Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo


Monday 10 September 2007

Assembly Business

Ministerial Statement:
Foot-and-Mouth Disease

Committee Business:
Committee Membership

Private Members’ Business:
Economic Development Task Force

Oral Answers To Questions:
Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister
Agriculture and Rural Development
Culture, Arts and Leisure

Private Members’ Business:
Economic Development Task Force
Tax-Varying Powers

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

Members observed two minutes’ silence.

Assembly Business

Mr Speaker: I welcome all Members back after the summer break. Before we proceed, I wish to say a few words about the future conduct and procedures of the House. I have already advised the Business Committee that I intend to work with the Deputy Speakers to maintain a more orderly approach to business.

For example, the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development is to make a statement to the House this morning. It is important that Members be in the Chamber at the start of a ministerial statement. Members who come in immediately after a ministerial statement has been delivered will not be called to ask a question on it.

Another matter caused concern before the recess. The Business Committee spends some time deliberating on the public and private business of the House.

Timings for business in the House are not set in stone, but are indicative, and it is really up to Members — especially party Whips — to keep a watching brief on business. On at least two occasions before the recess, I witnessed that Members who had their names down to move motions were not in the Chamber to do so, because they were not following the speed of business.

If a Member who has tabled a motion is not in the Chamber to move that motion, it will automatically fall. Moreover, if Members who are down either to lead or to speak in debates are not present when it comes to their turn, we will move on to whoever is next on the list to speak.

It is important that we protect the reputation of the House and the business before it. The past couple of months have been a learning curve for some Members; however, the period of latitude is now over, and it is up to every Member to know his or her place in, and the procedures of, the House.

ministerial statement

Foot-and-Mouth Disease

Mr Speaker: We shall move on to the next item of business. I have received notice from the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development that she wishes to make a statement on the recent outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in England.

The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development (Ms Gildernew): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.

Today is world suicide prevention day, and, before I make my statement, I wish to acknowledge those families who have been bereaved by suicide, which is a huge problem for us.

With the Speaker’s permission, I shall make a statement on the recent foot-and-mouth disease outbreak and my response to it.

We have a high dependency on external markets, with sales to destinations outside the North valued at approximately £1·6 billion per annum, which represents 64% of total agrifood-processing-sector sales. The outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in Britain, therefore, had the potential to have a significant adverse impact on that trade and on the local economy.

It was vital to stop the disease from entering the North; however, I found that my main efforts were focused on protecting our trading status with the rest of Ireland, and with Britain, other EU member states and non-EU countries. That entailed getting the EU to recognise the North’s unique position by citing that we are divided from Britain by a significant body of water, which provides a natural barrier to the spread of animal disease. For disease-control purposes, therefore, the North is treated as a separate entity from Britain.

I am particularly grateful to the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister for their support: to the First Minister for personally intervening with the Japanese ambassador in London, after Japan had refused to accept our product; and to the Deputy First Minister, who held important discussions with the US authorities.

Furthermore, I thank my Executive colleagues and the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development for their engagement and support at the time. I wish, too, to pay tribute to our many stakeholders, to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and to Invest NI for their very important and valuable contributions.

Finally, I thank the staff of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development for the sustained commitment and support that they showed me during that very difficult time. Officials were mobilised here at Stormont, on farms and at our ports to advise me on policy, to trace animals and to put in place the necessary biosecurity measures. I recognise and appreciate the long hours that they put into their work, and the personal impact that the incident must have had on them and their families, particularly during a holiday period.

At the beginning of last month, immediately after a case of foot-and-mouth disease was confirmed in Surrey, England on Friday 3 August, I took action to close the North’s ports to susceptible species, such as sheep, pigs, cattle and goats, from Britain. Moreover, I placed an immediate ban on the import from Britain of fresh meat from susceptible animals and of unpasteurised milk.

Biosecurity measures were introduced at the ports and airports that were compatible with those in the South, and I recognise particularly the efforts of the portal staff who mobilised at short notice to put those measures in place, and who continued to work around the clock. I saw evidence of their efforts for myself when I visited the ports during the outbreak.

Over that first weekend of the outbreak, my officials traced and examined all consignments of cattle, sheep, goats and pigs that had been imported from Britain, or that had transited Britain since the beginning of July. In total, 128 consignments were traced and examined. All examinations were negative, which gave me assurance that no disease had spread to the North and that no animals had originated from the infected zones in England.

Based on our own veterinary risk assessment, I decided to apply no constraints to the operation of abattoirs, shows, markets and assembly centres here, and that access to the countryside would continue to be unrestricted. I did ask that the public, and those in rural areas in particular, introduce appropriate biosecurity measures, and farmers were asked to be vigilant. In my press releases and in interviews with the press, my message was that, as far as I was concerned, it was “business as usual”. I felt that my actions and those of my officials were swift, decisive and proportionate to the foot-and-mouth disease threat that we faced.

Thankfully, the situation in Britain is now largely resolved. There were only two confirmed cases with no spread of disease beyond that, as demonstrated by the extensive surveillance undertaken. The Chief Veterinary Officer of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) stated on Friday that foot-and-mouth disease had been eradicated from Britain. From noon on Saturday 8 September 2007, DEFRA lifted the surveillance zone in Surrey, and all restrictions throughout Britain were lifted at the same time. The Standing Committee on Food Chain and Animal Health (SCoFCAH) will meet in Brussels tomorrow to decide whether to revoke all remaining measures that have been applied to Britain during the past month.

Returning to the issue of trade, exports of animals and animal products have continued uninterrupted to other member states of the EU. There have been some minor problems, but, in the bigger scale of things, not too many, and we have been taking action to rectify those as soon as we are made aware of them.

The safeguard measure brought in by the European Commission (EC) on 6 August 2007 gave our trade legitimacy in EU law, and this was confirmed with the revised decision voted through by SCoFCAH on 8 August and again by an amending EC decision on 23 August. Those decisions have allowed trade to continue to other member states.

Although we were able to secure EU recognition of the North as a separate region from Britain, the EU decision on foot-and-mouth disease still required DARD to provide official certificates to accompany consignments for EU trade. As industry representatives had concerns that our certificates could not readily be distinguished from those issued in Britain, some extra polish was added to make them easily distinguishable. This new format was developed in consultation with the industry, and with the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. The EC accepted that revised approach.

The official status of the certificate was emphasised by the inclusion of the DARD logo. A bold statement was added at the start of the certificate indicating that we are free from foot-and-mouth disease, and the exporting country was clearly identified as this region in large, bold print. Those changes were warmly welcomed by the exporters of meat and dairy products.

As a result of those actions, our agrifood industry has been able to continue to trade with their customers in Europe. In meetings with the industry, it has said that there are now relatively few problems in the EU and that the official certification is working well. I have also made two pieces of subordinate legislation to enable us to enforce the terms of the EU decisions if required. My objective has been to maintain current trade flows to other EU member states by providing adequate assurance with minimal bureaucracy.

At my request, the UK Chief Veterinary Officer wrote to her counterparts in all EU member states, providing assurance that we are free from foot-and-mouth disease and that animals and animal products originating from here pose no risk of foot-and-mouth disease. My officials followed this up with calls to the offices of the Chief Veterinary Officers of six key member states — France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands — to check that the position was understood. Calls to other countries will be made if specific issues arise.

To assist the dairy industry, the DARD Chief Veterinary Officer also provided a letter for each of the local exporters of dairy products, which they could pass on to customers who were nervous about accepting our dairy products. The provision of those letters was welcomed and has helped exporters to iron out problems. The DARD Internet site has also been constantly updated.

With regard to controls on imports from Britain, we retained our prohibition on the importation of live animals until 25 August and on fresh meat produced after 15 July until 24 August.

12.15 pm

Those imports were permitted again after a unanimous decision that was taken at SCoFCAH on 23 August to lift — subject to veterinary certification — the ban on exporting live animals and fresh meat from outside the surveillance zone in Surrey to the rest of the EU. In line with that relaxation on trade to the rest of the EU, we permitted imports to the North from Britain to resume under conditions that were similar to those that were applied to exports to other member states, including the Twenty-six Counties.

The movement of live, susceptible animals from here to Britain has also been gradually eased over the past few weeks: first, for slaughter animals; and secondly, for breeding and production animals. As a precaution, and until the surveillance zone was lifted on 8 September, we continued to operate additional biosecurity controls at the ports.

We have also tried to minimise damage to our trade with countries that are outside the EU. We have spared no effort to help the beef and dairy industries in circumstances in which any trading difficulties have arisen; that work continues. The United States Depart­ment of Agriculture (USDA) had banned imports of certain animal product from here that were deemed “prohibited” — fresh product that was derived from foot-and-mouth-disease-susceptible animals — and that arrived at its ports from anywhere in the UK on or after 3 August. My officials and I made immediate contact with the US Administration directly and also through DEFRA and the European Commission. We put a strong case to the Administration that we should be treated separately from Britain.

The Deputy First Minister and I also raised our difficulties with senior US politicians in an attempt to get them to expedite matters. I was therefore delighted to hear on 17 August from Robert Curtis, the head of the European division in USDA, that the trading restrictions that had been imposed on product from the North had been lifted totally with immediate effect. Since then, five containers of pork products have been exported to the United States.

We have also taken steps to address the ban on the importation of animal product from the UK, which Japan announced on 4 August. That decision primarily affected our trade in pork to the Japanese market. Historically, the Japanese require a high level of reassurance to restore trade, and, post-2001, that reassurance involved a visit by a Japanese delegation to the North. Another visit may be required before any trade is restored this time, but my aim is to help to restore export trade in animal product to Japan as early as possible.

After the helpful phone call that the First Minister made in the first few days of the outbreak, and at my request, DEFRA has written on our behalf to the Japanese Embassy through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). We are currently awaiting a response to that letter. My officials will follow up with DEFRA on that and on any issues regarding other countries.

Similar to the authorities in the USA, those in Canada have accepted the position of the North on the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in Britain. They recently approved another meat plant here to export to Canada. We are working with DEFRA in its negotiations with the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) to achieve an early restoration of the UK’s official foot-and-mouth-disease-free status. Regaining foot-and-mouth-disease-free status at OIE for the UK is the quickest route to regaining OIE foot-and-mouth-disease-free status for the North, given that Britain contained its outbreak so rapidly. However, the fact that we were recognised at the outset to be free to trade with the rest of Europe means that some countries may be persuaded to accept our products before that date, just as the United States and Canada have done.

We have also worked closely with our industry stakeholders throughout this period. Indeed, in view of the importance of external sales to the local industry, my permanent secretary and his DETI counterpart have been in regular contact with dairy and meat processors and exporters and also with representatives of the retail sector. Those meetings fostered a better understanding of trading issues for us all. They provided a forum in which views on necessary action to assist the industry with exports could be heard and exchanged, and reports on our actions could be brought back. At those meetings, it was clear that that industry was appreciative of DARD’s efforts to minimise the impact on trade.

We have also had regular meetings with our other key stakeholders, and I am pleased to say that they have supported my decisions and have congratulated DARD on the actions that have been taken to assist them during the foot-and-mouth-disease crisis. I emphasise that we gained much from our meetings with the industry, and I thank those stakeholders for their positive and constructive engagement.

Good communication and liaison with officials and Ministers in Britain and the South have been crucial throughout the process.

Consequently, throughout the crisis, I have kept in regular contact with my ministerial counterparts. I spoke to Mary Coughlan in Dublin and Jonathan Shaw in London on the first evening and had ongoing and very helpful contact with them in the days that followed. I pay tribute to UK Chief Veterinary Officer Debby Reynolds and her team for recognising the unique position of the North in their deliberations, particularly with the European Commission, and for their outstanding negotiation skills in securing an early relaxation of the EU restrictions with regard to movement and trade. I would also like to acknowledge the work of Department of Agriculture and Food officials in the South in supporting our case.

Together with my officials, I worked on a daily basis with the South to ensure that the fortress Ireland approach was applied immediately. That was crucial in ensuring that the North was excluded from the EU ban on British produce. The support of the South, and our cohesive approach within the island, was important both operationally with regard to biosecurity and border controls and from an external perspective with regard to trade.

Unsurprisingly, the issue of Brazilian beef imports has recently been raised again. Questions have been asked in recent weeks as to why I continue to allow the importation of beef from Brazil. I have responded by explaining that the Government of the UK, acting on behalf of England, Scotland, Wales and the North, has agreed in the Treaty of Rome that the EU shall act in matters relating to the common agricultural policy. Consequently, the power to ban meat from countries with which the EU has established trade agreements is governed by EU law. The rules governing the importation of fresh meat and meat products into the North from Brazil are subject to European Union agreements with Brazil, which in turn are based on European Commission scrutiny of the controls that Brazil has in place. Those rules are in the form of Commission decisions and are implemented here in our national legislation.

If we were to act unilaterally to ban imports of Brazilian beef, it is highly likely that beef importers and exporters would be in a position to commence legal proceedings against the Department for any loss suffered as a result. It is also quite possible that the Department would be open to the levying of EU fines for interfering with the free movement or trade of a product that has entered Europe legally. In addition, such an action would constitute a failure to adhere to and implement the relevant European legislation.

However, I remain concerned about the findings of the Irish Farmers’ Association and the Irish Farmers’ Journal investigation. I will closely monitor the situation as the Commission progresses its investigations. I watched last week’s developments in Brussels closely, particularly the declaration put forward by MEPs calling on the Commission to ban imports of Brazilian beef to the European Union. I also plan to raise the matter of Brazilian beef imports with my ministerial colleagues at our next meeting.

As regards the investigations into the source of the outbreak, we will be giving careful consideration to the reports that DEFRA published on Friday, and to that Department’s response. I am aware that the reports have concluded that there is no absolute certainty about how the outbreak occurred. The most likely explanation is a combination of factors, including weakness in the drainage system, heavy rains, and the movement of construction vehicles. There are valuable lessons to be learned from these findings, and we will want to consider what lessons we can draw from the experience in England and apply here.

Looking ahead, our focus is on preparation for the next SCoFCAH meeting, which will take place tomorrow. The indications are that the Commission will revoke the existing decision and return Britain to its position prior to 3 August. My priority is to continue to safeguard our ability to export. I have decided, therefore, to retain all existing certification and veterinary check procedures until the SCoFCAH decision tomorrow. I obviously do not want to do anything to undermine the assurance that the present system of certificates offers to receiving countries and companies. Following SCoFCAH’s decision on 23 August, DEFRA initiated an exercise to identify and prioritise the markets outside the EU to which UK companies export, as such countries may be waiting for OIE to restore the UK’s foot-and-mouth-disease-free status. DARD is consulting with the industry to identify such markets for our exporters, and will liaise with DEFRA on that.

I have asked my officials to review DARD’s response to identify what went well and any lessons that could be applied in the event of any future outbreak. Our foot-and-mouth-disease contingency plan, which was already in place, will be updated and improved in light of what we have learned from this experience.

Finally, I want to pay tribute to our colleagues in Dublin for their support of, and co-operation with, my Department at such a difficult time. That close level of North/South co-operation will continue, given our shared interest in the prevention of outbreaks of serious animal disease on the island of Ireland.

Again, I thank all those who have helped me and my Department to deal with the recent foot-and-mouth disease crisis. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Speaker: I call the First Minister, the Rt Hon Dr Paisley.

The First Minister (Rev Dr Ian Paisley): The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development knows that we have all been shocked by the plague of suicide of which she spoke at the beginning of her statement. All of us in this House have a serious responsibility to help to solve this awful tragedy, which seems to be growing in our Province.

Will the Minister agree with me that the help from London, Dublin, the USA and the Japanese Government in relation to the foot-and-mouth disease incident was most welcome? I also wish to record the help that I received from the British ambassador in Dublin in making contacts for me with people who had power to help us in those matters. I am sure that all right-thinking people would wish to express thanks to all those mentioned by the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, those who have not been mentioned — although they, and we, know who they are — and, of course, the Minister herself.

Ms Gildernew: I thank the First Minister for his comments. From all of this, we have learned that the reaction to the incident could not have happened without a local Minister and Executive in place. The speed with which the Executive met on the morning of Saturday 4 August, and the ongoing contact that my Department had with the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and Executive colleagues, meant that we were able to give leadership and act decisively. Again, I thank the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister for their most helpful intervention and support.

Mr Speaker: I call the Deputy First Minister, Mr Martin McGuinness.

The Deputy First Minister (Mr M McGuinness): I concur with the remarks of the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development and the First Minister on the issue of suicide.

Does the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Develop­ment agree that during the period of the ban, between 3 August, when it was introduced, and 17 August, when the ban was lifted, the American authorities moved very speedily, and that that was due in no small part to the considerable work done by the US ambassador to London, Bob Tuttle, and his colleague in Dublin, Tom Foley? I made several phone calls to Paula Dobriansky, who was in Korea and remained in contact with me, and to Congressmen Richard Neal and Jim Walsh, who have been long-standing friends of the peace process. I hope that the Minister will agree that a word of thanks is due to all those whom I have mentioned.

Ms Gildernew: Again, I thank the Deputy First Minister for his comments. The interaction with the United States was hugely significant, and when Canada followed, it showed that the rest of the world looks to what the United States does and takes its lead from them. I was amazed at the speed with which USDA responded. Less than a fortnight after foot-and-mouth disease was confirmed in England, USDA had lifted its restrictions. That was hugely important for our agriculture industry given the amount of food that we export, especially dairy products. It was a huge group effort, involving many people in the offices of several Congressmen and Senators; it would take a full hour to thank everyone who helped and responded during the crisis. We are very grateful to have the support of such friends.

The Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development (Dr W McCrea): I thank the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development for its quick and professional response to the crisis and its efforts to secure derogation from the EU to allow our exports to continue. I also want to recognise the positive role played by DEFRA in supporting the arguments for derogation put forward by the Department. I thank the farming community and the farming unions across the United Kingdom for their assistance, and their positive and constructive suggestions during this crisis.

12.30 pm

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

At the heart of the new certification is the identity of Northern Ireland. However, I found it interesting that there was no mention of that in the Minister’s statement. Why was “the North” mentioned in the statement but not “Northern Ireland”, when that is clearly how our produce is identified?

The Minister talked about the “fortress Ireland” approach. Is it not important that the identity and independence of Northern Ireland be protected? If, God forbid, there was an outbreak in the Irish Republic, Northern Ireland would have to have independence to be able to trade, as the Irish Republic did with BSE-free Irish beef at the time of the BSE crisis, when the UK was unable to trade its beef. Although there is a working relationship with the Irish Republic, there must be clear identification of and independence for our Northern Ireland produce.

Can the Minister tell the House what lessons the Department has learned from the crisis and how those lessons can be applied in Northern Ireland? What risks are there, and is the Department undertaking a review of biosecurity at our own laboratories?

Although it is true that we cannot act independently, it is of vital importance that the Minister actively participate in the debate so as to stop Brazilian beef. We must force the hand not only of DEFRA and the Ministers in the rest of the United Kingdom, but of Europe, to protect our product, because it is the best product and it should be able to stand on its own feet across the world.

Ms Gildernew: A LeasCheann Comhairle, I will answer the Chairman of the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee’s questions in reverse order. As a member of the European Union, the North is bound by EU law to accept products from countries outside the EU. Therefore, we cannot impose a ban on all Brazilian beef, but we can ban — and have banned — imports of beef from areas of Brazil that are affected by foot-and-mouth disease.

The Department has robust controls in place to ensure that imports from countries outside the EU meet the required standards and will seize products that do not adhere to those standards. The European Commission plans a Food and Veterinary Office mission to Brazil later this year as a follow-up to an earlier visit and has said that, unless the situation improves and the Brazilian Government can give assurances on the quality of beef exported to Europe, it will reconsider controls on beef imports to Europe from Brazil. As I said earlier, I will be working with my ministerial colleagues and I will push for action on Brazilian beef similar to that which has been taken in other places.

Our Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) laboratories do not hold stocks of the foot-and-mouth virus. Most of their work is done around bovine tuberculosis and brucellosis, and there have never been any leaks or any biosecurity mishaps or accidents at those laboratories. I spoke to Seán Hogan, the chairman of AFBI, and George McIlroy, the chief executive, on the evening of 3 August and asked those same questions. I am content that we do not have the same risk, as we do not have the live virus in the laboratories here. The public can be reassured by that.

The Department has learned lessons from this. It will update and review its foot-and-mouth disease contingency plan. It was good for the Department to be challenged in this way to see how quickly it could respond and put provisions in place. I have spoken to people who came over on the boat that evening and who were impressed to see that biosecurity measures had immediately been put in place at the ports. They did not even realise that there had been a foot-and-mouth outbreak in England until they came home and saw the portal staff. Measures such as that help to reassure people that the Department is doing all that it can to keep disease out of Ireland.

I understand where the Chairman of the Agriculture Committee is coming from in regard of the Twenty-six Counties. However, I felt sorry for Richard Lochhead, the agriculture Minister in Scotland. He was faced with many challenges, because the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease was on the island of Britain. Scotland faced automatic restrictions even though the outbreak was geographically closer to France.

If there were an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease anywhere in the Twenty-six Counties, the whole island of Ireland would suffer, regardless of what was done in the North. The disease is virulent because it so easily transmitted: it can be airborne, transmitted from the wheels of cars and lorries or carried on people’s feet. It is a serious illness when it gets into a herd.

However, I am content with the amount of work that was done with ministerial colleagues such as Mary Coughlan in the South. A stringent policy on animal health and welfare is needed, and that has been on the table for many years. Diseases do not recognise borders, and I am deeply concerned about other diseases in mainland Europe, such as avian influenza and bluetongue. Robust measures must be taken at our ports to try to keep all diseases out of Ireland. Action must be taken on an all-island capacity to eradicate them. I do not want any disease to come from Dublin and affect trade in the Six Counties. It makes sense to treat the island as an epidemiological unit.

Lessons have been learnt. It has been a challenging time for the Department and for me. Thankfully, with the support of colleagues — and I have acknowledged the support that the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development has shown me — our reaction to the outbreak was well handled. We should not be complacent, but we know that we did all in our power to keep Ireland free from foot-and-mouth disease. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Boylan: Go raibh maith agat. I commend the Minister and the Department on their handling of the outbreak. Will the Minister detail her plans to ensure that biosecurity is as effective as possible in guaranteeing freedom from future outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease, and other diseases?

Ms Gildernew: Go raibh maith agat. I will continue to ensure that everything possible be done to keep us free of animal diseases that would have serious economic implications. My Department has put in place a system at the ports to ensure that dirty vehicles are not permitted to enter the North. Robust systems ensure that no contaminated soil can enter the North on vehicles from other places.

Additional systems, such as the disinfection seen at ports in the past month, can easily be introduced at times of increased risk, and can be stepped up depending on the level of threat. Our procedures for cattle traceability are excellent and form the basis for ensuring that animals are closely monitored and can be easily traced. For example, during the outbreak, my Department traced within 48 hours all 128 consignments of animals that had come from Britain since the start of July. That was fundamental to ensuring that, if the disease had spread, the Department would have picked up on it quickly and dealt with it.

My Department has a long-term commitment to education, including the timely implementation of biosecurity measures in response to heightened risk. Education takes the form of leaflets, advertising and posters. Since becoming Minister, I have been invited to disinfect my feet on every farm that I have visited. Biosecurity measures are already in place on farms.

There is close co-operation between my Department and the Department of Agriculture and Food in the South on the prevention, surveillance and control of a range of epizootic diseases, some of which I mentioned earlier. That co-operation has included discussions on the assessment of risk; the preventive actions that would be taken in respective jurisdictions, and the importance of those actions being co-ordinated; the alignment of contingency planning; and the control of movement that would be necessary in the event of an outbreak. Given the shared interest in preventing the introduction of serious animal disease to the island of Ireland, that close co-operation between North and South will continue.

Mr Elliott: I wish to thank the Minister and the departmental officials for the swiftness with which they dealt with difficulties arising from the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in England. We did not wish to create any unnecessary alarm among the general public of Northern Ireland, and that was successfully achieved.

Identifying and examining all the relevant animals that had come from GB into Northern Ireland since the beginning of July was a huge task, and I am thankful that the disease did not spread beyond the original zone. My aim is to ensure that the general public and farmers with produce from Northern Ireland are protected.

As regards the report on the source of the disease, and with the particular reference to Pirbright, there does not appear to be sufficient clarification on the situation there. Part of the site comprises a Government laboratory, and if the source of the disease had been directly from a farmer, there would have been completely different consequences for the farming community. I am very concerned that there may be a cover-up by the Government about the source of the disease.

Does the Minister support a Northern Ireland branding and labelling strategy for its meat products, and would that be helpful? Also, regarding the export of our products during the crisis, what actual difference was there between regulations and licensing governing the export of non-fresh food from Northern Ireland and those for non-fresh, or non-live, exports from the rest of GB outside the surveillance zone?

