to retain it for the use of the business.
I ask Members to consider the following points. For generations, the farming community has been the custodian of the countryside and, even as the nature of agriculture changes, its role has been carried forward. Although the current planning policy recognises its role and provides for essential homes for non-agricultural businesses, there are serious concerns about how the policies work in practice.
The main point made in the motion is that owners of countryside businesses, such as pubs and restaurants, should benefit from retirement dwellings in the same way as farmers. The requirement to meet the developing needs of other essential rural businesses has long been recognised. However, farmers are tied by necessity to the land that they farm, whereas that is not necessarily the case for other businesses. Many business activities that are not tied to specific lands and that can be sited in different locations will, at times, change locations for sound business reasons.
The motion asks that countryside businesses be allowed to apply for replacement dwellings. There is no restriction on who can apply for a replacement dwelling. What matters, at present, is the nature and condition of the building to be replaced. Draft PPS 14 also received considerable attention during consultation on the Committee on the Programme for Government’s report.
I wish to explore the Committee’s suggestion of a more flexible and innovative approach to replacement dwellings. I have listened with interest to the debate today, and I have noted the points that have been made. I will find them all most useful as I continue to take forward the review towards the development of a final rural planning policy. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr Deputy Speaker: I call Mr P J Bradley to make the winding-up speech on amendment No 2.
Mr P J Bradley: I thank Mr Shannon for the motion and for agreeing previously that the SDLP’s amendment has some merit.
I thank the Minister for his attendance also. Indeed, this is one of those debates in which we could have had the attendance of not only the Minister for Regional Development but the Minister for the Environment, who has now joined us, the Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development and the Minister for Social Development. We could have done with having every Minister here in the House because aspects of this issue are relevant to all of their portfolios.
Mr Shannon opened the debate by recognising the rights of farmers to retire in their own environment. He made a good case for people who want to retire in their own locality when he encompassed every business in the countryside. That is an area in which agreement is needed, because eligibility would be the key to realising such a scenario.
My colleague, John Dallat, rightly rounded on the draconian measures contained in PPS 14, and Mr George Robinson referred to farmers who have decided to diversify. There is merit in asking that their farming history and the forced situation in which they find themselves should be recognised.
Mr Boylan highlighted the wide and varied businesses that exist in rural areas across the North.
Mr Brolly gave an example of how retiring farmers who wish to make wills to hand their property on to their families could be prevented from doing so because of planning regulations. Indeed, the same thing happened in my constituency of South Down.
Mr Savage highlighted the need to protect the appearance of the countryside and said that local entrepreneurs should be encouraged. Mr Ford gave a slightly different version, and he drew Members’ attention to how the current exceptions that allow farmers to build retirement homes could have an adverse effect on protecting the countryside and would, to use his words, introduce:
“bungalow blight by the back door”.
Mr McKay took Members back to PPS 14 and talked about the need to start from the beginning once again. He highlighted what would be considered as acceptable in the countryside.
Almost everyone referred to PPS 14 at some stage.
Mr McCallister supported the line that farmers who had diversified could still be considered to be part of the countryside even though their farming activities may be on a part-time basis.
Finally, Members heard from the Minister for Regional Development who gave a fair insight, and said that he is in charge of the situation, and I accept that. However, If I am correct; when PPS 14 was introduced it was as though a Minister woke one morning in Birmingham and said there would be no more building in Northern Ireland. Perhaps the current Minister will have a sleepless night in Camlough and will decide that PPS 14 will be done away with.
I welcome the Minister’s comments and hope that he will alter the situation sooner rather than later. His summary to the debate showed an understanding of the issues: it was encouraging, and hopefully the farming community and their representatives can now look forward to change taking place.
I thank all those who took part in the debate, and I look forward to Mr Shannon’s winding-up speech. We seem to be working to a common agenda and, hopefully, rural people will leave here tonight a little happier.
Mr Deputy Speaker: I would like to clarify that Mr Bradley was giving the winding-up speech on amendment No 1. There was no further discussion on Mr George Robinson’s amendment.
The question is that amendment No 1 as it stands on the Marshalled List be made. I apologise. I call Mr Shannon to give his winding-up speech on the motion.
Mr Shannon: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I was not going to let you away with that. [Laughter.]
I thank everyone for their contributions. The DUP is happy to accept the SDLP’s amendment because we feel that that it is appropriate. As Mr Bradley said, there is not much difference in what we are trying to achieve.
I respect Mr Ford’s comments. He is right. I did not mention PPS 14 in my introduction, because I know that there is a court case ongoing and we will have to await the outcome.
Mr Dallat highlighted an issue that applies to all of us, not just for his constituency of East Londonderry but also for mine in Strangford and for our friend, Mr Bradley’s, in South Down. Mr Dallat mentioned coach businesses and car, tractor and machinery repair businesses.
Clearly, there are valid grounds for reconsidering the matter. That is what Members have been saying with the fulsome views that have been put forward. I tried to outline some of the business involved, and I am sorry that I was not clear enough for Mr Ford, although I will try to make myself clear now. I am referring to businesses that have been established in the countryside, and not to ones that came in yesterday, stayed today and will be gone tomorrow. I am referring to businesses that have been here for 20 or 30 years, and businesses that I can, with my hand on my heart, say were established in the countryside. They do not necessarily fit into the agricultural or rural business category, but they are very much a part of the countryside and what Members are focusing on today.
My colleague George Robinson tried to highlight the farming enterprise and other countryside businesses in his amendment, and while the DUP is happy to take the SDLP’s amendment, nonetheless, that cannot be looked at.
