northern Ireland assembly
Tuesday 18 September 2007
The Assembly met at 10.30 am (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes’ silence.
Mr Speaker: I want to deal with a point of order. At the start of yesterday’s business, Mr Gregory Campbell raised a point of order regarding the Hansard report of last Tuesday’s debate on attacks on Orange Halls. Mr Campbell said that although he made a remark, which could be clearly heard, during the speech of the junior Minister Mr Kelly, it was not reported in the Hansard report.
I have reviewed the relevant section of last Tuesday’s proceedings. It is clear that Mr Campbell did indeed make a remark from a sedentary position. It is equally clear that the junior Minister Mr Kelly did not respond or refer to the remark.
As Members should be aware, the convention is that Hansard reports remarks made from a sedentary position only if they are referred to by another Member or, indeed, the Speaker. That point is made clear on page 117 of the ‘Northern Ireland Assembly Companion’, where it is pointed out that, on 6 December 1999, the then Speaker stated that:
“remarks made from a sedentary position are recorded into Hansard only if they are referred to by the Member who is on his feet at the time.”
Given that there was absolutely no reference to Mr Campbell’s remarks, which were made from a sedentary position, Hansard, quite properly, did not record them in the report of that day’s business in the House.
I hope that that clarifies the matter. In addition to the ruling this morning, I have written to Mr Campbell to further clarify the point.
Mr Speaker: I have received notice from the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister that the First Minister wishes to make a statement on the British-Irish Council.
The First Minister (Rev Dr Ian Paisley): Mr Speaker, in compliance with section 52C(2) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, we wish to make the following report on the ninth summit meeting of the British-Irish Council, which was held here in Parliament Buildings on 16 July 2007. Each Executive member and junior Minister who attended the meeting has approved the report, which we make on their behalf.
The British-Irish Council is a forum for its members to exchange information, and to discuss, consult on and agree, as they see fit, co-operative measures in areas of mutual interest.
The Deputy First Minister and I welcomed the heads of delegations. We were accompanied by the Minister of Education; the Minister for Employment and Learning; the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment; the Minister of the Environment; the Minister of Finance and Personnel; the Minister for Regional Development; the Minister for Social Development; and the junior Ministers in the Office of the First and the Deputy First Minister.
The Irish and British Government delegations were led by the Taoiseach, Mr Bertie Ahern TD, and the Prime Minister, the right hon Gordon Brown MP, respectively. The Welsh Assembly Government were represented by their Deputy First Minister, Ieuan Wyn Jones, and the Scottish Executive were represented by their First Minister, the right hon Alex Salmond MP MSP.
The Bailiwick of Guernsey was represented by its Deputy Chief Minister, Stuart Falla, and the Bailiwick of Jersey was represented by its Chief Minister, Senator Frank Walker. The Isle of Man Government were represented by their Chief Minister, Mr Tony Brown MHK — that means “Member of the House of Keys”.
Council members acknowledged the historic nature of the meeting, which was the first summit meeting of the Council since the restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly in May 2007, and the first Council summit to take place in Northern Ireland. It was also the first occasion on which the eight heads of the Administrations had had the opportunity to meet since recent elections in many of their territories.
If I may take the opportunity, Mr Speaker, I wish to thank you and your staff, on the Deputy First Minister’s behalf and my own, for making the splendid facilities of this Building available for the meeting. We received numerous appreciative comments from the other participants about the hospitality that they received.
As for what was achieved, the Council reviewed and discussed how it might develop its work, now that all eight members are again properly represented by their respective Administrations. Recognising the Council’s potential to strengthen relations and to develop co-operation further among its members across a range of sectors of mutual interest and benefit, members agreed that it was now opportune to review the Council’s future direction. In that context, Scotland proposed energy as a useful work area for the Council to explore, and offered to lead on the issue.
The Council tasked its secretariat, in consultation with the member Administrations, with undertaking a strategic review of the Council’s work programmes, working methods and support arrangements, including arrangements for a standing secretariat. The secretariat will report back with firm proposals as soon as possible.
On specific issues, we lead the work of the Council in the transport sector. In that regard, heads of Administrations discussed the current and future state of transport infrastructure links. They recognised that the provision of well-planned infrastructure is critical to the economic and social development of these islands, and that this is particularly the case with transport. Fast, efficient and integrated transport links are important for all the member Administrations to enable the movement of people and goods and the further promotion of investment, trade and tourism between them and the rest of the world.
The Council, therefore, agreed to examine the potential for further co-operation and collaboration on transport planning and investment to strengthen further the integration of transport networks across its boundaries and transport modes.
The Council also noted the agreement by Scotland and Northern Ireland to examine the case for restoring ferry links between Campbeltown and Ballycastle.
The Council concluded that it should continue to build on the valuable progress made in road safety, including a more consistent approach to driver disqualification and lesser offences, and in sharing best practice on sustainable travel and mobility.
The Irish Government are leading the Council’s work on the misuse of drugs. At its last ministerial meeting in December 2006, the Council focused on the challenges presented by cocaine use. Ministers found that each Administration is facing similar issues, and that the problem is at various stages of development in the different jurisdictions. Ministers resolved to continue to co-operate and exchange experience, with particular emphasis on initiatives that have led to successful outcomes and that may lend themselves to broader application in other Administrations.
The environment sector is led by the British Government and was the focus of the summit held in London in June 2006. At that summit, the focus was on climate change, including work on understanding the impact of unavoidable climate change and on developing adaptation strategies. The Council continues to intensify co-operation and the exchange of information between members on this and other important areas, including understanding extreme weather events, integrated coastal-zone management and managing radioactive waste.
The Isle of Man Government are leading work on e-health, which is the remote diagnosis and treatment of patients through the use of telecommunications technology. Work continues on technical issues, such as common technical standards, a relevant clinical governance framework, protocols for the secure exchange of confidential data, and quality standards for e-health on the Internet.
The Council is also examining legal, regulatory and ethical issues in the e-health sector. These issues have come to the fore recently and will require firm guidelines to allow the sector to continue its current rapid development.
The Bailiwick of Guernsey is taking the lead on the Council’s tourism work sector. That sector has completed several projects, including a model to measure the economic impact of tourism in the regions and training programmes for staff who work in the sector. A review of the future work and direction of that group will be carried out by the date of the next ministerial meeting in the sector.
The Bailiwick of Jersey is taking the lead on the Council’s work on the knowledge economy. Work is under way to enhance business continuity planning among small businesses that may be affected by serious threats such as terrorist incidents. Possible preventative measures and business continuity planning are being developed to strengthen business sustainability. An assessment of the readiness of small, medium- and micro-sized businesses has been carried out, and a common set of best-practice guidelines on preventative measures and business continuity planning is being developed.
The Welsh Assembly Government are taking the lead in the indigenous, minority and lesser-used languages work sector. The most recent ministerial meeting in October 2006 focused on three areas: language transmission in the family; adult education; and information and communications technology (ICT).
Language transmission in the family is recognised as being vital to the process of maintaining a language. Ministers endorsed further work in that area to explore how best to support language transmission in the family, how models could be transferred to other languages, identifying gaps in knowledge and how British-Irish Council Administrations could work together to fill those gaps.
Ministers agreed that, although the approach adopted and the support for adult education provision would vary from one Administration to another, there were valuable opportunities to be gained by continuing to share and exchange experiences in that area.
The indigenous, minority and lesser-used languages group continues to advance work in those areas. It is also working on two new areas: planning and linguistic considerations; and research, data and language-use surveys.
The Scottish Executive and the Welsh Assembly Government are jointly taking the lead on the Council’s work on social inclusion. That group is now examining child poverty, with a focus on lone parents. The work is focused on transition points in people’s lives and the proper provision of support at those times. The British-Irish Council is also examining how Administrations identify, and take account of, the views of parents, young people and children when formulating their policies.
Demography is the newest work sector, and it is led by the Scottish Executive. The group has recently commenced work and has agreed to focus its efforts on migration, which has a broad and varied impact on the eight members. I am glad to say that the Minister for Employment and Learning is representing the Northern Ireland Executive’s interests in that sector.
Finally, Mr Speaker, I can report that the next British-Irish Council summit meeting will be held in late 2007 and will be hosted by Ireland at a venue to be announced. I think that I should add: here endeth the first lesson.
The Chairperson of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister (Mr Kennedy): I welcome the First Minister’s statement on the British-Irish Council summit meeting that took place on 16 July 2007.
However, I am concerned that, although the meeting took place on 16 July, during the summer recess, the statement has been made only today, instead of at the Assembly’s first opportunity, last week. The system appears to have been subject to some delay and slippage.
I have a number of questions. Will the First Minister indicate a more precise timescale for the formation of a standing secretariat for the British-Irish Council?
I note that the British-Irish Council is examining the issue of child poverty. That matter is of particular interest to the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, which will be considering terms of reference for an inquiry into child poverty at its next meeting. I ask the First Minister to state when we can expect a report on child poverty from the British-Irish Council. If a full report will not be available for some time — as is likely — will the First Minister share the findings of the British-Irish Council with the Committee on a regular and ongoing basis?
I ask the First Minister to detail the mechanisms that are in place to communicate and engage with the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister and other Assembly Committees before and after meetings of the British-Irish Council to enable those Committees to uphold their statutory scrutiny functions.
Finally, I wish to ask a question in a personal capacity, on behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party. The First Minister will be aware of the recently declared intention of the governing party in the Irish Republic — Fianna Fáil — to organise politically in Northern Ireland. Will the First Minister indicate whether he was consulted in advance of that development by Mr Ahern, and will he —
Mr Speaker: The Member must take his seat. I try to give Chairpersons of Committees as much latitude as possible when asking questions on ministerial statements, but those questions must relate to the statements. The Member’s last question does not, in any way, relate to the First Minister’s statement. That is my ruling.
The First Minister: This is the first opportunity to make the statement to the House because it first had to go before the Executive. The Executive must see and approve statements that are a matter for the whole House. That is what we did, and there was no slippage whatsoever, except the slippage of the Member in not knowing that.
As for the politics of another country, that is no concern of mine. I will defend our right to have our own political parties, which will do the job that the people of Northern Ireland want them to do. Perhaps I am speaking out of turn, but I want to put that on record.
The Member asked about a standing secretariat for the British-Irish Council. We are taking up work that has been the subject of previous consultation. I remind the Member that the St Andrews Agreement states:
“Following consultation with its other members, and with a view to giving further impetus to its work, the two Governments would facilitate the establishment of a standing secretariat for the British-Irish Council, if members agree.”
The strategic review will examine the arrangements for a standing secretariat. The Council members have agreed on that matter, and that process is under way. I trust that that process will be speedy because the Council deserves such a standing secretariat to address the very large agenda with which it must deal.
Recommendations and outcomes that arise from the review will be subject to agreement by all the Administrations concerned.
I will write to the Member and bring him up to date on the other matters that he mentioned.
Mrs Long: I thank the First Minister for bringing the report to the Assembly. I should like to add to what Mr Kennedy said about the mechanisms whereby his Committee and the other Assembly Committees can feed into the agenda of the British-Irish Council and scrutinise issues on that agenda at an early stage. For example, it will be important for Members to receive feedback on child poverty as we are seeking to carry out an investigation into the matter. If an arrangement could be facilitated, it would be most welcome.
I wish to raise two issues. First, the First Minister said that Northern Ireland is taking the lead on transport. Will he clarify whether real connectivity between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland will be on the agenda? Clearly, transport is of strategic importance across the island, but it is particularly important to Northern Ireland as regards connectivity with its closest neighbour.
Secondly, sustainability is the responsibility of the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, and a co-ordinated approach to sustainability would be welcomed in these islands. I am interested to know whether the First Minister will state whether he will be putting sustainability on the agenda of future British-Irish Council meetings.
The First Minister: The answer to the hon Lady’s first point is yes; we are taking the lead on transport. The British-Irish Council agreed to examine the potential for further co-operation and collaboration on transport planning and investment to strengthen further the integration of transport networks across its boundaries and transport modes. As that work will include all member countries, it is quite clear that we are looking for an integrated transport system that will link all the countries concerned.
There will be a meeting in the spring to consider the first steps that will be taken to eradicate child poverty. As regards the involvement of Assembly Committees in the work of the British-Irish Council — an issue that I did not respond to when answering the questions put by the previous Member who spoke — my answer would be yes. I am sure that we would all want the fullest possible agreement on those matters, and the usual channels can be used when meetings of the British-Irish Council are being arranged.
Knowing the Council’s work programme, as regards the items that are essential to our meetings here, it would be impossible to consult with every Assembly Committee.
Mr Hilditch: My interest is in tourism and the economic impact for the Giant’s Causeway area. Will the First Minister state what progress has been made to reinstate the ferry service between Ballycastle and Campbeltown?
The First Minister: Officials from Northern Ireland and the Scottish Executive held a video conference on Friday 20 July 2007. The principal outcomes of that conference were as follows: all previous work — the business case, transport appraisals and the current tendering exercises — needs to be revisited as soon as sufficient time has elapsed from the project commenced and the current position came into play.
The Scottish Executive, with whom we have been in touch, will develop new terms of reference for a fresh economic transport appraisal and timetable for delivery. A steering group, on which the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment will be represented, will be created as agreed in the terms of reference, and will manage the review process.
I am personally in constant touch with the First Minister of Scotland, and he is, of course, enthusiastic that the project should be completed and the service reinstated. It is also possible that the service could continue further along the Scottish coastline than had been intended in the first proposition.
Mr W Clarke: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the First Minister for his statement. I welcome the fact that the environment has been highlighted as an important issue and that there has been agreement to intensify co-operation and exchange of information. Given that this work sector is being led by the British Government, is it possible that the BIC will examine serious concerns across the island of Ireland about Sellafield and the management of radioactive waste? Furthermore, will the First Minister agree that a roll-out of nuclear power stations across the water will have serious implications for the island of Ireland?
The First Minister: The BIC has no regulatory role in respect of Sellafield. Regulatory responsibility rests with HM Nuclear Installations Inspectorate and the Environment Agency. However, I am sure that the BIC will take an interest in those matters, which affect all of us.
Mr Durkan: I thank the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister for presenting today’s report on behalf of the Executive. Like other Members, I welcome the fact that the BIC meeting took place. I note that, in the “family photograph” of the leaders of the delegations on 16 July 2007, there was only one Englishman — who happened to be a natural-born Tory named Shaun. People would not have predicted that a number of years ago.
More importantly, the British-Irish Council, as the First Minister reflected in the report, allows Administrations to share experiences and challenges in quite a number of areas. The subject matters on which the different member Administrations are leading were established in the last period of devolution. I am glad to see that those areas have stood the test of time and that the work is continuing.
Will the emphasis that is now going to be applied to child poverty mean that the previously published Northern Ireland anti-poverty strategy will be re-examined and reconditioned in light of the BIC work that is being carried out on social inclusion?
I remind the First Minister that the proposal for a standing secretariat was first made back in 2001 and 2002. I hope that the permanent secretariat will not only service the meetings of the eight Administrations, but will have a specific role of encouraging and monitoring bilateral and multilateral engagement by the member Administrations — all eight of them do not need to work together on everything or to meet at the one time.
As Chairperson of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment, I encourage the First Minister and his colleagues to support the Scottish Executive’s proposal that the British-Irish Council should examine energy and the overlap between energy and the environment. Obligations regarding renewable energy sources need to be examined at BIC level, because the Whitehall Department has proposed significant changes that could have implications for us and the wider islands, vis-à-vis the single electricity market.
The First Minister: I thank the hon Gentleman for his remarks. The review that is commencing will take in the broad sweep of issues that he mentioned. The BIC will return to the matters that have already been discussed and will pursue them in order to find a way forward. I shall write to the Member about some of those matters and assure him that they are on the agenda. I cannot, of course, say what the decisions might be.
Mr Easton: Will the First Minister ensure that the British-Irish Council is not merely a talking shop, and will he give an example of practical co-operation?
The First Minister: The recent summit demonstrated the commitment of members to develop practical co-operation and arrangements that can make a meaningful impact on people’s lives.
The British-Irish Council is most certainly not just a talking shop; it is an extremely valuable forum in which vital aspects of policy in a wide range of sectors are discussed. It is also valuable for ensuring that we in Northern Ireland are aware of, and can share, best practice with our BIC partners and with others across Europe. We want to see more tangible evidence of the impact of that co-operation, and the review will examine how that can be achieved. We also look forward to engaging with the other Administrations in deciding how to make best use of the body, which is unique in Europe. Together with the other institutions, the BIC can have a powerful role in making life better for us all.
Mr O’Dowd: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. One of the areas of practical co-operation that the BIC has concentrated on is the issue of drugs misuse. I welcome the First Minister’s comments about that. I also welcome the programme of work that has been set out, particularly the training and employment for recovering drug misusers and the formal and informal education for young people. Will the First Minister outline any further areas of co-operation in relation to this most serious issue?
The First Minister: The BIC secretariat, in consultation with member Administrations, has developed certain programmes on matters such as transport, the misuse of drugs, the environment, and language. The review will address those issues, and decisions will be made on them. I will keep in mind the Member’s comments about his interest in the issue of the misuse of drugs, and I will probably be able to write to him more fully when the review commences. However, I assure him that that matter will certainly be on the agenda.
Mr Spratt: What plans are there to develop the work and the future direction of the British-Irish Council?
The First Minister: That will depend on the review, on which, of course, we all have to agree. Therefore, if we agree, the BIC will move forward, and if we make no such agreements, it will not move; it really depends on ourselves. However, there is plenty of basis for agreement in many of the areas that have been discussed.
Mr Elliott: I thank the First Minister for his report on the British-Irish Council meeting. I also note the participation of high-level delegates from each of the areas. My question relates to the possibility that the Province should receive a financial package, mention of which was absent from the report. Given that the Rt Hon Gordon Brown, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, was present at the meeting, were there any discussions about a special economic package for Northern Ireland?
The First Minister: The BIC talks were not about the personal relationships that exist within the United Kingdom. We certainly took the opportunity to probe the Prime Minister as best we could, but his mind was on other matters. The BIC is not a forum in which we extract what we want from the British Government: it is a forum in which, along with other parts of this area, we face up to matters of common interest on which we can all work together if we so desire.
Mr O’Loan: I, too, thank the First Minister for his report, and I welcome the substantial workload with which the BIC is proceeding.
I note the First Minister’s answer to Mr Hilditch on the Campbeltown-Ballycastle ferry service. At the time of the press announcement, there was specific reference to extending the route to Troon. Given that he represents North Antrim, I know that the First Minister will be as keen as I am to ensure that the project comes about. Is the extension of the service to Troon a significant part of the thinking behind the project?
More broadly, given that the project failed previously because the private sector was not willing to become involved, are other specific incentives being considered to encourage that sector to do so?
The First Minister: I welcome the hon Gentleman’s comments. Reinstatement of the service is really a Scottish matter, and without breaking any confidences, I can tell him that the First Minister of Scotland has been giving it a sympathetic hearing. Our Scottish brethren are discussing the matter, and I trust that they will soon give us some answers in order that we can proceed. [Laughter.]
Some fellow Members did not like the word “brethren”; they can call them sheep, goats or whatever they like, but I look upon them as sheep.
Mr Ross: I thank the First Minister for his comprehensive statement, and I welcome the fact that east-west relations are being strengthened. Will the First Minister inform the House what the cost of hosting the British-Irish Council summit was to Northern Ireland?
The First Minister: As hosts of the summit, Northern Ireland bore the cost, which was in the region of £21,000. Without exaggeration, for that price, we got a good deal as far as publicity was concerned. The effect of that will be that people will look more closely at Northern Ireland and will hopefully bring into our Province those higher-paid jobs that we all know are sorely needed.
Mr T Clarke: I congratulate the First Minister on the report. What work is being undertaken to increase east-west activity to make it on a par with North/South arrangements?
The First Minister: At last there is agreement that both east-west and North/South co-operation will be equal in our political fields. Neither North/South nor east-west co-operation will take precedence; they will run at the same velocity and will take on board the questions that each needs to discuss and answer.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClarty] in the Chair)
Mr D Bradley: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leis an Chéad-Aire as an tuairisc shuimiúil chuimsitheach atá sé i ndiaidh a chur os comhair an Tionóil. Chuir mé suim ar leith sa chuid sin den tuairisc a bhain le mionteangacha dúchasacha, agus baineann mo cheist féin leis an ghné sin den obair.
I thank the First Minister for the comprehensive and interesting report that he has delivered to the House. I was particularly interested in that part of the report that deals with minority and indigenous languages. Will the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister consider proposing to its British-Irish Council colleagues the use of immersion in indigenous languages as an educational tool? The aim of that would be to share research, aid development, and exchange experiences between Ireland, North and South; Scotland; the Isle of Man; and Wales. Go raibh míle maith agat.
The First Minister: I can reply to the second part of the hon Member’s question. I was not at Pentecost, so I do not have the gift of interpreting languages.
The National Assembly for Wales is taking the lead in the indigenous, minority and lesser-used languages group. Its representatives will set up the necessary arrangements, but we will make an input. If any country has had a problem with language, it has been Wales. Therefore, the Welsh know what obstacles to look out for, and they have learned, through experience, how to deal with them. I am sure that the Welsh delegates are the best people to lead this group. However, we will have the right to put our views to them, and I am sure that the hon Gentleman will ensure that his views are heard.
Mr McQuillan: What benefits will be derived from the British-Irish Council?
The First Minister: There is potential for many helpful improvements to be made. I am particularly worried about the large number of deaths on our roads, and that point was brought out firmly at the BIC meeting on 16 July.
All countries and places involved in the BIC need to have a proper disqualification law, because there are many people using our roads who are unaccustomed to them. A young man who attended my church was killed recently by a driver who had arrived in Northern Ireland from another country in Europe only a few days previously. The driver had only a provisional licence. He drove into the car that my friend was in, and my friend was killed. That accident brought the seriousness of the situation home to me. In that area alone, we could make progress. However, there are other areas on which we will have to wait and see. I am biased, of course, but North Antrim ought to have back its ferry service to Scotland.
Mr Craig: Will the First Minister inform the House when the review into the workings of the Council will be undertaken?
The First Minister: The review is the responsibility of the participating Administrations. We will press for the review to be completed and will report back with firm proposals as soon as possible. I understand that the review will begin in a few days’ time.
Mr I McCrea: Will the First Minister inform the House what progress has been made on the mutual recognition of driving disqualifications between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland?
The First Minister: I would like to see a good relationship between both parts of this island without any political claims of jurisdiction by either one. We are not claiming that the South of Ireland should be part of the United Kingdom, and they should not claim that we should be part of the Irish Republic. That should be borne in mind. This is not a place for arguing constitutional positions: it is a place for arguing for the best arrangements for the ordinary people who can benefit from them.
Mr Attwood: I welcome the First Minister’s report. A priority work area for the British-Irish Council in its former manifestation was the Irish Sea, and lead responsibility on that — as I understand it — was to be with the Isle of Man and Irish Governments.
Will the First Minister check that the priority area of the Irish Sea is still part of the programme of work of the BIC, given his comments on the environment and the nuclear industry and following the comments from my colleague in Sinn Féin?
Will the First Minister consider introducing affordable housing and suicide prevention to the work programme of the BIC? Both issues are of concern to Members, and I am sure that a lot can be learned from BIC members about how they are addressing the issues.
Finally, will the First Minister, given his well-made comments on traffic offences, comment further on driver disqualification and lesser offences? His colleague, the Deputy First Minister, may have some information that would be useful for the Assembly to hear.
The First Minister: I will keep in mind what the hon Member has said, and I will enquire of the BIC whether those items can be included in the review.
A question was asked about the mutual recognition of driving disqualifications between the United Kingdom and other parts of these islands. As far as the UK, and Northern and Southern Ireland are concerned, there is an intergovernmental commitment between the UK and Ireland to co-operate as soon as possible in recognising each other’s driving disqualifications. We will have to wait until that comes, and I have been told that there will have to be subordinate legislation if it is recommended. Officials in the United Kingdom and Ireland are working closely to initiate mutual recognition of driving disqualifications as soon as is practicable. I hope that my answer will help the hon Member.
Mr Deputy Speaker: That concludes questions on the First Minister’s statement.
Mr Deputy Speaker: I have received notice from the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister that the Deputy First Minister wishes to make a statement on the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC). I call the Deputy First Minister, Mr Martin McGuinness.
The Deputy First Minister (Mr M McGuinness): A LeasCheann Comhairle, I wish to make a statement on the fifth plenary meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council, which was held in the Armagh City Hotel, Armagh, on 17 July, 2007.
All the Executive Ministers who attended the meeting have approved the statement, and I am presenting it on their behalf. The Executive delegation was led by the First Minister and me, and we jointly chaired the meeting.
In addition to the First Minister and myself, our delegation comprised the Minister of Finance and Personnel; the Minister of the Environment; the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure; the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment; the Minister for Regional Development; the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development; the Minister of Education; the Minister for Employment and Learning; the Minister for Social Development; and the junior Ministers in OFMDFM.
The Irish Government delegation was led by the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, and comprised the Táinaiste and Minister for Finance, Brian Cowen TD; the Minister for Transport and the Marine, Noel Dempsey TD; the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dermot Ahern TD; the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Micheál Martin TD; the Minister for Arts, Sport, and Tourism, Séamus Brennan TD; the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Éamon Ó Cuív; the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Mary Coughlan TD; the Minister for Education and Science, Mary Hanafin TD; the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, John Gormley TD; and the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Eamon Ryan TD.
All Ministers acknowledged the significance of the occasion — the first meeting of the NSMC in plenary sitting since 2002. They welcomed the opportunity to meet on the North/South Ministerial Council to consult on and promote mutually beneficial co-operation and take a number of decisions on a range of issues in the Council’s work programme.
With regard to infrastructural matters, the Council noted the Irish Government’s intention to make available a contribution of £400 million — €580 million — to help fund major roads programmes to provide dual-carriageway standard on routes in the North serving the north-west gateway and the eastern-seaboard corridor from Belfast to Larne. The Executive confirmed their acceptance, in principle, to take forward those two major road projects, and the Council noted that the road project from Belfast to Larne would be taken forward by the Executive and their agencies.
The North/South Ministerial Council agreed that the route serving the north-west gateway will be taken forward in line with funding and accountability, planning, management and delivery arrangements agreed between the Irish Government and the Executive. It was agreed that the relevant Ministers would take the necessary steps to progress that project, including the early commencement of a route corridor study.
The Council agreed to proceed with the restoration of the section of the Ulster Canal between Clones and Upper Lough Erne in the light of the Irish Government’s offer to cover the full capital costs of the project. In line with the relevant legislation, Waterways Ireland, a North/South implementation body, will be responsible for the necessary restoration work and, following restoration, for its management, maintenance and development — principally for recreational purposes. It was agreed that relevant Ministers meeting in the NSMC inland waterways sector would agree plans to take forward that restoration work, including details of funding arrangements, and would report on progress to the NSMC plenary meetings.
The Council received a report from the joint secretaries on the work of the NSMC since 2002. It noted that the work of the North/South implementation bodies and Tourism Ireland had continued, and expressed its appreciation to the boards and staff for their contribution.
The Council also noted the mutually beneficial co-operation taken forward between Ministers and Departments. The Council agreed to take forward the review provided for in the St Andrews Agreement of the North/South implementation bodies and areas for co-operation. The review will commence in September 2007, and a final report will be presented to the first NSMC plenary meeting in 2008. The review will be undertaken by a group including senior officials and an advisory panel of four expert advisers, two to be nominated by the Executive and two by the Irish Government. The Council noted that the Irish Government would consult their social partners in relation to the North/South consultative forum. It also noted the review of arrangements for consulting civic society here and agreed to consider the matter on completion of that review.
The Council noted the provisions of the St Andrews Agreement relating to the North/South parliamentary forum. It recognised that any development of a joint parliamentary forum was a matter for the Assembly and the Oireachtas. Officials from the two Administrations were charged with making contact with the Assembly and the Houses of the Oireachtas, and with reporting back to the NSMC at the earliest opportunity on the prospects for the development of such a forum. The Council considered and approved a schedule of NSMC meetings to take place over the coming months and agreed that its next meeting in plenary format would be held in Dundalk towards the end of the year. Go raibh maith agat.
The Chairperson of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (Mr Kennedy): As Chairperson of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, I welcome the statement made on the meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council that took place on 17 July 2007. Will the Deputy First Minister detail the mechanisms in place to communicate and engage with the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister and other Assembly Committees, both before sectoral and other summit meetings of the North/South Ministerial Council and afterwards, to enable the Committees to uphold their statutory scrutiny functions? Will the Deputy First Minister confirm who the Northern Ireland Executive intend to nominate to participate in the advisory panel to take forward the review of the North/South implementation bodies, and the areas for co-operation?
Wearing my party-political hat, I ask the Deputy First Minister to provide details of how the North/South consultative forum will operate, outlining its remit and the timescales that will be involved. What preparatory work has been carried out on the proposed North/South parliamentary forum?
I almost said paramilitary forum then. [Laughter.]
Will he confirm whether officials have commenced work on that body? To whom will those officials report?
The Deputy First Minister said that the North/South Ministerial Council considered and approved a schedule of meetings for the coming months. Will Members have access to that schedule, and will it be published and available in the Assembly Library?
The Deputy First Minister: Each Committee will consider matters that are relevant to its respective Department. Likewise, on policies on which the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister is designated to lead, we will engage with the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. The Assembly will be advised of the agenda and attendance list of every NSMC meeting prior to its beginning. Following each meeting, the relevant Ministers will make a full report to the Assembly.
The North/South Ministerial Council agreed that a group comprising senior officials drawn from both Administrations and an advisory panel of four expert advisers will undertake a review and report on it to the Council. Two members of the panel will be nominated by the Executive and two by the Irish Government. The First Minister and I are currently considering that issue, and we understand its urgency.
The NSMC joint secretariat will, of course, support the review group’s work, which, it has been agreed, will commence in September 2007. A final report will be presented to the first NSMC plenary meeting in 2008. However, interim reports may be presented to the NSMC as the review progresses.
The review will objectively examine the efficiency and value for money of existing implementation bodies. It will also consider the case for establishing additional bodies to deal with areas of mutually beneficial co-operation within the existing NSMC framework. The review will not affect the work of existing North/South bodies.
At its plenary meeting in June 2002, the NSMC agreed to the establishment of an independent North/South consultative forum. Since then, several changes have taken place in the North. We have agreed that a review will be conducted to examine the arrangements for consulting civic society here. We will await the outcome of that review and consider the impact that that might have on the establishment of a North/South consultative forum. We do not wish to pre-empt the outcome of that review; therefore, the North/South consultative forum will be considered after the review has been completed.
We should remember that the Civic Forum was originally established as a consultative mechanism on social, economic, and cultural issues. The First Minister and I have agreed that things in the North have changed significantly since then. Many new people have come to live among us, so there is a need to review the Civic Forum. Therefore, we have commissioned a fresh review to examine fundamentally the structure, membership and role of the Civic Forum and to consider the most appropriate arrangements for engaging with civic society.
