Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 17 September 2007

Assembly Business

Ministerial Statement:
Additional Dentistry Funding

Committee Business:
Taxis Bill: Extension of Committee Stage

Private Members’ Business:
Ad Hoc Committee on Suicide

Oral Answers to Questions:
Employment and Learning
Enterprise, Trade and Investment

Private Members’ Business:
Free public transport for women from the age of 60

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

Members observed two minutes’ silence.

Assembly Business

Mr Campbell: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I ask that you review the Hansard report of last Tuesday’s debate on attacks on Orange Halls. There has been an omission from page 276, column 2. I understand that it can be difficult for Hansard staff to pick up all interventions, especially if a debate becomes heated; however, although my intervention was clearly audible on this side and was definitely heard on the other side of the Chamber, it was omitted.

Speaking at 2.30 pm, junior Minister Mr Kelly said:

“that is why attacks on homes, businesses, Orange Halls, other buildings belonging to the Loyal Orders, GAA premises, and all other cultural and religious premises must be condemned.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 23, p276, col 2].

At that point, I asked, “And the Old Bailey?”

Perhaps you would review that exchange, Mr Speaker.

Mr Speaker: Thank you for your point of order. I shall speak to the Editor of Debates. I will then either write to you directly, or bring the matter back to the House.

Ministerial Statement

Additional Dentistry Funding

Mr Speaker: I have received notice from the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety that he wishes to make a statement on additional dentistry funding.

The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Mr McGimpsey): Access to Health Service dentistry has been one of the first — and most pressing — issues that, as Minister, I have had to address. I believe strongly that people who want Health Service dentistry should be able to get it.

As Members are aware, that is far from the case in too many parts of Northern Ireland. Members will recall that during the debate on dentistry on 2 July 2007, a question was asked about what could be done to address the drift of dentists from the Health Service into private practice.

At that time, I explained that after representations from the British Dental Association, an additional recurrent investment of £2 million had been agreed, effective from April 2007. That additional £2 million was to assist dentists who continue to provide care for Health Service patients with the costs of running their practices. It was hoped that that additional funding would encourage dentists to remain in the Health Service and slow the drift into private practice.

However, I have listened carefully to representations made by Members and their constituents across Northern Ireland; I am also aware of the issues that have been raised by the British Dental Association. It is now clear to me that previous Administrations have not done enough to address the issue effectively.

Although that additional £2 million is undoubtedly a significant investment in our 361 dental practices, it has become clear to me that it has not proved sufficient to stop the movement of dentists out of the Health Service. We need to take further measures not only to retain dentists in the Health Service but to address the problems of access to Health Service treatment in areas where dentists have opted for private practice. We also need to keep an adequate supply of dentists in Northern Ireland practices in the first place.

I am pleased to be able to announce to the House a substantial package of additional measures. First, I am making an additional injection of £2 million recurrent funding, over and above that already announced in this financial year, into practice allowances. That is spec­ifically to address the profession’s main concern with the current dental contract — increasing overhead costs.

Secondly, in recognition of the increasing costs of meeting cross-infection control standards, I am making a further £1·5 million available to help dentists with the costs of necessary new equipment and procedures for sterilisation and disinfection, thus improving patient safety in the surgeries.

Thirdly, to help to ensure an adequate supply of new dentists into Health Service dentistry in Northern Ireland, I am making available £500,000 to increase significantly the vocational training allowances for trainers who are willing to take on new graduates.

Finally, I am determined to address the problem of equity of access to Health Service dentistry by allocating up to £400,000 to health boards to enable them to start to grow the salaried dental sector in order to plug the gaps in Health Service provision.

I have already said that the additional £2 million recurrent funding, which was announced earlier this year, is insufficient to address the profession’s concerns about the increasing costs of running a dental practice. There is evidence that those costs are rising at a much higher rate than inflation. Therefore, I have decided to approve a further £2 million funding of the practice allowance. That increase will be targeted at those dental practices that are defined as “Health Service-committed” — in other words, they must provide a minimum level of Health Service treatment, which must include those adults who pay for their Health Service treatment. It is my intention that that increase to the practice allowance will incentivise dentists not only to remain in the Health Service but to continue to provide care and treatment to paying adults.

For those practices, that will mean that the practice allowance is, in effect, being raised from 8% of practice Health Service income to 11%. On average, Health Service-committed practices will now receive an annual practice allowance of £29,600 compared with £21,500 under previous arrangements. If the additional funding that I am announcing today is included, the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, over the past two years, will have invested some £7·7 million into this scheme and the 361 practices involved. Most importantly, it means that I am responding to the main concern expressed by the British Dental Association, which is its assertion that, in the past, Health Service funding has not adequately covered the costs of running a dental practice.

I am also aware that the regulations around infection control procedures, and the continuing raising of standards in that area, have had significant resource implications for the profession.

For example, higher specification sterilisers and other equipment are now required. Patient safety is paramount to me, and it is imperative that our dental practices offer the best possible standard of cross-infection control to their patients. Therefore I am pleased to be able to release a further £1·5 million to assist Health Service dentists to improve their sterilisation and infection-control procedures.

The additional funding will permit dentists to equip their practices to meet the highest infection-control standards and assure patient safety. As with the practice allowance, the additional funding will be allocated to those dental practices with the most Health Service patients, although a proportion will be available to all Health Service practices.

As regards vocational training allowances, Members will be aware that all aspiring dentists, on graduation, must undergo a vocational training year in a dental practice before they are qualified to practice on their own. In recent years, there have been difficulties in attracting sufficient numbers of high-street dentists who are willing to train our new graduates in the Health Service. That has meant that many new graduates must leave the country to undertake their mandatory vocational training year. In fact, 10 graduates had to leave Northern Ireland this year, which is an expensive loss as it cost the taxpayer £1·75 million to train that particular group.

Dental students are expensive to train: the figure is £178,000 per student over the five-year undergraduate course. My Department directly funds more than 50% of that amount, and the balance is funded by the Depart­ment for Employment and Learning. Therefore, it is important that we are in a position to offer training places to all our graduates, not only to provide a sustainable base for the Health Service dental sector, but to ensure a return on the substantial investment that is being made in the students.

I recognise that taking on a graduate for the vocational training year is an expensive undertaking for a dental practice. In addition to requiring supervision from the dental practitioner, each graduate needs to have hands-on experience with patients, which requires the full facilities of a dedicated dental surgery. In response to the shortage of trainers, I have sanctioned an increase to the vocational training allowances paid to dental practitioners to encourage them to become trainers. That will provide additional funding of approximately £0·5 million. I am confident that that additional funding will help incentivise sufficient trainers to provide enough training places for all our graduates and stem the flow of graduates to Scotland and elsewhere to complete their vocational training.

I hope that the significant investments that I have outlined will encourage dentists not only to come into, and stay in, the Health Service but to come back to it where they have currently opted for private practice. Where dentists do not return to the Health Service, I cannot accept the situation in which there are geograph­ical pockets in Northern Ireland where dentists have stopped providing Health Service dentistry, or are providing treatment only to patients who are exempt from charges. I want to move quickly to address that problem.

I mentioned during the course of the Assembly debate on NHS dental treatment on 2 July 2007 that I am encouraging the dental directors of the four boards to seek to commission salaried dentists in areas where there are problems with access to dental services. The Northern Health and Social Services Board has already commissioned a salaried dentist working out of the Dalriada Urgent Care centre in Ballymena. That is a very welcome development, and the board is looking at other possibilities for employing salaried dentists.

The Western Health and Social Services Board has identified the need to recruit six salaried dentists to address access problems in its area. Both boards are actively considering where, and how best, to recruit salaried dentists, bearing in mind the comparative lack of new dentists in the local labour market.

I confirm today that I have made funding of up to £400,000 available to resource those new posts, and I want to see similar proposals from the other two boards as soon as possible to address the identified shortfalls in Health Service dentistry in their areas.

In summary, the measures that I am announcing today represent an investment of £4·4 million into Health Service dentistry to address the immediate issues around access pending the introduction of the new dental contract in the next few years, which I intend will address those issues on a more permanent basis.

12.15 pm

Together with the increase in practice allowances that was announced earlier this year, we are investing a total of £6·4 million in Health Service dentistry this year alone, £4·5 million of which will be recurrent. That represents a substantial package of additional funding for dentists who are committed to the Health Service. I hope that Members will see that package as being my commitment to tackling inequities of access to Health Service dentistry and to making such services available to everyone who wants them.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Mr McGimpsey: I am confident that those measures will help to persuade dental practices across the country, and the general public, that I am determined to provide fair and equitable recompense for Health Service treatment of patients in Northern Ireland. I trust that the profession will respond positively to this generous dental investment package.

The Chairperson of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Mrs I Robinson): I welcome the Minister’s statement, and I thank him for allowing me sight of it before the sitting. During the Assembly debate on NHS dental treatment on 2 July 2007, to which the Minister referred, I acknowledged that, despite improvement in oral health in children and adults in Northern Ireland in recent years, we still have much higher levels of dental disease than our counter­parts in Great Britain or the Republic of Ireland. Tackling that problem, therefore, must be a priority, and any measures that address the particular issue of access to Health Service dentistry must be welcomed.

Just last week, a lady wrote a letter to the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety to point out that there are no longer any dentists operating in County Fermanagh who provide Health Service dentistry, and that all of them are now in private practice. That is a problem, however, not only for the people of County Fermanagh but for people across Northern Ireland, as the Minister will be aware.

My question to the Minister concerns the Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, which the Committee is currently considering. One of the Bill’s provisions seeks to provide a legislative base to allow health and social services boards to enter into a contract with dental practices and individual dentists. The Minister said in his statement that he is allocating up to £400,000 in an effort:

“to start to grow the salaried dental sector”.

How far can that approach progress before the legislative provision is in place?

Mr McGimpsey: Members will know that dentists run independent businesses: they can set up where they want, and it is a matter for them whether they take Health Service patients. That is the situation with which we must deal, and therein lies the raison d’être for the measures in the Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill that primarily seek a new contract between the Health Service and dentists in order to fulfil our stated aim of providing Health Service dentistry for all patients in Northern Ireland.

The Member mentioned salaried dentists. There are general practice dentists, who are those whom I talked about when I mentioned independent businesses. There are also community dentists, who work directly for health and social services boards, and who primarily provide a service to those who have learning disabilities or to those who require general anaesthetic for their dental work. There is also a third category, which we must see grow; namely, salaried dentists who are employed directly by boards to fill the gaps in provision that are identified. As I said, I cannot simply direct dentists to an area where there are gaps and tell them to set up a practice there, any more than I can tell them that they must take on more Health Service patients because they are not taking on enough.

My intention is to create an incentive and a new contract for Health Service dentists, and, in the interim, to employ salaried dentists. There are clear needs for salaried dentists in various areas.

Mrs Robinson asked what the limit to growth is in the salaried dentist sector. Resources set that limit, but, as far as I am concerned, where need exists, we must address that need, and that is what I have asked the health and social services boards to do.

Mr McHugh: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his statement, which comes on the back of the resolution passed in this House on 2 July 2007. Iris Robinson raised the issue of access, and I want to raise the same matter with reference to Fermanagh. Pain clinics are supposed to be available in all areas. However, if people in Fermanagh are in pain at the weekend, or, indeed, at any other time, they have to use the out-of-hours service, which, I am told, is totally unsatisfactory. People have to pay immediately, and sometimes there is great difficulty in claiming that money back. People, who are often very much in need, cannot afford the large amounts of money required.

A lot of money is put into training dentists — they train for five years — and none of that is put back into the public sector after that training is finished. It costs more than £200,000 to train each dentist. Then they go into the private sector, so the NHS gets no return on the money invested.

Can something more, other than what we have been told, be done to give people, and the people of Fermanagh in particular, proper access to pain-relief clinics when they need it? Can that be done as soon as possible?

Mr McGimpsey: The areas that have been referred to are the responsibility of the Western Health and Social Care Trust, which is responsible for provision. It has identified a need for six salaried dentists, and it is actively recruiting those in order to deal with the demand for services that the Member has highlighted.

Where a need exists, my Department attempts to meet that need. We are currently plugging the gaps with salaried dentists. Ideally, we are moving towards a new contract with dentists, and I hope to be able to negotiate that over the next two years. That will enable dentists, and traditional dental practices, to deal primarily with the needs of the people, and to do so through the Health Service, so that free cradle-to-grave healthcare is available for all of the people of Northern Ireland. That is the guiding principle; it is very much my guiding principle. That is what those contracts are about.

As I said, measures must be taken in the meantime. The measures that I have outlined today are targeted primarily at dedicated Health Service practices that treat 500 or more patients. That is where the money is being directed.

I accept the point about investment and return. It is a poor return to invest large sums of money in training young people to be dentists — we badly need them — only for them to be forced to go and work in Scotland, for example. Once they do, there is a possibility that they will not come back. That is why I am also considering increasing allowances for vocational training so that we hold onto our graduates.

Rev Dr Robert Coulter: I welcome the Minister’s announcement, which follows the personal commitment that he gave in the debate in the House earlier this year to address the issues of dental services.

The Minister is aware of the chronic shortage of NHS salaried dentists in the Northern Health and Social Services Board area. Although this statement will help in some way to address the issue, will the Minister take a personal interest in ensuring that resources in the Northern board area are increased as soon as possible in order to meet the demand?

Mr McGimpsey: I have probably largely answered that question in so far as it relates to plugging the gaps through the employment of salaried dentists. For example, I know that in the Northern board area, the need for a salaried dentist has been identified, and it has already employed one. If it needs to employ more, I have no doubt that it will take the necessary step to do so.

The appointments of salaried dentists in the Dalriada Urgent Care centre and in Cushendall have been approved. One of those dentists has already been employed. Further business cases from the Northern board will be given full and prompt consideration when my Department receives them.

Mrs Hanna: As one of the Members who proposed tomorrow’s motion on the National Health Service, I welcome the Minister’s promise of additional funding and the assurances he has given on increased funding for running practices and increased training opportunities for new dentists, so that we get a better return on the £178,000 which it costs to train each dentist.

As the Minister knows, the Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill is now at Consideration Stage. Will there be a facility in that Bill for pilot schemes, to ensure the broadest access to the full range of dental services for the whole community?

Mr McGimpsey: Mrs Hanna makes an important point about access. There must be access to all types of dental treatment in all areas of Northern Ireland. How­ever, 92% of Health Service dentists accepted new Health Service patients last year. We have to look at the context. We have by no means slipped into the situation that pertains in England. My Department is determined to ensure that we do not get that far down the line. We are concerned to ensure access to appropriate treatment, and to have sufficient numbers of dentists in place to provide whatever category of treatment is required.

Mr McCarthy: I also welcome this morning’s announcement. I am delighted to hear that the Minister has listened to the voices of the community and of the Assembly.

I recall that on 2 July, questions were asked about the benefit of debating dental practices in Northern Ireland. I am pleased that the Minister is here as a result of that debate. Clearly, he listened to what everyone said.

I remind Members that, on that day, I questioned the wisdom of the Executive’s spending huge amounts of money on the multi-sports stadium, the Irish language and other policies which, noble causes as they may be, are not priorities. I said then that we should get our priorities right. This morning, the Minister has listened to what Members have said and has got his priorities right. As Assembly Members, we do not want to have to answer telephone calls daily from people who cannot get access to dentists.

How soon will this be rolled out for the community, so that our constituents may have access to a dentist when they need one?

Mr McGimpsey: As I have just said, 92% of Health Service dentists accepted new Health Service patients last year, so overwhelmingly the profession is responding. The measures that I have announced this morning are to plug gaps and fill deficits. They are active immediately. The money is immediately available. Health and social services boards are actively recruiting for salaried dentists, and the vocational training money is now available. Other moneys — £1·5 million for infection control and £2 million for practice allowances, on top of the £2 million already announced — are all in place.

Mr Easton: Will the Minister clarify a few points? Will any of the new money be available for children’s dental health? As he knows, children in Northern Ireland have the worst dental health in the United Kingdom, and it must be addressed urgently.

Indeed, is this new money, or has money been withdrawn from other areas of the Health Service?

12.30 pm

Mr McGimpsey: The funds that I have announced today are designated for the area of dental health and will not affect any other service. The money in question has become available because a number of dentists, whose services the Department had anticipated having to pay for, withdrew their services. I am, therefore, redeploying the resources that have been made available in the budget rather than waiting and returning the money at the end of the year. It is important that that happens, as the money in question was voted by the House to be used for dental provision.

In relation to children’s oral health — Northern Ireland has the worst record of oral health in the United Kingdom. It is extremely poor, and it is one of the worst oral health situations in Europe. The rate of decay, teeth extractions and fillings for the under-12s is much higher, sometimes double or treble, than that of other European countries. It is therefore an important area. In the Health Service, children are provided for by exemption from charges. Everybody under 18 is exempt from Health Service dental treatment charges.

Ms Ní Chuilín: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I also welcome the Minster’s statement. Like Alex Easton, my concern was that the money for dental provision was going to be removed from another budget, and the cynical part of me was asking whether it would result in another strain on the budget for mental health or for other areas. I, therefore, welcome the fact that additional money is being made available from within the dentistry budget.

Does the Minister agree that the other concerns that have been raised in relation to his announcement today can be addressed in the Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill; for example, the issue raised by my colleague, Gerry McHugh, regarding the cost of training, investing in and retaining dental practitioners? During the Assembly debate on training for junior doctors, similar points were raised about training costs, and ensuring that investment was not being displaced to another country or another region of this country. Those concerns also apply to dental practitioners.

Is there room in the Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill to ask for a clawback on investment? It is only fair that our taxes, rates and other investments should be tracked. Thank you. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr McGimpsey: Dentists are the most expensive students to train; for example, costs run at almost double that of training a doctor. The investment is substantial and, therefore, we would expect to retain the services of the dentists we train in Northern Ireland. One of the problems in doing that lies in vocational training, where it has not been cost effective for dental practices to take on dental graduates for a year’s vocational training. I have announced an investment to try to persuade practices to take on young graduates.

Last year, I believe Northern Ireland had 40 graduates, and 10 had to leave. It is a substantial investment to lose if they do not return, and, sadly, that is one of the things that is liable to happen. Northern Ireland is more or less in balance as regards the number of dentists trained, and the need is approximately met each year. Each year, the Department aims to put 45 students into the workforce. This year, 40 students are being trained, but the target is 45, so we are approximately on target.

In relation to the Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, I am not clear about getting a return on investment, as that could be construed as students repaying fees.

That is a difficult area. The Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill focuses on giving trusts and boards the power to commission the dental services that their areas require. They will be able to commission those services through a contract, which will be the normal procedure, or, if necessary, through salaried dentists if further commission is required. That approach, and not the English method, should be followed. I understand that the English approach is unpopular with dentists, is more concerned about setting targets, and is more of a “drill-and-fill” method.

Ms Ní Chuilín: My point was not about retaining money. I want to be clear that the last thing that I want to do is put pressure on those who are studying for any profession, given that there is enough pressure on them already.

My point, which has been discussed with regard to other professionals, such as junior doctors, and to which Gerry McHugh referred, is that if the NHS has invested a lot of money so that individuals can train to become dentists, it may be possible to retrieve some of those NHS hours. It is reasonable to ask whether a way could be found to work that out while ensuring that the process were transparent and that equality and equity were enshrined throughout. The Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill offers an opportunity to provide that. I want to clarify my point; I was not saying that any further pressure be put on students of any profession.

Mr McGimpsey: The Member has explained her point to an extent. However, what she suggests is a form of clawback. One must be careful when getting into such an area. Therefore, I must consider it carefully. As I have said, the Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill focuses on another area. The work in the types of professions about which we are talking is done, in effect, by volunteers rather than by conscripts. Volunteers give a much better return than conscripts. Rather than be forced, volunteers are able to enter into contracts in which they receive a proper wage and are rewarded for their work.

Mr Buchanan: I welcome the Minister’s announce­ment about the provision of additional funding for dentistry. The west of the Province has been mentioned. At present, it is difficult to access a National Health Service dentist in that area because they are all going into private practice. What measures will the Minister put in place to ensure that that additional funding is distributed equally in all the boards?

Mr McGimpsey: Decisions about Health Service provision, including whether to allocate money to an area such as the west or to provide services in another area, are driven by need. Funding will be concentrated in areas where there is most need. The Western Health and Social Services Board has identified a need for six salaried dentists to plug the gaps in provision in its area, and it is currently recruiting. The Northern Health and Social Services Board has identified a need for two salaried dentists. At present, it is also recruiting. However, money will flow into areas where the need is strongest.

The bulk of the money will cover the practice allowance and will be targeted at dedicated Health Service practices — those practices that treat over 500 patients per annum. The Department aims to reinforce provision of its own Health Service dentists and to plug the gaps in provision. By definition, gaps indicate need. Therefore, plugging those gaps will tackle need.

Mr Kennedy: I warmly congratulate the Minister on his statement. I welcome the fact that he has addressed the urgent and great concerns of many people throughout Northern Ireland on the increasing problem of availability of NHS dentists. Will he tell the House how he will ensure that people in rural areas — including parts of my constituency of Newry and Armagh — will continue to receive adequate NHS dental treatment at the point of need?

Will the Minister encourage all the health and social services boards — not only the Northern Health and Social Services Board and the Western Health and Social Services Board — to commission salaried Health Service dentists in areas where people have difficulty in accessing dental services?

Mr McGimpsey: Mr Kennedy’s points go to the crux of the matter. Under current Health Service dental services arrangements, we cannot tell dentists where to set up their practices. Dentists can set up their practices wherever they wish, and they can treat whomever they choose. In the future, the new contracts that we envisage will address those problems.