In moving the motion, I mentioned the word “inequality”, and Mr Boylan mentioned it as well. There is inequality in the countryside. People with non-agricultural businesses find that they are treated unequally. Why should that be? I thank the Minister for his comments; he seems to have grasped the issue. PJ Bradley said that we woke up one morning and PPS 14 was here and that we will wake up another morning and it will be away. That would be a good morning, but I am not sure if we have the power to make that happen, but we will see how things go.
Mr Brolly introduced an example of a man who had land but no house, and I can point to such a case in my constituency. It is unbelievable. A farmer not far from where I live has 200 acres of land, but he cannot build a house on it. I have asked the Minister to look into that case, of course, and I will wait to see what happens. Obviously there is something wrong. Imagine having all that land and not being able to even sleep in the barn.
George Savage said that we are custodians of the land, and so we are. All farmers are custodians of the land and have a real love of the land, and it is important that that is taken on board. He also mentioned developers taking away any possible opportunities for development in the countryside, be that replacement dwellings or otherwise. The Minister said that he would refer to that in his response, and I look forward to hearing that as I feel strongly about it. There are opportunities for old dwellings in the countryside to be refurbished or replaced by new dwellings. Would it not be more aesthetically acceptable to have a new dwelling rather than an old dwelling falling to rack and ruin? I think it would.
I thank Mr Ford for his comments and his views on the planning process. He said that there should be similar exceptions for businesses, and I agree. I am not sure that I agree with what constitutes a business in the countryside, although my feeling on the subject are quite clear. There are pubs and restaurants in the countryside, and I know of one that has been in business for 30 years, although the owner retired recently. He is established in the countryside: his family live there; his children went to school there; and his grandchildren go to school there. However, after 30 years of contributing to the countryside he has to move away now, and that is wrong.
I have light engineering businesses in my area, and Mr Dallat and Mr Boylan said that they had as well. I represent Strangford, but that does not mean that it is any less a countryside area than anywhere else in the Province. I mentioned some examples, but the same examples can be replicated all across the Province.
My colleague Ian Paisley Jnr, who is not in the Chamber, has an example of a rural transport business, which has been established in the countryside for over 35 years, and the owner of that business cannot build a dwelling either. Those are all important issues. A quarry owner cannot be expected to live in a town. I use examples because I am aware of them. I know of a builders’ supplier in my area that has been established for 35 to 40 years, and clearly it is in the countryside. The owner of that business should have the same opportunities as everyone else.
Mr McKay said that PPS 14 had destroyed the rural countryside — and it certainly has. However, there may be one person in the Chamber who would disagree with that.
I think that the rest of the Members are aware that PPS 14 has destroyed the opportunities in the countryside. I would like to see it being done away with, and I look forward to that. Mr McKay also mentioned energy saving issues in relation to new builds — we will all concur on such issues.
John McCallister from South Down spoke of vast tracts of land. The countryside should not be a wilderness in which nobody lives — that would be madness. We want people to live in the countryside, such as the families who have been established there for some time and want to stay there. We want to them have opportunities there also; perhaps the regeneration that this motion could stimulate would allow that to continue.
Mr PJ Bradley mentioned farmers making a will and preparing for old age. There should be a nice, gentle handover and exchange from father to son — or indeed from father to daughter. If I did not mention the latter, my colleague Mrs Foster would probably scold me.
There is a common theme in each and every comment from Members who have spoken. I thank the Minister for his comments. He is correct on one issue, and all of us who live in the countryside are aware of it; the rural community is changing. With that change, there must be a change in planning rules and regulations. We must ensure that the businesses that are established in the countryside can stay where they have provided jobs, economic prosperity, and where they provide a service for all of the countryside. Planning rules and regulations have to change with that.
I welcomed the review of PPS 14. I am sure that that review will encompass many of the ideas of individual Members, although it might not encompass all of my ideas. When people elected me, at the past election, one of the biggest issues for them was the removal of PPS 14. My constituency is a mainly rural one. My constituents have told me that we need to do away with PPS 14; we need change; we need to have opportunity back in our hands again; business must be able to continue and the countryside to thrive and do well. The message is that rural people contribute greatly, and they must have opportunity too.
I welcome everyone’s contribution and I look forward to a fruitful conclusion to the debate. I do not know when that will be, although the Minister has said that it may happen in a month’s time. If that is the case, I can look forward to a full debate on PPS 14 in September when the changes take place. I look forward to that.
Mr Speaker: Before I put the Question on amendment No 1, I advise Members that if amendment No 1 is made, amendment No 2 will fall.
Question, That amendment No 1 be made, put and agreed to.
Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.
That this Assembly notes the right of eligible farmers to apply for retirement dwellings, and asks that the Minister for Regional Development (a) consults with the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to review the present farm viability criteria; and (b) carries out an assessment of the extension of that eligibility to other established rural businesses.
That the Assembly do now adjourn. — [Mr Deputy Speaker]
Lignite Mining in North Antrim
Mr McKay: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Lignite mining in North Antrim is a very important issue for many people, as I am sure other Members who represent the area will agree. It also concerns other parts of the North, as air pollution from a lignite mine in Ballymoney would affect all those living in Belfast, in the east, to those living in Donegal, in the west. It would also affect parts of Scotland.
A similar lignite mine to that proposed in North Antrim created a black triangle in parts of Germany and the Czech Republic. In those areas, sulphur dioxide and nitrous oxides from lignite-fuelled power stations have damaged the environment and were linked to the destruction of vegetation and to genetic mutation in livestock. That was in addition to the dust and water pollution that was experienced locally.