Ms Gildernew: I will try to address all of those questions. As regards concerns about Pirbright, the privately-owned laboratory, which is run by Merial, ceased operating from the point at which the outbreak was confirmed, and Merial will be unable to restart its operations until all remedial work has been completed. On the Government side, the Institute for Animal Health has also decreased its workload and is only conducting necessary work in an attempt to ensure that all bioremedial action is implemented to ensure safety. There is still an issue around the sanitation of effluent prior to it leaving the plant.

There are concerns and lessons to be learned, and officials are examining the matter in detail to determine what steps we need to take. We wish to have robust systems in place that will ensure that this can never happen again.

In answer to the question regarding non-fresh products, I do not have the relevant details and will respond later in writing. As regards labelling, I have been talking to people in the industry and have had some enlightening conversations with them since taking up my post, and not just since 3 August when the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak was confirmed.

Some of the people I have spoken to have said that the marketing strategy is important and that we must get it right. I can quote those who have told me in no uncertain terms that labelling produce “Northern Ireland” for export purposes does not work — and those are people who are successfully exporting to the United States on an all-island basis. They are telling me — and I am not making a political comment — that Irish branding works much better when exporting to the United States, and that they will stick with that. My Department will work very closely with the industry to see what works best. We wish to maximise the returns, especially in exporting. Sixty-four percent of our produce is exported.

That is no small feat. We will consider carefully what we need to do. I intend to carry out more work on labelling and on marketing our food. I will do what is best for the industry and what gets the best returns elsewhere for our fresh, quality products.

12.45 pm

Mr P J Bradley: First, I compliment those who installed the new audio system. We do not have to lip-read in this corner any more, because we can now hear.

I thank the Minister for her statement and for her answers to the questions that have been posed. The Minister and her Department were rightly praised for the prompt action taken at the time. I also pay tribute to those who so quickly traced the consignment of imported animals. That traceability worked on that occasion gave great confidence to those who, at times, may have been critical of traceability and of the detail that often goes into it. I cannot name each person involved, but I wish to thank everyone North, South, east and west who helped during the crisis.

However, was it an oversight not to include immed­iately a ban on the importation of non-pasteurised milk and fresh meat? Why was there a 24-hour delay in doing so? In a foot-and-mouth disease crisis, 24 hours can be critical.

Ms Gildernew: When I received the telephone call on the evening of Friday 3 August, my instinctive reaction was to close the ports and ban live animals from being imported. We had all learnt lessons from the 2001 outbreak, when we saw the implications of foot-and-mouth disease after it entered the country. I spoke to Jonathan Shaw from DEFRA and to Mary Coughlan in Dublin. I agreed with Mary Coughlan that we would adopt a similar approach. It was Saturday morning before Dublin officials told us that they were taking the step of banning the import of unpasteurised milk and fresh meat. We had said that we would work in tandem with the Department of Agriculture and Food, so we then introduced the same ban. I was not advised on the Friday night that it was necessary to take that step, considering the threat that existed at that time. However, as I have said, we had agreed to take a similar approach, North and South. That is why there was a time lapse in the introduction of that ban. Again, that is something that we would put in our “lessons learned” paper and in the foot-and-mouth disease contingency plan. Every time that we go through a similar crisis, we learn lessons. It does not bode well for the future if we do not learn anything. I might not have gone down the route of banning the import of unpasteurised milk and fresh meat, but I am now glad that I did. With the benefit of hindsight, it was the right thing to do. That is why one decision was taken on Friday night and the other on Saturday morning.

We also tried to identify whether any products that arrived on boats on Friday evening would be susceptible, but there were none. I could have turned boats around that Friday had there been live animals on board, and we did that later in the weekend. Obviously, it was a fluid situation, but on Saturday and Sunday we did send shipments of fresh meat and unpasteurised milk products back to England.

Mr Ford: I, too, thank the Minister, her ministerial colleagues and, particularly, DARD staff for the efficient, constructive and collective way in which they dealt with the problem. Perhaps lessons can be learned for other issues that will face the Assembly.

By Monday 6 August, the Minister reported to a group of MLAs that 128 consignments of animals had already been traced and examined. That is a tribute to the work that staff in Dundonald House and in the local divisional veterinary offices carried out. However, when the Minister refers to the review that her officials are carrying out, what external advice and assistance is being made available to that review? Real issues may be understood by having an external opinion on such a review. That is not a criticism of the officials concerned but merely a statement that those who were so closely involved may not appreciate all the lessons that must be learned, especially as we face not only foot-and-mouth disease in future but other diseases such as bluetongue and avian flu.

Ms Gildernew: I thank the Member for his question. There will be a review of how we dealt with the issue, and part of the strength was in the collective approach that was adopted. On the Monday after the outbreak, the Department met industry representatives from between 50 and 60 different organisations and bodies with an interest in the issue. That invitation was extended to Belfast Zoo, the Tourist Board, all the agristakeholders, the Committee members, et cetera. The Department worked very closely throughout with the entire industry, and took its advice and guidance as and when necessary.

The Department will want to discuss an external review, and I shall examine the possibility. The Department worked closely with the industry during the latest outbreak, and work was done on a collective basis. That enabled us to make decisions that suited the industry and kept key exports and trade going so that there was no significant downturn in business.

Mr Irwin: I record my thanks to the Department and the Minister for the swift action taken during the latest foot-and-mouth crisis to secure Northern Ireland’s position as a foot-and-mouth-free zone.

Does the Minister accept that the poultry and pig sectors in Northern Ireland currently face a major financial crisis? If the price of the produce is not immediately increased to a level that reflects the massively increased feed costs, many producers in those sectors face financial ruin.

Ms Gildernew: I thank the Member for his question and for the very creative use of his time. As the Member knows, we are supposed to be dealing with foot-and-mouth disease. Obviously, I am exercised by the demands and challenges for the poultry and pig sectors at the moment, so he may get an opportunity to ask that question again later on in ministerial questions.

Mr McHugh: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I join other Members in commending the Minister, the Department and all those who worked to prevent the spread of the latest outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease from England. Their speedy approach incorporated the lessons from the last outbreak, and put them into practice to maintain our biosecurity and the stability of the farming industry, and that has been commended by all.

I refer to the “fortress Ireland” approach that was adopted during the latest outbreak, and how important that was in ensuring that the scare did not last long. Members know that foot-and-mouth disease can be a very lengthy business for farmers, and we have learned lessons from the previous outbreak. People should take into account that because this is an island, we are entitled to adopt that type of approach. I am sure that the Minister will agree that the shamrock brand has been of enormous benefit to the island of Ireland for produce, and the fact that we were considered separate from England, Scotland and Wales made an enormous difference, particularly in monetary terms, to our farmers. I am sure the Minister will agree that the island approach will always be of vital importance in dealing with any future outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease. Go raibh maith agat.

Ms Gildernew: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I congratulate the Member for asking a question that lasted longer than the answer will last. [Laughter.]

The “fortress Ireland” approach was crucial in minimising the risk to the island of Ireland during the foot-and-mouth outbreak. My officials and I worked very closely with our counterparts in Dublin to ensure that a consistent approach, which was proportionate to the risk, was adopted throughout the island. The Department already has close links with its counterpart in Dublin, and that close level of North/South co-operation will continue in future. The European Commission recognised the unique position of the North, which meant that we were excluded from the EU ban and therefore allowed to continue to trade with other member states.

On the Saturday morning after the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in England, the First Minister spoke of our need to retain trade with the rest of the island. He mentioned the large quantity of our business that is done on an island-wide basis and the movement of animals to markets and shows. Those comments were important. That the border did not close during the recent outbreak was very important; that we did not implement the same level of spraying and disinfecting that was carried out along the border in 2001 was also important. That was helpful to the industry.

I appreciate Mr McHugh’s comments on the marketing of our produce, and, as I said to Mr Elliott earlier, I will be examining how best to market and label our produce to secure the maximum return for our producers.

Mr Shannon: I thank the Minister for her response and for the good work of her Department, which is much appreciated. One of the pitfalls during the recent outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease was the movement of farm machinery from the location of the outbreak in England to Northern Ireland. In light of the breakdown of the rules during the recent outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, what action has the Minister and her Department taken to ensure that any movement of farm machinery from the Republic of Ireland to Northern Ireland or machinery that has been brought here on the ferry from the UK mainland will be monitored?

My second question — which the Minister might have already answered, and I apologise if she has — is on what lessons might be learned from the outbreak across the water, which, it seems, arose at a DEFRA laboratory. What lessons can the Department learn from that incident for its own benefit?

Ms Gildernew: I am glad that the Member asked about the transport of farm machinery, because there are always robust measures in place at our ports — not only during foot-and-mouth disease outbreaks. Vehicles are routinely checked, and every vehicle that leaves a ferry at one of our ports is examined. If there is evidence of soil, clay, straw, hay or any similar material on a vehicle, it is deemed to be unfit for entry, and it is sent back. Our port staff have carried out those examinations, and they will continue to do so. They have no comp­unction about sending back a machine that is dirty, because it is not safe to bring it here.

A journalist asked me the same question as Mr Shannon, and I said the same thing to the journalist that I will say to Mr Shannon. If he has any information about the transport of tainted farm machinery, I would be interested to hear it, because the Department wants to see an absolute crackdown. Considering the reassur­ance that I have received from the Department on the stringent measures that are in place, I would be highly surprised if a soiled vehicle were permitted through our ports. If a vehicle is not allowed entry owing to its condition, it is transported back at the exporter’s expense. There is, therefore, a financial inducement to ensure that vehicles are clean enough to be brought here and to be permitted to remain.

The Department of Agriculture and Rural Develop­ment and I will look carefully at what happened in England and at DEFRA’s response and will be examining what we need to do. There will be implications for all of us from the lessons of the outbreak, and they will be given careful consideration.

A contingency plan is being prepared. First, it will be brought to the permanent secretary and the departmental board, and then it will come to me. I will immediately share that plan with the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development. There will be a joined-up approach. Officials worked well throughout the recent crisis, and we have begun examination of DEFRA’s paper to see what lessons can be learned and what measures we can put in place to strengthen our foot-and-mouth contin­gency plan for the future.

Mr Savage: I will keep my remarks brief. As a member of the Agriculture Committee, I compliment the Minister on a job well done and I thank her for doing everything within her power to protect the agriculture industry in Northern Ireland.

As a farmer, I am only too aware of what could have happened this summer. We all remember the disaster of 2001, and I wish to acknowledge and commend the Minister for her swift intervention.

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Indeed, it appears that lessons have been learnt from the past. I thank the Minister for keeping members of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development informed.

It would be remiss of me not to mention —

Mr Deputy Speaker: Mr Savage, I must ask you to come to your question.

Mr Savage: It would be remiss of me not to mention DARD’s permanent secretary, Dr Malcolm McKibbin, who played a pivotal role.

I commend the Minister for her comments about Brazilian beef. However, will she consider using the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels to encourage the European Parliament to debate the issue of Brazilian beef with a view to banning it or bringing it up to the traceability standards that we have in Great Britain and Northern Ireland?

Ms Gildernew: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Member for his question and his comments. I come from a farming background, and I fully appreciate what he is saying.

It is all too clear that this disease is rampant. The Member represents Upper Bann, which was the worst-affected constituency in the previous outbreak. The Department will do all it can to keep out this awful disease.

I am glad that the Member mentioned Dr McKibbin. I appreciated his valuable support and help in the crisis. He was not found wanting when it came to making difficult decisions and supporting me in carrying them out.

I will discuss the Brazilian beef issue with our MEPs and will use Eileen Kelly in the Brussels office, and whatever avenues are available, to try to sort out that problem. Brazilian beef is an emotive issue because of the problems that Brazil has with foot-and-mouth disease and the fact that our farmers are aggrieved that the standards to which they have to produce their livestock are not necessarily mirrored in other parts of the world. Beef, or any product, that is imported should be produced to the same rigorous standards under which our farmers work. We produce one of the best-quality products in the world because, from birth to factory, we take very good care of our animals. Our animal welfare is second to none, and the same standards should also apply in areas that export to us.

Mr O’Dowd: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. The Minister has outlined the diplomatic efforts that were made to ensure that our exports were not blocked by the international community. Does the Minister agree that those same contacts can now be used to enhance and improve our exports overseas?

Ms Gildernew: Go raibh maith agat. As I have already mentioned, while the First Minister was contacting the Japanese ambassador in London, the Deputy First Minister was making phone calls to the US Administration. At my request, the Department’s Chief Veterinary Officer wrote to other European Chief Veterinary Officers, advising them that we were free from foot-and-mouth disease. In places such as Turkey, there were difficulties concerning hides and skins; that work is ongoing. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and Invest NI were involved in other strategies such as “meet the buyer” events, and letters of comfort were given to exporters who were experiencing difficulties.

However, the Member’s question is valid. We want to raise everyone’s boat and want producers to get a better return for their product. Markets are opening up — for example, in China and India — that have potential and have not been tapped into to any extent.

I support the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development, and the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, in trying to expand our markets by looking at other regions and countries into which our products can be exported. We have a high-quality product, and we should be getting a good price for it. We should examine areas into which we have not traditionally exported beef, for example, in order to get the best return for that product. Go raibh maith agat.

Lord Morrow: In the Minister’s statement to the House, she said that export sales are valued at £1·6 billion and that that represents some 64% of the total sales of the agrifood processing sector.

That is a phenomenal figure by anyone’s standards. Can the Minister tell Members what the financial impact has been on the agrifood industry as a result of the measures that she was forced to take to ensure that foot-and-mouth disease did not spread to Northern Ireland?

Ms Gildernew: I cannot give a specific figure, but I will reply to the Member in writing. However, the financial impact was minimal in comparison with what it might have been. Given the fact that we were able to carry on trading with the rest of Europe and, in a very short time, with the United States and other countries, we did our best to minimise damage to the industry.

The North is an exporting country, and it could never consume all that it produces. The industry relies on export markets, which are important to our economy. We keep hearing about the importance of export trade and of being able to export products from here. It was important to keep that export trade open, and I am pleased that we were able to do that as it is important to the industry. People will accept the fact that the initial difficulties were ironed out. In the week after 3 August 2007, representatives from the dairy industry met departmental officials every day, and that industry worked closely with those officials to iron out any problems. I spoke to Hugh McReynolds from Grampian Country Pork Ltd about the Japanese issues, and the First Minister was also involved in those discussions. The damage was minimised. However, I will write to the Member with figures, but I imagine that they will be quite low.

Mr Deputy Speaker: As there are no further questions for the Minister, we will move on to the next item of business.

Mr Ford: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Standing Order 18(1) states:

“A Member of the Executive Committee shall make statements to the Assembly on matters for which the Executive Committee is responsible.”

One must, therefore, logically presume that members of the Executive Committee act collectively on behalf of that Committee, as, for example, when Mr Murphy addressed the House about the flooding in east Belfast. This morning, the Speaker allowed two members of the Executive Committee — the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister — to ask questions of the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development on a statement made — presumably — on behalf of them as members of the Executive. Can you explain this constitutional novelty to the House, or can you pass on a message to the Speaker to allow him to do so at an appropriate time?

Mr Deputy Speaker: The First Minister is also the leader of his party and can raise a point in that capacity, which he did this morning.

We will move on to —

Mr Ford: Further to that point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. The Speaker called Dr Paisley as the First Minister and Mr McGuinness as the Deputy First Minister. The subsequent round of questions started — quite properly — with Dr McCrea as Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development and Mr Boylan representing the second-largest party in the Assembly. Dr Paisley and Mr McGuinness were given not only an additional status but recognition as Ministers. Therefore, I repeat my request that you discuss the matter with the Speaker.

Mr Deputy Speaker: I take your further point of order, Mr Ford. I was not in the Chair at that time. I will refer the matter to the Speaker, and the Speaker will respond appropriately.

committee business

Committee Membership

Mr Deputy Speaker: The next item on the Order Paper is a motion to change the membership of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment. As with other similar motions, it will be treated as a business motion. Therefore, there will be no debate.


That Mr Francis Molloy replace Mr Mitchel McLaughlin as a member of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment. — [Ms Ní Chuilín.]

private members’ business

Economic Development Task Force

Mr Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for this debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members will have five minutes to speak. 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 to make a winding-up speech.

Mr Gallagher: I beg to move

That this Assembly calls on the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to establish a task force to address urgently the economic development of the west, including the areas covered by Fermanagh, Omagh, Strabane, Dungannon and Cookstown District Councils; and further calls upon the Minister to bring forward a report of the task force by 31st March 2008, to include specific recommendations to tackle neglect, increase investment and maximise opportunities for North-South funding aimed at improving infrastructure and achieving higher levels of employment and employability in these areas.

The motion addresses the imbalances that exist between the east and the west in infrastructure, economic development and job opportunities. People everywhere expect that we in Northern Ireland are on a road to a new beginning. The principles of inclusion and equality are embedded in Government policy, and the motion is about making that policy a reality.

It is time for the west to have a new start. I will not use the debate to list endless complaints about past neglect in the area, nor will I propose that resources should be diverted from deprived areas elsewhere in Northern Ireland. I will make the case to increase equality of opportunity and to redress the historic underfunding of the west. The appointment of members to the task force is the responsibility of the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, as is the task of overseeing the implementation of proposals.

Despite the west’s not being on a level playing field, there is enormous potential in the area. We have a highly skilled workforce, and our young people are well educated. There are successful companies, some of which are household names in Northern Ireland and beyond, and we have excellent natural resources and assets that attract thousands of visitors every year. The Erne-Shannon link is an example of the benefits that can be gained for border areas through the development of North/South links.

Nevertheless, Members must recognise that the west suffers as a result of the legacy of neglect and that there are serious disadvantages and past wrongs that we have a responsibility to put right. No railways serve the west; they were all closed down 40 years ago. There is no gas supply, with the result that businesses have to depend entirely on electricity. Access to broadband is limited, and the telecommunications network that serves the area is second rate. When it was being built more than 40 years ago, the motorway that was supposed to replace the railways stopped at Dungannon. There was a promise that it would be extended to Enniskillen. However, it has never been extended. That failure to put in place an important road link started a trend that continues. As a result of a lack of investment in new roads, Enniskillen suffers chronic and serious traffic congestion.

Plans for bypasses — such as the southern bypass and the Cherrymount link, which are necessary to divert through-traffic away from the town centre — have been with the roads authorities for more than 20 years. There is still no sign of work starting. The recently completed Omagh bypass was fought for for over 30 years. The failure of Government to provide funding for roads is an ongoing source of frustration and annoyance in Fermanagh and Tyrone. Members must not forget that public transport is poor and that most people have no choice but to rely on their cars.

Unemployment statistics that cover many years have documented the lack of both investment and job opportunities in the west. In March 2007, the labour market bulletin from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment stated that districts in the west of Northern Ireland showed the highest concentration of long-term claimants, with the eastern region showing to be lower.

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Without investment and infrastructure, local services are being squeezed, and the people of Strabane, Omagh, Enniskillen and Dungannon know that too well. Even now, every proposed reform, be it the Water Service or in relation to the Review of Public Administration (RPA), is about centralisation. With such centralisation, the east will gain and the west will lose.

The Northern Ireland Tourist Board (NITB) produced a strategy for growth in 2007, which was based on the development of what it called signature projects. Those are meant to act as magnets to pull in tourists, help the economy and create jobs. However NITB excluded Fermanagh and Tyrone from the list.

Those are only some examples of the very unfair policies being implemented by Government and that serve the west very badly. It is time to put an end to that and begin to remove the historical disadvantage that pertains to the west.

To begin that turnaround, I call for the establishment of a task force. However, it will be a task force with a difference — its recommendations will be acted upon and will be grounded in reality. It is time for a task force to examine in detail the measures that are required to level the playing field.

Each of the five councils in the west, together with partners in the business and community sectors, has been striving to increase investment and tackle difficulties such as factory closures and job losses in the textile industry. The five councils agreed and launched a western economic strategy in 2006 to encourage enterprise and to lobby for, among other things, better roads. An Assembly-appointed task force will give focus and better cohesion to that work.

There are some absolute priorities, such as roads, the decentralisation of Civil Service jobs, inward investment and healthcare, which are all high on the agenda of the people of the west.

We need a major transport plan that will take forward speedily the expansion of the two corridors already identified in the development plans of the Northern and Southern Governments. Those are the North/west corridor, linking Derry to Dublin through Omagh, Strabane and Monaghan, and the east/west corridor linking Sligo to Belfast through Enniskillen and Dungannon. We know that the Irish Government has pledged £700 million for such projects, which are in the interest of regional, balanced development, and which will draw down European Union support.

I want to make it clear that I am calling for a time-limited task force, as stated in the motion, to bring forward recommendations. It is a reasoned and specific call for action. The amendment, on the other hand, calls for no specific action that would be directed immediately towards solving our obvious problems, which will be highlighted by other Members today.

I am calling for a task force, because any serious attempts to develop the west will require the active participation of many bodies, including Departments. It is simply not good enough for the development needs of the west to be taken into account through a general motion. The west needs more than discussions. Due to many years of neglect, neither I nor anyone in the west believe that we will get anywhere by taking things into account.

The west cannot continue to be the last item on the agenda of this or any other Assembly. It must not be allowed to slip between the cracks. We need a task force that sets out clearly for the Assembly’s consideration what needs to be done, how much it will cost and how it will be done.

As we know, the whole island suffers from regional imbalance. Through North/South co-operation, we have the means to take steps to tackle that, develop new plans and spread benefits to the west.

There is no mention of such co-operation in the amendment. This is not simply about the development of two economic corridors. The rural population in the area is dispersed, and many of its roads are third class. Roads Service must step up and make a substantial investment in the repair of those roads.

The main factors for business are access to markets and labour. It would be a great pity if, on a motion asking simply for equality of opportunity and fair play, there was a reversion to the sterile politics of the past, with unionist Members combining to defeat a proposal for specific recommendations. I hope that that will not happen. Some people would be surprised if it happened; most would not, and they would not be impressed if it came to pass. I say to the Assembly that if it does, this matter will come back here. Now is the time for a new start in the west.

Lord Morrow: I beg to move the following amend­ment: Leave out all after the first “to” and insert

“investigate with relevant Ministers the economic development of the west, including the areas covered by Fermanagh, Omagh, Strabane, Cookstown, and Dungannon District Councils; and to ensure that these matters, including infrastructure, employment and employability, are taken into account in the discussions leading to the Programme for Government, Budget and Comprehensive Spending Review.”

Mr Gallagher used a significant phrase: he said that “the sterile politics of the past” would be insufficient. Had he taken that sentiment on board before he drafted his motion, we might have had consensus on something. However, I hope that, as a result of the amendment and the debate, we will be able to achieve that, because both of us are saying the same thing in different ways. Mr Gallagher is as keen as I am to see the west develop. I look forward to Mr Gallagher’s withdrawing his motion and throwing his weight behind the amendment. That would send a powerful message to the Assembly, which he asks to move away from the sterile politics of the past, to Northern Ireland and further afield.

I congratulate the authors of the western economic strategy team’s (WEST)‘Strategy and Action Plan 2006-2008’. It is a concise and significant document that will be relied upon greatly in the future as we seek to improve the economy of the west. The plan aims to promote greater co-ordination and cohesion among economic support agencies in the western areas and to position that region as a place in which to do business.

For too long there has been a definite line between east and west in Northern Ireland. As I have said previously, with respect to economic development it is almost as though there are two Northern Irelands. If we are to bring the west onto a par with the rest of Northern Ireland, there must be a change in mindset.

WEST has laid out structured suggestions for economic development that would greatly enhance the lives of residents and constituents in the area. I recommend that all Members read that document. The strategy embraces the district council areas of Dungannon and South Tyrone, Fermanagh, Cookstown, Omagh and Strabane. The various Government agencies and Departments are left in no doubt as to what is necessary for proper consider­ation of those areas’ needs and feelings. We do not want to be thrown leftovers from other projects, but rather to be integrated into every strategy, including those for employment, development, tourism and education.

Undoubtedly, the west now fares better than it has done previously. The upgrading of the A4 between Dungannon and the Ballygawley roundabout, due to commence next spring, will add significantly to the road infrastructure of the Province and of the west. There is still a lot more to be done. The continued upgrading of County Fermanagh’s roads is important and must be examined sooner rather than later. A distributor road is necessary in Dungannon to deal with congestion in the town centre and to carry that traffic which does not seek to come to Dungannon but to go elsewhere. There has to be a distributor road to take away the traffic that is causing congestion but bringing very little else to Dungannon.

The west is blessed with exciting tourism opportunities, but funding to promote them to full capacity is often lacking. Similarly, residents of the west face difficulty in accessing employment, and that is coupled with continuous economic strain in rural communities. The scales of funding must be fairly balanced to ensure that the area flourishes and becomes steadily stronger, instead of being allowed to stagnate. It is vital that every possible avenue to highlight the need for immediate and dramatic change is explored, and that the aim of improving our respective areas is fully supported. On examination, the current picture can sometimes seem grim. A positive change is overdue and will be welcomed. The sooner that happens, the better.