At the NSMC plenary meeting in Armagh, the Council noted those provisions of the Good Friday Agreement and the St Andrews Agreement that relate to the North/South parliamentary forum. The Council recognised that any development of such a joint forum is a matter for the Assembly and the Houses of the Oireachtas.
It was agreed that officials from the two Administrations would contact the Assembly and the Houses of the Oireachtas on the prospects for developing such a forum and would report back to the NSMC at the earliest opportunity. Officials have now written to the Assembly.
I am more than willing to place the outline schedule in the Assembly Library.
Mrs Long: I thank the Deputy First Minister for his report. All Members are relieved that the British-Irish Council and the North/South Ministerial Council are up and running. We hope that the Assembly’s relationship with both bodies will be productive for Northern Ireland.
I raised the issue of infrastructure with the First Minister. I note that expansion of the roads programme was discussed, as were waterways. One issue, which I am sure is quite dear to the hearts of both the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, is that of the rail link to the north-west, which runs through north Antrim. It seems to be continually under review and under threat. Will that matter be addressed at future NSMC meetings?
Rail travel is not only a sustainable transport option; it would provide the north-west with a key gateway. There is also the huge tourism potential for the island to be considered, and rail links could be extended into the Republic of Ireland. Could the subject of rail links be put on a future agenda of the NSMC?
The Deputy First Minister: Ministers, both North and South, take railways very seriously. We all know and understand the pressure on our roads, and the Assembly has had many debates about the contribution that an improved rail system could make to the quality of everyone’s lives.
A sectoral meeting on transport was held last Friday in County Fermanagh. It was attended by Arlene Foster, the Minister of the Environment; Conor Murphy, the Minister for Regional Development, and Noel Dempsey, the Minister for Transport in the South. I noted that they talked about increasing the frequency of the Belfast-Dublin train service, with the prospect of an hourly service between the two cities. I have no doubt that that important issue will be the subject of intense discussion in the NSMC in the near future.
Mr S Wilson: I welcome the Deputy First Minister’s announcement about the injection of funds from the Irish Republic into the Northern Ireland economy. However, many people in Northern Ireland would say that it is a belated contribution by a country that harboured those who destroyed our economy for a long time. Compared to the destruction carried out by IRA units based in the Irish Republic over the past 30 years, the contribution does not even scratch the tip of Northern Ireland’s economic iceberg.
However, will the Deputy First Minister tell us how much of the funds that have been allocated will be made available for upgrading the A8? What contribution is expected from the Northern Ireland Executive? Is there a time limit in which those funds must be spent, and is the Deputy First Minister convinced that the Executive will bring forward proposals to ensure that the funds are spent in that period?
The Deputy First Minister: That matter is the responsibility of the Minister for Regional Development, Conor Murphy. There can be no doubt that, as a result of the decisions taken by the NSMC, Ministers are now charged with the responsibility to proceed and to expedite those matters.
Principally, the responsibility to articulate a view on that issue lies with the Minister for Regional Development, who will make a statement to the House shortly. He will provide a comprehensive report on the meeting that was held last Friday in County Fermanagh.
Mr Boylan: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the Deputy First Minister’s report on the North/South Ministerial Council meeting. I also welcome the Deputy First Minister and the First Minister to Armagh at any time.
The commitment of the Irish Government to provide €400 million to support the development of roads infrastructure is to be welcomed, particularly the upgrading of the main arterial route in the north-west, and that of the M14, A5 and N2. That is something that Sinn Féin, and, in particular, my colleague Pat Doherty, MP for West Tyrone, has campaigned for for some considerable time.
Will the Deputy First Minister please outline what progress has been made in bringing forward this project, which is vital to the future of the entire north-west region? Go raibh maith agat.
The Deputy First Minister: As I reported to the Assembly, the NSMC met in its transport sectoral format on Friday 14 September 2007, and Ministers discussed arrangements for taking forward those important roads projects. As I also said, the Minister for Regional Development, Conor Murphy, will be making a full report on that meeting to the Assembly in due course.
The Irish Government’s contribution, and the Chancellor’s package that was announced on 26 March 2007, will help to fund a major roads programme to upgrade roads to dual carriageway standard on routes in the North that serve the north-west gateway and the eastern seaboard from Belfast to Larne.
Those schemes are on two of the five key transport corridors in the North, as identified in the regional transportation strategy. Both schemes received positive support from a public consultation process, which was undertaken last year, on proposals to expand the strategic road improvement programme.
The issue of the road from Belfast to Larne will be taken forward by the Executive and their agencies, and that of the north-west gateway will be taken forward in line with funding and accountability, planning management, and delivery arrangements agreed between the Executive and the Irish Government. The Irish Government are providing part funding to improve the road infrastructure to the north-west gateway, and to the port of Larne. That funding will provide mutual benefits for both jurisdictions and will assist in opening up the north-west region to further economic growth and development.
The upgrading of the remainder of the Belfast to Larne route will improve journey times to the port of Larne. It normally takes at least six years to progress major works projects through the statutory procedures concerned with the environment, planning approval and land acquisition. For a very large project, such as that on the A5 — that is, the Aughnacloy/north-west gateway — construction could take a further four years. However, officials are considering alternative delivery arrangements that may shorten those timescales, and that is something that we would all very much welcome.
Mr Attwood: I welcome the Deputy First Minister’s report on behalf of his office. It was particularly thoughtful of the First Minister, after the meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council, to confirm his agreement to the establishment of the North/South parliamentary forum — a matter that was detailed in that report.
Will the Deputy First Minister confirm that, as far as he and his office are concerned, it should now be full speed ahead with the establishment of the North/South parliamentary forum? Although the establishment of that body is in the gift of the Assembly and the Oireachtas, it would, nonetheless, be desirable to see that happening in a period of months.
I noted the Deputy First Minister’s comments regarding the St Andrews Agreement review of North/South implementation bodies. Is he in a position to confirm who the four experts and advisers might be? I noted that he said that there are conversations taking place with the First Minister regarding the matter. However, from recent experience, we know that conservations about people being appointed to fulfil public duties — such as the victims’ commissioner — can result in no decision being taken for a long time. I want a reassurance from the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister that people will be appointed, and appointed quickly, and that the review will commence in September, as has been committed to, even though the SDLP has grave doubts about the value and validity of such a review.
It is particularly welcome that the Irish Government have offered to cover the full capital costs of the restoration of a section of the Ulster Canal between Clones and Upper Lough Erne.
Will the Deputy First Minister confirm that there are no hiccups in respect of the Northern Ireland Executive’s and the relevant Ministers’ acceptance of that money, and that no issues will be raised over contributions to future maintenance? Difficulties over those issues might impede this valuable project.
The Deputy First Minister: The Member referred to the comments made by the First Minister in the aftermath of the North/South Ministerial Council plenary meeting in Armagh; all the remarks made by the First Minister were helpful and very much in the spirit and mood of that important occasion. The North/South parliamentary forum was discussed. I have attended previous meetings of the NSMC — and, indeed, the British-Irish Council — and this meeting was important in that there was free-ranging debate and discussion. All the Ministers present contributed, and not just through scripted contributions put before them by civil servants. There was a valuable and progressive discussion which will hold us all in good stead as we move forward.
As to the processes that we have to take forward, it was agreed that officials from the two Administrations would make contact, and I have reported to the Assembly this morning that that is happening. We will see what progress can be made, but it will primarily be a matter for the Oireachtas and the Assembly.
I accept the importance of making speedy appointments vis-à-vis the review. The decisions that need to be taken are eagerly awaited, because it is important work and we are committed to furthering it with all speed.
The Ulster Canal is a matter for Minister Poots, since it is the responsibility of his Department. A meeting of the Waterways Ireland sector is planned, and the issue will be taken forward from that point.
Now that decisions have been taken on the important infrastructural projects — the roads and the canal — the NSMC understands the need to expedite all of those matters as quickly as possible.
Mr Hamilton: I noted the reference in the Deputy First Minister’s statement to the North/South consultative forum and the North/South parliamentary forum. Can he confirm that the genesis of both those proposed bodies was the Belfast Agreement, and that any decision on their future is a matter to be decided on both sides of this Chamber?
The Deputy First Minister: I agree absolutely. It is vital that we get agreement on the work of the NSMC and all the areas of responsibility with which we are charged. All the participants in the NSMC are presently in that mode. We must move forward with the recognition that we have a responsibility to heal the divisions of the past, and to do so in a way that does not threaten the political views or aspirations of any Member.
Mr McHugh: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I also welcome the Deputy First Minister’s statement. In both the roads infrastructure and the upgrading of the main arterial route to the north-west, I hope that there will be a specific benefit to Enniskillen, or perhaps the bypass question in Enniskillen, as the gateway to the north-west of Ireland.
My question is about the Ulster Canal. Sinn Féin has been involved for a considerable time in efforts to bring about the restoration of the Clones to Upper Lough Erne section of the Ulster Canal. Will the Deputy First Minister outline the next step in bringing the project to completion and what further consideration is being given to restore the Ulster Canal, given its huge potential for the economy and tourism in general?
The Deputy First Minister: I noted the remark about the Enniskillen bypass, but that is not principally a matter for the NSMC, the First Minister or myself, but rather for the Minster for Regional Development, Mr Conor Murphy. No doubt Mr McHugh and other Members from Fermanagh will take the opportunity to have that conversation with him.
The Irish Government have offered to cover the full capital costs of the restoration of the Clones to Upper Lough Erne section of the Ulster Canal. In light of that offer, the Executive have agreed to engage with the Irish Government to progress that restoration and share the ensuing costs of the restored and re-opened section, when it is complete. However, that decision does not confer any commitment on the Irish Government or the Executive to fund further restoration of the Ulster Canal. Both Administrations will keep the issue under constant review.
Waterways Ireland will be responsible for restoring the section of the Ulster Canal between Clones and Upper Lough Erne, and following the restoration, will be responsible for the management, maintenance and development of that section, principally for recreational purposes. The relevant Ministers in the NSMC’s inland waterways sectoral format will agree plans for the restoration work, which will include forwarding details of funding arrangements and progress reports to NSMC plenary meetings.
Recently, when I opened the Scariff Harbour Festival in County Clare, I received a tour of the amazing facilities at the canal there, and I saw first-hand the benefits of having an effective canal system. The restoration project for the Ulster Canal will provide mutual benefits for both jurisdictions. On the basis of the Irish Government’s offer, the Executive have agreed to engage with them on the restoration, and, once completed, in the ensuing shared and recurrent costs of the restored and reopened section.
There have been many debates about the Ulster Canal in the House over the years. The former leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, David Trimble, was an enthusiastic fan of the restoration of the canal. Those Members who appreciate the benefits of having an effective canal system, particularly for recreational use and tourism, will understand that it is an important project. However, the difficulty with all important projects is having adequate funds to proceed with the speed that most Members would like to see.
Mr Newton: I am sure that the Deputy First Minister is aware of the high level of concern on this side of the House about religious imbalance in the staff of Waterways Ireland. Will he assure this side of the House that employment in Waterways Ireland will be based on merit alone? What actions will he take to ensure that selection and employment in Waterways Ireland will be based on applications being considered on merit alone?
The Deputy First Minister: I am speaking for the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, and I am sure that the First Minister will agree with me that nobody is interested in seeing anyone discriminated against because of his or her religion. As political leaders, we have a duty and a responsibility to ensure that we move forward on the basis of fairness and equality. All issues that may arise from the employment levels of religious groupings in any of the North/South Ministerial Council sectors will be kept under review, not just by the sectors, but by the NSMC itself.
Mr Elliott: I thank the Deputy First Minister for his report. I have noted that, in his responses to a few questions on roads infrastructure, he has thrown the matter back to the Minister for Regional Development. Clearly, however, that matter is dealt with in the report. Therefore, I must press him on an issue that Mr McHugh mentioned, namely that of providing infrastructure finance to the Fermanagh area.
Although the areas that have been referred to, such as those that surround the north-east gateway and the eastern seaboard, are important to the infrastructural position of Northern Ireland, County Fermanagh takes a significant volume of traffic from North and South in both directions, particularly from Donegal to Dublin and from Sligo to Belfast and Larne, and vice versa. I am disappointed that the report does not refer to either of those corridors. Can the Deputy First Minister tell me whether those matters have been discussed at NSMC level?
The Deputy First Minister: As a frequent traveller through County Fermanagh, I appreciate that it has difficulties with regard to roads. However, I must reiterate — and it is not a cop-out — that that is principally a matter for the Minister for Regional Development, Conor Murphy. Obviously, he works with a limited budget, and does a fine job, in my opinion.
The NSMC’s ability to resolve all the roads problems that exist, whether they are in the North or the South, is limited. The responsibility of the NSMC is to consult and to agree on mutually beneficial projects. I readily agree that the infrastructure of border areas, such as Fermanagh, must be kept under review and account taken of them by the Council. I have no doubt whatsoever that the people who are charged with taking forward the Council’s work will listen carefully to Mr Elliott’s remarks.
Mr Durkan: I welcome the statement from the First Minster and the Deputy First Minister. Members have placed a particular emphasis on infrastructure. Will the Deputy First Minister tell the House whether consideration might be given to a future approach whereby money that is available from the Irish Government is not simply used on a project-by-project basis, but that a dedicated North/South fund could instead be created — an all-Ireland version of European structural funds, which would provide a much better context for the type of bids that have been mentioned in the Chamber to be advanced?
Will the Deputy First Minister tell the House whether, in the future, the NSMC will be used to recognise whether the Irish Government’s national development plan has unallocated reserves, not only for infrastructure, but across its other key areas for investment? Perhaps the NSMC should be used to ensure that the North’s structures and spending systems can mesh better with those of the national development plan in order to make the most of that money, rather than jockeying on a project-by-project basis.
Will the Deputy First Minster also tell the House whether the future work programme of the NSMC might include a return to the study on obstacles to mobility that it previously commissioned? That study may need to be updated or, perhaps, an entirely new study may need to be carried out, not least because of issues that have come to attention recently; for example, when people who have rightly, properly and naturally moved across the border to live, they have found that they and service providers are being put in an invidious position because of the anomalies and absurdities of cross-border life. If that study were to take place, it would help to improve service planning and would make people who live and work in border areas much more comfortable in planning their lives.
The Deputy First Minister: I thank the Member for his questions. He mentioned the Irish Government’s national development plan. Through their interest in contributing to important road projects in the North, the Irish Government have demonstrated that they are willing to review continually the work that they and the Assembly will carry out on mutually beneficial projects.
This is an important time for the Assembly. It is making progress, in that a Programme for Government is being developed. We are also dealing with the comprehensive spending review and the impact that that will have. We have a 10-year investment strategy to which large sums of money have been committed. All of that will decide how we prioritise and make progress on future projects. Therefore, we must consider seriously Mr Durkan’s remarks.
The North/South Ministerial Council has implemented procedures under which such matters must be considered. As we move forward, our attention must turn to how we can make better use of the resources that are available in order to deal with the difficult matter of ensuring that we begin work on infrastructure projects that will bring the benefits that all our people clearly deserve.
Since 2002, work has continued on implementing the recommendations of the report ‘Study of Obstacles to Mobility’. Following extensive consultation with Departments North and South regarding the report’s 50 recommendations, 27 have been implemented, and work is ongoing on 15 of those that relate mainly to mutuality on qualifications and pensions. As the Member said, those are complex issues, and work continues with the relevant Departments to resolve them. However, the NSMC agreed in June 2002 that no action should be taken on the remaining eight recommendations.
A website that is dedicated to providing information on cross-border mobility is currently being developed, and it will become operational in the autumn. Increased mobility means that many people live in border areas, North and South. They cross the border regularly, and that creates particular difficulties for some families. We all have a duty and responsibility to work together. The Irish Government and this Executive, through the North/South Ministerial Council, have made a commitment to tackle those issues head-on.
Mr McElduff: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Cuirim fáilte roimh an tuairisc seo, nó is maith an rud go bhfuil muid ar an aon bhóthar amháin le chéile agus ag obair in aon treo le chéile.
I welcome the Deputy First Minister’s statement. I also welcome the renewed focus on removing obstacles to cross-border mobility, as both the Member for Foyle Mr Durkan and the Deputy First Minister discussed. It struck me in the past week that a great deal of work needs to be done on cross-border mobility, not least on postal services.
This week, I was told about a lady in Strabane who has moved just one mile inside the border to Donegal. Her letters arrive one week late and are stamped par avion. I would like the NSMC to discuss why that should happen. Such letters have included a young girl’s A-level results.
Will the Deputy First Minister reassure me about the standard of the North/South Ministerial Council secretariat’s accommodation? Having visited those offices, I have seen they are not fit for purpose. I want a commitment that suitable office accommodation will be made available without delay so that those people can be housed properly and can carry on with their vital work, Go raibh maith agat a LeasCheann Comhairle.
The Deputy First Minister: As regards postal services, I am sure that all those charged with responsibility for the NSMC will note the Member’s remarks and try to make progress for fear that the Member might end up on ‘The Stephen Nolan Show’, criticising the NSMC over postal services in border areas. [Laughter.]
The Member asked about permanent accommodation for the NSMC. As everyone knows, the NSMC joint secretariat is currently located in temporary accommodation in Armagh. That accommodation is considered unsuitable from both health and safety and operational perspectives. I have visited that facility down the years, and I was very interested to hear during a visit as Minister of Education that serious consideration was being given to turning Armagh jail into the NSMC headquarters. I suppose that a certain Member for East Antrim would think that that might be a good idea, particularly given this morning’s photograph in ‘The Irish News’ of the junior Minister Mr Kelly behind bars in Crumlin Road jail yesterday.
A Member: Did he escape?
The Deputy First Minister: I think he did escape, yes.
In June 2002, the NSMC asked officials North and South to examine options for permanent accommodation and to report back in the future. Since then, a business case recommending that the secretariat lease suitable accommodation has been approved by officials in both Administrations, subject to political and financial considerations. A procurement exercise yielded seven expressions of interest; these are under consideration, and a report will be made to a future NSMC meeting.
Mr Shannon: The Waterways Ireland restoration of the Ulster Canal is a fantastic scheme. However, it looks as if it will benefit only one constituency, Fermanagh and South Tyrone. That is wonderful for the people there, of course, and I would not take that away from them. However, what will be the direct or indirect benefits of that scheme for the rest of the Province?
The Deputy First Minister: It is obvious that the opening of any new section of the Ulster Canal raises the potential for further development in this area. There is popular support in the House for as much progress as possible to be made to ensure that every area through which the Ulster Canal originally passed can benefit in terms of recreation, sporting facilities and, not least, tourism. As we all know, there has been a huge increase in tourism in the North in the last few years. We want to build on that for the future, but we will be able to do so only if we can provide the facilities that tourists would like to visit.
As someone who saw the beginnings of the development of the canals in the South, particularly around the Carrick-on-Shannon area of County Leitrim, I find it incredible to see how much development has taken place. Thirty years ago, Carrick-on-Shannon had just one or two boats, but today it looks almost like Monte Carlo. That is what is ahead of us. Such development will not only make a further incredible contribution to the success of our tourism industry, but provide important recreational facilities for our own people. The quicker we can progress this matter to ensure that we all share in the benefits, the better it will be for all of us.
Ms Ní Chuilín: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Sinn Féin has consistently argued for an increase in the number of North/South implementation bodies and areas of co-operation. For example, I would like mental health and suicide prevention to be included. Can the Deputy First Minister assure this House that the review of the North/South Ministerial Council will also consider the case for additional all-island bodies and areas of greater co-operation? Go raibh maith agat.
The Deputy First Minister: Obviously, we are all very conscious that that matter lies within the remit of the review that was authorised by the St Andrews Agreement and taken up by the NSMC. I have no doubt whatsoever that those who will be considering these matters will recognise the importance of our all working for everyone’s mutual benefit. The issue of mental health affects everybody living on the island, as do many other matters.
I am as interested as anybody else in the outcome of the review.
Mr McCallister: Infrastructure is a matter for the NSMC and not just for the Minister for Regional Development. Will the Deputy First Minister agree that the proper provision of a Southern relief road would be of great advantage to the economy, particularly in the South Down constituency, and would also provide a vital link to the port of Warrenpoint? We should not, as some people in the Republic were pressing for, pursue the no-brain idea of a bridge at Narrow Water.
Will the Deputy First Minister also confirm that the new inter-parliamentary forum has been agreed not only by the two Governments but by him and his right hon Friend, the First Minister?
The Deputy First Minister: I do not need to refer again to the issue of the inter-parliamentary forum, except to say that the First Minister and I always endeavour to get agreement on how we progress. That is essential, and the First Minister and I will be sensible about moving that situation forward.
The state of the roads in South Down is, I am afraid, a matter for the Minister for Regional Development. However, I accept that because County Down is a border county, we must consider the most effective use of the available resources to ensure that we have a proper roads network. That applies equally to Fermanagh and South Tyrone and to South Down.
All of those matters will be considered by the Ministers responsible, and any schemes that they wish to bring forward will be decided upon in plenary sessions of the NSMC.
Mr A Maginness: In his statement, the Deputy First Minister said that all Ministers acknowledged the significance of the meeting of the NSMC, given the fact that it was the first meeting since 2002. It was truly significant, and everybody involved, including the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and all other parties should be congratulated on that event; it was of historic importance.
Let us fast-forward to the situation in which policing and justice are devolved. The Deputy First Minister will be aware that there is a British-Irish agreement on justice matters, which involves the exchange of law agency personnel from North to South and vice versa. Will the Deputy First Minister give an assurance that in the event of devolution of criminal justice and policing powers, there will be a commitment by the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to the continuance of that agreement, and that a new North/South agreement on justice matters will be arrived at so that related issues can be pursued vigorously in the future?
The Deputy First Minister: Criminal justice and policing matters are currently outside the remit of the NSMC. There is no doubt that in the event of the transfer of policing and justice powers to the Assembly and the Executive, the NSMC, the Executive and the Irish Government will have to decide how to develop our approach to criminal justice and policing on the island. That will have to be agreed between the major parties in the Assembly and, through the Executive, with the Irish Government. All of the other parties have an interest in the issue, and have contributed immensely to the debate in recent times. However, my report is solely concerned with the first meeting of the NSMC since 2002. Criminal justice and policing powers, and the surrounding issues referred to in the Member’s question, were outside the remit of that meeting, but in speculating about what the future might bring, those matters will have to be resolved.
The Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister will have to look afresh at that matter, but it will principally be a matter for the Executive. The Executive will have to reach agreement and they will have to agree with the Irish Government on how progress can be made on that issue.
Criminality on this island does not respect borders of any description. We all have a duty to work together to defeat criminals on this island. I have no doubt that if progress is made on the transfer of policing and justice powers, as suggested in the St Andrews Agreement, the Irish Government and the Executive will face up to their responsibilities to ensure that they have the best possible processes to combat criminality.
Mr P Maskey: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Can the Deputy First Minister outline what steps have been taken to address the obstacles to mobility across the island of Ireland, particularly the issue of mutual recognition of qualifications and pensions? Go raibh maith agat.
The Deputy First Minister: In response to the contribution of the Member for Foyle Mr Durkan, OFMDFM’s approach to that matter was made clear. Following extensive consultations with Government Departments North and South, OFMDFM is moving forward on the basis of the recommendations that have been made in the report of the study on obstacles to mobility.
There are complex issues to consider. As a result of working in two jurisdictions, there are important issues in dealing with the mutuality of qualifications, pensions and many other matters. There has been much controversy in the past few weeks about education in border areas. It must be recognised that such problems will not be resolved overnight or in one fell swoop, but there is a commitment to understand the difficulties that individual families have experienced as a result of relocation, whether to the South or to the North. The Executive and the Irish Government have a duty to work under the auspices of the NSMC to try to resolve the difficulties that those families face.
Mr McNarry: I welcome the joint report of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, delivered by the Deputy First Minister. It will no doubt have dawned on the Minister that the promised money that the Irish Government wish to invest through their national development plan concentrates on nationalist-majority areas. One of the Irish Government’s parties has now declared those areas as an obvious electoral target for the future. Can the Minister return a focus on investment in my constituency of Strangford, and other similar constituencies, for legitimate funding to offset the money-for-votes funding that the Irish are putting forward for their declared political interests?
The Deputy First Minister: I do not accept for one minute that the motivation of the Irish Government is related to seeking votes.
Mr McNarry: You are very foolish.
The Deputy First Minister: I am not foolish at all; I am very wise in this matter. In the course of the processes that we have been through in recent times, which led to the re-establishment of these institutions, people recognised the critical importance of all of us working together for the mutual benefit of everyone who lives on the island. That is done without fear or favour.
If there are particular difficulties in Strangford, it is the duty of the Executive to try to resolve those through our Departments. It is not my view that the reason for the Irish Government’s contribution of huge sums of money to resolve the infrastructural difficulties in some areas of the North is related to seeking votes in County Donegal.
When one meets people and sees that they have a real empathy for the North and a wish to contribute in a meaningful way to making life better for all of us, one recognises that we have a duty and responsibility to work together. The Member’s suggestion of an electoral motivation is rather silly.
Mr P J Bradley: I thank the Deputy First Minister for his statement on behalf of OFMDFM. The Narrow Water bridge project — and I want my colleague from South Down to listen carefully — was included in the Programme for Government that was announced in June this year and in the Republic’s national development plan announced on 13 January 2007. Louth County Council was initially allocated almost €400,000 to carry out a feasibility study in the area. As mentioned earlier, at a meeting last weekend in Enniskillen, the Republic’s Minister for Transport, Noel Dempsey, endorsed the project. Therefore, I am disappointed that it has been omitted from today’s statement. What is the reason for that omission?
The Deputy First Minister: The House will receive a full report of the transport sectoral meeting that took place last Friday in County Fermanagh, which Noel Dempsey, Conor Murphy and Arlene Foster attended. Those of us who have attended all sorts of important meetings recently have not failed to notice the contributions that various Members of this House have made to that project.
However, the priorities are to make progress on the Belfast to Larne road and the north-west gateway initiative. Any further expansion must be subject to a decision by the NSMC. Members should wait for the Minister for Regional Development to present a report to the House in the coming days, after which the Assembly can further discuss all those matters.
At the end of the day, whatever the Minister reports to the House, the Narrow Water bridge project has been raised as an issue. It will be taken forward by agreement — or not — and I have no doubt that those who have a legitimate interest, particularly those who live in the County Down area, will continue to canvass for that project.
Mr Deputy Speaker: That concludes questions on the statement. As Members know, the Business Committee has arranged to meet as soon as the Assembly suspends for lunch. I propose, therefore, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm.
The sitting was suspended at 12.22 pm.
On resuming (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Molloy] in the Chair) —
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 will have five minutes.
One amendment has been selected and published on the Marshalled List. The proposer of the amendment will have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes for the winding-up speech.
Mr Beggs: I beg to move
That this Assembly calls on the Minister for Social Development to review the strategy for the eradication of fuel poverty, particularly amongst pensioner households and households with children.
I am pleased that this subject has been selected for debate again. Some Members have questioned why my colleague and I have decided to bring the subject back to the House as it was debated in May 2007. I hope that my address will make the reasons clear.
I will not repeat everything that I said in May, but I must state that no one should have to choose between food and heat, which can happen. There is clear evidence that a warm, dry home can improve life expectancy, and, of course, the opposite is true: a cold, damp home can reduce life expectancy and increase the need for intervention from the Health Service.
From a financial perspective, it is important to invest in eradicating fuel poverty at an early stage to avoid the future costs that will incur if it goes unaddressed. Apart from the personal issues and terrible circumstances that some people endure, there are sound financial reasons to right this wrong. Which of the following would be the best use of taxpayers’ money: dealing with fuel poverty by removing energy-inefficient homes as a one-off cost investment, or dealing with the ill-health consequences of fuel poverty amongst families, children and older people, which would be an ongoing drain on the public purse? It is the old story: early intervention is the most effective way of saving money.
One of the triggers for the motion was a report which came to me from Mr Cobain, who is a member of the Committee for Social Development. Mr Cobain noted a complacent comment from the permanent secretary of the Department for Social Development, who stated that the Department is on target to eradicate fuel poverty as set out in ‘Ending Fuel Poverty: A Strategy for Northern Ireland’. In other words, by 2010, fuel poverty in vulnerable groups such as children and older people would be eradicated, and by 2016, fuel poverty would be entirely eradicated. I was astounded, when I heard this. Mr Cobain asked the permanent secretary to repeat the claim, and he reiterated that he was confident that the target would be achieved.
I believe that this will be a very difficult task: it is difficult to identify all those who are in the vulnerable category and difficult to get assistance to them. It is not something that anyone should be complacent about. It would be great if the target were met, but there is a lot of work to be done if it is to be achieved.
There are a number of reasons why it is important to have this debate again. First, the Assembly has entered a new term, and I want the matter to be fresh in Members’ minds. Winter is approaching, and last night, frost was reported in Northern Ireland for the first time this season.
Mr F McCann: Following on from what the Member said about Mr Cobain, I am also a member of the Committee for Social Development. I, too, was shocked by the, admittedly, very commendable statement that fuel poverty will be eradicated by 2010. After questioning, a number of Committee members felt that there may be some doubt about how that could be achieved. Does the Member agree that, if there is a new strategy, the Minister should explain to the House what it is, and how fuel poverty will be eradicated by 2010?
Mr Beggs: I thank the Member for his intervention. Indeed, that is the purpose of the debate: we want to know what has happened since we last debated this motion, to pick up the pieces and to learn any lessons that members of the Committee or any other sources have presented to the Department.
As I said, we have now entered the first cold spell of the winter, and it is more meaningful for most people to talk about this subject not as we enter summer, but as we enter winter. Our constituents will face harsh weather.
More importantly, we are entering the budgetary process. I was concerned that, as we had debated this motion in May, it might not be fresh in everyone’s mind. I hope, by having the debate once more, to put the matter on everyone’s list of priorities and to raise it where appropriate, so that it gets the support that it deserves. If it is necessary to have additional resources to achieve that objective — and I suspect that it will be necessary — I hope that those resources will be available.
Incidentally, I first learned that this debate had been scheduled when I received a phone call from Pat Austin, director of National Energy Action Northern Ireland. She was delighted to see the motion on the agenda again. Perhaps those who wish that this debate would not happen could explain themselves to the charities concerned.
Ms Austin has also written to me to say that she has serious concerns that the objectives of eradicating fuel poverty in vulnerable households by 2010, and in non-vulnerable households by 2016, will be missed. Those who work in that area are also concerned.
I had a look at the Department for Social Development’s website to identify what was happening on this issue. I do not serve on the Social Development Committee, and have not been following it at that level. I came across many documents, some of which were very dated. The last motion on fuel poverty was about reviewing the policy to see what additions were needed to achieve improvement in the area. I did not find anything particularly new and refreshing there.
I did note that the Minister had, in the course of the summer, reminded everyone who might have to apply for winter fuel cash to do so — which is commendable — and that there had been a meeting of the Northern Ireland Fuel Poverty Advisory Group. I did not, however, see a range of issues emerging from that meeting to give me confidence that the permanent secretary’s complacency should not be an area of concern.