The World Wildlife Fund’s local representative, Malachy Campbell, has pointed out that carbon dioxide is thought to be the main reason for climate change. Given that lignite releases more carbon dioxide than coal, oil or gas ¾ [Interruption.]
Rev Dr Robert Coulter: Mr Deputy Speaker, I want to raise a point of order. Is there a quorum in the House?
Mr Deputy Speaker: We do not have a quorum. However, as a vote will not be taken, the debate may continue.
Mr McKay: The environmental effect would be disastrous. When I saw the effects of a flash flood in Cushendall this morning and spoke to families who have been devastated by the damage that it caused, I was provided with a glimpse of how badly affected communities would be if climate change were not tackled adequately.
The Australian company Auiron Energy, which is now known as Felix Resources, applied to build a mine outside Ballymoney but withdrew its application three years ago. However, the company remains adamant that its project is still alive. I am concerned that, even since that application was withdrawn, the relevant planning legislation makes it easier and more attractive for companies to apply to operate lignite mines here.
The Just Say No To Lignite Campaign group has done some superb work, which was demonstrated by the fact that more than 35,000 letters of objection to the lignite mine application were submitted. I want to be the first to welcome representatives of that group to the Assembly today.
No one should be under any illusion that the issue has been resolved. Lignite designation still has a negative effect on communities. The development of new mines is controlled by the Planning Service, which is now in the hands of local politicians. Although it is not possible to enforce an outright ban on the development of new lignite mines, it is possible to draft development plans and policies in ways that will ensure the refusal of planning permission for such proposals. The Planning Service’s draft northern area plan 2016 includes two designations that affect lignite mining: first, areas of constraint on mineral development; and, secondly, lignite resource areas. Under the areas of constraint on mineral development designation, the Planning Service is unlikely to grant planning permission for the development of new mines. Under the lignite resource area designation, proposals for new lignite mines are likely to be given planning permission, subject to certain environmental and transportation considerations being met.
The easiest way in which to place restrictions on the development of new lignite mines will be to expand the areas of constraint on mineral development designation and reduce the size of lignite resource areas. There is absolutely no reason why those courses of action cannot be taken. North Antrim is awash with tourist attractions and locations marked as areas of outstanding natural beauty. The region has massive potential for the development of clean and renewable energy sources such as wind power. Who in their right mind would even contemplate the building of a pollutant lignite mine the size of 4,000 football pitches in the middle of such an area?
Planning restrictions are still in effect in North Antrim as a result of the presence of lignite. Planning permission will not be granted for any new homes in the designated lignite resource area. That will have a devastating effect on the surrounding communities. Indeed, by way of the draft northern area plan, the Planning Service has more than trebled the size of the protected lignite zone. Areas such as Dunaghy and part of Stranocum are now trapped in that zone, which means that new homes and new businesses cannot be built there.
The situation is outrageous, but the problem can be resolved if the Ministers responsible show firm and unyielding leadership. All four main parties are opposed to lignite mining in North Antrim. Therefore, now that those parties are all represented in the Executive, there can be no excuse for not expanding the area of constraint on mineral development designation in Ballymoney; for not reducing the size of the lignite resource area, thereby removing the planning stranglehold that grips rural communities; for not ensuring that lignite no longer forms an integral part of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Industry’s energy strategy; and for not increasing the focus on renewable energy.
More than 35,000 people cannot be wrong. I am glad that the Minister of the Environment is in the Chamber for the debate. Sinn Féin wants a firm commitment from the Ministers responsible that they will act on this issue, acknowledge that lignite is the dirtiest and most polluting fuel in Europe, and, once and for all, close the door on lignite in North Antrim. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr Storey: I welcome the opportunity to place on public record once again our opposition to the extraction of lignite in the most idyllic part of this country, and, in particular, in my constituency of North Antrim. The issue of lignite mining has been a running sore in the area since lignite was first discovered in the early 1980s. Two common themes have emerged since then; namely, lignite mining is not wanted, and, if it were to be start, it would devastate the area.
Nevertheless, we should not lose sight of the fact that the areas that have been mentioned were not the first in which lignite was discovered. I am glad that the Minister of the Environment is in the Chamber this evening. I am pleased that my colleague from South Antrim, Mr Clarke, and the leader of the Alliance Party, Mr Ford, are also in the Chamber. The Minister will know that a site at Ardboe in County Tyrone had previously been considered as suitable for the extraction of lignite.
It seems as though Ballymoney has been specifically chosen as the area in which lignite mining is to be pursued. I want the Minister to explain why Crumlin and Ardboe have suddenly gone off the radar and why north Antrim has been specifically targeted as a site for lignite mining. In the past, serious issues have been raised about why the contractors did not return to the site in Ardboe. I will say no more on that issue unless it is absolutely necessary during the debate.
Lignite mining would have a profound, long-term and irreversible destructive effect in north Antrim. It can create deserted villages and lunar landscapes. In the past, I have also described it as “environmental rape”, and that is putting it mildly. However, it is also open to serious question whether the suggested benefits that that kind of devastation would create would even transpire. It is well attested that the process by which electricity is created by that kind of lignite mining plant suffers from high pollution and is vulnerable to the price fluctuations of the market. Furthermore, many jobs that would be created by such an operation would be short term and would not be filled by people from the local area, but, quite possibly, from overseas. All that would occur in what is now rich agricultural land, but by then that land would have witnessed the closure of some 80 farms.