The total population in the west is some 224,000, which represents around 13% or 14% of Northern Ireland’s population. By 2017, if trends continue, that figure will increase by around 10%. I doubt that other areas are growing at that rate. The west also has an above-average number of under-16-year-olds in employment with no formal qualifications, particularly in the Strabane District Council area. Such issues need to be tackled head on.

A total of 12,800 enterprises are located in the western region, of which a staggering 99% are small businesses employing less than 50 people. There are a mere five large enterprises employing more than 250 people, and all of those are located in or around the Dungannon and South Tyrone Borough Council area. I ask the Minister of Enterprise ,Trade and Investment to look at those figures, which are significant and worthy of consideration.

Gaping differences are noted in the Strabane and Cookstown areas, which respectively boast just 10 and 15 companies that employ more than 50 people. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment must give consideration to that fact when job creation is promoted in Northern Ireland in order to ensure that the west will not be forgotten, but will be given its proper place among the other regions.

There have been areas of significant growth in both the manufacturing and construction sectors. However, there is ongoing below-average employment in education across the region, perhaps with the exception of Omagh, and below-average employment in the public administ­ration sector. I agree with Mr Gallagher’s comments on that important point.

The average weekly earnings across the region are below the Northern Ireland average, with employees in Cookstown the worst affected. In 2004-05, 16% of redundancies in Northern Ireland were in the west — a jump of 7% on the previous year. That translates as 782 job losses in two years, of which 60% were in Strabane. Those are significant figures and I am delighted to see the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment in the Chamber. The Minister will be responding to the debate, and I know that he will take seriously Members’ concerns that something must be done. I look forward to the future and his heading up of the Department, because it is true to say that his roots are in the west too, so he has an interest in the area not falling behind, and I have no doubt that he will not allow that to happen.

Statistics show that the combined local government districts of the west fall within the 40% most deprived in Northern Ireland. Shockingly, Strabane ranks as not only the most deprived area in the subregion, but in Northern Ireland as a whole. That is extremely worrying given that the definition of the word “deprivation” includes housing, general facilities, fuel, and environ­mental, educational, working and social conditions. Therefore, it can be argued that the affected areas, particularly Strabane, lack all of those elements, which are nothing more than basic requirements that should be expected in today’s society. The day-to-day living that most of us take for granted has been denied to most of those who are affected by that situation.

Although Strabane has earned the unpleasant reputation as the most deprived district in the Province, its neighbours do not fall far behind. Omagh, Cookstown and Dungannon have been designated among the six most disadvantaged council areas in Northern Ireland — a fact of which the Department must take cognisance, and to which it must give proper consideration.

Strabane, Dungannon and Omagh are well below the Northern Ireland average for economic activity. Why should that be? The number of people who claim unemployment benefit in western areas is higher than the Northern Ireland average. That is not acceptable. There must be the same opportunities for all.

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The west must not be an afterthought: the place that is thought about only when there are leftovers to be given out. I do not subscribe to that at all. I trust that the House and the Department do not either. That is why I have moved an amendment that focuses directly on the issues and will take politics out of the equation altogether. Members are not here to play politics with such matters. There will be plenty of opportunity to do that with less important issues. In my estimation, to do that in the current situation would be unforgivable. I strongly commend the amendment to the House. I ask the House to unite behind it and send out a powerful message that, in future, the west must be treated like the rest and also that it demands the best.

Mr Molloy: I congratulate Mr Gallagher for moving this important motion, which seeks to deal with the infrastructural neglect of the west over the past years. I want to declare an interest as a member of Dungannon and South Tyrone Borough Council. I also congratulate the Minister for his presence at the debate to listen to the calls from the west. I am aware that he has roots there and certainly has a particular interest in the area.

I ask Members to support the motion rather than the amendment — not on any party-political grounds — simply because Ministers can already come together to discuss and deal with such issues as the neglect of the west and how to improve its infrastructure and environment for job creation: indeed, Members expect them to do so.

However, as Mr Gallagher’s motion says, what is needed is a task force for the west that is charged with compiling a time-limited report on the progress that is being made and which will set the pace for the way forward. WEST has put together its plan, and I congratulate the councils in the west for banding together to start to put together a programme to tackle the area’s needs. A similar approach worked in the Derry area when demands were made for infrastructure and support for the second city, the benefits of which can be seen. There has been a decentralisation of Departments into Derry. However, there has not been any decentralisation of Departments into western council areas, with the possible exception of Omagh, to which some Departments have moved from other council areas.

A task force for the west must be a focus for the new Administration. It must start to build a future for the west by identifying the area’s needs and developing a programme to deal with them. A task force and its report are important factors in that. I call upon Invest NI to adopt a new approach to the west. There has been no drive to bring industry into the west. Historically, any industry in the west has come about through the entrepreneurial skills of local people. Those industries have been successful; indeed, they have become world leaders. For example, 80% of quarry machinery for the rest of the world is manufactured in the west, particularly in the Dungannon and South Tyrone Borough Council area. That demonstrates how local people have recognised the neglect, lack of jobs and infrastructure in the area and have banded together and brought forward their own programme to develop world-leading industry. Those entrepreneurial skills must be developed and supported. Although there are many small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the area, those businesses have developed as far as they can.

A drive is required to turn those businesses into exporters and to put them into the international market. Invest NI can perform a major task by encouraging those businesses to develop in such a way that we do not simply end up with good family businesses, albeit with an increase in jobs, but in a way that develops those businesses as exporters.

Mr B McCrea: I am interested to hear the Member talk about people banding together in the west of the Province. Will he consider all the manufacturing companies that have come together under the industrial derating campaign? Those companies would tell the Member that they hope that he and his party will support all possible measures to keep industrial rates down as a means of securing the future of those companies in the west of the Province that currently export goods.

Mr Molloy: That is a discussion for another motion. My party’s support for derating has certainly been forthcoming. This matter is not framed by the west whingeing about what it has not got, but is about the development of skills to show what it can achieve in the future. The motion is concerned with the development of the west and how it can foster the necessary skills to achieve that aim.

At a conference in Dungannon last week, as part of the Flight of the Earls festival, we were told that a programme is urgently needed to address the skills issue if we want to reap the benefits in, perhaps, eight to 10 years time. We need a programme that will ensure that the skills exist to develop future industry. We must start to shift the manufacturing base into an export role, and we must start to develop the current InterTradeIreland programme, expanding it to ensure that we have a better future.

Mr Cree: Having lived west of the Bann for several years, I have considerable sympathy with the motives behind Mr Gallagher’s motion. We are told that more people are in work and that fewer are unemployed, but economic inactivity remains high. Historically, earnings in the west are below the Northern Ireland average and 16% of all recent redundancies have occurred in the west. Those are quite alarming figures.

I was interested to be reminded of the strong manufacturing base that exists in the west. In Cookstown, 23% of the workforce is involved in manufacturing. In Dungannon, that figure is 29%; in Fermanagh, it is 18%; in Omagh, it is 12%; and in Strabane, it is 29%.

We have taken an ambiguous attitude towards derating in the manufacturing industry, as illustrated in the Assembly debate in June 2006, of which Members have a record, and in the motion that I proposed in June this year. I sincerely hope that the Assembly will decide to support our manufacturers in a practical way on industrial rates. That seems to me, perhaps, to be more relevant to manufacturing than chasing the Varney Review on the reduction of corporation tax.

I recognise that a study has been undertaken by WEST. That has already been referred to, and the report, covering the period 2006-08, is very good. Other initiatives are ongoing. The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate in Northern Ireland is 3·7%, which is the lowest rate on record. That is lower than the rate for the UK, which is 5·4%, and it is the lowest of all the UK regions. Despite that, we have clear evidence that the UK regional policy is not working. Two days ago, I received a copy of ‘Institute of Directors Northern Ireland News’, from which I quote Professor Mike Smyth of the University of Ulster on policy fault lines:

“The ongoing discussions with HM Treasury (the Varney Review) have highlighted a number of serious fault lines in government policy.

For me, the biggest fault line is the inescapable conclusion that UK regional policy is not working. Real economic convergence among the UK’s lagging regions (Northern Ireland, Wales, the North of England, Scotland, etc) is not happening. In fact, GVA per head over the past 15 years has been diverging from the UK average in most regions. Surprise, surprise, the only regions not diverging from UK average living standards are London, the South East and the South West.”

I am concerned for the future of the economy for all of us. The economy will continue to be a difficult issue with very low growth — as low as 1%, some have predicted. There are bound to be considerable pressures on our economy, and the much-publicised economic package has failed to materialise. However, we must continue to tackle the problems of deprivation and social exclusion in our most disadvantaged areas, and that certainly includes west of the Bann.

However, it is essential that DETI continues to improve jobs and opportunities for employment throughout Northern Ireland. More needs to be done. The best task force that we could muster at this time would comprise our Ministers. For that reason, I support the amendment.

Dr Deeny: Mr Deputy Speaker, I thank you for allowing me to speak on this important motion. Perhaps I have some authority to speak on this, having spent the past 21 years of my life living in the west — without giving my age away, I spent the first 30 years living in the east.

I cannot recommend the amendment because it has been proposed for two reasons only: to remove the words “task force”, and to remove the words “North-South”. I agree with Lord Morrow that he and Tommy Gallagher are singing from the same hymn sheet. However, the word “investigate” is not strong enough. We need something solid here, and a task force seems right to me. Therefore, I support the motion but cannot accept the amendment.

I commend Mr Gallagher for two reasons: first, for proposing this important motion for debate; and, secondly, for including the whole of the west in the motion. Lord Morrow said that some 200,000 people live in the west. Last time I looked west of the Bann, 404,000 people were living there. That is a significant number.

It is good that Mr Gallagher included the two large counties of Tyrone and Fermanagh. When I refer to the west, I include Derry, but I will focus a little on the two counties of Tyrone and Fermanagh. Do not forget that Tyrone is the largest and most deprived of the six counties. The establishment of an economic development task force for our region would help to bring the two counties, Tyrone and Fermanagh, together, and they would both benefit from each other. Such a task force would promote economic development on all fronts in both counties and would, therefore, greatly benefit everyone across the North.

People often ask what we in the west have to offer. Tourism has been mentioned already, and it remains, and will remain, a major contributor to the economy in Northern Ireland — I am thinking of the Sperrins, the Fermanagh lakes and, of course, our wonderful Ulster American Folk Park. Economic development is measured in terms of jobs, members and income. It results in improvements in human development, education, health, choice and environmental sustainability.

I have to say — coming not so much from Belfast, but even further east than that — that it is quite obvious to me that many things are Belfast-centred. It has been said in the past that Northern Ireland stops at Dungannon, and Mr Gallagher mentioned that the motorway to Dungannon, which was built 40 years ago, has not been extended beyond Dungannon as promised. Some people would be certain that Northern Ireland stops at Lisburn. Everything is centred on the periphery, which is a contradiction.

The west has been neglected for far too long, and it is time that that was put right. There is a lack of public-sector jobs in the west. It has been noted by a former Minister and many others that many people in Omagh work in the Civil Service but have to travel to Belfast to do their jobs. There is no reason for not moving those jobs to the west. Strabane has lost hundreds of jobs in recent years, and no agencies have moved in to replace that lost employment. It is now official that many people are travelling out of — and even moving out of — the counties of Fermanagh and Tyrone because of that. Indeed, there is a brain drain in the south-west.

1.45 pm

There are no universities in the west except, of course, in the Maiden City, although the development of local colleges is very important, and I am thankful for the one in Omagh.

Members know my views on the plans for healthcare provision. They do not cater for everyone in Tyrone and Fermanagh, and there has been the unacceptable closure of three acute hospitals that served the people of Tyrone: three, not one. The Mid-Ulster Hospital in Magherafelt looks after the people in Cookstown. We must have adequate, modern healthcare facilities to cover all medical eventualities in both counties, and not just for our people — we need them for tourists as well.

Roads and railways have been mentioned. There is no motorway network in the west at all. We do not even have a dual carriageway — Mr Gallagher can correct me, if there is one in Fermanagh — except for one small one in Tyrone, just outside Cookstown. The roads are shocking, and there is no railway network. Multinational companies must be encouraged to come to the west. An economic development task force would ensure that Tyrone and Fermanagh attracted important developments in line with what is happening in other areas of Northern Ireland.

This is a new era for Northern Ireland, and we all want a modern Northern Ireland in a modern Europe. That means investing in, developing and modernising all of Northern Ireland, and that includes the west. I support the motion.

Mr Hamilton: I welcome the opportunity to discuss economic development matters today. I wish that we had many more such opportunities, because — and I think that we all accept this — the economy is the biggest challenge facing the new Executive. We must ensure that nowhere — and nobody — is left out of what we hope are going to be years of prosperity ahead. We also want to ensure that every social class and every part of Northern Ireland benefit from a boost in the economy. That is a huge challenge for all of us, and that is why I support the amendment. It is much better to investigate rather than create a task force that would mark out the west as the sick man of Northern Ireland. That would not be good for the west, especially when it is not an entirely accurate perception.

I read with interest the action plan developed by WEST and noted that it has found that research has identified the region to be characterised by, among other things: an entrepreneurial spirit; regional diversity; a spirit of collaboration; a strong economic mix; a sustainable rural economy; and a high level of skills. Those are some positive points for the west.

We all accept that there are problems. All Members who have spoken in the debate mentioned accessibility, and there is no doubt that it is a problem. Investment in the roads infrastructure is sound investment and gives good value. We have only to look at our neighbours in the South to see the economic benefits that it can bring.

Economic inactivity is also a problem. It is worse than the Northern Ireland average. Coming from the Ards Borough Council area, where 29,000 people are economically inactive at present — the fourth highest figure in Northern Ireland — I have considerable sympathy with the west. I note that in the past there has been a lack of available industrial land, particularly in the Strabane District Council area.

However, if we create a task force, as called for in the motion, there will be a case for a task force for every area of Northern Ireland. I could make a case for my Strangford constituency where the economy has been decimated in recent years by a huge downturn in the traditional textile industries, and I am sure that colleagues from Belfast and elsewhere could make similar cases. We have all been badly affected, and we all suffer from disadvantages, and, to carry on with Leslie Cree’s theme, perhaps the best task force would be the Executive itself, of which the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment is a part.

There is another case to be made against a task force. We all have experience of task forces that build up expectations and deliver nothing. There are any number of task force reports simply gathering dust and not being acted upon. It is essential that we place this important role in the proper context. All areas of Northern Ireland have issues that prevent them from participating in the upturn in the economy, and those must be overcome.

I support the investigation called for in the amend­ment. It is right that such an investigation be placed in the proper context, as outlined in the amendment, which is that of the Programme for Government, the Budget and the comprehensive spending review. There it would receive better attention, as well as the appropriate resources, in the context of the Executive’s aim to lift the Northern Ireland economy for everyone.

Mr Doherty: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I speak in favour of the motion, and express some disappointment at the amendment. Listening to Lord Morrow’s contribution, I felt that, in many ways, he supported the motion. However, he appeared to rule out the establishment of a task force, as if that were some challenge to the Minister’s authority. Although the motion is a challenge to the Minister, it recognises his authority to put together a task force and to implement its findings. If the DUP were to reflect on that point, I believe that it would support the motion.

The four district councils of Strabane, Omagh, Cookstown and Fermanagh, along with Dungannon and South Tyrone Borough Council, make up the counties of Tyrone and Fermanagh. It is a vast, rural area, with a diverse, rural population and some major towns. Those counties suffer from an appalling lack of infrastructure. There are no railway lines at all. People there do not even have a railway to complain about, never mind late trains or bad timekeeping. Put simply, there is no rail network in those counties.

They have no motorway and no dual carriageway. There is no regional airport, and the recent debates about Shannon and Belfast airports showed how crucial a regional airport is to the development of any geographical area.

There are no gas pipelines, and no potential for bringing gas into the west. I am concerned that, if recent reports of the potential gas find on the Fermanagh-Cavan border come to fruition, the only pipeline will be one to take gas out of the area.

The water and sewerage infrastructure is not sufficiently progressed to allow for ongoing development of the area. Furthermore, there is very limited broadband access.

The economic indicators — employment, unemploy­ment and poverty — clearly show that the area needs attention. It needs a task force to focus attention on the area, and that task force’s findings should be implemented.

The potential that existed for there to be decentral­isation of Departments and agencies has not been delivered on. Unfortunately, the amend­ment — although those speaking to it almost speak in favour of the motion — misses the key point, which is that a task force would bring with it clarity, and an indication that, at last, the neglected infrastructure and all other areas of neglect in the west would be challenged.

I urge the DUP to rethink the content of its amend­ment. In many ways, that party is going along with Tommy Gallagher’s thoughts. However, it misses the key point, which is the establishment of a task force. As I have said, the motion is not a challenge to the Minister. It recognises that he has the authority to put a task force together and to bring its findings to fruition.

I urge all Members to support the motion.

Mr McFarland: Although I represent North Down, I am originally from, and my wider family still live in, and, indeed, at, the centre of the universe — Plumbridge, in the heart of the Sperrins. I have therefore an ongoing interest in the issues involved in the debate.

Mr McElduff: Does the Member accept that he is widely regarded in west Tyrone as an honorary west Tyrone man?

Mr McFarland: I thank the Member for that.

For many years, the councils’ economic development units have been doing sterling work. They have come together in teams and produced many glossy and expensive brochures, some of which I have here. However, that work has never quite led to a proper plan that would allow the area west of the Bann to sort itself out and to get up there in the serious economic stakes. Perhaps the time has come for the Executive to co-ordinate those issues and finally produce a plan for success.

I draw Members’ attention to the excellent regional development strategy that appeared during the time of the first Assembly. It took a long time to develop, but we seem to have lost sight of it. At the time, it was the envy of England, Scotland and the Republic. It produced a plan for Northern Ireland that cut across all kinds of issues. Let us remind ourselves of some of them. It noted that farming would become more difficult as the money from Europe dried up and that farmers would need to diversify, and not just on the farms: some of them, or their children, might have to take part-time employment in local towns and villages. Consequently, there would be a need to develop SMEs in those towns and villages to cater for those in the local population seeking work and for farmers looking for part-time jobs.

Transport, and the transport networks, was a major issue. Recently, I had cause to travel from Omagh to Enniskillen, and I do not want to reopen the dreaded hospital debate, but, my goodness, you would not want to be taken poorly in Greencastle or Cranagh on a winter’s night, when Roads Service is unable to grit the roads and it is icy, and to be heading for a hospital in Enniskillen. Chances are that you would be long gone before you reached Omagh. There is a major issue about the infrastructure in that mountainous area that goes right down into Fermanagh and right through Tyrone. It does not affect only medical situations; if people need to transport goods or to meet business colleagues, they face the same difficulties. Everything takes ages.

The Strabane and Omagh area has the fastest-growing population in Northern Ireland. How are we to meet the education needs of young people and provide them with the skills that employers require? How do we encourage young people to stay in the area? We need to create jobs, which will probably be provided by SMEs rather than by major companies coming into the area — home-grown businesses are better as a rule. In order to keep young people there, we need to allow them to live there. On one level, I am quite encouraged that Planning Policy Statement 14 (PPS 14) has gone back to the drawing board. However, that is not to say that there is not a need to protect the countryside. I was in Donegal recently, and it is just appalling. I spent a lot of my childhood there, and what has been done there is iniquitous. I do not want Tyrone and Fermanagh to follow suit, with bungalows shoved in everywhere. There must be some sort of planning policy, but what I do not understand is why those who say that they are interested in rural planning do not want to allow people to rebuild on the sites of existing houses.

Finally, I call on the Minister to revisit the regional development strategy and to produce a cross-cutting plan to establish economic development in the west. I support the amendment.

Mr McGlone: In speaking to my colleague Mr Gallagher’s motion, I do not want to rehash or repeat his points.

2.00 pm

However, in this new politically stable atmosphere, we want economic growth, so we must facilitate and support that growth.

Investment in job creation and infrastructure is necessary if we are to realise the work of the task force that Tommy Gallagher has proposed. Our Civil Service jobs must be decentralised, and economic advantages will result from the regeneration of our district council towns through that decentralisation. Many of those towns have been totally denuded in recent years as a result of the loss of vital Civil Service jobs, and that has had a ripple effect on local economies. However, as well as the economic advantages, decentralisation has clear social advantages. For example, people with young families are forced to travel day and daily to Belfast to work, getting stuck in traffic jams in so doing, and decentral­isation would mean that that would no longer be the case. Decentralisation would also bring environmental advantages. Urban congestion and fuel consumption would be reduced, as would the cost of travel. Many people who face those costs are on low incomes.

Mr McFarland has just absented himself from the Chamber, but he — and Mr Hamilton — referred to planning, which is crucial in order to make land available. For example, the introduction of PPS 14 — although I am not sure how to describe it now — has meant that long-established family, local and rural businesses have suffered. In a particular case that readily springs to mind, one businessman could not expand his business, which was established in a rural area, to create an extra seven jobs. PPS 14 has had detrimental effects. Recently, it has also placed an obstacle in the way of the creation of potentially 150 to 300 jobs. A job-creation scheme is available, but people have to wait two and a half years for a refusal under that package. Businessmen and investors simply will not put up with that type of behaviour.

Instead of presenting obstacles and reasons for not creating jobs, Invest Northern Ireland should be facilitating job creation and doing what it can, within reason, to enable developers to create jobs in those areas that have suffered for many years as a result of economic disadvantage, high levels of unemployment and deprivation. The task force must tackle those planning obstacles at the pre-planning application stage to iron out infrastructural problems, such as difficulties with roads and water. Other planning policy issues and problems with departmental matters such as Department of Agriculture and Rural Development food manufact­uring schemes could be smoothed out at that stage, as could cases in which Invest Northern Ireland should be facilitating job creation but is delaying it by making negative comments to the Planning Service.

If the task force tackles those problems, we can arrive at a situation in which we, as Members of a new Assembly can, through the new Executive, create jobs for those who have elected us. If those problems are tackled, a developer who is interested in creating jobs will not be left for two or two and a half years waiting to hear nothing but the refusal of his planning application. Difficulties must be ironed out well before then. We must move into the twenty-first century. The bureaucrats in Invest Northern Ireland who are hindering the process must note that they are there to do a job: to help developers to boost the economy and create jobs. We cannot have those bureaucrats giving developers reasons not to invest. People want encouragement and support, and a “why not?” approach and a profess­ionalism should be there for all to see. We, as elected representatives, demand that type of approach.

I support my colleague’s proposal to establish a task force. As a representative of what is referred to as the rural west, I have related some of my experiences to the House. I hope that we can learn from some of those experiences, and I hope that in future we will be in a position to help to create jobs with maximum efficiency.

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

Mrs McGill: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I wholeheartedly welcome the motion and thank the Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone for proposing it. I also welcome the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to the House today. It is important that the economic deficit in West Tyrone be discussed on the first day of this new session; again, I commend Mr Gallagher for bringing it to the House.

We, in the west, are living with an economic deficit. The Assembly and the Executive have a great responsibility to redress the inequality that exists, particularly between east and west. One of the earlier Members who spoke said that that case could be made for practically any area. I disagree. In August, the Department for Social Develop­ment published a report — ‘Households Below Average Income 2005/06’. A key finding of that report, which is relevant to the debate, was that:

“Individuals living in the West of the Province were most at risk of being in low income. Those living in the East of the Province were least at risk.”

Why is that? I am going to whinge and complain about it. It is because there are no jobs, a lack of investment and poor infrastructure. All those points have been made, but I want to emphasise the case: there is a difference between east and west.

Mr Gallagher mentioned tourism signature projects. There is a route in my area that the hon Member for West Tyrone will recognise. It starts in Strabane and goes over Ligfordrum into Plumbridge, up the Glenelly Valley and into County Derry. I guarantee that it is one of the most beautiful routes in this country, equal to anything in the Mournes, on the Causeway or in the glens. Where is our signature project? It does not exist. Mr Gallagher made an important point, and I support him fully.

These days I often pass the Titanic Quarter. Fair play to the people who are working on that project. In May, the Executive gave — how much was it? — £25 million to that project. Fair play to whoever is responsible for the project. There are loads more millions available for it, according to the report on the website. [Interruption.]

It does not matter which party a Minister comes from. I am speaking for the west. Whatever Ministers happen to be in the Executive, it is for all of them to make those decisions.

In discussing this matter, several Members have spoken of WEST — the western economic strategy team. I must say right away that I sat on that body, as did my council colleague on the other side of the House, Councillor Allan Bresland, who is now also a Member for West Tyrone. I have great respect for that group’s work. If we are to implement the task force — and I support the motion and the establishment of such an employment task force — that group will make a good reference point. Go raibh míle maith agat.