New legislation will make it a duty on the health and social services boards to commission Health Service dental services for their respective areas. That is the future. In the meantime, we are beginning to employ salaried dentists to plug the gap — that is the point that I made about the Western Health and Social Services Board and the Northern Health and Social Services Board. I accept the point that Mr Kennedy has made about the Southern Health and Social Services Board and the Eastern Health and Social Services Board. I shall raise the issue of plugging the gaps in dental services provision with those boards to see how far they have gone in addressing that matter.

Mr Gallagher: I remember a similar debate — probably more than most, because I proposed the motion. The Minister was present for that debate and made a constructive contribution. Despite that, some Members from his party — the Ulster Unionist Party — argued that day that there was no need for the motion. Those comments were also forthcoming from the DUP Benches.

The Minister’s statement shows how badly that motion was needed, and I commend him for returning to the House in a short space of time having made some concrete steps to alleviate the problems of dental services provision. Besides increases in salaries, other matters such as infection control and vocational training have been mentioned. My question concerns the issue of salaried dentists. The Western Health and Social Services Board and the Northern Health and Social Services Board have been identified as having a problem in dental services provision. The previous Member who spoke mentioned the Southern Health and Social Services Board, which covers an area that includes my constituency. That is important too.

However, the delay in addressing the shortage of Health Service dental services is, in part, a result of the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety’s assessing the business cases provided by the health boards. In welcoming what he has said, I ask the Minister whether he will investigate that matter as the programme for salaried dentists progresses. We must ensure that progress does not get bogged down in the Department for an undue length of time.

Mr McGimpsey: I understand Mr Gallagher’s point. I have been in the situation, as we all have, of working with various groups and running into business case and approval scenarios. It should give the Member some comfort to know that the required money is in the current budget and is available now. I assure the Member that there will be no delay in spending that money — it needs to be spent now and there are no excuses for not doing so.

Ms Anderson: I too welcome the Minister’s statement. The Minister has addressed some of my concerns during the debate. The scandalous lack of dental services provision in the north-west needs immediate resolution. Although I welcome the announcement on salaried dentists, I am keen to know how soon Health Service dentists will be available to people who live in the north-west, particularly those who live in the Derry area.

Mr McGimpsey: As I have said, the package is for immediate action this year. Putting that in context, 92% of Health Service dentists accepted new patients last year. However, there is a problem, and I am concerned that that problem does not grow and overwhelm us. In that context, the gap in dental services provision is around 10%. The new measures are designed to address that gap quickly. I have already said that six salaried dentists have been identified in the Western Health and Social Services Board area. Further recruitment is under way.

12.45 pm

If the Western board needs more, representatives can come and tell me, and that will also be considered. I am as anxious as the Member is to ensure that all parts of the country receive an equitable service — the service that is required under the principle of cradle-to-the-grave care for everybody.

Committee Business

Taxis Bill: Extension of Committee Stage

The Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment (Mr McGlone): I beg to move

That, in accordance with Standing Order 31(4), the period referred to in Standing Order 31(2) be extended to 7 December 2007, in relation to the Committee Stage of the Taxis Bill (NIA Bill 4/07).

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. The Taxis Bill was given its Second Stage on 26 June 2007, and it was referred to the Committee for the Environment on 27 June 2007. As Members will appreciate, that was just before the summer recess, and the Committee was unable to begin to scrutinise the Bill until its first meeting after recess, which was held on 6 September 2007.

The Taxis Bill is a comprehensive piece of legislation that consists of 56 clauses and three schedules. It will make provision to regulate taxi operators; introduce new requirements and duties relating to the operation of a taxi service at separate fares; provide for the regulation of vehicles used to provide taxi services; make further provisions to regulate the drivers of taxis; and deal with other issues such as enforcement.

The Committee wishes to give adequate time to scrutinise this important Bill. It has received 21 submis­sions from 16 interested parties, and it has just begun to take oral evidence from those individuals and organ­isations. Members will appreciate that that takes time.

The Committee will, therefore, need a time extension in order to consider their views, and the Department of the Environment’s responses, before completing a clause-by-clause scrutiny and compiling its report on the Bill. The Committee faces a heavy workload in the coming weeks, which includes consideration of the Budget, Planning Policy Statement 14 (PPS 14), environ­mental governance, the review of public administration and statutory rules

I, therefore, seek an extension of the deadline to 7 December 2007 to allow sufficient time for the Comm­ittee to consider the Bill and report on its findings, and I ask Members for their support. Go raibh maith agat.

Question put and agreed to.


That, in accordance with Standing Order 31(4), the period referred to in Standing Order 31(2) be extended to 7 December 2007, in relation to the Committee Stage of the Taxis Bill (NIA Bill 4/07).

Private Members’ Business

Ad Hoc Committee on Suicide

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

Mr Adams: I beg to move

That this Assembly shares the growing concern about the level of suicide, particularly among our young people, and, pursuant to Standing Order 48(7), appoints an Ad Hoc Committee, to —

Examine the delivery of services and support to people who may be at risk from suicide; make recommendations to the Executive; and present its report to the Assembly by 10 December 2007.

Composition:  DUP 4           SF 3         UUP 2      SDLP 1    Other Parties 1

Quorum:         The quorum shall be five.

Procedure:     The procedures of the Committee shall be such as   the Committee shall determine.

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Tá mé buíoch díot, nó is ábhar an-tábhachtach é seo. This motion was first introduced by Sinn Féin in July to raise awareness of suicide. The motion came on the back of more reported suicides in west and north Belfast, as well as in County Tyrone and Craigavon. A report published in June into the death of Danny McCartan found that there had been serious failures of care by the Health Service. Another report identified people over 60 years of age as a group at serious risk of suicide.

For legitimate reasons, the motion could not be debated until now, but in the course of the summer, more people committed suicide. The statistics are frightening. In 2006, 291 people died by suicide in the North and close to 500 died in the South. That means that nearly 800 people took their lives last year on this island. Yet, suicide is preventable; all of us can play a part in reducing it. That is especially true of those of us elected to this Assembly. Ba chóir do na húdaráis ceannasaíocht láidir a thaispeáint san ábhar seo.

The bereaved families have demonstrated remarkable courage. Many of them have been to the fore in helping to prevent the same tragedy engulfing others. They deserve our respect and praise, but they also deserve practical assistance and public investment. A lot of burnout has occurred at the grass roots; support groups and family networks are still not properly resourced. It is a source of concern that much of the money ring-fenced for suicide prevention is recycled through the Health Promotion Agency. It is also a concern that there are still insufficient community-based services, too few psychiatric nurses, psychiatrists and psychologists, and most GPs still do not receive dedicated training in suicide awareness and prevention.

Sinn Féin believes that civic society must be mobilised to respond. A conference will take place here on Monday 24 September to discuss this. I have spoken to the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, the Minister of Education and the Chairperson of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety as well as to representatives of other parties in the Assembly. Ba chóir dúinn a bheith ag obair le chéile.

The Health Minister, Iris Robinson, proposed that the Health Committee would take up —

Mr Kennedy: We did not hear about that.

Mrs I Robinson: I am the Health Committee Chairperson.

Mr Speaker: Order.

Mr Adams: I am sorry, Michael. Gabh mo leithscéal.

The Chairperson of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety, Iris Robinson, proposed that the Health Committee would take up suicide prevention as a priority and would hold a statutory Committee investigation into the matter. I commend that approach; we believe that it is a positive and constructive proposal, which has the potential to deliver significant improve­ments to suicide prevention strategies.

Dá thairbhe sin, ba mhaith liom rún s’againne a tharraingt siar. For that reason, Carál Ní Chuilín and I would be pleased to withdraw our motion in the light of such a positive development.

Mr Speaker: As the Member made a significant speech when moving the motion, I intend to carry on with the debate. I call Mrs Iris Robinson to move the amendment.

Ms Ní Chuilín: On a point of order. Is Mr Adams not entitled to the rest of his time? If you are moving into a full debate, does he not have the rest of his 10 minutes?

Mr Speaker: Yes. It is the normal procedure to allow the Member moving the motion and the Member moving the amendment each to speak for 10 minutes.

Mr Adams: Thank you, a Cheann Comhairle. I welcome the fact that, even though it is a bit unorthodox, you have decided to proceed with the debate, because the important thing is to focus in on the scourge of suicide. We got to the point of considering withdrawing the motion simply by dint of a lot of good tick-tacking between ourselves to try to find the best way forward. Everybody was sincerely engaged in trying to find the best way to get preventative measures brought forward.

All of us have felt the impact of suicide. Every time someone loses his or her life through suicide, shock waves are felt far beyond the immediate family. That is because three out of four people on this island have said that they knew someone who took his life. It is also important to note that a huge number of people have attempted to take their lives, or have survived suicide attempts, or are self-harming. That amounts to a huge degree of trauma.

Over the past 10 years, reported suicides in Ireland have risen by more than 20%. North and west Belfast have been particularly affected, as have other areas.

No community, whether rural or urban, no class, and no religious grouping are free from this great tragedy. Suicide has convulsed many local communities. I have experienced the sense of powerlessness that people feel when a loved one has taken his or her life. Particularly in families in which a young person has taken his or her own life, parents and grandparents are living in great fear, watching and waiting to see who will be next.

The biggest killer of the next generation will be suicide. We, as the legislators, together with the Govern­ments, must show leadership on suicide prevention. We must have the power to prioritise, to develop strategies and to allocate resources. The number of recorded deaths by suicide on this island outstrips the number of deaths in road-traffic accidents. Everyone will agree that there is a necessary urgency about road safety, because so many deaths are preventable. We all agree that there should be safety training for drivers, safety devices in cars, technology on the roads, road-safety advice for schoolchildren, road-safety research, and penalties for those who create road hazards. Millions are spent on public-awareness advertising. There is an increased integrated approach by statutory agencies and Government bodies on an all-Ireland basis.

Why should death by suicide not be afforded the same degree of intense effort and resources? In the past, I have written to the commissions on human rights and on children’s rights in the North and South to ask them to forge a common way forward. I am now also writing to cultural and sporting organisations to explore how suicide awareness can become mainstream. Suicide prevention must be integrated into all walks of life. Consequently, Sinn Féin wants suicide prevention to be prioritised across the island, under the institutions of the North/South Ministerial Council. If road safety, drug trafficking and foot-and-mouth disease are all rightly designated as issues for that type of action, the same can, and must, be done for suicide prevention.

Specific action must be developed and implemented that is targeted at individuals who have been identified as being at risk of suicide. Actions must be developed to assist people who have been bereaved through suicide and to promote greater targeting of mental-health resources for schools, youth services, workplaces and the media. Action must be taken to address the serious shortage of counselling services for adolescents and young adults. Urgent action is required to ensure that the health system can deal appropriately with people who present themselves at accident and emergency units, having taken either drugs or alcohol.

The role of the Internet, and its influence, must be addressed. Although I do not know how true they are, stories have mentioned suicide pacts and discussions about methods of suicide on the Internet. All of that means that we must work together, around agreed common goals and objectives.

To repeat what I said earlier, I have spoken with the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, the Minister of Education, and the Chairperson of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety, as well as with representatives of the other parties. When we were drafting the original motion, we agreed that every party would have two representatives on an Ad Hoc Committee, and, because of the time lost over the summer recess, we wanted the Committee’s report date put back until January or February 2008. However, the proposal from the Chairperson of the Health Committee to adopt suicide prevention as a priority issue and to hold a Statutory Committee investigation into it is a welcome step. Once again, I commend that approach. It is a positive and constructive proposal, which has the potential to deliver significant improvement to suicide-prevention strategies. Go raibh míle maith agat.

Mrs I Robinson: I beg to move the following amendment: Leave out all after “people” and insert

“and refers this issue to the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee to examine, as a matter of urgency, the delivery of services and support to people who may be at risk from suicide; make recommendations to the Executive; and present its report to the Assembly at the earliest opportunity, but not later than 12 February 2008.”

I am pleased that the Sinn Féin Member for West Belfast is now appreciative of the fact that the proper course of action is for the Health Committee, which has the remit to hold a public inquiry, to take responsibility for the issue of suicide prevention. The Committee should set up a subcommittee to deal with that. That the Health Committee is to do so offers nothing but good for the wider community.

We stand at a moment in the history of Northern Ireland at which people will look back and judge us on what we do now for the sake of our young people. Society is demanding that something be done about the current plague of suicide, and, if we are to make a difference, all of us must play our part.

In recent times, Hillary Clinton has made popular the African proverb:

“It takes a whole village to raise a child.”

That principle holds the key to our society’s helping to decrease the numbers of people of all ages dying by their own hands.

1.00 pm

Society will never effectively deal with suicide by expecting mental-health professionals alone to solve the challenge. However, by accepting that suicide is a social, biological, spiritual and mental-health problem, all those areas can be examined to find a solution. Understanding suicide requires investment in gathering appropriate useful information and avoiding the mistake of collecting what is easy.

There must be wide consultation with all stakeholders and experts in the field. As policy-makers and politicians, we must first listen. When dealing with such a painful subject, there is a temptation to act hastily and risk investment that may not be very effective. The motto of the Royal College of Psychiatrists is “Let Wisdom Guide” and, in considering such a complex subject, wisdom is required. Any group that is constituted to examine suicide must, therefore, involve the necessary experts — by which I do not mean only professionals: expertise resides in many parts of the community.

The family unit is the main element that holds together a healthy society. Effective policies that support the family are important in the healthy development and maturation of a child. However, more important still is that the healthy strong family acknowledges the role of the older individual. In aboriginal culture, the older person does not retire and become perceived as valueless. The best translation of how they are regarded is “the manual”. The older individual is someone from whom others seek advice and guidance.

The young and the old may be at risk from suicide because they feel useless and worthless. They have no purpose in their lives and, worst of all, they have no hope that that will change. Research has consistently shown that hopelessness puts a person who is contemp­lating suicide at high risk.

Suicide has been described as a permanent solution to a temporary problem. As communities, we must show people that help and support is available when required and that there are always options. Investment in community infrastructures is important, and pragmatism, not platitudes, is required. The young mother who is geographically isolated from her family and who cannot access affordable childcare needs a practical solution.

Although those aspects of social care seem distant from the topic of suicide, they are not, and we neglect them at our peril. Although suicide is considered to be a problem of the mind, the mind cannot be divorced from the body. Issues that impact the body and have a significant role in suicide include alcohol misuse and addiction to other substances. Many people impulsively take their own lives when under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

It is important that, in a society that has been historically divided on spirituality, that aspect of a person’s life is not ignored. People may not be religious, but they are, generally, spiritual. Christian mental-health professionals have been holding seminars at educational conferences for clergy that focus on the interface between faith and mental health, and that should be encouraged and supported. The 2006 response from the Royal College of Psychiatrists to the five-year report of the National Confidential Inquiry into Suicide and Homicide by People with Mental Illness concluded that:

“it is up to commentators outside clinical practice to give up the culture of blame.”

If the Assembly is to make a difference in dealing with suicide, all areas of society — the state, the voluntary sector, clinicians and families who have lost loved ones to suicide — must put aside their differences and work together. Suicides are a tragedy for victims, their families, their society and the professional staff involved. It is important to take steps at all stages to improve mental health and to minimise risks.

There is a need for robust systems, such as a better physical environment for inpatient services, with fully trained staff in all disciplines, and there must be joined-up working.

Professionals agree that every attendance at hospital following an incident of self-harm:

“should lead to a specialist psychosocial assessment.”

This should aim to:

“identify motives for the act and associated problems which are potentially amenable to inter­vention, such as psychological or social problems, mental disorder, alcohol and substance misuse.”

That information has come from the University of York NHS Centre for Reviews and Disseminations, 1998.

There are teams being developed to work in the area of self-harm, such as that at the Mater Hospital, Belfast, and lessons must be leaned from the experiences of such teams.

I will list some practical goals that emerged from American research into suicide prevention. These were published on the US Governments National Library of Medicine web pages as a report of the Surgeon General, ‘National Strategy for Suicide Prevention: Goals and Objectives for Action’.

“Goal 1: promote awareness that suicide is a public health problem that is preventable.”

For example, one could work with local media to develop and disseminate public service announcements describing a safe and effective message about suicide and its prevention.

“Goal 2: develop broad-based support for suicide prevention.”

For example, one could encourage organ­isations to consider ways that they could integrate suicide prevention into their ongoing work.

“Goal 3: develop and implement strategies to reduce the stigma associated with being a consumer of mental health, substance abuse, and suicide prevention services.”

For example, one could review — and modify, where indicated — school health curricula to ensure that mental health and substance abuse is appropriately addressed.

“Goal 4: develop and implement community-based suicide prevention programmes.”

For example, one could develop and test natural- or peer-helper programmes for use with young people, and implement and evaluate a programme that trains educationalists with a pastoral role in the principles of suicide risk identification, crisis intervention and referral. One could also develop and implement a training programme for employees of local programs, working with older persons to assist these workers and volunteers in identifying persons at risk of suicide.

“Goal 5: promote efforts to reduce access to lethal means and methods of self-harm.”

For example, one could develop an emergency department screening tool to assess the presence of lethal means in the home, and develop standardised practices for law enforcement response to domestic emergencies that assess for the presence of lethal means and advocate their removal or safe storage.

“Goal 6: implement training for recognition of at-risk behaviour and delivery of effective treatment.”

There should be training for the key gatekeepers: teachers and school staff; school health personnel; clergy; police officers; correctional personnel; supervisors in occupational settings; natural community helpers; hospice and nursing home volunteers; primary health care providers; mental-health care and substance abuse treatment providers, and emergency healthcare personnel.

“Goal 7: develop and promote effective clinical and professional practices.”

For example, one could develop guidelines for hospitals and health delivery systems that ensure adequate resources to implement confirmation of mental-health follow-up appointments. One could also collaborate locally to establish processes that increase the proportion of patients who keep follow-up mental-health appoint_ments after discharge from the emergency department, and develop standardised suicide assessment guidelines for primary care physicians when assessing elderly patients.

“Goal 8: improve access to and community linkages with mental health and substance abuse services.”

For example, one could develop and offer peer leadership training for facilitators of suicide survivors support groups.

“Goal 9: improve reporting and portrayals of suicidal behaviour, mental illness, and substance abuse in the entertainment and news media.”

One could develop and provide press information kits that provide a resource for reporting on suicide and contact information for local spokespersons who may provide additional information.

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

Mrs I Robinson: Also there is:

“Goal 10: promote and support research on suicide and suicide prevention.”

For example, one could tie priorities for training grants to the inclusion of “suicidology” in curriculums.

“Goal 11: improve and expand surveillance systems.”

Mr Speaker: The Member’s time is up.

Rev Dr Robert Coulter: I was intrigued by the previous speech and think that it is great that we can have an analysis of a problem that goes to the very heart of our society. In my work, I have had to pastor and counsel those who have suffered trauma in the aftermath of suicide in the family.

Only those who sit with them and share their tears will realise the extent of the problem.

In our country, too many families have been beset by such grief and by the sense of guilt that follows. Some people may feel a sense of failure as they were unable to recognise what was going on in the young person’s mind, and older people may feel that they have let the young person down. Perhaps we should take those issues on board and use the media, and incorporate training into the media so that people who are faced with this problem and with its aftermath will have somewhere to turn and know exactly what to do in that situation.

I was amazed to learn recently of a chat room that actually promotes suicide. I was horrified when I read that someone who was suicidal said in the chat room that they were going to commit suicide, and they were actively encouraged to take their own life, which they did. That suicide was photographed as it happened, so that others could take delight in seeing a life being taken.

It is incumbent on all of us regardless of religion, as Mrs Robinson said, and regardless of our political beliefs, backgrounds and aspirations, to take this problem to heart. I am glad that this motion has been tabled today. It is a great loss to society when young people who have spent years in primary school, high school or grammar school and then, perhaps, further education, suddenly take their lives. Their future is lost not only to them and to their families, but to society.

The cost of education and training has been mentioned. What is the cost when someone’s life is suddenly cut off after they have been trained to commit their talents to society? The Health Committee should take this issue forward, so that it can return to the House and inform Members of the progress that has been made. Not only politicians and health professionals, but churches, mental-health charities, teachers and anyone who is involved with young people in any way should be involved and contribute.

In my constituency of North Antrim, a young boy who lived near my home was bullied at school and took his own life. The impact of that on the family and on the community was disastrous. The family have never gotten over it, and they never will. If only the teachers had been aware of the bullying, perhaps that great young talent could have been saved.

The training of doctors and health workers must be addressed, and the Health Minister is also concerned about that. If we work together to tackle this issue, we can move forward. I hope that the Health Committee will provide a platform from which benefits can be brought to many young people and to the community.

1.15 pm

Mrs Hanna: Suicide is at the heart of mental-health issues. Parents, siblings, and loved ones trying to understand and come to terms with their awful loss need every possible support. They also need to know that we, as politicians, are doing all we can to address those issues. Why do people commit suicide? Sometimes there are no obvious answers. In the first instance we must promote good mental health and try to ensure that everyone has a stake in our society. As a matter of urgency, the recommendations of the Bamford Review must be implemented.

A bottom-up approach is absolutely essential; there must be support at community level. There should be awareness training, counselling, and training for teachers, parents and others — particularly GPs. I am aware that there is an opportunity for training for GPs, which should be taken up and made available to all health professionals. Although sometimes there are no signs before a suicide, there should be training for teachers to look out for them. We need to train more personnel to work in the mental-health sector, which is a major point of the Bamford Review. It is up to the Health Committee to ensure that the recommendations of the Bamford Review are fully implemented and that there is a bottom-up — and top-down — approach to ensure that there is sufficient detail. Every possible ounce of support must be given to the parents, relatives and loved ones of anyone who is suicidal or has, sadly, already taken their life.

Mrs Long: I welcome the motion, because it has brought an issue to the House that is important to the wider community, as well as the Assembly. The suicide of a young person has to be one of the greatest tragedies that can confront any family. All Members will feel a great sensitivity in dealing with the issue.