It would also be the single greatest cause of a massive drop in tourism along the Causeway Coast. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment need not bother with its proposed interpretative centre at the Causeway if lignite mining were to go ahead. The establishment of lignite mining would mean kissing goodbye to the Giant’s Causeway and to the Causeway Coast’s status as an area of outstanding natural beauty and a place that attracts visitors. The gateway to the Causeway would be devastated. The Member has correctly referred to the fact that the proposal covers the equivalent of around 4,500 football pitches. Members need to understand that it is not a proposal for a small-time development but a large extraction and removal of the countryside in north Antrim.
The economic arguments are only one collective reason why Northern Ireland cannot afford lignite mining. The ecological and environmental reasons include: the impact on the rural landscape, with many thousands of acres being used in the operation; the many miles of overhead power cables; the annihilation of the farming community; the destruction of habitats; a massive increase in road traffic; and the diversion and possible pollution of rivers such as the hugely important River Bush. The River Bush has already suffered as a result of many problems through the years, and it could do without more problems.
Further problems for the area would be land pollution from the various toxins that would result from the project, the substance of houses and the need to rehouse many people, and increased illness and higher mortality rates in the area as a result of air pollution.
Those are the potential repercussions of lignite mining in north Antrim. However, the threat of lignite mining haunts the area today; it is not merely a cloud in the future. It is a reality with which people have to live; it is a long shadow that is currently being cast over the economy, the housing market, the environment, the ecology and the population of my constituency.
It is widely believed that house and land prices have been depressed because of the threat that hangs over the area. Effects have been felt from the villages of Stranocum and Dunaghy to the town of Ballymoney.
The Minister of the Environment should initiate an investigation into the impact to date of the threat of lignite mining in my constituency. She may say that such an investigation would involve the consideration of matters such as house and land prices, economic investment and employment, which are be beyond the remit of her Department. If that is the case, a joint investigation is required and, as we are all advocates of joined-up government, I am sure that such an example of good practice will not be difficult to achieve. This issue is important enough to warrant such an approach, which I request be taken.
Reassurance and certainty are additional requirements. The Minister is in a position to state unambiguously that, as far as her Department is concerned, the nightmare for North Antrim is off the table and will not be coming back.
There is another issue that Members must be clear about when they discuss the lignite issue. The extraction of lignite for use in power generation is not the only matter for concern. Given that lignite is a fossil fuel, which would incur huge carbon taxes and all the problems that have been highlighted, and having read the statistics, no Member could conclude that the extraction of lignite could be financially viable for any company.
I highlighted this issue when I wrote to Malcolm Wicks who, at that time, was the Minister of State for Energy at the Department of Trade and Industry. The matter was clarified in the Planning Service’s draft northern area plan 2016, which states, under the headings “Designation COU 15” and “Lignite Resource Area”:
“The lignite deposit in Ballymoney Borough is recognised as an important and valuable mineral resource, part of which has been proven to be of internationally recognised standards. The Plan safeguards this resource, to ensure the reserves remain exploitable if and when the need arises.”
The important part of that quotation is:
“exploitable if and when the need arises.”
Regrettably, that has caused grave concern. The problem is compounded later in the same document. Under the headings “Policy MIN 1” and “Protection of the Lignite Resource”, the document states:
“The lignite reserves in Northern Ireland are included within the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment’s overall long term Energy Strategy Framework for Northern Ireland.”
Therefore, current draft Government policies not only identify a valuable resource, but allow for its exploitation if and when the need arises. That is the heart of the problem. Who is to say whether or not some genius, if such a person still exists, might discover a purpose other than power generation for which lignite could be used? Lignite would again be considered a valuable resource — something that could be exploited. Members must have reassurances that the cloud that has hung over my constituency for such a long time will be raised, once and for all.
In conclusion, I wish to pay tribute to the Collective Objectors to Lignite Development group, which has accomplished an immense task. It is easy for politicians to use other people’s material, rather than do the work and gather the material themselves. The coalition launched the Just Say No to Lignite Mining campaign and has single-handedly ensured that the issue has not gone under the radar. That group has ensured that the issue has been kept to the forefront of the public’s attention.
Public opinion has been mentioned during the debate. Sometimes, one must be careful about public opinion; it is not always a good benchmark from which to plan public policy. Unfortunately, certain legislation has come to the fore after it has been approved by public opinion. However, the 37,500 signatories of the petition against lignite mining, which include people not only from Northern Ireland, but from the Republic, Scotland and other areas, have made it abundantly clear that the issue must be dealt with.
This matter must be dealt with in a way that gives the landowners and the population of the affected area — as well as the rest of Northern Ireland — the assurance that although lignite has been identified as a valuable resource, it will be kept in the ground and will not be exploited, so that the people of North Antrim can be left alone in peace to enjoy the tranquillity of the greatest constituency in Northern Ireland. Without bias, I want to say that that constituency also has the greatest MP, who happens to be the First Minister of Northern Ireland.
Rev Dr Robert Coulter: There is little left for anyone to say after that excellent speech, and the one that came before it. I am glad that I have the opportunity to speak on this subject, because those of us who have had the privilege to work with the coalition and the Just Say No to Lignite campaign can say that, undoubtedly, our meeting with them was one of the most moving at which one could be present. We heard people speak from the heart about their difficulties, fears and concerns.
When one considers the situation, and the fact that lignite is at the bottom of the list of energy production sources, one begins to realise that this issue should not have come to the fore at all, particularly in the present climate of global warming. From that perspective, the Assembly must take on board the fact that lignite mining would create a huge potential for pollution in this country.