In the course of that meeting, the warm homes scheme was discussed, as was benefit uptake — those are very pertinent issues — and research into the whole area of the working poor and those on low incomes. That research is just starting. How long will that research take? How long will it take to develop policies to address the research? I am still concerned about the time frame and the complacency of the permanent secretary.
What has actually changed since the Assembly last met to debate the subject? Has a review of the strategy occurred? Who here believes that the situations of 100% of those in vulnerable groups will be addressed before 2010? Will all those entitled to a winter heating allowance receive it? What efforts will be made to trace those who have not applied? Is there sufficient money in the Department for the warm homes scheme? When will the insulation and heating systems in all social housing be brought up to date? I have come across constituents, living in upstairs flats, who are spending £20 a week on coal to heat their homes. We have to provide appropriate heating systems and insulation in social housing. Is there sufficient money in the Department’s budget to address that by 2010?
Mr K Robinson: Does the Member agree that there is a generational and cultural resistance to entering into some of the schemes that have been devised to help people to have warm homes? That in itself will be a barrier to 100% take-up.
Mr Beggs: I agree with the Member; it is difficult to achieve a 100% take-up in any scheme. All possible routes must be followed in an effort to encompass everyone who is entitled to assistance.
I have explained the purpose of the motion. I now turn to the amendment, which I believe is helpful because it states that the elimination of fuel poverty should be given priority in the Programme for Government. Such a move may create savings in the health budget in the long term. As such, I find the amendment helpful, and it may assist the Department for Social Development in achieving some of its objectives. Therefore, I am happy to accept the amendment, and I hope that Members will do likewise in an effort to continue the unanimity of the House on this matter. I hope that Members will advance this issue in the relevant Committees as we try to get more funding to end fuel poverty.
Mr A Maginness: I beg to move the following amendment: Leave out all after “Assembly” and insert
“notes the debate on fuel poverty which took place on 29th May 2007 and the resolution adopted; and calls on the Executive to prioritise the elimination of fuel poverty in the forthcoming Programme for Government.”
I thank my friend the Member for East Antrim for accepting the thrust of my amendment. The purpose of the amendment is to ensure that the Executive make a total commitment to the elimination of fuel poverty in our society. That must be regarded as a top priority of any Programme for Government. It is very important that the amendment be accepted by the whole House to send a straight and clear message to the Executive that the elimination of fuel poverty must be a top priority for everyone in Northern Ireland.
I listened carefully to the Member for East Antrim, who explained the circumstances surrounding the introduction of the motion. However, I am not absolutely convinced that the arguments that he advanced are as clear as he has represented them. It seems to me that the Minister, in her address to the House on 29 May 2007, made it very clear that she was totally committed to the previous Administration’s targets of 2010 for the elimination of fuel poverty in vulnerable groups, and 2016 for the elimination of fuel poverty in the rest of our society.
I do not fully understand the misgivings and concerns that have been presented. I was going to reiterate what the Minister for Social Development said by referral to pages 20-21 of the Hansard report of 29 May. I shall not repeat her words, but she made very firm commitments. Of course, the Minister is a member of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, and, as a lifelong social democrat, she is committed to social democracy and to the elimination of social problems that affect the most vulnerable in our society. I am certain that the Minister is firmly committed to those social democratic principles in the pursuit of policy on this matter.
It would be wrong to attempt to repeat all the arguments, facts and figures that were advanced on 29 May, but it is safe to say that considerable progress has been made in dealing with the problem, not just by the current Administration, but by the previous direct rule Ministers. However, we must guarantee that that approach will continue. I become a little concerned when I hear rumours about cost-cutting and economies that must be made in the forthcoming Budget and in the Programme for Government. It is important that, at least in the area of fuel poverty, funding is ring-fenced. There should be no reduction in funding to deal with the problem.
We all support the efforts that have been made to introduce economies and efficiencies in households across Northern Ireland through various measures such as the warm homes scheme, the work of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE), and the promotion of grants for home improvements.
All those efforts have been important in bringing about efficiencies in the home, and they are part and parcel of the measures to tackle fuel inefficiency and fuel poverty.
There has been progress in other areas. For example, 97% of homes in Northern Ireland now have some form of central heating. That is a positive development, and it should continue to be encouraged.
However, some people live on poor incomes, and that major source of fuel poverty must be tackled. The Minister made it clear in several announcements that she is committed to ensuring that the Social Security Agency will redouble its efforts to encourage people to take up their rightful benefit entitlement. One third of those who are entitled to benefits for fuel poverty do not take them up. Were they to do so, consider the significant impact that that would have on those who suffer because of low incomes. The Department for Social Department, in its attack on the problem, which affects communities throughout Northern Ireland, must continue to encourage uptake of benefit.
The Department should carefully scrutinise particular problems; for example, the message of home energy efficiency has not reached those who live in rural areas, where isolation means that the problem of fuel poverty is worse than in urban areas.
Moreover, there is a divergence between those who live in social housing and owner-occupiers. In the social housing sector, there has been significant and substantial success in assisting tenants to improve their housing conditions. That is to be welcomed and must be further pursued. However, owner-occupiers — many of whom are elderly and without the wherewithal to deal with the problem — do not keep pace with those living in social housing, and I emphasise to the Minister that that gap must be narrowed. I hope that the Department will place even greater emphasis on that problem.
The Assembly has no control over winter fuel payments; they are under the control of Westminster, and I hope that the Minister will continue to put pressure on Westminster to improve the fuel grant. That grant is important in ameliorating the conditions for many people in Northern Ireland, and, because of the disproportionate decrease in its value, it is wrong that the grant has remained at £200 since 2000. Over recent years, there has been an increase of 70% to 100% in fuel prices.
Therefore, there is absolutely no justification for the static winter fuel payment. I hope that the Minister for Social Development, with the full backing of the Executive, can take our case to Westminster and explain that winter fuel payments must be greatly improved.
I have one word of caution: because of the current volatility of international energy prices, we must act carefully. At any stage, price increases could undermine the substantial work that the Department for Social Development has undertaken, to which the Minister is forthrightly committed.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Social Development (Mr Campbell): I welcome the motion and the fact that its proposer has accepted the amendment. I hope, and suspect, that such an issue will attract cross-party support. Some Members may make the case that not much has changed since the previous debate on fuel poverty on 29 May 2007. Nonetheless, it was an important topic in May, and it is still an important topic.
I will start with the proverbial good news and will get to the bad news later. The proposer of the amendment, Mr Maginness, has already mentioned the good news: recent surveys of house conditions indicate that there has been a year-on-year improvement in the social housing stock. Over the years, I have crossed swords with the NIHE on several issues. However, the NIHE must be commended, because, over the past 15 to 20 years, the quality of housing stock has improved significantly. Despite that improvement, there is still some way to go in the private-rented sector. The fuel poverty strategy, which targets families that are in need, is having some effect, and the quality of homes is improving, particularly in the social-housing sector.
In recent house conditions surveys, it is unclear whether there is universality in fuel poverty. A survey covering Belfast indicates that the level of fuel poverty is quite low: the percentages in west Belfast and east Belfast are almost identical — 4·2% in east Belfast and 4% in west Belfast. Those low levels of fuel poverty are to be welcomed. However, it is likely that such surveys do not get to the root of the problem, because the household sample is not wide enough to target those areas where fuel poverty exists. Data collection must be improved in order to target the areas that are most in need of help.
Once again, I wish to commend the warm homes scheme. That scheme is aimed at those in the private-rented sector and homeowners; people must be in receipt of certain benefits in order to qualify. The Minister supports that successful scheme. However, because of its very success, and the fact that Members continue to encourage people to take it up, the Minister may have to bid for additional funding for the scheme.
Of course, I and, I suspect, the Committee for Social Development, will gladly support the Minister’s bid for additional funding, because initiatives such as the warm homes scheme will help to alleviate fuel poverty in Northern Ireland.
However, we need to target areas, particularly those in rural parts of Northern Ireland, where although people know that they are entitled under the scheme, they feel that it is a form of charity that they do not wish to avail of. We need to dispel that notion. We need to ensure that people are aware of the scheme; know their entitlement; know that they should apply, and, that if they qualify, that they will receive assistance. In that way, increasing the amount of money available and ensuring that there is a more widespread knowledge of the warm homes scheme will help to address fuel poverty. Whether fuel poverty can be totally eliminated by 2010 — as indicated a couple of weeks ago during a meeting of my Committee — is open to question.
Mr Brady: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I support the motion as amended. The strategy for ending fuel poverty was developed by the Department for Social Development following a consultation process that took place at the end of 2003. That strategy was stated to be an important element of the policy of targeting social need, which covers the period up to 2016, with a focus on 2010 as a key date for the eradication of fuel poverty. That is not an attainable target. As has been mentioned, Alan Shannon, the permanent secretary of the Department for Social Development, stated that the Department is on target to meet the 2010 deadline, but I reiterate that it is not attainable.
The strategy identifies the main causes of fuel poverty as low income, poor energy efficiency and high energy costs. Households whose occupants are particularly vulnerable to the effects of the cold weather on their health and social well-being — and it is worth reminding Members about those who are directly affected — contain an elderly person, someone with a disability or long-term illness, or a family with at least one child under 16. Approximately 200 older people die here every year from cold-related illnesses, which is an appalling statistic.
Households headed by older people are much more likely to be living in fuel poverty; 39% of people aged 60 to 74, and 42% of those aged 75 and over, are more likely to be suffering from fuel poverty than younger age groups. Older people are more likely to live in older houses, which are less likely to be energy efficient. The Housing Executive’s ‘Interim House Condition Survey 2004’, clearly demonstrates that a large proportion of older people live in accommodation that is in an unfit state of repair, or below the decent homes standard. That is something that must be addressed, urgently and effectively.
Statistics produced by the Child Poverty Action Group for 2003-06, indicate that 25% of children in the North are at risk of living in poverty. Indeed, a recent report from Save the Children indicates that 7,000 children in my constituency are living in poverty.
Fuel poverty has an impact on the health of both the old and young in society, which impacts directly on healthcare provisions. There are many schemes in operation to help relieve fuel poverty, such as the warm homes scheme. In 2006, 6,000 homes had insulation measures installed, at a total cost of £11 million, and 320,000 people received winter fuel payments. However, the continuing rise in the cost of oil, gas and electricity leaves many people, who are on low and fixed incomes, at risk of fuel poverty.
A home is in fuel poverty if, in order to maintain an acceptable temperature throughout the house, occupants have to spend more than 10% of their income. Low income has been clearly shown to be a significant cause of fuel poverty. In 2004, 68% of households with an annual income of under £7,000 were in fuel poverty. Realistic benefit and pension rates need to be implemented to enable people to enjoy an acceptable standard of living.
Prior to 1988 — under the old supplementary benefits scheme — heating costs were included as part of benefits, and there were central heating additions. Those were abolished in 1988 with the advent of income support, and people now rely on the Social Fund, which is budget limited and does not cater for heating costs. Other benefits such as tax credits have been introduced to supplement low wages and encourage people back to work. That scheme is a shambles, and it has resulted in some people owing more than they receive. Fuel poverty is a scourge on society, and its eradication requires a concerted effort from all Departments, particularly DSD. Only when that happens will fuel poverty be alleviated to any degree. Go raibh maith agat.
Mrs Long: Fuel poverty is a serious issue, which not only affects many households in East Belfast, but households across the Province. The importance that the Assembly attaches to this issue is evidenced by the fact that it was debated on only the fourth sitting week following restoration of the devolved institutions.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Mrs Long: Although the Alliance Party welcomes any opportunity to advance practical actions and proposals to address the blight of fuel poverty, I am disappointed that today’s motion does not progress the issue beyond what the House agreed on 29 May. That does not do justice to the seriousness of this issue — rather, today’s motion is a verbatim copy of the motion on fuel poverty that the Assembly debated and agreed unanimously on 29 May 2007 — only 13 sitting days ago and six sitting weeks ago.
The wording of today’s motion is identical to the motion that was debated on 29 May, and it is clear that it was resubmitted by the UUP in error after the recess. However, when that fact was highlighted, the proposer tried to justify the unaltered motion’s resubmission after such a short time, as if it were intentional. He would not admit that it was a mistake.
Mr Kennedy: Will the Member give way?
Mr Beggs: Will the Member give way?
Mrs Long: No. To say that the resubmission of an unaltered motion is normal parliamentary procedure in order to keep an issue on the agenda is nonsense. It is neither normal practice, nor good practice. There is no rule barring the return of a motion, but one would reasonably expect — as the Business Committee obviously did — that Members who have serious concerns about important issues such as fuel poverty would take the time and effort to progress the debate or develop its arguments, rather than regurgitate the same wording, parrot-fashion, only weeks after its initial airing.
There are many ways of monitoring progress on fuel poverty since the previous debate. For instance, the submission of questions for oral and written answers and follow-up through the Committee for Social Development would more effectively hold the Minister and her Department to account, and such measures would serve to keep such critical issues high on the Assembly’s agenda.
Deciding that the best form of defence is attack, the proposer made a number of serious criticisms in the media about the alleged complacency of officials in the Department for Social Development and about the Minister’s failure to undertake the review that was agreed. However, the motion does not contain any reference to that departmental complacency or any criticism — explicit or implicit — of the Minister or her departmental officials. Neither does the motion request an update on progress or use the word “again” to emphasise that the motion represents a repeat call on the Minister. Any of those alterations would have prompted the Minister to address those concerns in her response and afford her the opportunity to answer such criticism. I wonder why those alterations were not made. One wonders if those criticisms were the drivers for the motion returning to the House, or were they simply half-baked excuses concocted in the light of the Ulster Unionists’ oversight. In fact, the proposer indicated that he became aware of the motion returning to the Chamber only when a representative from an outside body informed him of it.
As a member of an opposing party, I am not in the habit of defending any Minister, or his or her performance. I do, however, believe in fair play, so I draw Members’ attention to the debate on 29 May. The Minister said that a full house-condition survey was carried out last year, but that the full results would not be available until October of this year. I imagine that the results of that survey will be critical to any comprehensive review of fuel poverty strategy as it will provide a measure of progress to date, and it will be a basis for the assessment of the effectiveness of the current strategy.
It is possible for anyone to make a mistake, but, for some, it is probable. However, what has been objectionable in this instance is that, rather than seeking to correct his party’s mistake via an amendment to update the motion or a withdrawal and resubmission of wording that would reflect current concerns, the proposer has, instead, made an effort to discredit the Minister and the Department’s efforts in an attempt to justify and deflect attention from the error.
I thank Alban Maginness for tabling the amendment, which moves the debate on in the context of the Programme for Government and the Budget process. Some Members have mischievously suggested that my objection to the motion’s being rehashed, word for word, is due to my disinterest in fuel poverty. That is unfounded and offensive. I have worked closely with the warm homes scheme and the Warm Start project in my constituency. Take-up of the schemes has been low compared to other areas, but I have promoted them in the press, as well as signposting them in hundreds of thousands of leaflets, which I have circulated.
Many Members have quoted statistics, but I am going to finish with the case of an elderly constituent, because it highlights the issue. The gentleman lived in a draughty Victorian flat rented from a private developer. There was no heating in that house except his open fire, and he had to move his bed into that room to get any heat. He was finally rehoused last November after I visited him and wrote to the Department. Unfortunately, he passed away from a chest complaint in the intervening period, and never actually set foot in his new home. It is unacceptable for anyone to be living in those conditions. I will support the Minister, the Department and the Executive in all serious efforts to address this issue.
Mr Hilditch: I support the motion and the amendment, although, like others, I am surprised to see it back before us so soon despite the widespread support that it received in May. However, perhaps today will be of further benefit.
As politicians we should be fully aware of the worsening impact that fuel poverty has on our communities, and of the fact that it is costing lives. The figures are totally unacceptable. The Department for Social Development’s 2004 strategy, ‘Ending Fuel Poverty’, revealed that some 33% of households in Northern Ireland could not afford to heat their homes. That means that one in three of us is spending more than 10% of their annual income on heat in what they call their homes. It is a poor state of affairs when the older population have to make a choice between fuel and food. Surely, a home is not a home without warmth and food.
In Northern Ireland we are proud that other countries acknowledge us as being home- and family-orientated, yet the reality is that 33% of our homes are freezing, and the elderly are dying in them. The matter that Ms Long finished on needs to be taken into consideration.
It has long been established that we have some of the highest levels of fuel poverty in the UK. In my own constituency of East Antrim, 23% of people in Carrickfergus were unable to adequately heat their homes, and in Larne the figure was around 36%. Unfortunately, Craigavon and Magherafelt were identified as having the highest rate, at more than 45%.
According to the ‘Interim House Condition Survey 2004’, Northern Ireland has 152,000 people — or 24% of households — living in cold homes. Those vulnerable people are having their home life, health, environment, children’s educational attainment and social well-being affected by the knock-on effects of fuel poverty.
Is the Minister for Social Development still confident that we can eradicate the fuel poverty in vulnerable households by 2010 and in non-vulnerable households by 2016? Is that a realistic target? In addition, by 2010 the Minister hopes that no household in the social-rented sector will be suffering. Is that achievable, and has the Department got the tools of the trade to do the job?
The Department for Social Development’s strategy for ending fuel poverty was to focus on people; adopt a partnership approach; build on the commitment of community and voluntary groups, businesses, local authorities and statutory agencies; promote equality of opportunity, target social need and promote inclusion; focus on the maximum practical help for households in fuel poverty; seek to provide cost-effective solutions to fuel poverty; and benefit the environment.
In May the Assembly decided that the strategy had to be urgently reviewed, and now it is time to show our communities what the Department is going to do to ensure that the 2010 and 2016 deadlines are met. Not all the options have been totally exhausted, such as looking at the advice we have to offer. Are we offering enough simple free advice on the grants that are available through the warm homes scheme? Are people really aware that they can save money on their energy bills?
Research shows that thousands of people in Northern Ireland could make significant savings by availing of the insulation measures that are available. Not everyone is aware of them, but another problem could be the cultural resistance issue mentioned by Mr Ken Robinson. On average, 25% of the heat in homes escapes through the walls, 25% is lost through uninsulated lofts and between 10% and 15% escapes through gaps around doors and windows. We should be emphasising that loft insulation, draughtproofing of windows and doors, cavity wall insulation, reflective radiator panels on solid walls, hot-water-tank jackets and compact fluorescent lamps are all available through the scheme. The number of homes that have already availed of them has risen from 8,250 to 10,000, which is to be welcomed, through the warm homes scheme. In 2004, 91% to 94% of people who did avail of the grants found them very successful, and found that they changed their homes for the better.
The Assembly should also explore the promotion of renewable energy, which has the potential to save 25% on energy bills. Over the past few years, we have seen an increased interest in the use of solar panels, wood-burning boilers and alternatives to fossil fuels. More people should be encouraged to choose those types of heating systems.
More promotion could be done in schools to encourage children to get involved in saving energy. Our environment would reap the rewards in years to come if that type of energy-saving behaviour were instilled in children from an early age. The costs involved would be an investment in the fight against fuel poverty.
The Assembly should be making a concentrated effort to co-ordinate the work of the Department for Social Development with the other relevant Departments — the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, the Department of the Environment, the Department of Finance and Personnel, and the Department for Employment and Learning. That would not only eradicate fuel poverty, but would save lives, reduce child poverty, create a greener environment, reduce our Health Service bills, decrease and control rates during the winter season, encourage more people to seek employment, and upgrade the overall standard of our homes and properties.
Ms S Ramsey: Go raibh maith agat. At the risk of setting off Naomi Long again, I commend the proposer of the motion. If MLAs do not see any substantial movement on any matters, they have a right to come back and debate the issue again in the Assembly. That is called accountability.
I welcome the Minister to the debate. She covered many of the issues that have arisen today during the previous debate in May this year. However, the effects of fuel poverty are serious and wide ranging, and are not simply the discomfort of low temperatures. Cold, damp environments cause or worsen the effects of a wide range of physical conditions. Children who live in fuel poverty have higher levels of asthma and other diseases. We are all too aware of the impact that the cold weather has on older people. According to a report that was sent to all MLAs, 1,360 older people die each year as a result of cold weather in the North. We have a duty to come back and debate issues in the Assembly if we do not see substantial movement.
During the previous debate on this matter, the Minister highlighted that ill health associated with cold weather cost the Health Service here around £40 million a year. We must see fuel poverty tackled so that money is freed up to ensure that other health issues are dealt with.
It is essential that DSD’s strategy for ending fuel poverty, which was in place in 2004, addresses and delivers on its targets of eradicating fuel poverty in vulnerable households by 2010, and in non-vulnerable households by 2016. Figures suggest that there has been a reduction in the total number of fuel-poor households between 2001 and 2004. However, I hope that the Minister will outline whether targets are being achieved, although she will probably not have that information available today. In 2004, the target number for vulnerable fuel-poor households was 158,000, in 2006 it was 110,000, and in 2007 the target is 80,000. I would appreciate it if the Minister could outline to MLAs if those targets are being reached, or whether they are being carried over on a yearly basis. We are not far away from 2010, and I want to know now whether those targets will be reached.
Those figures do not show that account has been taken of the impact of substantial increases in fuel prices. Previous contributors to the debate have referred to the impact of the cold weather, and yesterday was probably one of the coldest days that we have had in a long time. Everyone needs oil and gas, and fuel prices could further increase. Energy prices have already risen by around 80%, whereas incomes have increased by 6% and benefits by 2%, meaning that for every 10% increase in the price of fuel, another 8,000 households are added to the category of those suffering from fuel poverty.
There is also concern that there could be new and emerging groups living in fuel poverty, particularly among the working poor. It is of great concern that 47% of all children who live in fuel poverty live in households with one working adult.
Previous Members spoke about another group that is particularly vulnerable to fuel poverty: the isolated rural poor. The Department for Social Development’s strategy must adapt to meet the needs of that group.
The Department and the Minister must make an even more concerted effort if they are to meet their targets. The Minister has probably received the strategy for ending fuel poverty, which was emailed to all Members. I will quote some statistics that were gathered by Pat Austin, who is on the fuel poverty advisory group and who the proposer of the motion mentioned. All Members received those figures yesterday. However, that group asks whether any progress has been made on the strategy, given that it was launched 26 months ago.
Resources must be allocated for energy efficiency, education and training, ending fuel poverty, and measures to improve physical conditions. There must be improved data collection. The Assembly can deal with some issues, so I will pass them on. Members are not asking those questions; they are being asked by the advisory panel.
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Member’s time is up.
Mr Craig: Similar to other Members, I have noted with interest that questions have been asked in the past few days as to why, in the space of a few months, we are once again debating fuel poverty in Northern Ireland.
Mrs Long: Will the Member take a short intervention?
Mr Craig: Very short.
Mrs Long: To clarify, the problem is not that we are debating fuel poverty; I object to the identical, word-for-word motions of the debates.
Mr Craig: As I was going to say, whatever the reason for this motion being tabled, the issue is not the number of debates that Members have on the matter, but what we, as a newly formed Assembly, can do to continue the good work of the previous Assembly to address the important issue of fuel poverty in Northern Ireland.
As I stated in the previous debate on fuel poverty, some good work has been done to reduce the number of households that fall into the poverty trap. As Assembly Members, we should not rest on past achievements, but continue the good work that has been done to bring everyone out of the fuel-poverty trap that so many are still in.
The ‘2004 Interim House Condition Survey’ shows that between 2001 and 2004 there was a reduction in the total number of people suffering as a result of fuel poverty: in 2001 there were 203,000, falling to 152,000 in 2004. As with all such figures, a health warning should be attached. Since 2004, there has been a major hike in fuel costs, which automatically caused deep distress to many households in the Province.
In comparison with the 2001 survey, the 2004 survey shows that massive strides have been taken by the Housing Executive to reduce the numbers of those suffering as a result of fuel poverty. In 2001, over 70,000 people living in Housing Executive accommodation were in fuel poverty. In 2004, that figure had decreased to 25,000. That massive decrease did not happen by chance but as a result of the Housing Executive’s hard work on two levels: strategic and local. At the local level, district managers implemented programmes that have rejuvenated their areas, and they have upgraded the age and condition of their housing stock. It is right that the Assembly recognises the hard work that the Housing Executive has done on the issue.
The introduction of the warm homes scheme by the then Minister for Social Development, Lord Morrow, has been another major success in tackling fuel poverty. That scheme has been tremendously successful and has been the vehicle that many vulnerable people have used to introduce energy-saving measures to their homes.
In its first year, the warm homes scheme had a budget of £3·7 million, but that has risen to £20·5 million.
However, the fact that 52,000 homes have benefited from the scheme can counted as money well spent.
Schemes cost money, but can the Assembly put a price on the quality of citizens’ lives, many of whom are senior citizens who live in old properties and who need help from Government bodies and schemes?
The way to tackle fuel poverty is to examine the successes and learn from the failures. All schemes so far have failed to reach elderly people who own their own homes and have a small occupational pension. That, in addition to the rising cost of upgrading home heating systems because of new building control regulations, leads one to the conclusion that perhaps now is the right time for a review of the warm homes scheme to allow it to target more effectively those who are still in fuel poverty. We have a job of work ahead of us.
Mr McCallister: Mr Beggs mentioned that we had the first touch of frost last night, but it did very little to cool Mrs Long down. I want to point out to Mrs Long that the motion was tabled with the best intentions. I am glad that she knows so much about the internal workings of the Ulster Unionist Party; she is welcome to join the party.
Mrs Long: Thank you, but no thank you.
Mr McCallister: I have just been told by my deputy leader that the party does not want her.
I am surprised that Mrs Long stated that submitting questions for oral or written answer would have been better than the Minister being present for a full debate; she thinks that that is a more effective way to achieve accountability. A debate is the proper channel for the issue of fuel poverty, which is why the motion was tabled using the same wording as the May motion. It is an important debate, and it becomes more relevant at this time of year as winter draws in. I am surprised that Mrs Long made such an issue about the motion when the majority of Members have said that it is right and proper that this relevant issue is debated.
The Minister has been a member of the SDLP for many years, and her colleague Mr Maginness pointed out that winter fuel payments are a Westminster issue. It is strange, therefore, that the SDLP sits on the same Benches as the governing Labour Party.
To turn to some of the points made by Ms Ramsey, there are several strands to the fuel poverty debate. The health implications of fuel poverty are a big issue; it is a key interest of mine, as a member of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety. Many families in Northern Ireland that live in fuel poverty suffer from respiratory conditions and other ailments. Hospital treatment for those conditions would cost the taxpayer more than alleviating fuel poverty.
Like other Members, I pay tribute to the warm homes scheme, which has done tremendous work in Northern Ireland by tackling issues such as inefficient home heating. As other Members said, there is a huge job to be done in rolling out that scheme as quickly and effectively as possible. It is a particular issue for Members such as me who represent large rural constituencies.
As Mr Robinson mentioned, there is also a problem with people not claiming their entitlements. The Department for Social Development and the Minister have a responsibility to ensure that entitlements are claimed.
I have some concerns about — and I ask the Minister to comment on — the Department for Social Development’s reforms and modernisation. If some offices close as a result of those reforms, how will that impact on the Department’s work and getting information on entitlements to members of the public and to the target groups that we should be focusing on?
This is an important issue, and I am glad that so many Members are present to listen to the debate. As Mr Hilditch mentioned, several issues about the various options have to be addressed, such as renewable energy. The cost of health, if those issues are not addressed, needs to be considered.
I am proud that my party has again proposed this subject for debate. Members of the Alliance Party should hold their heads in shame for being so critical of the motion. It is right and proper that the Minister should come to the House to update Members on the work that is going on. That is the proper avenue in which to do that.
Mrs M Bradley: I support the amendment. I have every confidence that something will be done about the issue of fuel poverty. I am not going to quote all of the figures — that has already been done by almost every Member who has spoken in the debate.
I am sure that all Members agree that the people who suffer most from fuel poverty are older people and children. A recent report funded by the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People (NICCY), the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, and the Department of Finance and Personnel highlighted a disgraceful situation: our children are less valuable than children in England, Scotland or Wales. Indeed, they are less valued by £226. Scotland spends £513 per head on children’s services, Wales £429 and England £402. In Northern Ireland, children are valued at £287 — that is what is spent on a child. If our children cannot be kept warm, dry and nourished, there is definitely some failure in the system.
There is also the issue of the working poor — the people that have jobs with low pay. They get little help. What financial assistance they do get comes from a benefit called tax credits, which is generally a hindrance as more often than not it is taken back in huge amounts and labelled as an overpayment. That forces people into debt and affects the amount of money that they have to keep their homes warm — the main priority is to try to feed their families.
Another issue is the warm homes scheme. Over the past number of weeks, my constituency office has received more than a few complaints from people who have been contacted by agencies to make arrangements to install heating systems, only to be contacted again and told that the work cannot be started, or, in some cases, completed. The agencies run out of money because their budgets are totally inadequate. I want that issue to be addressed. If older people and families can at least keep their homes warm, and still have enough money to live on, it would go a long way towards tackling fuel poverty. We, as representatives, should do all that we can to bring fuel poverty to an end.
We all have concerns that the target for the eradication of fuel poverty by 2010 will not be met. However, I hope that we are on track to make that happen. In order to be able to make a dent in the economic blight that is fuel poverty, agencies must be given the proper budget allocation.
I am not going to mention anything about what Naomi Long said, or anything else — Naomi is entitled to do what she wants. However, I welcome the fact that the motion is being debated in the Chamber today because the aim of eradicating fuel poverty must be kept on track. It is very important that fuel poverty is dealt with in order to allow people to live comfortable and, indeed, contented lives.
The Minister for Social Development (Ms Ritchie): I thank Members for their contributions. I hope to address each of the issues raised; however, if I cannot do so today, I am happy to write to Members on any outstanding matters.
There is some surprise that the Assembly is discussing a motion similar to the one debated at the end of May. However, I welcome Members’ continuing interest in the work of my Department in tackling the scourge that is fuel poverty.
I was, however, disappointed to hear it reported that there was complacency in my Department’s work to eradicate fuel poverty. Since I became Minister for Social Development, I have made it clear that I am fully committed to the eradication of fuel poverty which, as we all know, impacts on housing, health, the environment, the educational attainment of our children and the social inclusion of some of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged members of our community.
Let me be clear. My Department and I are committed to tackling fuel poverty and there is no room for classifying me, or my Department, as complacent. There is no room for complacency.
Northern Ireland and GB-wide targets on eradicating fuel poverty were included in ‘Ending Fuel Poverty: A Strategy for Northern Ireland’, which was launched in November 2004. Those targets sought to eradicate fuel poverty in all vulnerable households by 2010, and in all other households by 2016. Even back in 2004, those targets were recognised as challenging and dependent on the volatility of fuel prices. That remains the case. However, we must not lose sight of what we are trying to achieve. Although the timescale is challenging, and may ultimately prove beyond us, we must remain focused on the outcomes that our people deserve. It is simply unacceptable that, in this day and age, people live in cold homes because they cannot afford to heat them. That is one issue on which the House is united.