Suicide has devastating consequences, not just for the young person involved, but also for their family, friends and local community, who are left behind to come to terms with their loss. It is testament to the level of despair, isolation and hopelessness in modern society that suicide is so prevalent. All Members in the Chamber will recognise the importance and sensitivity of the issue, and the role that we can play — however limited — in trying to address it.

Although the overall rate of suicide in the UK and Ireland is among the lowest in Europe, that masks a disturbing and rapid increase in the rate of suicide among young people, particularly young men from deprived communities. That increase has been largely masked by a fall in the rate of suicide among older people. Suicide is now estimated to be one of the three main killers of people in the 15-44 age group, and is therefore an issue that Members must give serious consideration to.

When the Order Paper was published, the Alliance Party gave long and detailed consideration to whether the proposal for an Ad Hoc Committee was the right approach for the Assembly to take in response to the issue. The Alliance Party is not opposed to Ad Hoc Committees in principle, if they work to a fixed timescale with clear objectives. Ad Hoc Committees also have the benefit of being able to deal with cross-cutting issues, for example by addressing health and education issues together. However, after weighing up the motion and the amendment, the Alliance Party was convinced that the Health Committee was the best place to effectively deal with the issue.

Regarding the effectiveness of a response, depart­mental Committees have the weight of statutory powers behind them, as well as a formal scrutiny role. Therefore, as well as developing a report and a strategy, they have the ability to scrutinise the progress and implementation of promises that have been made. The Alliance Party also feels that where there are cross-cutting issues, for example where the Department of Education and youth services both have a role to play, Ministers can liaise with other departmental Committees.

I am glad that the Members who moved the motion and the amendment have reached agreement, and I hope that the House can move forward on this without division.

As other Members have said, suicide must be examined in the context of other mental-health issues. The Bamford Review acknowledged the deficits in mental-health facilities, particularly for adolescents, and it realised that that deficit would take a long time to redress owing to the length of time required to train a psychiatrist to deal with adolescents specifically. That is a huge problem that must be addressed sensitively.

The Assembly must recognise that suicide is at the end of a spectrum of mental-health disorders which often go undiagnosed and untreated in the community, and the Health Committee is well placed to examine that shortcoming. Whatever strategy is set up to deal with suicides should also deal with other related issues such as mental-health problems and, in particular, the promotion of good mental health. One of the main aspects of any future strategy should be to remove the stigma of mental-health disorders so that people feel free not only to discuss treatment with their doctors but also to discuss their problems with their friends and family without feeling that they are being judged on their illness.

We need improved counselling facilities for young people and greater awareness in the community. Several Members have mentioned the roles played by teachers, parents and GPs, but the people who volunteer to work with young people through youth organisations and youth clubs should also be acknowledged. They may feel ill-equipped to deal with a young person who is contemplating suicide, and they should be given support and guidance on how to address the needs of those young people.

The Assembly must also consider the need for support for families who have been affected by suicide — not only those who have been bereaved by suicide, but those who have felt the devastation that a family member’s attempted suicide can also cause. There must be proper support and counselling for the family circles and friends of young people who have made failed suicide attempts to help them come to terms with what has happened. As a community, we need to deal with isolation and hopelessness, and although the Assembly has a role to play, this will best be driven forward through the Health Committee.

Mr Easton: We are confronted, daily, with newspaper and television reports giving dreadful accounts of the pain and suffering caused to families and communities by the loss of loved ones through suicide. All Members can recall the recent nightmare scenario in Armagh when, following closely on the death of a young adult, three pupils from the same high school took their lives in what appeared to have been a series of related suicides. In the past five weeks, nine young people in west Belfast have taken their lives. At times like this, we do not think of politics, race, colour, creed or religion: we only see and feel the pain of the families and wonder how we would respond if we were in that position. We want to reach out and help, but we feel a sense of helplessness in the face of the intense grief and devastation that parents suffer when they have lost a child.

Northern Ireland is in the grip of what has all the hallmarks of a suicide epidemic. Suicide is almost becoming part of daily life here, and few people have not been directly affected by it, such is the scale and prevalence of the problem across the Province. The suicide rate has doubled in the past decade from 143 to 291 last year. We are indebted to local newspapers for the magnificent ‘Newspapers Against Suicide’ campaign that they conducted last week to bring to our attention the need for concerted action and for us to do all in our power to deal with this scourge. That campaign followed on from the various events organised on last Sunday’s World Suicide Prevention Day, which helped us to realise that suicide is a serious international problem.

However, we are also informed by the various editorials and articles that the suicide rate in Northern Ireland is one of the highest in Europe, and that warns us against being less than resolute in our response. The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety has promised to give a suicide prevention strategy the attention and commitment it deserves, and its publication last year of ‘Protect Life: A Shared Vision’ was welcomed by all. Suicide is no longer the taboo subject that it was in the past. Everyone recognises that suicide is a multi-dimensional community health problem, and any strategy — to be effective — will have to involve the co-ordinated approach of the widest possible range of statutory, voluntary and community agencies.

At the forefront of our minds must be the importance of conducting appropriate research. We must also ensure that critical people, particularly medical practitioners, have the appropriate training and that the entire comm­unity has the information that it needs to assist in tackling all aspects of suicide prevention and dealing with the consequences.

Many of the risk factors are known, including: unemployment; forced retirement; changes in social or financial status; alcohol; drugs; bullying; peer pressure; dangerous influences in society, on the Internet and on television. We must take a determined stand against any individuals, gangs or social groups who direct social policies that actively undermine personal and community well-being.

We all need to understand and know how to deal with friends, co-workers and family members who show signs of depression. We need early information about and sensitive medical treatment for those at risk. People must be prepared to reach out to others when they see problems of any kind.

Some parts of the solution include: the teaching of life skills; health, educational, personal and social development; education; the identifying of high-risk groups or individuals; school-based screening; community crisis centres; the provision of telephone and Internet helplines; and charitable groups that involve parents who have experienced such tragedy.

There must be a determined strategy of preventative activity at different levels directed towards comple­mentary goals and a comprehensive, multi-level approach involving a wide range of Government Departments, peoples and agencies. The health, education and social-development sectors and voluntary agencies require the help of teachers, police, youth and community workers. Public knowledge and awareness must be improved, and there must be acceptance of crisis services. All possible support must be given to families that are dealing with children or family members who are in danger.

I welcome the recognition today that Members share a growing concern about suicide rates, particularly among young people, and believe that it is in the best interests of those people if that matter is dealt with by the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety rather than an Ad Hoc Committee. I am pleased that the Member is withdrawing his motion.

Ms Anderson: Last Monday, 10 September, was World Suicide Prevention Day, one day institutionalised in the calendar to mark the death and unimaginable suffering of friends and relatives whose children felt that life was not worth living. In my city, Derry, families and the wider community have recently experienced unbearable pain and anguish because so many people have taken their own lives. In the past year, almost 300, mostly young, people in the North ended their lives. That is nearly one a day.

Members must examine what they are doing for the generations of young people to come. What world will we leave them with? After the publication of excellent junior certificate results, what world faced that Dublin child who took her own life last week? What world faced Louise Meenan, the beautiful young Derry woman who had the potential to gain a university degree? We know for sure that it is a world of cut-throat, competitive pursuit, a world based on inequality and marginalisation, in which communities are plagued by drug pushers who peddle poisonous substances to young people.

When faced with suicide, we must be careful not to fall into the trap of reducing those circumstances to the individual trauma. We must be sure that we do not dislocate the relationship between individual suffering and the societal context that gives rise to it.

In his report on suicide prevention, Mike Tomlinson of Queen’s University suggested that more must be done to encourage empowerment, which:

“is not limited to developing more positive feelings about oneself and gaining insight into one’s situation. It also means doing something about it.”

All Members must do something about it, and I wish to commend my colleague Caitríona Ruane, the Minister of Education, who took action by placing counsellors in every post-primary school. Hopefully, that will address some of the concerns about bullying that were expressed earlier.

1.30 pm

There is a serious problem of under-provision of psychiatric and community services for children, adolescents and young people in the North. There is a clear need for help and support for children and for those who live with someone who is struggling and may be contemplating taking his or her life or self-harming, or who is suffering from a mental illness.

As many Members know, it is heartbreaking to see so many families devastated in the aftermath of a relative’s suicide. We must ensure that we find the advice, help and support that those families need and that more backup services are made available for bereaved families.

I do not believe that all those who ended their lives wanted to die; some simply did not know how to live at that moment. I appeal to anyone who is struggling today to talk to someone. I want them to know that all Members are here to support them and that their friends and relatives care. People want action from the Assembly, dedicated ring-fenced resources and care that goes some way towards redressing the unbearable individual circumstances that give rise to these deaths. The onus is on Members.

When we are moved by each tragedy, it can be difficult to remain rational. However, the Assembly has a responsibility to take action, and power sharing has given us the responsibility to share and shape a new society that has confidence in itself and where it is possible for everyone to realise hopeful dreams and have plenty to live for. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Speaker: I remind Members that the motion has not been withdrawn. The motion has been proposed, and the amendment was proposed by Mrs Robinson. Members who wish to speak must remember that the motion has not been withdrawn.

Lord Morrow: Thank you, Mr Speaker, for clarifying that. The motion is still up for debate, as is the amend­ment, which I support.

I am glad that most Members, with hindsight, seem to support the amendment. I am getting a pleasing vibe that perhaps the House will not divide on the issue, but that remains to be seen. It is important that the House does not divide on the amendment. Some of us tried to impress that point on the Business Committee, but no one was prepared to listen.

With hindsight, only good can come out of this useful debate. The subject matter does not touch only one section of the community; it goes across the spectrum of society in Northern Ireland. Therefore, it is most important that the House unites and sends out a clear message that the Assembly is concerned about what is happening, albeit being so powerless to do anything about the matter. However, I trust that, as a result of today’s debate, minds will be focused, attention will be drawn to the issue and resources will be directed to tackling an acute problem that exists across Northern Ireland.

I listened to all the contributions, and I was struck by some of the things that were said. However, I was also struck by something that was not said. Some Members have tried to guess — rightly so — the reasons behind the situation. I suspect that one reason is that our society has emerged from 35 traumatic years. Society has felt the charge and dynamism that peace has brought as well as the pressures that extend to all households in the Province, no matter the background from whence they come. I have little doubt that, as a result, and in some significant way, that played into the situation in which we find ourselves.

It is difficult to explain or to ascertain why young people are under such pressure. They have not yet lived their lives, which are still in front of them, and their future should be bright. It has been mentioned that many young people who have taken their own lives were doing well at school or at university. In my constituency, one young man, who was at the peak of his educational career and was ready to step out into society with a well-earned degree of a high class, could not face society and took his own life. That is a great tragedy. That message must come across, and I know that all of us struggle to find out why someone would do that.

This issue presents a challenge, not only for the Minister and his Department, but for society as a whole, because we all play into it, and all of us impact on it in some way. There is a challenge for us, as an Assembly, to show whether we are really concerned at what happens around us. Why do so many people, from age groups across the spectrum, take their own lives? No matter what political group any of us comes from, all of us struggle to provide the answer to that question. We can all point to people in our communities or in society who put up a facade of not having a care in the world and that everything is going for them. Yet, often, we find that those are the very people that, tragically, we learn have taken their own lives.

The Assembly must tackle this issue in the days ahead. Teachers and leaders of the community become concerned, blame themselves, and ask whether they missed the signs or the vibes. However, such tragedies are not attributable to them.

I hope that the Assembly will send a united message that it sees this matter as important, and that it directs the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety to take its concerns on board and produce a report that will get to the heart of the problem.

Mr McCallister: I am pleased to be involved in, and to contribute to, this debate. The Rev Dr Coulter spoke eloquently about his role in providing pastoral care. There is no one in the Chamber without knowledge of someone — perhaps someone very close — who has attempted suicide. As the proposer of the motion mentioned, the issue, therefore, cuts across all divides of class and religion. This issue knows no boundary, and, as Lord Morrow pointed out, it affects those at the very height of educational attainment, as much as those from a deprived social background.

The Assembly must tackle this sad issue. Lord Morrow further pointed out that there must be some link between this problem and our situation in the last 35 to 40 years. In my brief time as a member of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety since devolu­tion was restored, we have been given excellent and useful briefings. From the diversity of witnesses to the Committee, it is clear just how cross-cutting the issue is, and how cross-cutting some of the answers must be from the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, and the Committee, the Department of Education, and, particularly, the Department for Social Development. There must be a big involvement and input from the community and voluntary sectors.

I have been at meetings with various groups, and have taken various briefings from them, which have been very useful in enabling me to share information with the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety.

It is important to consider how to get the first-aid plan for mental health rolled out as early as possible into schools, universities, workplaces, sports clubs, youth clubs, and so on.

I am aware of the great work on this issue that is done by many voluntary groups, and I pay tribute to that. In the brief time that the Minister has been in office, I am aware of the huge amount of work, time and interest that he has invested in this matter. Of course, owing to the timing of his assuming office, the issues raised in Bamford Review have been prevalent both in his work as Minister, and for members of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety. I would like the Minister to attend the meeting of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety when we discuss this issue.

Most people want action, not a duplication of work. It would be very useful if the Minister were available to give Members a briefing on what work that the Department has done to date, so that there is no duplication of that work.

Answers to this huge problem must be found, and they must be found quickly so that no other families have to go through the awful pain and loss that far too many have suffered so far. I support the amendment.

Mr Savage: I commend the Members who brought this most important matter before the House. It is certain that Members are united in the view that this is an issue on which urgent action must be taken. Young people — and those who are not so young — cannot be allowed to be left isolated, vulnerable and bereft of help.

Suicide in Northern Ireland is at an all-time high. In 1996, as was said earlier, there were 143 suicides, yet last year that figure had more than doubled to 291. Since I wrote this speech on Friday, that number has increased again.

In my constituency of Upper Bann in June this year, five teenagers in and around the Craigavon area tragically took their own lives, and left empty seats in the class­room, empty places at the dinner table, and an ever deepening void in the hearts and lives of those who knew and loved them.

Statistics, sadly, are only that. They do not show the character that people possessed, or their skills, talents and abilities — they become only a number. Sadly, the true extent of this tragic problem in our society remains unknown. Currently, it is believed that one person a day in Northern Ireland takes his or her own life, and that is one person too many.

How do we end this? How do we protect our young people, and those who are in a different age bracket? How do we protect those who are most vulnerable? I welcome the initiatives that my colleague the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety has taken recently. I commend him for doing so, and I believe that they will make a difference.

However, the following points were raised in the Bamford Review, which, I believe, if implemented, would reap the benefits in the future: suicide prevention must be made a public health priority; a suicide-prevention strategy must be developed with an identified action plan that will target dates and responsibilities; suicide prevention must be properly resourced; and a regional mental-health promotion directorate should be created to ensure the implementation of the proposed suicide-prevention strategy.

1.45 pm

If we are to achieve anything from this debate, it must be that all of us begin to help bring about a major culture change in society; where seeking help is seen as a sign of strength, not as one of weakness. Together, we must bring an end to the silent hopelessness that haunts thousands of people in our cities, towns, villages and remote rural areas. In doing so, we will help them to feel that there is hope, that help is available and that things can change and improve.

We have heard much talk of a phone-in helpline. That should be in place, and when someone rings for help there should be someone on the end of the line. A problem shared can be a problem solved; and sharing problems can go a long way to saving lives.

I support the motion.

The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Mr McGimpsey): Like everyone else, I am deeply concerned about the increasing numbers of people who are dying through suicide, and I reaffirm my commitment to do all in my power to improve mental health services for those who are in crisis and at risk.

Suicide is recognised worldwide as the third biggest cause of years of life lost, after cardiovascular disease and cancer. An estimated one million lives are lost annually to suicide. That is not only a tragic loss of life, but also leaves a difficult legacy for families and local communities. The problem is complex and many-faceted, and there are no clear short-term solutions.

Some individuals show signs of risk and can be targeted for additional support and services. In others, warning signs may be absent or less obvious, and therefore they are much more difficult to reach and support. There is no easy answer; there is no quick fix. If we are to turn the tide and have a reduction in the rate of suicide in Northern Ireland, we will all have to work together — statutory bodies, communities, voluntary organisations, the media and local churches — and take a long-term view.

Reducing the rate of suicide is a big challenge. We have only to look at the recent significant increases in the suicide rate to realise that.

The media has an important role to play in helping to prevent suicide and in promoting positive mental health and well-being. I therefore welcome the commitment made recently by local editors on World Suicide Day. The issue requires very careful handling by the media because it is possible to worsen the situation through excessive or inappropriate reporting. Sometimes, when we are attempting to play things down or calm a situation, we inadvertently talk it up. We are all obliged to act responsibly and maturely on the issue. Lives are at stake through contagion, especially among our young people. We must monitor the situation most carefully right now; the issue is seldom out of the news.

It is estimated that Northern Ireland’s mental-health needs are at least 25% greater than those of England. Suicide is one manifestation of poor mental health in our population. Many factors affect mental health and well-being, and a range of policies relating to alcohol and drugs, sexual health and abuse or violence can contribute to a reduction in suicide. It is difficult to tackle suicide in isolation and outside the context of a wider strategy to improve mental health and well-being. I therefore urge the Assembly to continue to address the issue in an integrated way.

I accept that mental-health services are not good enough. We all know that those services have been underfunded for years and that we are now trying to redress the balance. The Bamford Review, which has recently been finalised, has shown that there is a clear need to reform and modernise mental-health services to bring about improvements. Prevention is a key element in improving services; and I am fully committed to that.

I have recently established the Mental Health and Learning Disability Board, which has already had its first meeting. I expect that board to champion the cause of those with mental-health and learning disabilities and to be a driving force delivering the Bamford reforms.

I intend to meet the Chairperson and the board regularly. My Department has already taken on board recommendations from the Bamford Review; however, I emphasise that all relevant Departments and statutory bodies must be involved in developing a joined-up response, and in reshaping services.

The Northern Ireland suicide prevention strategy, ‘Protect Life: A Shared Vision’, published in October 2006, provides a comprehensive route map for tackling this tragic issue. I take the opportunity to acknowledge the key roles played by many bereaved families, their local communities and support networks in the develop­ment and ongoing implementation of the strategy. Their commitment has been matched by the dedication of many health professionals. This year, over £3 million has been allocated to support the implementation of the Northern Ireland suicide prevention strategy. A substantial amount has been allocated to support local communities in the development of initiatives to tackle the rising suicide rate.

Several pilot schemes operate locally that were established to assist with the implementation of the strategy, including a telephone helpline and mentoring services for those in crisis.

In addition, having listened to feedback from local communities, and in response to the rising levels of local suicides, I recently announced the establishment of a Northern Ireland telephone helpline for suicide prevention, with associated counselling and mentoring support services. I anticipate that the service will come on stream by the end of this year. The pilot scheme in north and west Belfast has proved to be seriously overused, which demonstrates its value.

Research suggests that GP training in depression recognition and treatment can have a positive impact on the level of suicide. Therefore, a new depression-awareness training programme has been developed and is being rolled out across Northern Ireland. To date, 161 GPs, and 71 practice managers and nurses have participated in the programme, and I anticipate that a further 200 GPs will have done so before December 2007. I am looking at ways to encourage greater uptake of the training among GPs, and will continue to work proactively with the British Medical Association’s (BMA) Northern Ireland General Practitioners Committee (NIGPC) on the issue.

Much other work is under way, including research into the underlying causes of suicide and the development of a public information campaign. A crisis intervention service is now available in all areas. Furthermore, a service specifically for under-18s is now operational in the Eastern and Southern Board areas, and is being put in place in the northern and western areas, where recruitment is under way. That has been achieved despite delays caused by difficulties in recruiting appropriate staff.

I am increasingly concerned about the impact that the internet can have on vulnerable people, especially in times of crisis. In London, in July, I met internet industry stakeholders, including Bebo, Google and Vodafone, to highlight my concerns in some detail. Those involved in the meeting have responded positively. In particular, they have highlighted their intention to continue to promote positive mental health, and to encourage people to seek help and support in times of crisis. I intend to meet the stakeholders again in the near future.

I am also concerned about the correlation between drug and alcohol misuse and suicide among young people. Alcohol and drugs decrease inhibitions, and increase the likelihood of suicide attempt by a depressed young person. American research suggests that one in three adolescents were intoxicated at the time of their suicide attempt. Therefore, I intend to focus on prevention and intervention in drug and alcohol misuse, as I believe that that will impact on adolescent suicide rates.

Suicide respects no borders, and many of the issues we face will also be challenges for colleagues in England, Scotland, Wales and the Irish Republic. It is vital that we share learning and best practice among our close neighbours.

A group on suicide prevention has been established, which includes key representatives from England, Scotland, Wales, the Republic and Northern Ireland. The group is due to hold its next meeting in Northern Ireland in November 2007. The parallel implementation of the Reach Out strategy in the Republic is of particular relevance to Northern Ireland, as is the strategy in Scotland. The Department has developed an all-Ireland action plan in conjunction with the health service in the Republic. Soon, I will meet with Dr Jimmy Devins, a Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, who has special responsibility for mental-health and learning disability, in order to discuss ongoing co-operation on that issue.

The Health Service alone cannot successfully reduce suicide levels in Northern Ireland. Other sectors and Departments must play their part. The Executive established the ministerial co-ordination group on suicide prevention in order that they could do their part by co-ordinating action and by ensuring that suicide prevention remains a priority for all relevant Depart­ments. The group, which includes the Minister of Education, Caitríona Ruane, and the two junior Ministers, Gerry Kelly and Ian Paisley Jnr, works together and has brought added focus to the issue. Several issues have been identified. Officials are examining how those can be taken forward. The Ministers will consider the issues further at its next meeting in October 2007.