When figures and research were produced, we discovered that dust from such a mine would travel for at least 90 miles, and that most of Northern Ireland, particularly the most northerly part, would be covered in that dust. Furthermore, that dust would spread as far as Scotland. The reason that people in Scotland got behind the campaign against lignite mining in North Antrim is that they too would be affected by it.
Those of us who travelled to the continent to see lignite mines and their surrounding areas realised immediately that if that was what would become of North Antrim, action must be taken to stop it. Not only did we see the rape of the countryside, but the awful desolation of those areas, which were without people, schools, churches, community centres, and so forth. Owing to lignite mining, there was nothing there except a wilderness.
Moreover, huge mounds of the top strip of mined earth were left just as they were. When one considers the amount of lignite in North Antrim and the depth at which it lies, one wonders where those mountains of topsoil and top strip will be put. It is claimed that they will be put back into the hole that is left in the earth. However, if many thousands of tons of lignite are mined, that which is stripped from the top layer of soil will not fill the huge, gaping hole that remains.
To facilitate that mining, rivers would need to be diverted and watercourses changed in the North Antrim countryside, which is one of the most beautiful parts of Northern Ireland.
On top of that there is the disturbance to farms, churches and all the people who live in the area as well as the planning permission restrictions. Are Members to agree to allow an entire generation or two to be taken away from that countryside? I am glad that the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development is in the House, as we have the opportunity to take a serious look at this from the point of view of the human population and do something about it. Planning restrictions should be eased. Young people cannot get new houses built in those areas. The old population is growing older, and young people are forced to go elsewhere.
I do not want to repeat arguments that have been made so cogently already, but when Members look at this, they will see that there are wider implications than that of the rape of the countryside. There are also environmental and human implications, and the area affected is not only countryside. The lignite goes under the town of Ballymoney, so if the mine extends fully, most of the town of Ballymoney will disappear.
This presents a challenge to Members: shall we take on board what needs to be done? There are environmental reasons; there is pollution from dust; there are planning restrictions; and there are the residents and changes in the rate of population growth. But we should also consider this: we cannot let this happen because it would destroy not only the area around Ballymoney, but the country as a whole. I support the motion.
Mr O’Loan: As the Member who moved the motion said, this matter is of extreme importance. I run the risk of being repetitive as Members are singing off the same hymn sheet; nevertheless, it is important that the following facts and opinions are on record.
The background is that Ballymoney Power Ltd (BPL), which is part of an Australian Company called Felix Resources Ltd, submitted a planning application for a lignite opencast mine and power station. At the time, over 37,500 people opposed the proposal, which is the largest number of objections raised against any planning application submitted in Northern Ireland. All the political parties were opposed to the development.
A coalition against the proposal was set up. That coalition, which I support, actively embarked on a campaign to stop the proposals from going forward, and it is still working on that cause. My predecessor, Sean Farren, strongly supported the campaign group, whom he introduced to Members of the Dáil, because pollution from the mine could reach Donegal and other areas of the South as well as some parts of Scotland, if it were allowed to go ahead. Despite the fact that the planning application did not prosper, there is concern that the company may still be working on it in the background.
I am concerned that, as detailed in Policy MIN 1, ‘Protection of the Lignite Resource’, in the draft northern area plan, the Planning Service has now chosen to protect the resource for future exploitation. That new plan also proposes to extend the lignite area.
In April 2003, some of those objecting to the mine travelled to Aachen in Germany to see the effect of opencast lignite mining. What they saw was described as:
“scenes of deserted villages and lunar landscapes”.
I have a number of facts and figures about the mine and power station that I will relate as if the mine were going to go ahead. I hope that exactly the opposite will happen, but the intentions of the developers are as follows: the mine will cover an area of 5,500 acres — the equivalent of over 4,000 football pitches — and extend nearly 8 km from the bypass around the town of the Ballymoney. BPL says that the proposals will provide employment and a major economic boost to the area. However, the Ballymoney area has a relatively low unemployment rate and has more potential for tourism development, which would not be detrimental to the environment or people’s lives.
Mining may last for 30 years or more, affecting not only our generation, but those that follow. A large part of the upper Ballymoney River will be removed, and that will interfere with the River Bann into which it flows and, consequently, affect the groundwater. Furthermore, two of the streams that feed into the River Bush will be covered by the heap of removed soil.
It is likely that the depth of the mine will cause the water table to be lowered, which will cause the meadows, springs, wells and streams to dry up in the summer. That, in turn will destroy the habitats of curlew, lapwing, snipe, moorhen and buzzard. Is it worth taking a risk and damaging the ecosystems of the River Bush and lower River Bann to such an extent that eels and salmon become extinct?
The mine will operate 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It could be at least 500 feet deep, and the chimney of the power station will be over 500 feet high. Water tables in the area will be affected if the proposed mine and power station go ahead. Approximately 80 farms and 167 houses will disappear, and churches and schools will also be affected. Some seven townlands will disappear entirely. Communities and family connections that have been built over generations will be broken up and never replaced. Pylons and overhead power lines will disfigure the countryside.
The power generation plant will devour six million tonnes of materials a year, and property values in Ballymoney and the surrounding area will be drastically affected. There will be a loss of archaeological sites, artefacts, raths and souterrains that date back to early Christian times. Homes, roads, lanes, tracks and hedges will end up in the soil heap, and a slice of human history will vanish with them.
In the area known as the “Black Triangle”, which covers parts of Germany and the Czech Republic, sulphur dioxide and nitrous oxides from the lignite fuel power stations have damaged the environment and have been linked to the destruction of vegetation and to the genetic mutation of livestock. Such damage would also occur in North Antrim, in addition to dust and water pollution.