During the last debate on fuel poverty, I gave an undertaking that I would write to the Minister responsible for winter fuel payments in the UK Department for Work and Pensions. I raised the issue of rising fuel costs and the impact that they were having on GB and Northern Ireland targets. Moreover, I highlighted the fact that those most at risk were often those who most needed help, such as the ill, the elderly and those on low incomes — often referred to as the working poor.
Members will be surprised to hear that the Minister of State for Work and Pensions declined my request to increase winter fuel payments — [Interruption.]
Some Members: Shame.
Ms Ritchie: I have, nonetheless, been given an assurance that he will keep under review the possibility of further action on fuel poverty. I have asked my officials to arrange a meeting with the Minister of State and I will revisit the subject with him — of that Members may be assured.
However, much progress has been made, particularly in recent years, and it would be wrong not to recognise that. My Department will shortly publish the results of research undertaken on temperature-related mortality. Early findings indicate that, in recent years, there has been a substantial decline in such deaths. For example, in the past six years alone, the proportion of deaths linked to temperature has fallen by around 10%. Over the past 25 years, and particularly in the past decade, the number of circulatory and respiratory deaths has reduced. There were nearly 8,700 fewer such deaths in the period 2000 to 2004 than in the previous five years, and far fewer of those were linked to temperature. However, the numbers are still too high.
Those findings serve only to demonstrate the real progress that we have made in tackling fuel poverty.
The results are encouraging, and I expect to publish the full report by November 2007.
Much of the success to date is due to initiatives such as the Housing Executive’s improvement and maintenance programme, and the warm homes scheme, which has been duly acknowledged in the House today. It is an indication of the importance of those programmes that the Department for Social Development continues to channel significant amounts of money into them. For example, in the last financial year, the programmes spent approximately £44 million, and, as a result, around 16,000 homes were provided with energy efficient measures. In the past year alone, the warm homes scheme has supported 10,000 homes — nearly 2,000 more than the previous year. In addition, the eligibility criteria for central heating systems has been extended to include those aged 60 or over who are in receipt of non-means-tested disability-related benefits.
Funding is also available for a number of fuel poverty partnership schemes operating in conjunction with our main programmes, which help to address the needs of those vulnerable people who may fall just outside the scope of the warm homes scheme.
This year, Northern Ireland Electricity (NIE), will manage a package of measures worth £4·5 million, aimed at providing central heating and insulation to priority vulnerable households across the North. That funding has been provided by the Energy Efficiency Levy programme, and will provide affordable warmth to households that are ineligible for the Government scheme.
It is important that a new category is not created for those likely to be affected by fuel poverty from across the most vulnerable and needy in society. I want to eradicate, not simply manage, fuel poverty. I want to reach those on low incomes, and the working poor. The grants from NIE will directly target that group, and will complement existing Government schemes.
The number of households affected by fuel poverty dropped from 33% in 2001 to 24% in 2004. I eagerly await the findings of the full survey that was carried out last year, the findings of which will be available soon. In addition, 97% of properties across the North now have a form of central heating. Those results certainly do not reflect the work of a Department that is complacent in tackling fuel poverty.
Members have correctly identified the problems associated with rising fuel prices. The increases that we have witnessed in the past few years represent a significant threat to our target for eradicating fuel poverty. Although increased costs are not unique to this region, the impact is felt much more in Northern Ireland, given the costs for coal and other forms of fuel, which are historically higher when compared with other regions in Great Britain.
I am pleased to see that there have been price reductions in both gas and electricity earlier this year. I understand that Phoenix Natural Gas may announce a further price reduction before the onset of winter. I am sure that all Members will join me in welcoming such a reduction, if and when it is announced.
The vision of a society where people live in warm and comfortable homes will only be realised through the continuation of such combined efforts. People should not have to worry about the effects of the cold on their health, nor should they be too frightened to turn on their heating when the temperature falls.
A great deal has been achieved, but there is significantly more to do. I have re-established — and chair — the interdepartmental group on fuel poverty, which examines new and innovative ways to tackle fuel poverty. All Departments and Executive Ministers must buy into the eradication of fuel poverty. I am confident that we will continue to make significant progress in tackling the issue by working in partnership.
I have also asked the Northern Ireland Fuel Poverty Advisory Group to carry out research to identify how to best help the working poor.
We must also tackle the level of assistance that goes unclaimed each year. It is frustrating that those people who are, quite often, most in need do not always realise that help is available to them. I am determined to do more to help people to access the full range of support that is available to them. I encourage Members to do all that they can in that respect through their constituency offices.
In coming weeks, the Executive will meet to identify a Programme for Government and a Budget to deliver that work. That is why, at the outset of the debate, I welcomed the opportunity to discuss fuel poverty with the Assembly and place it in central focus once again. The timing of the debate could not be more helpful. However, there is a cautionary warning; the amendment calls for the Executive to make the eradication of fuel poverty a priority in the forthcoming Programme for Government. I recognise that there are many demands on the Executive as it seeks to identify its first Programme for Government. However, I assure Members that I will do all that I can, both in my Department and with Executive colleagues, to ensure that the eradication of fuel poverty remains at the forefront of the work being done to target social need, tackle disadvantage and lift people out of poverty. I hope that the view of my colleagues in the Executive will coincide with mine and that of the Assembly.
Many years ago, I entered politics to campaign for those who are on the margins of society; the disadvantaged and the vulnerable. Having spent all those years lobbying from the outside, the Assembly can be sure that I will not miss my opportunity now that I am on the inside. I represent a rural constituency, where there has been a substantial uptake of the warm homes scheme, and it is an important issue for me. Members can rest assured that I am not in the least bit complacent about the challenge ahead.
I want to address several issues that were raised. Mr Maginness asked how rural fuel poverty is being targeted. I understand the complexities of fuel poverty and I am convinced that its alleviation requires strategic intervention from my Department and others. Work is already ongoing in that respect. However, I accept that further work is required to address the inequalities between urban and rural areas. One of the priorities for the Northern Ireland fuel poverty advisory group and the interdepartmental group on fuel poverty is the issue of rural fuel poverty; in particular, the low uptake of measures, especially west of the Bann. The goal of the Executive and my Department is to refocus our efforts on targeting and education.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Social Development, Mr Campbell, raises significant issues. I thank him and the Committee for their continuing support for my Budget bids. I have no doubt that that support will continue. I also thank Mrs Long for her support in acknowledging that the road ahead will be difficult, but that we must all work together collectively to eradicate fuel poverty.
The warm homes scheme is also available to those who live in the private-rented sector and to owner-occupiers. Since the scheme began, it has delivered insulation and heating measures to 6,000 households in that sector.
My constituency colleague Mr John McCallister referred to benefit uptake and social security returns. Members will recall that in May, shortly after taking up my appointment, I announced a benefit uptake campaign for 2007 in which I encouraged people to apply for all the benefits to which they are entitled. Later in the year, that was followed up by a letter from the Social Security Agency to all people who are elderly, infirm or who are suffering from mental ill health to urge them to take up those benefits. Many of those people fall into the category of those who could suffer from fuel poverty.
Mr A Maginness: I thank Members for their contributions, particularly on the amendment. I thank the Minister for the reassurance that she and her Department are totally committed to the eradication of fuel poverty. If nothing else, the motion has served a good purpose in uniting the House in a commitment to the pursuit of that objective. I hope that in the coming weeks, when the Executive are drawing up their Programme for Government, the eradication of fuel poverty will be a top priority.
The Minister said that action has been taken on the issue since it was last debated. She said that the interdepartmental body dealing with fuel poverty has been re-established and that she, as Minister, is chairperson of that body. That is to be welcomed. The Minister also said that she will renew her efforts with Westminster to have the winter fuel payment increased — as it should be, in all justice. It is totally disproportionate, compared to its original value in 2000. I hope that the whole House, including those Members who are also Members at Westminster, will support the Minister in putting pressure on the Government to make that increase, which is essential.
The Minister said that, if we had waited a little longer, the household survey would probably have been completed and the findings could have been discussed in the House. [Interruption.]
I did not hear what the Member said.
There were many other contributions, all delivered with real concern by Members who were united in tackling the issue. I thank Mr Beggs for accepting the amendment; I hope that it can be passed with the unanimous support of the House.
Mr Campbell, as Chairperson of the Committee for Social Development, said that he was concerned about some aspects of the Department’s policy on the elimination of fuel poverty, but he gave his general support. He also gave his support to any bids that the Minister might submit in order to tackle fuel poverty, which is to be welcomed.
Mr Brady was concerned that the target dates were unattainable — although he did not offer any evidence of that. Mrs Naomi Long, in her inimitable fashion — a breathless tour de force — outlined her concern about the motion being reintroduced in the House. I had tremendous sympathy with her, as I too could not divine the real reason why the motion was reintroduced. Nevertheless, its reintroduction has allowed Members to revisit this vital subject. I thank Mrs Long for her support — despite the efforts of Mr Kennedy and others to interrupt her.
Mr Hilditch, in characteristic fashion, committed himself to supporting the Department and its policy on fuel poverty, and hoped that its targets would be realistic. Sue Ramsey also said that she supported the motion. However, she felt that there had not been any substantial movement on the matter. I cannot understand the full force of that criticism, as we are dealing with a three-month period only. Ms Ramsey wanted more concerted action; the Minister has proven that there has been concerted action on the issue of fuel poverty, and that concerted action will continue.
Mr Craig, Mr McCallister and Mrs Bradley made interesting contributions and showed their full support for the motion, as amended.
Mr Beggs: I thank the Members who contributed constructively to the debate and who continue to show their concern about fuel poverty.
I was taught that reiteration is a good method of reinforcing one’s point. That was one of the reasons for the wording of the motion. I was pleased that the all-party Business Committee selected the motion for debate, giving us the opportunity to discuss this matter today.
Complacency on the part of senior civil servants has been observed. Members who work on this matter raised concerns about the strategy to end fuel poverty. This debate has given the Minister an opportunity to update the Assembly on the progress that has been made since we last discussed this issue.
I would also point out to some Members that, in other places, debates on the same issue are held year after year, as methods of reinforcing the point. For example, in the House of Commons, there have been early-day motions on fuel poverty in 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004 and 2003. That can happen, and it is important to reinforce an issue.
I appreciate and accept the clear commitments made by the Minister to work constructively to end fuel poverty. I ask the Minister to note that the comment that I made about complacency was not directed at her, it was about a permanent secretary. I was not attacking her — I accept the commitment that she has made, and I am aware that she will continue to work on this issue. Perhaps she will address that matter with the appropriate staff.
I also hope that, in the short term, more statistics on fuel poverty will be published. That is an important way of driving the issue forward and identifying whether progress is being made, and what additional strategies and actions may be needed. I ask the Minister to take up Sue Ramsey’s suggestion that measurements should be published regularly. That is a constructive way to identify whether progress has been made or whether the strategy has stalled.
I also draw the Minister’s attention to the questions that Members asked during the debate. I ask her and her staff to review the Hansard report and provide answers to those questions.
The debate has been helpful in that it will remind civil servants of the importance of fuel poverty. I support the amendment because it will move the matter forward, and, I hope, help to prioritise it in the Programme for Government. As I said yesterday, there is also a role for ordinary Assembly Members, particularly those who are members of the relevant Committees — as they view the draft Budget, they can give the issue the necessary priority. Choices will have to be made, and that will perhaps mean disappointment in other areas.
I hope that there are methods by which we can make progress on this issue, and that Members will drive the issue forward through a variety of methods. That would be worthwhile. I also hope that we can come together to support the amendment — as all sides have indicated — and that the House, as a whole, will make progress and help to end fuel poverty in our society.
Question, That the amendment be made, put and agreed to.
Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.
That this Assembly notes the debate on fuel poverty which took place on 29th May 2007 and the resolution adopted; and calls on the Executive to prioritise the elimination of fuel poverty in the forthcoming Programme for Government.
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. 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 S Wilson: I beg to move
That this Assembly notes with concern some of the decisions taken by the Minister of Education over the summer recess on school openings and amalgamations; and calls upon the Minister to clarify her approach to the recommendations of the Bain Report and the Sustainable Schools Policy published by her Department.
Let me make it clear to the House, lest I cause some of my colleagues on the Committee for Education to jump up and down, that I am moving the motion in a personal capacity and not as the Chairperson of the Committee. I was instructed to say that because I was told that I might be censored by the Committee; although, to be truthful, I wonder whether that might not be a bad idea. [Laughter.]
Jo Moore got herself into trouble on 11 September 2001 for saying that it was a good day to bury bad news. The Minister of Education has learned from the example given by Jo Moore, because over the summer, she has taken the opportunity, when the eyes of Members of the Assembly and its scrutiny Committees were turned elsewhere, and perhaps, when the press were not as focused on political issues, not just to bury bad news, but to bury departmental policy, to hide inconsistent decisions and to engage in biased decisions. In fact, the Minister of Education has been digging so furiously that she is like some kind of demented political gravedigger, and the holes are littering the drive up to Rathgael House. Indeed, because of the holes that the Minister has dug, the drive up to Rathgael House is probably worse than some of the roads that Barry McElduff says exist in the west of the Province.
For a minute or two, I want to go through some of the decisions that the Minister has made, and then I want to examine some of the policies that her Department has published. Thirdly, I want to consider some of the things that the Minister has said to the Assembly and analyse the consequences of her decisions.
The first decision that the Minister announced during the summer holidays was the amalgamation of two maintained schools in and just outside the village of Ahoghill — St Joseph’s Primary School, and St Patrick’s Primary School in Aughtercloney. Between them, those two schools had a total of 43 pupils. Even when amalgamated, they did not form a school that met the criteria set out in the Bain Report. They had a combined deficit of £300,000. There was no chance that pupil numbers would increase; indeed, the North Eastern Education and Library Board made it clear to the Minister that the amalgamation would not result in the long-term viability of the schools, but would, in fact, incur longer-term consequences.
The two schools are now lumbered with the costs of protected staff salaries, which will probably lead, in two years’ time, to another deficit of about £200,000 when protected staff status is lost. The decision to amalgamate the schools was contrary to the views of the North Eastern Education and Library Board and totally contrary, as I will show in a moment, to the policies that the Minister has tried to tell the Assembly that her Department must follow, and for which she hopes to get support in this House.
The second decision made by the Minister was the announcement of three Irish-medium schools: one in Londonderry, one in Crumlin and one in Glengormley. The schools in Londonderry and Glengormley each had an intake of 15 pupils, and the school in Crumlin had an intake of 12 pupils — well below the standard set in the Bain Report, and well below the standard set in the Minister’s consultation document on sustainable schools policy. Yet, those decisions were made against a background — that the Minister knows her Department faces — of 50,000 extra, but unnecessary, school places in Northern Ireland.
According to the Bain Report — which is the Minister’s own document — those 50,000 places represent unacceptable “excessive recurrent costs” and are a financial strain on the Department of Education. The Bain Report has made it clear that rationalisation will be required, and it has set certain thresholds for when schools should be considered for closure. At times, the Assembly has challenged those thresholds, but, even allowing for some flexibility, the schools that I have mentioned are well below the Bain thresholds.
The second Department of Education document to which I shall refer is called ‘A Consultation on Schools for the Future: A Policy for Sustainable Schools’. That sets out certain criteria that must be adhered to before the opening of a school can be considered.
The first criterion is that the financial viability of the school must be examined. The document points out that primary schools that have 80 to 100 pupils will cost around 16% more than primary schools that have more than 140 pupils — the size of an average school. A school that has fewer than 50 pupils will cost nearly 200% more than the average, and a school that has fewer than 20 pupils will cost nearly 300% more.
What has the Minister done? At a time of financial constraint, she has opened one school by amalgamating two that have 43 pupils, with an average cost of nearly 200% more than a school that has 140 pupils. She has opened three schools, with costs that are nearly 300% more than those of the average school. Despite that, I anticipate that the Minister will tell the House that her Department is under financial strain.
The second criterion is that schools should be not only in a sound financial position, but should be able to offer quality education. The Minister has opened three Irish-language schools at a time when, as she said in a written answer to me before the recess, around 23% of teachers in Irish-language schools are unqualified, contrary to the Teachers’ (Eligibility) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1997. The Minister cannot get enough qualified Irish-language teachers, yet she gaily opens more schools in the absence of trained staff. How on earth will she ever guarantee quality education in those schools? The schools have small pupil numbers and a curriculum that is not broad enough and that is taught by unqualified teachers, yet the Minister gaily indulgences in her own personal prejudice.
The third criterion in the sustainable schools strategy is that there must be stable enrolment trends. I know that the Minister will say that for the next seven years only 15 pupils in each year group have to enrol. However, she does not know that that number will enrol; she knows only what the enrolment in Irish-language schools will be this year. Perhaps the Minister knows how many youngsters who are aged one, two, three and four will enrol — but does she know how many of those people who are interested in the Irish language will conceive youngsters in three or six years’ time? If she has those predictive powers, I want her to pick my lottery numbers this week.
Mr Kennedy: Shame, shame. Resign, resign. [Laughter.]
Mr S Wilson: OK, I withdraw that; I do not want her to pick my lottery numbers.
Mr Kennedy: Will the Member give way?
Mr S Wilson: I will give way later, but I want to finish.
Mr Kennedy: It would be better if the Member resigned now before he is pushed, given the admission that he has just made.
Mr S Wilson: I thank the Member for those remarks.
The Minister is asking us to fund schools on the basis that she can predict an intake for people who are not even born. How can she claim that there is a guaranteed, stable enrolment trend? She has not tested it in any of those areas, as there are no other schools.
One could be forgiven for thinking that the Minister really did not believe in those policies and criteria. I thought that I would have to delve into comments that she made to the Assembly or to the Committee for Education in May or June.
In fact, I need only go back to yesterday’s Question Time, when the Minister said the following about small schools:
“Politicians cannot be ostriches … We ignore the current demographics in our society at our peril.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 23, p322, col 1].
She went on to say that it is “not in the best interests” of children to be taught in schools with only 20 or 30 children.
The Minister did not make those comments a year ago, six months ago or even before the summer; she made those comments yesterday. However, the decisions that she made during the summer contradict all her comments.
Her decisions have consequences for the education budget and, as I was informed in a letter from the North Eastern Education and Library Board, for future rationalisation. The board’s chief executive told me that he would find it hard to sell the idea to people in his area.
Mr D Bradley: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Ar dtús ba mhaith liom a rá nach mbeidh mé ag caint mar LeasChathaoirleach an Choiste Oideachais.
I want to make it clear that I am not speaking as the Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Education. I have proposed an amendment to the motion, because the motion states that the sustainable schools policy has been “published” by the Department, whereas that has not yet happened.
I agree with the sentiments of the original motion, in so far as they refer to the need for the Minister to clarify her approach to the Bain Report. The best way for the Minister to do that is to publish her Department’s sustainable schools policy. Although the consultation on the policy ended on 16 April 2007, it has still not been published.
Even though parents, teachers and pupils are in a state of uncertainty as to what the future holds for them, the Minister told the Assembly that she will not be rushed into telling Members, or the general public, what form of transfer procedure will replace the 11-plus. I hope that the Minister does not say to the Assembly today that she will not be rushed into publishing the sustainable schools policy, because a huge part of the review of public administration (RPA), as it relates to education, depends on it. Under RPA reforms, the Department of Education is tasked with establishing:
“the strategic direction for education, setting policy, priorities and standards for schools and youth services”.
As the policies are not in place, even though some 21 months have elapsed since the beginning of the process, how can the Department achieve that? As Members know, policy drives practice, and the fact that many policies, including this one, are not yet in place is a clear case of the cart being before the horse. In fact, the horse seems to be grazing the long acre with the shafts of the cart stuck in the ground somewhere.
Clear policies are needed to ensure an even-handed approach in all sectors according to their need. Policy is required to bring clarity and transparency to the situation. Many issues in the reforms depend on a workable, sustainable schools policy. For example, under area planning rules, the planning of the school estate cannot be implemented without such a policy. The Department plans to begin the movement towards reform through the convergence of the education and library boards with the education and skills authority (ESA).
Area planning is to be introduced by administrative means followed by legislation. In a two-Bill approach, the first Bill will give the ESA a duty to secure the effective planning of schools, which will pave the way for the development of the area planning process. The second Bill will be more detailed and contain new provisions to replace the current legislation on development proposals.
However, the Department says that the legislation must be informed by further policy development from the early work of the boards and the ESA. Where is the sustainable schools policy that will be an essential signpost? There is uncertainty in many schools, homes and among education providers about what the future holds. As Members know, uncertainty breeds fear and lowers morale. The Assembly is setting out on a road to change, but does it know where it is going?
The policy signposts have not been erected, and without them we are in danger of going astray and ending up in a place we never intended to be in. Direction needs to be put into the process, and the first step on the journey would be to have the sustainable schools policy published without further delay.
The previous Minister of Education, Maria Eagle, accepted the Bain recommendations in full. The current Minister of Education has indicated that she accepts the recommendations in principle, but Members need clarification as to which recommendations are now to be subject to further discussion or change. The Bain figures for enrolment — around 115 pupils for a primary school; 500 pupils for a post-primary school; and 100 pupils for sixth-form provision — were not set as the minimum threshold for retention but rather as reviewed thresholds. Does the Minister accept and agree with those figures? The Assembly requires the Minister’s answer.
With regard to small primary schools, Bain also refers to schools having composite classes, with no more than two year-groups per class. That equates to having four teachers. The current average pupil-teacher ratio and the local management of schools (LMS) arrangements in primary schools would allow such schools to function with around 80 pupils. Does the Minister accept that estimate?
A significant number of schools have around 55 to 60 pupils and three teachers. While those schools require additional support for the challenges they face, in the main they are financially and educationally viable, and an option for their retention should be available. I would like to know the Department’s and the Minister’s stance on those particular schools.
Mr Wilson mentioned the amalgamation of two schools in Ahoghill. The proposal to merge those schools into one small primary school did not meet the criteria set out in the Bain Report. However, according to that report, policy must take account of the needs of communities, whether they are rural communities or communities representing one sector. The report also states that there will always be a need to retain a few schools that sit outside the recommended figures and that policy should accommodate such exceptions.
There is an urgent need for clarification, and the only way that that can be achieved in a useful and transparent way is through the publication of the Department’s sustainable schools policy.
A LeasCheann Comhairle, ba mhaith liom achoimriú a dhéanamh ar an méid atá ráite agam ar an leasú: gur chóir don Aire a dearcadh ar mholtaí Thuairisc Bain a shoiléiriú. Níl bealach níos fearr ann le sin a dhéanamh ná an polasaí um scoileanna inchothaithe a fhoilsiú gan a thuilleadh moillle.
Mar a dúirt mé, is é an ról atá ag an pholasaí ná an cleachtas a threorú. Mura bhfuil polasaí ann, beidh an próiseas gan treoir agus i mbaol dul ar bhealaí aimhleasacha. Tá imní ar mhúinteoirí, ar thuismitheoirí, agus ar an phobal go ginearálta. Caithfear deireadh a chur leis an imní sin — agus deireadh a chur léi gan mhoill.
Bhí beagnach dhá bhliain ag an Roinn a polasaí ar na ceisteanna seo a shoiléiriú agus a fhoilsiú. Chuaigh Bain i gcomhairle le riarshealbhóirí; d’fhoilsigh sé a thuairisc; rinne an Roinn comhairliúchán ar na moltaí a bhí inti — comhairliúchán a chríochnaigh ar 16 Aibreán. Ach, fós féin, níl aon iomrá ar an pholasaí.
To conclude, without a clear policy, we are in danger of going astray.
I call on the Minister to publish her Department’s sustainable schools policy without further delay. Go raibh céad maith agat.
Mr Butler: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Ar dtús, ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil le Sammy Wilson as deis a thabhairt dúinn labhairt ar cheist na Gaeilge inniu. [Interruption.]
Some Members might get a bit of an education today.
The motion is part of a campaign waged against both the Minister and Sinn Féin since the Department of Education was allocated. There is an orchestrated campaign, led by the Chairperson of the Education Committee, Sammy Wilson, and other Members of the DUP and the UUP on that Committee. That campaign is a political witch-hunt against Caitríona Ruane. Shamefully, those involved all sit on the Education Committee, and should therefore be working with and supporting the Minister, and trying to deal with the complex issues that face all of us in the education sector. Instead, those people within unionism are using the education of our children as a political football.
The attacks on the Minister have been relentless over the last number of months, and the number of questions submitted to the Department of Education is a clear example of an orchestrated campaign. [Interruption.]
Mr Deputy Speaker: Members should not speak from a sitting position.
Mr McNarry: Can Members stand up and challenge the Member?
Mr Deputy Speaker: If Members wish to ask whether the Member will give way, or if they have a point of order, they may speak.
Mr Butler: As I was saying —
Some Members: Will the Member give way?
Mr Butler: No, I am not giving way. Nearly 400 questions have been submitted to the Department of Education since Caitríona Ruane became Minister of Education. That is more than the total combined number of questions received by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment; the Department of Finance and Personnel; and the Department for Employment and Learning. That illustrates the campaign to try to undermine Caitríona Ruane as Minister of Education. The motion is yet another example of that campaign.
In short, this is a political point-scoring exercise.
Níl an rún seo ach ag iarraidh a bheith ag scóráil pointí polaitíochta.
The motion is dressed up as concern for the education of children, but it is really — and this is the heart of the matter — an attack on the Irish-medium education sector. The manner in which the DUP is playing politics with the issue of the provision of schools, and its attacks on Irish-language schools in particular, is appalling. The recent comments of Michelle McIlveen, who called on the Catholic sector, the Irish-medium sector and the integrated sector to be disbanded and replaced by controlled schools, were disgraceful. Those comments were a calculated insult to the children, teachers and parents involved in those sectors.
Mrs I Robinson: Will the Member give way?
Mr Butler: No. The DUP has a long way to go in reassuring professionals in the education system that it is serious about addressing the many challenges that lie ahead, and that it can — through the necessary reforms — bring the education system to a point where it matches the entitlement of parents and children to choose a form of schooling, as guaranteed under the Good Friday Agreement. The motion is a particular attack on Caitríona Ruane because she opened three Gaelscoileanna — [Interruption.]
Mr Deputy Speaker: I remind Members that if they have a question to ask —
Mrs I Robinson: The Member will not give way.
Mr Deputy Speaker: If the Member does not wish to give way, he does not have to. If Members wish to speak, they must put their names down. Do not speak from a sitting position.
Mr Butler: Go raibh maith agat.
Let us take away all the alarmist scaremongering that has been purported today — and in past weeks — and look at the facts about Irish-medium education. The Education (Northern Ireland) Order 1998 placed a duty on the Department of Education to encourage and facilitate the development of Irish-medium education. The European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, which the British Government signed up to, obliges the Department of Education to provide Irish-medium education to those families who request it, provided that there are sufficient numbers.
There has been an increase in demand in the Irish-medium sector. In the 1980s, parents had to travel the length and breadth of the country to buy bricks to build their schools. In those days, there were 400 children being educated in the Irish-medium sector; that number has increased to almost 3,000.
Mr B McCrea: I tried to understand the difference between the amendment and the motion, but, regrettably, I cannot accept the amendment — although I agree with my colleague’s sentiments. The implication of the amendment is that if the Department published its views, they would be the same as those of the Minister. However, that is clearly not the case. On such issues as early-years provision and school closures, the Minister is on a solo run. She is interested only in the things that she is interested in. Many people in Lagan Valley are worried sick about their schools and their children, as Paul Butler said. It is not a political football as far as they are concerned: it is a tragedy, and nobody appears to be doing anything about it. The Assembly must do something about it.
It was suggested that getting rid of the 11-plus would reduce stress. The current situation, where nobody knows what is going on, is 10 times worse than anything we ever had with the 11-plus. The pupils, and their parents waiting outside, are suffering confusion, fear and stress. People want to know what is going on. Some year 5 children in Lagan Valley are sitting assessment tests again, just in case. When we look to the Minister for guidance, we only get smiles and sweet words — “I want to do the best for you.” Let us look at the decisions that she has made and at what she has done. She has brought about muddle, confusion and countermanding. Only yesterday, the Department of Education had to issue statements of clarification. Why did she open three new schools and close one? One might look through the Bain Report and try to work out what is going on. Why is she dealing with those issues and not dealing with the bigger issues? When will academic selection, Irish-medium education, early-years provision, and so forth, be dealt with?
The Minister’s approach comes across — perhaps unintentionally — as arrogant, perhaps even provocative. It does not encourage engagement, co-operation or buy-in from the Assembly, and she will need those things if we are to tackle the real challenges that face our education system. Perhaps there has been a misunderstanding. I often hear the Minister say that she will meet the Committee and listen to what its members have to say, and the Chairman of the Committee will confirm that. I heard it at the Belfast Fáilte, but — and there is always a but — when she has heard what we have to say, she will go ahead and do whatever she was going to do anyway. That is the real issue, and it is not a winning strategy. Her approach shows a lack of confidence, and it suggests an inability to make a coherent or cogent argument. It has profound implications for how the Assembly will work in the future.
There are hard decisions to be made, and those decisions can only be made if consensus is built. The place to make those decisions is in this Chamber. The Minister should bring these issues to the House and let Members discuss them separately so that we can reach some sort of consensus. The solo business does not do anyone any favours. Instead of having these nice — albeit unstructured — debates on Mondays and Tuesdays in which Members table motions on subjects that they think are important, we should get down to business. When will the Minister bring to the Chamber a discussion on the value of the Irish-medium sector? Let Members talk about it. If she can convince us that it is the right way forward, let us do it.
When are we going to talk about academic selection? The Minister takes the views of everyone else in the world, but she does not talk to elected representatives. The Assembly is at the very heart of the process of getting people to buy into — and move forward on — policies.
I am quite sure that some of my colleagues will ask serious questions, but I want to know why we are investing in a strategy that does no good for anyone. Can we please have a proper debate?
Mr Lunn: I fear I am going to reduce the temperature slightly. The Alliance Party supports the amendment. We would like the Minister to clarify her approach to the recommendations of the Bain Report, and to give her reaction to the consultation process on sustainable schools, which closed in April. The Alliance Party does not particularly share the concerns expressed in the motion about the specific decisions made during the summer recess.
The DUP motion mentions amalgamations, and we would be interested to hear the Minister state when she will outline her views on possible mergers between controlled and maintained schools — that being the obvious solution in areas of small population, such as Ahoghill, where, as has been mentioned, an integrated school has effectively been created. I shall read a couple of lines from the consultation document ‘Consultation on Schools for the Future: A Policy for Sustainable Schools’:
“In decision-making on new schools or re-organisation/rationalisation of schools, proposals will be required to demonstrate that options for collaboration/sharing on a cross-community basis have been considered and fully explored”.
Perhaps that would have sorted out the situation in Ahoghill.
Since I have mentioned integrated schools, how would the Minister answer the concerns of parents who wish to see their children educated in a genuinely integrated environment, but find their wishes frustrated by the decisions of the Department of Education? I am thinking of Saintfield, where an integrated school is now operating, but with private funding, and Ballycastle, where a group of determined parents refused to accept the Department’s view and opened an integrated primary school with funding obtained internationally, leading to the decision by the local controlled primary school to apply for integrated status a couple of years later. That is a good example of people power, and perhaps of departmental misjudgement.
