northern Ireland assembly
Monday 24 September 2007
Private Members’ Business:
Oral Answers to Questions:
The Assembly met at 12.00 noon (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes’ silence.
Retirement of the Clerk to the Assembly
Mr Speaker: On behalf of the Assembly Commission, I inform the House that, since we last met, I have received a letter from the Clerk to the Assembly, Mr Arthur Moir, in which he conveyed his decision to retire from his position and return to a legal consultancy role in the Northern Ireland Civil Service.
Arthur has served in the position of Clerk and Chief Executive since 2001. For much of that time, he was tasked with maintaining the Assembly secretariat and our facilities in a state of readiness for restoration. The challenges of doing so over such a prolonged period were considerable, and Members must be grateful to him for ensuring that we were able to resume full business immediately on restoration.
Members will be aware that a review of the Assembly secretariat is under way. In his letter to me, Arthur has anticipated that the review is likely to recommend a significant programme of reform and restructuring that will last several years. Mindful that he had not intended to serve in his current position for such a period, it was his view that retiring from his post at this time would allow the Assembly Commission to appoint a new Clerk and Chief Executive to oversee through to fruition the full programme of change.
In my own opinion, such concern for the best interests of the Assembly and its secretariat is typical of our Clerk, whose service to the House has been marked at all times by commitment, loyalty and integrity. I know that Members will wish to express their gratitude to him and will have an opportunity to do so at a later date.
Looking ahead, the Commission is taking firm steps to ensure continuity of service to the Assembly while the process of appointing a new Clerk is undertaken, and I will write to Members once appropriate arrangements have been put in place.
Mr Speaker: During the business of this House on 18 September 2007, Mr Dominic Bradley raised a point of order. He referred to the involvement of Members in a debate when those Members had not been present for all of that debate. Mr Bradley thought that that was inconsistent with his not being called to ask a question following a ministerial statement, after he had missed the start of that statement.
At this stage, I want to point out that the regular business of the House is different to that of ministerial statements. I would not expect any Member to sit through the entire day’s business — I understand that Members have other work to do. There will be a ministerial statement later this morning, so, once again I must emphasise the principle and the convention to be observed with regard to ministerial statements.
If Members who have been present in the Chamber to hear all of the statement wish to ask questions, I will seek to ensure that they can do so. If Members have been in the Chamber for part of the statement, and if there is sufficient time left, I shall allow them to put their questions. However, those Members will not be called before the Members who have been present for the entire statement. The Chair will try to accommodate as many Members as possible.
It is attendance in the Chamber that counts; it does not matter that Members may have been listening to the statement elsewhere. Some Members have indicated that they have heard a ministerial statement in their rooms and that that should be enough to allow them to rush to the House to ask questions. That will not happen. If Members wish to ask questions, they must be present in the Chamber to hear the full statement.
I hope that I have made clear the difference between the day-to-day business of the House and ministerial statements.
Mr Speaker: I have received notice from the Minister of Finance and Personnel that he wishes to make a statement on Workplace 2010 and the location of public-sector jobs.
The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr P Robinson): I want to make a statement on a couple of issues of interest that were considered at the last Executive meeting. The first of those is the Workplace 2010 contract, which, because of its nature, has courted some controversy, and I shall come on to that shortly. The second issue, and one that is in some ways linked, is the ongoing debate on the location of public-sector jobs. Both of those matters, certainly during my time as Minister of Finance and Personnel, have generated intense interest and speculation about how and where we accommodate civil servants.
Members could be forgiven for thinking that something as dry as Civil Service accommodation would hardly be the stuff that headlines are made of and would not make for particularly riveting reading. However, those projects have grabbed the attention of many people for a whole host of reasons.
I am pleased to report that, on what have been very difficult issues for all the parties on the Executive Committee, we have fashioned the way forward in such a way that the Executive have agreed unanimously that both projects should proceed to the next stage.
The Executive’s ability to agree on the handling of Workplace 2010 and job dispersal demonstrates the foolishness of claims that the Executive are avoiding taking difficult decisions.
I wish to address some concerns directly. First, the fact that we are proposing to deliver Workplace 2010 through PFI procurement has caused considerable debate. Secondly, there is concern that the PFI contract will in some way consolidate the Civil Service in Belfast and thus restrict any future movement of business. Thirdly, concerns have been raised about what will happen to the 500 civil servants who are employed in estate and property-related work.
Those are the matters that have been at the heart of the debate, rather than the estate itself, so it was important, when coming to conclusions, that Ministers, including myself, were able to consider them before making decisions to proceed, and it was for that reason that I submitted papers to the Executive seeking their approval.
Towards the end of the next stage, I intend to bring the details of the contract back to Ministers for further consideration, but I firmly believe that this is a good example of how, as an Executive, we have demonstrated that we are prepared to take on, and come to consensus on, the big issues.
I shall start with Workplace 2010, which, for Members who are less familiar with the detail, is a proposed PFI contract that would enable some 77 Civil Service office buildings to be transferred to a private sector partner who would be responsible for upgrading about 15 of the core properties at a cost of about £100 million. In taking over the buildings, the private sector would also be responsible for maintaining and servicing them during the period of the contract.
When I became Minister of Finance and Personnel, the competitive process to find the most suitable private-sector partner was well advanced — the Department had already shortlisted Land Securities Trillium and Telereal from four bidders who had initially submitted proposals.
The question for the Executive and for me was whether the procurement, which is worth about £1·5 billion, should proceed. Is it right for Northern Ireland? Is it right for the Government?
Some commentators who take a very superficial view of matters have, for example, suggested that we are selling off the family silver. Well, some of that is very tarnished silver. We are not talking about buildings of great historical or cultural interest. We are talking about office blocks and Portakabins, some of which are well past their sell-by dates and in urgent need of attention.
In the greater Belfast area, for example, we are dealing with 18 buildings that are owned by the Government, and, of those, 14 will be either demolished or vacated once the refurbishment programme is complete. That gives some idea of the state of the buildings that we are talking about, and that situation is not sustainable for reasons of efficiency and the conditions in which some people are working.
Ironically, the best of the accommodation is already leased, so the idea of the Civil Service renting from the private sector is by no means new. Seventeen leaseholds will transfer in Belfast, and we will continue to occupy most of them for the lifetime of the contract.
In summary, we have an estate that needs major investment to bring it up to scratch and provide better working conditions that will drive improvements in the delivery of services, which, ultimately, is what the public sector is in business to do.
Since doing nothing is not an option, we have had to consider how those improvements should be funded, and the amount of money that we need is simply not available to us. Having looked at various procurement options, we have concluded that the financial case for PFI gives us best value for money. To put it simply, the 77 buildings cost us about £70 million each year, and that allows us only to tread water.
The Workplace 2010 contract will see the successful private sector partner investing about £100 million in improving the accommodation. We will have a contractual guarantee that the estate will be maintained and serviced to a good standard for the next 20 years or so, and all that will be done for broadly the same amount of money that we are spending at present.
As things stand, we can also expect to get a capital payment in the region of £200 million to help fund other projects such as roads, hospitals and schools during the comprehensive spending review period.
Therefore, by selling the “tarnished silver”, we will be provided with quality, polished silver to use and the money to buy new, valuable and urgently needed assets. It is a very attractive deal, and it is absolutely essential if we are serious about proceeding with the priorities in our investment strategy. That said, we nonetheless need to be assured that the contract represents value for money. The financial case shows that, as things stand, the PFI contract is hundreds of millions of pounds cheaper than traditional procurement, but it is important that appropriate safeguards be put in place.
On that subject, the Committee for Finance and Personnel has been particularly helpful. The Committee has produced a report that majors on value for money, based on the experience and evidence of other PFI projects. It has, quite rightly, subjected the project to a rigorous examination and proposed a number of recommendations, which I have accepted and which will provide the necessary assurances to my ministerial colleagues, and to the Assembly, that value for money is being delivered.
Related to the subject of value for money is the issue of the value of the estate, and the concern that the Government could have their eye wiped by a private-sector partner intent on making excessive profits at our expense. I have been able to say to other Ministers and to the Committee that the Department has looked in some detail at the structure of other deals. It has also looked at what the Public Accounts Committee and the Northern Ireland Audit Office have had to say about other deals, and a commercial approach has been developed that will ensure that Civil Service interests are protected. The approach that we are taking will realise best value as and when sites are released and will optimise the share of any profits. We have also assured the Committee that the outcome of an independent valuation exercise will be taken into account in the final contract.
As I have already said, a key concern for staff and the unions is the impact of that contract on the people who are employed in estate- and property-related work. If we are to transfer the estate and all the associated functions, the question arises about what happens to the staff, many of whom are messengers and support-grade staff who want to remain in the Civil Service. Therefore, although we are clear that the transfer of functions such as reception and security services makes good financial sense, we are determined to ensure that any staff who want to remain in the Civil Service have the opportunity to do so.
We have done that by introducing a process whereby messengers and support staff can, for the first time, transfer to mainstream Civil Service jobs, with the opportunity to follow a career path that previously was not available to them. Over three quarters of the 300 staff involved have applied to transfer to administrative jobs, and the feedback to date has been very positive. As a result, I have been able to assure Ministers that there will be no compulsory transfers to the private sector, and the Executive have unanimously agreed that that should indeed be the case.
In my opening remarks, I said that concerns had been raised that the contract would restrict our capacity to relocate jobs in future. In the context of Workplace 2010, the Department is working on the basis that the contract must be flexible enough to accommodate future movement of business, whether that be for political or operational reasons. This is where we start to stray into the wider issue of the location of public-sector jobs, so, at this stage, I should perhaps move on to address that particular piece of work.
As I have said before, our public sector is too large, given the overall size of the economy in Northern Ireland. We must build the private sector. However, at the same time, I recognise the critical role played by public servants. I also recognise that decisions around the future location of public-sector jobs could have important implications for communities throughout Northern Ireland. Decisions will have to be taken about where the new bodies created as a result of the review of public administration (RPA) will be based. We also need to think about the longer term.
I, therefore, asked the Executive on 13 September to agree to a two-pronged approach. First, we shall develop a framework that will provide a robust process for decision-making on the location of RPA-related bodies. Secondly, we will undertake a time-bound review of policy on the location of public-sector jobs in Northern Ireland. Again, I am pleased to say that the Executive have agreed to that approach.
There is a need to create a coherent and integrated framework to underpin decisions on the location of RPA-related bodies. I am talking about the decisions on the permanent location of bodies such as the new Northern Ireland library authority and the education and skills authority. The framework will help to ensure that the decisions that are made about the location of those new bodies will be well informed and soundly based.
In the spring, the Department of Finance and Personnel consulted on the proposed framework. It invited views on the proposed guiding principles in order that decisions that result from the RPA on the location of public-sector jobs could be underpinned. Not surprisingly, the consultation attracted strong interest, and there were many helpful responses.
As I mentioned earlier, since then the Committee for Finance and Personnel has published the document ‘First Report on Workplace 2010 and Location of Public Sector Jobs’. That report included several constructive recommendations on the proposed framework. The framework will broadly follow the approach that the consultation document proposed, with amendments to reflect both the Committee’s report and consultees’ responses.
Alongside the guiding principles, there will be a detailed methodology as to how the principles should be applied to help to ensure openness and robustness throughout the decision-making process. Given that the Executive have now agreed the framework, we will work towards publishing it later in the autumn. Although the framework will provide a robust methodology for making decisions on the location of the RPA-related bodies, we will also need to think about the longer term.
There is no extant proactive dispersal policy in Northern Ireland. To date, dispersal has relied on taking advantage of opportunities as they arose in cases in which value for money could be demonstrated. In an Adjournment debate in the summer, I quoted figures on the location of public-sector jobs. As those figures illustrated, the picture on the location of those jobs is complex, as are the issues on the costs and benefits of dispersal.
The wide spectrum of opinion and the complexity of location were also reflected in the responses to the consultation. For example, as expected, dispersal was one of the key themes to emerge in the analysis of the consultation responses. Several respondents favoured a proactive policy of dispersal of public-sector jobs from the Belfast area. Other respondents, although they acknowledged that a well-managed relocation policy could bring a more even spread of benefits of public-sector employment opportunities across Northern Ireland, also emphasised the critical role that Belfast plays in driving the Northern Ireland economy. They also pointed to the many areas of deprivation in Belfast. Overall, however, most respondents expressed a desire for greater clarity and openness on the policy of the location of public-sector jobs.
The Committee for Finance and Personnel’s report called for an affirmative policy on the dispersal of public-sector jobs. It stated that that policy should be complemented by a cross-cutting strategy on job location, covering the Northern Ireland Civil Service, local government, and the wider public sector. Taking all that into account, I, therefore, believe that it is important that the location of public-sector jobs receives proper, detailed consideration. For that reason, I proposed initiating a time-bound review of policy on the location of public-sector jobs in Northern Ireland to enable the Executive to come to an agreed approach on location policy.
Ministers have supported that review, and I have agreed shortly to introduce to the Executive further detailed proposals on the terms of reference for the review and who might undertake it. Although the details of the review require further consideration, it is important that it be independent and chaired by someone who is experienced in the public sector and respected in the community. The review would be time-bound and would also include a detailed cost-benefit analysis of the dispersal of public-sector jobs in Northern Ireland. The review would also examine decentralisation policies and their implementation in other jurisdictions.
Initiating a detailed, time-bound review on location policy, alongside introducing a robust framework to facilitate location decisions for RPA-related bodies, provides a practical way forward. In the context of Workplace 2010, I am content that the final contract should reflect any decision on a dispersal policy that the Executive might make following the review.