Our damp weather will make the pollution worse, because it localises sulphur dioxide, which produces acid rain. Lignite produces more carbon dioxide than burning coal, gas or oil, and it is one of the worst fuels for climate change. A huge list of dangerous chemicals will be produced, all of which will cause serious health problems such as poisoning, cancer and bronchitis. Human, animal and plant health will deteriorate.
Mining lignite will create a big hole in the ground, which will be filled with by-products from the furnace and covered with the soil from the soil heap. There is also a fear that the hole could become a landfill site. Either option will put the quality of the groundwater at great risk. It has been said that the area will be landscaped and replanted following the replacement of the soil. However, that land will not compare with land that has taken thousands of years to develop. Who will dismantle the pylons after the project is complete or restore the site if the company becomes insolvent?
Some basic questions must also be asked about lignite mining. Will it be good for tourism on the Causeway coast? The importance of the Causeway coast to our tourist industry cannot be overstated, and one must wonder about the wisdom of building a mine in that area — as Rev Robert Coulter mentioned. Who will bear the consequences of a badly damaged environment?
We should aim to generate more electricity from wind and solar power, as substantial capacity for sustainable renewable energy already exists across Northern Ireland. The proposals concerning the mine and power station directly contradict Assembly policies. Sustainable economic development is required. The UK Government’s White Paper on energy has set targets for the use of renewable energy at 10% by 2010 and 20% by 2020, with a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions of 60% by 2050. Lignite mining, on the contrary, is a non-renewable and highly inefficient source.
It is essential that the Assembly stop any plans for a lignite mine and power station in North Antrim — or anywhere in Northern Ireland. We must protect the North Antrim environment for the future and say no to lignite mining in North Antrim or anywhere else.
Mr Ford: With permission, I will intrude a mile and a half south of the North Antrim boundary.
Mr T Clarke: You are welcome.
Mr Ford: Thank you, Trevor.
I thank Daithí McKay for securing this Adjournment debate. I assure him that the lignite mine proposal is not only opposed by the four parties represented in the Executive, but by the five groups in the Assembly.
During a previous election campaign, I had the opportunity to meet representatives from the Just Say No to Lignite campaign, and I congratulate them on their extremely effective lobbying, the evidence that they produced and the key way in which they addressed the issue. It is therefore a matter of considerable disappointment that the threat of the mine is still floating around. Although the proposal was said to have been abandoned three years ago, it has not yet been seen off. I am concerned that the proposal is protected under the guise of a planning policy to protect a resource when, in fact, it is preserving a threat.
The exploitation of lignite was considered in the 1980s in the Crumlin area — a short distance south from where the present threat exists — and I remember the extent of the planning blight that existed at that time, over what was a smaller area than the area from Ballymoney to Stranocum, which is currently threatened.
As the intruder from the next-door constituency, I do not intend to repeat all the arguments that have been made. Mervyn Storey highlighted the economic problems — in particular the threat to tourism — that would arise if lignite mining were developed. If Members refer to the statistics that show how much tourism contributes to the Northern Ireland economy, they will see that it is a key area that must be considered.
Rev Coulter discussed the general problems that arise from the use of fossil fuels, including global warming and various other environmental difficulties. Acid rain would be a problem, not just in the immediate locality, but potentially over a wide area from Donegal to Ayrshire. The environmental damage that would be caused in the immediate area by the digging of a huge opencast mine can scarcely be exaggerated.
A proposal for harvesting alternative energy on the north coast attracted suggestions that to put wind turbines out at sea would destroy the landscape forever. Those who used such language need to get real. There is absolutely no doubt that a 500-foot-deep hole, infringing on seven townlands, would destroy that landscape forever.
To consider the problem seriously, we must — as Declan O’Loan did in the last part of his contribution — identify appropriate alternative environmentally friendly energy resources in Northern Ireland. It is not enough to say simply that there should be no lignite mine in North Antrim. We must consider the contribution that we can make. The wind in Northern Ireland is a better resource than is available in virtually any other part of Europe. We should use it to play our part in reducing the threat of global warming.
I hope that the Minister will address the threat of lignite mining to the north Antrim countryside and give us an assurance that, in the execution of her wider environmental responsibilities, she will co-operate with the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to ensure that we develop relevant environmentally friendly energy sources, rather than persist with lignite mining.
Mr Paisley Jnr: At the commencement of the debate, I did not think that I would be in a position to welcome my North Antrim colleague Declan O’Loan into the Ulster Says No campaign. I am delighted by the progress that we are making in our constituency and the conversions that have taken place. [Laughter.]
On a serious note, I really do —
Mr O’Loan: I am equally delighted that my fellow Member for North Antrim has joined partnership Government with such full enthusiasm.
Mr Paisley Jnr: Touché.
It is most welcome that Members from other constituencies have joined with those from North Antrim. That is quite right: this matter is not simply about North Antrim. It is not simply about preserving Stranocum or Ballymoney; rather, it pertains to the whole of the Province, the whole of the island and to parts of the western coast of Wales. Members should recognise that fact.
A few years ago, I was a member of a loyalist flute band. Members may wonder what that has to do with lignite mining. However, the band’s bass drum bore on its side the words “Eternal Vigilance”. Members should adopt that motto with regard to the lignite mine. We should be eternally vigilant.
As my colleague Mervyn Storey mentioned, the Collective Objectors to Lignite Development group has been a driving force in raising vigilance and opposition to the lignite-mining scheme. Its Just Say No campaign organised tens of thousands of letters opposing the scheme. Indeed, as the Member opposite stated, the group sent over 37,000 letters, which demonstrates the campaign’s vigilance.