As a party, Alliance favours parental choice, whether it is expressed as a desire for Irish-language schooling or integrated schooling. However, the real contrast for us — and I would like the Minister’s views on this — is between the apparent ease of obtaining funding for the Irish-language sector, despite its minority appeal, and the integrated sector, where every poll has shown it has overwhelming support, but where parents frequently have to resort to sourcing independent funding, despite satisfying the criteria laid down by the Department.
Clarification is also needed on the desirability of cross-sectoral solutions, and whether the Minister is comfortable with individual sectors continuing to make their own decisions, for example, those decisions that were recently announced by the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools, and the grammar schools that are now threatening to hold their own transfer tests.
The amendment calls for clarification, as does the motion. I appreciate the need for Ministers to take some time over difficult decisions, but there is growing unease among parents, school boards and the teaching professionals about the slow pace of progress. I hope that the Minister can give us that clarification in the near future.
(Mr Speaker in the Chair)
Mr Storey: The motion is not concerned with a political witch-hunt, as has been suggested by one member of the Education Committee. The motion is aimed at ensuring that the truth is told and that we have an accountable Minister of Education, who tells us exactly what is happening for the good of our education system.
The previous devolved Minister of Education, in his last act as Minister — just about the last act of that Assembly — took the ideological axe to our education system in what was nothing less than an act of educational vandalism.
The current Minister displays all the symptoms of having contracted the same disease. No doubt she got her formative training in policy formulation and departmental responsibility and accountability amid the jungles of Central America, where she went to the assistance of other educators — those who were apprehended educating the narcoterrorists of FARC. However, we were chasing butterflies when that was brought to light. Her party leader clearly felt that on the back of that she was obviously highly qualified to be the Minister of Education and easily trusted to do what is best for all our children. Being as sympathetic to our hatchling Minister as possible — even though she has such wide experience among the Colombian undergrowth — I realise that her predecessor in the Department left her a mess, and that she has inherited several huge difficulties, including the transfer system.
We still have a Minister who does not know what she is doing about the transfer system. I concur with the Member for Lagan Valley Mr B McCrea regarding the stress, the worry, the anxiety and the fear, but does the Minister care? Has she compassion or concern? Yes — from the lips out, but certainly not from the heart. The Minister has already amassed a significant number of closure announcements for primary and secondary schools in the controlled sector, as has already been referred to. However, her position on CCMS and Irish-medium schools suggests that the Department is following a different strategy.
Mr D Bradley: Will the Member give way?
Mr Storey: I do not have much time.
I want the Minister to come clean once and for all on the existing policy and to confirm that her Department is pursuing a policy of amalgamating Catholic maintained schools to protect their ethos, while enforcing systematic closure on the controlled sector if it does not conform to switching into the integrated sector. If that is so, it is a form of social and cultural engineering which highlights an inconsistency in the principles of equality and parity so often embraced and spoken of by the Minister.
The Minister announced the amalgamation of the two maintained primary schools, St Joseph’s and St Patrick’s, in my constituency of North Antrim. The Minister has written off a deficit of £300,000, but it is only money — what about it? The Minister of Finance and Personnel will probably get the blame for not giving her enough money, and she will pass the buck and the blame. The buck and the blame stop with the Minister. The decision was made despite the total opposition of the North Eastern Education and Library Board. The Minister has decided to stick to the old republican motto, “Herself alone”.
Minterburn Primary School in Caledon, South Tyrone, was closed recently —
Mrs Foster: The Member knows that Caledon is in my constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone. However, I am sure that he does not know of another small school, Carntall Primary School, which has a capacity of 86 pupils. The Department of Education has put a cap on that figure. However, that school is under threat of closure from that Department. Where is the equality in that? The school cannot have more than 86 pupils, and yet it will be closed because it is a controlled primary school.
Mr Storey: I thank the Member for her intervention. She is absolutely right. I have a school in my constituency accumulating a deficit year on year, but the CCMS has taken no action on the future of that school. It is allowed to stay in existence because of the policies of the Minister. What is happening to the controlled sector? What is happening to our education system under this Minister? She has picked up the baton handed to her by the previous Minister of Education and is wielding it like a sword on the controlled sector. The facts show it — despite the Minister’s mantra about equality. She seems to be applying the term liberally when dealing with the controlled sector. Her Department appears to be bowing to a different pressure when dealing with the CCMS. I call on the Minister to address urgently the perception and the reality within the Protestant community that proves that it is wrong.
Even the Minister’s own party does not accept what she is doing. Daithí McKay, the Sinn Féin Member for North Antrim, criticised the Ahoghill decision. He said that:
“there is no doubt that the amalgamation of those two schools had been handled very badly. It is a disgrace … there is still a lack of clarity … on the matter … it is essential that parents are kept fully involved in any consultation”.
The blame lies with the Minister. I support the motion.
Mr Speaker: The Member’s time is up.
I remind Members who take an intervention, especially those with five minutes or less to speak, that they will get an extra minute added to their time. That has always been the protocol in the House.
Mrs O’Neill: I support the amendment. However, I wonder whether we would be having this debate if the decision that the Minister took during recess applied to the controlled sector.
There is an increase in demand for Irish-medium education and integrated education in spite of the fact that there has been an overall reduction in the school-age population. The Irish-medium education sector is in a healthy state, and Members should welcome that. We should also fully respect the right of parents to choose to have their children educated in that sector and the right of teachers to teach in the sector. There are almost eight times as many children in Irish-medium education as there were in 1991. Parents are exercising their right to request Irish-medium education for their children.
There is provision under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, when families request it and numbers are sufficient, for education to be made available in Irish. They are also protected —
Mrs I Robinson: Will the Member give way?
Mrs O’Neill: Not at the minute.
They are also protected by the commitment made in the Good Friday Agreement, which led to a duty being placed:
“On the Department of Education to encourage and facilitate Irish medium education”.
That was reiterated in the St Andrews Agreement, which the DUP signed up to.
The Irish language is the native language of this country. It has been a spoken language for nearly 2,000 years and is of great importance to the people in relation to their cultural identity and their roots. [Interruption.]
Mr Speaker: Order.
Mr McLaughlin: When the Member made the point that the Irish language is part of our shared cultural heritage, the Members opposite burst into guffaws and ridicule. I wish to make the point to those Members that there is an audience paying attention. Do we address the lowest common denominator of intolerance, bigotry and prejudice? Members should seriously and responsibly question whether their approach is helpful.
Mrs I Robinson: What about our culture, and recognising it?
Mr McLaughlin: Absolutely. Members should accept that we have all benefited from the different cultural traditions that exist in our society — the Scots, the English and the Huguenot, as well as the Gaelic. We should all celebrate diversity in the community. There is a regrettable tone of intolerance and bigotry in the comments that I have heard from across the Chamber. I wonder how that is seen by our community.
Mrs O’Neill: I thank the member for his intervention.
The Irish language does not belong to one section of the community. It belongs to us all, and we should all take ownership of it and promote our shared heritage. The Members on the opposite side of the House must realise and accept that the Irish language is here to stay. It is growing in popularity, and whether the motion is agreed today is irrelevant. The Irish language will continue to grow — that is the reality. More and more parents are choosing Irish as an option for their children.
The unionist parties must stop fearing it and stop trying to score political points from it. The arguments are wearing thin. No-one will be forced to learn Irish. It will be entirely a personal and voluntary decision.
Mr Storey: Will the Member give way?
Mrs O’Neill: Not at the minute.
The Irish language, as part of our heritage, poses no threat to anyone. Comments made yesterday and today, such as those accusing the Minister of Education of making decisions in a most sectarian and unfair manner, serve only to scaremonger. It is the same old rhetoric that has been heard from Sammy Wilson and his cohorts for too long. The comments are irresponsible on behalf of the Members who made them and only serve to demoralise their own community and foment division.
The approach being adopted by the Minister to clarify the way forward as regards the Bain Report and the sustainable schools policy is correct. A measured decision, based on the welfare of children, must be at the core. I support the amendment.
Miss McIlveen: In Northern Ireland, we are already faced with a higher proportion of small schools than in other areas of the United Kingdom. Although smaller class sizes undoubtedly have the advantage of greater pupil engagement, there is the problem of different levels being taught together in some rural schools. Therefore, some schools face difficulties and cannot be supported because they are not cost-effective due to falling numbers and have an adverse effect on the education of pupils due to the combining of classes.
Unfortunately, in today’s society we are faced with economic realities; we cannot afford to allow a Minister to indulge her prejudices and pet projects.
The Minister of Education appears to be suffering from some form of tunnel vision and can see only the needs of Irish-medium schools or, more accurately, what she perceives as the need for Irish-medium schools.
Mrs I Robinson: A Member referred earlier to the right of parental choice. There was a debacle in Londonderry; parents were denied the right to send their children to their chosen schools, because other pupils obtained places by using their grandparents’ addresses. Now is an appropriate time to ask the Minister to confirm or refute the allegation that she is abusing the intake criteria by sending her children to school in Northern Ireland, despite living in the Republic of Ireland. Is she involved in the practice known as “grannying”?
Miss McIlveen: There are 20 Irish-medium schools, which cater for 2,530 pupils. The Minister has announced that we should be “bold and brave” regarding Irish-medium education. What about the other 309,186 pupils in Northern Ireland’s schools? The Minister is in denial about the reasons that the Irish-language unit had to close at St Patrick’s Primary School, as announced on 15 August 2007. Purely and simply, there was not enough demand. However, in the same breath as announcing the closure, she told us that:
“we need to plan more strategically for the provision of Irish-Medium education”
telling us that it is a “growing sector”.
Money should be spent more wisely. Supporting a multiplicity of education sectors incurs unnecessary cost. While we hear announcements of the closure or amalgamations of schools, we hear others about the opening of Irish-medium schools. The Minister tells us in syrupy words about her dreams of a shared future, but her actions tell us that she wants more division and segregation.
Mr Storey: Will the Member agree that the Minister is being partial in regard to that issue, because her Department has failed to provide any funding for another sector? I, as a parent, chose to send my children to an independent Christian school, but not one penny of Government money goes to that school, which has more pupils than the school that the Minister funded in the summer. Therefore, she is picky about the schools that she funds, and she is not even aware that a particular sector exists. I made a choice, as a parent, and I pay for that choice, because I am conscious of the burden on Northern Ireland taxpayers.
Miss McIlveen: I thank the Member for his intervention.
As we heard in a previous debate, there is often a need to reiterate a point, so I will not apologise for repeating this example. So far during her tenure, the Minister has announced a review of Irish-medium education, approved funding for three Irish-medium primary schools and, at the same time, has written off a deficit of nearly £300,000 in the amalgamation of St Joseph’s Primary School and St Patrick’s Primary School in Ahoghill. As there is protection for teachers, there will be a further £200,000 deficit. Yet, if we ignore the £500,000 loss, the number of pupils at the new school still does not meet the recommendations set out in the Bain Report. It appears that the Minister’s policy is spend, spend, spend.
In response to a question from Mr Neeson yesterday, the Minister accepted that it was not in the best interests of pupils to have 20 or 30 pupils in a school. Yet, in response to the next question from Dr McCrea, she attempted to justify, using unsubstantiated, projected figures, opening an Irish-medium school with 12 pupils.
Is it not time that the Minister focused on the existing education structure and stopped cherry-picking from the Bain Report in an attempt to shore up her sectarian agenda? The cost of propagating that agenda cannot be justified when we consider the motion that came before the Assembly on 29 May this year regarding a revised literacy and numeracy strategy. Where are the press statements to address that pressing problem, which affects Northern Ireland as a whole?
During that debate, I called for the Minister to be strong and show effective leadership to her Department. However, all I have seen is dithering and her aspirations for cultural segregation. Her Department’s sustainable schools policy says that over the years:
“there has been a lack of a consistent planning framework.
It appears that the Minister is following in the footsteps of her predecessors.
It is time for the Minister to show an even-handed approach to the challenges that face education in Northern Ireland. I support the motion, and I call on the Minister to provide the House with a comprehensive, reasoned and well-balanced policy to deal with the recommendations of the Bain Report and the sustainable schools policy. It is time for the Minister to be bold and brave, to set aside her personal agenda and work for all the people of Northern Ireland.
Mr Kennedy: I thank the Member who proposed this important motion. I am speaking in a personal capacity as a member of the Ulster Unionist Party and not as the Chairperson of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister.
I address my remarks to the section of the motion that refers to:
“decisions taken by the Minister of Education over the summer recess”.
I particularly want to scrutinise her decision to approve the development proposals for four Irish-medium schools. I want to try to gain an understanding of the rationale as to why those decisions continue to be made. There appear to be political, as opposed to educational, reasons for those decisions.
I have to confess that I have a limited understanding of the Irish language, in spite of the fact that I was brought up, and still live, in a nationalist/republican area. My great-grandfather, Jones Black, was a fluent Irish speaker. However, somewhere along the line, the family sorted that out — that tradition no longer exists.
I am not interested in the Irish language. Those who wish to pursue it have a perfect right to do so, which I accept. Some Members speak Irish fluently; Mr Dominic Bradley speaks fluently and eloquently — one presumes. However, there are others in the Chamber who speak what might be regarded as “prison Gaelic”. I am not sure that that generally benefits the language. The lesson is that people should stop using the language as a political tool. It is an entirely different matter if people choose to harness the language as an educational asset.
What is the rationale behind Gaelic being taught primarily in an exclusive setting — that is, Irish-medium schools in one sector? It strikes me that Irish is adequately dealt with, and taught, in the maintained sector. I have no doubt that there is increasing room in the maintained sector to improve facilities and give a better and more rounded education — not only in Irish but in various subjects — to children and parents who express that interest.
I am not convinced that teaching children Gaelic gives them a competitive advantage for the future. It does not produce better doctors, engineers or software developers for society. Over 25% of the world’s population can communicate, to some extent, in English. English is the common language in almost every sphere — from science to air traffic control. Irish has a limited national or international appeal. Although there may be more native speakers of Chinese or Spanish, English is the language that people use across the world and across cultures.
The money that is being expended to provide Irish-medium education in an exclusive Irish setting — largely for political reasons — must be closely considered. It is unjustified, and it cannot be defended. I wish that we could move on to a more sensible debate in which the rationale for those decisions could be examined objectively and reviewed sincerely.
Mr McCausland: I was interested by the comments made on the motion by both Paul Butler and Michelle O’Neill. I must pick up on those of Michelle O’Neill, who told us that the Irish language is no threat to anyone. Despite her extensive studies on this matter, she obviously has not read the official Sinn Féin party publication that tells us that every single word that is spoken in Irish is another bullet in the struggle for freedom. Sinn Féin was responsible for that publication — it bears the Sinn Féin badge and it has that party’s imprimatur.
Some Members: Will the Member give way?
Mr McCausland: I do not have time to give way — I assure Members that I have a lot to get through. I will give way some other time.
It would be helpful if Michelle O’Neill and other Sinn Féin Members would explain how something presented by her party in military terms is no threat to anyone. Her understanding of the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages — and, I might also add, of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child — is very different from my understanding of them. One of the core principles of those documents is equality. That is a point that I wish to stress; for me, it is a core issue in this debate.
Sinn Féin constantly presents itself as pursuing an equality agenda. “Equality” is one of those words that appears in almost every Sinn Féin speech and publication. Sinn Féin Members say that they demand it, but the truth is that Sinn Féin does not want, and cannot cope with, equality. What Sinn Féin Members really want is preferential treatment for their community, their culture and their pet projects. They want inequality in favour of themselves, and institutionalised discrimination in favour of their position. All their talk about equality is simply a sham and a fraud. The truth is that the decisions made by the Minister were shameful and sectarian.
I warmly welcome the proposal, made by Basil McCrea, that the Assembly debate the Irish-medium sector, which needs to be scrutinised, and, if it were scrutinised, a lot more might come out than is already known. It would be good to debate that at the earliest opportunity.
Members should take note of the following: the Belfast Education and Library Board, of which I am a member, is under pressure from the Minister’s Department to review and rationalise controlled school provision in the city because of the number of empty school places. Belfast Education and Library Board is not unique in that; the CCMS is also implementing a programme of rationalisation, particularly in the west of the city. In Belfast, schools have an enrolment of 120 or more pupils, so that if one amalgamates two Belfast schools, one creates a single school of 250 to 270 pupils. Those schools are being put under pressure to amalgamate, while the Minister creates a school of just 43 pupils in one case, and of just 12 in another.
That matter was discussed at a meeting of the education committee of the Belfast Education and Library Board last Thursday. No one from Sinn Féin bothered to turn up. All those present discussed the matter and there was complete unanimity on the matter. Even members of the SDLP who were present supported my proposal that we should ask the board to approach the Association of Education and Library Boards to seek a judicial review of what the Minister has done, so that she is scrutinised, not merely by this House, but by the British courts.
The Minister is a woman who has taken a great interest over the years in the court system, so she will welcome the opportunity to be taken to court on this matter. We need a judicial review of this decision, and I hope that my proposal is approved by the full Belfast Education and Library Board and by the Association of Education and Library Boards.
What the Minister has done shows that she does not view the situation in a fair and impartial way. It was done in a partisan way to further the sectarian agenda of Sinn Féin.
The Minister of Education (Ms Ruane): Go raibh maith agat. We have heard from Members on issues regarding the opening and amalgamation of schools, the Bain Report, and sustainable schools. I will respond to as many of the points as possible, and explain the position on decisions taken in individual cases, as well as the overall position, as set out in the Bain Report and ‘Schools for the Future: a Policy for Sustainable Schools’, published by the direct rule Administration.
Before that, I will respond to Iris Robinson’s question, although it was unfair. We are all politicians in this House, and we should not involve each others’ children in the choices that we make. Given that Mrs Robinson has brought my children into the debate, I will explain my situation. I use my home address in north Louth for my two children, who go to school in the North of Ireland. I make no apology for that, because I believe that children should be able to go to their nearest school, no matter where they live in relation to the border. If Members are serious about changing the education system, and dealing with demographic decline we must examine how issues around the border are dealt with. I am aware that there is a judicial review around the issue of “grannying” and I will await the court’s ruling on that.
European legislation is in place regarding the many people, right across the island, particularly in the border communities, who live in the South, and work and pay taxes in the North. What I ask — [Interruption.]
Please Iris, there is no need to be rude, I did not interrupt you. [Interruption.]
Mr Speaker: Order Members, the Minister has the Floor.
Ms Ruane: We should not bring each other’s children into our political debates.
Mr Speaker: Order. Members should address their remarks through the Chair. The Minister has the Floor.
Ms Ruane: The Independent Strategic Review of Education, or the Bain Report, examined issues of school funding, planning, collaboration and sharing. Published at the end of last year, the report contains 61 recommendations and focuses on the quality of education for children. It recommends that there should be an estate of fewer, but larger, schools, with greater collaboration and sharing, in and across school sectors, in order to address the needs of children in local areas.
I agree with the general thrust of the Bain Report, and the objective of providing modern schools that are fit for purpose and provide a high-quality education for all children. Nevertheless, many of the recommendations require further detailed work and consultation. It would not be possible to implement the report overnight.
Since taking up the post of Minister of Education, I have had many meetings with school representatives and interest groups across the education sector, who have raised aspects of the Bain Report. I know that the issues are important to the education sector and need to be dealt with fully and carefully. Implementation must be taken forward in consultation. It is essential that the Department of Education gets the detail correct because children’s long-term educational interests are at the heart of such work.
The Bain Report recommended that provision should move to a system of schools that are educationally and financially viable in the long term, and planned on an area basis.
Cuideoidh seo le fadhbanna an ró-sholáthair a laghdú i dtréimhse athruithe móra sa líon daltaí agus lena chinntiú go bhfuil na scoileanna ag comhphobail atá de dhíth orthu.
Around half of the recommendations in the Bain Report relate directly to the improved planning of schools on an area basis. The report recommends that there should be a more strategic approach, with greater consistency and coherence in planning. There has been a general recognition across the education sector that an area-based planning approach should be introduced. That would have an important role in supporting our wider educational policies and raising the equality of education. The relation between schools and further education provision will also be a key consideration in improved planning and collaboration.
The need to provide a system of strong, viable schools is at the heart of area-based planning. The Bain Report recommended that a policy on sustainable schools be produced. To that end, my Department has been analysing the responses from the consultation that took place earlier in 2007.
The draft policy document on sustainable schools proposes the same enrolment thresholds as the Bain Report suggested: 105 for rural primary schools; 140 for urban primary schools; and 500 for post-primary schools that have pupils who are aged 11 to 16 years. Concerns have been raised about those levels; however, the Bain Report did not say that schools that are below those levels need to be rationalised automatically. Instead, schools that are in that position are to be reviewed to see whether they continue to provide quality education.
Enrolment levels are only one of a proposed set of six criteria by which to assess school viability. The proposed criteria also include: the educational experience of the children; the school’s financial position; leadership and management of the school; the school’s accessibility; and its links with the community. The core objective of the policy is high-quality education for children regardless of where they live. Often, concerns about a school’s viability are raised only when enrolments have fallen irreversibly. The criteria and indicators in the policy are intended to provide a framework for early consideration and possible remedial action.
The Department received 119 responses to ‘A Consultation on Schools for the Future: A Policy for Sustainable Schools’. The document and the responses raise complex questions about a school’s viability. Overall, however, there is an interest in having a clearly set-out approach to viability. That will help to shape our education system for the future. The responses deserve the most careful consideration so that the policy can be clearly articulated for the future. I intend to introduce proposals towards the end of the year.
The motion refers to openings and amalgamation decisions. I want to turn to the processes that are involved, because it is obvious from many Members’ contributions that they do not understand those processes. [Interruption.]
I did not interrupt Members during their contributions; I would appreciate it if they did not interrupt me.
There is a statutory requirement for a development proposal to be published when a school is being established, is closed or is undergoing a significant change that alters its character or size. Proposals can be initiated by the local education and library board, the Catholic Council for Maintained Schools, the Council for Integrated Education, Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta, an individual school or any other interested parties. However, it is important to remember that I do not initiate the proposals.
The proposals that have been highlighted in the debate were initiated by parents’ groups, in the case of the opening of the new Irish-medium schools, and by the CCMS, which acted on behalf of the trustees, in the case of the amalgamation of maintained schools. The closure of Minterburn Primary School has also been raised, and that closure was proposed by the Southern Education and Library Board.
Before a proposal is published, the relevant education and library board is required to consult with any school that it may affect. There is also a statutory duty on the proposer to consult with governors and teachers of any schools that are the subject of the proposal, as well as with parents. Following publication of the proposal, there is statutory period of two months during which representations can be made to the Department in support of or against a proposal. At the end of those two months, the Department evaluates all relevant information about the proposal.
The Department of Education considers demands for all forms of education, including Irish-medium and integrated education, within the general framework that is set out in the Education and Libraries Order 1986. That states that so far as is compatible with the provision of efficient instruction and training and the avoidance of unreasonable public expenditure, children will be educated in accordance with the wishes of their parents.
Following a commitment that was made in the Belfast Agreement, the Education Order 1998 placed a duty on the Department to encourage and facilitate the development of Irish-medium education.
Mrs I Robinson: Will the Member give way?
Ms Ruane: I will not give way.
In addition, the British Government have signed the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, which came into force in July 2001.
The charter provides that where families request, and where there is a sufficient number of potential pupils, education will be made available in Irish. The Bain Report identified a significant growth in recent years in the number of pupils being educated through the medium of Irish. There are currently over 3,000 pupils in Irish-medium education, compared to an earlier figure of fewer than 400. I have the Bain Report here. I had a meeting with George Bain last week. I urge people to read the Bain Report; it is obvious that some people have not. I quote:
“In view of the pattern of growth in the sector, the issues that need to be considered, and a radically changing planning context for education, the Review recommends that DE should develop a comprehensive and coherent policy for IM education.”
That is exactly what my Department and I are doing. It is interesting that when we discuss the issue of Irish-medium education, the temperature in the House rises. We are in new arrangements. Mitchel McLaughlin made points that Members need to listen to. I do not want to score points. We should not be having divisive debates like this in the House. Michelle McIlveen talked about leadership; let us show leadership. I have seen it in the communities and in schools, including controlled schools. I am working — [Interruption.]
Please do not interrupt me.
Mr Speaker: Order. The Minister has the Floor. I ask the Minister to address her comments through the Chair.
Ms Ruane: My apologies. OK.
The educators are way ahead of the political parties in the unionist community. I say that from experience. I ask Members to put division behind them and move forward on the basis of equality. I take equality very seriously, as Members know. I have invited the Equality Coalition to have a discussion and to brief all my officials on all the issues relating to equality. I invite all the other Departments to follow my lead in that matter.
Last week, I discussed with George Bain his report and its conclusions on Irish-medium provision. As someone who has experienced bilingualism in his native Canada, George Bain was well aware of the issues that can arise. That is why he recommended that there should be a review of Irish-medium education. In considering the development proposals of the three — not four — Irish-medium schools, Gaelscoil Éanna, Gaelscoil Ghleann Darach and Gaelscoil na Daróige, I took careful account of the individual circumstances.
I took careful account of the views of Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta, the body funded by the Department to encourage and facilitate the development of Irish-medium education. I considered that in each case there would be sufficient demand for Irish-medium primary-school provision in the respective areas. Members are playing with figures. They need to understand that in each of those schools, there are 12-15 pupils in primary 1, not the whole school. Members are not comparing like with like.
The granting of conditional approval entitles a school to recurrent funding only. The position is reviewed after three years to confirm whether viability is expected to be sustainable. In each of those schools, there is pre-school provision in the medium of Irish with, already, sufficient numbers for the next two years. A school’s eligibility for capital funding is assessed at the end of that three-year period, and pupil intake levels are relevant to that assessment.
A successful amalgamation of schools should realise important benefits, including a reduction in the number of surplus places, a reduction in the pressure on teachers in their delivery of the curriculum, and better use of resources. Many positive amalgamations are happening.
The criteria for assessing proposals for new Irish-medium schools are no different from those for other sectors. The minimum intakes required to ensure a viable school over the long term are in line with the Bain Report’s views on the viability of primary schools. It is inevitable that new schools will start small but are expected to grow. There has been undue and unfair focus on the three Irish-medium schools that I approved for funding. It is worth making the point that Irish is for all communities, not just one community. In light of the fact that there has been that undue focus, I should like to wish those schools well and assure them that we will not allow them to become political footballs. That would not be fair.
Demand for the Irish-medium sector and the integrated sector is growing in an education sector in which overall numbers are falling. In every proposal, I will examine individual circumstances. In regard to proposals for closures or amalgamations —
Mr Speaker: The Minister’s time is up.
Mrs M Bradley: I want to refer to the important points that my colleague Dominic Bradley made. He mentioned first the duty on the Department to provide a policy to guide practice. He also told us that we need clear policies to ensure an even-handed approach towards all sectors, according to their needs. We need policy to bring clarity and transparency to the situation, and Dominic Bradley pointed out that so much in the reforms depends on a workable sustainable schools policy. The planning of the schools estate under area planning cannot be implemented without that policy. He mentioned that the Department plans to begin the movement towards reform through a programme of convergence of the education and library boards with the soon-to-be-established education and skills authority.
Moreover, Mr Bradley reminded us that we are setting out on a road and that none of us knows where we are going without the policy signposts that should be guiding us along the way. One of the main policy signposts is the sustainable schools policy. Again, so many of the RPA reforms depend on that policy. I agree that policy drives practice, and the fact that many policies, including ‘Schools for the Future: A Policy for Sustainable Schools’, are not yet in place is not acceptable after 21 months of preparation.
The previous Minister accepted the Bain recommendations in full, and our current Minister has indicated that she accepts the Bain Report in principle, but clarification is needed as to which recommendations will now be subject to further discussion or change. In my view, quite a few issues require clarification in an updated policy.
The Bain Report figures for minimum pupil numbers were 115 pupils for a primary school, 500 pupils for post-primary schools for 11- to 16-year-olds, and 100 pupils for sixth-form provision. However, those were not set as minimum thresholds for retention, but as review thresholds. I would like the Minister’s view on that.
The Bain Report also refers to schools having composite classes with no more than two year groups per class. That equates to four teachers, and with the current average pupil:teacher ratio and local management of schools arrangements in primary schools, would allow primary schools to function with 80 pupils. What is the Minister’s view of that? I do not know. Does she know? We have no way of knowing without the policy.
There is also a significant number of schools with 55 to 60 pupils and three teachers. Although those schools require additional support for the significant challenges that they face, in the main, they are financially and educationally viable, and an option for their retention should be available. Does the Minister agree?
The proposal to merge two small schools in Ahoghill also sits well below the Bain Report numbers, but the report also points out that sustainable schools policy must take account of the need of communities, whether they are rural communities or those that represent a single sector in an area in which that population is in the minority. There will always be the need to retain a few schools that sit outside any recommended figures, and the policy should accommodate those exceptions. Again, the issue is the urgent need for a sustainable schools policy to be adopted and operational.
Since the consultation on ‘Schools for the Future: A Policy for Sustainable Schools’ before the summer, no approved policy has as yet emerged. That policy vacuum means that proposals and subsequent decisions are being made, at best, on the basis of an outdated policy and will cause disagreement.
We need the clarification and consistent direction of guiding policy. For that reason, I call on all Members to support the amendment and to ensure that the sustainable schools policy is published without further delay.
Mr Donaldson: Let me say at the outset that the DUP rejects the SDLP amendment. Quite frankly, it does not hold the Minister to account on the decisions that have been taken over the summer. It is a fudge. It is the political equivalent of being mauled by a dead sheep, as we once famously heard in the House of Commons. What does the amendment do?
It simply asks the Minister to publish her intentions. The Minister must do that, but in the context — ignored by the SDLP — of the widespread concern in the community about the nature of the decisions taken in the summer.
Mr D Bradley: Will the Member give way?
Mr Donaldson: No, I will not give way. In response to — [Interruption.]
The Member had his chance earlier and he did not have much to say, so he will not add anything now.
In respect of Mr Butler’s — [Interruption.]
Mr Speaker: Order. The Member has the Floor.
Mr Donaldson: In response to the nonsense we heard from Paul Butler about witch hunts, I was not aware that there was a witch to be hunted; maybe he knows something that we do not. Michelle O’Neill and Paul Butler were at the Committee for Education when it decided to write to the Minister with concerns about her decisions, but neither of them raised an objection. They said absolutely nothing. There was consensus in the Committee, so what is going on this afternoon? Is there a Whip being applied, I wonder?
This is about democracy, and holding the Minister to account. That is what we are doing on this side of the Chamber — holding the Minister to account. It is not about witch hunts; it is simply about addressing some very real concerns. What are those concerns? As a Member for Lagan Valley, Mr Butler should know what they are. He knows that four small rural schools were closed in my constituency this summer: Hillhall Primary School; Lambeg Primary School; Charley Memorial Primary School; and Drumbo Primary School. Yet, in the same breath, the Minister took the decision to amalgamate two primary schools in Ahoghill. The combined enrolment of those two schools of 43 pupils is less than that of Hillhall Primary School, one of the four schools that the Minister closed this summer in my constituency. Four rural schools have been closed, and yet, the combined enrolment of those schools would come to almost 100 pupils. Why did they not have the option of amalgamation? It is because they were controlled schools.