I need to bring to Members’ attention one final point on Workplace 2010. The Executive have agreed that the procurement of the contract should now proceed to best-and-final-offer stage. However, that is subject to a court injunction on the procurement being lifted. Unfortunately, during the summer, one of the unsuccessful bidders filed a legal challenge on the basis of belief that his or her bid was evaluated unfairly and irrationally. Given that the Department believes that there is no case to answer on the fairness and integrity of the process, suffice it for me to say that it does not accept that claim and will vigorously defend itself.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Dallat] in the Chair)
As things stand, an injunction is in place that prohibits the Department from inviting best and final offers from the two remaining bidders. That injunction is due to be reviewed at a hearing on 11 October, when I can assure Members that the Department will be strongly opposing any extension on the grounds that any further delay will substantially prejudice the project. There is, therefore, likely to be a bit of a hiatus until the injunction issue can be resolved and, as yet, I cannot give any guarantees as to how long that will take.
In the meantime, I am grateful to Ministers from all parties for their support and I will, naturally, update the Assembly on progress in due course.
The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel (Mr Storey): On behalf of the Committee for Finance and Personnel, I thank the Minister for his statement. I welcome the Department’s positive response to the Committee’s report on Workplace 2010 and the location of public-sector jobs. The Committee has proposed a take-note debate on its report and the Department’s response. That debate will provide a further opportunity for the House to consider the matters that have been set out today.
In that context, I ask the Minister when further information on the proposed review of policy on jobs location will be available to the Committee. I refer, in particular, to the scope, terms of reference and timetable for the review. Is the Minister minded to bring that information to the Committee before its presentation to the Executive?
Mr P Robinson: I thank the Committee for its work on its report on Workplace 2010, and for the views that it has expressed on job location. I welcome the take-note debate that the Committee hopes to propose.
As for the Member’s question on the timetable for the review, the Department is currently considering a number of matters, including which person or persons should carry out the review. As I indicated in my statement, we are looking for someone who will be respected in the community and who has some considerable experience in the relevant area of activity. I imagine — if I have to make a fist of it — that we will probably bring those recommendations to the Executive in the next four to six weeks.
Of course, I will ensure, before going to the Executive, that I have the advantage of hearing the views of the Committee. That will be important and beneficial. The Committee will be part of the process.
Ms J McCann: I thank the Minister for his detailed statement. I too welcome the review. Given the concerns that the Minister outlined about the implications for the long-term equitable dispersal of public-sector jobs across the Six Counties, will the flexibility of the Civil Service estate be restricted by long-term contracts with the private sector?
Given the direct linkage between Workplace 2010 and the relocation of public-sector jobs, will the Minister guarantee that there will be a clear and direct link between Workplace 2010 and the equitable dispersal of public sector and Civil Service jobs?
Mr P Robinson: I am aware of the concerns that many people have expressed. I have managed to travel around the country and hear people’s views on the matter. People who live west of the Bann will, I hope, see that, in the past, I have always encouraged development in that region. I did that in the Department for Regional Development, and I can assure the Member that, when it comes to the dispersal of public-sector jobs, I will do the same in the Department of Finance and Personnel. However, the final contract will be sufficiently flexible to allow us room to manoeuvre, whatever the Executive might decide on dispersal policy. Indeed, that contract will come to the Executive before they sign off on the final private-sector partner.
As for linkages, the Member will already be aware that I have made it very clear in my remarks today, and in the way that they were presented to the Executive, that the matters are linked. For legal reasons, the only contractual similarity between the two is that flexibility on job dispersal will be built into the contract, which will allow the Executive to make decisions based on the new policy.
Mr Beggs: The Minister spoke of selling tarnished silver. Does he acknowledge that there is some sparkling silver among the 77 buildings proposed for the sell-off — I am thinking, in particular, about the jobs and benefits offices that have been modernised at a cost of tens of millions of pounds in recent years?
Does he also acknowledge that, contrary to public opinion, there are constituencies in the east of Northern Ireland, such as my East Antrim constituency, which have the lowest number of Civil Service jobs? Will he ensure that the lack of significant numbers of Civil Service jobs in eastern constituencies will be taken into account in any policy to disperse those jobs?
Mr P Robinson: I am aware that some offices have been refurbished and that approximately £50 million has been spent on that refurbishment. However, we need to be very clear that the proposed contract will ensure that those offices stay in that state for the next 20 years. The requirements are very clear.
It is not simply a case of sale and lease-back — whereby one finds oneself in the position of selling property and leasing it back again from a private-sector landlord. In this case, we will have a contract, which will require the private-sector landlord to keep those properties, and the management of those properties, at the highest of standards.
As far as Civil Service jobs in East Antrim are concerned, I made the point that that issue is complicated. I remember teasing one of the Members for West Tyrone during an adjournment debate that in examining travel-to-work areas in relation to public-sector jobs — and comparing the jobs of 100 economically active people in an area — Omagh was the highest in Northern Ireland, and Larne was probably the worst.
It is not just as simple as dispersing all the jobs to the west. Areas inside the Belfast travel-to-work area, but outside the heart of Belfast, can, in many ways, be seen to be in more difficulty than those west of the Bann.
Mr O’Loan: I welcome the review of Civil Service jobs and the fact that the Minister has said in his statement, and in an earlier answer, that the outcome of the policy will be reflected in the final contract. Elsewhere, I believe the Minister, in making his decision on the matter, referred to it as a “no-brainer”. That is a rather risky phrase to use in view of a previous decision, which another Minister also referred to as a “no-brainer”. I hope that for the Minister’s sake, and ours, the phrase does not come back to haunt him.
There are legitimate concerns about PFI contracts because there have been situations here and in Great Britain in which, in the end, the public interest has not been served well by PFI contracts and private contractors have done extremely well.
What real assurances can the Minister offer the Assembly and the public that this PFI contract will work in the public interest?
Mr P Robinson: I am grateful to the Member for his earlier remarks. Although there are examples such as Balmoral High School — which comes into the conversation each time someone talks about PFI — to some extent it is those examples that will help us in relation to this contract, because we have learned from all experiences, good and bad, elsewhere in Northern Ireland and throughout the United Kingdom.
The Department has taken all those good and bad experiences on board; and the Committee for Finance and Personnel particularly noted that valuation and value-for-money issues should be considered carefully during this exercise. That has been done.
All I can say is that we have learned from the experiences of others, and, on the basis of the changes that we have made, and throughout the process, we have considerably improved the contract. If it were simply a case of our going for the greatest possible amount of capital, the contract would be very different to the one that we have, which builds in flexibility and safeguards to ensure that public interest will be taken into account.
Dr Farry: Like others, I thank the Minister for his statement. Is there any logic in deferring the final contract for Workplace 2010 so that the more cost-effective and efficient results of the dispersal strategy will be in place, rather than seeking contract variations down the line?
With respect to dispersal, does the Minister recognise that, at the moment, Bangor is the only town that will lose jobs? Does he recognise that that negative dispersal will impact on the local economy’s sustainability and is opposed by the local workforce? What are the current plans for the Rathgael House site?
Mr P Robinson: I have attempted to bring forward two sets of proposals in parallel — Workplace 2010 and the location of Civil Service jobs. The dispersal policy will proceed, and I have outlined the timescale, so I imagine that the Executive will have a clear picture of that policy. Therefore, a backcloth will be in place when Workplace 2010 contracts are signed.
As far as Bangor is concerned, I have met the Member for North Down and the previous Mayor of North Down, his predecessor. The Department of Finance and Personnel wishes to be located in the Stormont estate — at the moment, our staff are located in approximately 20 buildings around Northern Ireland, which is not an efficient or effective way to operate. The Department is continuing to seek the views of the Department of Education about remaining in Bangor or moving. Therefore, no final decision has been made on the issue. I am aware of the impact that job losses will have to North Down and of the views of those currently employed in Rathgael House.
Mr Weir: I thank the Minister for his statement. I am sure that a common-sense solution will be found with regard to Rathgael House.
It is particularly welcome that the debate has not descended into parochialism. Indeed, I commend the selfless attitude of the Member for West Belfast opposite, who seemed keen on maximum dispersal, taking jobs out of her own constituency and dispersing them to the west of the Province.
Does the Minister believe that the legal challenge to Workplace 2010 from the unsuccessful bidder will cause any delay to its implementation?
Mr P Robinson: I hope that when we — eventually — announce the policy on Rathgael House, Mr Weir will agree that it is a common-sense approach. [Laughter.]
One argument for the importance of Belfast is not simply that it is the capital — and there is a view that the main headquarters should be in the Belfast area — but that the many areas of deprivation in the Belfast area must be taken into account in the dispersal policy, just as the Member for East Antrim pointed out the needs of the travel-to-work area outside Belfast.
With regard to the legal challenge, I can honestly say to the Member that the courts did not choose to deal with the matter; it was brought to the courts. Therefore, the courts are in no way to blame. There is a case before the courts, so I shall be very careful of what I say; however, it is right to point out that we are already being held back. At their meeting on 13 September, the Executive took the decision to go to the best-and-final-offer stage.
The Department could have come to the Assembly immediately after that, but held off because the court was hearing the case last week. Therefore, the Department is already being held back, which has implications for resources and capital under the CSR. That is one of the difficulties that the Department faces in introducing the Investment Strategy for Northern Ireland 2 and Budget proposals. We need to know the amount of funding that will be available during the course of the CSR. Such a large sum of money will have serious implications for the number of roads, hospitals and educational buildings that can be constructed. All those issues must be dealt with in a short period. Therefore, the court case is preventing the Department from taking such decisions and introducing its Budget.
Mr O’Dowd: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the Minister’s statement, in which he pre-empted a question that I had tabled to ask him later during Question Time.
The Minister acknowledged deep political and social concerns about PFI. His statement went some way to attempt to alleviate some of those concerns. I note that the Executive have agreed to move on the next stage of the process by deciding that the final contracts be presented for approval. I assume that those contracts will guarantee to protect the public purse and expenditure.
To be fair, the recent Committee for Finance and Personnel and Public Accounts Committee reports pointed out where past mistakes were made; and the Minister highlighted the example of Balmoral High School, which the Public Accounts Committee is examining. Recently, the Minister made a speech about the Public Accounts Committee. I take the opportunity to assure the Minister that the Public Accounts Committee exists not only to shine the light on mistakes, but to show the way forward to Departments or the private sector, so that they can avoid repeating those mistakes. Can the Minister assure me that, when the final contracts are produced, lessons will have been learned from all past mistakes to ensure that Members who stand in the Assembly 10 years from now are not talking about another PFI disaster?
Mr P Robinson: I am not sure how many Members will still be here in 10 years. However, we must learn from past mistakes and avoid making new ones. All that the Executive can do is give their best effort, using their skills, expertise and the experiences of others, to take the correct decisions, and I am confident that we will do that.
The Member mentioned that I had pre-empted a question that he intended to ask me later during Question Time. I am sure that that will not deter him from thinking up a new question on the same subject. It is important to remember that the contract is a substantial one worth some £1·5 billion and the Department must get it right. We are seized of that importance and have half a notion of things that have gone wrong in the past. We must ensure that we will not be in a future position of having to explain why we did not act as we should have. We are aware of all the future implications and impact of Workplace 2010.
I acknowledge the valuable work of the Public Accounts Committee, and I am glad that the Member follows so avidly the speeches that I make around the country. However, during the speech to which he referred, to the Confederation of British Industry, I simply pointed out that the innovation and new thinking of civil servants should not be curtailed by pillorying them every time they get something wrong. To ensure that innovation is not stifled, there must be some balance in the consideration of such matters.
Mr McQuillan: I thank the Minister for his statement. If Workplace 2010 were not to proceed in line with the current timescale, what would be the implications for the capital budget of Northern Ireland?
Mr P Robinson: That would depend on the extent to which Workplace 2010 does not meet the timetable. The Executive will bring forward a draft Budget during October/November. A sum of £200 million would leave a sizeable hole in the capital spend if it were not available to us. If that sum is not available when we bring forward the three-year comprehensive spending review, but becomes available after that, the Executive could make speedy adjustments. However, that would affect the planning for our investment strategy.
Mrs D Kelly: Will the Minister confirm that all parties in the Executive agree on the principle of PFI? I welcome the Minister’s comments on concerns about staff. Will he assure the Assembly that those staff who have not yet transferred to the Civil Service will be treated fairly and equitably, and that any of those who transfer to the private sector will have their terms and conditions protected? Will he further assure the Assembly that the private contractors who provide services on behalf of Departments, such as security and reception, will be made fully aware of their statutory obligations under section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998?
Mr P Robinson: I doubt whether any parties in the Executive agree to the principle of PFI. All the parties in the Executive were prepared to consider, on a case-by-case basis, whether that form of procurement made sense in the circumstances. A range of procurement methods were considered, and it was clear from studies that were carried out that PFI was the best method for the project. I will not commit any political party to having bought into PFI, but my party has concerns about it. I told the Executive that I would not be found among the cheerleaders for PFI, but, if it makes sense for a particular project, I am happy to recommend it, and it makes sense for Workplace 2010.
We have a clear responsibility to our staff. I am glad that there has been such a large uptake in staff wishing to transfer to the Civil Service. In fact, I wonder why such an option was not available in the past so that those people could have an extended career path. There is no compulsory transfer to the private sector, but if anyone chooses to transfer to the private sector, their conditions will fall under The Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 2006.
Mr McHugh: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the Minister’s statement, which allows Members an opportunity to raise issues relating to Workplace 2010. On the equitability of job dispersal or decentralisation not only to rural areas, but west of the Bann, the Minister mentioned that Omagh did well in comparison to other towns. However, in my experience, Enniskillen seems to have lost many jobs to Omagh, and that is the wrong direction, as far those in Enniskillen are concerned.