The co-ordination group has the potential to provide Ministers with the wider context and support that will allow us to work in an integrated and joined-up manner in order to deal with the devastating effect that suicide and self-harm has on all our communities. I have already stated my willingness and eagerness to work and engage with fellow MLAs in order to find out what input can be brought to bear by the Assembly. I also welcome the support that I have received from the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety, which has already met with representatives from families bereaved by suicide from across Northern Ireland in order to listen to their concerns about the services that are provided and the available support.

I accept that more must be done to develop mental-health services and to provide a better service for people, particularly those who are at risk of suicide in Northern Ireland. I welcome any input that can be brought to bear.

Mr Buchanan: I support the amendment. Suicide is a complex issue that affects constituents throughout Northern Ireland. Indeed, I am sure that every Member in the House knows of a family that has suffered the loss of a loved one through suicide. When a suicide occurs, it not only brings grief and sorrow to the family concerned but leaves behind a stigma and raises questions among the family members about whether they could have done more to recognise the signs that led to the suicide. Although those families cry out for help, there appears to be little assistance available to them.

In recent years, Northern Ireland has witnessed an increase in the number of people who die from suicide and acts of self-harm. Statistics show that Northern Ireland has more suicides per 100,000 people than England and Wales, although that figure is less than levels in Scotland and the Republic of Ireland.

When they are taken in isolation, suicide statistics indicate a substantial public-health issue that generates tremendous public concern. However, media reporting of individual cases highlights the human tragedy that is associated with suicidal behaviour. The statistics also suggest failings in existing prevention strategies and resources that have been put in place to tackle suicide, as well as inherent limitations in mental-health services for children and adolescents throughout Northern Ireland.

In addition to the costs that are associated with suicide — the lives that have been lost and the trauma that bereaved families in local communities experience — it has been widely acknowledged that suicide and self-harm can generate significant economic costs. According to ‘Protect Life: A Shared Vision — The Northern Ireland Suicide Prevention Strategy and Action Plan 2006-2011’, there were 146 suicides in Northern Ireland in 2004. That figure equates to 4,350 potential years of life lost for that year. Associated with each suicide are the direct costs of a post-mortem and a funeral, as well as the indirect costs, such as the value of potential earnings lost.

Subsequently, the total estimated cost of suicide in Northern Ireland in 2004 was in the region of £202 million. That figure represents £1·4 million for each suicide. Those figures, combined with the significant human tragedy of suicide, imply that the development of successful prevention strategies may generate significant economic returns. Moreover, there are the obvious benefits of saved lives and the avoidance of emotional trauma.

2.00 pm

A phrase that is often used about suicide is that it is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. While that comment can be applied to anyone who has been affected by suicide, it has frequently been associated with the education of adolescents and young adults in addressing their concerns about suicide and self-harm. The point is often made to young people who are considering taking their own lives that, whatever the nature and source of the emotional stress and pressure that is influencing them, advice and support can be given that can lessen that burden. The difficulty in getting that message across to young people — particularly to young adult men — is reflected in recent findings that 41% of young males under the age of 35 who took own lives were in contact with their GPs during the year before their deaths.

Members have heard how suicide has affected so many families. I commend the Chairperson of the Health Committee, who proposed the amendment to the motion. I was intrigued by the list of goals and guidelines that she outlined.

Families across the Province are being torn apart because of suicides. Suicide is an issue that must be tackled by the Health Committee — that is the proper vehicle and the proper way in which to deal with the matter. During the course of the debate, Robert Coulter mentioned awareness training for teachers, ministers of religion and others working with young people. That must be given consideration.

Carmel Hanna spoke about training for GPs and the full implementation of the Bamford Review. Again, that must be considered by the Health Committee so that all the measures that are recommended in that report are put in place.

Naomi Long spoke about the removal of the stigma associated with mental-health issues. That too is a big issue; there are many people who do not want it to be known that they have mental-health problems. If the stigma of mental-health issues can be overcome, that may help to solve some of our current problems. Undoubtedly, the issue will be raised in a future meeting of the Health Committee. We believe that that is the proper vehicle in which to deal with the issue.

Ms Ní Chuilín: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Much has been said during the debate, and everyone who has spoken has made a valuable contribution to the debate. I ask that the Official Report of the debate be made available to the Health Committee, because we will consider it as a source of reference. Members’ valuable contributions must not be overlooked. Equally, while the contributions are valuable, they must be translated into actions. The Statutory Committee’s inquiry will be one way of achieving that outcome. I was delighted to hear Mr McGimpsey, the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, outline all of the actions that have been undertaken since May 2007. There has been much ongoing work. He also conceded that, while we are all doing good work, we need to do more. The Health Committee will add to that body of work.

At the start of the debate, my colleague Gerry Adams said — and every other Member has also mentioned — that the number of people who are ending their lives or harming themselves is increasing. To take the issue of road safety, for example: when we see youngsters playing football in a street full of parked cars, our instinct is to look out for them. We need to develop a similar instinct for looking out for each other, because very often we do not know that people are vulnerable until it is too late.

I pay tribute to the bereaved families and those who are caring for people with mental-health problems, because they have a mighty fight. We need to support them up that hill. Many people ask why, and that question was woven throughout the debate today. We ask what we can do, and what we can do together. It is very clear from the debate that by listening to one another, talking together and working together, we can make a difference and help those who are often trying to help themselves in very difficult circumstances.

We heard from some groups that we met this morning that some of the difficulties are around burnout. The funding for community groups is very sporadic, and the Minister has recognised that. Even the funding for the Protect Life strategy and other strategies that fall within the remit of this House is piecemeal. The strategies are often cross-cutting, but they are also often piecemeal. So, in a sense, the ability to plan and sustain and retain what services there are is often threatened. We must consider that issue as well.

The Committee Chairperson, Iris Robinson, and Thomas Buchanan both said that suicide is a:

“permanent solution to a temporary problem”.

That really had an impact on me. We have all had difficulties, and it is really a matter of how we deal with those difficulties and of whether we have the support to deal with them. What do we do within Government, schools, churches and the community? We must listen to those who are working in the field and those who have had experience of suicide. We need to promote awareness of suicide and self-harm, and we need broad-based support for suicide prevention. That is the minimum that is required.

We must also be realistic and honest. From time to time, the money that has been allocated for suicide prevention or mental-health issues has gone elsewhere. Action must be taken to address that.

The Minister outlined the role of the media, and Alex Easton talked about the campaign in some of the papers. From young kids I hear about Bebo, YouTube and other technologies that mean nothing to me, but I recognise that the Internet is a very powerful tool. We must commend the fact that steps have been taken to outline the responsibility that Internet and other telecommunication providers have.

Lord Morrow mentioned the effects of the conflict, and Martina Anderson spoke about the need to remain connected to each other. In terms of our empowerment, what happened in the past cannot be divorced from this process. The indelible marks of the conflict are on us all, and they have been proven to have been passed down to our kids, so they go from one generation to another. The last thing that any of us wants is to be in the situation that the Rev Robert Coulter has been in. Perhaps not as ministers, but as politicians, neighbours, brothers, sisters or partners, we have all sat in too many wake houses where people have ended their lives. It is very frustrating.

The Bamford Review is about mental-health and learning difficulties. There is the Protect Life strategy, and there will be this Committee investigation. We need to mop up all the evidence and look at the issue again. Even when the investigation ends, we will still need to review the situation. Things change, and, unfortunately, they change at a pace. More people are ending their lives and harming themselves, and more carers are being put under pressure. We cannot resolve this matter ourselves, but we can start by having a good look at the issue.

Daniel McCartan was a constituent of mine. A report in June found that there were serious flaws and failures at the core of the mental-health services.

We must learn lessons from what happened to the McCartan family, and we must do everything that we can to ensure that it does not happen again. However, I imagine that that will be considered in the inquiry.

I commend all the Members who have spoken today — and previously — on the matter. The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety said that he and the Minister of Education, Caitríona Ruane, and the junior Ministers, Gerry Kelly and Ian Paisley Jnr, are also part of a team. Given that we need to hear what our young people are saying, I am delighted to hear — as are other Members — that counselling services will be available in primary schools.

We cannot wait until it is too late. We cannot wait until those people are young adults, or even until they get to our ages — a variety of ages is represented in the Chamber. It is hard to ask for help; therefore, we must make getting it easier. We must also ensure that every step that can be taken is taken so and that the people who are so often let down can get the help that they so frequently ask for.

I accept Lord Morrow’s view that the House should not divide. Therefore, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion. Go raibh maith agat.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr Speaker: The next item of business will be questions to the Minister of Education. The Assembly is suspended until 2.30 pm.

The sitting was suspended at 2.11 pm.

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

2.30 pm

Oral Answers to Questions


Youth Outreach Expenditure

1. Ms S Ramsey asked the Minister of Education to give a breakdown of departmental expenditure on youth outreach work. (AQO 92/08)

The Minister of Education (Ms Ruane): The Department allocates an overall budget of approximately £32 million for youth services. Of that, £1·82 million has been allocated in 2007-08 for outreach and detached youth workers. The youth outreach initiative, specifically funded through the children and young people funding package, was allocated as follows: £205,000 to each of the four education and library boards outside Belfast, focused on rural areas and small conurbations near rural areas; £205,000 for YouthNet, focusing on dealing with young people who are isolated because of their gender, disability, because they are from an ethnic minority community, or from a lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender group. The Department also allocated £437,000 for detached outreach youth workers in Belfast; £250,000 for detached youth workers, under the renewing community initiative in Belfast; and £108,000 for peer educators carrying out similar work, focused in south and east Belfast.

It is essential that those limited resources are prioritised according to need. Therefore, I have asked departmental officials to re-examine, with colleagues in the education and library boards, especially in the Belfast and South Eastern Board areas, the deployment of outreach workers in areas of objective need.

Ms S Ramsey: Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Minister for her detailed response to my question and I also welcome her commitment to re-examining because it is my understanding that Belfast was left out of the funding bid under the children and young people funding package. Can the Minister give an assurance to people in my constituency of West Belfast that outreach workers will be provided in what is clearly an area of need?

Ms Ruane: The roles of outreach and detached youth workers are important because those workers try to reach young people to encourage them off the streets. They are skilled at engaging with young people and, having made some contact and established a degree of understanding and trust, they work to determine what young people’s needs are, how they can be met, whether they can be helped by existing services. They then work with other agencies to develop strategies. It is difficult work and it should not be underestimated. The statutory providers, who deploy and support those workers, are experienced in that approach to meet urgent and critical needs. The youth sector is only one of a number of agencies and services involved in helping to address issues affecting young people.

In the West Belfast constituency, there are wards covered by Belfast Board workers and wards covered by South Eastern Board workers. In the Belfast Board, there are four qualified, detached, outreach workers and there are four trainee, detached, outreach workers in west Belfast. There are four outreach workers funded through renewing communities. In the South Eastern Board, there are five outreach workers, funded under the children and young people funding package. That outreach work is focused on rural areas and their communities groups of interest, under section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. I am aware that the focus on rural areas restricts the ability of the board to deploy outreach workers in urban areas, but there are questions for the Department on that. The Department has made a bid to secure the funding currently available for outreach workers through the comprehensive spending review and, if successful, the deployment of those workers can be reviewed. It is essential that the limited resources are prioritised according to greatest need and, as I said earlier, I have asked my officials to examine, with colleagues in the South Eastern Education and Library Board, the need for outreach workers in Poleglass and Twinbrook. Twinbrook is the 20th most deprived ward in the North under multiple deprivation and the 17th most deprived ward under education statistics.

Mr Elliott: I thank the Minister for some of those answers. Does the Minister have any thought or plans to change any of the responsibilities or roles of Sure Start when it comes under the remit of the Department of Education this year?

Ms Ruane: I thank the Member for his question. Previously, the Assembly had a good debate on the importance of early-years education, and that is an area that must be further developed. If the Assembly is serious about tackling disadvantage and giving young people a start in life, particularly those from the most disadvant­aged areas, the early-years strategy must be right. I will engage with the Committee for Education to develop the Department’s existing strategy, and we will work together to devise the best possible programme.

Mr Durkan: I thank the Minister for her earlier answer in which she highlighted the current budget for youth services. In the context of the review of public administration (RPA) and the establishment of the new education and skills authority, will the Minister assure the House that the resources, role and reach of youth services will be developed in the future?

Ms Ruane: I am a passionate supporter of youth services. It is important to reach out to all young people, particularly those living in disadvantaged areas across the North. Members have seen what can happen when youth is marginalised. Many young people play a tremendous role in society, but there are others whom we are failing to reach.

Recently, I visited young people in the young offenders’ centre at Hydebank Wood. While I was talking to them, I felt a real sense of sadness. They came from all communities, though mainly from working-class disadvantaged areas, and there were both Catholics and Protestants. Politicians have failed those young people by failing to provide resources to support them. Even when young people are in Hydebank, they do not receive the support that they should.

It is essential to provide resources to young people across the board, but it must be done strategically. Members know that finding the money will be difficult given the comprehensive spending review (CSR). The Department must consider many issues, such as early-years education, youth provision, and finding more money for primary schools, and Members have been lobbying me on all of them. I am doing my utmost to ensure that the maximum amount of money possible is invested in youth services. As the process is not complete, I am not at liberty to say how much will be available. Indeed, I do not know the amount, but the Department has made some strong bids.

Academic Selection

2. Mr P Ramsey asked the Minister of Education what the final date is for assuring the public that academic selection will end in 2008.        (AQO 23/08)

Ms Ruane: I assure the public that the transfer test will operate for the final time in 2008. My position on academic selection is well known. However, in the search for agreement on workable new arrangements for the transfer of children from primary to post-primary education, I am conscious of the continuing need to engage with those who hold different views. In attempting to find the best way forward, I have deliber­ately spent a considerable amount of time speaking to people on all sides of the argument.

Mr P Ramsey: I thank the Minister for her reply. Is she aware of the ongoing uncertainty being felt by teachers, parents and young children and the effect that that is having on morale and motivation in schools? Will she tell Members when she expects to bring forward a new transfer procedure and will she confirm that academic selection will not be part of it?

Ms Ruane: It is an uncertain time for everyone: parents, teachers, and everyone who works in schools. It is essential that the Department comes up with the right transfer procedure. Members know my position on academic selection: I have been clear on that. The Department wants to find the best way forward, and I do not believe that that is through academic selection. It is important to make the transfer from primary school as seamless as possible for young people.

I assure parents that the Department is working hard on how to move forward. The most important consid­eration is to assure the children and everyone else involved that everything will be sorted out. I will engage with the Committee for Education, the Executive and all relevant stakeholders and I will inform the Assembly as soon as the new arrangements are in place.

Mr S Wilson: The Minister told the Education Committee on 27 May 2007 that in the absence of any agreed regulations, schools could continue with academic selection, probably through entrance examinations. Does the Minister accept that if no proposal for transfer arrangements from primary to post-primary schools is agreed by all of the Assembly, then that is what will happen? In light of the attempt to spread information by those associated with the Minister’s point of view, will the Minister confirm whether the information given to the Committee on 27 May 2007 was correct, or was the Committee being misled?

Ms Ruane: If schools choose to operate independent arrangements that lie outside any agreed system of transfer, there will be no obligation on the Department to assist with funding. It is important that the transfer from primary to post-primary education is as seamless as possible. I am confident that we can find the best way forward to meet the needs of all our children.

Mr B McCrea: I wish I could welcome the Minister’s comments, but I cannot. When will she stop using our schools as some kind of ideological football and get down to the real business of trying to create a fair and robust transfer test? It is simply not good enough for the Minister to say that she will take her time and not be rushed. When is the navel-gazing and introspection going to end, and when are we going to give some form of assurance to the teachers, pupils, and parents with children in year five, who do not know what is going to happen next? It is an abdication of responsibility. Our grammar schools were supposed to have been saved at St Andrews.

Ms Ruane: People can be confident that I will bring forward arrangements that will be in the best interests of all our children, and I will take the time necessary to do so. That is my job, and I assure everyone here that I will do that.

School Uniforms

3. Mr Clarke asked the Minister of Education what support is available to help low-income families purchase school uniforms.          (AQO 91/08)

Ms Ruane: Grants for uniforms are available to families where a parent is in receipt of income support, income-based jobseeker’s allowance or receives the child tax credit and is ineligible for the working tax credit because they work for less than 16 hours per week and have an annual taxable income of £14,494, or less. The grant available is not intended to cover the full cost of the uniform but is designed to assist those in need with the cost of purchase. The wearing of school uniforms is not a statutory requirement, but a matter for the discretion of individual schools.

Mr W Clarke: Go raibh maith agat, aLeasCheann Comhairle. What legislation covers school uniform policy, and what are the Department of Education’s guidelines?

Ms Ruane: The wearing of the school uniform is not governed by legislation, but falls to schools to determine. The day-to-day management of schools, including any rules regarding the dress of pupils, is a matter for school principals, subject to any directions that might be given by boards of governors. Following the issue of the General Consumer Council’s report on school uniform in 1992, the Department wrote to all boards of governors in 1993 suggesting that they might wish to consider: the importance of ensuring through school prospectuses, etc, that parents are aware of the requirements of a school’s policy on uniform; the cost implications for parents, particularly those on low incomes, of a school’s policy on uniform, and the implications, in terms of value for money and consumer choice of supplier, of uniforms often being available from a limited number of official suppliers.

The Department is reviewing guidance on school uniforms here and will take developments in England into account, where the Department for Children, Schools and Families has recently consulted on guidance for school uniform policy.

A similar scheme is in operation in the South of Ireland. The Back to School Clothing and Footwear scheme assists families who are on social welfare and Health Service Executive payments towards the cost of uniforms and footwear for schoolchildren, and it is administered on behalf of the Department of Social and Family Affairs by the Health Service Executive.

2.45 pm

Mr Burns: Given that a recent Norwich Union study estimated that school uniforms cost an average of £178, does the Minister agree that the help that is available is inadequate to offset the financial burden that buying school uniforms puts on low-income families?

Ms Ruane: Buying school uniforms is a big cost for many families. Our grants contribute only partially towards the cost of uniforms. The Department must consider all the competing priorities and decide where best to direct its resources. Offsetting that financial burden would be a big resource cost, but I must consider the competing priorities.

Mr McCallister: Does the Minister agree with the Association of Teachers and Lecturers that academic consensus shows that 85% of the variation in pupil performance is due to factors outside the school, such as culture, parental support, family income, and, particularly, social class? Does she accept, therefore, that the major challenge is to remove the artificial pressure on parents, pupils, and schools that the current lack of clarity imposes?

Ms Ruane: We provide grants towards the cost of school uniforms to those in receipt of income-based jobseekers allowance, those who are in receipt of child tax credit, and those who are ineligible for working tax credit. Buying uniforms is difficult for parents, and economic cost disadvantages people who are in working-class communities and in disadvantaged areas. The Department of Education is working on many programmes in order to target need. Members will continually hear me talking about objective need — we must target resources on the basis of objective need if we are to deal with people in such need and give them a fair chance.

Curran Committee of Inquiry

4. Mr McGlone asked the Minister of Education what progress has been made in providing teaching principals with the two days’ administration time recommended by the Curran Committee of Inquiry. (AQO 24/08)

Ms Ruane: I acknowledge the workload demands that are placed on the teaching profession, and I recognise the dedication of teachers locally. Workload concerns should be addressed, especially for teaching principals who need time to lead and manage change in their schools — and we all know that a lot of change is ahead. The local management of schools (LMS) gives principals of small primary schools the flexibility to be released from class contact for one day a week. Part II of the Curran committee of inquiry recommended that the teachers’ negotiating committee in the North of Ireland should reach a contextualised agreement that is similar to the English arrangements on raising standards and tackling workload.

In accepting that measures that are similar to those in England and Wales should be introduced here to limit teachers’ workloads, including the provision of teaching principals’ time, the Curran committee took the view that the English proposals would require adaptation for the North of Ireland and that the timetable for their introduction may vary. The implementation of the agreement in England and Wales was achieved through various strategies, including reforming and remodelling the school workforce, using teaching assistants to undertake teaching-type duties, and relieving teachers of routine administrative tasks.

The teachers’ union here considered that such strategies were inappropriate. Consequently, it was estimated that, based on the assumption that a significant number of additional teachers would be needed, it could cost over £80 million a year to implement the Curran recommendations. Therefore, the cost implications of delivering measures to reduce teacher workload here, including administration time for teaching principals, would be proportionately much higher than in England and Wales. It also means that more teachers would be covering for absent colleagues. That would be at odds with another of Curran’s recommendations, which stated that a contractual limit should be placed on the amount of cover that is required from an individual teacher, with the longer-term objective that teachers should cover for absent colleagues only rarely. In the absence of additional resources in the 2004 and 2005 Budgets, successive direct rule Ministers asked the teachers’ negotiating committee to consider whether any of the main Curran recommendations could be introduced through alternative ways of working.

That is currently the subject of ongoing negotiations between both sides, with particular reference to teaching principles, and planning, preparation and assessment time.

Mr McGlone: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Does the Minister agree that if that particular part of the Curran Report were implemented, it would go some way to providing posts for the roughly 4,000 teachers on the substitute-teachers register who have never had a full-time teaching post?

The Minister mentioned some of her proposals, can she give some indication as to the time frame within which she is working, and, therefore, when deliberations on the matter will be completed?

Ms Ruane: I was at Queen’s University this morning to meet approximately 200 people who were starting a postgraduate certificate in education (PGCE) course. It was interesting to meet all the people, young and old, who will be in our classrooms. I was honest and told them that I could not guarantee all of them a permanent job, and that, if I did, I would be lying.

The number of teachers must be matched to the skills and posts that need to be filled. Politicians cannot be ostriches, pretending that there are not 50,000 empty desks in our classrooms. We ignore the current demo­graphics in our society at our peril.