The schools in Ahoghill that were amalgamated were maintained schools. With the greatest respect to the Minister, the message that people in my constituency get is that controlled schools are “fair game under Bain”, whereas those in the maintained, Irish-medium or integrated sectors are a preserved and protected species. That is the message that is coming through loud and clear from the Minister’s decisions.
Mr D Bradley: On a point of order. Is it in order for a Member who was not in the Chamber for the full duration of the debate to make the winding-up speech?
Mr Speaker: That is not a point of order. Mr Donaldson has the Floor.
Mr Donaldson: I have heard enough from the hon Member opposite to know a wind-up when I hear one.
Five years ago, the previous Sinn Féin Minister of Education, now the Deputy First Minister, grant-aided several Irish-medium schools, and predicted that they would all reach enrolments in excess of 105 pupils. Yet, of the 18 Irish-medium schools that exist today, half are nowhere near meeting the enrolment target of 105 pupils. In fact, ‘Schools for the Future: Funding, Strategy, Sharing’, published in December 2006, states that numbers in those schools range from just 18 pupils — [Interruption.]
Mr McElduff: A Cheann Comhairle. On a point of order. Is it in order for a Member to use a book in the fashion of an exhibit?
Mrs I Robinson: Are you serious?
Mr Speaker: Order. If the Member is quoting from a book, he is entitled to use it in the Chamber.
Mr Campbell: The truth is hitting home now all right.
Mr Speaker: Order — that goes for every side of the House. Mr Donaldson has the Floor.
Mr Donaldson: The report makes clear that some of those schools have as few as 18 pupils. If the then Minister of Education got enrolments so spectacularly wrong, what prospect is there that the current Minister has correctly estimated the enrolments of the three Irish-medium schools to which she gave approval earlier this summer?
The question is one of confidence in the Minister’s decisions. I say to her sincerely that there are people that I represent in my constituency who do not see fairness in the decisions that she made during the summer. I am afraid that they see bias, and if that does not change, let me be clear from these Benches, there will neither be consensus in the House, nor cross-community support, for the kind of reforms that the Minister wants to introduce.
The Minister must demonstrate fairness and end bias, and then we will start to listen. Only then will there be the prospect of some consensus. However, as regards the big decisions that have to be taken, unless we get a level playing field for all sectors, including the controlled sector, the Minister will not achieve the kind of cross-community consensus that she needs in order to make progress in educational reform.
The DUP does not want children to be turned into political footballs. The party wants children to be treated equally and fairly, whether they are Protestant or Roman Catholic and whether they speak Irish, English or any other language. The DUP is asking for fairness, but the decisions taken this summer do not reflect fairness or impartiality, and that goes to the heart of the matter.
Mr McElduff: Does the Member accept —
Mr Speaker: Order.
Question put, That the amendment be made.
The Assembly divided: Ayes 35; Noes 42.
Ms Anderson, Mr Attwood, Mr D Bradley, Mrs M Bradley, Mr P J Bradley, Mr Brady, Mr Brolly, Mr Butler, Dr Deeny, Mr Doherty, Mr Durkan, Dr Farry, Mr Gallagher, Ms Gildernew, Mrs Hanna, Mr G Kelly, Mrs Long, Mr Lunn, Mr A Maginness, Mr A Maskey, Mr P Maskey, Mr F McCann, Ms J McCann, Mr McCarthy, Mr McElduff, Mrs McGill, Mr McGlone, Mr McHugh, Mr McLaughlin, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O’Dowd, Mrs O’Neill, Ms S Ramsey, Ms Ritchie, Ms Ruane.
Tellers for the Ayes: Mrs M Bradley and Mr A Maginness.
Mr Armstrong, Mr Beggs, Mr Bresland, Mr Buchanan, Mr Campbell, Mr T Clarke, Rev Dr Robert Coulter, Mr Craig, Mr Cree, Mr Dodds, Mr Donaldson, Mr Easton, Mr Elliott, Mrs Foster, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Irwin, Mr Kennedy, Mr McCallister, Mr McCausland, Mr B McCrea, Mr I McCrea, Dr W McCrea, Mr McFarland, Mr McGimpsey, Miss McIlveen, Mr McNarry, Mr McQuillan, Mr Newton, Mr Paisley Jnr, Rev Dr Ian Paisley, Mr Poots, Mr G Robinson, Mrs I Robinson, Mr P Robinson, Mr Ross, Mr Savage, Mr Shannon, Mr Spratt, Mr Weir, Mr Wells, Mr S Wilson.
Tellers for the Noes: Mr McQuillan and Mr G Robinson.
Question accordingly negatived.
Main Question put.
The Assembly divided: Ayes 46; Noes 30.
Mr Armstrong, Mr Beggs, Mr Bresland, Mr Buchanan, Mr Campbell, Mr T Clarke, Rev Dr Robert Coulter, Mr Craig, Mr Cree, Mr Dodds, Mr Donaldson, Mr Easton, Mr Elliott, Dr Farry, Mrs Foster, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Irwin, Mr Kennedy, Mrs Long, Mr Lunn, Mr McCallister, Mr McCarthy, Mr McCausland, Mr B McCrea, Mr I McCrea, Dr W McCrea, Mr McFarland, Mr McGimpsey, Miss McIlveen, Mr McNarry, Mr McQuillan, Mr Newton, Mr Paisley Jnr, Rev Dr Ian Paisley, Mr Poots, Mr G Robinson, Mrs I Robinson, Mr P Robinson, Mr Ross, Mr Savage, Mr Shannon, Mr Spratt, Mr Weir, Mr Wells, Mr S Wilson.
Tellers for the Ayes: Mr McQuillan and Mr G Robinson.
Ms Anderson, Mr Attwood, Mr D Bradley, Mrs M Bradley, Mr P J Bradley, Mr Brady, Mr Brolly, Mr Butler, Mr Doherty, Mr Durkan, Mr Gallagher, Ms Gildernew, Mrs Hanna, Mr G Kelly, Mr A Maginness, Mr A Maskey, Mr P Maskey, Mr F McCann, Ms J McCann, Mr McElduff, Mrs McGill, Mr McGlone, Mr McHugh, Mr McLaughlin, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O’Dowd, Mrs O’Neill, Ms S Ramsey, Ms Ritchie, Ms Ruane.
Tellers for the Noes: Ms Anderson and Mr Doherty.
Main Question accordingly agreed to.
That this Assembly notes with concern some of the decisions taken by the Minister of Education over the summer recess on school openings and amalgamations; and calls upon the Minister to clarify her approach to the recommendations of the Bain Report and the Sustainable Schools Policy published by her Department.
Mr Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes for the winding-up speech. All other Members will have five minutes. One amendment has been selected and published on the Marshalled List. The proposer of the amendment will have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes for the winding-up speech.
Mr D Bradley: I beg to move
That this Assembly expresses its sympathy to the families of Patrick Breen and Patrick Devlin, who died recently on the sports field from heart defects; sympathises with all families on the island of Ireland who have lost loved ones in this way; calls on the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to bring forward options for a comprehensive screening service; further calls on other Government Departments to co-operate in clarifying the costs of the development of such options, which should include schools and college services; and believes that such a service would benefit from co-operation and co-ordination through the North/South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council.
Go raibh míle maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I express my sympathy and that of the House to the families of Patrick Breen and Patrick Devlin, who died recently.
I know that no amount of sympathy extended to those families, or any of the families and friends bereaved by that type of sudden death, can comfort them. However, the assurance that this House cares enough to do all in its power to establish a system of screening that might help others to avoid the suffering that they are going through may be of some consolation to them.
Cormac McAnallen and John McCall were sportsmen who might have survived their conditions had they been detected early enough. That raises an important issue that we, as a legislative Assembly, must try to address. Young people who are not involved in sport also suffer from cardiac conditions, and, unfortunately, die from them. So our efforts to detect and treat those conditions must include all young people who may be at risk.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Molloy] in the Chair)
We must take steps to prevent further deaths from cardiac conditions, and that is why we are calling on the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and other Ministers in the Executive to put forward options for a screening service to identify those at risk. The Minister’s previous comments in the Chamber, when he undertook to ask officials to look into whether the screening of young athletes in Northern Ireland would be effective and appropriate, were welcome. I ask him to extend that investigation to all young people who may be at risk.
Before bringing this motion to the House today I spoke to sports organisations that are also concerned about cardiac conditions. I am very heartened by the forward thinking of, and proactive moves being taken by, such organisations as the GAA, the Irish Football Association and Ulster Rugby in engaging with issues like sudden adult death syndrome, through the charity Cardiac Risk in the Young, in an attempt to try to deal with the problem, and also taking their own measures.
It is important for us to reassure people that sport and physical exercise are major contributors to the health of young people, and we must support the sporting bodies in their efforts to involve as many young people as possible. Those organisations have developed responsible coaching programmes and approaches that are appropriate to the age and physical development of participants.
I pay tribute to the families of victims — families like the McAnallens and the McCalls — who have raised funds to provide vital equipment. I also wish to acknowledge my neighbour Kathleen Mooney, who lost her 18-year-old daughter, Mary, to a cardiac condition, and who has set up “Mary’s Fund” to help provide equipment like defibrillators to schools, youth clubs and sports organisations. I acknowledge the work of groups like the Cormac Trust in providing automated external defibrillators to communities in County Tyrone.
I do not believe that we should be leaving those initiatives solely to the families and sporting organisations. We, in this House, have a duty to investigate all the possibilities and to set up a system of screening that will complement, and possibly encompass, existing efforts and help to reassure all parents.
Comprehensive screening does not necessarily mean a widespread hospital-based screening programme for every young person in the country. It is possible to narrow the target group for screening by methods that are relatively inexpensive and already in use in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, and England. The Gaelic Athletic Association, for example, through its medical welfare committee, recommends cardiac screening for all who participate in its games. The first stage is the completion of a questionnaire on the individual player’s health and well-being. It uses a trigger system whereby anyone who has had a family member die before the age of 50 from a heart condition, or anyone who has ever felt dizzy or had chest pains during physical exercise, is referred to their GP for a more detailed screening.
SADS, a UK organisation that raises awareness about sudden arrhythmic death syndrome, believes that young people should be invited to a doctor’s surgery at the ages of 11 and 15 to complete a questionnaire that gives information about their personal and medical history, and their family’s medical history. During that visit, the GP would examine the patient with a stethoscope to try to detect any heart murmur. That would be followed up with a questionnaire, to be completed with parental assistance, to establish whether a child is in an at-risk group or has suffered signs or symptoms consistent with a cardiac condition. Those are simple, but effective, ways to help to identify those who may benefit from a more comprehensive screening process and which may help us to use our resources to the best possible effect. We can learn and co-operate with others within these shores and beyond. We can share expertise and experience that could help us to shape a system that would help to ensure that we identify and treat those at risk before it is too late.
It was with that in mind that Carmel Hanna and I tabled the motion. The Minister for Health, Social Services and Public Safety and his colleagues should engage the necessary advice from cardiology experts in Northern Ireland, call on expertise south of the border and in other parts of the United Kingdom, and introduce workable proposals that would help to identify and treat young people with cardiac conditions through a screening programme. Gabhaim buíochas ó chroí leat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Go raibh maith agat.
Mrs I Robinson: I beg to move the following amendment: Leave out all after the second “families” and insert
“who have lost loved ones in this way; and calls upon the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, and the Executive, to consult with their United Kingdom counterparts through the National Screening Committee, and bring forward fully costed, evidence-based proposals to reduce avoidable cardiac deaths in the young, including screening programmes where appropriate.”
On behalf of my party colleagues, I express my sincere sympathies to the two families that have lost their precious sons. There can be few things more tragic than the sudden death of a young person, which is made all the more shocking in instances where the victim is seemingly active and healthy, and perhaps even a successful athlete.
The time and effort that many young people in the Province put into their sports is, to say the least, phenomenal. I was contacted yesterday by a representative from the Rathgael Gymnastics and Trampolining Club, which supports the finding of a means to reduce deaths from heart defects, but it admitted that it was mindful of the likely costs involved.
Young gymnasts at the Rathgael club commit many hours each week to training. For example, it currently has two 11-year-old girls who train 21 hours a week after school; two 13-year-old girls who train 17·25 hours a week; two 10-year-old girls who train 17·5 hours a week; and two nine-year-old girls who train 13·25 hours a week. The club also has a development squad, where girls as young as six years of age train for 13 hours a week.
Those children manage to fit in all that training while managing homework and all the other activities in which they are involved. They put in those hours in order to enhance the standards at which they compete, and several of those girls compete at international level. They assume that if they are putting in those training hours on behalf of their country, surely the least that they can expect in return is that the Northern Ireland Government resource preventative health services for them properly.
In many other sports in Northern Ireland, young people are also devoting long periods to training in the pursuit of excellence, often unseen in the early hours of the morning while others remain in their beds. Such is the commitment of our current ice-skating champions that they are in training at Dundonald Ice Bowl at approximately 6.37 am, before they start their school day.
High-profile stories are undoubtedly tragic. However, many other deaths also occur among those who have not excelled to the same high level of excellence.
We want to do all that we can to limit the needless loss of young life. The available resources must be carefully directed to ensure that we obtain the maximum benefit from them. That is why Members must follow the evidence of the experts and take heed of all of the research that has been conducted.
Various practices have been adopted in different countries. A report published in March 2006 in the Irish Republic, ‘Reducing the Risk: A Strategic Approach’, by the Task Force on Sudden Cardiac Deaths stated:
“The evidence is weak…Our understanding of the diseases underlying SCD in athletes comes from autopsy studies.”
Sudden cardiac death rates are higher in those actively involved in sport. The deaths are mainly as a consequence of underlying disease, with abnormal heart rhythms occurring. Participants in high-dynamic sports appear to be those who are at the greatest risk. Many of the tests available are not sufficiently sensitive to identify those with the most serious conditions. To seek to act on limited results could result in excluding inappropriately huge numbers of healthy people from participating in sport.
The report by the Department of Health and Children in the Irish Republic last year concluded that:
“There is insufficient evidence to support the implementation of a mass population screening programme to identify risk of SCD.”
Members must bear that in mind. The DUP amendment seeks to incorporate all means of preventing needless loss of life in a manner that ensures expert opinion is taken on board. It extends the possible options beyond screening and allows for other proposals.
It is essential that decisions, and the subsequent allocation of resources, are based on firm evidence. The Dublin-based specialist Dr Gavin Blake admitted recently that screening tests may not be the solution to the deaths of young sports stars. The cardiologist expressed concern that tests were not guaranteed to identify heart problems. He said:
“I think as cardiologists, our concern is that screen tests are not perfect. We don’t have a single test that can identify children that are at risk of sudden and unexpected problems when they are playing sport. It’s as simple as that. That’s our reluctance in embracing a widespread screening programme.”
Understandably, the relatives of young victims want action, but it is the duty of Members to ensure that any decisions taken are the right ones. Where there is conflicting or inconclusive evidence, it is important to ensure that we have all the information that we require before making a final judgement. I support the amendment.
Mr McElduff: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Cuirim fáilte roimh an díospóireacht seo agus ba mhaith liom a rá go mbeidh Sinn Féin ag tacú leis an rún. I welcome the debate, and I am pleased that the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, Michael McGimpsey, is in the Chamber to listen to it. I support the motion because it is not absolutely prescriptive, and it refers to bringing forward options for a comprehensive screening service.
It is better not to be prescriptive about how to proceed. As Iris Robinson and Dominic Bradley said, we must hear from the experts, including medical experts. Families and parents of those who have died have also become experts and should be heard in this debate.
Of course, déanaim comhbhrón ó chroí leo, my sympathy goes to all of the families that have lost loved ones as a result of heart defects. I include those young people who have recently died while actively participating in sport. Such deaths tend to be high profile and provoke a lot of public concern and fear. They command public attention and touch every home. The deaths of Cormac McAnallen, the Tyrone Gaelic football captain, John McCall, the young rugby star, Patrick Devlin, Patrick Breen and the two young boys from County Westmeath in the last month have shocked people the length and breadth of Ireland.
Those deaths have concentrated people’s minds on the condition.
We must listen to the experts, and we must study not only the report of the Irish Government’s task force on sudden cardiac death, but the recommendations of the American Heart Association’s 1996 consensus panel report, ‘Cardiovascular Preparticipation Screening of Competitive Athletes’. That report says that a justifiable and compelling case for the establishment of a comprehensive screening service for young athletes can be made on ethical, legal and medical grounds.
The Irish Government’s task force points to a particular group that is a priority for risk assessment. That group comprises the first-degree relatives of those who have suffered sudden cardiac death under the age of 40: they may be at increased risk of having an inherited disorder such as that described.
Although there is concern for those who participate in sports and exercise, perhaps there should be some categorisation of or differentiation between moderate- and high-intensity sports, with the latter being the highest priority for risk assessment.
Like other Members, I have not yet heard a convincing case for mass screening. However, there is a role for risk assessment for those who exercise or participate in sport. A balance must be struck, however, because participation in sport and exercise are inherently good and should be encouraged. All major sporting organisations should undertake — and many do — pre-participation assessment for elite players. Such assessments could be extended and broadened.
I note, as did Dominic Bradley, the primary assessment phase of the GAA’s player welfare scheme. Its questionnaire asks, for example, whether the participant has a heart condition, whether a doctor has ever advised them not to participate in sport, or whether they have ever fainted during or after exercise. If a person answers yes to any of the 11 questions, further medical screening is required, and a GP referral is made.
There are probably more defibrillators in County Tyrone than in any other county. Volunteers are trained to use them, and I commend everybody who raises awareness of, and funds for, that endeavour. Reducing the incidence of sudden cardiac death is an appropriate objective for a cross-departmental strategy, as the motion states. Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.
Rev Dr Robert Coulter: In considering the motion and the amendment, it seems that there are two sides to the matter. On the one hand, there is strong sympathy and sentiment for the bereaved, but on the other, there are questions about the implementation of the screening that is being asked for.
I am sure that I speak for everyone in the House when I say that our hearts go out to all those who have lost a loved one, especially someone young, whether through sport or in some other way.
There are two ways to view sympathy. One is to focus on the tragedy that is effected by the loss of a child, while the other is to focus on support for those who are suddenly plunged into grief and loss.
Recently, I heard a member of a family that had lost a very young child speak about loss. They said that when someone experiences the shock of the loss of their child, or another loved one, they are often incapable of functioning normally in their own world.
They went on to say:
“there were a lot of dark days spent in silent tears and reflection.”
All Members, and I am sure I speak for everyone, extend our sympathy to all those who have lost a loved one, not least the families of Patrick Devlin and Patrick Breen. On the tide of such emotion, we ask ourselves: what can we do? Is there something that should be done? Is there something that the House can do? Is there something that the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, and his Department can do?
There are many questions that need to be asked. For example, at what age should a screening programme be commenced — is it in the cradle, at school, or later on? What level of screening should be undertaken — mere basic screening, or in-depth, intense screening? Do we have enough resources to undertake a rigorous screening programme, bearing in mind the comprehensive spending review and any pressures that it may bring? I am sure that the Minister will be able to tell us something about that. The cost of a comprehensive screening programme would be astronomical.
There is also an ethical issue. If problems occur, are there enough resources to provide treatment? Is it unethical of a Department to implement a screening process, and not have the resources to treat those who are discovered to have an ailment? What would be the knock-on effects in education, in sports, of the possible lack of physical exercise if a child were discovered to have such an ailment? What impact would such a discovery have on insurance premiums, on mortgages later in life, and on job situations? I could go on and on.
I believe that the sensible approach is to be guided by the Chief Medical Officer and his colleagues on the National Screening Committee. What is the point of the existence of that Committee, if we do not listen to its expert advice?
The amendment gives us a platform on which we can move forward sensibly, and not just ride on the tide of the emotion that we have in sympathy for those who have been so affected. I support the amendment.
Dr Farry: I thank the proposers of the motion for bringing this important issue before the Assembly. That said, the Alliance Party will be supporting the amendment, as we believe it represents a more realistic approach to dealing with this critical issue.
Obviously the death of a child — particularly the sudden death of a seemingly healthy, active child — is enormously difficult, and I am sure that every Member is committed to doing everything that we can to avoid a repeat of such situations.
It is worth noting that, in the case of Patrick Breen in Drumquin, the best medical practice was followed, with a doctor and defibrillator on the scene within five minutes, but it was obviously too late to save the boy.
We must ensure that, in the natural rush to avoid a repeat of that tragic occurrence, we do not end up taking steps that may, on reflection, turn out to be counterproductive. For example, we must be careful not to give the impression that sport is somehow an unusual or risky activity for young people to take part in. Indeed, we should be doing the opposite: trying to encourage people into as much activity as possible. In fact, many more young people will likely die as a consequence of inactivity than die because of shocking, but mercifully rare cardiac conditions.
Obesity and diabetes are great childhood health problems of our time, and any steps that can be taken must in no way jeopardise the fight against those big killers.
Fundamentally, we must take steps in line with best medical practice. Rather than prescribe what the clinical community should do, the Assembly should first listen to what experts in paediatric cardiology think is most appropriate.
I understand that, in some countries, such as Italy, there is a system of comprehensive child screening programmes. However, the vast majority of other developed countries have chosen not to set up such a system. We need to examine the medical literature on the experience of Italy and other countries in preventing sudden cardiac deaths among young children, instead of rushing to make snap judgements.
Furthermore, the availability of resources is a real issue. I refer not only to finance, but to Health Service resources in the broadest sense. However, it should be recognised that money that is spent on one area of healthcare inevitably means that less money is available to spend on others. We need to ensure that we spend our money in line with priorities to ensure the maximum return for the well-being of the population.
The inevitable outcome of any cost-benefit analysis along National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) guidelines will tend towards saving the life of a child, because a child has a long life ahead of him or her, and will make a greater contribution to society in the future than an older person.
As for human resources, paediatric cardiologists are not exactly thick on the ground in Northern Ireland. It takes many years to train doctors and consultants in that highly specialised field. Before imposing a new burden on the NHS, we need to ensure that it can cope with the demand, and must train new staff to meet that demand within a reasonable timeframe.
Important practical questions should be asked before a large-scale screening programme for a rare condition is introduced. There is a danger that the number of minor, non-threatening abnormalities that are detected will vastly exceed the number of dangerous abnormalities. That raises the spectre of children being referred for invasive and potentially risky treatment that is entirely unnecessary, and, in some cases, people will end up labelled, with unwelcome consequences for their insurance requirements, as Dr Coulter has already described.
I cannot assess the various risks; that is why we must take evidence from experts before imposing new burdens on the health sector.
Although the Alliance Party supports the spirit of the motion and wants to ensure that there will be no tragic repetition of the events of last month, Members of the Assembly are not best qualified to make judgements about complex clinical issues. They should look to qualified medical advice and ensure that resources are used to achieve the maximum benefit for our young people and for the population as a whole.
The amendment represents the more realistic way forward, although I respect the sentiments that lie behind the original motion.
Mr Easton: I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. Like many others, I am aware of the increase in the number of young athletes — and some older sportsmen — who die on the sports field. They fall victim to a silent killer that gives no warning. It is often the case that the first symptom is the sudden collapse and death of the young person.
This is not a new phenomenon, but sadly it seems to be on the increase. The loss of a loved one is a tragedy for any family. Grief knows no boundaries, and our response and concern should not, in any way, be limited.
I am sympathetic to many elements of the motion that is before us, and I will support any action that will be taken by the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to help reduce the number of such incidents. However, I believe that the amendment represents the more balanced way forward. Other Departments will have a part to play. Sport Northern Ireland, under the auspices of the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL), will work in close co-operation with other Departments and statutory bodies to share information and research that might help in some way. Our sports professionals have a significant contribution to make in this area.
However, we need to recognise the complexities of the problem and not rush to judgement in determining the most effective way forward. The problem is like looking for a needle in a haystack. Non-traumatic sudden death from diseases such as cardiovascular disease are, thankfully, very rare. Although the introduction of a screening process seems a compelling idea, we must be conscious of the need to develop a correct and affordable solution.
The low prevalence of those diseases means that we need to think carefully about what a screening process can achieve. Research indicates that screening 200,000 competitive athletes will find one whose cardio-vascular disorder may cause death in a specific situation. Tests can be inaccurate, and differences between normal and abnormal changes in the heart caused by training and exercise may be difficult to detect.
The option of alternative technology such as cardio-ultrasound screening, which may give equally good results, must also be considered. The opinions of experts are necessary to help us to find the best way forward. The process that will be developed to protect our young people and athletes must be well thought through, and must engage a wide range of people to make a contribution from their area of expertise or responsibility. Regular physical examinations by medical practitioners should be a vital part of such a programme.
The incidence of heart disease in families, and general family medical history, must also be considered. Coaches and parents should have awareness training and be sensitive to symptoms of chest pain and excessive, unexplained shortness of breath and be well trained in all aspects related to the physical conditioning of the young athletes in their care.
The GAA must be commended for its initiative to make available the best possible assistance in an emergency through the provision of medical equipment, as well as awareness and response training in GAA clubs across the Province. The governing bodies of all sports and associated clubs must take immediate responsibility to provide efficient training and the appropriate equipment at every sports location.
Members must task Departments and Government agencies to undertake a review of all the possibilities available to us. We need to deliver urgently a carefully considered and co-ordinated strategy with a range of options to deal with the problem as effectively as possible. Options must include school and college services and be characterised by a willing co-operation that puts young people at the centre of our thinking.
Ms Ní Chuilín: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom tacaíocht a thabhairt don rún. Much of what I had intended to say has been covered by other Members. Sinn Féin supports the motion and is sympathetic to families who are bereaved by losing their children through sudden death. I am a parent and grandparent, and I imagine that the sudden death of a child who is apparently the picture of health must be terribly shocking.
My understanding is that only those below the age of 35 with a family history of sudden cardiac death are entitled to free screening. Therefore groups such as Cardiac Risk in the Young (CRY) promote screening for young athletes across the board.
Several Members mentioned the efforts of the GAA, particularly in County Tyrone, following the sudden death of the GAA player Cormac McAnallen. The Tyrone-based campaign to provide defibrillators and training in most GAA clubs should be commended, as should the work of the Cormac Trust.
Heartstart UK works with the British Heart Foundation (BHF) to provide defibrillators and training at a reduced cost. That initiative is geared towards schools rather than sporting organisations, which is something that Members could consider.
Members must examine the tenets of the motion that suggest developing options for a comprehensive screening service. The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, who is in the Chamber, must take the options given earlier in the debate to the Department and his team of advisors.
Other factors must also be considered, such as the possible causes of heart diseases. For example, there is evidence of greater incidence of heart disease among those living west of the Bann, and that poor health and poverty are interrelated. We must also be aware that hereditary problems play a role.
On Friday September 14 2007, ‘The Irish News’ printed a good, albeit lengthy, letter from a Dr White calling for a well-designed protocol for those at risk.
The Assembly must examine this issue and decide how it can respond to it. Every Member has mentioned the need for the promotion of exercise and has expressed concern for the well-being of children who are involved in sports and play. That must be reinforced at every opportunity.
In the past, the link between obesity and poverty has been discussed, as well as the need to promote activity, play and sport for better health. Barry McElduff and Alex Easton referred to the need for robust questionnaires and for greater awareness among sporting bodies and trainers. That must be encouraged. The argument for strategic location and training in the use of defibrillators in communities must be taken on board by the Department, particularly in rural areas where services are out of reach. The efforts of the Cormac Trust, Heartstart and other mainly voluntary organisations must also be considered by the Department. Voluntary activity alone is not a response.
I pay tribute to Dominic Bradley for proposing the motion. There needs to be a response at interdepartmental and Executive level. The Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure and the Department of Education must also be involved in discussions. I support the motion. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr Shannon: I support the amendment. I wish to extend my sincerest sympathy to the families that have recently been bereaved through sudden cardiac death. It is particularly heart-rending when children are the victims of those conditions. I am sure that those are the feelings of all Members.
Recently, we have been touched by the heartbreaking stories that have been in the news about young people who have died from genetic heart diseases. Indeed, in my constituency, some of us have had first-hand experience of the death of a teenage girl from such a condition. We mourned with her family. Although they had been aware of her condition, they were unable to prevent her death. They worked hard in a successful campaign to bring a dedicated heart expert to the Province. That happened as a result of a young girl from Newtownards passing away in her sleep. Her family woke up one morning to find that she had passed away. She had seemed healthy and had been involved in sports. There had been no indication that she would die.
At the time of the loss of that young girl in my constituency, I lent my support not only to the attempt to secure a heart specialist for the Province, but to Cormac McAnallen’s mother Bridget, who said that all children should be screened for heart problems. This has been an issue since then.
One in 500 people is believed to have a genetic heart disease. Although that figure cannot be substantiated, the fact that so many young people are dying compels us to take it on board. In 2004, the young Irish rugby player, John McCall, died of heart failure during a game in South Africa. At the time, there was uproar, but here we are, shocked that the same disease has cruelly stuck again. In Italy, the syndrome has led to the obligatory screening of all sportsmen and sportswomen, which is the least that should be done in schools and colleges in Northern Ireland.
I am probably one of the few Leicester City Football Club supporters in Northern Ireland. In August 2007, the team played a match against Nottingham Forest Football Club, which had to be abandoned at half-time because one of Leicester’s defenders had a heart attack in the dressing room. Interestingly, that player had been checked just 10 days before the game took place, and was declared fit. I am not sure how the situation will work out for him.
Those conditions give no warnings or signals: they simply strike. Prevention is always far better than cure. However, there is no cure for genetic heart conditions that kill before they are detected. If the Executive and the Health Department were to take the lead in the fight and start a screening programme for all children, they could save lives. The amendment is a realistic way to approach that, and I hope that Members support it. There are two options: people can go on dying at a rate of eight a week in the United Kingdom owing to a lack of information and awareness, or the Assembly can take the issue on board and begin screening all children for heart problems — or, at the very least, those who take part in sports — as part of their general check-ups.
That is when members of the family try their hardest to find information about the condition, and then the rest of the family are screened. Would it not be better if all young people were screened for hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, rather than families having to face a tragedy first? Is it not better to help people before it is too late?
Families who have experienced the awful tragedy of one of their young people dying of the condition thought that no information on the condition was available, particularly in Northern Ireland. They found that the only way to find information about the condition was to search the Internet. Some information found on the Internet may be false while other information may be accurate. However, there are medical staff who must answer questions on the condition and give guidance on how to deal with it.
In the course of my research, I discovered that one boy who was at risk from sudden death syndrome saw his doctor and, subsequently, was able to undergo an operation to deal with the condition. Therefore, having the condition does not necessarily mean that one’s life is over; people with the condition can continue to live. There are ways of addressing the condition. The amendment, perhaps, looks towards our counterparts in the United Kingdom. That is where the evidence, and the information, will be found to deal with the condition.