Did the Minister take into account any criteria when considering the equitability of jobs dispersal? An attempt was made to relocate public-sector jobs in the pensions branch to Fermanagh, but Civil Service officials admitted that they did not have enough staff at grade 3 to even consider bidding for such dispersal of jobs. Does that leave rural areas, such as Fermanagh, unable to bid for such dispersal of jobs?
Mr P Robinson: The answer to that depends on the size of the office in question. Obviously, there would be no point in placing a large office — holding hundreds, if not thousands, of people — in an area that is incapable of providing that number of employees. I noted the eyes that were piercing into the Member’s back when he expressed his unhappiness about Omagh taking jobs away from Enniskillen. [Laughter.]
That is part of the difficulty in focusing on individual areas in Northern Ireland; all those issues come into play. Even if the Executive had the wisdom of Solomon — and I suspect that they do not — it would be very difficult to find a policy that would keep everyone happy, and through which jobs would go to every area in Northern Ireland. The Executive just cannot do that. The policy has to be open, fair and must be one that people — considering the overall picture — can support. Members must bear in mind that the rate of unemployment in Northern Ireland is 3·4%, which is the lowest ever. There are still jobs available, so there is an issue around the number of people who will be available for jobs.
In an earlier debate, I mentioned that there are considerable advantages, other than employment, in stopping people coming into Belfast from outlying areas. One such advantage is reducing congestion. The Executive will consider their policy over the coming weeks and months, and I hope that Members, when determining how good that policy is, will not just think about their home towns, but the whole of Northern Ireland.
Mr Hamilton: The Minister has outlined some implications for the capital budget if the project is delayed: what are the implications for the resources budget and for the conditions that civil servants have to work in?
Mr P Robinson: As I indicated, we are treading water, and that puts the matter at the highest level of importance. Although £70 million each year is being spent on the present estate, millions of pounds worth of work should be done annually to improve and upgrade the estate. If we are not going to follow the Workplace 2010 route, using a PFI initiative, we are going to have to invest more in the general repair and maintenance of the buildings.
One factor that has not been touched on is the overall reform of the Civil Service. If our reform project is to deliver the efficiencies that we want it to, we must be able to move the Civil Service to office conditions that will enable staff to work more effectively and efficiently. There will be a considerable loss in that respect.
Some time ago, I asked my Department about the resource implications of a project delay. Over the period of the comprehensive spending review, there will probably be tens of millions of pounds in additional costs to the resource budget. Therefore, there are resource and capital implications.
Mr Irwin: I add my thanks to the Minister for his statement.
In the past five years, what was the shortfall between what should have been spent on Civil Service buildings and what was actually spent?
Mr P Robinson: Over the past five years the shortfall has been about £20 million.
Mr Shannon: I thank the Minister for his statement, which was timely and appropriate. There has been much concern expressed to me and many others in the Chamber, and further afield, about the sale of land here — particularly parkland and perhaps even this Building. Will the Minister assure Members and their constituents that land, which many people feel was bequeathed to the people of the Province, will not be sold? Will the Minister also confirm what buildings, if any, will be sold, or be considered for sale, in the Stormont estate?
Mr P Robinson: I thought at first that the Member was going to test my Ulster Scots, but he let me down. In the context of the debate, I assume that his use of the word “here” refers to the Stormont estate and not to Northern Ireland. I assure the Member that Parliament Buildings is not included in any planned schemes that will become the subjects of PFI. We are talking about buildings such as Castle Buildings, Craigantlet House — where I am currently based — and Dundonald House, and there will be clear criteria laid down in the contract to ensure that neither McDonald’s nor Burger King opens up in place of those buildings.
Mr S Wilson: Why not?
Mr P Robinson: I am sorry to disappoint the Member for East Antrim. The Stormont estate is magnificent, and no one in the Executive will put their hand to its destruction: no one has any notion of including Parliament Buildings in such a contract.
Libraries Bill: Extension of Committee Stage
The Chairperson of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure (Mr McElduff): I beg to move
That, in accordance with Standing Order 31(4), the period referred to in Standing Order 31(2) be extended to 25 February 2008, in relation to the Committee Stage of the Libraries Bill (NIA Bill 5/07).
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. The Libraries Bill passed its Second Stage on 19 June 2007, and it was referred to the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure on the same day. The Bill is an important piece of legislation, which seeks to create a new library authority to replace the functions of five education and library board areas, in respect of libraries. The Committee is anxious to ensure that it carries out its responsibilities and conducts a rigorous scrutiny of the legislation, and towards that end, the Committee agreed that it needed to call a range of witnesses. It is, therefore, important that the Committee has sufficient time to consider that forthcoming evidence. That will ensure that the Assembly receives a well-balanced, informed report from the Committee.
The Committee is seeking an extension to 25 February 2008 with a view to getting the Committee Stage of this important piece of legislation absolutely right. However, we will endeavour to complete the Committee Stage as soon as possible — hopefully short of 25 February. I ask Members for their support.
Question put and agreed to.
That, in accordance with Standing Order 31(4), the period referred to in Standing Order 31(2) be extended to 25 February 2008, in relation to the Committee Stage of the Libraries Bill (NIA Bill 5/07).
Administrative Support for Party Whips
Mr A Maginness: I beg to move
That, as set out in section 2(4) of the Financial Assistance for Political Parties Act (Northern Ireland) 2000, this Assembly approves the revised scheme (NIA 26/07-08) laid before the Assembly on 20 September 2007, for payments to political parties for the purpose of assisting Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly who are connected with such parties to perform their Assembly duties.
I move the motion on behalf of the Assembly Commission. Members will be aware that the Financial Assistance for Political Parties Act (Northern Ireland) 2000 provides for payment to political parties for the purpose of assisting Members to perform their duties. It does not provide payments to individual Members. In tabling the motion, it is proposed that a revised scheme will be put in place to provide additional financial assistance to political parties to help offset the costs incurred solely in running their Whips’ offices.
It is important to bear in mind that the funding will be ring-fenced and will only be made available for costs incurred in support of the administration of Whips’ offices. Independent audited verification will be sought from each party in respect of any expenditure incurred under the proposed scheme.
Members will be aware that Whips act as their parties’ business managers. They help to determine the business to be conducted by the Assembly, and they keep Members informed of forthcoming Assembly business. Whips provide advice and guidance to Members on procedural matters and liaise with Whips of other parties to ensure that all Members perform their duties in a co-ordinated and organised manner. They also act as facilitators for Members by liaising with the Speaker and the Assembly staff on Members’ accommodation requirements, IT services, and other matters. All that work allows Members of the Assembly to concentrate on the effective performance of their Assembly duties.
It is with that in mind that the Commission has produced this scheme, with all-party support.
Question put and agreed to.
That, as set out in section 2(4) of the Financial Assistance for Political Parties Act (Northern Ireland) 2000, this Assembly approves the revised scheme (NIA 26/07-08) laid before the Assembly on 20 September 2007, for payments to political parties for the purpose of assisting Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly who are connected with such parties to perform their Assembly duties.
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one and a half hours for this debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to wind up. All other speakers will have five minutes. Two amendments have been received and published on the Marshalled List. The proposer of each amendment will have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes to wind up.
Mr B McCrea: I beg to move
That this Assembly calls upon the Minister of Education to intervene immediately in the classroom assistants’ dispute, in recognition of the vital role of classroom assistants, and to prevent disruption to children’s education.
Recently, the Assembly discussed the matter of classroom assistants and called on the Minister to intervene directly to resolve a very serious situation. I am disappointed that the Minister is not here to talk about the issue.
At the time, the Minister said she did not have a problem and that she thought that she had already complied with —
Ms S Ramsey: Will the Member give way?
Mr B McCrea: I will give way, but —
Ms S Ramsey: It is just a point of information.
Mr B McCrea: I will give way, although the Member will get her chance to speak, if it is a point of information.
Ms S Ramsey: I thank the Member for that.
The Minister is on her way down. The debate was not due to start for another 10 minutes.
Mr B McCrea: I appreciate that information, and that is fair enough.
I hope that when I get to the summation she will be able to understand what I am going to say.
Mr Paisley Jnr: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Will you make a very clear ruling that the House determines its business? It is not set by some timetable that is out of our control, and Members should be in their places when debates start.
Mr Deputy Speaker: The timings are just indicative.
Mr B McCrea: Given that the clock has now started again, and the Minister has arrived, I will try again.
The Assembly discussed the matter of classroom assistants not so long ago, and Members urged the Minister to get involved directly. In response to that motion, tabled by Mr Dominic Bradley, the Minister said that she did not think that she had to do any more than had been done already. The Minister felt that she had brought in an equitable solution. At that time she clearly did not think there was a problem.
Now the Assembly is faced with a botched negotiation, a strike, and entrenched positions that will be extremely difficult to resolve.
When her colleague the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development was faced with the foot-and-mouth disease crisis she moved with considerable alacrity, consulted widely with all of the stakeholders, and was commended by the Executive for the speed at which she dealt with the situation. I wonder if the Minister of Education will respond in a similar manner to the grave situation that we now face, or will she continue to focus her attention elsewhere? Will she stop considering ideological hobby horses and start dealing with matters in hand? When will the Minister realise that photo opportunities are all well and good, but that there are some tough issues to be dealt with?
The previous debate on this subject was extremely useful, and I do not intend to go over the core issues that were raised. However, I bring to the attention of the House some important matters of detail that explain the problems we face. It is important that the Minister gets involved, because the matter is serious and is escalating out of control. Now is the time to intervene decisively, to show leadership and to take control. The Minister must tell us exactly how she will resolve the situation — a final offer has been made and rejected, a ballot has been taken, and people are now on strike.
Classroom assistants feel that they are being asked to take a pay cut, and they cannot understand why. Members agree that they do a good job. However, classroom assistants feel that they are the scapegoats for failures elsewhere. While I deal with the situation of misunderstandings, will the Minister clarify exactly how many classroom assistants will need pay protection to avoid a reduction in pay? There appears to be a misunderstanding whether that is an issue.
The Minister’s Department presented the Committee for Education with a briefing note. It used the words:
“Not all posts were expected to increase in grade as a result of evaluation.”
“The results of the classroom assistants’ evaluation also show that many are in fact already correctly graded.”
Finally, the briefing note says that:
“It is therefore a considerable cause for concern that non union members are being denied the arrears due to them.”
That may all be true. However, it does not suggest that they will have to take a pay cut. That seems to be the crux of the issue. Some people are being asked to take a pay cut, but everyone else says that they do rather well.
I have heard it said on several occasions — usually by people on £60,000 a year — that there are probably too many classroom assistants and that they are probably overpaid. Does the Minister think that classroom assistants are overpaid? Could she clarify that point?
I acknowledge that, for some time, the Minister’s Department has been working hard on those issues. However, does the Minister know how hard and for how long? Does she know, for example, that, in November 2005, the South Eastern Education and Library Board reported to the Department that it would have a deficit of £600,000 after repaying £3·5 million to the Department for a previous problem? However, six weeks later, the board said that it was sorry and that it had made a mistake: the calculation was £2 million out because it had forgotten to include the thirteenth lunar month for the pay for classroom assistants, and it had forgotten to include in the budget that there might be a job evaluation and pay review. Suddenly there was a big problem.
There are other issues. Is the Minister aware of KPMG’s final report, which shows that the number of special educational needs (SEN) applications had doubled from one year to the next? The report comes up with cryptic words and suggests that we should:
“Focus medical input on relevant issues”.
What does that mean? It means that we want fewer SENs. There should be fewer statements, not because they are not needed, but because we cannot afford them. Furthermore, the report refers to “adult/general assistants”, rather than specialist assistants.
Therefore, classroom assistants must be downgraded. We should:
“Revisit and implement recommendations of Internal Audit report on Classroom Assistants (June 2004)
Some management responses require challenge.”
In other words, go back and think again. Finally:
“Revise policy decisions
Employment of over-qualified classroom assistants
Non-legislative employment of nursery classroom assistants.”
Taken in the round, it means that while trying to carry out a fair and equitable job evaluation, a decision was also taken to reduce the number of classroom assistants and the amount of pay that they receive.
Is the Minister aware that the Department, when it was doing those things, was acting in opposition to the strategic direction of the rest of the United Kingdom?
‘Raising standards and tackling workload: a national agreement’ was a unique agreement between Government, unions and teachers, which attempted to tackle stress levels and overwork in schools. Key to that strategy was increasing the number of classroom assistants and improving the training they received. Therefore at a time when the Department of Education was seeking to reduce numbers in Northern Ireland, other areas were increasing them. Given that this situation has come to a head, I am interested in what the Minister of Education has to say about that.
Other Members will speak of pay cuts, NVQ level 3 and other matters that have been raised. I do not know what is to blame for this situation, but I know the effect — morale has plummeted. Good, decent people are leaving the jobs they love.
In addition, we now have a situation in which children who were getting one-to-one care are now being bussed to other schools. The result is that children with behavioural problems are being grouped together with children with autism. That is not efficient, effective or humane, because the first group know exactly which buttons to press to annoy the children with autism. That is not the right way forward.
Classroom assistants need this dispute to be resolved. The debate has gone on for far too long, and everyone now wants to know what is going to be done to resolve the situation. The time for prevarication, dithering and concentrating on issues such as Irish-medium education is over. These issues are more pressing. Mr Speaker, I ask the Minister to put forward some way to resolve the situation or schools will close.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Thank you, Mr McCrea; I was not expecting the promotion to Speaker so soon. [Laughter.]