We cannot, however, let the matter rest there. At present, the Planning Service does not have a planning application for a lignite mine in North Antrim. That may not always be the case. Vigilance is required to ensure that, if ever a company tries to put such a scheme on the agenda again, the community will resist it.
Every Member has rightly spoken of the filthy stink that an opencast mine brings to a community. It is one of the filthiest ways to mine. As Members have said, it causes all sorts of pollution, and it impacts adversely on the environment, the community and, potentially, people’s lifestyles and health. That being recognised, we must ensure that that opposition can continue should any future planning applications be made.
Members have rightly identified the Causeway coast as one of the most scenic parts of Northern Ireland, and they highlighted the fact that opening a mine on the route to that area would cause devastation. It would be madness for representatives of that area, or of any part of Northern Ireland, to pursue such a planning application.
Earlier today, the House debated rural planning. Many members mentioned how difficult it is to get a single planning application passed now because of Planning Policy Statement 14 (PPS 14). It would be totally ironic if an application of this magnitude was given the green light when single farmyard applications are not. That irony is not lost on anyone.
I understand that the Minister must consider on merit all applications that come before the Department. No one wishes to constrain the Minister, and I am aware that the Department has legal obligations. However, I hope that she will be able to assure the House, and my constituents, that if a planning application similar to the last one emerges, all the environmental implications of the proposal will be fully assessed. If that happens, we will have the opportunity to be vigilant, to identify issues and to ensure that opposition continues in such a constructive, focused and compelling manner that the Minister will be left with only one option — to remain in the “Ulster Says No” lobbies with other Members of this House.
Some Members also mentioned the mineral extraction licence. I understand that a moratorium on those licences is in place until October 2007. The expiration of that moratorium may signal to someone an opportunity to seek a prospector’s licence to start drilling again or to carry out experimental drilling. That is an important time frame. In October, the vigilance really must begin again. It is at that point that a fresh application could be lodged, with the potential to progress. It is right to flag up our opposition now, not just as constituency representatives, but as representatives of Northern Ireland as a whole. We must recognise that that is the wrong type of planning application for Northern Ireland at this time. It would be wrong for our environment, our housing, our farmers, and our community. Northern Ireland does not need that sort of mining. I hope that our eternal vigilance will be in force, and that that vigilance will be effective.
The Minister of the Environment (Mrs Foster): I congratulate the Member who secured this adjournment debate, and I welcome the opportunity to discuss this issue. I can sense the depth of feeling that has been expressed by the Members in the Chamber today. The Department is very much aware of the concerns of the residents of Ballymoney and Stranocum about the application for opencast mining in the area and the proposal contained in the draft northern area plan to protect an area of lignite reserves there.
The Planning Strategy for Rural Northern Ireland contains the current regional planning policy for mineral extraction. That requires that where there is an occurrence of proven reserves of minerals that are of particular value to the economy, those reserves are protected from surface development that would prejudice their future development. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment has identified lignite as a mineral of particular value to the economy, and the reserves in Northern Ireland form an integral part of its energy strategy.
I will give a little bit of background on that matter. Exploration work in the 1980s and the 1990s discovered extensive lignite resources, which is known as brown coal, in three areas of Northern Ireland, which my friend Mervyn Storey mentioned — Ballymoney and Crumlin in County Antrim, and Ardboe in East Tyrone. However, the lignite deposits around Ballymoney are the largest and are the only deposits economically accessible by opencast mining. That answers one of the questions about why the debate has concentrated on Ballymoney as opposed to East Tyrone or Crumlin.
The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment is responsible for issuing and regulating prospecting and extraction licences for all non-precious minerals, including lignite.
My Department’s planning policy recognises that, although the exploitation of valuable minerals, such as lignite, may have environmental effects, there should not be a presumption against their exploitation, but rather each proposal should be treated on its merits. I welcome the comments of my colleague from North Antrim the Junior Minister in relation to my legal obligations. I acknowledge that I must look at each application for lignite mining on its merits, and I will have more to say on that matter.
Members will no doubt appreciate the necessity to protect minerals that are recognised as valuable to the economy of Northern Ireland; however, that protection — and Members must take this on board — does not necessarily mean that a future application will be approved.
What a great day it is for the Assembly when this debate has enjoined Declan O’Loan and Ian Paisley Jnr in a campaign of eternal vigilance. I look forward to that campaign continuing. In response to their comments on environmental matters, I assure them that all the environmental implications of any proposal will be fully assessed before a decision is reached. I have no difficulty in giving them that undertaking.
Many Members referred to the application that was received by the Planning Service in 2003, which was accompanied by an environmental statement, to develop an opencast lignite mine and power station outside Ballymoney in County Antrim.
The Department declared that the application was a major planning application under article 31 of the Planning (Northern Ireland) Order 1991. Mr Storey said that he needed to place on the public record the opposition to that application. No one is in any doubt about the depth of that opposition, given that it provoked the largest response to any application, and the Department received 36,000 objections. However, I must take issue with him over his controversial remark about North Antrim being the most beautiful part of the country, because we all know that that is Fermanagh and South Tyrone, but that is a different matter.
The application, as I said, attracted approximately 36,000 objections, and it was withdrawn in June 2004. The Department is unaware of any applications planned for the near future.
I mentioned the differences between Ballymoney and the other two areas of lignite reserves. Ballymoney is seen as the only site that is big enough to make extraction economically viable. Ardboe and Crumlin definitely have lignite reserves, but they are considerably smaller than that at Ballymoney.