Currently, people in the Province are learning of the condition through the media. As with most news, it will become old and forgotten until tragedy strikes again, and we are shaken to realise that we have done nothing to address the problem since the last time we we were shocked. That is why a system is needed in the Province that works with the people of Northern Ireland to provide care for those suffering from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. Moreover, money must be invested in raising awareness of the condition and in giving support to those families who have suffered, and are suffering, because of it. It is the Assembly’s responsibility to ensure that that happens. We must act now before we face another tragedy because of our lack of information on the condition. I support the amendment.
Mr Ross: It is, of course, a tragedy when any young person dies and is robbed of a future. It is particularly distressing, as other Members have said, when someone who was considered fit and healthy dies suddenly, having had no apparent health problems and no history of illness. There is much media interest in the topic, with some high-profile athletes in Northern Ireland having died from sudden heart problems. The sad and recent deaths of two young boys are fresh in our minds. It is a very emotive issue, particularly for those involved.
However, we need more solid information on sudden death in children, recognising that, at present, many post mortem examinations are not carried out by those with expertise in that specific area. The amendment tabled by Mrs Robinson articulates that view.
One related issue, which was raised by many Members during the debate — Barry McElduff referred to it — is the call for more defibrillators. We must be sensible when considering the issue. I have heard some Members calling for defibrillators to be installed in every club, school and public toilet in the country. We cannot forget the practical difficulties that that would entail. Setting aside the cost, if that equipment were available in all those places, who would use it? Members have referred to those who have volunteered to do so, and I pay tribute to them. I know from my own experience in sports clubs to which I belong, that not too many members would volunteer to be trained in the use of the equipment, because alongside the training is the massive burden of responsibility. The individual who is called to use the equipment may end up in court if the person dies.
There is an onus on the clubs that have the equipment to use it, even if no one there has been trained in its use. The club may be vulnerable to legal action and, of course, there is the danger of equipment being misused by people who are not fully trained in its use in emergencies. We must be mindful of that when considering the issue.
I do not wish to detract in any way from the seriousness of the issue. However, we must be careful not to create mass hysteria about young people playing sport. Dr Farry mentioned that in his speech. There is the danger that we create a fear among children and particularly among parents, who will be afraid to allow their children to participate in sport. Sport is a good thing. Sport can be beneficial to a child’s general health with regard to fitness and to social development. Sport and recreational activity is vital as we fight the increase in obesity which is prevalent among the young.
That is not to say that we should do nothing — quite the contrary. We must be realistic and measured in how we respond to the problem of sudden death syndrome and look at a wide range of options. The Reverend Dr Coulter made two excellent points — and not just because I was going to make them as well. He mentioned the age at which young people should be screened for the condition. Usually, children under the age of 14 will not be screened because ECG testing on prepubescent children is inconclusive.
He also told us that if a heart defect is detected, there is an onus to take action to remedy it. He also said that such a diagnosis affects that person’s ability to get mortgages, life insurance and so on. That is an important point that must not be forgotten.
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Jim Shannon told us that screening is compulsory in Italy. Indeed, in the University of Ulster at Jordanstown in my constituency of East Antrim, an excellent CRY clinic is run once a week. It is supported nationally by Steve Redgrave and Ian Botham and, locally, by Gary Longwell and Pat Jennings. I have learnt from my correspondence with CRY that, over the past year, 2,000 to 3,000 people across the UK have been screened and that that number is increasing every year. I believe that the intention is to create more such facilities in Northern Ireland, particularly in Londonderry. Mobile screening units that can go to clubs and other venues on request are also available. That is useful, as CRY provides that service to elite athletes or those who have been referred by their GPs for some of the symptoms that we heard about at the start of the debate. However, as we have heard already, those proposals are not perfect.
It is important that we do not create panic among parents and children who enjoy playing sport, but that we investigate those who are most at risk and those who are involved in elite sports at a young age.
I, therefore, support the amendment and hope that it will lead to a fully costed and evidence-based case for helping to reduce avoidable cardiac deaths among young people.
Dr Deeny: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for calling me. I was not sure whether I would be called to speak, but I am delighted that I have been because sudden cardiac death is a very important and topical issue. I am also delighted that the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety is present, and I hope that he will give us a commitment that something will be done.
I read the motion and the amendment, and, like other motions and amendments, they confuse me because they both say more or less the same thing, only worded a little differently. I will refer to both later.
I am a GP in a county that has been hit particularly hard by sudden cardiac death, although it can happen anywhere and in any county and is no respecter of age or gender. Last week, one of my partners in practice told me that parents are already approaching GPs to get their children checked for defects. Another GP in my area told me a similar story. The matter is very much in the public’s mind, and something must be done.
As I said, sudden cardiac death has no respect for age. We know about the death of the two very young Patricks, Patrick Breen and Patrick Devlin, and of the fit young adults Cormac McAnallen and John McCall, whom Members have already mentioned. It just shows you. It must be pointed out that such deaths also affect females. Furthermore, it can happen to people who are not involved in sport at all — I was watching much of the debate in my room and heard a Member mention that. Those points should not be forgotten.
The major problem seems to be cardiomyopathy, although there are other diseases as well. As a GP, I know about defibrillators, and my local club in Tyrone has one. Yes, they will help, but let us face it: sudden cardiac death is due to an arrhythmia, which is a rhythm disturbance brought about by a heart defect. The person using a defibrillator has three to five minutes to get the heart going again; otherwise the individual will be dead or brain-dead — although there is not really much difference. Defibrillators are certainly helpful, but they are not the complete answer.
I ask the Minister to consider taking action to deal with this matter. Something must be done, and both the motion and the amendment agree on that. Jim Shannon said that prevention is better than cure, and that is true. Certain tests are cheap: electrocardiograms, which are tracings of the heart, are very cheap to carry out, and they can perhaps pick up on people at risk. Then we can move on to tests such as echocardiograms, which are much more expensive.
After the tragic events in Tyrone, my son, a fit young man of 19, who is taller than I am, was alarmed while he was playing a game of football to see someone on the sideline holding a defibrillator. I share other Members’ concerns about that. That is why I am not happy with the word “comprehensive” in the motion, because it suggests that everybody should be screened. That is where we cause undue alarm and anxiety, which, believe me, also has consequences for people’s health. We do not want children who participate in sports to see people carrying defibrillators, because that will cause alarm.
This is an important matter that has attracted publicity, because, for the most part, it concerns young lives. A child of 10 or 15 years of age can expect to live to 70 years of age or longer. I mean no disrespect, but to resuscitate the heart of people in their 80s may only give them three or four more years of life.
I want to pay tribute to Cardiac Risk in the Young, the Cormac Trust and the University of Ulster at Jordanstown, which now provides facilities in which patients can be checked. However, problems can sometimes arise with the procedures, making diagnosis unobtainable until the patient is older. There are false positive results and false negative results; these conditions are not simple, and neither are the treatments.
Members have mentioned the use of defibrillators and the fact that children might in future avoid becoming involved in sports. I read Dr White’s article in ‘The Irish News’ last week, to which Ms Ní Chuilín referred earlier. If what he says is true — I have no reason to doubt him — 2% of Italian athletes are told at a young age to avoid becoming involved in sport. My sons would not do that, no matter which doctor had advised them. A solution must be found, and we must work on this issue. I ask the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to give a commitment to examine the matter seriously. I support the amendment.
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Mr McGimpsey): It is unfortunate that this issue has been brought to the Floor of the House as a result of the tragic deaths of two children. I want to add my condolences to the families of Patrick Devlin and Patrick Breen during this terrible time. Every young death is a tragedy, but when that death occurs in an apparently fit and healthy young person, the devastation is much greater, because it is unexpected and comes without any kind of warning.
Those deaths have not occurred in isolation. Two young players from County Westmeath died earlier this month. Zeeshan Muhammed died while playing football in his schoolyard in Athlone, and Tony Parker died just before he was due to take part in a physical education class in his school in Moate. Members have also recalled the tragic loss of the young lives of John McCall, who died on a rugby tour in South Africa, and Cormac McAnallen.
In this day and age, we have come to associate death with increasing old age, and to have young people struck down before their potential is fulfilled, without their families having the time to adjust and say goodbye, is very difficult to deal with. The fear that another family member might have inherited the same — possibly fatal — condition causes high levels of stress for the grieving family, which is difficult to imagine.
Heart disease is the most common cause of unexpected sudden death in all age groups. In people over 40 years of age, heart disease is usually due to coronary artery disease, which is the narrowing or blockage of the blood vessels that supply the heart muscle. However, in young people, the majority of sudden deaths are due to congenital or inherited disorders of the heart muscle and irregular heart rhythms. Estimates from studies in other countries suggest that there are probably about five sudden unexpected cardiac deaths from different causes in young people in Northern Ireland every year.
It is important to note that, although most sudden deaths of young people occur as a result of underlying heart problems, those are not single conditions, and there are many different causes. More than 20 different conditions have been identified as causes of sudden cardiac death in young people. However, a few groups of conditions are responsible for most sudden deaths, and the largest group are the cardiomyopathies, which are abnormalities of the heart muscle and are usually inherited. The other major group of disorders affect the electrical condition in the heart and can trigger abnormal heart rhythm. Those disorders are believed to occur in one in 5,000 people. Congenital heart defects are another important group.
One of the cardiomyopathies — hypertrophic cardiomyopathy — is estimated to affect one in 500 people in the UK. It is the most common cause of sudden death in young athletes, accounting for up to 40% of such deaths, according to one study in the US. The majority of sufferers of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy have no symptoms prior to sudden death. A few sufferers may have a family history of a sudden or unexpected death, and some may have signs or symptoms of cardiac disease, such as chest pain, palpitations or blackouts. Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is a hereditary disease associated with at least 150 genetic mutations.
Sadly, there is no cure for cardiomyopathy. However, several treatments, including medicines, pacemakers, implantable defibrillators and surgery may have a role in improving symptoms or in preventing complications. Patients with cardiomyopathy and other heart diseases are usually referred to a consultant cardiologist, a number of whom have a specialist interest in the subject, and other inherited cardiac conditions. In those families where the genetic abnormality has been identified, it may be possible to do genetic tests for that specific mutation. Specialist services in that field are provided by a consultant cardiologist and the regional genetic centre in the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust. In addition to clinical tests and treatment, counselling, advice and information are provided for children and adults who suffer from inherited heart disease.
In one major way, Northern Ireland has contributed significantly to advances in cardiology because the portable defibrillator was invented by Professor Frank Pantridge, who was a cardiologist in the Royal Victoria Hospital. Until recently, defibrillation required considerable skill and training, and was largely restricted to medical and nursing staff. However, the recent introduction of the automated external defibrillator has meant that the average layperson, following a brief period of training, should be easily able to perform defibrillation. It is estimated that over 1,000 volunteers are skilled in that area.
My Department is also working with the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service and other key stakeholders to develop and implement a first-responder strategy for Northern Ireland. Appropriately trained local volunteers, using automated defibrillators, together with associated skills, can provide life-saving first aid, particularly in remote rural areas, until an accident and emergency ambulance can reach the scene.
I am aware that there have been calls for a screening programme, and I have heard those calls today. However, it must be considered whether the available evidence indicates that screening is always the right course of action. If it is not, we must consider what we must do to protect our children from such a devastating condition. It is a complex issue.
There is no specific test or one single solution to identifying all those at risk of the various causes of sudden cardiac death. In those who have a regular heart rhythm, the ECG may be normal when the person is at rest, and the characteristic changes may be present only after the administration of a specific drug. In others, it may require repeated ECGs and exercise monitoring before the diagnosis can be made.
Even if there were a successful screening test, it would be difficult to define at what age to begin screening. There is no optimum age at which to screen, so some people could die before they were screened and others after they were screened, if their conditions were not detected. Studies have shown that there is little evidence that starting treatment before the onset of symptoms makes a difference to the course of the disease. In fact, the majority of people with those underlying conditions do not have any symptoms for all or most of their lives, and will go on to have a normal lifespan. It is only in a small minority of cases that the condition leads to unexpected death, often in early adulthood. It is difficult to predict who will die suddenly and who will have a normal lifespan.
There are also concerns about the possible negative aspects of screening, including enforced changes in lifestyle, consequences for employment prospects, and securing insurance in the future. There are also psychological consequences of telling a young adult and his or her family that they have a condition that might kill them without warning, and for which there is no effective treatment or preventative measure.
The UK National Screening Committee (NSC) advises Government and the four UK Health Departments on all aspects of screening. To inform its proposals and advice, the NSC draws on the latest research evidence and the skills of a group of experts. For 10 years, the former Chief Medical Officer in Northern Ireland, Dr Henrietta Campbell, chaired that group, and a senior medical officer from the Department currently sits on the NSC.
Members of the NSC assess proposed new population screening programmes against a set of internationally recognised criteria. They ask questions about the tests, treatment options and the effectiveness and acceptability of the screening programme. By assessing programmes in that way, their intention is to do more good than harm to the population.
Since the NSC was established, it has made several recommendations on screening policy that have been implemented in Northern Ireland. They include diabetic retinopathy screening, which I launched recently, and the hearing screening of all newborn babies. It has also recommended screening for bowel cancer. Providing the Department’s bid under the comprehensive spending review is successful, I hope to introduce that in 2009, and it is expected to save 70 lives a year.
The NSC has previously considered the research evidence on screening for hypertrophic cardiomyopathy and has advised that the current evidence does not support the introduction of a screening programme. That advice is due for imminent review in 2007-08. I have asked a departmental official to accelerate the process as far as is possible, and the Chief Medical Officer has already raised the issue with the chair of the NSC.
There has been some research on, and much discussion about, the risk assessment for those involved in sport and exercise. The evidence for screening is not strong, and there are varying practices in different countries. In Italy, pre-participation screening programmes using an ECG exist for competitive athletes who compete at national and international level. In 1998, American research estimated that 200,000 competitive athletes would need to be screened potentially to identify one athlete who would die as a result of taking part in competition.
I must stress, however, the importance of raising awareness of the complex condition. The careful provision of information can do much to educate the public. I emphasise wholeheartedly that if young people are experiencing concerning symptoms, such as unusual breathlessness, palpitations, dizziness or fainting, it is important that they seek advice from their GP. However, the Department does not want to cause undue anxiety or panic among parents and families by suggesting that the problem is more common than it really is.
The vital contribution that voluntary organisations have made in bringing the issue to the fore must be recognised. As has been mentioned, a heart charity, Cardiac Risk in the Young has established a clinic in the University of Ulster at Jordanstown. CRY provided the equipment, but the university provides the facilities and the staff. I add my warm tribute to the dedicated work of the Cormac Trust, CRY and other voluntary organisations that have done so much to raise awareness of this issue.
In Northern Ireland, a service framework for cardiovascular health and well-being is being developed. I have asked that sudden cardiac death is addressed in that framework, which is due to be published in April 2008. It is vital that any service that affects the lives of young people is based on sound evidence. It is worth taking time to get the service right, and it is essential to examine best practice elsewhere.
I have also asked the Chief Medical Officer to lead a workshop for health experts in cardiology, clinical psychology, genetics and research academics in the field, officials from the relevant Departments, public health bodies, the Sports Council for Northern Ireland and voluntary organisations. The workshop’s remit is to explore thoroughly what further steps are available and to inform future policy development in Northern Ireland.
The correct policy must be found: in doing so the Assembly will pay a proper tribute to those children who lost their lives at such a young age and in such a terrible way.
Mr Buchanan: I thank the Minister for being in the House for the debate. There have been more debates in the Chamber about health than about any other subject. In supporting the amendment, I extend my sympathy to all families who have lost young people on or off the sports field. However, it would be remiss of me not to single out the Breen family who are present today. They are relatively close neighbours and are natives of my own village of Drumquin in west Tyrone. When the community there heard that such a young lad had died on the sports field, it not only brought a sense of disbelief to the locality and devastation to the family, it raised the question in everyone’s thoughts — could anything have been done to prevent the tragedy?
I have no doubt that all families that have found themselves in that position have pondered the same question. However, there is no clear medical evidence as to the root cause of sudden cardiac death amongst athletes. A study carried out in the USA on the causes of sudden cardiac death in high-school students, college athletes and military recruits found that a wide variety of conditions were responsible, and the study was unable to establish a common underlying cause for those sport-related deaths. That has resulted in different conclusions being drawn and has led to the development of varying practices in different countries.
We have tabled the amendment to widen the scope for the Minister and the Executive to consult with their UK counterparts through the UK National Screening Committee (NSC), and to bring forward a fully costed, evidence-based proposal to help reduce such avoidable cardiac deaths, which includes the introduction of screening programmes where appropriate. It is important that an evidence-based strategy is put in place to tackle this all-important issue.
A report by the Task Force on Sudden Cardiac Death revealed that there is insufficient evidence to support the implementation of a mass population screening programme, but there is, however, a role for risk assessment in respect of those involved in exercise or sport. Given that heart conditions are often hereditary, it is vital that families with a history of this condition are identified and assessed at an early stage and sent for screening if necessary.
It is also important that the sudden deaths of sport participants do not discourage our young people from taking part in sport. It is widely accepted that regular exercise reduces the risk of developing or dying from cardiac heart disease, obesity and other associated conditions. Even in childhood, there is substantial evidence to prove that regular physical activity positively affects body composition, reduces the risk of cardiac heart disease and provides immediate health benefits. A balanced approach must be taken, through the publicity and provision of information on the health benefits of regular exercise.
On listening to the debate, I sense that there is unity in the House regarding the way forward. Several Members mentioned the opinions of experts, and there is consensus that the Assembly must listen to experts and move forward on their advice. Indeed, the Chairperson of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety referred to current resources, the need to use them wisely and the need to provide an evidence-based way forward that incorporates all means of preventing avoidable deaths. Reference was also made to cross-departmental strategies that must be taken on board.
Jim Shannon mentioned having a system that works, which is obviously needed, and Alastair Ross mentioned the importance of sport.
All those factors will form part of the way forward. I appeal to all Members to support the amendment, as it is the way to proceed on the issue.
Mrs Hanna: The motion has provided the House with the opportunity to have a sensitive debate on sudden cardiac death. The death of a young, healthy person is very distressing, and we have every sympathy for the parents and families of those who have suffered such a loss.
Understandably, such a scenario throws up many questions, particularly about why the death occurred and how it could have been avoided. Members have highlighted the many concerns of families, worried parents and sports’ bodies. There is considerable agreement on appropriate screening, especially for those who are most at risk. Many Members have talked about having a range of screening, including risk assessment, with the health warning that it is not perfect, given the possibility of false negatives and positives. However, screening can certainly be a way forward, particularly for those who are at high risk.
The Assembly must, of course, listen to cardiologists, who are the experts in the field, while continuing to encourage participation in sport. Information, guidance and screening are needed, which is what the public are calling for. The SDLP motion asked for a range of options, including a comprehensive screening service. “Comprehensive” is used in the broadest sense of the word in order to create, and to allow the exploration of, the widest range of options.
Iris Robinson, who proposed the amendment, spoke of the sudden death of many young gymnasts. She mentioned the fact that those people are healthy and that they expect support when it is needed. She also said that resources need to be directed carefully and that an evidence-based service is needed.
Barry McElduff rightly said that the motion is not prescriptive, that we need to hear from the experts — the cardiologists — and that we must learn from other bodies, such as the American Heart Association and the Irish Government’s task force on the issue.
The Rev Coulter mentioned the importance of having sympathy, sentiment and support for those who grieve. He also mentioned the many questions that the issue raises on ethics, legal implications and insurance. All those are important points to consider.
Stephen Farry spoke of the importance of physical activity, on which, like so many aspects of this issue, all Members agree. He also said that we should continue to promote exercise and the best medical practice.
Alex Easton said that there was a compelling argument for screening. However, he said that it needs to be costed and must be part of a co-ordinated strategy.
Carál Ní Chuilín emphasised the need for screening in schools, which the motion also requested. Jim Shannon talked about genetic heart disease, the need for specialist facilities and to raise awareness, and the search for answers. He called for the immediate introduction of obligatory screening.
Alastair Ross talked about the costing of defibrillators, his own experience in sports’ clubs and the burden of the training in and use of such equipment. He praised the work of organisations such as Cardiac Risk in the Young, and he mentioned the good work that mobile units carry out.
Kieran Deeny said that something must be done and that his patients are asking many questions. Although he raised his concern about the use of defibrillators, the motion is not about that — it is exclusively about screening. Many sports’ clubs already have defibrillators, and getting them involved a great deal of community and charity work.
The Health Minister — who, as usual, is welcome and is always present at health-related debates — gave an informative and helpful explanation of the conditions required for screening, its pros and cons, and statistics relating to it. He said that a review is imminent, and that is welcome and timely. He also mentioned the service framework, and said that it will include sudden cardiac death. He further said that the Chief Medical Officer will lead a workshop with cardiologists.
Tom Buchanan expressed his sympathy and said that there is insufficient evidence to support screening, but he mentioned the role of risk assessments, the need to listen to experts, and the sense of unity in the House regarding the way forward.
Dominic and I carefully considered the wording of the motion. We are asking the Minister to bring forward a range of options. As I have already said, that should be a comprehensive range of options and a comprehensive screening service. What we are looking for is the widest range of options. Many Members who supported the amendment quoted from the motion, so I do not believe that there is any difference between the spirit of the motion and that of the amendment.
When we call for a wide range of options, we are looking for the simplest screening procedure for those in high-risk categories to be brought into schools. When we say “comprehensive”, we do not mean “universal”. We want the full range of options to be looked at, and the Minister has said that it will be. That is very important.
As I have said, I do not believe that there is much difference between the spirit of the motion and that of the amendment, and the SDLP wants to avoid unnecessary tension, because this is a sensitive issue. To that end, we will not oppose the amendment, because we all want to find the best way forward for these unfortunate young people and their grieving families.
Question, That the amendment be made, put and agreed to.
Mr D Bradley: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. May I ask you to investigate a situation that arose in the House earlier today? This morning, I was three minutes late for a ministerial statement and was, therefore, denied the right to speak. I accept that as the rule of the House. However, later in the afternoon, a Member who was not present for the debate was allowed to make a winding-up speech.
Mr Deputy Speaker: I ask the Member to raise his point of order after we have finished with the motion. We are in the middle of the process. It is certainly a matter that can be raised with the Speaker.
Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.
That this Assembly expresses its sympathy to the families of Patrick Breen and Patrick Devlin, who died recently on the sports field from heart defects; sympathises with all families who have lost loved ones in this way; and calls upon the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, and the Executive, to consult with their United Kingdom counterparts through the National Screening Committee, and bring forward fully costed, evidence-based proposals to reduce avoidable cardiac deaths in the young, including screening programmes where appropriate.
Mr D Bradley: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I apologise for interrupting the business at an inappropriate time.
This morning, I was, rightly, denied speaking rights because I was three minutes late for a ministerial statement. However, this afternoon, several Members were not present for most of the debate, but were permitted to contribute to it. One in particular was allowed to make a winding-up speech. Other Members participating in the debate this evening have openly told you, Mr Deputy Speaker, that they had not been present for most of it and had been listening to it elsewhere. Will you investigate this matter and provide a ruling?
Mr Deputy Speaker: I am happy to refer that to the Speaker and to get a reply to you, Mr Bradley.
That the Assembly do now adjourn. — [Mr Deputy Speaker]
Maximising Tourism Potential in the Strangford Constituency
Mr Hamilton: It is widely accepted and acknowledged on all sides of the House that our economy is in urgent need of transformation. The structural weaknesses in our economy have been well rehearsed in the Chamber in the past and need no elaboration today.
Regardless of the doubts of some Members, I think we must encourage every aspect of the private sector to expand and take its rightful place in the driving seat of Northern Ireland’s economy. One obvious area in which the private sector can fulfil that responsibility is tourism.
By any barometer, tourism is a growth area in Northern Ireland, and in the Strangford constituency. The latest available base-year figures show that total tourism income represents 3·5% of the gross value added (GVA) in Northern Ireland, is worth £783 million to the economy and employs 28,700 full-time equivalent jobs. ASM Howarth recently published a survey in 2006 on the Northern Ireland hotel industry, which showed that local hotels enjoyed an occupancy rate of close to 70%. That was a record high and represented an increase of 3% on the previous year.
In my own patch, tourism is a critical component of the local economy. The Northern Ireland Tourist Board (NITB) estimated that in 2005 tourists spent £16 million in the Ards Borough Council area, which -takes up the largest part of Strangford. An economic impact study is being carried out by the Armagh and Down Regional Tourism Partnership and includes the entire Strangford constituency. I understand that the early findings indicate that many hundreds of millions are being spent in the economy through tourism, when day trippers and those staying with relatives are included in the figures.
However, despite the important position tourism already has in our economy, we are not maximising our full potential, and that is widely accepted. The NITB stated that if Northern Ireland had matched the Republic of Ireland’s external visitor trends since 1969, tourism would be worth an extra £270 million in income, and would generate an additional 11,000 jobs.
It is worthwhile remembering why tourism in Northern Ireland represents only 2% of our gross domestic product (GDP) compared to 9% in the Republic and 11% in Wales. It is not because we have suddenly discovered the whole concept of tourism, or that people suddenly want to come here, it is because for more than 35 years this place was subjected to civil strife. When innocent civilians were the victims of random terrorist violence, it is no wonder that outsiders stayed away.
Hopefully, those days are long gone, and their demise will present Northern Ireland with an excellent opportunity to capitalise on political stability and bring a fresh focus from abroad, which will perhaps attract new tourists. We have all been encouraged by the reaction to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, with record numbers visiting the event and experiencing something of Northern Ireland.
Although the subject of the debate might suggest otherwise, I am not parochial about the issue. We must maximise the tourism potential of the whole of Northern Ireland in the hope that a rising tide will lift all boats. I want to see the tourism sector across Northern Ireland overcome fundamental problems such as the lack of suitable skills, and acknowledge issues such as the lack of a distinct Northern Ireland brand, and the associated fall-off in visitor numbers from Great Britain, while those from the rest of the world are on the rise.
We also need to anticipate other problems such as the need for a national conference centre to compete with the one in the pipeline for Dublin. To achieve those aims we must make the most of all our tourist attractions in each and every part of our Province. In short, places such as Strangford should receive their fair share of support so that they can contribute to the growth of tourism overall.
I am glad when there are adjournment debates on the Strangford constituency, because looking at the Members in the House at the moment shows the DUP domination there, and that is always good to see.
I am sure that Members, particularly those from Strangford, will forgive me for indulging briefly in a little promotion of the area that I consider myself lucky to live in and represent. We all believe that our constituencies are the most beautiful, but in the case of Strangford it is very much true. The sheer volume and diversity of our tourism attractions is probably unparalleled in Northern Ireland. At the heart of our offering to tourists is Strangford Lough, which was voted the fourth best view in the United Kingdom in a show seen by millions across the country. The fact that people in Northern Ireland were unable to vote, because of the screening of a rugby match, is testament to how good the view is, given that it came in at fourth place despite those problems. Strangford’s shores are surrounded by excellent places of interest for every type of tourist — Mount Stewart, Scrabo Tower, Nendrum, Delamont, the Somme Heritage Centre, Exploris, and the Wildfowl and Wetlands Centre at Castle Espie, which already draw hundreds of thousands of tourists from all over the world year in, year out. I hope I have not offended anyone by leaving something out of the list.
Strangford is home to a great many events and festivals, with sports and outdoor activities such as golf, fishing and sailing, which can be enjoyed in some of the best surroundings in Northern Ireland, and our hospitality is second to none. Our proximity to Belfast, so often a hindrance in other aspects of economic development, is a positive advantage in the realm of tourism. The product is there; is it simply a matter of exploiting it.
I will outline a few specific areas where there is scope for significant improvement in Strangford’s tourism potential. No discussion of tourism can be allowed to pass without dwelling on the lough from which our constituency takes it name. The biggest inlet in the British Isles is home to an exceptional variety of more than 2,000 marine species, the largest breeding population of common seals in Ireland and many migrating birds from all over the world. Indeed, its rich, diverse, abundant, and sometimes unique, bird, marine and animal population is recognised in its status as Northern Ireland’s first marine nature reserve, and sets us apart not only in a British or European context but also in a global perspective. It may not be a world heritage site, but it is world-renowned.
There is a widely held view that Strangford Lough has been under-marketed compared to other attractions in Northern Ireland, such as the Giant’s Causeway and the Fermanagh lakes. If we are to maximise Northern Ireland’s undoubted tourism potential, it could be argued that such a target will ever be achieved only by highlighting and developing new jewels in the crown, instead of concentrating solely on the well-established ones. I do not mean that in purely monetary terms: Strangford must be accepted as an asset.
I have long felt that the best way to show such an acceptance and to capitalise on Strangford Lough’s potential would be to establish it as one of the Tourist Board’s signature projects. Strangford Lough was omitted from the first slate of signature projects, and although we have no argument against those projects that were included, surely Strangford Lough, with its many unique designations and broad tourism offerings around it shores, could be considered, after 2009, as a new signature project. In the past, I have even suggested that Strangford Lough could be included in a wider loughs signature project, which could include Fermanagh’s lakes or Lough Neagh. Strangford Lough should be in Northern Ireland’s portfolio of top-class tourism attractions — however it is done — and I hope that the Tourist Board will consider the case of Strangford Lough for future signature project status.
Strangford Lough could also provide Northern Ireland with an excellent opportunity to take advantage of the increasing interest in ecotourism — and by that I do not mean three Irish guys running around the Colombian jungle — I mean the form of tourism that is already worth an estimated $3·6 trillion in economic activity globally.
I have already spoken of the many environmental designations that Strangford Lough enjoys, yet more could be achieved. Ards Borough Council, of which I am a member, has taken a lead in its limited way through Exploris — the Northern Ireland Aquarium — and an annual ecotourism conference. However, the council is operating in a policy vacuum with little or no leadership at a higher level. With the anticipated growth in this sector, and the fact that ecotourists usually spend more than other tourists, Strangford Lough is ripe for a flagship ecotourism project such as the Ards and Down Salmonid Enhancement Association (ADSEA) scheme, in which some of my party colleagues are interested.
I have already mentioned the Northern Ireland Tourist Board’s signature projects, and just as important as securing such a status for Strangford Lough is the continued assurance that the Strangford constituency is tied in with existing, more generic, projects. The Strangford constituency is already intimately involved in the St Patrick’s/Christian Heritage tourism signature project, but perhaps the greatest potential in Strangford lies in what we all suspect may be the signature project with the greatest potential of all — the Titanic project. My hometown of Comber has a huge connection with Titanic, as it is the hometown of the ship’s designer, Thomas Andrews. The local council is engaged in developing a walking tour around the town, taking in many Titanic-related sites. Comber may be only a tiny part of the Titanic tale, but it is a part nonetheless, and it is important that the development of the Titanic signature project include Comber and its deeper insight into the story of that ship.
Strangford is a hotbed of Ulster-Scots culture and heritage. In fact, since it is the home of the Ulster-Scots Academy, we almost consider ourselves as the Ulster-Scots capital. The reawakening of the Ulster-Scots tradition is worthy in its own right, but it also presents us with tremendous tourism opportunities. For far too long the impression of Northern Ireland given to the outside world has been one dominated by everything from Irish dancing and Irish music to leprechauns and shillelaghs — everything but what is distinctive and different about Northern Ireland. It is little wonder that that problem perpetuates, given that the marketing of Northern Ireland to the world — including the rest of the United Kingdom — is in the hands of Tourism Ireland.