Mr Armstrong: I am pleased that the motion is being debated today, coming as I do from Stewartstown on the western shores of Lough Neagh and representing Mid Ulster. I am well placed to discuss the economic difficulties in the west of the Province. The economic recovery in Northern Ireland since 1998 has been remarkable, but hardly surprising. The IRA campaign of terror was designed to bring Ulster to its knees economically, and to that end, we had numerous bomb attacks on town centres, hotels and restaurants.

Such activity was designed to destroy our economy and to ensure that local investment dried up, while potential outside investment stayed away. Thankfully, those days appear to be behind us.

Although the whole country suffered economic depression due to IRA terrorist attacks over 30 years, I contend that the particular circumstances of the west of the Province meant that the impact of that depression was even more pronounced in that region. The lack of a modern transport infrastructure is a huge issue. There is no railway line throughout a huge swathe of the west, barring that which runs from Belfast to Londonderry to the far north. Promises that were made back in 1960, when the west’s railway lines were torn up, were not delivered upon, and, to this day, we still have no motorway except that which begins at the outskirts of Dungannon.

The west of the Province suffers from the traditional Belfast-based mentality that civilisation ends at Glengormley and Lisburn. To put it another way, if something is not within 10 miles of Belfast, it is not worth going to. I have no doubt that such thinking, even subconsciously, has clouded the opinions and decisions of policy makers in the past and continues to do so to this day. Even given a benign interpretation of events, Belfast has seen a great deal of development, such as the Titanic Quarter, the Waterfront Hall, the Odyssey Arena and Victoria Square. The Belfast lobby is not content with those; look at the outcry there was when John Lewis dared to try to move as far west as the city of Lisburn. Belfast obviously needs its share of development, but so do the rest of us. Belfast’s traffic congestion will only get worse if more and more people are forced to leave the west of the Province to commute to Belfast for work, or move to fuel the already crazy property market in the city.

The west of the Province has traditionally had pockets of extremely high unemployment, such as used to be found in Strabane. However, problems have also arisen from the traditional reliance on agriculture and related industries for employment opportunities. The agriculture industry has been beset with problems in recent years due to foot-and-mouth disease, BSE, low farm income and high feed prices. Those factors have compounded an already difficult situation, and many farmers and businesses in the textile industries are at their wit’s end, laying off staff, and, in many cases, giving up altogether.

I have no doubt that the west of the Province could benefit from a task force, but we have seen task force initiatives on several occasions in the past — talk is cheap, and nothing is done. We require the political will to ensure that real action will follow any recomm­endations for the establishment of a task force.

The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Mr Dodds): I congratulate Mr Gallagher for securing the debate. As the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, I share Mr Gallagher’s desire to see the west of Northern Ireland continuing to benefit from a steady improvement in the economy. References have been made to my grass roots in Fermanagh. Although I was born in Londonderry, I was brought up in Fermanagh, and I am all too aware of the issues in the west of the Province. However, I do not think that we should set false confrontations in this Assembly.

The issue is not about east versus west; it is about raising all of Northern Ireland’s economy so that everybody can benefit, paying absolute regard to the particular challenges and disadvantages that affect particular areas, whether in the west, the north-west, the south or certain parts of Belfast. All Assembly Members could, can, and do, rightly, bring issues of particular concern to me and other Ministers. It is important that we take all of those into account while developing for Northern Ireland — as a whole — an economic strategy that lifts the entire economy and drives it forward.

Mr Campbell: The Minister mentioned a matter that is of concern to me and other Members as regards the wording of the motion. The geographical location stated is quite prescriptive — if it went any further west, it would be in Nova Scotia — and western areas such as Limavady and Londonderry have been excluded.

Mr Dodds: The Member has drawn attention to a point that was mentioned in the debate. Perhaps those who tabled the debate will explain during the winding-up speech why they have defined the west in such a way and why some areas have been excluded.

I am simply making the point that there are particular challenges and issues in all parts of the Province, some of which are more exaggerated and emphasised in some areas than others. I welcome the opportunity to discuss the particular challenges and issues that affect the west of the Province, as defined by Mr Gallagher.

2.15 pm

Overall, Northern Ireland has enjoyed sustained economic growth over the past 15 years. The economy continues to perform well in historic terms. Employment levels are higher than ever, and we are benefiting from lower unemployment. As Members have said, the Northern Ireland unemployment rate has remained below the 5% mark for over two years. The current unemployment rate of 2·3% is one of the lowest in the United Kingdom.

However, stating those figures does not underestimate the challenges that remain, not just for the west, but for all of Northern Ireland. That includes the need to address lower levels of productivity and private sector earnings, the high levels of economic inactivity and the relatively small private sector, compared with the public sector. A number of Government strategies are in place, including the regional innovation strategy, the regional development strategy, the Department for Employment and Learning’s skills strategy and the investment strategy for Northern Ireland. However, it is important that the new devolved Administration builds on those measures to make the economy more sustainable and create the wealth that will enable us to pursue the level and quality of provision that we want across Northern Ireland. That is why the Executive are highlighting the economy for special attention in the Programme for Government and comprehensive spending review process.

No one in the House or outside it could fail to have noticed the emphasis that has been placed by all parties in the Executive on the need to drive forward the economy. All parties have recognised that a healthy, growing, vibrant economy is essential to move forward, not only on the standard of living, but on the provision of healthcare, education services and world-class environmental and housing provision. It is not a question of the economy versus social provision; it is a matter of the economy being central in order to provide the wherewithal to make progress on the other issues.

A number of Members, not least the proposer of the motion, have referred to roads, decentralisation, health matters, transportation, railways, airports, planning, and several other matters. Those are legitimate issues to raise when considering the development of the west. The motion, however, calls on the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to take action to assist the economic development of the west. Those matters are outside my remit but they are matters for the Executive as a whole. That is why it is important that a cross-cutting and collective approach is taken.

There is considerable merit in the amendment that has been tabled. I am happy to deal with the issues that fall within my responsibilities, but it is worth noting that the employment and unemployment statistics for the western region are broadly similar to the Northern Ireland average. There are pockets where that is not the case, just as there are areas in any set of statistics that do not carry the broad thrust of those figures. However, the latest figures demonstrate that, in the areas that are mentioned in the motion, the overall positions in claimant-count unemployment, percentage decrease in unemployment and increases in employee jobs are almost identical to the Northern Ireland average. The one area where there is a marked difference is the economic inactivity rate, which includes people on incapacity benefit, students and older people. I will deal with that point shortly.

I shall explain what my Department and its agencies are doing, in partnership with other Departments, to support economic development in the areas covered by Fermanagh, Omagh, Strabane, Dungannon and Cookstown councils. DETI policy already recognises the problems that are faced by a number of council areas in the west. The Department has disadvantaged-area maps, which are based on the income and employ­ment indicators of deprivation from the 2005 Northern Ireland measure of multiple deprivation, and they designate Strabane, Omagh, Cookstown and Dungannon as disadvantaged areas.

Those areas are already designated. In practice, that means that the Department and its agencies are committed to paying particular attention to such areas when delivering policies and programmes. I have ensured that that is the case. For example, Invest Northern Ireland has targets to attract 75% of all first-time inward investment projects to locate in disadvantaged areas and to secure at least 40% of new business starts there. The latest figures show that those targets are being met; indeed, the figure for investment projects is some 80%.

People talk about neglect, and so forth. It is a question of balance and ensuring that we know what is happening and what measures are already in place. Of course, there is room for improvement and certain factors must be taken into account as the areas develop. Invest Northern Ireland can also offer an enhanced incentives package to companies wishing to locate projects in disadvantaged areas. The size of that package is determined by the merits and scale of the project and the number and quality of jobs available.

An important role for the Department for Employment and Learning is to address the high rate of economic inactivity in order to encourage economic growth. Parts of the west have some of the highest rates of economic inactivity in Northern Ireland, a point that Lord Morrow and several other Members raised. Colleagues in the Department for Employment and Learning, with whom my Department has a close working relationship, have a comprehensive range of provisions available to address the supply of labour and to help those who are economically inactive to find work. That includes the Pathways to Work initiative for people receiving incapacity benefit, which will be available throughout Northern Ireland by April 2008; it will be rolled out in Omagh and Dungannon next month.

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)

Invest Northern Ireland has regional offices in Omagh and Enniskillen, and continues to engage at a local level with councils and other stakeholders to deliver effective economic development activity in the west. Invest Northern Ireland’s officials are involved with various organisations in the region that Members have mentioned, including WEST, to which several favourable references have been made.

Members have talked about taking action and task forces. WEST provides an example of having done the work and produced a report. Executive Ministers, as part of their discussions on the Programme for Government, the economy, the comprehensive spending review and the Budget, must be able to take all such reports into account rather than waiting for a task force that will not report until after those matters have been dealt with.

The regional office is supported by a full range of programmes and initiatives from Invest Northern Ireland, which are available for local companies. A dedicated ICT adviser for the western region offers specialist advice to SMEs. That relates to a point that Mr Molloy raised on the need to encourage family businesses to become more export oriented. He is right, because that challenge faces not only the west, but everywhere in Northern Ireland, which has a high percentage of SMEs. By investing in R&D and innovation, my Department’s role is to encourage those enterprises to become outward looking, export oriented and to increase productivity. Those areas are specifically targeted in the west and must be targeted across Northern Ireland.

Manufacturing has been mentioned, and reference was made to industrial rating. Members know about the ongoing review that was instigated by the Department of Finance and Personnel. The report of that review will be sent to the Executive and the Assembly in due course. Industrial rating is an important issue for local manufacturers. I welcome many of Mr Cree’s comments; however, he seemed to say that the Varney Review of Tax Policy in Northern Ireland was somehow irrelevant when compared with industrial rating, but he went on to talk about the need to increase productivity.

The critical point about the Varney Review is that it seeks to address how to achieve regional convergence and increase Northern Ireland’s performance in comparison with other regions of the United Kingdom. The new tools and instruments of financial policy that are being sought as part of the Varney Review are required to drive forward the economy and thereby make the major change that is needed to increase productivity.

If we continue to act as we have in the past, we will not make the real difference that everyone wants to see in Northern Ireland. There are many wonderful examples of manufacturing companies in the west of the Province, and Members from those areas will know them well.

I congratulate those companies that are doing so much in the manufacturing sector and those that are involved in exports and in substantial areas of trade. It is also clear that the west is benefiting from increased investment in the service sector, and there are many examples of that. There is also a strong ethos of entrepreneurship in the west. Over the past five years, business start-up figures for the western region have been consistently higher than the Northern Ireland average. There is a danger that we are talking the area down — there are challenges, but we should also recognise the excellent work being done.

With regard to tourism, my Executive colleagues and I are mindful that tourism in Northern Ireland has underperformed for the past 30 years, for obvious reasons. Tourism has an important part to play in our economy and has enormous potential. Rural areas in the west of the Province have an important role to play, and a regional tourism partnership has been created in the west to drive forward the delivery of tourism at the strategic level.

Mrs McGill mentioned tourism signature projects and the money that has been made available for the Titanic signature project. As she seems puzzled as to where the money came from, I will clarify that for her. It was achieved with the active endorsement of all members of the Executive, including those Sinn Féin MLAs who represent the west and who voted for it. I am therefore very surprised at her comments today.

Infrastructure and telecommunications were also mentioned. On several occasions, Members have mentioned the inaccessibility of broadband to people in the west. According to international investors, one of Northern Ireland’s selling points is the fact that it is the only region — and was the first region of the UK — to have 100% broadband accessibility. The policy objective was pursued that there should be no digital divide that would disadvantage remote areas such as parts of the west, where customer volume alone would not justify private sector involve­ment. If Members have particular issues to raise about that, I will be happy to take them on board.

I welcome the debate: it will help to draw attention to the problems and challenges that exist in the economic development of the west. We should focus on that, and I assure all Members that I will ensure that we will address those issues as part of the Programme for Government, the comprehensive spending review, and in the Budget discussions over the coming weeks.

Mr Speaker: The debate will be suspended at this point. We will return to it following Question Time. Members may take their ease for a few moments.

The debate stood suspended.

2.30 pm

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)

Oral Answers to Questions

Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister

Shared Future

1. Mr A Maginness asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to detail what action had been taken following the findings of the report ‘The Cost of Division - A Shared Future Strategy’.     (AQO 54/08)

The First Minister (Rev Dr Ian Paisley): As the hon Member will know, the report was commissioned by the previous Administration on 29 March 2006 and was conducted and finalised during direct rule. Although commissioned by the previous Administration, it is an independent piece of research and there are really no surprises in it. The final report was presented by Deloitte in April 2007, prior to devolution.

The Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister is totally committed to moving society forward and making a real difference to the lives of all our people. Our vision is for a future based on tolerance, equality, mutual respect and respect for the rule of law. We shall bring forward proposals to the Assembly and to the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister later this year to promote the interests of the whole community and move towards the goal of a shared future and a prosperous, peaceful and settled society.

Mr A Maginness: I welcome the First Minister back from his holidays, and I wish him well for the remainder of this year. I would not dare indulge in any religious matters. [Laughter.]

On a technical point, the report referred to in my question is not available in the Assembly Library, and it ought to be. In fact, I had great difficulty in obtaining a copy from the First Minister’s office.

The substance of the report reveals that £1·5 billion is spent in Northern Ireland as a result of division, which is a startling fact. That emphasises the need for the First Minister and his colleagues to tackle the causes of that division. Does he have any plans to tackle the peace lines that scar our towns and cities throughout Northern Ireland? That would be a welcome first step in dealing with sectarianism and division in our society.

The First Minister: I thank the Member for the strange remarks that he made at the beginning of his question. It is a pity that he had not been clearer about what he was seeking. I assure him that copies of the report are available, and I will see to it that he receives a copy at the end of today’s sitting. I am sorry that I cannot buy him a new pair of spectacles to see the religious situation more clearly, but perhaps that will come. Even little pussycats open their eyes at the end of certain days.

We want progress; we do not want barriers built across parts of our land, but divisions must be dealt with before we can take down those barriers. People have been murdered in our society, and it is after the murders end that we can pull down the barriers. We must apply ourselves to many other matters, but I want to say today that I am totally dedicated to seeing peace in the Province that I love.

Mr B McCrea: Does the First Minister agree with the suggestion in ‘The Cost of Division — A Shared Future Strategy’ that a a massive 66% reduction in the police budget would be desirable? Does he accept that if a similar approach were applied to education and health, on the basis of differential per capita expenditure, it would result in massive curtailment of public services and job losses in the Province?

The First Minister: It is all very well to ask a question like that; however, in the present reality it is clear that the police need money to do their job successfully. It would be wrong for any Member to suggest that we just slice the police budget in order to paint a picture that does not deal with reality.

What alarms me are the constant attacks on Orange Halls and on churches of all denominations. Those attacks need to be rigorously stopped, and no clergyman should have to stand up and say that people are wrecking his church, and that he took a photograph of those who did it, only to have the police say they cannot use it.

Dr Farry: ‘The Cost of Division — A Shared Future Strategy’ has been sitting on the shelf for almost five months. We have important decisions to take regarding the Budget, the Programme for Government and the comprehensive spending review. Can the First Minister give me a guarantee that, at this very late stage, with a closing window of opportunity, the results of the report will be fully taken into account in the consideration of those important matters, so that we can start to save money by avoiding duplication and re-invest money in improving the quality of public services for the entire community?

The First Minister: I inform the hon Member that it is not our report. It is a report that has come to us, but no Member has voted for it. The report must be discussed in the Assembly, and go through the proper process of proceeding to establish by legislation what Members agree with.

We have heard that the report has not been largely circulated. The first thing that we should do is see that it is largely circulated and that people know what it asks. However, there is no easy way to bring the matter to fruition. That could be done by legislation, but that does not mean that it will be brought to real fruition until it is carried out and conformed to.

Interdepartmental Liaison

2. Mr Gardiner asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to identify which specific operational areas required close liaison between staff working for OFMDFM and staff working for other Northern Ireland Departments.   (AQO 42/08)

18. Mr McCallister asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister how many staff in OFMDFM are involved in co-ordinating the work of the Northern Ireland Departments, and to identify examples of the kind of work that co-ordination entails.        (AQO 87/08)

The First Minister: With your permission, Mr Speaker, I shall answer questions 2 and 18 together.

The Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister was first established as a Department on 1 December 1999, but has changed significantly over the last eight years as its role and responsibilities have continued to develop. As additional roles have been added, the Department has had to grow to accommodate them.

On 1 December 2000, the Department had 283 staff. Figures published in September two years later showed that that figure had risen to 417 just after devolution was suspended. Under Mr Trimble, the figure had almost doubled. Current staffing levels are broadly similar to those of the previous devolved Administration. As of 1 September 2007 there were 408 staff working in the Department, therefore fewer.

It should be recognised that the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister is a fully functioning Department of the Northern Ireland Administration. Its work can be divided into several separate, but interrelated, roles. It provides administrative support and facilities for the operation of the institutions of Government: the Executive; the British-Irish Council; and the North/South Ministerial Council. It also has a wide range of policy responsibilities, some of which were conferred on it by statute. It has a policy-making remit for economic policy, which takes in the reinvest­ment and reform initiative (RRI). OFMDFM also works with the Department of Finance and Personnel and the Strategic Investment Board (SIB) to assist in the implementation of an effective investment strategy for Northern Ireland and in the development of a compre­hensive Programme for Government.

The Department also has significant policy respons­ibilities in the areas of rights, equality and good relations. Those include legislative and non-legislative programmes that cover anti-discrimination and equality matters, and cross-cutting policy in such areas as race, disability, gender, children, young people, victims and survivors and community relations.

Mr McNarry: [Interruption.]

The First Minister: The Member wants a solution to a problem for which his party was responsible. That party brought in all the extra workers. [Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order. I remind Members that they should not speak from a sedentary position. The First Minister is speaking.

Mr McNarry: On a point of order, Mr Speaker.

Mr Speaker: I am not taking any points of order, Mr McNarry. The Member should resume his seat.

The First Minister: I am surprised that the hon Members should be alarmed to hear the truth today. I did not appoint any of the OFMDFM staff: they were in their posts when I took the position of First Minister. By the grace of God, not all of them will be there when I leave, because we must look at our own house and see how money can be saved.

The Department provides a range of central services for the entire Northern Ireland Administration through the Northern Ireland Bureau in Washington and the Brussels office, and by taking a lead role on cross-cutting issues such as providing advice and guidance on the machinery of Government, drafting legislation, civil emergencies, planning, sustained development, the review of public administration (RPA), freedom of information and public appointments. The Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister also serves the needs of its Ministers. For that purpose, the Department maintains a small private office that supports the business needs of four Ministers. In order to carry out those roles effectively, it is essential that our staff work closely with colleagues in other Departments, employees of public bodies and representatives from organisations in the private and voluntary sector. In short, OFMDFM is a unique Department that plays a central role at the heart of the Northern Ireland Administration.

Mr Gardiner: I am sure that I will hear that sermon another time. The First Minister will be aware that one man’s co-ordination may be another man’s duplication. In light of that, will he make a public commitment that he will take all steps to simplify the process of government and end all instances of duplication?

Will he consider reporting back to the Assembly, and to the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, on progress on that front?

2.45 pm

The First Minister: All I can say to the Member is — yes. [Laughter.]

Mr McCallister: I was almost exhausted listening to the First Minister’s answer. With that workload, I am glad he is giving up one of his other roles.

Does the First Minister accept that, before new appointments are made in OFMDFM, a review of current staffing levels should take place in what many would regard as a very overweight Department?

The First Minister: That is a bigger job than the hon Member imagines. I am sure that he would not want us to cut down on the planning machinery when we need more help in that area. We have to look at the matter over the broad line, and do whatever is necessary after careful consideration.

Mr Gallagher: Does the First Minister know of any liaison between his staff and other Departments on the issue of health screening for young people participating in sport? We are all aware of the recent tragic deaths, particularly in County Tyrone and elsewhere in Ireland, within a matter of days. Will the First Minister tell us — particularly as it has implications for the Departments of Health; Education; and Culture, Arts and Leisure — whether there has been liaison on the matter?

The First Minister: The Executive are meeting this week, as the Member knows, and that is one of the matters that we will have before us.

Mr Irwin: What action did the First Minister take in support of the Department of Agriculture during the foot-and-mouth crisis?

The First Minister: I did my very best, as did my deputy, to be on the spot. We called a meeting of the Executive, and both of us used the contacts that we had in various offices and Government bodies, and I believe that we were very successful in what we did, especially in losing so little time in getting our agricultural produce not out of the market, but into the market. We did very well indeed.

Equality Agenda

3. Mr Molloy asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to outline how it intends to address the equality agenda.   (AQO 6/08)

15. Ms Anderson asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister how it intends to address the equality agenda.          (AQO 115/08)

The First Minister: With permission, I will take questions 3 and 15 together. The Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister is fully committed to achieving equality of opportunity for all citizens of Northern Ireland. We will continue to promote equality of opportunity through legislation where appropriate, and through a range of policy initiatives based on objective need. The framework of anti-discrimination legislation has been strengthened recently in a number of areas, for example on age and disability. We will develop proposals for further legislative change with Executive colleagues and the departmental Committees as appropriate. In addition, work aimed at promoting social inclusion for vulnerable groups is continuing, and we will endeavour to make further progress in that important area.

Mr Molloy: Does the First Minister agree that the promotion and protection of the rights of older people is an essential component of the equality agenda? Recently, I listened to a presentation by Help the Aged on issues concerning older people. What progress has been made on the appointment of a commissioner for older people?

The First Minister: I have to declare an interest in elderly people and speak for them, which I do gladly. When I look at people who are a lot younger than I am, I think that my health is doing fairly.

Yes, a view can be taken that there should be a commissioner for older people. However, it needs careful consideration and debate, and we must also look at the timing. I cannot see it happening in the next two years, as it will require a lot of work. Nevertheless, the subject should be kept before us, and I will be happy if it happens earlier.

Mr Donaldson: In the light of the First Minister’s response, will his Department, in co-ordination with all Departments across the Executive, ensure that tackling poverty among our elderly citizens in Northern Ireland is made a priority? Although a commissioner would be welcome, we do not need one to achieve that. The matter requires urgent attention. There are far too many elderly people living in poverty, and fuel poverty is a big issue as we approach another winter. Will the First Minister give an assurance that tackling poverty among the elderly will be a priority for the Executive in advance of appointing a commissioner for the elderly?

The First Minister: The Member is correct. It is very important to tackle poverty among the elderly: those in poverty must be brought out of poverty, and that will be a task on its own. I have not had almost 60 years’ experience in pastoral work not to know how many poverty-stricken families we have, and the difficulties that they face — especially one-parent families. It is almost impossible for a single parent to do a job, get the children to school and get the housework done. We should all be sympathetic to that and do our best to alleviate those circumstances. As the right hon Member knows, it cannot be done easily. We must apply ourselves to it. I said to a man the other night that Northern Ireland needs a good injection of cash. I hope that something will persuade the Prime Minister to realise that he has a responsibility when we come to settle our budget.

Mrs D Kelly: I welcome the First Minister’s comments about the framework for tackling inequality. In the absence of an interim Programme for Government, will the First Minister tell the House what measures are being taken to tackle poverty and the lack of social inclusion, and how often they are reviewed? Will the First Minister give further details of when the strategy for sexual orientation will be published and assure Members that the time frame for the introduction of the single equality Bill will be brought before the House in 2008? Will he further ensure that the comprehensive spending review will not adversely affect — directly or indirectly — the most disadvantaged in our community?

The First Minister: Of course we must have a Programme for Government. All parties must take part in that debate and bring forward their proposals. That matter is underway, and we must press on. I want to see the Programme for Government, and what steps will be taken on those issues, as soon as possible.

Single Equality Bill

4. Ms Lo asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to report on the progress of the single equality Bill.     (AQO 61/08)

13. Mr D Bradley asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to detail what progress had been made on the single equality Bill, including the time frame for introduction of the legislation.      (AQO 21/08)

The First Minister: With permission, I will take questions 4 and 13 together. Policy proposals on single equality legislation are being developed, and Ministers will consider the options in consultation with Committee and Executive colleagues over the coming months. This is an important issue, and there has been significant consultation with the public, key stakeholders and international experts. It is a complex area. Officials are working on detailed proposals for a single equality Bill, which Ministers will, of course, wish to consider in full detail.

The Executive will also consider any other legislative priorities and will decide, in consultation with the Assembly, business planners and Committees, when legislation is to be introduced. It would not be appropriate to set firm dates for the introduction of such legislation before Ministers had taken decisions on those issues.

Ms Lo: The proposal was put forward more than six years ago, when I was a commissioner in the Equality Commission. Will the First Minister now firmly commit to a timetable for single equality legislation or will he, once again, put it on the long finger?