Ms Purvis: I beg to move amendment No 1: Leave out all after “Education” and insert
“to implement the recommendations put forward by the trade unions in the dispute over classroom assistants’ pay evaluation, and to liaise with the Minister of Finance and Personnel to ensure that funds are made available in order to resolve the situation and avert strike action.”
I have listened carefully to Basil McCrea’s comments. Some time ago, the Assembly debated the issue of classroom assistants. I have tabled the amendment in order to ask Members whether they care about children, their education and who looks after them. Do Members care if the people who look after their children are skilled and educated to the required level? Do they feel it safe to allow their children to be left in such care? Members must consider those questions whenever classroom assistants are discussed.
Members will talk about pay evaluation, special-needs allowances, the need to have qualifications to NVQ level 3, the hourly pay divisor, 32·5-hour week, and pay protection. However, that does not take away from the fact that this debate is about children, some of whom are the most vulnerable in society.
It is easy to talk about money and pay; it is easy to get bogged down in discussing how much more per hour a person earns and how we protect the 32·5-hour week.
However, children are at the heart of the debate, especially the most vulnerable children, such as those from disadvantaged backgrounds, those suffering from autistic spectrum disorder, those with behavioural difficulties or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and those who have been traumatised by domestic violence or psychological abuse. Children can be affected by a wide range of issues, such as poverty, the environment and poor housing. Classroom assistants tend to work in schools in disadvantaged areas and with the most vulnerable children.
I would like to ask the Minister a direct question. I do not support the second amendment, because the Minister has met the trade unions, management side and the boards. The issues of special needs, NVQ level 3, the hourly pay divisor and pay protection have all been discussed at those meetings. They are continually being discussed. I asked the Minister the other day how the dispute could be resolved. She replied that all she could tell me was that negotiations were ongoing.
I can tell the Minister that negotiations are not ongoing. Representatives of the management side have met trade unions in the last few months and they have not negotiated; they set down the final offer that was discussed in the last debate, and they have not moved one millimetre, never mind one inch, on the issue. No negotiation is taking place.
The simple reason for that is that there is no money. The Minister should stand up and say that there is no money. It is great to see the co-operation of the Executive and the collective decision-making when it comes to money. However, Members are on their own when it comes to asking for new money. The sides split; nobody walks across the Floor when it comes to new money. The co-operation will probably end today because of this issue.
Members must stand up and be counted. Do we care about the children and the people who look after them? When the parent of a child with special needs goes to work, he or she leaves with the knowledge that the child is being looked after to the best standard available because of the classroom assistant’s skills. How can a parent leave with confidence, unless he or she knows that the child will be well looked after?
If assistants are expected to take a cut in pay or if they do not have to be qualified to NVQ level 3, will the parent have the confidence to leave his or her child in the classroom?
Mr S Wilson: I am worried about the line that the Member is taking. The implication is that classroom assistants — who do a superb job — will do that job only if they are given the right amount of money, and, if not given that money, will do a second-class job.
I would like the Member to clarify that, regardless of this pay dispute, classroom assistants do not have to be bribed to give the care and attention that they give to youngsters. They give it very well.
Ms Purvis: The Member is absolutely right. I apologise if I gave the impression that classroom assistants will not do their jobs properly if they are not given the level of pay that they want. As I said, this dispute is also about skills and qualifications and the special-needs allowance. It is about people who can care for children to a certain standard. We have that standard, and classroom assistants do a tremendous job, which is why the Assembly and the Minister must take the issue so seriously. We will see standards sliding if the requirement that assistants have an NVQ level 3 is not retained.
The issue boils down to how women and how disadvantaged and vulnerable children are valued and respected in this society. It is time that Members stood up — rather than hide behind their party policy or the co-operativeness of the Executive — and told the Executive to put their money where their collective mouth is. Do they support those people or not?
Mr Donaldson: I beg to move amendment No 2: Leave out all after the second “assistants” and insert
“,by convening an urgent meeting of the Department, employers and Trade Union side in the dispute, with an agreed agenda to include (a) retention of the Special Needs Allowance; (b) retention of the 32.5 hourly pay divisor; (c) NVQ III and the job evaluation exercise; and (d) adequate pay protection arrangements, in order to prevent disruption to children’s education.”
I declare an interest as a governor of Parkview Special School in Lisburn. I echo the comments of the Member for East Belfast Ms Purvis in respect of the excellent work carried out by classroom assistants — particularly in special schools. Ms Purvis mentioned children on the autistic spectrum. I have had the privilege of witnessing at first hand — in Parkview Special School in Lisburn; in Beechlawn Special School in Hillsborough; and in Brookfield Special School in Moira — the excellent work that is done by classroom assistants in special education. There is no doubt in my mind that they are essential and that they provide an excellent support service to teaching staff in those special schools.
Owing to the Government’s policy of integrating children with special needs into mainstream education — through the Special Educational Needs and Disability (Northern Ireland) Order 2005 — there are now many classroom assistants working in mainstream schools across Northern Ireland. They provide support to those pupils with special needs who have, and are being, integrated into those schools, and they do very important work. Classroom assistants also work in the pre-school, nursery and the early-years sectors in Northern Ireland.
No Member would dissent from the view that we have the highest regard for classroom assistants. That was also indicated by the Member for Lagan Valley Basil McCrea when he proposed the motion.
There needs to be a resolution to the dispute. Urgency is required because, on Wednesday 26 September 2007, if there is no progress in the discussions, there is the prospect of industrial action, which will result in classroom assistants withdrawing their services for the day. For the special schools, that probably means having to close for the day because they cannot manage without the support provided by the classroom assistants. I have already had — as, I am sure, have other Members — calls from worried parents who are concerned about what they will do if those schools have to close.
Some parents are in a situation where both of them work, and they depend on their children going to school to be able to get their domestic affairs in order. They are also concerned about what will happen if industrial action intensifies. There is the possibility of a three-day closure, then progressively increasing the number of days on which schools are closed. I believe that all Members take the view that it is in everyone’s best interest — particularly the children and their parents — if industrial action can be avoided.
I, in common with many Members, have received correspondence from classroom assistants outlining their case.
I will quote from two such letters. The first is from Mrs Heather McCann, who lives in my own constituency. Heather is one of 16 classroom assistants in Beechlawn Special School in Hillsborough. She wrote:
“The Education Board feel that we should be brought into line with clerical staff i.e. a 36 hour week and the same pay scales, but we are classroom based, not office based. We work hand in hand with the teachers — for and on behalf of the children. The Education Board seem to feel this role has very little value at all. Their proposals have made us feel demoralised, devalued and degraded.”
I met Heather and some of her colleagues from Beechlawn Special School. The classroom assistants feel strongly about the manner in which they are being dealt. They feel particularly strongly about the hourly divisor that will be used to calculate their pay. Although they do not claim to be teaching staff, they work similar hours to teachers and are classroom-based. They consider that the 32-hour divisor that was used hitherto ought to be retained for the calculation of their pay. Some will lose out financially if the Department and the boards proceed with current proposals.
I feel strongly that that would be unfair, particularly for those classroom assistants who have been in their jobs for many years and who are being told that their existing contracts will be linked to the children that they support. Therefore, if a classroom assistant supports a child who is reaching their final years of education, the assistant’s contract may have only one or two years to go before they have to begin again. I understand why they would feel aggrieved about that.
Mr S Wilson: I thank the Member for giving way. Does the Member accept that, given that classroom assistants’ hours are linked to those of children, it is impossible for an assistant to work a full week? Classroom assistants can work only 32·5 hours a week. Therefore, it is unfair to equate them with clerical staff, who may continue working after school hours. Working longer hours would mean that they would be penalised. If classroom assistants cannot work a full week, how can they acquire a full pension entitlement?
Mr Donaldson: I thank my hon Friend for his intervention. He is absolutely right. The unfairness of what is proposed for classroom assistants is at the heart of the dispute. I understand why classroom assistants feel so strongly and why they are prepared to take industrial action.
I will quote from a letter that Mrs Lorraine Kelly wrote. She is a classroom assistant in the Minister’s constituency, and she works in St Colmcille’s High School in Crossgar. She wrote:
“I do what I consider to be very important and rewarding work as a classroom assistant, helping children with physical or learning difficulties to access the school curriculum, but my sense of self-worth has been eroded by a long-standing failure of government (from 1995) to settle a pay dispute and award a fair wage to myself and my colleagues.”
She has a valid point.
That brings me to ask what the Assembly can do to assist in the resolution of the dispute. I share the concerns raised by Mr McCrea, a Member for Lagan Valley. With the greatest respect, I say to the Minister that the Department is not giving this issue the priority attention that it deserves. When the Minister spoke in the previous Assembly debate on the matter, she said “This matter is urgent” — [Official Report, Vol 22, No 13, p559, col 1].
However, we are no further on. One has no sense that the Department is trying urgently to resolve the matter. Echoing Mr McCrea’s words, I am saying to the Minister that I want to hear more about the Department’s prioritising this sort of issue and spending less time on smaller issues such as Irish-medium education. In the overall scheme of things, Irish-medium education affects a small number of pupils, whereas this affects large numbers of pupils and staff. Therefore, it deserves greater priority than the Minister gives it. I hope that she will assure us that, when she says that a matter is urgent, she will act with the urgency that it deserves.
I commend to the House the amendment that my hon Friend Miss McIlveen and I tabled. I cannot support the amendment that the Member for East Belfast Ms Purvis tabled, because it is not for the Assembly to determine the outcome of the classroom assistants’ dispute. It is a matter for the employer, the classroom assistants, the trade unions and the Department of Education to resolve.
The DUP amendment urges those involved to resolve the dispute immediately, in terms that are beneficial to classroom assistants, and to address adequately the agenda items, as listed in our amendment, that should be at the heart of any meeting. Our amendment outlines the appropriate role for the Assembly to take. I urge the Department to sort out the matter, avert strike action and give the classroom assistants a decent and fair deal.
Mr Butler: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Ar dtús, ba mhaith liom a rá go bhfuil Sinn Féin ag tabhairt tacaíochta do na cúntóirí ranga ina bhfeachtas ar son páighe agus coinníollacha le roinnt blianta anuas. Over many years, Sinn Féin has given full backing to classroom assistants in their campaign for better pay and conditions. Sinn Féin MLAs and councillors have stood on picket lines alongside classroom assistants. Sinn Féin’s elected representatives have publicly raised the issue and backed classroom assistants. Others in the Chamber, including some from the parties that tabled the motion and amendments, have not been as proactive as they would have us believe.
Since the debate on the classroom assistants’ dispute in June, much criticism has been levelled at the Minister of Education, Caitríona Ruane. What have those who tabled the motion and the amendments, and who lined up in June to criticise Caitríona Ruane, done in the intervening period to achieve a resolution, except to bring the matter to the Assembly at the eleventh hour?
There has been an ongoing campaign against the Minister of Education —
Mr B McCrea: Will the Member give way?
Mr Butler: No.
The classroom assistants’ dispute is the latest in a host of issues in that campaign.
Sinn Féin fully recognises the pivotal role that classroom assistants play in the education system. They deserve, and should be entitled to, pay and work conditions that reflect their important role in education. Many industrial disputes are settled in a matter of months, so it is unfortunate that the dispute in question has continued for 11 years. It is legitimate to ask why it has taken 11 years for the dispute to reach the point at which industrial action will be taken on Wednesday. I hope that we can avert the imminent industrial action at this late hour.
Sinn Féin supports the motion, which calls on the Minister to intervene in the dispute. However, we cannot support the proposed amendments. They would place restrictions on all sides involved. They would also put the Minister in a difficult position should she intervene, since she would have to get agreement from all sides. All parties that are involved in the dispute must get around the table to try to reach agreement, and the amendments, if accepted, would not assist that outcome.
The dispute has been going on for far too long. The employers, the education and library boards and the unions that represent the classroom assistants must redouble their efforts to bring the dispute to an end. Classroom assistants have been left behind by a job-evaluation exercise that dates from 1995. That exercise has been completed for other sections of the education and library boards’ workforce but has left classroom assistants in an unfortunate situation.
Despite having protested and gone on strike, classroom assistants are still involved in a protracted industrial dispute over their pay and conditions. Tuigeann Sinn Féin ról lárnach tábhachtach cúntóirí ranga, agus ba chóir cothrom na Féinne a thabhairt dóibh.
The Assembly must acknowledge that, as another Member said, 99% of classroom assistants are female. Those women are reluctant to go down the road of strike action: it does not come easily to them, given that they work with children, many of whom have special needs. The Assembly must also acknowledge the help and support that classroom assistants have provided to children with special needs and learning difficulties. The classroom assistant’s role is often to help children who would otherwise fall behind the rest of the class.
Caitríona Ruane has met all the parties involved in negotiations and has made resources available to resolve the dispute. Unfortunately, her efforts have not been able to end it, and industrial action is due to take place on 26 September. The priority is to resolve the dispute.
Mrs M Bradley: In today’s politically correct society, equality plays a major part in any employment scenario. Therefore, it is disturbing when a group of people in education, who play a major part in children’s school days, have largely been ignored and undervalued for the past 12 years.
Next to the home, parents expect schools to be places of contentment and learning for their children and grandchildren. Five days a week, parents entrust their children to the safe haven of school, where they will learn and play their way through a curriculum that expands year after year and demands more and more from teachers and classroom assistants. Yet, classroom assistants must fight to get what is rightfully theirs.
It is unbelievable and disgraceful that classroom assistants must fight to have 12 years of wrongful grading corrected and face the prospect that their hourly rate will also be devalued. The outlook is even bleaker for those who work with children who have statements of special educational need: they stand to lose their special-needs allowance. Why should that happen when the payment will remain untouched for teachers in Northern Ireland and classroom assistants in the UK?