Government policy on lignite reflects the fact that extensive reserves are of strategic significance to Northern Ireland. Considerable data has been compiled as a result of exploration activity over the past decades. That led the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to suspend, in October 2004, the issue of any further prospecting licences for lignite in the Ballymoney area. That is still the position. However, my colleague, the Minister for Enterprise Trade and Investment, will review that position in September 2007.
In the event of a company’s lodging an application for a mining licence or lease, it is necessary for that company to obtain planning and other statutory approvals before DETI will consider the mining licence application. As I said, no applications for prospecting or mining licences for lignite in the Ballymoney area have been received during the period of the moratorium.
There is a moratorium on lignite prospecting licences in Northern Ireland until October 2007. No prospecting licence applications for lignite have been received in the Ballymoney area during the moratorium. An application for a mining licence will be considered by DETI only in the event of planning permission being granted by the Department of the Environment.
Although I cannot, as some Members have asked, give an outright promise on this issue because of the legal obligations on my office, it should be of some comfort to Members to know that any application to mine and to create a power station in or around Ballymoney would need no fewer than five different consents. The applicants would need: a mining licence from DETI; consent for a power station from that Department; planning permission from DOE; and pollution consents from my Department. They would also need to satisfy the Environment and Heritage Service (EHS) that the development would not destroy local habitats.
Dr Coulter asked why lignite is still seen as a viable commodity. I am told that DETI’s policy is to encourage diversity both in fuel use for power generation and in the sources of fuel supply. That is the rationale for protecting the current resource.
Mr Storey mentioned the strategic energy framework. I can inform him that the framework is currently undergoing an internal DETI review, which I understand is due for completion in the autumn.
The north-east area plan 2002, which was adopted by my Department in August 1990, provided protection for an area of lignite reserves between Ballymoney and Stranocum. The new draft northern area plan 2016, which was published on 11 May 2005, proposes to protect a larger area between Ballymoney and Stranocum. The lignite resource area that is now proposed differs from that of the 2002 plan because it is based on a more accurate identification of the lignite reserves, which in turn is based on survey work that consultants carried out for DETI. I know that colleagues have raised several objections to the growth of the area that is designated under the draft area plan, but that increase is based on scientific research that has been carried out for the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment.
However, colleagues will be aware that they now have an opportunity to object to the proposed policies to protect the lignite reserves. To date, more than 4,000 objections have been received. Declan O’Loan mentioned the wording of the draft area plan, and I am sure that we can consider that.
In all probability, the lignite policy and the designation components of the draft plan will be debated at the public inquiry into that plan. Obviously, I cannot prejudge the outcome of that inquiry. However, if an application for lignite mining were received, it would need to be accompanied by an environmental statement identifying the environmental impacts of the proposal and indicating what measures would be taken to mitigate those.
Mr Ford widened the debate by asking about the Crumlin lignite reserves, but I have already dealt with that matter. He also said that he hoped that my ministerial colleague in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and I were considering more renewable energy sources. As he will know, I informed the House on 25 June that we will introduce permitted development rights for renewable energy developments for domestic properties. We are considering widening those to include commercial properties. Therefore, the answer to his question on whether we are considering ways of increasing renewable energy is most certainly yes. I have already discussed that with my colleague the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, and I am sure that that discussion will not have been the last.
Finally, Dr Coulter mentioned the planning restrictions that will be imposed under the draft area plans as a result of the designation of lignite reserves. As he will know, such designations are not the only difficulty with planning applications in the countryside because — I know that this will be of little comfort to him — under PPS 14 there would be very limited development in that area. However, that perhaps does not answer his question about the reason that planning restrictions will be imposed by the lignite resource area designation.
Mr Storey: The Minister mentioned her commitment to renewables, which we welcome. The DUP has always said that the use of lignite cannot be opposed unless there is an alternative. Currently, there are a number of applications in the planning system that have identified renewables, and these are taking a considerable time to process. I refer in particular to two outstanding applications in North Antrim, one of which regards the Long Mountain in Dunloy. Will the Minister ensure that those applications are given priority so that the issue is resolved? This would show people that politicians are serious about the issue of alternative energy sources.
Mrs Foster: All wind farm applications now go to the strategic planning department in Planning Service headquarters. That is a good move because it means that applications for wind farms, which by their nature are specialist, will be dealt with by a specialist team. However, if the Member wishes to raise specific issues with me, I am happy for him to do so and I will look into them.
Any application received regarding opencast mining would have an environmental statement, which would be publicised in the normal manner. The public would then have an opportunity to make representations. Given the comments made by Members, I have no doubt that there will be quite a number of comments, if and when such an application was advertised. I have already mentioned the procedures for major applications under article 31 of the Planning (Northern Ireland) Order 1991. It is likely, if not certain, that any application made for opencast mining would be dealt with under article 31. Article 31 allows the Department to ask the Planning Appeals Commission to hold a local public inquiry, if necessary, to consider representations and help reach a decision on a major application. The final decision on article 31 applications is made by the current Minister, who takes in all of the considerations including the environmental impact.
It is good to have a debate of this nature, and it is a good one to finish on. The debate is essentially an environmental one. I take great heart from that: environmental issues are now coming to the fore in the country, which is right given the prominence of issues such as climate change and sourcing better forms of renewable energy.
As this is the last debate before the summer, I hope it is clear that the Executive are listening to the concerns of Members. Members will understand that I cannot give a definitive no on the issue, although they should be aware that I will take great cognisance of any citation of an environmental impact in an application that relates to lignite mining.
Adjourned at 5.38 pm.