The First Minister: I cannot commit myself to a timescale — I wish that I could. I would like to do it tomorrow, but that is not possible. We must take time. The Member was once a commissioner, so she knows how long it has been since a single equality Bill was first proposed. However, even with her smile and personality, she was unable to move the Equality Commission. She would not expect a tough old man such as me to be able to sway the Assembly.

Mr D Bradley: Will the First Minister at least provide Members with details of the progress that has been made on a single equality Bill?

The First Minister: I will be able to do that when proposals are put before the Executive. At present, we have not received proposals. If the Executive accept proposals, they will be discussed in the House.

Mr Wells: In his answer to Ms Lo, the First Minister indicated how complex the issue is. Will he assure Members that the views of the Assembly will be taken into account before any decision is taken on this important issue?

The First Minister: Absolutely. There must be a proper debate that brings together all sides to hear their views. Members must then fight for consensus, and, in the end, I trust that that is the way in which a decision will be taken. There will then be a Bill before the House that will encourage Members to achieve the objectives that they have in mind.

Civic Forum

5. Mr P Ramsey asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister what progress had been made on the restoration of the Civic Forum, and to produce a detailed timetable and action plan.  (AQO 8/08)

The First Minister: The Deputy First Minister and I are agreed on the importance of continuing to seek the views of civil society in developing policy. However, the previous Civic Forum had many critics, and, as the nature of civil society has changed over the past five years, we have decided to undertake a fundamental review to consider the most appropriate mechanism and arrangements for engaging with civil society. We have written to the former members of the Civic Forum to ascertain their views on reconvening the Civic Forum while the review is being carried out. We are also consulting on the terms of reference for the review process with the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. The review will progress as quickly as possible.

Mr P Ramsey: The SDLP welcomes the First Minister’s commitment to continue with the Civic Forum. Almost 50% of those who were previously involved in the Civic Forum wish to be part of it again. They wish to help and advise Members on a range of cultural, social and economic matters. Under a review, why can we not have the Civic Forum reconstituted in operational terms?

The First Minister: The Member should not misunderstand me. I did not say that we will have a Civic Forum. I said that we will consider the matter and suggest proposals. It is now accepted that the previous Civic Forum was not representative of society in Northern Ireland. I am sure that the hon Member would wish it to be representative of all sections of the community. That situation must be remedied, and Members know that everyone must fight for their place on it. In the previous Civic Forum, its members represented only three facets of life in Northern Ireland.

Other people did not have any representation at all. Those matters must be dealt with if we are to have a Civic Forum —

Mr Speaker: Sorry to interrupt, but Question Time is over for the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister.

3.00 pm

Agriculture and Rural Development

Mr Speaker: Question 1 has been withdrawn.

Renewable Energy

2. Mr Molloy asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development what steps she has taken to increase the use of renewable energies within the agrifood and rural communities.            (AQO 5/08)

The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development (Ms Gildernew): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I refer my colleague to the renewable energy action plan launched by my Department on 29 January 2007. That action plan, which was produced after comprehensive consultation, focuses on promoting opportunities afforded by the sustainable development of renewable energy in the agrifood and forestry sectors and in the wider rural economy.

Key actions in the plan include support for profitable energy production, supply-chain development, forestry products and by-products, use of agricultural waste for energy production, deployment of renewable energy technologies within the wider economy and energy efficiency. To ensure successful implementation of the action plan, work has begun to set up a renewable energy policy unit in the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD). That unit will promote active, effective and inclusive engagement with stakeholder interests.

To highlight opportunities presented by renewable energy technologies to the land-based sector and to raise awareness of energy efficiency, the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE), in conjunction with stakeholders, hosted a renewable-energy industry open day in August. That successful event provided invaluable information to more than 500 individuals, mainly representatives of the farming and wider rural community.

Mr Molloy: I thank the Minister for her detailed report. What new assistance will DARD make available to the rural community for development of renewable energy projects and to help people get on board with the development of the industry, as has been seen throughout Europe?

Ms Gildernew: Go raibh maith agat. As the Member has pointed out, this is a fast-developing opportunity for farmers. Axis 1 and Axis 3 of the ‘Northern Ireland Rural Development Programme 2007-2013’ include measures aimed at supporting renewable energy projects and energy-efficiency technologies. In particular, funding will be available for the establishment of further willow coppice, as well as support for market development of the end product.

The Department is proposing to establish an energy from agrifood waste challenge fund, co-financed under the EU Structural Funds Competitiveness Programme to encourage the livestock and food-processing sectors to develop a range of sustainable technologies that will utilise manures and food-processing waste to produce renewable energy.

The Department plans to spend £10 million over four years to support that programme, which is due to commence in 2008. Detailed information on all those measures is being developed.

Mrs D Kelly: Will the Minister give details of any initiatives or incentives that she and her ministerial colleagues plan to bring forward for the use of renewable energy, especially in rural schools and businesses?

Ms Gildernew: Since 2003, DARD has committed £4 million in grant assistance to a range of renewable energy projects and technologies, including short-rotation willow coppice, across the North. In 2004, DARD’s Forest Service established a three-year challenge fund to encourage landowners to establish willow coppice for energy production. Under that scheme, 950 hectares of willow coppice were established, or approved for establishment, by 45 rural businesses.

The aid for energy crops scheme provides support of €45 a hectare to growers of energy crops in the North. As a keen advocate of renewable energy, I will work closely with my Executive colleagues, including the Minister of the Environment, to examine ways in which we can expand new opportunities. However, technically, aid for schools is outside my remit.

Mr T Clarke: Why is DARD proposing to spend millions of pounds on the regeneration of ex-military bases and on providing childcare places and programmes for children and young people? Does the Minister not agree that her Department ought to be helping farmers, who are under immense financial pressure?

Ms Gildernew: That question is not technically about renewable energy. However, the fact that the Department is called the Department for Agriculture and Rural Development points to the need for rural development and further schemes. We are looking at huge challenges, particularly in the red-meat, pig and poultry sectors.

Where I can help to develop new opportunities for farmers who want to consider other ways of using their land, it is incumbent upon me to do so.

There has long been a belief in rural areas that the need for childcare has been overlooked. It would be a great help to farming families, as well as to the wider rural economy and community, if provision of rural childcare were improved. I will work with ministerial colleagues in the Department of Education and in the Department for Social Development to find ways of enabling people — and women in particular — to become part of the workforce if they choose and to train to become more involved in society. That is enormously important to the rural community and economy. As Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, it is my job to enable them to do so.

Planning Problems

3. Mr Dallat asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development what discussions she has had with the Minister of the Environment in relation to planning problems experienced by people involved in rural diversification businesses; and in relation to the introduction of appropriate changes to planning policies.  (AQO 12/08)

Ms Gildernew: Go raibh maith agat. I understand that some people involved in rural diversification businesses have experienced problems with the rural development programme. I appreciate that those applications must be considered in the context of relevant planning policies and procedures. My officials continue to work with the Planning Service to ensure that those responsible expedite consideration of applications, especially where businesses are reliant upon planning permission to avail of grant aid.

An interdepartmental group has been established by the Executive to develop a revised rural planning policy. I will ensure that rural economic development is fully considered as part of that review.

Mr Dallat: I thank the Minister for her reply. Her colleague Mrs Foster, the Minister of the Environment has written a “Dear John” letter, telling me that all decisions are made under current planning policies. Given that reply, will the Minister of Agriculture tell the Minister of the Environment in no uncertain terms that the criteria for establishing businesses in rural areas are hopelessly out of date? Will she fight the corner for rural people; stop their being criminalised by enforcement officers; encourage changes that are essential, given the decline in agriculture; and then report to the Assembly?

Ms Gildernew: I will fight the corner for rural businesses, for rural people who wish to diversify and for farmers who wish to diversify into other projects. There is much to be done.

In the new dispensation, where members of the Executive work well together, I will co-operate with my colleague in the Department of the Environment to find the best way forward for rural businesses, particularly the economic opportunities available to them. I am vexed when I hear of projects that fail because time constraints on grant aid have been exceeded as a result of planning problems. I am considering that issue, and will work with ministerial colleagues to resolve it.

Mr Elliott: The Minister can do something about the criteria used for on-site planning applications where a farmer needs a second home for a member of his family or for a farm worker. Those criteria are assessed directly by the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

What plans does the Minister have to change an outdated system that causes heartache for many young families in the Province?

Ms Gildernew: The farm viability criteria to which the Member refers are implemented only as part of wider planning policy. A farm dwelling, or second farm home, may fall under restrictions such as ribbon or green-belt development or lack of integration; it does not fail on the farm viability criteria alone.

I discussed farm viability criteria recently with officials, and asked whether they are necessary. I want the interdepartmental working group to discuss them. The Planning Service has worked closely with my Department, particularly on the farm nutrient manage­ment scheme. In that respect, it was able to relax aspects of planning policy that govern the building of slurry tanks. The Assembly has expressed concerns about that in the past, and my Department has worked with officials in the Department of the Environment to eradicate difficulties.

The Department will examine all of the issues of rural planning, whether they are domestic, or business, farm buildings or slurry tanks. We will work hard to make sure that the transition towards getting planning permission is as smooth, seamless and pain-free as possible.

Mr Shannon: Everyone in the Chamber is aware of the recent landmark judicial decision in regard to PPS 14, and welcomes it. Has the Minister had any discussions with the Minster of the Environment, Mrs Foster, with special reference to the recent repeal of PPS 14, and have they taken into account the effects that that will have on the applications for diversification and planning matters for the rural community?

Ms Gildernew: Gabh mo leithscéal. I hope that the Member will appreciate that, so far, the morning has been busy, and will forgive me for not having had the time to discuss the issue with the Minister of the Environment.

I am very concerned about the issue for two reasons. First, we need to see an understanding of the needs of rural communities. PPS 14 was draconian, and did not suit the needs of rural communities, and had a real potential to disintegrate rural communities.

However, we still need to be balanced and measured in planning policy. We have something special in the North, and we want planning policies that enable visitors and local people to enjoy our countryside. We must be careful that we do not go too far in the next round, and that, through the interdepartmental working group, we find a balanced approach to rural planning commensurate with the needs of the area. There are different needs for strategies and adjustments where rural planning is needed, and also care and consideration where there may have been too much planning in the past. We will try to find a balanced approach, where we protect the countryside, as well as keeping it a living, breathing and working entity.

Local Farm Produce

4. Mr Burnside asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development what discussions she has had with the major supermarket chains in Northern Ireland in relation to giving priority to the stocking and selling of local farm produce.          (AQO 39/08)

Ms Gildernew: A Cheann Comhairle. The multiple retailers are major markets for food and drink produced in the North, and I have made it a priority to engage with them to discuss their policies for local sourcing and promotion of local produce. In June I met senior representatives of two of the major retailers, and plan to meet others in the coming months. During the meetings I encouraged the retailers to support the sustainability of local supplies chains, and to take account of rising input costs faced by producers and processors, and I encouraged them to increase the amount of produce sourced from the North for their stores, both locally and in Britain.

Moreover, I have just issued a letter to all of the local supermarkets, seeking their views on the increase in the price of feed and expressing my concern about the potential knock-on effects on producer margins.

I am committed to helping farmers develop strong and profitable relationships with their supply-chain partners and my Department has been proactively facilitating such communication through the supply-chain awareness programme for the past four years. We are also providing facilitation and support to groups of producers exploring market-focused initiatives.

Mr Burnside: I thank the Minister for her answer. I will preface my supplementary question with a comment about a sector in the food supply chain that is often forgotten: the local butcher. The loyalty of the public in going to the local butcher is something that has been retained in the Province. For example, in Ballymoney there are six or seven butchers, where people go to buy local produce. Whatever we do in the retail sector, we must never forget the importance to the local farming economy of the local butcher.

I move to my supplementary question. Is it not preferable to have a structured relationship with Sainsbury’s, Tesco, and the other retail chains where they may be obliged on a twice-yearly basis to submit the supply of local produce that they put on their shelves, and, as a low-pricing policy can be bad for local producers, to comment on their pricing policy?

I suggest that the Minister and her Department should consider setting up a structure with the major retail chains like Sainsbury’s, Tesco, and the smaller ones, where they have to submit biannually to the Department the amount of local produce stocked, so that the general public is informed and can help the producers by buying at good farmgate prices.

3.15 pm

Ms Gildernew: I thank Mr Burnside for his supple­mentary question. He is right in his comments about butchers. Members all know butchers who are proud of the fact that they seek the best local produce to sell in their shops. It is important that that part of the supply chain is retained.

It is outside my remit to tell supermarkets what to do. I am not in a position to enforce price structures on them. However, I will continue to work on behalf of the industry with supermarkets, producers and retailers to try to ensure a better deal for farmers. My Department wants supermarkets to stock local produce. In my discussions with them, they tell me that that is often a response to the consumer, who wants to be able to purchase local produce.

At present, much can be done by my Department in the way of education and promotion. However, EU rules are changing. My Department will not have the same flexibility in one or two years’ time, but it is often consumer demand that leads to the promotion of local produce. The Department will continue to work with all parts of the supply chain. Supermarkets are an important part in that given the amount of local produce that they sell. They are keen on the idea of contracts, whereby a farmer buys into a contract for a set period and will, therefore, know what price he will get. Although they are a good idea, contracts must reflect outside variables, such as the price of feed, for example, which has been a topical subject in today’s debate and is likely to be again. Contracts must be able to reflect outside variables that might not necessarily be apparent one or two years in advance. The Department wants to work with supermarkets to ensure the position of everyone in the supply chain.

Mr P J Bradley: The Minister has touched on my question in her last comments. In discussions about supermarkets with farmers in my area, they have told me that they believe that supermarkets operate a cartel when contracting and purchasing. Does the Minister share that view?

Ms Gildernew: Mr Bradley is aware that I could not possibly comment on such a claim. My personal thoughts and feelings do not come into the matter. I am the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development. I must, therefore, do my best to ensure the supply of good, local food to wherever it can be sold. Supermarkets are an important link in that chain. My Department wants to maintain a good working relationship with them. To fire insults at them in the Assembly will not help me to do that. I will certainly do all that I can to improve the producer’s part in the development of the supply chain.

Agrienvironment Schemes

5. Mr McCarthy asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to detail the number of farmers that are participating in agrienvironment schemes in Northern Ireland; and the number that have not been able to participate in the last two financial years, due to lack of funding.      (AQO 66/08)

Ms Gildernew: Agrienvironment schemes include the environmentally sensitive areas (ESA) scheme and the countryside management scheme (CMS). In April 2007, the numbers of ESA and CMS scheme participants were 4,318 and 8,858 respectively, which is a total of 13,176. The rural development plan for 2000-06’s agrienvironment programme expired on 31 December 2006. All eligible applications were processed and, subsequently, all agrienvironment scheme agreements were issued to applicants by 31 December 2006. No one was excluded due to lack of funding. No further applications for agrienvironment schemes will be accepted until the new scheme opens under the current rural development plan 2007-13.

Mr McCarthy: I thank the Minister for her answer. Given the importance of maintaining and expanding a good, clean, green environment in Northern Ireland, and efforts to attract both tourists and inward investors, will the Minister ensure that there will be sufficient funding in the future for whatever new schemes that come along, bearing in mind the objective that the Assembly wants to reach?

Ms Gildernew: I absolutely agree with the Member. I have seen great examples of the schemes, such as when I spent a day in the Mournes. I am keen on the agrienviron­ment schemes and appreciate the work that they do to enhance the local countryside. I want funding to go to those schemes and as many farmers as possible to take them up. I will ensure that the Department works closely with farmers in a co-operative manner in order to get the best out of the land and to enhance biodiversity and the rural environment.

I am enthusiastic about agrienvironment schemes, and I hope that they continue long into the future.

Grain Prices

6. Dr W McCrea asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development what steps she is taking to help to protect the intensive livestock sector from increased grain prices.      (AQO 51/08)

Ms Gildernew: I acknowledge that there has been a significant rise in grain prices. That is primarily the result of adverse weather conditions in Europe, increasing biofuel production and rising demand for cereals, particularly in Asia. It is a critical issue for our local producers, and they cannot be expected to continue to make losses against the massive, and increasing, input cost. They are in a precarious situation and fear for their future, and I am extremely worried about that. I have called for an open discussion among producers, processors and retailers to see what can be done to reflect better, in retail prices, those increasing costs that jeopardise the entire supply chain.

Dr W McCrea: Members recognise the global increase in the price of grain and the serious problem that it poses for the intensive livestock industry in Northern Ireland. Can the Minister take urgent steps to protect the farming industry by making representations to the processors and retailers to ensure an increase in farmgate prices, because the present financial reward to farmers is unacceptable? Farmers cannot be expected to produce an excellent product for a price that is below production costs. That situation cannot continue.

Ms Gildernew: I agree. That work has already started and will continue. It is a challenging time for the industry. We will not feel the effects of some of the changes that the Department has already brought in — for example, the set-aside legislation — until next year. I am concerned about that, given that many people in the industry have already bought their grains at a fixed rate. I am hugely worried about the impact that next year’s costs will have on the industry.

I am also working particularly closely with the pork sector, because it will be the first to feel the impact; I am also working with other sectors, such as the poultry sector. The rise in grain prices will have a detrimental impact on the industry, and prices will rise very shortly. Last week, I warned that if the price of food does not rise to reflect the Member’s comment about the farming industry, producers could go out of business, and there could be food shortages. I do not want that to happen. We need a fair price for a product that has been born or grown here. I want farmers to get a better price for their products.

Mr Burns: What level of increase in grain prices, over what period of time, would be required before the Minister would introduce protective measures to ensure the continuing success of our meat and dairy farming sectors?

Ms Gildernew: I am not sure what protective factors the Member is referring to. I will work closely with stakeholders and with the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development on how to tackle those challenges. I am very concerned about the increase in costs. The price of grain has almost doubled in one year, and that is having a knock-on effect, given the number of food products that rely on maize, corn, barley or oats. There will be an increase in prices. We will work, at every level, to try to help the industry as much as we can.

Mr Armstrong: Does the Minister appreciate the urgent need to help those people who remain in Northern Ireland’s pig industry — the fourth-largest industry in the food sector? In the past few days, 18 producers have moved out of pig production. The Minister said that she was fighting to help rural businesses and that she was distressed when they failed. However, Northern Ireland’s pig industry is failing. Pig farmers are in a similarly dire situation in Germany, where it costs £21 to produce a pig and £24 to produce a weaner; there, farmers are given a subsidy of £17 per pig by the German Government. Those farmers are still gassing pigs.

Does the Minister want that to become the picture in Northern Ireland? She found over £3 million of funding for potato growers who found themselves in circumstances beyond their control. Will the Minister consider doing likewise for the pig industry in Northern Ireland?

Mr Speaker: I take it that the Member has a supplementary question?

Mr Kennedy: I heard several anyway. [Laughter.]

Ms Gildernew: I do not have the details of that, but I will look into it. There are rules around intervention, so I would like to see how Germany got around that. Generally, the Government do not get involved in the determination of farm-gate prices — that is a matter for the parties concerned. As I have already said, I will work very hard with all aspects of the supply chain to ensure that we get a fair price for farmers. I assure the Member that the challenges that face the pork sector are of particular concern to me.

Mr McNarry: Will you answer the question?

A Member: What was the question? [Laughter.]

Mr Speaker: Order.

Fishing Industry

7. Mr W Clarke asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to detail her plans for the December Council negotiations in Europe on Northern Ireland’s fishing industry.            (AQO 129/08)

Ms Gildernew: I thank the Member for his question. It is clear that the main issue this year is likely to be the further restriction on fishing effort. I wish to ensure that our vessels have sufficient fishing days at sea to catch their quotas. As part of the review of the cod recovery plan, the European Commission is likely to propose new measures for controlling fishing effort during 2008, and there is a strong case for no significant changes to current effort control arrangements this December.

With regard to fish quotas, we await publication of the main scientific evidence advice on Irish Sea fish stocks in October. We will discuss the implications of that advice in detail with the industry. However, I want to ensure that the significant increase in prawn quotas that was secured last year is retained and that the proposed reduction in the herring quota is reversed.

The industry has also made it clear that an increase in the haddock quota is urgently needed, and we will work closely with Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) scientists and the industry to see if a case can be developed to persuade the Commission. Meetings have already been held with our fishing industry representatives to identify their main issues of concern for this December’s Fisheries Council, and there will be further consultations as more proposals emerge from the Commission. I will also meet my counterparts in the other devolved Administrations and in the South to agree a common approach, as far as possible.

Mr W Clarke: A Cheann Comhairle. Many of the scientific assessments for various sea fish stocks are contradictory. What is the Minister doing to address that so that quotas can be increased?

Ms Gildernew: I agree — without proper scientific data, we often get uncertain assessments, which, in turn, lead to precautionary advice to reduce quotas. Therefore, improving the supply of data available to the Commission’s fisheries scientists is to our benefit and to the benefit of the industry. That will require close co-operation between official scientists and fishermen, which I fully support.

In June this year, the Commission approved the Irish Sea data enhancement pilot project, which involves scientists and fishermen from North and South of the island, as well as from England, collaborating to produce additional catch-and-discard data to allow better stock assessments to be made. Participating fishermen will receive additional days at sea in return for their efforts, and I fully support the retention of that scheme this December. Such collaborative projects are very welcome, but it is also vital that there is full participation in statutory data collection programmes if we are to develop robust cases for quota increases that will influence the Commission’s advisers and give me a strong basis on which to make my arguments at the coming Fisheries Council.

Caseous Lymphadenitis

8. Mr Kennedy asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development what plans she has to introduce a slaughter policy and compensation scheme for caseous lymphadenitis.         (AQO 37/08)

Ms Gildernew: I have no plans to introduce a slaughter policy and compensation scheme for sheep and goats affected by caseous lymphadenitis (CLA). Following a review of the CLA situation in 2004, such a policy was discontinued as it was unlikely, owing to the nature of the disease and the lack of a reliable test, that CLA could be effectively controlled or eradicated from our flocks. That continues to be the position, which means that a slaughter-and-compensation scheme is not, at this time, an effective way of dealing with the disease.

Mr Kennedy: I thank the Minister for her reply. She will be aware of the serious economic damage that an outbreak of CLA can inflict on the already precarious livelihoods of sheep farmers. Why should the principle of a slaughter-and-compensation policy, which underpins other major diseases, not be extended to this significant area?

Ms Gildernew: My Department’s current veterinary assessment is that a slaughter policy would not be an effective way of dealing with CLA. The disease has already spread and established itself within the domestic flock, although the extent of the spread is difficult to quantify due to the insidious nature of the disease. Another key factor is that there is no reliable individual test for CLA, so replacement animals may not be free of the disease, and it is also not possible to ensure that imported animals are free of the disease. It would therefore not be possible to eradicate the disease through a testing and slaughter programme.

3.30 pm

Culture, Arts and Leisure

National Lottery Funding

1. Mr McCarthy asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure what are his plans to address the shortfall in funding, in light of the recent decision by the National Lottery to redirect £42 million from Northern Ireland’s grant, and channel it towards the Olympic Games in 2012.          (AQO 45/08)

16. Mr K Robinson asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure what steps he is taking to offset the impact on arts and community groups of the reduction in National Lottery funding, due to its redirection to support 2012 London Olympic Games projects.         (AQO 33/08)

The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure (Mr Poots): With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will take questions 1 and 16 together. The Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure is making bids for funding as part of the comprehensive spending review 2008-11 to support the development of sport and the arts. Those bids will take account of reductions in funding resulting from prioritisation of lottery spending on the London Olympics.

The Department is also making bids for funding for sport and the arts under the investment strategy for Northern Ireland 2008-18. The Olympics will also provide some further funding opportunities for cultural projects associated with the Cultural Olympiad. I will be keen to see arts organisations engage with those opportunities when they arise.

In relation to community groups, the Big Lottery Fund has made a public commitment that, providing forecasted lottery income is maintained, current programmes for community groups will not be materially affected by the diversion of funds to the Olympics. The Big Lottery Fund advises that its undertaking to provide 60% to 70% of its funding to the voluntary and community sectors will be unaffected. That will mean that the Big Lottery Fund will invest a minimum of £60 million in the voluntary and community sectors between 2006 and 2009.

The Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has recently confirmed that an agreement has been reached with the Mayor of London under which DCMS should, in time, be able to refund the £675 million additional contribution to the lottery distributors. It is hoped that that will come from the proceeds of the sale of Olympic Park land post-2012.

Mr McCarthy: May I say to the Minister that making bids at this time is no guarantee; nor are hopes useful. Bearing in mind that the loss of jobs will be horrendous, is this not another case of the UK Government sacrificing the interests of the regions to placate those of the south-east of England? The voluntary sector is suffering from a shortfall of £28·7 million; the built heritage sector is £4·83 million short of its usual allocation, while the Arts Council and Sport Northern Ireland are £4·5 million and £4·1 million short respectively. The Minister knows that all of those organisations are already grossly underfunded. What steps is the Minister taking to work with other devolved Administrations to ensure that a similar situation cannot occur in the future in Northern Ireland?