That is only one of the many symptoms of the vile disease of cuts in the education system. However, who decided that the lower-paid worker should suffer? My colleague, Dominic Bradley, and I met classroom assistants and their representatives. Their frustration was palpable. Indeed, there was anger, because some of their colleagues have died — one in May 2007, for example — without having received what was due to them. There is much bad feeling about that.
However, the dedication of the workers continues. They have tried desperately to resolve the situation and have not once allowed it to interfere in the education of Northern Ireland’s children. All they have received in return for their loyalty and dedication are additional problems to overcome, such as their payment divisor being amended in order that the education and library boards could save money. In this day and age, how could an employer allocate set working hours, yet use a divisor of 3·5 hours when working out salary increases just to ease the burden on their budget? It is criminal and disgraceful, and a private organisation would have been in court quicker than one could say “compensation”.
Mr Gardiner: Does the hon Member agree that classroom assistants are more than just that? Under child protection law, they are also the eyes and ears of those in more senior positions in the school; for example, when people are patrolling around a school in order to prey on young children — totally unacceptable behaviour that should result in such people being put behind bars immediately.
Mrs M Bradley: I thank the Member for his intervention. I certainly agree with him. Put all of that — and the wrangling over the NVQ level 3, which, despite being essential for employment as a classroom assistant, will go unrecognised — into a large melting pot, and the result is 7,000 classroom assistants who are sick, sore and tired of being booted between the five education and library boards and the Department. They are sick of being given excuse after excuse. The result is that 93% have had enough and have spoken by ballot.
Apart from the workers, the other losers are the children who depend daily on the extra help that is given so carefully by classroom assistants.
Therefore, I can see no reason why every Assembly Member should not — or could not — make an effort to resolve that scandalous situation. We face a real threat of strike action, which we have been informed about this week. Therefore, I urge the Minister of Education — as I did on 19 June 2007 — to do all in her power to help resolve this matter, rather than delaying the game any further. Otherwise, the ball will be lifted and the players will leave the pitch.
Spending £30 million was never going to make the problem go away. What is different now? I am interested to know whether the Minister saw the press coverage at the weekend of how her colleagues, at last — at least those in Derry — are supporting the classroom assistants: or was that just a case of jumping on the bandwagon to grab a headline?
Mr P J Bradley: I apologise for taking up my colleague’s time. I recall a morning, outside St Mark’s High School in Warrenpoint, when the Minister — then an ordinary Assembly Member — stood with protesting classroom assistants and offered them 100% support. I am concerned that that support has now been retracted, and I ask the Minister whether those classroom assistants are entitled to equality in the workplace.
Mr Deputy Speaker: I remind the House that when Members give way, they are entitled to an extra minute.
Mrs M Bradley: As I said, I asked the Minister, on 19 June 2007, to do something about the classroom assistants’ situation. I felt passionately about the issue then, as I continue to do. I remind the Minister that she has children who attend school and, therefore, will recognise the worth of classroom assistants. We all know their worth. End the current situation in which those classroom assistants find themselves, and end it now.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Mr Lunn: It is unfortunate that, yet again, we are debating the same issue that was debated — and on which a motion was passed — on 19 June 2007. Given the threat of industrial action, and the potentially devastating effect of that on the education of our children, it is entirely appropriate that we revisit the matter. I hope that the Minister gets the message this time.
The Alliance Party is sympathetic to the unions in as far as the current problem represents the last outstanding dispute. Nevertheless, we cannot simply agree to the unions’ recommendations without taking into account the financial reality faced by the Department and the education and library boards. The amendment tabled by Dawn Purvis takes no account of financial reality; it merely asks the Minister of Finance and Personnel to bankroll the settlement of an industrial dispute. That is ridiculous.
There is a significant gap between the funds that are available and the funds that are required to meet the trade unions’ recommendations. If that gap were bridged, money would have to be taken from elsewhere in the education budget.
I point out the cost of segregation, as highlighted by Deloitte, and its effect on the education budget in particular. If we did not have so much duplication of expenditure in Northern Ireland, there would be more money available to do the work that really matters. My colleagues and I have received significant levels of correspondence from classroom assistants, as has, I am sure, every Member. I can tell Ms Purvis that the correspondence was not solely from females. I detected a hint of sexism in Ms Purvis’s approach to the issue. It is not a gender issue.
Ms Purvis: I call Members’ attention to my contribution to the debate on 19 June 2007. I said quite clearly during that debate that the majority of classroom assistants were women. I apologise if I gave the impression that I was talking only about women. However, the majority of classroom assistants are women and, therefore, the majority of classroom assistants affected by that decision are women.
Mr Lunn: Fair enough. I thank the Member for clarifying that point. However, I know how her remarks sounded. The issue of classroom assistants’ remuneration is extremely complex. Like so many issues, it can only be resolved through dialogue. Complications include the details of re-evaluation; the requirement of the boards, which are currently underfunded, to provide the money; and the need to channel appropriate money to the boards.
There is no easy solution and there is no point in pretending otherwise. The implication of Ms Purvis’s amendment is that the wage increase should be paid. Last week in the Chamber I said that parents, teaching professionals and everyone else with a stake in education are becoming increasingly concerned by the Minister’s lack of action in a range of areas.
It is my view that urgent action by the Minister — starting a dialogue with the unions, at least — could still help to avert strike action. We must not restrict the Minister’s actions unnecessarily. That said, it is really hard not to sympathise with the unions’ views, particularly as regards the special-needs allowance, the requirement for NVQ level 3 — now discarded by the boards — and the 32·5-hour/36-hour pay divisor.
However, it is up to the Minister to judge how best to take this matter forward, and it is up to Members to urge her and encourage her to do so. I trust that she will move the process on as quickly as possible. The Alliance Party intends to support the motion and amendment No 2.
Miss McIlveen: In June, the Assembly called on the Minister of Education to take immediate action to settle the issue of job evaluation for classroom assistants. It is now September, and we face the prospect of industrial action in two days’ time by one of the unions. I understand that it is only a matter of time before other unions ballot their members on the issue.
The Minister has been charged to act and has failed to deliver the goods. I am not surprised by that failure. It is just one in a string of failures: there has been a failure to decide on the issue of academic selection; a failure to provide a clear policy on the implementation of the Bain Report; and a failure to account to the Assembly for her exorbitance in her announcements on the opening of wasteful Irish-medium schools and on unnecessary amalgamations. No doubt the longer she remains in her present post, the longer the failures will continue to mount.
She is the second Sinn Féin Education Minister to have failed to deal with this pay dispute, which is now the longest-running pay dispute ever in Northern Ireland. I am beginning to wonder whether a Sinn Féín Education Minister will ever do anything constructive while holding the ministerial portfolio. Do destructive habits die hard?
I am not surprised that the situation has reached the point where classroom assistants have resolved to strike. In fact, I applaud the classroom assistants for their patience. It has been a long 12 years. They play a valued role in the education of our children but remain some of the lowest-paid workers in the public sector. The facts and figures surrounding this dispute have been detailed not only in this debate, but in the debate in June. I do not intend to rehearse them. Suffice it to say, we are no further forward now than we were back then.
It is time that the Minister and the Department sat down with the education boards and the unions, and they must not leave until this matter is resolved. Amendment No 2 calls for an appropriate agenda for those talks. It does not call for capitulation, but for discussion and negotiation. If such discussions are to take place — and I sincerely hope that they will — I will ask for all parties to approach the matter with mature, open minds to come to an equitable settlement. Unfortunately, I am unable to support amendment No 1, tabled by the Member for East Belfast. That amendment shifts the blame to the Minister of Finance and Personnel. This matter clearly falls within the remit of the Minister of Education and her Department, and it is up to her and her Department to sort it out once and for all.
One union has voted for strike action, but let us not permit the current situation to deteriorate any further. I echo UNISON’s call for eleventh-hour talks to resolve the dispute. We must remember that it will be the children who will suffer from the disruption of their education. Working parents will face additional expense as a result of additional childminding costs, and all parents will face upheaval as they may be forced to collect their children halfway through a school day because of insufficient staffing. Even if this week’s strike action is not avoided, I call on the Minister and the Department not to rest until a resolution is found — before further days are lost.
Ms S Ramsey: Go raibh maith agat. I think that the Member has let the cat out of the bag on the Department of Finance and Personnel issue. She said that discussions to resolve this dispute should be supported by all parties, and I agree with her. However, making cheap jibes at the Minister of Education does not show a desire to encourage all parties to support those efforts. In my view, getting rid of the 11-plus was good work carried out by a Sinn Féin Education Minister, as was increasing the amount of money spent on special education. If this is about collective decision-making and responsibility —
Mr Storey: Will the Member give way?
Ms S Ramsey: No, I will not give way.
If the Member is serious about getting all-party support on this matter, she should stay away from the cheap jibes.
I support Basil McCrea’s motion, which calls on the Minister to intervene in the classroom assistants’ pay dispute. I fully accept — as did Jeffrey Donaldson — that the matter is complex and that we all want to see it resolved.
Mary Bradley is right; this does not just have a negative impact on us as Assembly Members or on communities in general. It has a negative impact on our children and on the work that classroom assistants do every day. They are not there just to assist. They are there to play a positive role in the lives of the children they work with. In fairness, every Member who has contributed to this debate has recognised the positive work that is done by classroom assistants. There is no dispute about the contribution that they make to our schools, especially in relation to children with special educational needs — that has also been mentioned in the debate.
Classroom assistants make up one of the most highly professional sectors of the educational workforce, providing learning support to the most vulnerable people in society. Several debates over the past few weeks in the Assembly have mentioned young people with special needs and those who live in poverty. It is important to recognise that when we — or the Executive, collectively — talk about the most vulnerable people in society. The Minister has a measure of responsibility, but so does the Executive. If this is solely a matter of funding — and I know that it is not — the Executive, through the Department of Finance and Personnel, the Minister of Education and her Department, must sort it out now.
There is no doubt in the Chamber about the role of classroom assistants. No one would challenge the value of their contribution. This dispute has gone on for 10 or 11 years, and, in fairness to Mary Bradley, I do not think that any of my colleagues in Derry has taken cheap publicity shots on this. I have been on the picket line over the years. If we are being honest, and saying that we all support the motion for whatever reason, and want it resolved once and for all, we should not take cheap shots. The Minister has children of her own, and in the previous debate on 19 June committed herself to resolving the situation. I support her in her efforts. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr Shannon: I support the DUP amendment. The Assembly discussed this not so long ago and made a strong case for equality, fairness and justice for the 7,000 classroom assistants in the workforce.
I am sure that Members are familiar with the film ‘Groundhog Day’, in which Bill Murray’s alarm clock wakes him every day at 6.00 am to the sound of Cher’s singing, and his day repeats over and over again. We have an equivalent in the Chamber and the Province: Caitríona Ruane is the actress starring in ‘Groundhog Day’. She wakes up every day at 6.00 am, the alarm goes off, Cher is singing, and the same thing happens for the classroom assistants — nothing.
The classroom assistants have had the same problem for the past 12 years. They have been waking up to the same thing over and over again. The time has come for the Minister to accept her responsibility and decide that it is time to move on.
In a rare feat for the Assembly some time back in June, there was little disagreement about the fact that the situation is unfair. However, there was a not-so-rare attempt by the Shinners to twist words to protect their Minister and say that she is doing all she can. The fact of the matter is —
Mr Brady: Will the Member give way?
Mr Shannon: No, I will not. One might safely say that we are in a worse situation, as the classroom assistants’ union have decided that they have no option but to strike. That is not a decision that the members of the union have taken lightly. Indeed, it is all that is left to them to do after 12 years of patience, talking, and waiting for the Government, our Assembly and our Minister to do something. They have no desire whatsoever to stand outside the schools on Wednesday and watch the children whom they love and help walk past them into the classrooms without them.
For the record, members of my party and I have stood on the picket line with the classroom assistants. I did it in Portavogie and in Newtownards, and I am sure that other Members will say that they have done so elsewhere.
Classroom assistants do not wish to leave the teachers, whose workload is incredibly high due to the amount of paperwork and red tape that they must wade through in addition to teaching 30 children, without help. For 12 years, classroom assistants have allowed their thoughts of the children and their respect for their teacher colleagues to stop them taking the strike action that has often been the port of call for so many other employment issues. However, enough is enough: we can no longer blame the indifference of the direct rule Minister. We must look closer to home to see why our classroom assistants are left with nothing else to do other than wait for justice for another 12 years. Such a wait cannot be expected.
I could mention in detail, as other Members have done, the special-needs allowance, the change in the salaries for classroom assistants, and that their pay is based on a 36-hour week despite the fact that most of them work only 10 to 12 hours a week. Instead, I will put on record the concerns of my constituents, who have repeatedly and forcefully reiterated the need for classroom assistants in the schools in my constituency of Strangford. Parents have acknowledged the vital role played by classroom assistants in the education of their children. As other Members have said, children who are young, were premature or have slight learning difficulties are still able to excel and fulfil their potential given the opportunity offered by the support and commitment from classroom assistants. Teachers have explained to me how overwhelming their job is and that it would be impossible to meet the criteria and allow each child to find his or her individual place in the classroom without the aid of a classroom assistant. They would find it next to impossible to do it all by themselves, and they rely on the presence of the assistant, not only for learning resources but for help with behavioural issues.
It has been found that children are better behaved in classrooms that have classroom assistants. They give the teachers eyes in the back of their head to see what is going on in the classroom. I have also been told of one school, where the cleaner can potentially earn more than the classroom assistants. Where is the equality and fairness in that?