The Assembly must examine the best way to meet the needs of our education sector. The right number of teachers, and the right guidance for schools when they are employing substitute teachers are needed. The Department has written to all school principals to state that it would like to see more young teachers employed so that they can gain experience. We also need to diversify and create opportunities for our teachers so that they can go into the youth or pre-school sectors.

I have launched a new initiative involving the Irish Football Association (IFA) and the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) whereby 20 coaches are employed, who will then go out to primary schools. Members know the budgets within which we must work, and of the difficulties that demographic decline is creating in our schools. Members should join together to show leadership when dealing with this matter.

Mr K Robinson: Is the Minister really convinced that adequate and sufficient time has been provided to enable teachers and principals to thoroughly prepare for the curriculum entitlement framework? Does she have any plans to use the surplus of teachers who, after graduating up to five years ago, have yet to secure a permanent teaching post? That would be an attempt to reduce the strain on an already overburdened school system, and on the individuals in it.

Ms Ruane: I agree that principals play a key role in our schools. As for the curriculum entitlement frame­work, the Department has granted schools five additional exceptional-closure days to prepare for its implem­entation from September 2007. A detailed programme of training for both principals and teachers, phased in line with the implementation timetable, is also under way, and schools can avail of support on an individual basis from dedicated schooling officers in their education board’s curriculum advisory and support service (CASS) team.

Do the principals have enough preparation time? Of course not. The Department has to find a way of getting the resources to provide enough time. As part of the comprehensive spending review, the Department is looking at how to meet the needs of principals. That will involve an adequate budget being provided to the whole area of education. I am meeting with the Minister of Finance and Personnel, Peter Robinson, next week about the various bids in the comprehensive spending review. I cannot overstate — as the Member’s question indicates — the importance of the leadership role of principals in our schools.

Pupil Numbers

5. Mr Neeson asked the Minister of Education what proposals exist to remove pupil numbers as the sole factor in assessing the future viability of schools.          (AQO 60/08)

Ms Ruane: Pupil numbers are clearly an important factor in assessing the future viability of schools, but they should not be the sole factor. The direct rule Administration issued a consultation document on a policy for sustainable schools, which set out six proposed criteria for helping to assess the viability of schools. In addition to enrolment trends, the document also identified the educational experience of the children, the financial position of the school, leadership and management at the school, accessibility, and links with the community. My Department is currently analysing the responses to that consultation.

The overriding consideration must be the quality of education that a school provides for the children. Any review of a school’s future viability needs to be handled carefully and sensitively, and the local circumstances must be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Mr Neeson: The Bain Report indicates that some rationalisation of schools will be unavoidable. In communities where the closure of schools will be unavoidable, has the Minister examined the possibility of promoting the amalgamation of controlled and maintained schools, especially in areas where the alternative for some children would be a bus journey to a single-identity school that is located some distance from their homes?

Ms Ruane: If the demographics to which I referred earlier are taken into consideration, it is important that the Department of Education takes a strategic approach to amalgamations. Over the past few months, I have met representatives from many schools who are considering amalgamation, and through those meetings with the teachers, parents and children, I have seen a strong sense of schools coming together and working together. Some schools expressed difficulties with what was happening, but the majority of schools recognised that it is not in the best interests of pupils to have 20 or 30 children in a school.

The Department is trying to ensure that schools amalgamate with schools that are located nearest to them, and we would love schools in the controlled and maintained sectors — where they feel that it is appropriate — to amalgamate and provide education for the children. In the post-primary sector, there are some interesting programmes in which schools are working together. I have visited post-primary schools and further education colleges in which the grammar, controlled and grant-aided sectors are working together to provide different courses at different sites. That is the way forward for our education system, but it must be progressed and implemented by schools coming together. It should not be the responsibility of the Department to impose the new system on communities, but the demographic decline gives us an opportunity to examine the options.

Dr W McCrea: Has the Minister not already removed pupil numbers as a factor in assessing the viability of schools and done so in a most sectarian and unfair manner? If she has not, can the Minister explain why she has approved the opening of an Irish-language school with an intake of 12 pupils while closing Minterburn Primary School in County Tyrone, which has a register of twice that number?

Ms Ruane: Proposals for the opening of schools or the closing of existing schools are introduced by the relevant bodies and are the subject of consultation. I need to consider the issues surrounding each individual proposal on its merits and with regard to the education needs of the children concerned. The Department of Education has a statutory duty under the Education and Libraries Order 1998 to encourage and facilitate the development of Irish-medium education. There is a growing demand for Irish-medium education, and this —

Dr W McCrea: The school has only 12 pupils.

Ms Ruane: I am answering the Member’s question, and I would appreciate it if he would listen. There is a growing demand for Irish-medium education, and that is reflected in the proposals introduced by parents. New schools — regardless of what sector they are in — are approved on condition that they will meet the Department’s minimum intake levels. The Member is being economical with the truth. The real question to be asked is how many pupils are in primary 1. There is a growing demand, and if there are 12 pupils in primary 1, a long-term enrolment for a seven-class school can be calculated by multiplying 12 by seven. The three Irish-medium schools approved recently — [Interruption.]

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. Please allow the Minister to answer the question.

Ms Ruane: Go raibh maith agat. The three Irish-medium schools approved recently are: Gaelscoil Éanna in Glengormley, Gaelscoil Ghleann Darach in Crumlin and Gaelscoil na Daróige in Derry, each with an estimated long-term enrolment of between 105 and 140 pupils.

Mr Savage: Does the Minister recognise that, in the absence of any clear direction from her, the perceived viability of a school becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as pupils, parents and schools —

Mr Deputy Speaker: Time is up. The Minister will have to respond to the Member in writing.

3.00 pm

Employment and Learning

Student Loans: Repayment Threshold

1. Mr Neeson asked the Minister for Employment and Learning what plans he has to reassess the current £15,000 threshold at which students commence repayment of their student loans upon graduation.   (AQO 90/08)

The Minister for Employment and Learning (Sir Reg Empey): There are no plans to change the repay­ment threshold, which was considerably increased by 50% — from £10,000 to £15,000 — in April 2005. Effectively, that increase reduced repayments by £450 a year for graduates who earn £15,000 or more.

Mr Neeson: In this day and age, when one considers the rocketing cost of housing that young people face, £15,000 is not a substantial salary. In reassessing the threshold — which I hope that the Minister will do — will consideration be given to other costs such as energy, housing and transport, which result in much lower disposable incomes for young people than might be apparent from their salaries?

Sir Reg Empey: I am aware that, in this day and age, there are huge increases in costs, and I am sure that all Members wish to do what they can to ensure that people can participate without crippling economic consequences. However, there would be significant operational difficulties were Northern Ireland to act unilaterally because, as the Member knows, repayments in the student loan scheme are collected by HM Revenue and Customs. Therefore, it would be extremely difficult for that organisation to administer a separate scheme for Northern Ireland.

However, the system is designed to ensure that people who earn less will pay back less, and that any money still outstanding at the end of 25 years will be written off. I will be watching and liaising closely with the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills to ensure that its proposals will be considered when I am reviewing student finances, which I hope to do next year.

Mrs Hanna: I understand that Queen’s University has instigated a scholarship programme for science, maths, engineering and technology. Does the Minister have any plans to offer student loans to post-graduate students who must further their skills, especially in those areas?

Sir Reg Empey: That is an important point. Queen’s University is encouraging students to focus on subjects that are significant for the development of the economy. I have been thinking about the people who we want to encourage into research — which is critical for our future economic prosperity — particularly those at the higher levels such as master’s degree and PhD students. However, until the comprehensive spending review has been completed and we know where we stand, I am unlikely to be in a position to respond to the House this year. Any proposals that I, or others, might have will cost money. Nevertheless, the Member touches on an important point that is close to my heart.

Mr S Wilson: Is the Minister not concerned that almost every decision being made in further and higher education is having the effect of deterring people from low income families from entering education at that level? The £15,000 repayment threshold and university fees have been mentioned. Even concessionary fees at the first step — for those who wish to embark on their university careers via further education — have been cancelled for many courses. Has the Minister assessed the impact of low-income families opting out of further and higher education due to monetary considerations?

Sir Reg Empey: Other similar questions have been asked, and I have had considerable correspondence on that matter. Northern Ireland’s record on involving people from disadvantaged backgrounds in further and higher education is second to none in these islands. We have a much higher than average participation rate.

Although I accept that the imposition of fees was a traumatic development, a wide range of measures is, nevertheless, in place to ensure that people can access assistance, such as maintenance grants. The grant in Northern Ireland is £500 higher than that in any other part of the United Kingdom.

Early indications are that there continues to be a higher level of participation from low-income families, which is entirely consistent with the Department’s long-term objectives, which were set some time ago. If the hon Member cares to compare our participation rates with those of any other region of the UK, he will find that they are far greater.

Further Education Lecturers:  Pay Policy Constraints

2. Mr Attwood To ask the Minister for Employment and Learning if he has taken legal advice to determine whether Further Education Lecturers should be subject to pay policy constraints.       (AQO 20/08)

Sir Reg Empey: The continued application of public sector pay policy in Northern Ireland has been endorsed by the Executive. When approving further education lecturers’ pay, my Department is required to ensure that pay settlements are compliant with that pay policy. There are no grounds for my Department to seek legal advice on the matter.

Mr Attwood: I thank the Minister for his answer, but he knows that no stone should be left unturned when addressing the further education pay dispute. I strongly suggest that it is appropriate for the Minister to seek legal advice on the matter for several reasons, although I will name only one. On 21 June 2004, slap bang in the middle of the current pay policy constraints, Welsh further education lecturers got pay parity. Why did Welsh lecturers get pay parity in 2004, despite the pay policy constraint, when Northern Ireland’s further education lecturers did not, despite having agreed in principle on pay parity in 2001?

I suggest that that precedent may be relevant to the dispute, and that that alone justifies the Minister and the Department of Finance and Personnel acquiring legal advice on the situation as a matter of urgency.

Sir Reg Empey: I thank the Member for his question; he has also corresponded with me on the matter. This inherited dispute has caused us to find ourselves in the most bizarre circumstances. During negotiations, a willing employer side and a willing employee side reached an agreement, which was put to the Sub-Committee on Public Sector Pay in London and was rejected. On 24 May, and on 13 September, the Executive endorsed the policy of ensuring that we are compliant with that national macroeconomic policy.

With regard to discussions — and I am aware of the Welsh example and several others —there are serious anomalies in the dispute. However, the problem that is dogging us is not legal, but political. It is a political decision of the Government in London to have a national pay policy, and it is a political decision of the Executive to adhere to it. Therefore, the political issue, not the legal one, is the problem.

However, I can tell the Member that few issues occupy as much of my time as trying to resolve the dispute. The week before last, I met representatives of the Association of Northern Ireland Colleges, the college employers, and I had a long meeting last Friday with the union side, including national officials. At that meeting, I undertook to reflect over the weekend on certain proposals for dealing with the matter.

However, I must stress that it has to be dealt with within the overall confines of policy. The anomalies that have been referred to, and there are many of them, are, unfortunately, caught by the almost arbitrary imposition of this pay policy, because there were agreements either in place or about to be put in place, but they had not been implemented. That is why the Sub-Committee on Public Sector Pay took such a difficult line.

It is true that no other group of education workers in the United Kingdom is caught up in this policy, and I am very conscious of that. Discussions took place on Friday, and I hope to have further discussions tomorrow. I do not wish to be pressed further on the details today, but I am hopeful that we are beginning to see some way of managing this dispute, but it does have to be within the confines of public-sector pay policy.

Of course, within the application of that, there is an issue as to how the Sub-Committee on Public Sector Pay might interpret certain things, and we are considering every­thing very carefully in an attempt to find a way to resolve the issue. I assure the hon Member that I do not believe, at this point, that a legal route is the solution.

Mr Spratt: I know that the Minister has said that he does not want to elaborate on discussions that he has had in recent days. I also know that this is a difficult dispute, and there has been support around the Chamber and, indeed, from his own Department and himself. If the Northern Ireland situation were resolved through the Executive, could that have a knock-on effect on other disputes throughout the United Kingdom? Could it also have a knock-on effect for the Northern Ireland Budget in the future?

Sir Reg Empey: The Deputy Chairman of the Committee for Employment and Learning, Mr Spratt, has hit the nail on the head. That is exactly one of the concerns that the Department has. I am writing to the Committee today. I had the opportunity to brief the Chairperson of the Committee on Friday, and I appreciate that the Committee is trying to play as constructive a role as possible, given the obvious frustrations that all Members feel with this situation. Everyone wants this dispute settled; we all want to see the lecturers’ pay claim adhered to. Parity with teachers is ultimately the solution to this. Indeed, that is effectively the mechanism that the Welsh managed to agree. I accept the point that the Member made; we do have to be careful of the wider issues. Let us hope that progress can be made.

Mr B McCrea: I thank the Minister for his compre­hensive and fulsome answer, which to a certain extent means that my question is superfluous. However, I will give the Minister the opportunity to clarify, in simple terms, that this is not a legal issue, that this was a decision taken by the Executive —

The Deputy Speaker: Order. As you do not have a question, Mr McCrea, we have to move on.

Tuition Fees

3. Mr Butler asked the Minister for Employment and Learning if there has been an assessment of the impact of tuition fees on applications to, and enrolment in, third level education institutions, particularly in relation to the number of applicants from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.            (AQO 97/08)

Sir Reg Empey: It is too early to gauge the impact of variable tuition fees, as we have completed only one academic year of the new arrangements.

3.15 pm

A review of variable fees and student finance arrangements, which will include consideration of participation rates and any additional effect on particular groups and students from low-income backgrounds, is planned to commence in the academic year 2008-09.

Mr Butler: I thank the Minister for his answer. Does the Minister agree that if tuition fees were not in place, many more people from disadvantaged backgrounds would take up the opportunity to go to university? Does he also agree that many of those who drop out of university are from disadvantaged backgrounds?

Sir Reg Empey: There is no doubt that those students who are targeted from disadvantaged backgrounds do have a higher drop-out rate than other students. However, I am pleased to say that both our local universities have strategies in place, commencing this month at the very latest, to ensure that there is a follow-up to that.

It is a waste for students and taxpayers alike if a place on a course is taken by a student who later drops out; it is also most unfortunate for the individual concerned. There are many difficulties.

The drop-out rate for students from less fortunate backgrounds tends to be higher; that is the pattern across the country. There is no doubt that if no costs were involved in going to university, many more would go.

I remind the Member, however, that participation rates in Northern Ireland are far higher than anywhere else in the UK. They are more than 40% higher in the relevant groups; elsewhere, the percentage is in the twenties. We have a comprehensive range of measures in place to ensure that people have access to resources and maintenance grants so that they are not unduly penalised as a result of deciding to go to university. We are encouraging people to go, and the evidence is that we are succeeding. Measures are in place to ensure that such students receive assistance. The work of both universities to reduce drop-out rates will be successful, although it will be a while yet before we can measure that.

Mr Kennedy: The Minister is aware of the proposed exorbitant increase in tuition fees that affects many senior citizens attempting to take non-vocational courses in my constituency. Will he undertake to review that problem urgently and to address the issues involved: ageism, equality and consistency of approach by the new regional colleges?

Sir Reg Empey: I thank the Member for his question. I have received a significant volume of correspondence from many Members on that issue. The Department does not, however, set charges; colleges are autonomous bodies that set their own charges. I believe that there is an understanding among the college employers to agree a tariff among themselves. Several colleges, which had their own separate fees, are amalgamating. However, I am not satisfied that the understanding is being adhered to.

Furthermore, it has been drawn to my attention that there could be bizarre legal outworkings of the age discrimination legislation. As Members know, it was designed to assist older people by preventing discrim­ination on the basis of age. However, it seems that the legal advice that was given to colleges has been interpreted in such a way as to suggest that if colleges discriminate in favour of older people, they could fall foul of the law. I will draw that to the attention of the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. Since the legislation was designed to prevent discrimination against older people, it seems perverse to discover that one cannot discriminate in their favour. That point must be clarified. I will talk to the college employers about the matter, because I am aware of the inconsistencies and of colleges’ concern over possible breaches of the age discrimination law.

Ms Lo: The Minister mentioned an assessment of the impact of such under-representation. What further proposals will he make to ensure fair access to third-level education, especially for people from poorer backgrounds?

Sir Reg Empey: Substantial assistance is already available. There are maintenance grants and each university here has its own hardship fund.

Many Members are concerned about the matter. As I have said to a number of them, Northern Ireland is outperforming other regions of the United Kingdom in attracting students from such backgrounds. The designated categories make up 41·5% of the student body — that compares favourably with the best-performing universities in the rest of the UK, at which levels are in and around 25%. An enormous effort is being put in, and the Department has prioritised that effort in its bid to the comprehensive spending review. The Department states that one of its objectives it to maximise opportunities, so I assure the Member that we take the issue seriously.

I commend the universities for their help. Magee College has its Step-Up initiative, and other universities’ initiatives are state of the art, and are doing well. I hope that the ongoing figures continue to support my optimism that the Department is succeeding.

Economically Inactive People

4. Dr Farry asked the Minister for Employment and Learning to provide an assessment of the factors contri­buting to Northern Ireland’s high level of economically inactive people, in comparison with other parts of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.            (AQO 77/08)

Sir Reg Empey: Our inactivity rate is some 5·5% higher than Great Britain’s, mainly because Northern Ireland has proportionately more students, as well as people out of work because of sickness and disability. The inactivity rate in the Republic is around 2% to 2·5% lower than ours, which is chiefly down to less inactivity that is attributable to sickness or disability.

Dr Farry: Does the Minister recognise those figures as being a major structural weakness in our economy, particularly given the low levels of official unemploy­ment figures? Is the Minister prepared to commit to setting targets to reduce the figure in Northern Ireland to that of the next-lowest UK region in the near future, and ultimately towards the UK average?

Sir Reg Empey: I thank the Member for his question, which is pertinent. The area of inactivity rates is one on which the Executive must bear down in its economic policy. The UK region that has the next-highest inactivity rate is London. Northern Ireland was sitting at 26·7% inactivity between April and June 2007, at which time the next-highest rate was London at 24·6%.

Part of the underlying reason for that figure is that Northern Ireland has more people who are ill, and more people who suffer from disabilities. We are also bearing down on inactivity, and trying to help and make a difference, through a programme called Pathways to Work. It is designed to provide interviews in jobcentres between trained staff and every person who is in receipt of incapacity benefit, in order to try to find a way in which to help those people to find a way back into the workplace. That programme is going well and will be rolled out throughout Northern Ireland by April 2008.

I hope that those initiatives will help us to bear down on the problem. There is no doubt that, if we can combine an improvement in the essential skills level with a reduction in the level of economic inactivity, we can progressively encourage more participation in the economy, and that, in turn, will improve our wealth-creation capacity.

Mr P Ramsey: The SDLP welcomes the commitment that the Minister for Employment and Learning makes on the economic front. Given the long-term unemploy­ment problem that exists in certain families, sometimes for generations, will the Minister consider introducing proposals to address the high level of economic inactivity in households in which no family members are working, whether they be Catholic, Protestant or other?

Does the Minister agree that the proposals would be usefully informed by the excellent report from the Committee on the Administration of Justice, ‘Equality in Northern Ireland: the Rhetoric and the Reality’?

Sir Reg Empey: I share the Member’s desire to see the inactivity rate reduced. There are many complicated, historical reasons, to which he has referred. Moreover, it would be foolish to deny the existence of a generational factor, particularly in certain locations.

However, the Assembly must face up to the fact that there is still a widespread belief that there are simply many people out there who claim incapacity benefit and other benefits because it is nice to have the money and sit at home. It must be understood that a larger percentage of Northern Ireland’s potential workforce suffer from ill health or are disabled. We cannot pretend that they do not exist, because they do. Policies must be tailored towards them, and the Pathways to Work policy focuses specifically on them. The Department’s disablement advisory service works with teams in jobcentres, particularly to try to help disabled people into work. There are many jobs that disabled people could do if they had sufficient confidence and there were programmes available to give them the opportunity for self-help, which many would take up.

The following is an interesting statistic: of the people who are on incapacity benefit for less than a year, at least 50% believe that they will get back into work. After that period, the figure drops dramatically, so early intervention is crucial.

Mr Ramsey mentioned historic reasons, and Members know that there is baggage everywhere. Mr Ramsey will be aware that in his own city, the University of Ulster at Magee works hard with my Department and other agencies to find opportunities for people from disadvantaged backgrounds to get into higher education. That system is state of the art, and it works. The hon Member is, therefore, pushing at an open door. Hard work is already being done to reduce the economic inactivity that, sadly, stifles the lives of many people.

Mr Newton: I am glad that the Minister, like the rest of the House, recognises the significant contribution that economically inactive people could make to the economy. When his Department has prepared its response to the Leitch Report, will it be the case that the skills needs of small and medium-sized enterprises in Northern Ireland will be dealt with through a demand-led strategy rather than one that is supply driven?

Sir Reg Empey: The Member is aware that there is little point in providing further and higher education, or any other service from the Department, which does not have a thought-through economic objective. Northern Ireland must endeavour to remain competitive and look towards its further and higher education sectors as being capable of improving economic performance and wealth-creation policies. Therefore, there is little point in having a policy that is completely divorced from the needs of the sector and employers.

I am pleased that several businesspeople have applied for, and been appointed to, the boards of governors of the new colleges. The universities work much more closely with the business community than ever before. I commend to the Member the work of the Economic Development Forum, which includes employers, universities, unions, Government and representatives from all sectors, who have all heard the message. The message is getting through to many people.

Tuition Fees

Mrs McGill: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I no longer wish to ask question 5, go raibh maith agat. The Minister has already answered it in his responses to other Members’ questions.