Mr Poots: In the first instance, all the devolved Administrations stated that they were opposed to the move at the outset, and sought to reduce the amount of money that would go to the London Olympics from those sources at this time. We will vigorously oppose any further leakage of money from Northern Ireland. However, we must concentrate on what we can do now, which is, within our own block budget, to identify how the arts, sport and cultural pursuits can benefit the Northern Ireland community and its economy, and to seek to raise funding for those facilities.

Mr K Robinson: Will the Minister state which Olympic events, if any, he intends to try to bring to Northern Ireland? Has he made an assessment of how much income those events could potentially generate to offset the loss of any lottery funding?

Mr Poots: There are a limited number of Olympic events that could be brought to Northern Ireland. We have been informed that if we had a stadium that was fit for purpose, we could potentially get three Olympic football matches. However, there are other opportunities associated with the Olympics; in particular, athletes wishing to acclimatise in the UK could come to Northern Ireland and enjoy the training facilities that will be available.

As part of that, DCAL has set aside money in the investment strategy for Northern Ireland (ISNI) to develop elite facilities. A range of facilities will be developed for those Olympians to come and participate in Northern Ireland.

Mr McGlone: To what extent has funding to Cumann Lúthchleas Gael, the GAA, been affected and can the Minister provide some detail on the bids that have been made to address the shortfall?

Mr Poots: I am not aware that any bids by the GAA have been affected by what has taken place thus far. The Department has dealt with applications as they have come in. Those and future applications will be dealt with after the completion of the 2008-11 comprehensive spending review. DCAL will be able to make decisions based on the outcome of the Northern Ireland Budget.

Irish and Ulster Scots: Funding and Parity

2. Mr Campbell asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure what steps he is taking to (a) establish the overall levels of departmental funding for the Irish language and the Ulster-Scots cultural outlook in recent years; and (b) introduce measures to ensure parity exists for each.  (AQO 78/08)

Mr Poots: My Department collates annual returns from all Northern Ireland Civil Service departments and the NIO on the linguistic diversity projects. That includes capital and resource funding for Irish-medium education, funding in Ulster-Scots language, heritage and culture and Irish language projects, programmes, supported organisations and translations. In the 2006-07 financial year, the provisional funding figures for Irish language activities amounted to £17,064,000, with £639,000 for Ulster Scots. Funding to the North/South Language Body by my Department for 2007 will be £3·43 million, with £1·879 million for Foras na Gaeilge and the Ulster-Scots Agency respectively. The Northern Ireland Executive are committed to affording equal respect and recognition to the Ulster-Scots and Irish languages and to supporting the development of their respective cultural traditions. The funding provided to each reflects the differing range of projects, programmes and supported organisations.

Mr Campbell: Were I a satirist, I might begin my question to the Minister with the words, “Cora my Yogi Bear, a can coca colya.” However, setting humour to one side, the information provided by the Minister confirms what I established from the direct rule Minister last year — that the Irish language obtains 30 times more public funding than the Ulster-Scots cultural outlook. Given that that is the case, will the Minister confirm that the figures he has outlined to the Assembly today will be taken into account when he is deliberating on future budget allocations on the basis of parity for all of the people with a cultural outlook in Northern Ireland?

Mr Poots: Funding for Irish and Ulster Scots is a cross-departmental matter. One of the issues is that almost £12 million is spent by the Department of Education on those matters. It is up to the Assembly and the relevant Committees to identify the appropriateness of that level of spending. I will take on board the issues that affect my Department but I ask Members to recognise that the current situation and circumstances are a result of decisions made by direct rule Ministers. There are people outside the House who said they wanted more of that type of activity. I want to equalise things and take them forward in a more balanced way. That is why we are in the House and that is why I am at this Table. I want a more equitable situation in Northern Ireland; others outside the House would prefer discrimination to continue.

Mrs Hanna: I ask the Minister to take into consideration, when he looks at the matter, the most recent census figures, which show that around 10% of the population of Northern Ireland speak the Irish language and only 2% speak Ulster Scots. I hope that those figures will be reflected in the allocation of resources.

Mr Poots: My Department must consider the value of the census. I could probably claim that I speak Irish because I can say a few words, but that does not make me a fluent Irish speaker. I am interested to know how many of those 10% could read and understand a document sent to them in Irish. If those people did not also receive a version in English, I wonder whether it would prevent them from acting as they had intended. That figure would better reflect the true need.

Irish Language Bill

3. Mr Brolly asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure to outline the timescale for the publication of the second consultation on an Irish language Bill. (AQO 126/08)

6. Mr Storey asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure whether he would give an update on his Department’s current position on an Irish language Act.       (AQO 86/08)

Mr Poots: I think that the Member said, “Question 3”. I am pretty sharp today, Mr Speaker. With your permission, I shall answer questions 3 and 6 together.

The consultation on the indicative draft clauses of the Irish language legislation closed on 5 June 2007. Over 70% of the 11,000 responses have been processed to date, and I intend to make a statement to the House in the early autumn.

Mr Brolly: I do not accept that the rights of Irish speakers should be subject to consultation. A right is a right. Does the Minister believe that recognising in law the rights of Irish speakers is a positive demonstration of respect for the rights of others? Does he agree that the Irish language and the right to speak Irish threaten no one and that it is not compulsory? Does the Minister agree that the Irish language is not the property of any one section of our people but belongs to everyone?

Mr Poots: I totally agree with the Member that the Irish language is not compulsory and should not become so. [Laughter.]

Mr McFarland: Detailed, agreed provision for the development of the Irish language was contained in the Belfast Agreement and subsequently implemented by the former Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, my colleague Michael McGimpsey. Therefore, does the Minister agree that the discussion on timetabling would be irrelevant had he and his party not agreed to an unnecessary Irish language Act at St Andrews?

Mr Poots: I think that Mr McFarland was at St Andrews. The DUP has never agreed to an Irish language Act — not before St Andrews, not at St Andrews and not since St Andrews.

Mr McCausland: The campaign for an Irish language Act has been framed and fronted by Sinn Féin. That has turned the Irish language into a cultural weapon. As Sinn Féin states in one of its publications, it is:

“another bullet in the freedom struggle”.

Does the Minister agree that a divisive Irish language Act should be avoided and that the Assembly should instead seek to develop language through a coherent strategy for the Irish language in keeping with the Council of Europe’s Charter for Regional or Minority Languages?

Mr Poots: I have had the privilege of meeting people from a Gaelic background, including some from a Scots Gaelic background, who happened to be mostly Scottish Presbyterians. Indeed, over 100 years ago, the Irish language was more commonly spoken by those of Presbyterian origin. In recent years, efforts to promote the Irish language that were associated with political movements have not helped it to move forward on a cross-community basis.

Significant steps have already been taken as part of the strategy to enhance, develop and protect the Irish language through the Council of Europe’s Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. The Irish language is recognised under part III of the charter, which details the 36 provisions that the UK Government have applied solely to Irish in Northern Ireland. Much of the work on those provisions was done as a consequence of the work of the previous Administration, particularly the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, Mr McGimpsey. Therefore, the process of enhancing, developing and protecting the Irish language has been going on for a long time in Northern Ireland.

Ulster Grand Prix and Motorcycling

4. Mr Burnside asked the Minster of Culture, Arts and Leisure to make a statement on the success of the 2007 Ulster Grand Prix week and to outline his plans to support the Ulster Grand Prix in the future.           (AQO 32/08)

10. Mr Hamilton asked the Minster of Culture, Arts and Leisure what steps he intends to take to ensure the continued development of the sport of motorcycling in Northern Ireland.        (AQO 71/08)

Mr Poots: With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will take questions 4 and 10 together.

3.45 pm

I was pleased to witness the success of this year’s Ulster Grand Prix at first hand. I would like to take the opportunity to offer my congratulations to all those who offered support, including the Member, and were involved in the organisation of the week-long event.

Future support for the Ulster Grand Prix is a matter for the umbrella body for motor sport, the 2&4 Wheel Motor Sport Steering Group Ltd. This year, the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure made an additional £150,000 available to the 2&4 Wheel Motor Sport Steering Group, of which £100,000 was used to purchase safety equipment, which is available for use by the event organisers. In addition, Sport Northern Ireland is currently assisting the 2&4 Wheel Motor Sport Steering Group with the preparation of a business case setting out future funding requirements.

Responsibility for the development of the sport of motorcycling in Northern Ireland rests with the Motorcycle Union of Ireland (Ulster Centre), as represented by the 2&4 Wheel Motor Sport Steering Group. I recently had discussions with the Motorcycle Union of Ireland and the Dundrod club, and they will get back to me shortly with proposals for developing the sport.

Mr Burnside: I thank the Minister for that and join with him in congratulating the organisers of the Ulster Grand Prix, which took place in the most atrocious conditions in the almost 100-year-old history of the race. The organisers and unpaid marshals managed to get water off the course and the race going. I thank the main sponsors — the independent newspapers and the ‘Belfast Telegraph’ — for a tremendous promotional event.

Minister, there are three great international road races left in the world: the North West 200; the TT, which is unique to the Isle of Man; and the Ulster Grand Prix. Two of these are Northern Irish. The North West 200 has become a family-orientated, Province-wide tourist attraction. The TT is unique. The Ulster Grand Prix is constantly being squeezed and has little financial backing. I ask the Minister to make a special case for the Ulster Grand Prix in his discussions with the organisers and the 2&4 Wheel Motor Sport Steering Group because the race must be retained for the Province and this sport.

Mr Poots: The first issue of road racing is the safety of riders; that must be paramount. Spending and funding should be dedicated to safety first. The second issue is the success of the event. The race itself is spectacular, and we receive support for marketing, corporate branding and maximising corporate hospitality. There are lots of opportunities for the Ulster Grand Prix to progress. Not all of it is related to funding; it is also about how we can assist in developing the professional capacity of the Ulster Grand Prix. Work should commence on road racing in Northern Ireland to ensure that it continues to grow and thrive and bring its benefits to tourism and economic development in Northern Ireland.

Mr Hamilton: We all value the excellent contribution made to the sport by individual motorcycling clubs. Does the Minister agree that if we are to continue to progress the sport and maximise the opportunities provided by motorcycling, a strategic co-ordinated approach is important?

Mr Poots: I think the Member is right, and it is as easy to market several of the races as it is to market one, so we can concentrate resources together and make savings. It is the same with some of the management aspects. We need to look at a more strategic approach to road racing. The clubs that organise it do a tremendous job, but many of these people are volunteers, and if we can help them to develop a more professional approach, it will assist in the growth of the sport.

All-Ireland Velodrome

5. Mr W Clarke asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure what steps he is taking to assess the potential development of an all-Ireland cycling velodrome based in Newcastle, County Down, or in Belfast.     (AQO 119/08)

Mr Poots: Sport Northern Ireland is currently managing an elite facilities capital programme on behalf of the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure. On Wednesday 5 September I announced that 15 of the 27 applications received by Sport Northern Ireland and the initial expression-of-interest competition had been assessed as suitable for progression to stage 2.

Three of the applications relate to the potential development of a velodrome, and the proposed sites include Newcastle, Belfast and Newry. A strategic outline business case is being prepared seeking budget approval for the elite facilities capital programme, and, subject to approval of the business case, the three velodrome applicants, along with the other twelve, will be given three months to prepare an outline business case for their individual projects. Following assessment of those business cases by Sport Northern Ireland, a recommendation will be made to the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure. A further selection process will then take place, and successful applicants from the fifteen will be invited to proceed.

Mr W Clarke: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his reply. What measures will he put in place to develop infrastructure for cycling, including mountain biking?

Mr Poots: The development of a velodrome, which would be hugely significant for cycling, was identified as a priority in the ISNI bid for the development of elite facilities. With regard to mountain biking and other aspects of cycling, my Department recently wrote to the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development to open up discussion on the use of its facilities for cycling, because we have some wonderful assets in Northern Ireland for such activity and we would like to make full use of those resources.

Lord Browne: I welcome the fact that Belfast is through to the next stage of the competition for the design of the velodrome. The proposal for Belfast is more innovative than the others, because the design is not only for a cycling track but for a multi-purpose facility that can accommodate other sports such as judo, boxing and table tennis. However, the question is: how much money will be available for the elite facilities capital programme? The site identified in east Belfast would be the most cost effective, as much of the necessary infrastructure is already in place.

Mr Poots: I thank the Member for his bid. I am not sure whether he had anything to do with filling in the application form, but I understand that it was well completed, so perhaps he did have something to do with it.

The velodrome will be built in County Down, because the proposed site in Belfast is also on the County Down side of the city. Having said that, we will consider all the applications and they will be judged fairly, on merit and on value for money. Fifty-three million pounds has been set aside in the investment strategy to deliver the velodrome, but that figure is still to be finally negotiated with the Department of Finance and Personnel. Ultimately, the swimming pool will be the first project to receive funding from ISNI, and North Down Borough Council will work up a plan for the delivery of that project. Those decisions will come further down the line.

Mr Speaker: Question 6 has been withdrawn.

Sports Coaches

7. Mr P Maskey asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure what steps he is taking to increase the number of sports coaches.           (AQO 122/08)

Mr Poots: Sport Northern Ireland is responsible for establishing the strategic development for coaching in Northern Ireland. In that capacity, it has been involved in the development of — and has endorsed — the UK coaching framework 2003-2017, a 3-7-11 action plan that sets out a UK-wide plan for the development of coaching over the next 10 years. Sport Northern Ireland is also working with the Irish Sports Council on the develop­ment of a coaching strategy for Irish sport. In addition, coaching has been identified as the key target area in the new 10-year draft strategy for sport and physical recreation, which is being developed by the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure in partnership with Sport Northern Ireland. I hope to publish the draft strategy for consultation in the near future.

Mr P Maskey: In the past few days, four young people have died while participating in sport. Will the Minister make any provision for defibrillators in sporting facilities and for training coaches to gain medical expertise?

Mr Poots: I understand that defibrillators were available where both young boys died. First, I express my personal regret at the death of the two boys, and extend my condolences to their families. The Ulster secretary of the GAA, Danny Murphy, has raised the issue of screening young people before participating in sport, and that would have to be considered by the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. Such a measure would have an additional cost, but it would be money well spent. It is not for my Department to decide, but it is a big issue that has touched communities across Northern Ireland. It is a tragedy that we want to avoid in future.

Mr Gallagher: Both the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure and, earlier, the First Minister covered the issue that I had intended to raise.

Creative Media Industry Clusters

8. Mr P Ramsey asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure to outline his strategies to provide creative media industry clusters in Northern Ireland.   (AQO 15/08)

Mr Poots: I recognise the increasingly important contribution of the creative industries to a modern, knowledge-based economy and to sustainable employ­ment. In 2005, Northern Ireland had more than 2,500 such enterprises employing 34,600 people — about 4·7% of total employment. My Department leads in the overarching strategy for creative industries in conjunction with other Departments and Invest Northern Ireland. I am bidding for a creativity seed fund in the comprehensive spending review to assist emerging businesses in the sector.

In the Member’s constituency, the Department funds the Nerve Centre, which is based in a former shirt factory and which has developed into a world-class creative hub providing young people with opportunities to develop skills in creative media, including music and digital media technologies. My Department has also been working closely with Ilex to oversee the distribution of the north-west cultural challenge fund to enhance the cultural infrastructure of the city of Londonderry further.

My Department also endorses the concept of the Cathedral Quarter as a creative cluster in Belfast. DCAL has provided funding for a new metropolitan arts centre and for the Black Box, and is also considering a business case from Oh Yeah to establish a music hub in the Cathedral Quarter.

My Department also supports the arts in that area to promote an environment in which creative entrepreneurs can flourish. Northern Ireland Screen has a three-year licence to operate the Paint Hall in the Titanic Quarter as a film studio, and plans to carry out a study into the long-term viability of a creative cluster based around the Paint Hall. My Department is working closely with Invest Northern Ireland, which is developing a strategy for the growth of a digital content sector, which will include the development of networks and clusters. My Department also supports work by DETI, Invest Northern Ireland and a special EU programmes body to develop a creative industries support programme in which creative media will feature strongly.

Mr P Ramsey: I thank the Minister for such a detailed breakdown of his ministerial commitment to the issue. I suggest that the Minister visit the very successful cluster of television production companies based in and around Connemara, County Galway. Perhaps the Minister and his officials could go there to see the models of good practice in creative industries.

Mr Poots: I thank the Member for that suggestion. We in Northern Ireland have many opportunities, but to develop them we need the support of the BBC and UTV, and I would like them to step up to the mark. There is a great deal of film production in Northern Ireland, and I would like to see more productions for the television channels that are associated with work in Northern Ireland. Money has gone to such programmes before, but, unfortunately, most of the filming has taken place in other locations.

Mr Craig: Given the importance of the creative media industry in Northern Ireland, which, as the Minister said, employs almost 5% of the total workforce, what plans does he have to assist its expansion considering that traditional industries in Northern Ireland are continuing to decline?

Mr Poots: Creative industries are increasingly recognised for their growth potential and for the contribution that they make to the national economy. As I said, their contribution to the United Kingdom economy equates to about 7% gross value added, and they employ around two million people. The sector is growing at twice the rate of the national economy and is similar in size to the financial services sector. Cultural and creative industries also bring wider social and economic benefits, and a thriving arts scene acts as a catalyst for the development of tourism, inward investment and regeneration. Furthermore, creativity and innovation are important drivers for success in most industries.

In 2001, the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure established a creativity seed fund with Executive programme funds —

4.00 pm

Mr Speaker: I apologise for interrupting the Minister, but Question Time is up. We will resume the debate on the economic development task force.

Private Members’ Business

Economic Development Task Force

Debate resumed on amendment to motion:

That this Assembly calls on the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to establish a task force to address urgently the economic development of the west, including the areas covered by Fermanagh, Omagh, Strabane, Dungannon and Cookstown District Councils; and further calls upon the Minister to bring forward a report of the task force by 31st March 2008, to include specific recommendations to tackle neglect, increase investment and maximise opportunities for North-South funding aimed at improving infrastructure and achieving higher levels of employment and employability in these areas. — [Mr Gallagher.]

Which amendment was:

Leave out all after the first “to” and insert

“investigate with relevant Ministers the economic development of the west, including the areas covered by Fermanagh, Omagh, Strabane, Cookstown, and Dungannon District Councils; and to ensure that these matters, including infrastructure, employment and employability, are taken into account in the discussions leading to the Programme for Government, Budget and Comprehensive Spending Review.” — [Lord Morrow.]

Mr Newton: Judging by Members’ comments, it is clear that all elected representatives recognise the importance of the economy in taking Northern Ireland forward. Economic prosperity is high on the agendas of all parties. We may differ on how best to address the economy, but it has become a greater priority for all parties.

I identify and sympathise with the problems that Mr Gallagher mentioned, and I understand the issues that he raised. I share his concerns. However, we differ in how those problems should be addressed. Therefore, I support the amendment.

I could quote figures that would substantiate my call for a task force, but I will not approach the debate in that way. Likewise, I could quote figures from areas in East Belfast such as the Newtownards Road and Dee Street where there is an unemployment rate of 6·3%, of whom 40% have been categorised as long-term unemployed. The area around the Mountpottinger Road and the Albertbridge Road is the ninth most deprived area in Northern Ireland. It has an unemployment rate of 9·3%, of which almost 50% are long-term employed. I could continue to quote figures that, for instance, illustrate that 17,000 people in my constituency are regarded as having difficulty with reading and writing.

Every Member who has spoken in the debate has stated that they want to see sound, sustainable economic prosperity in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, as the motion specifies. However, if Members are to address the problem overall, they must remember that this is a small area with a population of only 1·7 million people. Within two hours or thereabouts, one can drive to any part of Northern Ireland. That suggests that an economic task force targeting one area would have less of an impact than addressing the problem overall.

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

When Members are discussing creating a stronger economy through the private sector and commercial manufacturing, I ask them to consider the Varney Review. It would be of great benefit if Northern Ireland were to achieve a corporate tax of 12·5%, the feasibility of which Sir David Varney is examining. I would prefer a corporate tax of 10% for Northern Ireland so that we can separate ourselves from, and give ourselves a slight advantage over, the Republic of Ireland. However, a reduction in corporate tax alone could achieve a great deal in economic growth and should be central to any strategic and political planning.

I empathise with Mr Gallagher. He stated that improvements in the economy will be brought about by investment in infrastructure, roads and health. The Minister dealt adequately with that, in that it does require the review of all the other Departments to produce a holistic policy.

Lord Morrow focused on the issues, referring to WEST and the fact that that is an ongoing area of work. He also referred to the need to seek additional funding for tourism opportunities, but we do not necessarily need a task force to tell us that. Indeed, Mr Molloy indicated that a new approach to the west is needed. The figures that the Minister quoted were revealing. I could argue that TSN is in fact a form of discrimination against my constituency, in the sense that there is no TSN area in my constituency. It has pockets of deprivation that are not being addressed. However, the Minister was able to indicate that while the target is for 75% of investment to be in TSN areas, 80% has been achieved.

Mr Cree concentrated his efforts on UK regional policy. I agree with his comments on what Mike Smyth said about regional policy, which might be identified in some ways as a task force, and is not working —

Mr Deputy Speaker: I ask the Member to draw his remarks to a close.

Mr Newton: OK.

Mr Gallagher: I remind Members that I made it very clear that the purpose of the motion was not to divert resources away from anyone else’s constituency or any other areas of disadvantage, but to draw attention to the disadvantage in the west.

My thanks to all the Members who came into the Chamber and took part in the debate. The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment was present for all the debate. He said that it would present difficulties for him if Members in other areas were to bring up similar proposals, and he was not the only Member who raised that concern. The fact is that no other area in Northern Ireland has suffered the effects of regional imbalance as acutely as the west. There are specific disadvantages and past neglects that set the west apart.

The Minister did recognise some of the successes in the west, as we all do. That success, and the growing reputation of some of our companies, is due, in part at least, to good support from Invest Northern Ireland. That support has been going to the local indigenous companies, which local people rely on for jobs. INI support is well recognised. However, I do not accept the Minister’s claim that INI is bringing foreign investment to the west. That is not happening — and that is not only my view; it is shared by other elected representatives, and by people on the ground. Much more work needs to be done, and there is a very strong view that that is part of INI’s brief. The view is that INI is performing very poorly when it comes to getting foreign investment to come in through Belfast, or wherever, and move into the west.

The Minister specifically mentioned the support given by Government agencies where there is disadvantage. It is good to hear that, but he did not tell us how much of that support for disadvantaged areas is going into the disadvantaged areas in the west, for example, Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

The Member for East Londonderry, Gregory Campbell, intervened during the Minister’s contribution. He said that assistance for disadvantaged areas should not be based on geography and that he opposed the motion. That is all right. However, the amendment that he supports also refers to disadvantage on the grounds of geography. I cannot make any sense of Mr Campbell’s intervention.

Many Members spoke in favour of the motion. It is clear from the issues that arose consistently — roads, decentralisation, inward investment and health — what the important issues are for the west, and that they must be addressed. Many Members commended the work of WEST, which comprises the five councils. I also referred to the work of WEST in my initial contribution, and it does very good work. However, that work needs focus and cohesion, which must come from Departments. It should not come only from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, but from the co-ordination and collaboration of almost all the Departments.

I thank those Members who gave reasoned and persuasive arguments supporting the motion. Dr Deeny, in addition to pointing out — quite rightly — that the amendment is weak, raised the issue of health and the concerns about hospitals in the west. If the debate has done one thing, it has drawn attention to the concerns about the travel times of the people in the west to hospitals, especially those in more rural areas. An air ambulance would go a long way towards addressing concerns about the golden hour. There is potential for expanding a helicopter repair business and associated activities at Enniskillen (St Angelo) Airport — indeed, there is a compelling case for an all-Ireland air ambulance based at Enniskillen. That is one example that would have implications across several Departments.

Several Members speaking in support of the amend­ment referred to task forces. Members seem to think that because there were task forces in the past, we should not have them any more, as they did not achieve anything. Members are right: the task forces did not achieve anything, but they were not part of the Assembly. No task force has been brought before the Assembly, which is working on behalf of all the people on the basis of equality and addressing social need.

Under direct rule, many Members were involved in the work of task forces for their councils, but that work was placed on a shelf and left there. However, an Assembly task force, with specific recommendations, would have accountability; we could see what our Departments and elected representatives were doing, and the public could see what happens. A task force, with specific recommendations, would be the best way to address economic development in the west. It is not good enough to leave the work to the Executive. The people on the street want to know what has changed since direct rule; they want to know where the £30 million needed to run the Assembly is going and what the Executive are doing.