Classroom assistants have done their job faithfully year after year, supporting the teacher, loving the children and pouring immeasurable worth into their lives, and it galls them to consider strike action. When 93% of classroom assistants voted for strike action, they did so out of desperation. I ask the Minister to consider that and to do the right thing: release the money and ensure that equality and fairness prevail, beginning in our schools where the future of our children is at stake, and do it now. Let us not see this matter before the House in another few months. Members must demand a difference and teach the learning authority a lesson on fairness, which it has consistently failed to heed for the past 12 years.
As ‘Groundhog Day’ finished on a happy note, I urge the Minister to conclude this issue on a happy note for classroom assistants.
Mr K Robinson: As a governor of two primary schools in Newtownabbey, I declare an interest in the matter. It is a hard act to follow our film critic, Mr Shannon, but at least he did not burst into song as some of his colleagues are apt to do. [Interruption.] Please no, please no.
Along with other Members, I have a sense of déjà vu as we again debate the issue of classroom assistants. The long-running dispute is in danger of finding a slot in ‘Guinness World Records’ if it continues to bounce along with no satisfactory outcome in sight.
One of the major bones of contention is the requirement to offer a level 3 NVQ when applying for the position of a classroom assistant. That is a perfectly reasonable requirement as we seek to improve the qualification levels of all of those working in schools and strive to increase the standards of literacy and numeracy. However, the failure to recognise such a vital qualification during the negotiations around the job evaluation is puzzling to say the least and is clearly an unsustainable situation.
In 2003, the Government produced a key document entitled ‘Raising Standards and Tackling Workload’. While clearly differentiating between the roles of teachers and assistants, it stated:
“The remuneration of support staff, including high level teaching assistants, will need to reflect their level of training, skills and responsibilities”
Surely, that suggests that the boards should now take into account the qualifications of classroom assistants, namely, the NVQs. However, there appears to have been a last-minute “moving of the waters”, which might allow some common sense to reign at last.
Mr Kennedy: Does the Member welcome the fact that it appears that, as a consequence of today’s motion, which stands in the name of the Ulster Unionist Party, progress has — at long last — been made on the dispute? Does he agree that such progress will be very welcome?
Mr K Robinson: I am glad that the Member has intervened, even if he has stolen my thunder. I have in my hand a fax that suggests that there has been some movement between the employers and the unions. I think that a meeting took place between them on Friday afternoon, at which an offer was proposed. That offer was to be made known today. Whether that has happened, I cannot comment, but I hope that the Minister will confirm that that is the situation.
The union side has apparently met the chief executives of the five boards, and, although that is not the usual negotiating position, it at least represents forward movement. Those emergency talks appear to have led to an offer’s being made this morning. Whether that offer is acceptable and meaningful, we wait for the Minister to tell us. I hope that the offer will be meaningful. I hope that it will protect the historical contractual rights and include a framework that will enable the service to meet not only its current needs but its future needs.
Mrs D Kelly: Will the Member give way?
Mr K Robinson: I am sorry; I am running out of time.
However, the Department and the Minister must come clean. The Minister must assure the House that they are not rigidly instructing the employers to remain within some predetermined financial allocation, thereby delaying any potential settlement.
Given that the Minister has some difficulty in grasping the serious roadblock that such a stance may be causing when the problem is expressed to her in plain English, I put it to her in a language that she promotes ad nauseam? Fág an bealach. Minister. Clear the way, and settle the issue now.
The Minister of Education (Ms Ruane): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I say immediately that I find myself very much in sympathy with the motion. I regret that the dispute has continued for so long, and I do not want to see any disruption caused to our children’s education. I recognise fully the vital role that classroom assistants perform, and I take this opportunity to express my gratitude and appreciation to them once again.
I have visited many schools since my appointment and have seen at first hand the commitment that so many dedicated individuals in our education system show. Classroom assistants play an invaluable role. They are a hugely positive force in the lives of the children whom they serve. They work with some of our most-vulnerable young people, including those who have a range of special needs. They provide much-needed general support in every primary 1 class, and in those primary 2 classes in areas where attainment is low and social deprivation far too high.
Mrs D Kelly: Will the Minister give way?
Ms Ruane: I will not, no.
For me, there is absolutely no doubt about the value of the role that classroom assistants play in the education of our children and young people. It was only right, therefore, that a proper mechanism be put in place to ensure that the work that classroom assistants carry out was evaluated fairly and consistently, and to ensure that jobs of equal value received equal pay. That was the purpose of the job evaluation scheme.
Nuair a phléigh muid an t-ábhar seo an uair dheireanach ar 19 Meitheamh, ghlac mé leis go raibh an scéal ag dul ar aghaidh ar feadh ró-fhada agus gur gá é a réiteach gan mhoill. Rinne mé amach labhairt leis na boird agus leis na ceardchumainn faoin ábhar.
When we last debated the issue of classroom assistants, on 19 June 2007, I accepted that the dispute had gone on far too long. I undertook to speak to the boards and the trade unions to urge them to reach a speedy resolution to the dispute. After that debate, I met the boards on 21 June and the unions on 29 June. I made it absolutely clear to both sides that, in the interests of the classroom assistants and the children with whom they work, they needed to redouble their efforts in order to reach a fair and equitable settlement. I told them that that had to be done quickly, in order to enable the funding to be released into people’s pay packets as soon as possible. In the period since, I have keep abreast of the situation, through briefings from my officials and through a substantial volume of correspondence, some from classroom assistants who are caught up in the dispute. Negotiations between the boards and the unions continued, with numerous meetings being held between the management side and union joint secretaries. Board chief executives and senior union officials have met to discuss the issue.
More recently, the boards have written to all classroom assistants to explain the current position on the evaluation of their posts.
A LeasCheann Comhairle, during the debate on 19 June 2007, both Members in whose name the motion stands rose to speak. Hansard records that, with reference to the funding that has been made available to the boards to resolve the dispute, Mr Basil McCrea said:
“I support the motion, because it is not for me to say what is equitable and what is not.” — [Official Report, Vol 22, No 13, p553, col 1].
Really, does anyone know what that means? I do not, and, after listening to the Member today, I am fairly certain that he does not know either. It seems to me that, on 19 June, the Member had no understanding of the dispute and no idea how to resolve it. Judging from his contribution today, I believe that he still has no idea.
I welcome the opportunity to shine a light on the dispute. It is great to have the concerns of a group of working-class women debated in the Assembly. One might think that they will have been greatly heartened to witness Members almost trip over themselves to express their support and solidarity for those poor women. They could be forgiven a little scepticism, because, in June, those very same Members, with a few notable exceptions, did the same, but when the press had packed up and gone home, those Members did nothing.
I have laid out for the Assembly what I have done. The classroom assistants should know, however, if they do not know already, that, with the exception of people such as Paul Butler of Sinn Féin, Dawn Purvis of the PUP and one or two Members from the DUP and from the SDLP, not one of the other Members who spoke so passionately today, or on 19 June, has approached me on behalf of the classroom assistants. Not one. I have received scores of letters and questions for written and oral answer on every other issue.
Members have shown their prejudice against the Irish language; I have heard the comments. Shame on you. Do you not understand that classroom assistants work in all schools, including Irish-language schools? What you need to do is to forget the prejudice against the Irish language, stop all that nonsense and start dealing with equality. We have heard about equality in this House. Sammy Wilson — [Interruption.] You never miss an opportunity to show prejudice and bias against the Irish language. Your concern about gender equality is touching. Every time that I rise in the House, I am attacked, and other women who are Members are treated very badly when they rise to speak. Therefore, I hope that the classroom assistants understand how important gender equality is to your party.
Sammy Wilson, the Chairperson of the Committee for Education, is present today. What has that Committee actually done? How many times has it met with the classroom assistants? It will meet with them soon, we are told. It is only three and a half months since it saddled that particular high horse, so the Committee should be given a bit of time. Sammy’s concern for the working class is touching. Sammy, if you really want to deal with working-class issues and disadvantage, you need to open your eyes and look at the debate on academic selection.
Sammy, you are sitting back to front, looking back to the good old days, while everyone else looks towards the future. Those are the same people who, unlike their Conservative counterparts in Britain or even their friends in the Flat Earth Society, would like to retain the 11-plus for the benefit of the working class. That is what Sammy Wilson tells us. Members should check out the percentage of free school meals in grammar schools compared to that in secondary schools — [Interruption.]
Mr K Robinson: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Ms Ruane: No. You will see where the working class —
Mr Deputy Speaker: Point of order.
Mr K Robinson: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Is it not incumbent on the Minister, when replying in a debate, to stick to the points covered during that debate rather than comment on other issues?
Mr Deputy Speaker: That is a matter for the Minister. However, I ask the Minister to make her remarks through the Chair, please.
Ms Ruane: Certainly, Mr Deputy Speaker.
The issues are linked; they are the same issues. They concern working-class children and those with special needs. Sammy Wilson tells us that if he does not get his way, a breakaway education system for those grammar schools that cannot contemplate change will be set up. Again, he is obviously concerned about the working class.
Will working-class people be able to afford the fees? I will not allow children’s education to become a political football. If any Member wishes, they can work with me on devising and implementing the programme for change that is needed if we are to create a modern, fit-for-purpose and world-class education system. I will not stint on my endeavours to facilitate those Members. If, on the other hand, I see Members posturing week after week, grandstanding for the media and trying to score cheap political points, regardless of the damage that that would do to the morale or well-being of children, parents and staff, I would not hesitate to expose them.
Having said that, I am concerned that since June’s debate on the matter, and, despite my meetings with management and unions, there has been no real progress in finding a resolution. [Interruption.]
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order.
Ms Ruane: I was asked about the meetings that have occurred. Meetings between chief executives, board and union officials took place on Friday, and there was a further meeting with management representatives this morning. Having listened to what has been said today, I plan to intervene. I am now calling on the employing authorities to implement the new grades as swiftly as possible in order that, as a result of the systematic job evaluation process that was carried out, those valuable members of staff receive the rates of pay to which they are entitled. Classroom assistants have already had to wait an unacceptable length of time. We must get the money to them that they deserve.
Equally, there is nothing to be gained from the proposed industrial action. That can only disrupt children’s education and result in loss of income for the staff concerned. I urge classroom assistants to call off the proposed strike.
Mrs M Bradley: Will the Minister give way?
Ms Ruane: No. I do not have time, and I have a lot more to say.
I am also calling on the employers and the unions to meet today to resolve equitably the remaining differences. Although that would conclude the matter, which is essential, not least because of the interests of the staff concerned, I do not regard it as the ultimate solution. The issues that have arisen are part of a bigger picture.
We need to take a wider and more fundamental look at our approach to the planning and management of our schools’ education workforce. We should examine the roles and responsibilities of all the main groups and maximise the contributions of each so that pupils get the benefit of the skills and expertise that all teaching staff bring. I have asked officials to draw up the terms of reference for such a review, with the aim of making progress as soon as is practicable. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr S Wilson: It is nice to see that the Minister, who did not have any time to accept interventions from the SDLP or anyone else, was able to spend 30% of her time attacking me about my attitude to, among other matters, academic selection, the working class, the Irish language, equality and the treatment of women.
Mrs D Kelly: Will the Member give way?
Mr S Wilson: No; I only have five minutes. I will not give way, nor will I attack the Member, so she need not worry.
The Minister says that she wants to deal seriously with this issue, yet she spends 30% of her speech addressing her comments to another Member on subjects that are not being discussed. If I were as paranoid as Mr Butler, I would think that she were carrying out a witch hunt. However, I am not paranoid. I am quite happy for her to make those sorts of comments. That is what we expect to happen here. However, I will not take lectures from the Minister that Members on this side of the House are not concerned, or are expressing only pseudoconcern, about the matter.
Mr McCrea, a Member for Lagan Valley, tabled the motion because, in spite of the promise that the Minister made on 19 June — which was over three months ago — when she thought that the matter was urgent, it has dragged on and has still not been resolved. She cannot point the finger at the Committee for Education and the Assembly and ask what they have done.
We are not the employers. We are not even the paymasters. The Minister is the Minister — she is the one who is responsible. We have no role in the negotiations.
That is one of the reasons why I do not accept the amendment tabled by the Member for East Belfast Dawn Purvis. It is not the job of this Assembly or of its individual Members to get involved in the minutiae of negotiations between employers and employees. To go down that route would drag us into almost every trade union dispute in the public sector, and perhaps even the private sector as well. That is not our role. Our role is to ensure that, where an issue is important, the Minister gives it appropriate priority in her Department, in her dealings, and in her allocation of the finances that are available to her.
Clearly, this Minister has not done that. Since 19 June, on something that we were told was urgent, she has had two meetings, one with each side. She has clearly not given the matter any priority in her financial dealings. As far as I know, the £30 million that was available has not been upped. In the meantime — true to form, I am going to mention it — she has found plenty of money to hand out for her favourite project, the promotion of the Irish language. Mainstream education and the concerns of youngsters with special needs across Northern Ireland, and of those who deal with them, take second place in this Minister’s priorities behind the promotion of her own political ideology and the things that she wants to promote.
That is why the motion is appropriate, and those who proposed it should not be ashamed of doing so. It is the job of this House to ensure that the Minister, who is responsible for the education budget and who can — and who promised to — intervene between the boards and the trade unions does so. She has not done that, and that is why the dispute has dragged on. The amendment tabled by my colleague from Lagan Valley Jeffrey Donaldson seeks to give some direction to the talks among the boards, the trade unions and the Minister. At the end of the day, I am not ashamed to say that I brought this issue up on a number of occasions before devolution in the House of Commons. Here in the Assembly, I have done what I can. Through the Education Committee, I have pushed the Minister. Let no one run away with the idea —
Mr B McCrea: Will the Member give way?