Tuition Fees: Republic of Ireland Students

6. Mr W Clarke asked the Minister for Employment and Learning what action had been taken on the issue of students from the Republic of Ireland having to pay fees to study in third-level education institutions in Northern Ireland; and what communication there had been with the Government of the Republic of Ireland on this issue.            (AQO 102/08)

Sir Reg Empey: This is the point at which I must not read out the wrong answer. Is that correct?


Students in higher education who are from non-UK EU countries, including the Republic of Ireland, are treated the same as Northern Ireland’s students as regards tuition fees. As far as further education is concerned, the Department for Employment and Learning has introduced regulations that will permit EU students, including those from the Republic of Ireland, to have their tuition fees funded on the same basis as students from Northern Ireland and other parts of the UK. The Department has been in regular contact with the Republic of Ireland’s Department of Education and Science on the matter throughout 2006-07.

3.30 pm

Enterprise, Trade and Investment

Mr Deputy Speaker: Question 1 has been withdrawn.

Northern Ireland Tourism Product

2. Mr Campbell asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment what steps were being taken to ensure that tourism product specific to Northern Ireland was available to, and stocked by, retail outlets supported by, or under the control of, the Northern Ireland Tourist Board.            (AQO 84/08)

The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Mr Dodds): The Northern Ireland Tourist Board (NITB) has a co-ordinating role in supporting the tourist inform­ation centre network throughout Northern Ireland, which includes staff training, familiarisation visits, corporate image and the provision of tourist information for visitors. NITB has no direct control over any retail operations.

The day-to-day operation of tourist information centres rests with their operators, which in most cases is the local council. The NITB and councils encourage the sale of local crafts and goods, and that proves to be successful in many instances. Tourist information centres take decisions on goods sold based on business and commercial considerations.

The Member will be interested to note that the NITB and the Belfast Visitor and Convention Bureau are currently appointing consultants to undertake a commer­ciality and retail study of the Belfast Welcome Centre. Consideration of the goods and products sold there will be part of the exercise, and the results will be rolled out across the tourist information centre network.

Mr Campbell: I welcome the Minister’s elaboration on the survey that will be undertaken. Does he see part of the co-ordinating role that his Department has with tourist information centres — and, I presume, with the Belfast Visitor and Convention Bureau as well — to be to raise the need for those retail outlets to stock items that reflect the country that tourists are visiting? It is an easy option for stockists in Northern Ireland to order shamrocks and shillelaghs, whereas they should be actively seeking out mementos relating to the Mountains of Mourne or the beauties of the north coast, etc, or items such as Ulster cottages and Red Hand logos. That would allow visitors to return to their homes with souvenirs of the country that they had visited — [Interruption.]

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. Please continue, Mr Campbell.

Mr Campbell: Visitors could return to their homes with souvenirs of the country that they had actually visited rather than with bland “stage Oirish” items that they could pick up in a tip in Tipperary.

Mr Dodds: I thank the Member for his question. I am sure that those retailers, and others, will have listened carefully to what he said. The NITB has no direct control over any retail operations. As far as Northern Ireland product is concerned, NITB has been active in that area. At the recent Smithsonian Folklife Festival, Northern Ireland’s arts and crafts were given an international platform. Images of contemporary craft ware were featured on the front of the Smithsonian associates’ magazine.

Also, the NITB has given a presentation to craft manufacturers and students at the University of Ulster to encourage them to consider visitor needs when making local products. Obviously, that has been raised with me on a number of occasions. However, ultimately, commercial considerations apply. The NITB will do what it can to encourage local people to bring forward local products that can be sold in tourist information centres and elsewhere.

Mr Elliott: I notice that Mr Campbell omitted the Lambeg drum from his suggested list of tourist products. Regarding the tourist industry, will the Minister inform Members about the progress that has been made on the regional tourism partnerships and the five signature projects in Northern Ireland? Even at this stage, I would like to ask him about progress on the Destination Fermanagh project. I am curious to know if he believes that it was a mistake for the NITB to exclude one of Northern Ireland’s key tourist areas, namely County Fermanagh, from its list of signature projects.

Mr Dodds: I am grateful to the hon Member for his question. He mentioned Lambeg drums, and I am sure that that will be noted by those who take an interest in these matters. Other items will also be noted — the list that the hon Member from East Londonderry Mr Campbell mentioned is not exclusive.

The signature projects are important. The Member is aware that there are five projects, which were designated previously by the Tourist Board. As regards the exclusion of Fermanagh, Tyrone and other areas, the aim of the projects is to boost the product for Northern Ireland as a whole. The projects were not chosen on the basis of one for each particular geographic location. They were allocated on the basis that they were believed to be the best way of enhancing tourist product for Northern Ireland and of boosting that product worldwide. I certainly hear what the hon Member says, and he will know my very strong, close, personal interest in Fermanagh and in ensuring that it does well in such matters. He can rest assured on that issue — Fermanagh will certainly not be left out of my efforts to promote tourism in Northern Ireland.

Giant’s Causeway Visitors’ Centre

3. Mr McKay asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to detail the amount spent on the Giant’s Causeway Visitors’ Centre project to date, and whether his Department had done any analysis on the increased cost of the project as a result of delays.          (AQO 111/08)

Mr Dodds: A total of £1·192 million has been spent to date on bringing forward the public-sector visitor facility proposal at the Giant’s Causeway. A further £1 million would be required to take the project to contract stage.

The initial cost estimate, which was undertaken in October 2004, was £14 million. The most recent cost estimate, which was undertaken in May 2007 and was based on the actual design, stands currently at £21·5 million. The increase in the estimate is partly due to construction price inflation and partly due to the costs of delivering the actual design.

Mr McKay: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his answer. There were 51 minutes between the Minister of the Environ­ment’s statement on the visitors’ centre last Monday and the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment’s statement on the matter. Does the Minister agree that that suggests either that it was a very easy decision — which I very much doubt, given the cost of developing the public proposal that the Minister has already outlined — or that there was a degree of co-operation or collaboration between the two Departments prior to the statements being released?

Mr Dodds: The decision that I made was an easy decision to make. I am not prepared to commit a penny piece of Government money or taxpayers’ money— and it is public money that we are talking about — to something that could, in all likelihood, turn out to be nugatory or wasted expenditure. There has been criticism of the £1·2 million spent to date by previous Administrations and Ministers. I can almost hear the cries that would come in a year’s time or whenever, asking why I continued to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money on something that turned out to be wasted expenditure. So that was an easy decision to make, and I make no apology for taking that decision. In the circumstances, there will be no further expenditure until the planning matter is resolved.

As far as joined-up Government is concerned, if the issue is that we are actually talking to each other, again, I plead guilty. If the planning Minister makes a decision that impacts on the possibility of nugatory expenditure in another Department, it entirely makes sense to have contact on that issue — of course it does. That is what joined-up Government is all about. So, I can satisfy the Member very easily on both those issues.

Mr Neeson: We all realise that the issue of the visitors’ centre is very sensitive. Will the Minister assure the House that whatever development goes ahead at the Giant’s Causeway, it will not endanger its status as a world heritage site?

Mr Dodds: That is entirely a matter for the Depart­ment of the Environment. That is a planning matter; it is not a matter within the remit of my Department. However, I have made it absolutely clear that, as far as I am concerned, the key issue is exactly the issue that the hon Member has raised.

In addition, we need world-class facilities, and an end to the current third-rate facilities that were brought about by a combination of inaction and delays over many years. Value for money is an issue, as is the matter of how quickly this can be delivered. I entirely agree with the hon Member’s comments, but the issue falls within the remit of another Department.

Mr O’Loan: Will the Minister assure the Assembly that no public money will be given to a certain individual private developer — who has invited himself to the table and who has close associations with the Democratic Unionist Party — to build a visitor centre at the Giant’s Causeway?

Mr Dodds: First, as I understand it, that developer has put forward a proposal on his own land, so he is as entitled as anybody to submit a planning application. Secondly, as far as the use of public money is concerned, I have always made it clear that the Government, just as was the case with the Titanic Quarter signature project, should be involved only to the extent that there has been market failure. Therefore, I say openly and clearly that I would need a lot of convincing that any public money should be invested where no market failure has occurred.

Inward Investment

4. Mr Gardiner asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to explain why, in the last five years, the areas of Craigavon, Banbridge and Lisburn combined had had only 29 visits organised by Invest NI for inward investors, compared to 368 for Belfast.           (AQO 26/08)

Mr Dodds: Factors such as the content of a visit programme, the locations that have been chosen to visit, and, ultimately, the investment decision, rest solely with the prospective investor. If an investor seeks information on specific areas of Northern Ireland, Invest Northern Ireland will work with the local stakeholders to best promote that particular area.

In the past five years, Invest Northern Ireland has made 12 offers to internationally owned companies in Craigavon, Banbridge and Lisburn, offering over £24 million in assistance and leveraging more than £156 million in planned investment. Those inward investment projects have created 2,678 new and safeguarded jobs.

Mr Gardiner: The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment’s figures show that between them, Banbridge, Craigavon and Lisburn have over 700 acres of land available for industrial use and 16,143 manu­facturing jobs. Belfast has only 137 acres and 14,904 manufacturing jobs. In the light of that, will the Minister assure the Assembly that in future, more inward invest­ment will be directed towards the Banbridge, Craigavon and Lisburn corridor and that the blatant bias that Invest Northern Ireland shows towards Belfast will be rooted out?

Mr Dodds: I understand where the Member is coming from. People from other areas have made similar representations to me. However, it must be pointed out that Invest Northern Ireland does not determine the visit locations for potential investors; the investor makes that decision. When an investor is preparing to visit Northern Ireland, Invest Northern Ireland will work closely with them to ensure that the locations to be visited meet their requirements. Ultimately, however, the location decision rests with the investor.

The Member mentioned the availability of land. In recent years there has been a shift in investment from manufacturing to predominantly tradable service-based sectors, and the fact with which we have to cope is that investors from those sectors in particular place an increasing emphasis on locations that have large labour pools, excellent infrastructure, and close proximity to universities.

The Member knows well that council or constituency boundaries do not represent self-contained labour markets, and a project that is assisted or is based in a particular location has the potential to create benefits for a much wider area. Travel-to-work areas are much bigger than council areas or even, in some cases, constituencies. We must examine the matter in a truly representative way, taking into account the realities of what investors are looking for today. We must realise that we are in a competition that is taking place not between Banbridge and Belfast, Londonderry and Belfast, but between Northern Ireland and the rest of the world. It will be a big challenge for all of us to get that much-needed investment into the Province.

Mr Burns: Given the way in which Invest Northern Ireland appears to be directing most inward investment towards Belfast — which is an accurate reflection of the Minister’s current priorities — does the Minister see potential for strong economic growth in any other area?

3.45 pm

Mr Dodds: There should be economic growth across the board, and DETI’s efforts are targeted at achieving that in Northern Ireland. I would not subscribe for one moment to my Department, or any other Department, placing emphasis on Belfast over anywhere else in Northern Ireland. I will spell it out again, because I have said it before in the House: when delivering policy and programmes, attention and focus go to areas of need, high unemployment and social deprivation. Invest NI has a target of attracting 75% of all first-time inward investment projects to locate in disadvantaged areas. That target was almost reached last year, when 73% of all such first-time inward investment projects located in disadvantaged areas. Another target is to secure at least 40% of new business starts in those areas. The Department is already focused on that matter. I understand the Member’s view, and I have a great deal of sympathy with what he says.

Mr Deputy Speaker: I call Miss Michelle McIlveen.

Miss McIlveen: The Minister has already answered my question.

Inward Investment

5. Ms J McCann asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment what steps he was taking to ensure that the potential for inward investment emanating from the new political climate should be fully realised.      (AQO 110/08)

Mr Dodds: The year 2006-07 was Invest NI’s most successful in securing inward investment since its formation. Twenty-eight foreign-owned projects were secured, promoting and safeguarding nearly 3,700 jobs. Those projects represent a planned investment of nearly £176 million and are a clear testimonial to the confidence in Northern Ireland and optimism for the future from international markets.

To capitalise on that new confidence, I am actively involved with colleagues in Invest NI in planning a United States/Northern Ireland investment conference for next year, and the associated events in the United States will highlight Northern Ireland’s potential with major US corporations. I have also agreed that Invest NI should establish an office in Mumbai, India. As part of the run-up to the US/Northern Ireland conference, US Ambassadors Tuttle and Foley are leading a small number of senior US executives on a one-day visit to Northern Ireland in mid-October. The visit will involve Executive Ministers and leaders in the Northern Ireland business community. The Executive have also made a detailed submission to Sir David Varney regarding potential changes to the fiscal structure and support for investment in Northern Ireland to capitalise on the new optimism.

The Chairperson of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Mr Durkan): I thank the Minister for his answer. What focus are he and his colleagues seeking in relation to the investment effort that they are promoting, particularly with the US? Will there be concentration on particular sectors? Will the focus be on well-placed executives, or will they be more randomly invited? It seems to some of us who have been dealing with this, including the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment, that to match our emphasis on innovation, which was part of the nego­tiations that we had with the Chancellor, we must show that the investment effort is well focused and ties in well with the other strategies. We hope that it will work well with our indigenous businesses, because it is very important that our own enterprises know that we are interested in growing them and not just bringing in others.

Mr Dodds: I am grateful for the Chairman’s remarks, as there was much merit in them. He has drawn attention to the need for a targeted, focused approach rather than a scattergun approach. That is absolutely right and it marries closely with my view on the matter. The conference aims at attracting 40 to 60 top chief executive officers in the sectors that DETI believes can bring high-value-added jobs to Northern Ireland, namely in our key information and communication technology and financial and business services sectors.

The Chairman is right to point out the need to work with companies that are already here, whether foreign- or locally owned. That is a key message — it is not just about bringing in new investment; it is about ensuring that more of our local companies, many in the small and medium-sized category, grow and become more export-orientated and therefore increase productivity and bring in more high-value jobs. There is a dual approach.

Given the new circumstances in Northern Ireland and the level of commitment from the United States and elsewhere, the conference provides a potentially one-off opportunity to target the particular high-value-added sectors of foreign direct investment (FDI) that I mentioned. If too broad an approach for the conference is adopted, there is a danger of missing that opportunity. That is not to say that the Department does not deal with other sectors, such as the retail sector, but it does so by working alongside, and complementing, the conference.

Mr Newton: The Minister’s response to Mr Durkan answered my question. The US conference is an important —

Mr Speaker: No further questions please, Mr Newton. Order.

Economic Investment Incentives

6. Ms Anderson asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to detail the new and existing incentives to support economic investment in areas of high unemployment or social deprivation.   (AQO 107/08)

Mr Dodds: My Department is committed to using its resources to benefit the most disadvantaged, and has designated six council areas as the focus for activities aimed at tackling poverty and social need: Newry and Mourne, Strabane, Londonderry, Omagh, Cookstown and Dungannon, as well as certain areas of Belfast. Invest NI’s full range of services, including the provision of advice, information, and financial assistance, is available throughout Northern Ireland and, should it be deemed necessary to secure specific investments, enhanced rates of assistance can be offered to projects that locate in disadvantaged areas.

I detailed some of the following statistics in response to an earlier question, but I will repeat them so that they are on the record. Between April 2002 and March 2006, 49% of assistance offered by Invest NI was to clients that located in disadvantaged areas. Of the 52 first-time inward investment projects offered assistance in the same period, 73% were located in disadvantaged areas, as were 37% of new locally-owned businesses with high growth potential.

Ms Anderson: I thank the Minister for his answer. Does he agree that both Government spending and direct inward investment should be used for the dual purpose of building prosperity and reducing inequality? Does he agree that the pilot project carried out by the Central Procurement Directorate should be a road map for how an employment plan can be included in public procurement contracts and that that would have a positive impact on the economic inactivity register? I have a particular interest in the levels of economic inactivity in the city of Derry.

Mr Dodds: The Member mentioned economic inactivity, which is a major issue in Northern Ireland. Everyone is aware of the bald statistics that go to make good headline figures for the economy. In Northern Ireland, more people are in employment than ever before and, and compared to other regions in the UK and Europe, the levels of unemployment are similarly low. However, there are high levels of economic inactivity and, therefore, the Member made a fair point. The Department must address the problem. Some of the issues that the Minister for Employment and Learning mentioned earlier, such as Pathways to Work and so forth, are relevant to this subject.

The role of Invest NI is to encourage business start-ups and the growth of local indigenous companies. It persuades companies to become more innovative and promotes greater awareness of the advantages to their employees of training and skills. It ensures that businesses become more export-oriented, if possible, thereby expanding the economy. It also attracts the kind of FDI that is needed, for which Northern Ireland is in competition with other regions and countries.

The Member’s point on procurement policy is relevant, and I will examine that closely.

Mr Wells: The Minister came close to answering my question, but I will still put it to him and allow him to elaborate on what he said earlier. Will he cite a specific example of how Invest Northern Ireland’s programme of incentives addresses deprivation in areas of high unemployment?

Mr Dodds: It appears that I am able to anticipate some of the supplementary questions, but I suppose that some of them are fairly obvious. Last week, I attended the opening of a set of new high-tech units in Londonderry, as part of the North West Business and Technology Zone. That is a good example of how co-operation between the two jurisdictions attracted European funding.

Also last week, in my constituency of North Belfast — as part of the wider Renewing Communities initiative — we saw the example of the Exploring Enterprise programme, which is designed to awaken and encourage people’s interest in starting businesses in areas of high unemployment and social deprivation. In Northern Ireland, there are many people who have great ideas, vision and work ethic, but they can sometimes lack the confidence to turn their ideas into reality. The Assembly must try to do more to show people, through mentoring, good example and encouragement, that they can achieve much if they put their mind to it and know how to go about it.

Mr B McCrea: Bearing in mind earlier comments about the balance between tradable services and manufacturing, does the Minister agree with his colleague the Minister of Finance and Personnel that it is time for the Assembly to stop talking about helping manufacturing, and actually do something about it? Would he agree with that ministerial colleague that, although industrial derating may something of a blunt instrument, given the rather limited tools that are available, it should certainly form part of the armoury?

Mr Dodds: Manufacturing is a very important sector of the Northern Ireland economy, and it was interesting to note that employment figures released last week showed that 90% of the increase in the number of people employed in Northern Ireland was in the private sector, and a high proportion of that was in manufacturing. I think that that is a good-news story.

Mr McCrea would hardly expect me to say anything other than that I agree with my colleague the Minister of Finance and Personnel. A review of industrial rating is ongoing, and work is being carried out on that matter by the Economic Research Institute for Northern Ireland, the results of which will be a matter for the Executive. I fully endorse what the Minister of Finance and Personnel said last week on that issue.


7. Mr Attwood asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, following the collapse and closure of TriVirix in early 2006, to confirm the amount of public funds that have been recovered from the parent company based in the United States of America, further to the parental guarantee that it provided.  (AQO 18/08)

Mr Dodds: After taking financial and legal advice, Invest Northern Ireland exchanged the parental guarantee in favour of an assignment to INI of the US parent’s claim against the joint administrators on the grounds that that was likely to result in a more advant­ageous settlement for the Northern Ireland taxpayer.

The joint administrators are still processing all creditor claims and no funds have, as yet, been distributed. They have, however, indicated that an interim payment will be made to creditors in January 2008.

Mr Attwood: I urge the Minister to watch this matter very carefully. Is the Minister satisfied that, as per the then Secretary of State’s commitment in July 2006, the parent company was being vigorously pursued for repayment of public moneys? Is that really the case? Does the Minister believe to be a realistic estimate the assertion made by INI earlier this year that £1·5 million was to be returned to it from the administrator, or has that become a pipe dream?

Finally, is the Minister satisfied that, when INI was releasing hundreds of thousands of pounds to TriVirix only a matter of months before the company collapsed, INI acted with all due diligence?

Mr Dodds: I will look at those matters and get back to the hon Member; I may not have access to all of the relevant papers, for obvious reasons. I can offer an assurance that, as far as the recovery of public funds is concerned, I will be keeping a very close eye on this matter. The steps that INI took to secure the assignment of the claim were taken in the interests of Northern Ireland taxpayers. I will watch that very closely. I cannot confirm the amount of funds that will be recovered, but I promise to keep the House and hon Member informed.

4.00 pm

Lord Browne: Will the Minister advise the House on how the old TriVirix factory site is being used?

Mr Dodds: The site is now in the possession of FG Wilson, and we should welcome that. The site has been taken into ownership and we hope that it will be used for economic regeneration in west Belfast. It was an unfortunate series of events, but such things happen from time to time. I am determined to recover whatever public money is outstanding to the greatest possible extent.

Private Members’ Business

Free Public Transport for Women  from the Age of 60

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. Two amendments have been received and published on the Marshalled List. The proposer of each amendment will have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes for the winding-up speech.

Mr McCarthy: I beg to move

That this Assembly, in the promotion of equality for all in Northern Ireland, calls upon the Minister for Regional Development to introduce free public transport for women from the age of 60.

I wish to declare an interest as — although you would not think it — from last week, I became entitled to jump on the bus on Main Street, Kircubbin and travel to Main Street, Killarney, or further, free of charge. Unfortunately, my dear wife cannot accompany me unless she puts her hand in her purse, so that explains what the motion is about.

In 2005, the Alliance Party conference passed a motion calling for all pensioners, regardless of gender, to be awarded a Senior SmartPass. Today’s motion should go some way to accomplishing that goal. I am deeply grateful to my colleagues for affording me the opportunity to have this debate.