I acknowledge that they have done a great job in selling the whole of Ireland to the world, and visitor numbers from places such as North America and the Far East are on the rise. However, numbers of visitors from Great Britain are falling and have been heading downwards for the past two years. We insult the intelligence of our fellow countrymen in the rest of the UK by not marketing Northern Ireland as it is. People in Scotland and Wales know the difference between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland; they know the difference Belfast and Dublin, and do not need to be sold some type of concocted nonsense.
I agree with Tom McGrath, Chairman of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, who told the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that the Northern Ireland tourism product is diluted when marketed as part of the island of Ireland:
“because it does not stand out”.
The Ulster-Scots heritage and culture could be utilised to increase visitor numbers from Scotland and, indeed, North America, as the Smithsonian Folklife Festival has shown. Developing the potential of Ulster-Scots is essential in order to develop Northern Ireland tourism and, because of its rich vein of Ulster-Scots tradition, the Strangford constituency would surely benefit from such an initiative.
An accepted weakness of the tourism product in Strangford is in hotels and conference facilities. Despite its obvious attractions and great potential, Strangford is not blessed with as many hotels as it should be. In common with other parts of Northern Ireland, Strangford suffers from a restriction in Invest NI’s ‘Support for Tourism Businesses 2004-2007’ policy, which states that:
“In the Belfast area, (defined for this purpose as a radius of 10 miles from Belfast City Centre) no applications for financial assistance for new hotel developments, including extensions and upgrades etc to existing properties will be accepted by Invest NI.”
Although I understand the sense behind such a restriction, and of ceasing financial support for hotel developments in Belfast that are likely to be a success, regardless of support from the public purse, the 10-mile radius rule denies new or existing hotel developments from availing of initial capital support in key towns such as Newtownards, which is a gateway to Strangford. I urge the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to examine that policy, with a view to assisting hotel developments in Strangford and elsewhere.
I also wish to make a case for not only securing current levels of funding, but consideration of future growth in resources for the Armagh and Down Tourism Partnership. The regional tourism partnerships (RTPs), including the Armagh and Down Tourism Partnership, were created in 2006 and identified in, ‘A Strategic Framework for Action 2004-2007’, as the way forward for the delivery of regional priorities. That important task requires appropriate levels of funding. The RTPs have lost various elements of EU funding and are now increasingly dependent on their share of £500,000 worth of core support from NITB, in addition to what they can elicit from the private sector.
I have already outlined the impact of the Armagh and Down Tourism Partnership in my area. Its input into communications, marketing, product development and visitor servicing is valuable, and it does a good job. I agree with the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which concluded that RTPs should be properly funded to enable them to carry out their functions of identifying and pursuing local regional tourism priorities
There are wider issues — many that are not unique to Strangford — that require attention. Those issues are not specifically within the remit of DETI; however, Members have been encouraged by the Minister’s comments about co-ordinating economic development in general. Tourism fits into that category, particularly in general areas such as skills development, infrastructure and planning, and, specifically, the ADSEA project, which I mentioned earlier, and possible National Parks status at a later date for Strangford.
Strangford is as good a snapshot as any of what is needed to maximise the potential of tourism in Northern Ireland. Strangford, in common with the rest of the country, has a tourism product to be proud of. It requires not only assistance, but encouragement, so that the Strangford constituency, with its wealth of tourism riches, can play its part in building the better, prosperous, Northern Ireland that all Members hope for.
Mr McNarry: I am grateful to Simon for not only securing the debate, but for the commercial for our constituency. I am glad to speak in advance of Jim Shannon, otherwise, I imagine, there would be nothing left to say. However, having heard Simon for the past 20 minutes, I am not sure there is anything to say anyway. Nevertheless, I will have a bash at it.
I am delighted to see the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment, following a hard day at the office in front of the Committee, which I listened in to for a while in the Senate Chamber.
I wish we had a Giant’s Causeway to invest in and a visitor attraction such as that to argue over, as people are doing in another part of Northern Ireland.
Strangford is politically unique, because it has no republican or nationalist representation in this House. Sometimes I wonder whether it suffers because of that. I cannot put my finger on the reason, but — and sometimes people say this to me — because it is a predominantly unionist constituency the word “tourism” does not seem to fit. I hope that that is not the case, and it would be grossly unfair if it were. Perhaps the Minister will consider investigating the matter. Community relations in Strangford are first class, and its MLAs represent the whole constituency and all its constituents.
The Assembly, in conjunction with its partners in the tourism industry, can help Northern Ireland emerge as an internationally competitive tourist destination. I have sourced an article about the ASM Horwarth hotel industry survey in ‘Business First’, volume 3, issue 4. I hope that nobody else has sourced this and that I am not accused of anything. The performance of Northern Ireland hotels in 2006 showed that:
“The average bedroom occupancy rate was 68.7 per cent… an increase of three percentage points when compared with 2005.
The average letting rate of a bedroom in 2006 was £63.20, an increase of 11 percent over 2005.
Food and beverage sales increased by 13 per cent over 2005.
Total sales increased by an average of 15.8 per cent compared to 2005.”
A key point is that Northern Ireland hotel profitability is now “on a par with Dublin”.
That should be more than encouraging for potential investors. I am extremely confident about the future of tourism in our country. However, against the backdrop of growth, we must ensure that there is an effort to maximise the tourist potential in the Strangford constituency.
The tourism potential will only be realised through investment in marketing, product development and physical tourism facilities, such as infrastructure and accommodation. We need quality facilities and accommodation that will contribute to the sustainability of an industry when we are asking for growth.
We need hotels to complement the excellent bed-and-breakfast facilities, which are of the highest standard. Sometimes, I think that they are almost too good and that the short distance from Belfast to many of our towns and villages may be discouraging hotel development. Therefore, we must commend, as Simon Hamilton said, an in-depth look at promoting more hotels in our area.
Strangford should not be seen in isolation. I mentioned the proximity of Belfast, but perhaps we should consider Strangford as the hub of, or gateway to, the whole of the region, extending to the Republic and — with a natural Ulster-Scots tradition — to Scotland in particular.
Mention has been made of the Strangford Lough environment, which is of international and national importance for its bird and marine life. Although that should be protected, it is important to avoid the perception that conservation interests are inhibiting the economic development of the area. That is a key area for the potential development of at least one hotel without disruption to conservation interests.
In the past it has seemed to those of us in Strangford that the tide was out as far as tourism potential in and around Strangford Lough was concerned.
There are still many challenges. However, this debate will encourage the Assembly, the district councils, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, and other partners in the tourism industry, to ensure that the tide is coming in for us.
There are small villages in pockets around Strangford. Promotion and marketing of tourism in that area is primarily the responsibility of Ards Borough Council, Down District Council, and a small element in Castlereagh Borough Council. Ards Borough Council and Down District Council both operate a range of tourist facilities, including picnic, caravan and amenity sites. In fact, there is tremendous potential for the development of caravan sites.
Along with the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development’s Forest Service, and the Department of the Environment, through the Environment and Heritage Service, there is a togetherness in managing historic and special wildlife sites. Some of those have been mentioned, but there are also the archaeological remains of the Nendrum monastery near Whiterock.
The National Trust owns and manages properties of nature and historical interest. Outside Northern Ireland, Mount Stewart always gets high ratings as a place to visit, and there is Rowallane House and Gardens in the Saintfield area.
I want the councils to do more for tourism, as opposed to visitor numbers. There needs to be a differentiation between real tourists and visitors. Many people visit Strangford — they perhaps only come from Lisburn, east Belfast or wherever — and they are more than welcome; however, it is real tourists who will help and contribute to our economy.
The village of Comber is growing into a town, and is famed for its wide variety of antique and interior shops. It is a good place to eat now; I am glad that a new coffee-shop culture has developed there. It is, as was mentioned, the birthplace of Thomas Andrews, the man who designed the Titanic. It seems strange that Comber has not really claimed him as a famous son. I understand why the Titanic Quarter is being built where it is, but perhaps, one day, someone will provide a bus to take people from the Titanic Quarter to Comber.
Portaferry — no doubt Kieran will say something about this — is a beautiful town at the tip of the Ards Peninsula. It is an area popular with locals, and it attracts foreign tourists because of its outstanding beauty and other visitor attractions, such as the aquarium that Simon Hamilton mentioned.
Newtownards is a main town with a main shopping centre. It is in an area of astonishing beauty and diversity, which has evolved through the natural forces of the environment of wind, of water and ice, as well as through the activity of humans. It is worrying to see subsidence on some of the coastline there.
Mr McCarthy: No one is interested.
Mr McNarry: They should be.
Portaferry has a successful hotel — The Narrows. There is no doubt that it shocked and annoyed everyone — not only the relatively new owners, but people all around — that it was subject to wanton vandalism. Louts simply came along and smashed windows. I am sure that all Members present have issued some kind of public statement on that. It is very discouraging for any hotel owners, or for anyone who owns a business, to be subjected to that, and — worse still — not really to know what is behind it.
While the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment is present, I want to raise the matter of the general malaise of anti-social behaviour. I wonder what consideration he would give, from a tourist perspective, to the detrimental impact that anti-social behaviour undoubtedly has on tourism.
Will the Minister consider discussing with the Chief Constable the impact of antisocial behaviour on the tourist industry? I mean that sincerely. All Members who represent Strangford have talked with the local police commander about that problem — some of us as recently as last week. When tourists see antisocial behaviour on such a scale as I have seen in Strangford, it switches them off.
Antisocial behaviour has a serious detrimental effect on tourism and — not only that — it can lead to a bad story being carried back. Such damage cannot be undone. There is a connection between those two aspects; and tourism will benefit immensely if we can outlaw antisocial behaviour from our streets. That would, of course, benefit us all; but antisocial activity has a particularly dire effect on tourism. Nothing sends people packing from a town or from an amenity more effectively than a display of vandalism or thuggery.
Will the Minister also consider the importance of tourist-driven, as opposed to visitor-driven, support for events? I will not identify particular events, but it would be useful for a signal to be sent out that the Department might support events with a local Strangford flavour. Events of a high standard could, if given the attention and the necessary support, become winning tourist attractions in a short time.
A lot goes on in the constituency, much of it indigenous and small; but there is a nucleus of events that might bring forward an entrepreneurial spirit or a new capital-risk venture scheme. I hope that people might be prepared to host events in the Strangford constituency, which could be identified with, and would capture, the flavour of the place.
I would welcome a signal from the Minister that such events would be supported. I know that his response will be that if he is given the right event, he will consider it. However, I want to be able to report back to some people who might seriously consider putting on such events in the constituency.
Mr McCarthy: I was nearly falling asleep.
I will be as quick as I can, because there are other things to be done. I do not disagree with anything I have heard so far. One or two things have been missed out, but I will not repeat what any Member has said.
The proposer of the motion is most supportive of increased tourism, but I question his attitude to the disposal of coastal land within the Ards Borough Council area. If Mr Hamilton wishes to encourage tourists and see our tourist industry thrive, he must know that we have to provide facilities such as basic car parks and local play areas along Strangford Lough and the Irish Sea coast. Mr Hamilton and other DUP members of Ards Borough Council voted to dispose of such areas and sell the land that visitors and tourists want to come to, park their cars and enjoy what is there.
Recently, Mr Hamilton and others agreed to the disposal of a coastal car park outside Ballywalter for the construction of a waste-water treatment works, which would be a monstrosity on our coastline. Mr Hamilton must get his priorities right. If he wants to bring more tourists to the constituency he must reassess his attitude to the disposal of coastal land.
There is a tremendous opportunity throughout Northern Ireland to capitalise on the natural assets — a beautiful landscape and a wonderful heritage. There is particular evidence of those attributes in the Strangford constituency, and great potential for a successful and sustainable tourist industry.
As was pointed out earlier, Strangford Lough is the centrepiece of the constituency and is recognised throughout the world as an area of outstanding natural beauty. That designation alone is sufficient to attract visitors from across the globe. To ensure that the best possible tourism potential is derived from Strangford Lough, it is essential that the lough and its coastline are respected, protected and enhanced.
Strangford Lough offers much to encourage visitors, not least a wide variety of active bird life. I am fortunate enough to live by the edge of the lough, and I can assure Members that the many species of birds provide wonderful sights and sounds for those who visit. Surely more effort could be made to encourage birdwatchers to spend some time in Northern Ireland and along the Strangford Lough coast?
I am delighted to see that the Minister with responsibility for tourism, Mr Dodds, is in the Chamber this evening. I will draw his attention to the fact that in Portaferry, at the tip of Strangford Lough, we have a wonderful tourist attraction in Exploris. Since its inception a number of years ago, it has been run and managed by Ards Borough Council, of which I and other Members present in the Chamber are members.
I would like the Minister to consider ways in which his Department could contribute, financially or otherwise, to the future expansion and sustainability of this magnificent tourist destination. Exploris, which is a replica of what goes on underneath the surface of Strangford Lough, is almost as important to Northern Ireland as the Giant’s Causeway. People may disagree, but that is my opinion. I ask the Minister to consider the input that his Department could have to the Exploris experiment. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment will become more involved.
In the Strangford constituency we have many more tourist attractions that could blossom if sufficient effort was directed towards them by the Department. For example, there is a rich Christian heritage in the constituency, and many relics of the past, such as Nendrum, Castlehill, Greyabbey, Movilla and many more, all of which could make a significant contribution to tourism if brought together.
A number of historical events took place in the constituency. In particular, if Members know their history they may be aware of the activities of the Presbyterian United Irishmen around 1798. The story features Betsy Gray at the Six Road Ends, and the part played by the town hall in Newtownards. Mrs Robinson is looking startled — she may not know what that entails.
Mrs I Robinson: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Not only do I know the history, but I have spoken about it two or three times.
Mr McCarthy: I apologise for my mistake — the Member certainly looked startled. At least she knows about the town hall’s history.
Saintfield, Ballynahinch, etc, should be of great interest to visitors and tourists. Indeed, if they were put together on some type of heritage trail, it would be an excellent attraction not only for our constituency, but for North Down, South Down and right across the area. There are many more features that could encourage tourists into our constituency, such as sport, agriculture, walking, cycling and horse riding; all of which must be examined and exploited to further the tourism industry.
In conclusion, I must mention Scrabo Tower and its beautiful parkland, and Mount Stewart, with its wonderful house and gardens. Ballyquintin Farm, which is right at the tip of the Ards Peninsula, has tourism potential that must be explored and exploited. I ask the Minister, his Department, local councils and the Northern Ireland Tourist Board to work together to produce a plan to encourage more visitors to visit our shores and, in particular, the Strangford constituency.
Mrs I Robinson: Kieran mentioned Strangford Lough. If he wants more coastal space, he might consider bulldozing his own house, because it is five feet from the lough shore. That would create some space.
I congratulate my party colleague for securing the Adjournment debate. When I delivered my maiden speech in another place, I was privileged to detail the breathtaking beauty of the constituency that I represent, both as MP and MLA, alongside my three party colleagues. I still feel the same sense of pride as I drive through that part of the Province, to and from advice centres in Portavogie, Killyleagh and Saintfield.
We have yet to grasp the role that tourism must play in the development of Northern Ireland’s economy. To be fair, we are still finding our feet after emerging from 40 years of terror and violence that ensured that tourism was essentially suffocated. At the same time, the legislative Assembly is still in its infancy. The concept of devolved Government in Northern Ireland is still bedding in. Although we can be excused for being a little behind in practical terms, I am concerned that we do not yet understand what must be done in order to maximise our tourism potential; nor do I believe that the matter is simply one of blind investment in tourism. Rather, it is crucial to the future success of tourism that a co-ordinated and strategic approach is adopted in order to facilitate its expansion: only at that point must the funding that is needed to achieve those goals be identified.
There is no point complaining that there are no hotels between Bangor and Portaferry on the Ards Peninsula, because such businesses are consumer led — they are not viable without demand. Until the area’s natural and historical assets are maximised, there will remain insufficient demand.
Northern Ireland is a blank canvas, compared to the state of affairs in other parts of the United Kingdom. Strangford is a case in point. There are several issues that contribute to that, such as the decline of traditional industries in the area, the job losses that have resulted, and the need for new investment. In recent years, we have witnessed the collapse of the textile industry, which has all but disappeared; the closure of TK-ECC in Dundonald, and the decline in fortunes of the fishing and farming sectors. As a result, around 2,500 people have lost their jobs. At the same time, however, there has been little meaningful inward investment.
People ask themselves where the peace dividend is in all of that. With the end of the Troubles, and the prospect of a peaceful future, we were promised huge advances and investment in tourism as overseas visitors returned to our shores.
That has not yet materialised. In the meantime, the Strangford Lough area — an area of outstanding natural beauty — remains completely relevant as a tourist resource. The lough is unique in that it is the largest sea lough in the British Isles, covering approximately 150 square kilometres and separated from the Irish Sea by the Ards Peninsula. Its visual beauty is unquestionable. In the recent ITV competition, ‘Britain’s Favourite View’, Eddie Irvine described it as:
“Swept constantly by Atlantic weather, every single day is different. For trees, and oceans and hills and greenery, it is hard to beat.”
Scrabo Tower dominates the area and gazes out at the glorious panorama of Strangford Lough, its islands, the Mountains of Mourne and the whole of north Down. Almost completely landlocked, Strangford Lough is rich with the marine and plant life that revel in the islands, foreshore, salt marshes and wetlands. The lough is a conservation area, and its abundant wildlife is recognised internationally for its importance. Animals commonly found in the lough include seals, basking sharks and brent geese. Three quarters of the world population of brent geese winter in the lough.
Away from the lough itself, we have the beauty of the beaches on the Irish Sea side of the Ards Peninsula. In recent correspondence, the permanent secretary of the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure stated that his Department recognised that our greatest assets are our unspoilt landscapes, seascapes and the importance of our coastline and beaches. He stated that beaches attract a diverse range of visitors and activity-users as well as providing a natural visual amenity, and that it is important that all visitors have confidence that our waters and beaches are clean and safe.
There are at least 12 wonderful beaches on the Ards Peninsula, which in itself should form a central plank of the area’s tourism strategy. Unfortunately, the water quality at many of those beaches leaves a lot to be desired because of the pumping of sewage, in some cases untreated, into local bathing waters. The Department for Regional Development, which is responsible for waste water and sewage treatment, recently admitted that there is some way to go to reach the compliance levels that prevail in England. That should have been a no-brainer. Matters should never have been allowed to reach the point, where, in the twenty-first century, we still allow raw sewage to be pumped into our bathing waters.
A Member: Will the Member give way?
Mrs I Robinson: No, I will not give way.
Across the Strangford area, we also have a heritage and a history that remain all but hidden. The following was written of Sir Hugh Montgomery, who was central in the Scottish settlement of the area after 1606:
“Thus the country where Montgomery had settled was unhappy and devastated, but he laid balm upon the wounds, and in a few years he had founded economically sound industries and turned large portions of Ulster into a prosperous country.”
The history and heritage of the area is essentially an account of how the Scots influenced local life on economic, social and cultural levels. The area’s built heritage reflects that, whether it be the old cross in Newtownards — the only market cross still in existence outside of Edinburgh —or the almost fairytale castle in Killyleagh, the ancestral home of the Hamiltons, whose family, along with that of Sir Hugh Montgomery, settled lands from Killyleagh to Bangor and from Dundonald to Cloughy.
The Ulster Scots have etched their own identity on the entire area. The story of Strangford is, therefore, the story of the Scots who arrived on a barren, depopulated, wasted land and who were responsible for the establishment and growth of most of the local settlements in the area, not least Newtownards. Sir Hugh Montgomery, Sir James Hamilton and all those who followed them to the area left a rich and powerful inheritance: a people whose first loyalty was to truth and fairness; whose support could never be taken for granted; who would fight for their freedom and liberty; who were committed to improving themselves and where they lived; and who brought a diverse array of cultural expression through music, literature and language, which resonates to this very day.
However, that remains nothing more than tourist potential, a vein of tourist gold that has yet to be mined. At a time when US tourists are becoming tired of the old “plastic Paddy” image that they have been fed for so long, and as interest in Scots-Irish heritage increases, we have an unprecedented wealth of Ulster-Scots history and heritage on our doorstep that is simply waiting to be exploited.
I find it frustrating that in the likes of Scotland, tourist attractions and areas of interest are provided for on a comprehensive scale, utilising all their available resources to attract and entertain visitors in a co-ordinated and joined-up fashion. There is an absolute wealth of attractions and history in Strangford, yet we have not even got off the mark in fulfilling the area’s potential.
Although we have a number of excellent attractions such as Mount Stewart, Scrabo Tower and Castle Espie, without a strategic approach to tourism we will never maximise the area’s appeal. The Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure estimates that, at present, tourism is worth £500 million a year to the Northern Ireland economy. If addressed properly, that could double.
Miss McIlveen: I commend my hon Friend Mr Hamilton for the positive and enthusiastic manner in which he has demonstrated the tourism potential not only of my own Strangford constituency, but of the whole of Northern Ireland, and for the way in which in he has set it in an economic context. I agree wholeheartedly with all that he has said.
Northern Ireland is now rapidly catching up on so many fronts after decades of terrorism and political instability, and the tourism deficit presents us all with major challenges and opportunities. In order to maximise potential, we need to ensure that the structures are right and that all the key players are singing from the same hymn sheet. As things stand, our tourism industry is hindered rather than helped by the seemingly numerous bodies and organisations involved, some of them politically motivated products of the Belfast Agreement.
As a result, therefore, the message is not always as clear as it might be — a point that was made by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in its report on tourism in Northern Ireland, published last year. The tourism industry is a vital cog in our economic wheel, and it deserves efficient, effective and dynamic strategic leadership. As things stand, I do not think that it is getting that, and I urge the Minister to address that as soon as possible.
Northern Ireland is a small place. My colleague has quite rightly drawn attention to the many and varied attractions of the Strangford area. He has also set these firmly within a broader Northern Ireland context. The signature projects — focusing as they do on the main historic and other main attractions across the Province — are clearly the key to attracting out-of-state visitors. We need to be sure that, once those visitors are here, the infrastructure is in place to encourage and direct them to other attractions, such as those in my constituency.
I am not sure that the tourist attractions of the Strangford region receive the publicity that they deserve in overseas marketing. I also feel that support from the Northern Ireland Tourist Board for the local tourist industry in Strangford and beyond is essential if the regional tourism partnership for the area is to operate effectively.
Another area that is important if we are to make progress in tourism is that of good-quality accommodation. We are happy to see day visitors, as others have mentioned, but we are even happier if they decide to stay for a few days to fully enjoy the many attractions in Strangford. We must ensure that they are comfortable during such a stay. I would be interested to know whether the Minister is satisfied that enough is being done to support the development of the accommodation sector in my constituency.
One of my main concerns — and my colleague referred to this — is that Tourism Ireland, rather than the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, is responsible for marketing Northern Ireland in Great Britain. That is patently absurd. It is little wonder that visitor numbers from Great Britain are falling. It is not rocket science to work out that the marketing of Northern Ireland in, say, China or California requires a very different approach to that taken among our fellow citizens across the Irish Sea. Northern Ireland must be marketed in Great Britain as an integral part of the United Kingdom, and far more emphasis must be placed on our British history, traditions and culture. That will not be done while Tourism Ireland remains in charge of marketing in Great Britain. I encourage the Minister to strengthen and enhance the role of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and to give it back the responsibility for the promotion of Northern Ireland in Great Britain.
At the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington at the end of June, I was reminded of the closeness of the historical, religious and family ties between Northern Ireland and the so-called southern states of the United States of America, such as Virginia, Tennessee and the Carolinas. There is a vast and largely untapped tourist potential there. Again, I ask the Minister to do all he can to ensure that Tourism Ireland markets Northern Ireland positively and properly in those states. This means that —
Mr Deputy Speaker: Your time is up, sorry.
The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Mr Dodds): I congratulate the hon Member Simon Hamilton for securing this adjournment debate, and I welcome the opportunity to discuss this important issue, especially at a time when tourism continues to flourish. The Hansard report of this debate will serve as a wonderful tourist advertisement for Strangford. It will save the Northern Ireland Tourist Board from having to publish any new pamphlets, because Members have waxed lyrical and eloquent about the attractions of a very beautiful part of the world. As has been said, the Strangford constituency is blessed with natural beauty and plays a central role in making Northern Ireland the attractive destination that it is.
Several Members mentioned that Strangford Lough featured in the final of the prime time TV show ‘Britain’s Favourite View’. It was pipped at the post, but the fact that it was voted among the top four views in the United Kingdom was a tremendous achievement. It underscored the potential of the area and will serve to advertise Northern Ireland, particularly Strangford Lough, to a very wide audience. The Northern Ireland Tourist Board and VisitBritain joined forces for that series to promote the diversity of landscapes across Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. Therefore, I hope that people will be inspired to come and enjoy trips to Strangford Lough and the surrounding area.
Other important tourist attractions have been mentioned, including Castle Ward, which is one of Europe’s most unique houses; the famous gardens at Mount Stewart; and Exploris, Northern Ireland’s public aquarium and seal sanctuary. In 2006, more than 300,000 people visited those attractions, two of which are in the Strangford constituency. The Tourist Board and Tourism Ireland continue to work together to organise press trips to those attractions, thus ensuring that the area remains on the radar of local and international journalists and obtains positive coverage across the world. The house and gardens at Mount Stewart, near Greyabbey, have featured prominently in Tourism Ireland’s global-destination marketing campaign. I understand that Tourism Ireland has also undertaken an initiative in the market in Great Britain to encourage visitors to come here with their cars.
I have listened carefully to what some Members — particularly Ms McIlveen — said about Tourism Ireland. I am absolutely determined that Northern Ireland’s image be promoted as effectively as possible, so that we can secure the best possible value for money from our investment in tourism. My Department will actively examine that. As Members have pointed out, the division of those promotions has been subject to the institutional legacies of previous arrangements. I am determined to address the dip in the number of tourists and visitors who come to Northern Ireland from Great Britain.
Mr Shannon: The Minister has said, rightly, that Strangford is the jewel in the crown, and some Members have raised issues that must be addressed. Does the Minister agree that the Ulster-Scots culture should be exploited and, indeed, enhanced? Every year, 250,000 visitors come from Scotland, and Ulster-Scots trails could be enhanced to entice visitors to Strangford. As well as the beauty of Strangford Lough, the culture and history of the place are attractions.
Country sports could also be exploited. Last year, American tourists spent £50,000 in the Ards Borough Council area during the two-day Ballywalter game fair. The potential of that event should be exploited, along with the attractions of the Battletown Gallery and the Eden Pottery Centre.
Mr Dodds: I congratulate the hon Member for managing to compress a speech into an intervention. However, it is fair that all Members who wished to speak have been able to contribute to the debate, even though we are constrained by time. The points that the hon Member has raised, such as Ulster-Scots culture, are important.
Some Members have mentioned the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which I attended, as did Michelle McIlveen and others. We have seen the tremendous benefits of our participation in that event. It attracted over 1,500,000 visitors, and the tremendous programme of events at the festival focused on food, music, crafts and landscapes. The Ulster-Scots connection, particularly to the southern states of America, was very noticeable. The Strangford constituency featured prominently at that event, with an entire evening devoted to Ballywalter Park, with Lord and Lady Dunleath taking guests on a virtual tour of their home.
Northern Ireland’s participation in the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, and the Strangford aspect of that event, will have a hugely positive impact on tourism here. Members have mentioned the five signature projects, one of which is the Christian Heritage/St Patrick project, and they have rightly pointed to the importance of the Christian heritage in the Strangford constituency and surrounding area.
The main focus of that tourism signature project will be to increase visitor numbers and spending in Northern Ireland through the development and promotion of key Christian heritage sites.
One of the priorities is to develop the St Patrick and Christian heritage trail, which stretches from Armagh to Bangor. The trail passes through Downpatrick and links major Christian heritage sights along the way, including Inch Abbey and Saul, before travelling along the Ards Peninsula where it follows Strangford Lough, incorporating the impressive Cistercian abbey at Greyabbey on its way north. Signage for the trail will feature strongly throughout the constituency, with 15 signs in Newtownards, six in the Greyabbey area and 11 around Portaferry. That signature project has also attracted media familiarisation trips from across Europe and the United States.
The need to ensure that good accommodation is available and that there are good skills in the accommodation sector has been mentioned. There is excellent accommodation and hospitality in the Strangford constituency. Balloo House in Killinchy won the award for hospitality at the recent Northern Ireland tourism awards. The Portaferry Hotel and the Narrows offer excellent accommodation and cuisine, including a wide selection of local seafood. I sound like an advertisement for Strangford but it is right to put those things on record.
Hotels have been mentioned, and it is interesting and good to note that work has started on the Strangford Arms Hotel in Newtownards, with refurbishment work to be carried out, which will result in improved accessibility and the creation of an additional 20 en suite bedrooms. I note the point that Mr Hamilton made about grant assistance for hotels in the greater Belfast area. I will investigate that point, and I am happy to take the points that he and others have made about that.
Mrs I Robinson: It would be remiss to forget that in the Castlereagh hills we have the La Mon House Hotel, which is currently expanding; several million pounds is being spent to provide additional bedrooms, a spa and a swimming pool.
Mr Dodds: Yes, that is an excellent point. The major boom in the provision of hotel bedrooms in the greater Belfast area is to be welcomed.
The need to ensure that events are organised that will draw in people was mentioned, and that is essential. Recently, I was at Royal County Down Golf Club, which hosted the Walker Cup between Great Britain and Ireland and the USA. Although that event did not happen in Strangford, it brought many people into the general locality, and Strangford will have benefited from the worldwide attention. I know from speaking to people there that they enjoyed their visit and saw all the attractions and the local area. There are also excellent courses in the Strangford constituency, such as Scrabo and Kirkistown Castle.
Last week we had the sixth festival of the Peninsula, which was organised by Ards Borough Council, who I am happy to congratulate in having presented once again a splendid variety of all that celebrates the folklore, music and literature of the area, which I am sure attracted a good number of visitors. There are many good things happening in Strangford. I congratulate Members for speaking so eloquently and well of their constituency.
I will pick up on a number of points that were raised by Members, although I will not have time to deal with all of them. The Tourist Board operates a tourism development scheme, which can support the development and expansion of tourist attractions such as Exploris. The council is, of course, free to explore that possibility.
The Tourist Board also has a victims-of-crime policy to ensure that tourists who are subjected to crime or antisocial behaviour are looked after and enjoy the rest of their stay in Northern Ireland. The antisocial behaviour agenda is wide: it not only covers tourism, but the general quality of life of the people of Northern Ireland. The Armagh and Down tourism partnership is currently undertaking a marine and coastal strategy for the area, which is almost complete and will include marine tourism opportunities for Strangford Lough. Any tourism initiative based in Strangford Lough will, of course, have to take careful account of the Lough’s ecological and scientific importance.
Well done to everyone involved in promoting tourism in Strangford. I congratulate all the efforts that have been made, and I wish you well for the future.
Adjourned at 7.34 pm.