If Members reject the motion, they will send out the message that the issue will be dealt with somewhere in the heart of Government. If we are around when the papers are released under the 30-year rule, we might find out what went on in the Executive. Members have an opportunity to set out a way forward for the west and to build on the work of elected representatives from all the parties that have sat in local councils in the west and given their stamp of approval to the new strategy for the west at council level.

4.15 pm

As I said, undertaking the task involves collaboration and co-operation. How better can Members show that they are taking the issue seriously and are co-operating on it than by supporting the motion?

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The Assembly divided: Ayes 49; Noes 48.


Mr Armstrong, Mr Beggs, Mr Bresland, Lord Browne, Mr Buchanan, Mr Burnside, Mr Campbell, Mr T Clarke, Rev Dr Robert Coulter, Mr Craig, Mr Cree, Mr Dodds, Mr Donaldson, Mr Easton, Mr Elliott, Sir Reg Empey, Mrs Foster, Mr Gardiner, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Irwin, Mr Kennedy, Mr McCallister, Mr McCausland, Mr McClarty, Mr B McCrea, Mr I McCrea, Dr W McCrea, Mr McFarland, Mr McGimpsey, Miss McIlveen, Mr McNarry, Mr McQuillan, Lord Morrow, Mr Moutray, Mr Newton, Mr Paisley Jnr, Rev Dr Ian Paisley, Mr Poots, Mr G Robinson, Mrs I Robinson, Mr K Robinson, Mr P Robinson, Mr Ross, Mr Savage, Mr Shannon, Mr Weir, Mr Wells, Mr S Wilson.

Tellers for the Ayes: Mr McQuillan and Mr G Robinson.


Mr Adams, Ms Anderson, Mr Boylan, Mr D Bradley, Mrs M Bradley, Mr P J Bradley, Mr Brady, Mr Brolly, Mr Burns, Mr Butler, Mr W Clarke, Mr Dallat, Dr Deeny, Mr Doherty, Dr Farry, Mr Ford, Mr Gallagher, Ms Gildernew, Mrs Hanna, Mrs D Kelly, Mr G Kelly, Ms Lo, Mr Lunn, Mr A Maginness, Mr A Maskey, Mr P Maskey, Mr F McCann, Ms J McCann, Mr McCarthy, Mr McCartney, Mr McElduff, Mrs McGill, Mr McGlone, Mr M McGuinness, Mr McHugh, Mr McKay, Mr McLaughlin, Mr Murphy, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O’Dowd, Mr O’Loan, Mrs O’Neill, Ms Purvis, Mr P Ramsey, Ms S Ramsey, Ms Ritchie, Ms Ruane, Mr B Wilson.

Tellers for the Noes: Mr D Bradley and Mrs Hanna.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.


That this Assembly calls on the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to investigate with relevant Ministers the economic development of the west, including the areas covered by Fermanagh, Omagh, Strabane, Cookstown, and Dungannon District Councils; and to ensure that these matters, including infrastructure, employment and employability, are taken into account in the discussions leading to the Programme for Government, Budget and Comprehensive Spending Review.

4.30 pm

Tax-Varying Powers

Mr Deputy 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 for the winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes.

Ms J McCann: I beg to move

“That this Assembly supports the transfer of tax varying powers to the Executive, along with the establishment of an Executive borrowing facility.”

It was heartening during the previous debate to hear the consensus for a strong economy and particularly to hear the comments of the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment.

This debate is also important and it will not end after the vote is taken on the motion — it is too important. How we fund our policies will be at the heart of many of the key matters that Members will discuss in the coming days and weeks.

The budgeting of the Programme for Government and the setting of funding priorities will be the first tests of how we, as local politicians, can make a difference in education, health, housing and the economy. There are further key issues such as water charges, the review of rating, the Varney Review, industrial derating, and the use of public finance for public investment, all of which will depend on our ability to utilise the available financial resources.

The debate on our level of fiscal freedom will be at the heart of all those issues. The demand for tax-varying powers and an Executive borrowing facility are important. We should have the confidence to take responsibility for those matters.

The economic performance of the North of Ireland has been and continues to be poor in comparison to the rest of Ireland, and Britain. It is not just political instability, deep societal divisions and over 30 years of conflict that have caused that situation — there are deep patterns of discrimination and disadvantage, which have resulted in a lack of economic development. The local economy is imbalanced in the relative contributions of the public and private sectors to economic activity. Inward investment is sluggish, and the growth of indigenous business is low. Employment is concentrated in the service sector with low-paid, low-skilled and low-security jobs. Those facts highlight the scale of the problem.

Public spending is responsible for 63% of our gross domestic product. Economic output is approximately 20% below the British average, and has also fallen behind the Twenty-six Counties. As was borne out during the previous debate, the low employment figure of less than 5% conceals the fact that levels of economic inactivity are far higher. The number of people on incapacity benefit is 74% higher than the British average, and the fact that university graduates are leaving in droves is contributing to a skills deficit.

Clearly, therefore, the tools with which to make a difference are needed.

The case for differential tax treatment in the North of Ireland rests on the fact that existing policy measures are inadequate. Although there is no doubt that the lowering of corporation tax is important to the economy, and a level playing field on the island of Ireland would go a long way towards attracting and sustaining foreign direct investment (FDI), more must be done to deliver investment in people, skills and infrastructure. The bottom line is that local politicians are those who should drive forward the agenda for change, and not British Treasury Ministers.

It should be noted that the debate is not solely about income tax. The Assembly must cast the net wider than that. It must be bold in its approach and consider such incentives as targeted tax reliefs for rural businesses, the manufacturing sector and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Many hold the view that tax-varying powers could also help to offset investment problems that are created by industrial derating. Initiatives such as plastic-bag tax or other green levies could be considered, some of which — the plastic-bag tax, in particular — have been successful in the South. The Assembly could also examine taxes on inheritance, real estate, gambling and vehicles.

A crucial aspect of strengthening enterprise is the nurturing of new businesses. Part of that should involve lightening the financial burden on those businesses during their start-up period through a system of tax relief for new businesses on the basis of a compulsory, agreed and accountable action plan, particularly for those who locate in New TSN areas.

My party is not alone in seeking much greater fiscal freedom. I do not believe that it is alone in wanting the Executive to have tax-varying powers. It also wants the Executive to be able to develop a borrowing facility. Such fiscal freedoms can unlock the Assembly’s potential to set its own funding priorities. They would also be an essential component in the development of a radical plan of action to tackle deprivation and to ensure the long-term economic development that is needed. Without them, the Assembly will be set to fail. There will be huge funding gaps across the public spending programme. It will be forced to rely to a greater degree on private finance to develop investment in essential infrastructure.

The Assembly will face many tough choices and difficulties in the time ahead unless it moves to develop greater fiscal freedom and strengthen the local economy. I, therefore, ask Members to support the motion.

Mr Weir: I find myself in agreement with one small point that the proposer of the motion has put forward, which is that there is growing consensus that Northern Ireland must have a stronger economy. Indeed, it is for the very reason that my party supports the ideal of a strong economy in Northern Ireland that it will not support the motion that has been put forward by the Members in the opposite Benches. My party regards the motion to be ill-judged, ill-conceived and, indeed, with consequences that I suspect the Members opposite have not considered.

I was somewhat struck by the picture that was painted by the Member — one with which many of us would have a great deal of sympathy — of trying to create a low-tax economy. I am aware that the party sitting opposite is somewhat chameleon-like when it comes to its tax policy. Not long ago, in the Republic of Ireland, its call was to raise corporation tax; then it was to reduce it. By the sound of the nice picture that was painted by the proposer of the motion — that of a thriving low-tax economy — one can detect a nascent conversion to Thatcherite principles from across the Chamber. However, I wonder how deep that commitment is.

Unless the power to vary tax levels will be used as some sort of macho tool that the Assembly can say it has, regardless of whether it actually wants to use it, it can be used only in either of two ways. The Scottish Parliament has shown reluctance to use tax-varying powers. Despite the number of years that it has been in place and the opportunity to vary the rate of income tax by three pence from its outset, the Scottish Parliament has steered clear of those powers.

One of two scenarios can take place with tax variation, either of which the Member who moved the motion seems to have hinted at as being an option, even though she has not said so explicitly. One scenario is that we use tax-varying powers to reduce income tax and reduce the levels of taxation in the country. Obviously, a reduction in the level of income tax could help to stimulate the economy. However, any tax cuts would then be directly related to the block grant.

If we were to reduce our levels of taxation to stimulate the economy in a wider context, and therefore have a reduced block grant, can Sinn Féin Members tell me which programmes they would intend to cut as a result of that tax reduction? Will they list, for example, which hospitals they would intend to close, or which programmes they would intend to axe, to allow for that tax cut?

Alternatively, and this is the second scenario, tax can be varied upwards. That is where the fear lies. We have already witnessed in the Chamber the danger of some parties getting involved in a spending spree. My colleague Sammy Wilson accused the SDLP of spending the Northern Ireland block grant — through its motions — two or three times over in the space of a fortnight. Inevitably, pressure would be applied to bump up the rate of taxation. Again, the effect on our economy would be to drive Northern Ireland into a much-higher-tax location, thus making it less attractive to business. Therefore, the opportunities on that basis are somewhat ill judged.

There is a further implication. If we were to have a level of tax-varying powers above and beyond that that we have already — to do with the regional rate — pressure would come from Her Majesty’s Treasury if, at any stage, we sought funding for a special project or any form of additional investment. If we were not taxing to the highest possible rate that we could, HM Treasury would simply ask why it should give the Executive extra money, whenever we could raise tax by 2p, 3p or 4p in the pound, or whatever our tax-varying powers happened to be.

We might even be faced with a situation in which HM Treasury said that it would cut our block grant, in real terms, because the Assembly had the opportunity to increase taxes if it wanted to maintain current programmes. That is why I believe that the Member’s motion is particularly ill-judged.

I also believe that we have made a very separate and specific case. The Department of Finance and Personnel and its Committee have done a great deal of detailed work in making a case for a specific cut in corporation tax. We should stay focused on the tax relief or tax credits that may result from a cut in corporation tax. If we widen the debate to take in the nonsense of a wider tax variation, we will lose focus. We will lose the opportunity to make that strong case for a reduction in corporation tax. I oppose the motion.

Mr Beggs: I, too, oppose the motion. I oppose some of the comments and suggestions that the Sinn Féin Member made in moving the motion. Sinn Féin seems to be saying that a publicly controlled economy with more taxation could do things better than the private sector could do. I fear that that would not be the case. The Sinn Féin Member said near the tail end of her speech that, unless more funding were received, there would be gaps in its expenditure plans. Clearly, Sinn Féin is not talking about tax variation but about tax increases.

As far as I am concerned, one of the key roles of Members in Committee is to scrutinise each departmental budget. We must make best use of our existing funding, and we must do that first. Here we are, on the first day of the new session, and what is happening? A motion has been tabled that asks for more money. That is ridiculous. Our eye is off the ball. We should be concentrating on what we are doing with our existing money. We should be concentrating on getting the best value from that before demanding more money from individuals or from the private sector.

In an Assembly debate on 15 May 2007, Mitchel McLaughlin — one of the Members in whose name the motion stands — called for tax-varying powers and for the introduction of a system of progressive direct taxation. What is progressive direct taxation? I can think only that he meant income tax or business taxes. It would be helpful if Sinn Féin Members could explain what they meant when they advocated such a system in an earlier debate.

4.45 pm

Some politicians appear to believe that they can solve our economic problems by imposing additional taxes on workers and businesses and by increasing public expenditure. They seem to believe that, somehow, civil servants can help to solve the problems.

For Northern Ireland to progress economically, we must carefully consider what effects any changes we make may have on the real world and the real economy in which people have to earn a living and sell products. We must ensure that we encourage sustainable jobs that are not reliant on state funding.

I recently met an employer who explained that even the proposed rises in industrial rates would be likely to result in a reduction in his R&D and marketing budget. That would call into question his ability to make future investment in his plant and therefore place a question mark over future long-terms jobs in the real economy. We must be very careful about what we do.

Tax-varying powers would also mean administrative costs for the Department for Social Development. Our benefits system would have to be modified somehow. New training would have to be provided so that staff in the jobs and benefits offices could know how any proposed new income tax would affect somebody starting or leaving work. Such training would bring costs, too. Furthermore, HM Revenue and Customs would have to change its system and develop a system specific to Northern Ireland, and I suspect that we would have to bear the cost of any such changes. This motion is a nonsense. Can our fragile private sector absorb those costs? Local employers would be faced with additional administrative costs with the introduction of a new local tax. This proposal would mean additional burdens for existing employers.

A recent Scottish briefing paper indicated that, for someone earning £15,000, a 1p increase in income tax would cost about £91 per year, while a 5p increase would cost about £495. For a family with two salaries of £15,000, a 1p increase would cost about £182, while a 5p increase would cost about £910. The proposers of the motion should be honest and say how this proposal would affect working families. Ultimately, it would be a tax on people who are working and own businesses.

We need to create more business opportunities and more real work opportunities for everyone so that we can survive the long-term changes that are occurring as the Barnett formula starts to converge the current expenditure levels in different regions in the United Kingdom. We must ensure that, whatever we do, we encourage real jobs in the private sector. We must not do anything that will threaten those jobs. New taxes will not create new sustainable jobs.

Thus, rather than debating this motion on our first day back after the summer recess, we should be considering what we can do to improve the current system. Sinn Féin appears to be out of touch with the economic realities of the real world. Let us get back down to work in the Assembly and spend the money that we currently have as best as we can. I oppose the motion.

Mr O’Loan: The SDLP has long believed that Northern Ireland needs tailored solutions to address its unique political, economic, geographic and social profile. That remains our stance as we work with colleagues to plot a way forward for our community after decades of conflict and underinvestment.

Without greater fiscal flexibility, we are limited in the steps that we can take to address difficulties such as the poor state of our infrastructure or the fact that our gross value added (GVA) remains 20% below the UK average. Sharing this island, as we do, with a successful economy and distinct tax regime clearly adds urgency to those issues that affect our competitiveness as a region. In recognition of such challenges, my party has for several years been calling for greater fiscal discretion for the Assembly. Moreover, SDLP leader, Mark Durkan, played a central role in negotiating the low-cost borrowing facility of the reinvestment and reform initiative (RRI), to which I will return.

To put this debate in context, the present finance agenda is loaded quite heavily. With ongoing consider­ation of the rates system, the independent review of water and sewerage, the comprehensive spending review, the Varney Review and a slowdown in public sector spending, this debate may be important, but securing additional powers may not be the most pressing item on the agenda.

Although I endorse the premise of the motion, I am, to a degree, surprised that it has been proposed. Why call for an Executive borrowing facility while opposing the use of the facility that we already have, and which is currently funding approximately £200 million a year of our infrastructure spending — a borrowing power that was introduced despite opposition from the proposer’s party? I should point out that the first and only use of the borrowing facility before suspension allowed us to build a world-class cancer centre without putting a penny on the rates. Does Sinn Féin still oppose that?

The other curious thing about the motion is that Sinn Féin repeatedly argued that we should not seek a borrowing power before we had secured a peace dividend, on the grounds that it would look as though we had given up on securing such additional funds. The question arises: has Sinn Féin given up on the peace dividend? The SDLP believes that to borrow at the preferential rates available to the Government can be part of a cost-effective strategy to stimulate our economy. Such benefits will more than make up for the cost of borrowing.

The suspension of the Assembly in 2002 meant that the terms under which the borrowing power is currently exercised are not to our satisfaction, so we must renegotiate those terms. We want investment to be paid for in a fair and affordable manner. We opposed the old rates system because it penalised those on low incomes. We have been equally clear that the direct rule conclusion to the rating review resulted in unaffordable and unjust rates for a significant number of people.

At its inception, the reinvestment and reform initiative was linked to the creation of the Strategic Investment Board, a body which we proposed to enable a radical new approach to long-term spending commitments so that they would be devised in a strategic manner, refined by expert financial input and agreed in partnership with leaders of civic society. It is surely no accident that the Southern Government have copied that model by establishing a centre of expertise within its National Development Finance Agency to build skills and capacity in the area of public procurement.

In considering the issue of tax-varying powers, my party and I obviously support the idea of greater capacity in the Assembly to tackle unique local circumstances. Consistent with our position on corporation tax, the SDLP has proposals to address competition issues arising from our land border with the South and to expand on existing co-operation on infrastructure.

Although I support the motion, I caution Members that, on such matters, the devil will be in the detail when it comes to negotiations with the British Govern­ment. Mr Brown is unlikely to agree to any change that will simply increase our income; he might, in fact, place further pressure on our Budget — a point that has already been made. Should it come to the point of negotiating such developments, our representatives would need to have their wits about them and be confident that any package that is agreed is genuinely to our advantage.

In summary, and in part, in an attempt to ensure that this House communicates with one voice — although I hear the utterances of other voices — I support the motion, in so far as it is competent, given our existing borrowing powers —

Mr Deputy Speaker: Your time is up, Mr O’Loan.

Dr Farry: I support the motion, and in so doing, it is important to stress at the outset that that is not an endorsement of the potential of the current Executive to use such powers wisely, but rather a recognition on the part of the opposition in the Chamber that the ability to deliver real change for the economy of Northern Ireland and its people depends on the Assembly having real fiscal powers. Without those powers, we have only a second-rate form of devolution.

Some Members have already mentioned corporation tax. If there is to be a reduction in corporation tax in Northern Ireland, we will have to have tax-varying powers; that is the way in which the Treasury would envisage that happening.

Mr Burnside: Will the Member give way?

Dr Farry: No. I have a lot to get through. I will now move to the matter of the regional rate. Members have spoken about the need to avoid irresponsible tax rises, but the regional rate is already used as a form of taxation in Northern Ireland. It is no longer linked to any particular delivery of services, but is simply used by the Executive to balance the books. We have already seen 19% rates hikes in previous years; we will wait with interest to see what happens in the future.

Similarly, water charges are also looming as a means of balancing the books. Although the Assembly deferred water charges for one year, no feasible plans have been put forward to date for avoiding those charges in the future. Our budgets are locked into the assumption of water charges, and to avoid them we will have to divert money from elsewhere.

There are challenges for all of us.

We have to consider the regional convergence of Northern Ireland with the rest of the UK. At present, we are 80% of that average. The current draft regional economic strategy from the previous Administration, but not yet replaced by the current Administration, does not see any meaningful convergence of our economy with the UK average. Despite all the investment into Northern Ireland over recent years, the figures are not changing.

British Government policy may nominally be committed to regional convergence, but it is clear that successive British Governments have prioritised London and the south-east of England as the main driver of the overall UK economy. That area is viewed as something to be protected at all costs, and it seems that the Government are happier to keep the regions of the UK financially dependent, rather than give them the powers to make a real difference and to make their economies and their financial situations sustainable. Therefore, the real challenge of the Assembly is to stand up to that and demand the powers to make a real change.

Perhaps the real tragedy is that there are people inside and outside the Assembly who seem happy to accept and collude in the preservation of a conservative status quo that will not make any difference to our economy. In the last Assembly, when Alliance raised the issue of tax-varying powers, our calls were dismissed by those in office because of fears that the UK Treasury would use it as an opportunity to reassess the Barnett formula and cut the financial subvention from London. There are those who seem to think that the fact that we receive a subvention of £7 billion a year is a major achievement and something to be protected at all costs. In fact, it is a sign of the weakness of our situation, something that is unsustainable in the long term and something we must tackle rather than simply bank.

It is important to stress that giving this Assembly tax-varying powers is not tantamount to advocating or accepting an overall increase in the level of tax. It is about giving the Assembly the opportunity to do things differently and the assent to engage in effective policy changes, with the full range of options.

As a party, we have made the case to the Treasury, as the Executive and a number of Committees have done, for it to give the Assembly the powers to vary the rate of corporation tax.

Mr Burnside: Will the Member give way?

Dr Farry: No. I have already said no.

Mr Burnside: Do you not understand —?

Dr Farry: Does the Member for South Antrim not understand the meaning of the word no?

Corporation tax is one of the major pieces of the jigsaw for trying to improve our economy, but it is not the only one. The private sector must be given the ability and the stimulus to develop and attract inward investment. This is not about imposing extra burdens on businesses or families; it is about trying to create the conditions in which we can become a more attractive location for business to operate in.

Alliance also believes that consideration should be given to replacing the regional rate with a local income tax. We are honest about that. The regional rate is not linked to providing local services; it is already, in effect, a Northern Ireland form of taxation that a large portion of the public sees as being unfair. Consideration must be given to finding a better way of doing things.

Alliance believes that much greater use should be made of environmental charges and taxes. The burden should be shifting away from taxes on income and property towards things that are bad in our society, such as damage to the environment. Tax-varying powers would allow the Assembly to be much more creative.

Mr Hamilton: I am sure there are few topics discussed in the Chamber that fill working families and businesses with as much dread as this one, and what I have heard from the Benches opposite so far has not dispelled that fear. I have no doubt that someone somewhere in the Chamber has the ability to exercise the powers to vary and raise taxes responsibly.

Mr S Wilson: Not on the opposite side.

Mr Hamilton: I am certainly not looking opposite for it; that is for sure. The requisite fiscal responsibility seems to be sorely lacking.

Since its inception in May, the Assembly has called for everything from free personal care to free prescriptions to more investment in the rail network. Those are all worthy causes but, at the same time, Members have resisted increasing revenue streams, whether from business or from ratepayers. It is worth repeating that the Assembly needs a reality check and not more politics of the blank cheque. With the ability to vary tax, I fear — and there is clear evidence for this — that Members would not be able to resist the temptation to raise taxes to pay for each and every demand that is made of them.

5.00 pm

Even if the Assembly were not so immature and some Members were not so fiscally irresponsible, the attitude to taxation of parties in the Chamber — particularly of the party proposing today’s motion — would render the proposal utterly unacceptable. No less than the Sinn Féin president let the cat out of the bag in an interview with the ‘News Letter’ in March 2007. He was asked:

“Your party opposes water charges — but can you categorically say you will abolish the tap tax? And if so, how will you replace the lost hundreds of millions of pounds of revenue.”

Mr Adams responded:

“Obviously, public services have to be paid for, but Sinn Fein is looking for tax varying powers for the Executive.”

Even someone with as rudimentary a grasp of taxation and economics as the Member for West Belfast can understand what that means: Sinn Féin intends to pay for services with tax increases.

Further evidence of Sinn Féin’s true intentions can clearly been seen when its support for tax-raising powers is viewed in tandem with its commitment to the harmonisation of tax rates on an all-island basis.

In recent times, Members have heard much about the South’s competitive corporation tax rate. However, it would be short-sighted to come to the conclusion on the basis of that alone that the Irish Republic is some sort of tax nirvana. A cursory glance at the Republic’s tax rates reveals that its top rate of income tax is higher than that in Northern Ireland, its VAT rate of 21% is 3·5% higher and, at 9%, its top rate of stamp duty is some 6% higher. The tax policy that Sinn Féin wants to foist on Northern Ireland is probably OK as long as people do not own a house, work or buy anything.

It seems to be simple and straightforward. Sinn Féin whispers sweet nothings about incentivising “this” and encouraging “that” through the tax system. However, the harsh reality for those who matter — taxpayers — is that should republicans be granted their wish, their pockets will be hit harder and harder. Given Sinn Féin’s socialist and Marxist persuasion — although sometimes their views bear more resemblance to Groucho Marx than Karl Marx — businesses and the hard-working middle classes will be hit the hardest.

Mr Weir: The Member said that Sinn Féin’s policies would mean that people would be grand as long as they do not work, own a house or buy anything. In light of that, will the type of people who are attracted to Northern Ireland result in a society of hermits living in caves?

Mr Hamilton: That is a good, well-made point. If Sinn Féin’s policy were implemented, the working class would evaporate because no one would work under those conditions.

I became involved in public life partly to assist business and to help those ordinary people in the Province who have been hardest hit over the years by the tax and rates regimes. For 35 years, Sinn Féin’s associates in the IRA subjected the people and businesses of Northern Ireland to a war. There is no way that my party or I will support Sinn Féin in subjecting those same people to a war on their pockets.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Mr McQuillan: Other than Sinn Féin Members, few Members in the Chamber will not see the motion for what it is: a cheap, ill-considered stunt to grab a few quick headlines. However, it is important to expose the political and economic hypocrisy that Sinn Féin displays in suggesting the fundamental economic changes contained in the motion.

In political terms, I need hardly remind Members that Northern Ireland is, and will remain, an integral part of the United Kingdom, together with England, Scotland and Wales. Although significant powers have been devolved to those regions, they combine as one nation to consider legislation on fundamental issues of national interest such as defence, taxation and economic policy. As a sovereign nation, it is in our interest that those decisions are taken at Westminster. If Sinn Féin is genuinely interested in influencing Her Majesty’s Government on taxation, it should accept its electoral responsibilities to its constituents by taking its seats at Westminster and advancing the arguments in the proper place. The DUP always lobbies vigorously for the best interests of all classes and creeds in Northern Ireland. However, it does so from within the United Kingdom of which we are all citizens.