A Senior SmartPass enables the holder to travel by rail, bus or the Strangford ferry without having to put their hand in their purse or pocket. Unfortunately, female pensioners are being denied a Senior SmartPass, as they have to wait a further five years to avail of it. Surely, that is discrimination at its worst. Moves must be made to rectify this serious anomaly as soon as possible. If it is right for the Government to regard women as pensioners when they reach the age of 60 and to pay them a state pension, common sense says that those women ought to be entitled to a Senior SmartPass, among other things.

This discriminatory practice must end. I am glad to see the Minister for Regional Development in the Chamber. The Assembly has the opportunity to ensure that all pensioners are treated equally. There are two options: either female pensioners be awarded the Senior SmartPass when they reach the age of 60, or men be entitled to the SmartPass when they reach the age of 60, thus creating equality for everyone. Those options are similar to both amendments, and I am sure that Members can reach some compromise on them.

I am a little concerned by the words “considerations” and “consider” that appear in the amendments. I urge caution, as similar words were used in debates on free personal care for the elderly, and we still await its implementation. That is a word of caution at this stage.

In certain parts of Britain, women aged 60 can avail of free travel, albeit at off-peak times. As of 2008, free travel will be available to everyone in England from the age of 60. In 2002, Wales introduced free off-peak travel for all at the age of 60, and last year Scotland introduced free-travel for all at the age of 60. Once again, it appears that Northern Ireland is lagging behind in looking after its citizens.

The strategy for older people, ‘Ageing in an Inclusive Society’, published in 2005, states that older people require accessible and tailored transportation for a better range and quality of services. Therefore, there should be no illusion that free public transport solves every transport issue for older people. We must continue to invest time and resources to ensure that there are appropriate transport provisions; for example through community transport for senior citizens in rural areas.

I am delighted to support the input from Age Concern Northern Ireland, Help the Aged and other groups on equality for all senior citizens in many aspects of life, which includes free public transport for women aged 60.

The importance of adhering to the lifestyles of the over-60s is also acknowledged in the strategy for older people. Older people constitute a large proportion of the audience at arts and cultural events, and the Arts Council of Northern Ireland will be addressing the inclusion of older people in spite of its budget being slashed. Concessionary permits are now available to all over-60s who want to fish in the public angling estate fisheries, and winter-heating allowances are paid to women at the age of 60. Therefore, there is already some admittance by the Government that all over-60s should be treated equally.

I express my appreciation to the Northern Ireland Assembly Research and Library Service for the quality of its information pack, which the Alliance Party received. I also want to put on the record my appreciation to the previous Executive and Assembly, who were in charge when the concessionary fare scheme was introduced in 2001-02. At that time we welcomed the scheme, despite everyone having to be 65 years old to qualify. However, time has moved on and the distress that the five-year wait for a SmartPass causes female pensioners must now be recognised.

I acknowledge the input from the Southern Govern­ment who, after working with politicians here, agreed to all-Ireland free travel, which came into effect on 1 April 2007. I know that many local people are enjoying the freedom to travel north, south, east and west across the island. Perhaps, pensioners could soon avail of similar travel throughout all of these islands.

In conclusion, the issue must be addressed. The Committee for Regional Development has acknow­ledged the inequality of the current situation and will put forward proposals to address it in the near future.

The Alliance Party has long highlighted that £1 billion a year is squandered in Northern Ireland due to segregation in many aspects of life. Indeed, that figure has been overtaken by recent reports that indicate wastage of £1·5 billion. The Executive must immediately get to work to ensure that there is no more wastage and that everyone is treated equally, so that in this instance all our senior citizens — men and women — are awarded the SmartPass without further delay.

I noticed on today’s lunchtime news that the Minister for Regional Development used public transport to get to work in this Building.

Mr Kennedy: Stunt.

Mr McCarthy: Stunt or otherwise, I am using the opportunity to call on the Minister to allow women from the age of 60 to do the same for free. The Minister was calling on other public representatives to use public transport, and I agree with him. Leave the car at home and use the trains and buses, and of course the Strangford ferry — we must never forget that Maurice.

Without the pressure that I exerted on the provision of the Strangford ferry, the people of that area would have been forgotten. The Minister for Regional Development should put his money where his mouth is and without delay get all women over 60 out of the car and on to public transport by awarding them the Senior SmartPass as early as possible. I ask Members to support the motion.

Mr Beggs: I beg to move amendment No 1: Leave out all after “Assembly” and insert

“, mindful of policy elsewhere in the United Kingdom, calls upon the Minister for Regional Development, subject to budgetary considerations, to introduce free public transport for women and men at the age of 60.”

Free transport for older people can greatly improve their quality of life. Many older people live on limited budgets, and their entitlement to the Senior SmartPass, which allows them free travel on public transport, helps them to use their limited budgets for other basic essentials, and it enables them to make additional trips to see friends and family. Therefore, the relative isolation under which they would otherwise have lived is removed and their lives are significantly improved.

I was pleased when the previous Executive approved the additional funding that allowed the relevant Minister to introduce free public transport for all people over 65. However, it is time to extend that to everyone who is over the age of 60. I tabled amendment No 1 because I do not wish to replace one unfairness — and that has been alluded to already — with another. Surely all men and women who are over 60 should be entitled to free transport. It would be wrong for the Assembly to replace one unfairness with another, and I hope that Members will recognise that support for my amendment will prevent that happening.

The policy unit of Help the Aged sent me a briefing paper, dated 14 September 2007, and I thank them for that. It states:

“we believe the age for free travel should be reduced to 60 and in order to maintain equality between men and women, a reduction in age criteria should apply to men also. This would bring NI in line with age eligibility criteria in GB, where both men and women are eligible for free travel at the age of 60.”

Careful examination of my amendment will show that it reflects those sentiments. Entitlement to free public transport should apply equally to men and women, and the criterion that has been used in other parts of the United Kingdom should apply here.

All Assembly Members, including Ministers and Committee members, will have a role to play in ensuring that free public transport is made available to everyone from the age of 60, if that is what the Assembly agrees to. I hope that the Minister for Regional Development has included free public transport in his bids and that the Committee for Regional Development supports him. I am a member of the Committee for Finance, and I am sure that this issue will come ultimately before that Committee. I hope that the Committee for Finance and, ultimately, the Finance Minister will have a role to play in approving the issue. Therefore, if the Assembly is willing to agree the policy, it will be possible to achieve it.

I will refer to some comments made by Kieran McCarthy, a Member for Strangford, about the wording of my amendment. I did not want the House to be divided on the matter, so I sought wording to which no one could object. I am aware that Members voted against previous motions on the matter, even though they were generally supported, simply because they did not want to make any commitments prior to the beginning of the budgetary process. By supporting amendment No 1, Members will show their support for free public transport for everyone at the age of 60 and above. Subsequently, members of the relevant Committees — and the Executive, who will play their part in introducing the draft Budget — have the ability to introduce free public transport for everyone at age 60 and above, and, therefore, reduce the anomaly and prevent further injustice. I urge Members to support my amendment, which will improve the lives of many vulnerable people in society.

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)

Mr Wells: I beg to move amendment No 2: Leave out all after “to” and insert

“consider the introduction of free public transport for everyone over the age of 60.”

All Members accept that the introduction of free fares for our senior citizens was one of the most popular policies that the previous Executive introduced, and, of course, it is no surprise to find that it was introduced by the DUP.

Mr Beggs: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker.

4.15 pm

Mr Wells: I know that it grieves Mr Beggs when I remind him of this, but the fact is that it was an idea hatched by Peter Robinson, the hon Member for East Belfast, and implemented by the hon Member for East Londonderry Mr Campbell. Every pensioner in Northern Ireland — whether living in Jonesboro, Londonderry or Kilkeel — appreciated and welcomed the opportunity to enjoy free public transport on roads, railways and, of course, the Strangford ferry.

All Members must admit that free travel has enormously improved the quality of life for many senior citizens. When one drives through Belfast during off-peak hours, it is amazing how many active senior citizens can be seen waiting for the bus — going shopping, visiting relatives or, perhaps, even going out for the day to the north coast. That is to be welcomed —

Mr Kennedy: Going to the Giant’s Causeway. [Laughter.]

Mr Wells: Including the Giant’s Causeway. No doubt, when the new visitors’ centre arrives, they will visit that as well.

Mr Kennedy: Which one?

Mr Wells: Which one indeed.

Seriously, this policy has been what we call in the business a no-brainer, and it has been universally popular throughout the country. To a large extent, it has also invigorated the public-transport system, because the times when pensioners travel are often the times when buses and trains are half empty. Why not utilise that empty capacity to improve the quality of life for those who have given so much to society throughout their working lives?

Although that success has been acknowledged, it has thrown up anomalies, and the Member for Strangford Mr McCarthy raised an important issue. However, I support the comments made by Mr Beggs. The DUP and UUP amendments are almost identical. There is no merit in solving one problem by creating another.

Members can all agree that there is a simple solution. Regardless of their status, everybody in Northern Ireland should be entitled to free transport throughout Northern Ireland and, indeed, the Republic of Ireland when they hit the age of 60 — and that is not far away for me. I understand that the cost of that policy would be a mere £3 million. I am sure that the Minister for Regional Development will provide Members with details of his calculations for the incoming financial year. Compared to the overall budget for that Department, £3 million is a drop in the ocean — it is barely the cost of a couple of miles of dual carriageway. That money could easily be found by identifying savings in the budget. The policy would benefit the entire community and, of course, provide an environmental benefit by encouraging more people to avail of public transport rather than be car-dependent.

On a technical point, because there is little merit in simply repeating points that have already been made, I urge Members to accept whichever amendment is called first, incorporate that into Mr McCarthy’s motion, and put the resulting proposal to the Minister for Regional Development to discover whether he can find the money to implement it.

I suggest to the Minister that such a policy would be popular — popular in Jonesboro, Whitecross, Camlough, Crossmaglen and other areas where he seeks votes. It would also be popular in Kilkeel, Annalong and Rath­friland, where other Members value votes. Therefore, this concession is an action that Members can be seen to be taking for the entire community — to benefit everyone, including, if we are spared, Members.

Ms J McCann: I support the motion and both amend­ments. There is little difference between the amendments, which call for free public transport for everyone over 60.

In the North of Ireland, 6·3% of the population is of pensionable age — currently 65 for men and 60 for women. I know that there are plans to increase the age at which women receive the state pension to 65, and other pension reforms will result in a state pension age of 68 for everyone.

In its first Programme for Government, the Assembly recognised that older people should have a high priority, and a group was set up to promote social inclusion and to examine and address the challenges that cause older people to be at risk of exclusion. Discrimination and poverty are major barriers to older people’s fulfilling their potential, and the Department for Regional Development’s accessible transport strategy claims that one of the most prominent barriers is the affordability of transport services.

It also states that one of its strategic objectives is to provide help with travel costs for older people, so that they can use the transport available to them. I welcome the bid by the Department for Regional Development to provide free transport to all at the age of 60.

There are many inequalities in the pension system, mainly affecting women, particularly those who stayed at home to look after young children, worked in low-paid employment, or gave up work to become carers.

In the North of Ireland today, 7% of women between the ages of 60 and 74 care for someone in their household. Caring throughout life can result in multiple disadvantages in later life. It can impact upon income, pension accumulation and the development of social networks. Women feel the impact most, as they depend most on non-contributory old-age pensions, so their incomes are lower.

Both state and private pension outcomes are lower for women than for men, and there are very clear differences between women and men when it comes to pension income. For example, single women receive an average of £180 a week, compared to single men, who receive £197. Fifty-nine per cent of women pensioners have an income below that required to secure a basic minimum standard of living, and only 30% of women who retire are entitled to the full basic state pension.

Women who are part of a couple receive, on average, £128 a week, compared to £236 a week for men who are part of a couple. Women have a right to live in dignity, not poverty, and to have their economic and social contributions recognised. Section 75 promotes equality between men and women generally, and, although the current retirement age is 60 for women and 65 for men, no one should be discriminated against because of their gender.

Many pensioners do not have access to cars and depend on public transport, as other Members have said. Therefore, adequate, affordable and appropriate transport should be available to all people at the age of 60. I ask the House to support the motion and the amendments.

Mr Dallat: This is an interesting debate, particularly as Mr McCarthy drew the parallel between free travel and public transport. I share his admiration for the Minister, although I understand that the Minister chose first-class travel, and most people do not qualify for that. Perhaps all travel will be first class in the future.

The age-old row about who found the money for free travel has emerged again. Just as Peter Robinson holds the purse strings now, Mark Durkan held them then, and, in an effort to coax the DUP, he very generously gave them the money for the new trains. That is a fact. Before that, all parties lobbied the direct rule Ministers and got all sorts of excuses as to why free travel was not possible.

The motion is very simple; it is to allow women of 60 years of age and over to enjoy the benefits of free travel. That is simple, and the Minister could deal with it immediately. However, my concern is that the two amendments could push the matter into a sort of “Noddy land”, where he might or might not implement it. I have no particular objection to the amendments —

Mr Beggs: There is a genuine concern, as the Member will know from the Help the Aged piece that I read out, that there is an equality issue, which, if it is not addressed, might invalidate the motion, and the Minister would not be able to implement free travel in that format.

Mr Dallat: I was just coming to that. Free travel for those over 60 was introduced in England in April 2006. It is restricted to off-peak times, but there is no reason why that cannot be built upon. Before that, the Transport Act 2000 linked travel concessions for elderly people to pensionable age as defined in the Pensions Act 1995, which age is 60 for women and 65 for men.

Until 2010, women can continue to retire at 60, but cannot avail of free travel, so it is not a good argument to use one inequality to justify another.

Since this issue was first acknowledged as a factor in promoting equality, there has been too much of the half-loaf mentality, and not enough of a broader vision of the benefits of free travel. Given that one-in-four people in society live below the breadline, surely it should be obvious that the time for the Scrooge mentality is over, and that it is time for a reality check.

There are currently 45,000 women between the ages of 60 and 64 who are affected by the restriction — surely that is a desperate inequality that needs to be given priority. Many of them live alone because they are single or widowed, and many are experiencing one of the worst forms of poverty — loneliness, which frequently leads to mental-health problems and poor-health lifestyles. What could be healthier than being able to travel to visit places of interest, meet other lonely people, or, indeed, fulfil lifelong ambitions — something that they could not do when they were rearing their families and scraping to survive?

Today, the Assembly has the opportunity to recognise the contribution that women made to this society during one of the worst periods of our troubled history. Let this Assembly not go down in history as a bunch of wimps who could not see beyond the tunnel vision of previous direct rule regimes, who gave the impression they had a God-given right to preside over the rights of older people in a manner that, at times, appeared obscene.

Members have the opportunity to stamp our identity on this Assembly and remove the increasing notion that it is nothing more than a rubber stamp for what went before. All Members know that what went before failed not only pensioners, but many others.

I welcome Mr Wells’s notion that free travel for the over 60s will bring loads of visitors to the north coast. I am sure that the few remaining businesses there will appreciate that, given that Portballintrae and Portstewart have been severely damaged by people buying second homes in those areas.

Mr G Robinson: According to the Department for Regional Development’s website:

“The Northern Ireland Concessionary Fares Scheme was established to promote accessible public transport for members of the community who are most vulnerable, through discounted fares.”

That is the reasoning behind the introduction of concessionary fares.

I am pleased to be able to support the motion, for a number of reasons. Unlike the younger generations, not all people who are entitled to a state pension have their own transport, for perhaps health or financial reasons. That leaves them dependent on public transport for their travel needs — particularly in the more rural areas of our Province. Anything that aids their ability to access public transport on a frequent and eminently affordable basis is to be welcomed.

As we heard in an earlier debate today, isolation can result in health problems. The proposed extension of the concessionary fares scheme will encourage greater social inclusion, and help with the maintenance of good health. The extension of the concessionary scheme to women who are 60-plus years young can only be welcomed, particularly because, since 2 April 2007, the scheme enables holders of the Translink SmartPass to travel for free across the border as well.

Translink have invested in new buses and trains that make access to vehicles much easier for older people. It is therefore essential that the numbers of people who will undoubtedly appreciate that substantial investment are encouraged to use Translink services.

Age Concern, in a 2007 report, states that:

“Accessibility to transport is crucial if older people are to be able to keep in touch with friends and family and to get necessary goods and services that mean they can continue to live independently. Adequate, affordable, accessible and appropriate transport should be available to help prevent isolation and to ensure that older people can participate fully in society.”

We must also take into consideration the fact that supermarkets have a tendency to choose sites that are not central, which creates an additional problem for full participation in society. Surely, that alone is justification enough to extend the scheme.

The extension of the scheme will be of most assistance to those who live on their own. Only 20% of single-person households have cars, whereas, for couples, that figure is 65%.

4.30 pm

Sadly, 40% of pedestrian fatalities are people aged 60 plus. Extension of the concessionary scheme will greatly aid women living on their own and may help to reduce that figure. Current demographic changes will continue: the population will continue to age and retire earlier; and women will continue to outlive men. Therefore, I am confident that women will appreciate this move to extend their entitlement to a SmartPass at retirement age for the reasons I have mentioned.

I take great pleasure in supporting amendment No 2.

Mr Brady: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I also support the motion as amended. The benefits of providing travel passes for older people are beyond doubt. It helps, for instance, to reduce the marginalisation often experienced by older people in society. Up to 75% of older people questioned agreed that they felt marginalised.

Free travel will also help to maintain ties with family members who have moved to other areas in the North. It will also help to keep older people involved in the community and allow them to meet like-minded groups without incurring travelling expenses. Since its introduction in April, Ireland-wide travel has been a great success among those who qualify. I am aware of constituents who have benefited from it. I know of people who, for instance, travelled to Dublin to spectate at the Mahon Tribunal. Others have used free travel to continue lifelong learning.

Free travel passes should be made available to the greatest possible number of people; therefore I welcome this debate. Free travel for the over-60s will benefit a large number of people, and there should be no discrimination on the basis of gender. As has been stated already, there is disparity between the pensionable age for men and that for women. That will be addressed by the Pensions Bill, which, instead of reducing the pensionable age for men, will raise the pensionable age for women. Eventually the pensionable age for all will be 68.

A Member: Some will look forward to that.

Mr Brady: Some may look forward to it; others will not. Obviously, some are closer than others.


I will talk to Mr Kennedy about that later.

Free travel should be available to all over 60 years of age to enable them to benefit from the concession. I welcome that, in the recent budgetary bids, the Depart­ment for Regional Development (DRD) sought funding to roll out the travel pass programme to everyone over 60. Go raibh míle maith agat.

Mr Irwin: For many years the Democratic Unionist Party has prided itself on its commitment to the elderly. We are concerned to reward, empower and support older people so that they can live full and active lives for longer. Our dedication to the elderly was demonstrated when we pioneered the warm homes scheme and introduced concessionary travel on public transport for those aged 65 and over. Our party is openly and fully committed to extending the free fares scheme to include women and everyone over 60.

No one will deny that the population is ageing. Studies carried out by different Government bodies and the 2001 census demonstrate that. Help the Aged notes that there are over 275,000 people of pensionable age living in Northern Ireland. That is 16% of the population, and it is estimated that that will increase to 24% by 2013.

We all understand that with old age comes a degree of poverty. Help the Aged states that 22·2% of pensioners in Northern Ireland live in poverty owing to lower incomes. The reality of an ageing population and the degree of poverty amongst the elderly reiterates the need for a reduction in the age of free travel fares to 60 to enable all elderly people to continue enjoying an active and full life by being able to travel throughout the country unhindered.

We should respect and reward the elderly in our society. The Executive have an opportunity to show that they are committed to and appreciative of the many years of service that senior citizens have given to our society.

The policy review carried out by the Department for Regional Development shows the enormity of the scheme’s success. Amendment No 2 to today’s motion would further fulfil the Department’s aim to promote social inclusion by improving public transport accessibility through free travel and concessionary fares for the elderly, who are vulnerable, especially to social exclusion. Concessionary fares could also be used as an incentive to encourage activities such as work and education, which have the potential to combat the causes of social exclusion.

A total of 212,118 SmartPasses were issued between their introduction in 2002 and 2006. Of those, 197,209 were issued to senior citizens. There are 197,209 SmartPasses circulating in a population of 275,000 — an overall take-up rate of 83%, which reduces to 70% once the approximate number of 31,000 deceased customers is taken into consideration.

The average number of journeys taken by senior citizen SmartPass holders in 2005-06 was 38. Therefore, the scheme is being used, and it is possible that some of the elderly customers may not have taken the journeys had they not received their passes. Our aim must be to increase the availability of the scheme.

It would be remiss not to mention that women are currently eligible for the state pension at age 60, and men at 65. That women have to wait until they are 65 before receiving free travel is a contradiction of policies. The DUP believes that everyone should be able to avail of such a privilege at the age of 60, in keeping with the Government’s commitment to equality.

Furthermore, it is essential to have consistency throughout the UK and align our policy with that of England, Scotland and Wales, where for a number of years there has been a commitment to providing free travel for everyone aged 60 and above.

Bearing that in mind, the DUP is fully committed to such a proposal and calls on the House to support amendment No 2.

Mr McCallister: Unlike other Members, I have no need to declare an interest in the area, nor have I any plans to date a lady who is over 60.

A Member: You could not get one. [Laughter.]

Mr McCallister: I may have to review that policy if things do not improve. [Laughter.]

I am glad to see the conversion by my fellow South Down MLA Mr Wells, who is now so proactive in devolution. There are two ways of looking at it: either the Executive at the time could have taken the credit for the policy, or the DUP can take the credit for it, in which case we can ask it why it introduced a policy that has led to such an inequality.

Mr Wells: I am not going to answer that.

Mr McCallister: I should hope not.

I agree with Mr McCarthy that the Strangford ferry would be an important addition as it links two of the most scenic constituencies in the country and encourages tourism throughout that area.

The issue of equality is at the heart of the debate. Why should women have to wait five years after they have reached pension age, until the age of 65, to avail of free public transport? Northern Ireland is the only region of the UK that tolerates that continuing inequality.