Mr S Wilson: I have only got —
Mr B McCrea: You will get an extra minute.
Mr S Wilson: Yes; I will give way.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Sorry, your time is up.
Ms Purvis: I have listened to all the contributions today, and one thing is clear: everyone cares about the classroom assistants, the valuable job that they do in the education system, and the care and attention that they lavish on our children.
I was very disappointed by some of the contributions, which amounted to point-scoring. I was somewhat disappointed by Mr Butler’s claim that Members are coming to this matter late; that was disingenuous. My predecessor, David Ervine, stood on picket lines at Tor Bank School, and other Members, such as Mrs Iris Robinson, have campaigned for that school. Whether or not Members come to this issue late, they are still coming to it. That is a sign of the lobbying power of the classroom assistants and the trade unions in recent months. Even if we come late, it is important that we come and lend our support. It was disingenuous of Mr Butler to say that.
I want to reflect on what Mr Shannon said. People do not take strike action lightly — they come to it as a last resort. Parents, classroom assistants and principals do not want a strike. I discussed classroom assistants with a principal last week, and she said that they cannot be blamed for wanting to strike. They are crucial to the system, but they are not valued accordingly. That is what the debate is about.
For obvious reasons, I cannot support the motion: it is too weak; it does not do anything; and it does not move the issue forward. That is why Sinn Féin supports the motion. During the debate in June, the Minister was asked to intervene. However, no progress has been made since then.
I cannot support the DUP amendment, because it does not do anything more to progress the issue. The four items that it lists have been discussed at length. They have been on the agenda at every negotiation that has taken place between management and trade unions, but we have not got anywhere. No one wants to strike; strike action is a last resort. The classroom assistants do not want to strike, but their hand has been forced. Some people really do not get it.
Mrs D Kelly: I have been trying to make an intervention; this is third time lucky for me.
None of us was comforted by the Minister’s promise in her lecture to the House that she would instruct her officials to implement the grades that are currently on offer. Therefore, we are no further forward.
Ms Purvis: I thank the Member for her intervention. Really, the Minister has said that she will forge ahead anyway and introduce management’s pay evaluation whether classroom assistants like it or not. That is not the way forward; it does not let people know that they and their contributions are valued. The matter will not be resolved until the Minister directs management to enter into negotiations with the trade unions to come up with an equitable, fair and just settlement and pay evaluation for classroom assistants, to use the Minister’s own words and those of other Members here today. We need to get people talking, but we also need to get them negotiating a fair deal for classroom assistants.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Members will know that business must be suspended for Question Time, which begins at 2.30 pm. Therefore, this debate will resume at 4.10 pm.
The debate stood suspended.
(Mr Speaker in the Chair)
Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister
1. Mrs McGill asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to outline the status of ‘Lifetime Opportunities: Government’s Anti-Poverty and Social Inclusion Strategy for Northern Ireland’; and to give a timescale within which it will be presented to the Executive for consideration. (AQO 167/08)
The Deputy First Minister (Mr M McGuinness): Section 16 of the Northern Ireland (St Andrew’s Agreement) Act 2006 places a statutory obligation on the Executive Committee to adopt a strategy setting out how they propose to tackle poverty, social exclusion and patterns of deprivation based on objective need. The process to obtain Executive Committee agreement on an anti-poverty strategy has begun, and Ministers are examining the lifetime opportunities strategy and hope to bring a revised paper to the Executive later this year.
Mrs McGill: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Given that the eradication of poverty is a well-documented and agreed priority for Government, how will resources be earmarked and channelled proactively in pursuance of this priority?
The Deputy First Minister: The skewing of resources and efforts towards those in greatest objective need by Departments is seen as an effective way of ensuring that measures to combat poverty and social exclusion are implemented and, ultimately, mainstreamed within public expenditure, planning and resource allocations.
Mr Elliott: What measures has the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister put in place, through its challenge function, to ensure that all Departments allocate appropriate resources towards addressing rural poverty and disadvantage, particularly as those issues should be dealt with by all Departments, not just the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development?
The Deputy First Minister: Section 16 of the Northern Ireland (St Andrew’s Agreement) Act 2006 places a statutory obligation on the Executive to adopt a strategy on how the matter should be taken forward. While poverty and multiple-deprivation tend to be concentrated in urban areas, rural communities are also at risk, with high levels of deprivation in less accessible rural areas. To that end, the Executive are committed to ensuring that the adopted strategy will address the poverty and social exclusion encountered in urban and rural areas.
The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development’s vision of a thriving and sustainable rural community and environment means that, effectively, it has engaged in many activities that will directly and indirectly tackle rural poverty.
As the Member is a farmer, he will be aware that agriculture continues to play an important economic role in the rural economy. The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development will strive to increase the economic sustainability of all farm businesses and will work in conjunction with other Departments towards the elimination of poverty in rural areas. The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development obtained EU approval for its 2007-2013 rural development programme on 24 July. That programme will put more than £500 million into rural areas over the next six years, with a focus on improving the competitiveness of the farming industry, the environment and the quality of life in rural areas.
Mrs D Kelly: Will the Deputy First Minister assure the House that the strategy will be supported by a dedicated budget? Will he give us an assessment of the North’s progress towards the targets contained in the lifetime opportunities document, which was released by the then Secretary of State in November 2006?
The Deputy First Minister: As the Member rightly said, ‘Lifetime Opportunities: Government’s Anti-Poverty and Social Inclusion Strategy for Northern Ireland’ was launched by the then Secretary of State, Peter Hain, in November 2006. The strategy replaced New TSN, which was the Government’s formal high-level policy for tackling poverty and social exclusion in the North. All those issues are under discussion.
The Executive, and the respective Ministers, are giving much consideration to those issues. The process to obtain the Executive Committee’s agreement on the strategy has begun; proposals are currently being cleared at an official level, with a view that the Executive Committee will consider all of them at a meeting in October. When the outcome of that becomes clear, I will be able to give more comprehensive answers.
Honours List: Local Alternative
2. Mr Dallat asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to detail plans for a local alternative to the Honours List for recognising people who, at work or in a voluntary capacity, have made an outstanding contribution to society in general, or individuals in particular. (AQO 144/08)
The Deputy First Minister: Honours are an excepted matter, and are not within the competence of the Assembly. The introduction of a local civic-award system, in addition to the honours process, is something that the Assembly may wish to consider further at a later date.
Mr Dallat: I thank the Deputy First Minister for his answer. If the Assembly does consider an alternative to the honours system, will it recognise people from the South who have made outstanding achievements in the North? Also, will it be transparent and accountable?
The Deputy First Minister: The honest answer is that it is too soon to tell. A local alternative to the honours system is not a high priority for the Assembly at present, given all the other pressing measures to be dealt with between now and Christmas — particularly budgetary considerations, investment strategies and the priorities that the Executive and the Assembly will want to concentrate on.
There has been widespread recognition by the Assembly of the achievements of cricketers; Gaelic footballers; the Derry camógs, who won the all-Ireland junior championship two weeks ago; Rory McIlroy, who performed well in the British Open golf championship, and Padraig Harrington from the South, who won that same championship. All those types of achievement will be discussed in detail if the Assembly has a real debate on the issue.
Were we to reach a point of considering a local alternative to the honours system, it would have validity only if it ensured recognition of the unsung heroes of our process, governmental structures and system — such as teachers and nurses — who perhaps contribute in a more meaningful way than the stars of our society.
Mr Kennedy: Given that the existing honours list retains widespread support from all communities in Northern Ireland, and that the issue strikes at the heart of the debate over national sovereignty, will the Deputy First Minister clarify his view on the current political status of Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom? [Laughter.]
The Deputy First Minister: That is a cracker. The Member is to be admired for asking a question about the honours list, avoiding the issue and turning it into a wholly political question about the constitutional position of the North. The Good Friday Agreement and the St Andrews Agreement both exist, and many matters have been settled by debate, without prejudice to the political aspirations of any Member. Rather than become embroiled in a controversial debate with the Member, I will leave the matter at that.
Mr I McCrea: Can the Deputy First Minister confirm that awards are made by Her Majesty the Queen to people from all sectors in society? Can he also tell the House what percentage of those awards go to people in the community, voluntary and local-services sectors?
The Deputy First Minister: As I said in my previous answer, although awards are not in the competence of the Assembly, or indeed the Executive, they are made to all sectors of society, covering business, sport, arts, media, health, education, public service and the voluntary and community sectors.
Approximately 60% of awards here go to people in the community, voluntary and local-services sectors, and any member of the public may nominate someone for an award. Some 50% of awards are made to people who have been publicly nominated.
Rights of Older People
3. Mr Brady asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister how it will ensure that the rights of older people are effectively protected and promoted. (AQO 159/08)
The Deputy First Minister: The Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister is fully committed to protecting and promoting the rights of all citizens — including older people. To that end, the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister introduced regulations last October, which prohibit discrimination in employment on grounds of age.
The Equality Commission has played a vital role in promoting awareness of the new legislation and has produced guidance designed to help employers and employees understand their rights and responsibilities. We are also examining whether the establishment of a dedicated commissioner post will add to protecting and promoting the rights of older people. Conclusions on that matter will be put to the Executive as soon as possible.
Mr Brady: I thank the Deputy First Minister for his answer. Go raibh maith agat. Will there be an independent element to the deliberations on the rights of older people?
The Deputy First Minister: An independent organisation, or individual, will be appointed to assist in the work, and Members will recognise that that is an important dimension as we move forward with what is, undoubtedly, an area of tremendous concern in the Assembly.
Mr Ross: The Deputy First Minister said that conclusions regarding the commissioner will be brought to the Executive in due course. When will proposals be brought to the Executive?
The Deputy First Minister: Our consideration will be completed by the end of the year, and a report will be submitted to Ministers for consideration. A decision will be made by the Executive early in the new year.
Mrs M Bradley: Will the Deputy First Minister outline the distinctions between the Executive’s approach to protecting the rights of older people and that of the previous direct rule Administration?
The Deputy First Minister: Recently, the First Minister and I have often gone on public record and criticised various aspects of direct rule and direct rule Ministers. There is no doubt that the Executive are determined to do things differently to ensure that we — as locally accountable Ministers and MLAs — are totally responsive to the needs of our older citizens. As we move forward with this process, we will be conscious of our responsibilities in this area and to the older generation.
Equality Impact Assessments
4. Ms Anderson asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to outline its position in relation to equality impact assessments for all ‘high-level’ policies. (AQO 166/08)
The Deputy First Minister: Equality considerations must be mainstreamed into all decisions, including high-level or over-arching policies and strategies. As the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister is the Department with co-ordinating responsibility for equality, its policy is to subject all high-level policy emanating from Departments, in which equality issues have been identified via the screening stage, to a full equality impact assessment in line with section 75 responsibilities.
The Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister continues to offer advice to Departments on all aspects of the implementation of section 75. Departments are responsible for ensuring that equality of opportunity has been properly mainstreamed and for providing such assurances to Ministers.
Ms Anderson: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Will the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister be developing a transparent process for equality impact assessments for high-level policies and strategies?
The Deputy First Minister: The Equality Commission will be working with officials in the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister and the other Departments in the coming months to develop an agreed approach — [Interruption.]
Mr McNarry: On a point of order, Mr Speaker.
Mr Speaker: The Member should know that points of order are not taken during Question Time, but I will be happy to take points of order after Question Time.
The Deputy First Minister: I will start again. The Equality Commission will be working with officials in the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister and the other Departments in the coming months to develop an agreed process for equality-impact assessing all high-level policies and strategies.
Mrs Long: Will the Minister outline the position of the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister on screening all policies for their impact on good relations, and will he also confirm that equality and the creation of a shared future do not threaten, but actually reinforce, each other?
The Deputy First Minister: Members can be assured that all such matters, including those raised by Naomi Long, will be subject to the agreed approaches and mechanisms. It is clear that the section 75 obligations are bearing down on all Departments.
Mr Donaldson: Surely, one of the high-level policies and priorities for the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister is adequate funding and support for the victims of violence in Northern Ireland. Will the Minister agree with me that the more equality impact assessments we have, the more resources have to be diverted to them? Would it not be better to give the money to those who deserve it — the innocent victims of terrorist violence in Northern Ireland, who have suffered for too long?
The Deputy First Minister: The First Minister and I have made it clear on countless occasions that victims are a top priority for the Executive. I do not know how it can be said that we are not diligent enough when we carry out equality impact assessments on a wide range of issues. Given the nature of our Government, the processes that all parties have signed up to, and the St Andrews Agreement, there is a responsibility on all of us in the way ahead to ensure fairness in Government.
North/South Ministerial Council: Secretariat Accommodation
5. Mr McElduff asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister what action is being taken to provide accommodation that is fit for purpose for the secretariat of the North/South Ministerial Council. (AQO 154/08)
The Deputy First Minister: A business case and economic appraisal that was completed in 2006 confirmed that the present North/South Ministerial Council joint-secretariat accommodation does not meet the operational requirements of the secretariat, and it recommended that suitable alternative accommodation in the Armagh area be identified. Earlier this year, expressions of interest were sought from those willing to provide accommodation for the secretariat. Several tenders were received and have been evaluated. A full report will be provided to the Council later in the year, when it may be asked to approve the preferred bidder and agree that contractual arrangements should be made.
Mr McElduff: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. The Deputy First Minister is aware that as well as tabling a question for oral answer a fortnight ago, I pressed him on the issue last week following his statement on the North/South Ministerial Council. Will the Deputy First Minister be more precise, if possible, about the timing for the completion of the project, because the North/South Ministerial Council’s secretariat needs every encouragement and every facility to carry out its important work?