The general economic approach suggested in the motion, and the policies that were soundly rejected by the people of the Irish Republic in the recent general election, clearly demonstrate that Sinn Féin has abandoned its Marxist economic principles. It has now turned its attention to Northern Ireland to try to advance its tax-and-spend policies.

Such policies would inevitably lead to higher taxation of working people, increased borrowing, rising debt and loss of stability in our local economy. Equally worrying is the fact that Sinn Féin does not seem to have recognised the potential knock-on effect of tax-varying powers. Does the party truly believe that the block grant from Westminster would be unaffected? Can its members not see the potential impact on Northern Ireland if that level of support is lost?

From the outset, I said that such an approach was ill considered, and I have illustrated that in political and economic terms. What renders the motion more irresponsible is its timing. Just over three months into the life of the new Executive, Sinn Féin appears to have lost touch with reality, seeking more power rather than applying itself to facing the many challenging issues that are before the Assembly. I have no doubt that the people of Northern Ireland want to see Members considering and delivering on those issues before we begin to think about an extension of our powers. I share that view and oppose the motion.

Mr Burnside: Let us assume that the House votes in favour of the motion and that the Minister of Finance and Personnel believes that it a good idea and wishes to negotiate with Her Majesty’s Government to obtain total fiscal independence for this part of the United Kingdom. May I introduce a few words that most Members do not seem to realise exist in the English language: the first one being “recession”.

Imagine if there were a major recession in the United Kingdom following the transfer of fiscal powers to this local Assembly. All of the taxes will have been increased — for I have not heard one example of tax being decreased; all tax-varying powers are to be used to increase taxes — and Her Majesty’s Treasury will to come under great pressure because of the state of the national economy. There is a similar situation ongoing in the United States at the moment. Commentators are referring to it as the sub-prime crisis in the banking community. I do not understand it completely. However, if we were to have a major recession, with job losses — not at the level of 2% that exists currently in my constituency, but real recession that cuts deep into employment — what would Her Majesty’s Government do, if there were independent tax-raising and tax-varying powers in Northern Ireland? They would say, “Bye-bye boys”.

England would look towards Scotland, which already has tax-varying powers, and would increase its 2p variation on tax. England would also increase the tax variation that it would have given to Stormont and the Welsh Assembly.

People should realise that if this region of the United Kingdom is given tax-raising powers, and we move into a recession, we would have to pay for that. We do have to do that now because we are in a very beneficial position through being part of the United Kingdom and part of the national economy. Those who say we need more tax-varying independent powers need to grow up a wee bit. It would be a one-way street in which one would be asking for the tax-varying power that Scotland asked for and then asking for more. There would be increased tax powers and increased taxes for Northern Ireland.

I am talking in a pragmatic way, rather than on the principle of devolving and separating the United Kingdom into different tax areas. The Alliance MLA, Dr Farry, did not realise what he was saying in that there would be a Chancellor of the Exchequer here in Northern Ireland with total powers over capital taxation. If he had given way and allowed me to speak, that is what I would have told him that he was proposing. That would be a ludicrous position for us to be in.

The level of corporation tax is set by the national Government, and it will be very difficult to achieve a variation because Gordon Brown will set his face against it. However, we will wait and see the report of the independent review.

We are on dangerous ground. The Assembly is an administration that spends part of the national take for schools, hospitals, and for all the things that we need to do to serve and benefit our constituents. The last thing we need is a variation of tax-raising powers, and I am very concerned that the SDLP and the Alliance Party appear to be going into the Lobbies — if the House is divided — to support independent tax-raising powers for the Northern Ireland Assembly on the basis of an opinion.

We must move slowly in the Assembly and in the Executive and try to administer the block grant — the subsidy and support from our national Government — to improve the services that we provide to our people. This is a dangerous course to embark upon, and I hope that anyone here who is a unionist with a small “u” and who has any leaning towards being part of the United Kingdom will go into the Lobby tonight and oppose the transfer of tax-varying powers. It will do nothing to help the economy; it will do nothing to help the ordinary working man; and it will do nothing to help businesses in Northern Ireland. It will also weaken the United Kingdom, which is something that matters to me.

Mr S Wilson: The general public would be totally dismayed if the motion was passed and, even worse, if the Government at Westminster decided to grant our wishes. The public have a sensible attitude towards politicians and money, and they want as few chances as possible for politicians to have anything to do with their wallets. I suspect that is even true of my colleague, the Minister of Finance and Personnel, who, during his brief time as Minister and during his time on Castlereagh Borough Council, gained a reputation for financial prudence that made Gordon Brown look profligate. Even with his reputation, the public would not want tax-raising powers to be transferred to the Executive.

It has been dressed in the term “tax varying powers”, but the promoter of the motion, Dr Farry from North Down, said that it is a chance to make real change, to transform the economy and to spend money on all the things that we need, such as infrastructure, health and education. Having listened to the speeches, this is not about varying tax rates; this is about finding a financial cosh to go out and mug the public with. That is why people would be dismayed if those powers were ever transferred to the Executive.

Mr O’Loan from North Antrim at least tried to get some variation on it. He said that if the Executive had those borrowing powers, we could get cancer units that cost nothing. I think that I am correct in saying that he was an economist, and economists know that there is no such thing as a free lunch. There is no such thing as a free cancer unit either. How did we borrow the money? How did we service that debt? We serviced it by raising the regional rate. It had to be serviced by taking money out of people’s pockets; it did not come out of the heavens and appear to us.

The point must be made that if the Executive had tax-varying powers, things would go in only one direction. The Member for North Down Mr Weir pointed out that, during earlier debates, I mentioned that we spent the block grant almost on a weekly basis. Members across the way proposed many things in the first six weeks of this Assembly, including more money for railways, dental care, refuges for battered people, personal care for the elderly, donations for the Irish who are about to get thrown out of the USA, and the appointment of a commissioner for older people. There is a whole list, and I am only a quarter of the way through it. If the Executive were given tax-varying powers, they would not have to make difficult choices — they would just spend the money.

Dr Farry supports the motion, because one member of his party alone could spend all the money in the block grant in a day. Mr McCarthy seems to treat this place as some kind of financial auction room. A Member makes a bid and then he makes a higher bid. Then the next week he is back to try to outbid the person who proposed good things for the public the previous week. His party, especially, would need to be watched if tax-varying powers were ever transferred to the Executive.

There are other reasons why tax-raising powers are not something that we should seek. First, it would be a one-way street. There would be more spending, and I do not know whether there would be any curtailment on people or examination of the real priorities and choices, because the Executive would have no choice; they would simply dip into the taxpayers’ pocket more often and take more money out.

Secondly, as Members heard in the last debate, Northern Ireland needs a competitive economy, but we cannot be a competitive economy if our system simply extracts more money. Members who are economists will know all about the Laffer curve — I will not bore the Chamber with it now; I used to bore people all afternoon with it in school. The Laffer curve shows that the more that is taken from people, the less effort they will make, and the end result is less revenue.

The other issue, and it was well pointed out by the Member for South Antrim, is that if we adopt tax-varying powers, we will give Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister, and Mr Darling — who would be no darling for Northern Ireland — the opportunity to tell us that we are on our own and if we want to raise tax, we can.

5.15 pm

Mr B McCrea: I do not normally have to speak after such an impassioned speech, and I will try to raise the temperature even further.

I listened with dismay to the arguments of the three parties on the opposite side of the Chamber. Their arguments were inconsistent, incoherent and incredible; they showed a fundamental misunderstanding of how economics works.

When some Members lecture us that the North of Ireland or Northern Ireland — whatever the title — does not work, they show that they do not understand that we are part of the United Kingdom. All the other regions — the north-east, Scotland, Wales, the West Midlands, the south-west — are in the same financial situation as we are because we operate as part of a much bigger economic whole. Being part of the economic combine that is the United Kingdom gives us the resources of the fourth largest economy in the world. Due to that we can spend £2 for every £1 that is paid in tax. That is why we have our £7 billion.

Mr A Maskey: Will the Member give way?

Mr B McCrea: I will give way, Alex, to show that I can argue with the best, unlike Dr Farry who will not give way.

Mr A Maskey: I thank the Member for giving way. Wearing another hat on the issue of industrial derating, the Member wants to vary the take that would be expected of the manufacturing sector. That is a tax- or rate-varying power of the kind that we are looking for.

Mr B McCrea: I am glad that Alex mentioned that, because as the twig is bent so grows the tree. Our economy is built on what happened in the past 30 to 40 years. Removing industrial derating now would ruin our manufacturing, and it would be the fault of the Assembly.

Members cannot have it both ways on corporation tax; they cannot cherry-pick and ask for corporation tax to be lowered but still expect £7 billion to pay for disability living allowance, social benefits, housing and all the rest.

This is an exercise in efficiency; we need to do more with less. The former Chancellor of the Exchequer and current Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, said that productivity is the key to all economic success, which means doing more with less. Before telling the people of Northern Ireland that we would like more money, we must demonstrate that we can spend wisely what we are already being given.

If people are taxed more, they will leave. Nobody seems to understand that — it is the Laffer curve that Sammy Wilson mentioned, and it applies to industrial derating as well. If too much tax is put on people, they will go elsewhere. The Northern Ireland economy needs more people, more skills and more entrepreneurs. That will build our economy; that is what the Assembly has to sort out.

Perhaps some of the more educated Members will correct me, but I recall that income tax was introduced as a temporary measure to fund the Napoleonic war. The trouble with tax is that, once raised, it never comes down. [Laughter.]

The issue is that the big battle about funding social programmes, which is why we are all here, has been fought and won. There is now little difference between the Tories and new Labour. Why? Because the economic question has been resolved: a free market with a social conscience is needed to make sure that there are no excesses. That is the issue.

If Members send out a message that the Assembly will raise taxes, this place will last about six weeks. The people did not put us here to put our hands in their pockets: they elected us to manage their resources as best we can. Northern Ireland has a lot of resources, and we must manage them properly. I am fundamentally opposed to the motion.

The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr P Robinson): Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to respond to the debate. I do not agree with the proposer of the motion, but it is nonetheless useful that the Assembly takes the opportunity to debate such matters. However, I hope that the matter ends here, and that the proposer is merely taking the opportunity to debate the issue and does not push the motion to a vote.

I agree with the proposer that it is necessary to have the tools to do something different and that we need to invest in skills and infrastructure and in the other drivers of our economy. However, I question her suggestion on tax-varying or — as most Members have now defined them — tax-raising powers for Northern Ireland.

I have listened to the debate with great interest, and I think that it would be useful to correct some of the misconceptions and misunderstandings on what is a critical issue for the Executive. I will also set out the nature of our relationship, as a devolved institution within the United Kingdom, with the national Government and Parliament.

I will explain briefly how the Executive derive their funding resources, which are presented in the budgetary process that the Assembly approves. I also want to highlight how the fiscal framework applies to Northern Ireland and what discretion is available to the Executive on issues such as borrowing. The bulk of the public expenditure available to the Executive is provided through the operation of the Barnett formula by which Northern Ireland gets a population-based share of expenditure allocations that Treasury makes to aspects of the work of certain Whitehall Departments. The Barnett mechanism presently accounts for approximately 92% of the resources allocated in the Northern Ireland budget. The remaining resources distributed by the Executive are generated through taxes and charges such as rates and water charges.

Members should also be aware that the Executive have a borrowing power agreed with Treasury — the reinvestment and reform Initiative (RRI) — which allows them to borrow from the National Loans Fund. It allows us to draw down additional capital resources of up to £200 million a year. We have to pay interest on that borrowing, but it is at a more favourable rate than those available in commercial markets.

I confirm what the Member for East Antrim Roy Beggs said about having to pay the interest as well as the loan. Services for the loan have to come from somewhere, and, in this case, the borrowing has to come from the regional rate. This borrowing power must be employed prudently to ensure that we do not commit to future legacy costs that could be an excessive burden on future generations.

With regard to tax-varying powers, the Assembly has powers, unfettered by Westminster, to increase the level of our regional rate. Members will be aware that on 15 May 2007, I announced a further review of the new domestic rating system that was introduced by direct rule Ministers in April of this year. The terms of reference for the review — agreed by the Executive — reflected my intention to examine a range of options for change. The consultation exercise sought views on what improvements could be made to the existing system in time for next year’s rates bill and any possible alternatives to the rating system. One of the issues included in that second strand is the feasibility of tax-varying powers.

In advance of the Executive taking time to consider the outcome of the consultation process, it is premature to be calling for tax-varying powers for Northern Ireland. If the motion were supported, it would under­mine the objective open consultation and consideration that the Executive endorsed.

As for generating financial resources through water charges, the Executive await the report of the independent water review panel, which is due shortly. The Executive will then discuss the report’s implications further, before the Assembly takes a final decision. As I have indicated, it is wrong to say that Northern Ireland does not have tax-varying powers — in certain areas, we do. Rates and water revenues are already policy instruments that are at the disposal of the Executive. We are also, generally, able to introduce other taxes as long as they do not replicate existing UK-wide taxes. However, I suspect that the motion seeks income-tax-varying powers.

Much of the debate has been about new measures that should be made available to the Executive. However, room for debate in that area is severely constrained by the financial framework set by HM Treasury. Members will be aware of the efforts that we have exerted over recent months to secure a concession from HM Treasury on corporation tax. While we await the outcome of the Varney Review, I ask Members not to underestimate how jealously HM Treasury guards its ownership of fiscal policy. Perhaps, even more significantly, we should not assume that Northern Ireland would benefit from tax-varying powers.

Some commentators have also referred to the use of external bonds to finance public investment in Northern Ireland. That is not materially different to using the reinvestment and reform facility, except that the interest rates that would be applied are likely to be higher. More importantly, the Treasury rules would still score those bonds as Government debt — so we would not be any better off. The only way in which Northern Ireland would benefit from some form of bonds would be if the assets that they funded were off the Government books. However, that would leave those assets to be formally owned by the private sector. Politically, that has not proved to be an over-attractive option to date.

The tax-varying facility available to the Scottish Executive has also been highlighted as a tax-raising power that the Northern Ireland Executive should seek. The fact that Scotland has never sought to avail of that facility indicates that it does not see that measure as a panacea for its problems. Even if such a power were to be made available through legislative change, it would pose difficult choices.

I am not clear what the true intention behind the call for tax-varying powers is, or whether there is any agreement on it. As I see it, broadly speaking, there are four alternatives. The Member for North Down Peter Weir mentioned two of them.

First, if the purpose for having tax-varying powers is to increase tax, Members must recognise that. Increasing direct taxation would further undermine the region’s competitiveness. At a time when we are making economic growth a key priority for the Assembly, it would be wrong to increase the burden on the workforce.

During discussions before I came to the Chamber, I had decided not to mention the details of the Laffer curve, because I was sure that no one would mention it in the Assembly, but it seems to be the centre of our debate. [Laughter.]

However, we must take into account the fact that, in the most narrow terms, if one were to increase the tax on anyone in the workforce in Northern Ireland, the automatic response would be that they would seek an increase in wages to make up for the loss that they have borne in taxation. One needs only to look at the repercussive effects of that, particularly in the public sector, and the reduction there would, therefore, be in spend and resources.

Secondly, however, if the purpose is to reduce taxation, it would almost certainly have to be self-financed by the Executive, if my reading of the recent Azores case is correct. It would also be, at best, unlikely, in circumstances where there is a fiscal deficit of around £7 billion a year, that the UK Government would pay for extra tax cuts for Northern Ireland alone. I regard higher taxes in Northern Ireland than in other parts of the United Kingdom as politically unacceptable, and lower taxes, when we already have a £7 billion fiscal deficit each year, as unrealistic.

Thirdly, we may wish to have tax-varying powers without ever actually deciding to use them. That is not a cost-free option either.

The Administration in Scotland pay approximately £8 million a year to keep the necessary systems in place to allow the option to be used. However, it will cost them about £10 million to activate those systems, and that is money that could be spent on front-line services.

5.30 pm

The fourth option is for a local Executive to use the tax-varying powers to replace the regional rate. I suspect that that is the main thrust of the Alliance Party’s argument. However, the impact of increasing income tax and reducing property taxes would be the expectation that those who are in work will pay for those who are not. Although we may not always approve of the details of UK-wide fiscal policy, Northern Ireland benefits enormously from being part of the United Kingdom.

Dr Farry suggested that the availability of tax-varying powers is the step change that is needed to change the economy of Northern Ireland. The amount of money that comes in — or the way that it comes in — is not the issue. A property tax or an income tax could bring in exactly the same amount of money: whatever level the income tax was increased to could be matched by an increase in the rates. The only difference that the motion would make would be to who pays the tax. Any property tax would be paid by those who own residences in Northern Ireland. Those who have no property, or no job — either because they cannot, or will not, find one — would not have to pay under the replacement system that the Alliance Party is offering.

However, the stimulus to the growth of our economy is not based so much on the way that the money brought in is allocated in Northern Ireland; productivity is the key, as Mr McCrea the Member for Lagan Valley indicated. That is the step change that is needed to increase our GVA. I am happy to say that we now have a better GVA than Wales, with the result that we are no longer the worst part of the United Kingdom in that respect.

Members should consider carefully the implications of agreeing the motion. The superficial attraction of tax-varying powers does not stand up to detailed scrutiny. Members should not underestimate the dangers of opening up such matters with the Treasury. I might find myself at odds with Mr Wilson, my colleague from East Antrim, who thinks that the Treasury would be very difficult if we were to approach it with such a proposal. I suspect that the Treasury would say, “Yes, go on ahead; we would be happy for you to have those powers”, and wash its hands as a result. However, I hope that the Assembly will not test the Exchequer and the Government on that issue.

We are operating within a complex public expenditure framework, and unfavourable consequences are often associated with what might seem a simplistic policy action. As well as my concerns about the principle behind tax-varying powers, I do not believe that the timing is right. It is prudent to await the outcome of certain exercises, such as the rating review, before considering a motion as complex as this. If the motion is pushed to the vote — and I hope that it will not be — I will oppose it for those reasons. I urge Members to do the same.

Mr Deputy Speaker: The Question is — [Interruption.]

I am sorry; Mr McLaughlin should have his right of reply. [Laughter.]

I call Mr McLaughlin to make his winding-up speech on the motion. I am quite sure that Willie Hay would not have done that.

Mr McLaughlin: In winding up the debate, I speak in my capacity as economic spokesperson for Sinn Féin, despite my being a member of the Committee for Finance and Personnel.

In her earlier remarks, my colleague Ms McCann detailed the argument for greater economic autonomy for the Executive. I welcome and acknowledge the fact that some Members who contributed to the debate have demonstrated a commitment to put the old politics — the politics of the past — behind them. Those politics meant that whichever party sponsored a proposal was of greater priority than the issue itself, with the effect of predetermining either support for, or opposition to, a motion.

Perhaps that indicates that some in the Assembly are emerging from the travails of a deep-seated conflict and are developing a more mature and pragmatic approach — a form of politics based on a democratically grounded, inclusive process that acknowledges the need to seek and find agreement in the wider interests of the community. There are others who have yet to embark on that process.

I call on Members to vote on the motion based on its merits and for the benefits that it would deliver to all sections of our people. That will be the politics of the present and the future; the politics of change that reflects that which Members are collectively achieving.

Last week, many people in Ireland voted in the People of the Year awards. They recognised the leader­ship that was necessary to achieve the restoration of the Assembly and to re-establish the primacy of politics over conflict and division. At times, that leadership was difficult. It was constantly challenged and criticised by those who lacked courage or vision or who simply were deeply troubled because they did not understand. Painful decisions had to be made, and long-standing friendships were put at risk. I congratulate the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, who were nominated on behalf of all Members, for their achieve­ments, along with Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair, in bringing the process to this point.

Mr Burnside: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Will there be a ruling that Members speak somewhere within the parameters of the motion?

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

Mr McLaughlin: A little patience will show the connection that I wish to make.

In the context of my earlier comments, Sinn Féin recognises the pressure and pain involved, and appreciates and applauds the resolve shown across the Chamber that has made progress possible and secured advances that have benefited the entire community. From conversations and contacts that I have had with people from all walks of life — business, social, political and academic — all are agreed that the biggest barrier to building a sustainable economy in the North is the fact that fiscal policy, taxation and public expenditure are all determined in London. All are agreed that that must change, and Members have an unmistakable mandate from the electorate to deliver that agenda.

Mr Beggs: Will the Member give way?

Mr McLaughlin: No, I have a lot to say and I have lost time already.

All are agreed that the situation must change, and we have an unmistakable mandate from the electorate to deliver that agenda for change. An economic policy that is designed and administered by Whitehall will always be delivered for the benefit of the island of Britain, invariably with inadequate consideration of the special needs of the North. Although inherently unjust, that is perfectly understandable. That is the status quo. Our needs will always be peripheral and coincidental to those of Britain — an afterthought, for want of a better expression. Simply put, that is why the status quo must change if Members are to successfully plot a trajectory of economic recovery for the North.

Not only are we excluded from the economic advances in the rest of Ireland because we are locked into the one-size-fits-all approach of the British Treasury, but Members must work within the parameters of the inadequate and unfair Barnett formula, which has already been referred to, and a privatisation agenda that has been imposed by politicians who will never be held accountable to the electorate in the North.

In their engagements with Gordon Brown, the British Treasury and, latterly, with the Varney Review, all parties — including Sinn Féin, to correct some of the misrepresentation from across the Floor — argued for a more competitive level of corporation tax. It does no service to anyone to completely and wilfully misrepresent the positions of the respective parties. We are all in this together.

In any event, Executive Ministers will require a more realistic mechanism to calculate the block grant that will effectively take those factors into account and ensure the allocation of funding on the basis of need and a fairer distribution of resources. I particularly welcome today’s comments from Ian Paisley, who made it clear that the Executive would have to seek additional resources to address the issue of poverty and its underlying causes. Hear, hear.

In debates in the Programme for Government Committee, set up in the Hain Assembly, and in the Preparation for Government Committee, all parties clearly and consistently supported the introduction of tax-varying powers in order to grow the regional economy; develop and target tax incentives towards areas of high unemployment; encourage small businesses; and enable other specific sectors, such as the social economy sector.

Recent consensus reports from the Programme for Government process demonstrated that the parties shared a clear understanding of the imperative need to acquire the tools necessary to reinvigorate the private sector of the economy.

It is vital that the parties sustain that consensus as the Varney Review team prepares to report to the British Government. In that context, I welcome the presence of the Minister, and I would like to respond to his comments at the end of my speech.

A succession of unionist spokespersons — and I can see no distinction in the unionist position — appeared to argue that the North has a basket-case economy and that we dare not interfere with the subvention. It seems that we can only exist on the basis of —

Mr B McCrea: Will the Member give way?

Mr McLaughlin: No, I am sorry I will not.

It seems that we can only continue to exist and project into the future on the basis of that dependency.

Ultimately, we must consider whether we can make a better fist of government than direct rule Ministers, and that we can deal — as we will have to deal some time — with the underperforming economy in the North. Somebody must explain to me, as no one across the Floor has done so, how supporting an argument for reducing corporation tax to 12·5% is not an argument for tax variation. I accuse Members of responding to the authorship of the motion rather than to the issues that they are supposed to discuss.

In the course of many discussions, Sinn Féin also made clear its aspiration to see the introduction of an unrestricted borrowing facility to replace the RRI. That proposal was not supported, and Sinn Féin supports the democratic outcome of that discussion. In the event, all the parties, including Sinn Féin, supported a minimum of the separation of the RRI facility from the so-called convergence principle, under which the Treasury had introduced the water-charges policy.

I note that the SDLP spokesperson took credit for RRI, yet the SDLP must take responsibility for the fact that that measure and the strings and conditions that were attached was exploited to introduce water charges. Thankfully, the need for the separation of RRI from the convergence principle was successfully impressed upon the Treasury and Gordon Brown.

The Northern economy has always suffered from the disadvantage of peripherality. Most regions in Britain have enjoyed an economic head start over the North. The British Government’s statistics bear testimony to the failure of Whitehall policy over a period so extended as to be absolutely undeniable. The current policy simply does not work for the North. It will not, and cannot be made to, work.

In addition, intense competition between and within the regions on the island of Ireland is also an unavoidable reality — particularly when trying to attract inward investment. Sinn Féin would prefer that we were working towards harmonisation of tax regimes across the island and a level economic playing field. However, that is another day’s work.

In any event, Sinn Féin wants to see greater local autonomy over the setting of objectives and goals in expenditure and investment. These are only some of the issues that support the impetus for tax-varying powers to be given to the Assembly. Ultimately, it is up to us to decide how they are applied.

I ask the Assembly to support the motion. The point made by the Minister deserves a response, and Sinn Féin will not push the House towards a Division, although it supports the motion. Go raibh míle maith agat.

Question put and negatived.

Adjourned at 5.44 pm.

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