The rest of the country is well ahead of Northern Ireland. In England, such schemes will be administered by local authorities from 2008 onwards. Free travel will be available to eligible men and women from the age of 60. In 2002, the Welsh Assembly introduced free off-peak bus travel for pensioners anywhere in Wales: those who are 60 years of age and over are eligible. In 2006, the Scottish Executive introduced free travel throughout Scotland for pensioners: the age for eligible men and women there is also 60.

Many Members have pointed out the fact that the issue is simply one of equality. There are a great many benefits to society in tackling poverty and social exclusion through giving Northern Ireland’s senior citizens an active and full life. I urge the Minister to do the right thing and introduce the policy. I support my party’s amendment.

The Chairperson of the Committee for Regional Development (Mr Cobain): I do not wish to repeat arguments that have already been articulated over and over again in the Chamber. However, I want to make three brief points. The Committee for Regional Development has raised the issue on several occasions. I trust that all Members are committed to ensuring that the anomaly is removed.

Although other issues have been regurgitated in the Chamber, the one that is important is that of discrim­ination against women. The scheme is not the first to have discriminated against women. For years, women who were 60 years of age were discriminated against by the warm homes scheme. The neighbourhood parking scheme is another example of when women of that age are discriminated against. Those are forms of institutionalised discrimination against women. In the words of the old song, “This is a man’s world” — and that is the problem.

If the Assembly is committed to equality, as it says it is, any instance of women being discriminated against should be removed. It is not an issue of finance but one of equality. As Chairperson of the Committee for Regional Development, I am sure that I speak on its behalf when I urge the Minister to deal with the issue. That is the first of my three points, and, I believe, the most important.

It is not possible to reduce the age for free public transport to 60 years of age for women without doing the same for men. The reason, which has been explained on numerous occasions, is that if the age is reduced to 60 for women and 65 for men, men are, therefore, being discriminated against. If the age is to be reduced to 60, it must be reduced for everyone. That is why Mr McCarthy’s motion cannot stand.

As Members are aware, free travel was designed to combat social exclusion, and I was pleased to hear Mr Wells talk about how many people are using the system. He said that, at one stage, there were far too many people using it: some people were even getting buses to Dublin.

Mr Wells: It is important that I place that comment in context. I referred to one individual who gets the Enterprise to Dublin at 12.00 noon every day, has lunch with his daughter and returns home. Of course, the bill goes to the Department for Regional Development. That has been going on for three or four years. My point was not about pensioners getting the bus to the shops or to visit their sons or daughters in Belfast.

Mr Cobain: As far as I am concerned, the issue is one of social exclusion for pensioners. As many people as possible who are over the age of 60 should avail of the service, irrespective of the cost. It is not a financial issue. I want the Minister to tackle the issue as a matter of equality rather than of finance.

4.45 pm

In all those schemes that I mentioned, women get a raw deal. Very few Members speak up on behalf of women, except those with a direct interest. Very few men in the Chamber speak up on behalf of women. When we speak of equality, is it equality for everyone? Members scrutinise Bills — which clearly discriminate against women — throughout their many stages, yet we ignore that discrimination and allow the Bill to pass.

John McCallister made a point about the introduction of Bills and people who unfairly claim credit for various matters relating to them. When the warm homes scheme discriminated against people who were 60 years old, no-one raised that issue. When the concessionary fares scheme was introduced by the Executive — and it discriminated against women of 60 — no-one raised that issue. Because it has become fashionable to raise issues of equality, everyone claims credit for doing so. Until we get a framework of equality for everyone, all of those issues will continue to haunt the Members in the Chamber. We must keep equality at the forefront of our minds when addressing individuals or groups who are disadvantaged, such as those who are over 60.

The Minister for Regional Development (Mr Murphy): I thank the Members for today’s debate. I have welcomed it and I thank Mr McCarthy for introducing the matter. I will attempt to address the issue of concessionary fares and equality. The Chair­person of the Regional Development Committee made the point that it is about an inequality towards women. However, a further inequality would be created if we were to move in the direction that is proposed by Mr McCarthy. That issue was addressed in some of the Members’ contributions to the debate.

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

The concessionary fares scheme is important for many people in the North and is a significant element of my Department’s spending on public transport. I have listened carefully to a lot of the points that have been made by the proposer of the motion and by all of the other speakers. It is helpful to have this debate now because the issues relating to the concessionary fares scheme are being considered as part of the comprehensive spending review.

Before dealing specifically with the issue of concessionary fares for women between the ages of 60 and 65, it might be helpful if I were to give some background information on the system of concessionary fares that now operates in the North. The current scheme dates back to the late 1970s. The Transport (Northern Ireland) Order 1977 gave the Government wide powers to reimburse public transport operators for concessionary fares. Those powers were used in 1978 to extend the concessions available in Belfast to the rest of the North. At that time, half-fare travel was provided for senior citizens, for children and for those in receipt of a war-disablement pension.

Free travel was made available for those who were registered as blind. There was also free travel for children below the age of five. That concession was, and continues to be, provided by public transport operators, without Government support. Then, as now, eligibility for concessionary fares passes was on the basis of residence in the North.

The system remained, largely, the same for a number of years. The first significant change was in 1995, when the Irish Government introduced a scheme for free travel on journeys across the border. That benefited senior citizens, the blind and war-disabled residents in the North.

The first major change in concessionary fares, in the North, came during the initial period of devolution. I will not get into the debate about who was responsible for that. In October 2001, free travel was introduced for senior citizens over the age of 65. In May 2002, free travel was introduced for war-disabled persons. In April 2004 the scheme was changed to give half-fare travel to a wider range of disabled people.

The most recent change in the concessionary fares system was introduced earlier this year. Following an agreement between the two Governments, the all-Ireland free travel scheme for older people got under way in April. Under that arrangement, the North pays for the cross-border travel of eligible older people who are resident in the South. In turn, the cost of travel in the South, for older people who are resident in the North, is met by the southern authorities. That may allay some Members fears about people dining out in Dublin.

I am pleased to say that the arrangements seem to be working smoothly. Over 22,500 SmartPasses have been issued to residents of the South, while residents in the North have been able to use their existing passes to access services across the border. There has long been a perception that the concessionary fares scheme in the North is less generous than schemes in the South and in Britain. Roy Beggs and John McCallister referred to that matter. That is not the case.

In Britain, for example, many schemes are restricted to off-peak, local bus travel only. Here, eligible people can travel throughout the North on bus and rail service and, perhaps, even on the Strangford ferry, at any time of the day. Eligible senior citizens can travel through­out the North at the age of 65, whereas a senior concessionary fare in the South is available only from the age of 66.

From the outset, as Members have mentioned, the purpose of the concessionary fares scheme has been to tackle social exclusion by making public transport more affordable for the most vulnerable members of society. As a result of the arrangements introduced in 1978, and change since then, there is in place a concessionary fares scheme that costs about £19·5 million per year, and which is projected to grow to £22 million by April 2008.

The most significant beneficiaries of this scheme are those over the age of 65. Since 2001, over 200,000 senior-citizen SmartPasses have been issued. Free travel for senior citizens currently costs about £10 million and is set to grow to about £12 million by 2015. Part of that growth is a result of better mobility and better services. However, a key factor is the growth in the number of people aged 65 and over. It has been estimated recently that the number in that age group will increase from 236,000 to 281,000 in the 10 years between 2005 and 2015.

The second major group of beneficiaries is children, who benefit from the half-fare concession. In the current year, supporting their journeys will cost about £6·7 million. Children and young people have been identified as being at relatively high risk of poverty and social exclusion. The half-fare concession is very important, not only to them, but to their parents as well.

The remaining category of beneficiaries is those with disabilities, some of whom are eligible for a full-fare concession, but the majority of whom are not. People with disabilities are recognised as being at relatively high risk of social exclusion. About 13,000 half-fare SmartPasses have been issued to people with disabilities.

Taken as a whole, the various components of the concessionary fares scheme have had a major positive impact on the lives of a great number of people, but, like any system, it may need to be reviewed and refreshed. Last year, officials in my Department undertook an important policy review of the concessionary fares scheme, and they have put forward a number of different options, which I have been able to consider.

Before I talk about those options, I will turn to an issue that did not form part of the Department’s current review, but which is at the heart of this current debate — whether free travel should be extended to women between the ages of 60 and 64. Members have dealt with the issue today already, and it will not surprise them that is has been raised over a number of years.

I should say at the outset that current eligibility for the senior scheme is based on age and residence. It is not necessary to be in receipt of a pension to be eligible for free travel — contrary to what some have said today. That arrangement is consistent with the legal position that it would be unacceptable under European legislation for the scheme to be restricted to citizens of the North or to be tied to a condition that could not be met by other EU citizens.

In 1978, when the qualifying age for the concessionary fares scheme was being set, the Department of the Environment, which was then responsible for the scheme, took advice from the Department of Health and Social Services. The conclusion was that the qualifying age should be set at 65. Obviously those considering the issue at the time were aware of the differences in the state pension age for men and women. However, the advice then, and now, is that a scheme to give concessionary travel to women at the age of 60 but to men at the age of 65 would be discriminatory and would be in breach of the Sex Discrimination Order 1976. That remains the Department’s understanding of the position. Clearly, I would not want to embark on a change in policy on concessionary fares that would run directly contrary to our equality and fair treatment policies.

I have already mentioned the recent review of the concessionary fares scheme carried out by my Depart­ment. It has analysed the current concessionary fares scheme in considerable detail and compared the position here to that in other jurisdictions. It put forward several options for change and development of the scheme.

Having considered the options, I have put forward a number of bids as part of the comprehensive spending review, totalling about £11 million. If they were met, they would enable me to extend the concessionary fares scheme in several important directions. In view of today’s debate, Members should be aware that that figure includes a bid for over £4 million that would enable me to introduce free travel for all people — men and women — over the age of 60. I think that it was Jim Wells who asked that question directly. I think that Mr Dallat remarked that that would be easily done now. That begs the question: why did the Minister of Finance and Personnel not introduce free travel for all people over 60 when he was Minister for Regional Development? Such an introduction could not be so easily done now — it must be bid for as part of the Department’s bid in the budgetary process.

I am conscious that we are entering a budgetary process in which other priorities will be put forward. I am also very conscious that the best way to secure these matters is not to bid in a public forum, but to bid and secure the support of the Regional Development Committee, as Roy Beggs said — indeed, to secure the support of the Finance and Personnel Committee for bids that the Assembly would consider a priority.

Were the bid to be met in full, I could extend free travel to disabled people, who are currently eligible for half-fare travel only. That would be of considerable benefit to a particularly vulnerable group of people, and such a move would be widely welcomed. About 150,000 people would benefit from that change, which would cost more than £4 million.

I could extend half-fare travel to children up to the age of 18 years. Current eligibility for half-fare travel is linked to the school-leaving age and the school term. Given the risks of poverty and social exclusion that children face, it makes more sense that the concession be made available to all children, up to the age of majority. Such a change would cost about £1·2 million.

I could also offer a concession to the unemployed who are returning to work, in order to help them with their transport needs and expenses at a time when that support might be critical to them. The scheme that I have in mind would cost about £500,000.

Finally, Members should be aware that one criticism of the concessionary fares scheme is that it is of greatest benefit to those who already have access to existing public-transport services. As a result, the take-up of concessionary fares is highest, in the main, in urban areas and in the east. Take-up is lower is rural areas and in the west, where public-transport services are more limited, or do not exist at all. For that reason, I have also made a bid for £1 million to enable me to reduce fares paid by people who use community-based transport schemes. Strictly speaking, such an arrange­ment will not form part of the concessionary fares scheme, but I hope that it will go some way towards addressing current imbalances.

I am conscious that the bid that I have made is no more than that — a bid. It must be considered against other public spending priorities, not only in other Departments but in mine. I have also made bids for resources that will enable me to improve general public-transport services for all users, whether they are in receipt of concessions or not. I am also aware that if I receive less than I have sought for concessionary fares, I must consider where my priorities lie. I am grateful for the views that have been expressed today. Those views reinforce what I believe to be a priority.

In conclusion, I consider the concessionary fares scheme, as it stands, to have made, and to continue to make, a major, positive contribution to the issues of mobility and social inclusion. I recognise that there are other changes that would benefit the scheme, but, for the reasons that I have set out, I hope that Members will accept that it is not possible to make those changes. Anti-discrimination laws mean that I cannot offer free fares to women from the age of 60 without offering the same concession to men of that age.

Lord Morrow: I listened intently to what the Minister had to say, and he chose a lot of words that evaded dealing with the issues. It seems that constituencies such as Fermanagh and South Tyrone always fare badly when it comes to expenditure. In rural constituencies such as mine, we do not have trains or planes, but we do have a very poor and inefficient public-transport system. Nothing that the Minister has said today will make me believe that that situation will change.

My party considered tabling an amendment similar to Mr Beggs’s, but we decided to proceed with our own amendment, because its wording contains a challenge to the Minister. It is up to him, having received his budget, to allocate his priorities. The challenge to the Minister today is very simple: is free public transport for everyone over the age of 60 a priority or not? If it is, how high is it on his list of priorities? Towards the end of his speech, the Minister did say that he thinks that it is a priority. If he thinks that it is a priority, he will prioritise it, and if he does not, he should come out and tell us why not.

The Minister cannot, by any imagination, no matter what words his speech-writers might conjure up, tell us any reason why that change should not happen. This is supposed to be the age of equality for everybody, in which there is no discrimination in any shape, size or form, whether one is male or female.

5.00 pm

It is blatantly obvious that Mr McCarthy’s motion would legislate for discrimination; that is its funda­mental weakness. The first amendment supports the introduction of free public transport for women from the age of 60, “subject to budgetary considerations”. The DUP amendment, on the other hand, asks the Minister to consider whether he regards such a measure as a priority. If he does, he should get on with imple­menting the policy; if he does not, he should explain why to the House. It is an easy call to make.

It is not good enough for the Minister to say that he will go to the Minister of Finance to put forward his claim for extra money and that he will implement the policy if the money is made available. The Minister for Regional Development will receive his budget, along with every other Minister, and he must decide what his priorities are. Does the Minister think that the issue merits a hike in his priority budget? If the answer is yes, free public transport for women from the age of 60 will be introduced. The Minister need not try to wriggle out of giving an answer by saying that there are restraints on his Department. Every Department has restraints, and I suspect that every Minister could ask for an extra couple of 100 million pounds.

The DUP amendment tells the Minister that this is an important issue and everyone, whether male or female, must be treated equally. Whether a person’s journey takes them to Dublin or Timbuktu, we contend that if you are over the age of 60, you should be entitled to free travel. Therefore, we cannot support Mr McCarthy’s motion. I ask him, in the cold light of the debate, to accept amendment No 2. I know that he will consider that.

I ask the Ulster Unionists to think similarly. It is not their duty or mine to prioritise on behalf of the Minister. He will call his budget and spend it as he sees fit according to how his priorities stack up. That is why the DUP suggested that free public transport be made available to all aged over the age of 60. Rural communities always suffer with public transport, whether it is free or not.

Mr Beggs: We must be sure that one inequality does not replace another. I understand the reasoning for the motion, but its proposers have overlooked the fact that enacting it would replace the inequality that female pensioners from the age of 60 do not qualify for free public transport with the inequality that men from the age of 60 do not qualify. My amendment will rectify that.

It must also be remembered that the additional money that it will cost will not disappear into the profit of a private company. It will be additional money that the Assembly will pass to Translink, a publicly owned company, which can reinvest in buses, additional routes or trains. In effect, the policy would oblige the Assembly to spend more money on public transport. It is a laudable purpose that would help not only the individuals concerned, but would improve public transport for everyone. It would greatly enhance the lives of many people aged 60 and over.

As I said earlier, we can make progress on this by gaining the support of the Committee for Regional Development. I understand that that is a direct process in the Assembly, and subsequently for the Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP). As has been said, choices may have to be made.

It may be a question of choosing between the policy and constructing two additional miles of dual carriageway. The Assembly should choose to adopt the policy, because it will have a clearer impact on the lives of many people who may be isolated and vulnerable. The existing inequalities must be removed and no new inequality created. I ask all Members to support the amendment in my name and subsequently progress it through the various stages. It should be implemented by April 2008 at the latest, or sooner if money becomes available. There should be long-term recurrent funding to deliver free transport for everyone from the age of 60.

Dr Farry: It is fair to say that a broad consensus is breaking out in the Chamber. It is important to bear that in mind, even though there may be some dispute about the particular minutiae of how to go about imple­menting the policy and whose responsibility it is to deliver it. As the proposer of the motion, the Alliance Party is happy to accept either or both amendments, as Kieran McCarthy pointed out at the start of the debate. Our broad concern is to ensure that the matter is addressed, not merely considered and put into the long grass for another day. In our capacity as Members of the Assembly, we can deliver on this issue quickly.

I recognise that the provision of free public transport for everyone aged 65 and over was one of the last Assembly’s major achievements. There may be different claims on who takes the credit for delivering that policy, but the entire Assembly can take credit, because all parties supported it. It reflected broader policy changes on public transport that were happening throughout the United Kingdom at the time.

Essentially, the motion tries to address an anomaly in the system. There is equality of entitlement to free public transport at the age of 65, but there is not equality in the ages at which men and women receive their pension. There is an argument to be had about whether the current system should be equalised so that women and men retire at the age of 65. Mr Brady referred to the Pensions Bill. That is a wider issue to be debated another day, but it raises the issue of equality, to which several Members referred. Under equality legislation, is the current system sustainable whereby men retire at the age of 65 and women retire at the age of 60, and women do not have access to free public transport until they are 65 years of age?

It is worth noting that in England, Scotland and Wales, the tendency was for legislation first to provide free public transport for men at the age of 65 and women at the age of 60, and subsequent legislation to equalise the age at 60: in England, the Transport Act 2000 was followed by the Railways and Transport Act 2003. Nigel Dodds, wearing his hat as the MP for North Belfast, asked Angela Smith if it would be possible to provide free public transport for men at the age of 65 and women at the age of 60 in Northern Ireland. The Minister’s response cited the equality imperative, and she said that it would only be viable to introduce it for everyone at the age of 60.

There are many reasons to take such a step, but the main justification is that it addresses social exclusion, and Jennifer McCann presented a particularly detailed argument on that point. Older people are not sufficiently included in society. It is important to give them a sense of independence and to allow them a full range of opportunities to engage with friends, colleagues, families and wider society. Social exclusion is a worse problem for women, particularly single women.

In its 2004 accessible transport strategy, the Depart­ment for Regional Development recognised that ensuring that older people were availing of public transport presented a major policy challenge. There are other aspects to consider, such as a boost to the economy. Many of my Assembly colleagues and I will encourage people to continue to work beyond the formal pension­able age if they so wish. Older people have much to offer the economy. The ambition to achieve future economic growth will require sustainable jobs that must be filled. Older people have a role to play in that.

If people can get to and from work from their homes, it would be better, but jobs are not always on people’s doorsteps, and they often need to commute. This provision will also enhance the community and voluntary sector, for older people in particular are the backbone of the system, and society as a whole benefits from their contribution.

Mr Dallat and Mr Beggs addressed the issue of assisted public transport. Anything that renders public transport more viable is to be welcomed. The transfer of money to Translink can be reinvested in improving the overall public transport system. I would like a lot more money to be invested in public transport — in essence, another £4 million. Public transport is very much the poor cousin of the private system in Northern Ireland, and that imbalance must be addressed. The issue is much broader within the comprehensive spending review, and I hope that the Minister will take it on board. Public transport is a much more environmentally sustainable form of transport, and decreasing the use of cars and increasing the use of buses and trains would benefit society.

I recognise Mr Cobain’s point that it is essentially a matter of equality, and the Assembly has an obligation to address inequality where it exists. Financial considerations should be secondary to that. That said, £4 million is a fair estimate of what the provision will cost the public purse — comprising £350,000, which will be spent issuing the passes, and £3·5 million, which will be used to reimburse Translink and other public transport providers for lost fares.

In essence, £4 million is relatively small when one considers the overall £16 billion Northern Ireland Budget and the substantial benefits that the amount would mean for pensioners and for society overall. I am encouraged that the Minister has said that the matter is part of the bid that he has put into the forth­coming Budget process and the comprehensive spending review. There will also be support — certainly from Members on this side of the House — for other aspects of the Minister’s bid regarding free travel for people with disabilities, the under-18s, and those returning to employment.

I regard the broader discussions on the Budget priorities as very useful, as they inform those in the Executive who will be taking the initial decisions on where priorities lie. I hope that there will be a unanimous vote in the Assembly calling for free transport for men and women at age 60.

Bearing in mind that the parties in the Chamber reflect those in the Executive, I hope that the message sent by the Assembly today will be borne in mind by those Ministers who will be taking the decision. All Members have the ability to influence their Ministers to ensure that free transport is delivered. I do not regard this as purely a matter for the Minister for Regional Development: it is a matter for all the Ministers in the Executive, and there should be collective responsibility for why things are, and are not, addressed. It is a matter for the Assembly, as it will be called upon to approve the Budget by cross-community consent when it reaches that stage.

The Assembly can move forward in a united front, sending a clear signal to Ministers that this is a major priority. It is a relatively small amount of money in the grand scale of things and would be very well received by those, particularly between the ages of 60 and 65, just as the initial scheme was well received by the population as a whole.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. Before I put the question on amendment No 1, I advise Members that if the amendment is agreed, amendment No 2 will fall, and I will proceed to put the question on the motion as amended.

Question, That amendment No 1 be made, put and agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.


That this Assembly, mindful of policy elsewhere in the United Kingdom, calls upon the Minister for Regional Development, subject to budgetary considerations, to introduce free public transport for women and men at the age of 60.

Adjourned at 5.15pm.

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