The Deputy First Minister: I agree that the Council’s work is very important, and those of us who have visited its headquarters in Armagh over the past six or seven years are aware that it is based in totally unsuitable accommodation.
Later this year, the North/South Ministerial Council may be asked to approve the preferred bidder and agree that contractual agreements should be made. Following the award of a contract, construction and fitting out will take approximately two years with the aim of having accommodation late in 2009.
Mr Attwood: Does the Deputy First Minister agree that, although accommodation for the secretariat is very important, the substance of North/South co-operation is even more important? Can he now, unlike last week, tell the House who the two independent, external people to be appointed by the Executive as part of the efficiency review of the North/South implementation bodies will be? Does he know who the two individuals to be appointed by the Irish Government are? Will the Deputy First Minister give the House a cast-iron guarantee that this so-called efficiency review will complete its work within six months, as indicated last week in his statement to the House? Given the concern about whether the review will be completed within six months, is the Deputy First Minister not concerned that the review will slow down North/South co-operation and ultimately suffocate North/South developments on the island?
The Deputy First Minister: In my statement last week on the North/South Ministerial Council meeting in which we participated earlier this year in Armagh, I made it clear that the efficiency review was a work in progress. The First Minister and I — and the Executive — have not yet decided on the individuals who will take that matter forward. However, I expect that that will happen in due course.
Mr Attwood’s question became a speech. He needs to recognise that other Members have tabled questions, and I am trying to get through as many as I can.
EU Regional Development Committee
6. Mr McCartney asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to give an assessment of the recent meeting with the European Union Regional Development Committee; and the importance of ongoing contact with the European Union. (AQO 165/08)
The Deputy First Minister: I, along with the Minister of Finance and Personnel, and my Department’s junior Ministers, were delighted to welcome such an influential European Parliament Committee to the House. That visit was another indication of the interest shown by the European institutions in our work to create a more peaceful and prosperous society.
The EU Regional Development Committee has played a significant role, and we have received substantial funds to build a better future for all. I thank that Committee and our MEPs for their past and continued support in securing structural funds for this region, particularly the Peace programmes and Europe’s contribution to the International Fund for Ireland. The meeting was a good opportunity to tell the Committee that we intend to participate fully as an EU region, and that the funding available under our EU rural development programme for 2007-13 would contribute to the creation of a dynamic, enterprising and innovative economy here.
The work of the European Commission Task Force announced by President Barroso on 1 May 2007 is also important. That will help to redefine our relationship with Europe as funding levels to the more-established member states reduce following the enlargement of the European Union.
The First Minister and I welcome wider political involvement with Europe through the Barroso task force, and it will be important for the Executive to maintain its visibility in Brussels. To that end, we hope to undertake a joint visit to Brussels to meet with President Barroso and other influential figures later in the year.
Mr McCartney: Go raibh maith agat. Will the Deputy First Minister provide us with progress on the Barroso task force?
The Deputy First Minister: The task force comprises a team of senior officials from relevant EU Commission Directorates General and has met on four occasions to identify key representatives and to develop a work plan. The rural development programme has been finalised and the structural fund programme will be agreed by the end of September.
In July, I led a ministerial delegation comprising myself and junior Ministers Gerry Kelly and Ian Paisley Jnr to meet Mr Nicholas Van der Pas, Director General for Employment and Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities in the European Commission. We discussed with him and his team the various policy strands relevant to the work of the task force. We also met Bobby McDonagh, head of the Irish permanent representation and Kim Darroch, head of the UK permanent representation, both of whom pledged their full and active support for the Barroso task force.
The Minister for Social Development, Margaret Ritchie, will be visiting Brussels in October in support of our participation in the European week of regions and cities open days, and she will also take the opportunity to meet with Danuta Hübner, Commissioner for Regional Policy. Commissioner Hübner and other members of the task force hope to visit us during the autumn. A progress report of the work plan will be prepared by the Commission towards the end of this year, and the Minister of Finance and Personnel will share that plan with his Executive colleagues in due course.
Lord Browne: In light of the task force announcement, what outcomes does the Deputy First Minister hope to achieve by the end of the year?
The Deputy First Minister: It is hard to say at this stage. However, we had a very constructive meeting with President Barroso when he came here. It was obvious that he was very anxious to help in whatever way he could.
At their meeting on 8 June, Commissioner for Regional Policy Danuta Hübner, the Minister of Finance Mr Robinson and the First Minister discussed the reasons for the task force’s work. The main outcomes were that, by the end of the year, we hope to have completed a stocktaking study of the available EU initiatives; understand how those initiatives could meet key economic requirements; seek to finalise the rural development, fisheries and structural fund programmes; make arrangements to extend the exchange of officials programme; and initiate a programme of meetings with Commissioners and senior Commission officials in order to build relationships.
Mr A Maginness: I thank the Deputy First Minister for his reply. I note the good and important work of the task force and that the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister have shed their opposition to the European Union and are embracing it enthusiastically. I commend that.
Will they now consider working with the Republic’s Government to get even greater funding for Northern Ireland? If united, the Government in the Republic of Ireland and the Executive will be able to achieve greater leverage, funding and support for Northern Ireland.
The Deputy First Minister: Obviously. The Assembly must have as much support and as many friends as possible. The First Minister has said that on several occasions. President Barroso’s visit to this Building occurred chiefly as a result of the Taoiseach’s encouragement. To gain the greatest advantage for the people we represent, we must use all the resources and good will that are available to us. I have no doubt that the people we work with in the Irish Government will be our friends at court.
Children and Young People
7. Ms S Ramsey asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to outline how the junior Ministers will address the issue of children and young people. (AQO 161/08)
The Deputy First Minister: The junior Ministers are assisting the First Minister and me to take forward our important commitments and priorities with regard to children and young people. They will have a key role in driving the 10-year strategy for children and young people and in setting in place the most appropriate arrangements for its delivery.
Along with the First Minister and me, the junior Ministers have already met with the Commissioner for Children and Young People and have begun a series of meetings with non-governmental organisations. A further schedule of visits, to take place in the autumn, is being arranged with organisations that work with children and young people. That will help to inform us of the key issues that face children and young people.
I also wish to place on record my thanks to Ms Ramsey and other representatives of the all-party group on children and young people for their positive contribution to this agenda. It is important that we find an appropriate way for that role and engagement to continue.
Ms S Ramsey: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Deputy First Minister for his answer. I wish to place on record my thanks for his personal commitment to children and young people, ensuring that they remain centre stage, and also for the commitment of the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister and the junior Ministers.
Will the Deputy First Minister highlight the key priorities that will emerge from the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister?
The Deputy First Minister: Our key priorities are: eradicating poverty and closing the gap between those who do well in life and those who do not; safeguarding and protecting children and young people; developing their full potential; fulfilling our commitments under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child; improving the health and well-being of children and young people; developing mechanisms to allow for meaningful participation of children and young people; and providing future generations with a safe and pleasant environment in which to grow.
Mr Speaker: As Mr Boylan is not in the Chamber, we will move on to question 2.
Giant’s Causeway Visitors’ Centre
2. Mr McGlone asked the Minister of the Environment what discussions she has had with her colleagues in the Executive concerning the proposed Giant’s Causeway Visitors’ Centre; and whether there are future plans to hold such discussions. (AQO 180/08)
The Minister of the Environment (Mrs Foster): As I informed the Environment Committee last Thursday, I have had two meetings with Minister Dodds, at which proposals for new visitor facilities at the Giant’s Causeway were discussed. There are no immediate plans for further discussions. I have not yet brought the only planning application before me — from Seaport Investments Ltd — formally to the attention of the Executive Committee, because I have not yet finalised my decision on the application.
I have indicated that I see considerable merit in the application before me, and I am minded to approve it. However, I have asked officials to do further work on issues relating to the proposal, which will involve discussions with the applicant and with the key stakeholders, namely Moyle District Council and the National Trust.
I hope that my announcement will facilitate a mature debate between the interested parties and that the outcome will be a visitors’ centre that we can all be proud of. When I make my final decision, I will bring it to the attention of the Assembly.
Mr McGlone: Just for the public record, has the junior Minister Mr Paisley Jnr, or his office or advisers, discussed the matter with your Department?
Mrs Foster: I am happy to answer that question from the Chairman of the Environment Committee. As he knows, I said clearly at last Thursday’s Committee meeting that I have had absolutely no representation from the junior Minister, or anybody else, for or against the application. I am happy to put that on the record.
Mr Neeson: Given the strong objections that have already emerged from Moyle and Coleraine councils, the National Trust and other stakeholders, and bearing in mind the political sensitivities in the Chamber, there is a chance that the application might go to the Planning Appeals Commission. If that happens, will the Minister abide by the commission’s decision?
Mrs Foster: First, I have heard a lot of discussion about what I, as the Minister responsible for planning, should or should not take into consideration in my determination of the matter. Many of the matters that have been mentioned are absolutely not matters that I should take into consideration when determining a planning application. I want to make that very clear. I am very clear about my ministerial role in planning.
Mr Storey: As there have been many reports in the local press over the last few weeks, will the Minister clarify why she said that she was minded to approve the proposal?
Mrs Foster: I said that I was minded to approve the application because I see considerable merit in it. It is the only application before me. The proposal, which is still at outline stage, attempts to minimise the visual intrusiveness of the proposed centre by covering roofs and exposed surfaces with grass and locating part of the car park underground. It has an imaginative design, which provides for extensive facilities, including an auditorium, cafe and library, and it attempts to resolve the access issues with new road arrangements.
That said, I have not made a firm decision, because aspects of the proposals must be given further consideration, including the impact on the world heritage site and the centre’s relationship to other development in the area and to the existing visitors’ centre. Those are proper planning matters that I have to deal with, and they will be taken into account when I reach my final decision.
Road Safety Strategy
3. Mr Hamilton asked the Minister of the Environment to give an assessment of the Northern Ireland Audit Office’s report on Northern Ireland’s Road Safety Strategy. (AQO 156/08)
Mrs Foster: I welcome the report and I am pleased that it acknowledges the significant progress made to date. There is always more that could be done, and I am pleased that the report has identified some important issues for further consideration. The report was considered by the Public Accounts Committee on 13 September 2007, and, following the Committee’s report, the Department of the Environment and the Department of Finance and Personnel will prepare a response that will be provided to the Assembly. It would be inappropriate for me to comment further until the response has been made available.
Mr Hamilton: I thank the Minister for her reply on what is an important issue. We were reminded of such tragedies overnight, with a fatal road accident on the Ballygowan Road outside Comber, in my own Strangford constituency.
Members welcomed the fact that the Minister made road safety one of her top priorities when she first entered office. Will she provide an update on the progress of the review of road safety strategy that she initiated?
Mrs Foster: I offer my condolences in respect of the latest tragedy on our roads just last night. There have been 79 deaths on our roads to date; which compares favourably with last year, when there had been 89 deaths on our roads at this stage. However, that does not take away from the human tragedy involved in any individual road death.
My officials have commenced a full review of the road safety strategy, and a number of my staff have been committed to the review on a full-time basis. Significant progress has been made, but much more can be done.
An initial meeting has taken place with counterparts in the Department for Regional Development and the Police Service of Northern Ireland to discuss the way forward. Unfortunately, it is too early to indicate when the review will be completed. However, the Department continues to make this a priority, and that is reflected in all of my public announcements.
Mr Speaker: I call Mr John Dallat for a supplementary question.
Mr Dallat: Mr Speaker, I do not have a supplementary question.
4. Mr A Maskey asked the Minister of the Environment to detail the number of listed buildings that have been destroyed in the past five years; and what penalties and prosecutions have resulted in relation to these offences. (AQO 172/08)
Mrs Foster: Over the past five years, 12 listed buildings have been destroyed without the appropriate listed building consent. In three cases no action was taken as the buildings were destroyed accidentally by fire. In another three cases no action was taken as the developer produced police reports to confirm that the buildings were in a dangerous condition. Those buildings were demolished and subsequently de-listed. In one instance a building was lost as a result of the roof falling in, and prosecution was not pursued. In another instance a developer was prosecuted for the demolition of two listed buildings in Portstewart and was fined the princely sum of £250 for each building. There is ongoing enforcement action in respect of the remaining three cases, one of which has been scheduled for a court hearing in November.
Mr A Maskey: Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Minister for her response. I know that she has taken an interest in this issue in the past. Will she acknowledge that the demolition of buildings without the appropriate listed building consent is an ongoing problem — certainly in my constituency of South Belfast — and that there have been quite a number of cases in which the Planning Service has given approval for the demolition of listed buildings? Will she also ensure that more stringent measures are included in any future planning legislation proposals to deal with listed buildings and provide enforcement measures in the event of such buildings being demolished without the appropriate permission?
Mrs Foster: The Member is aware that I know of the difficulties in his constituency, especially in relation to the Malone conservation area. There have also been problems in North Belfast — one of the Members for North Belfast, I think it was Mr Maginness, raised an issue in relation to the Cavehill Road during my previous Question Time.
Changes to the legislation were made in 2003 and 2006, which brought enforcement powers in Northern Ireland planning law largely into line with those in Great Britain. The changes included increasing the level of fines for offences, and the possibility of imprisonment. The legislation exists: the issue is whether the judiciary will follow through as regards the level of fines — unfortunately I have no control over that matter.
Mr Elliott: Assuming the Minister’s distaste at the possibility of a shrine at the Maze/Long Kesh site, does she have any plans to de-list the buildings on that site that are currently listed?
Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for his question. He, and several members of his party, wrote to me in relation to that matter. I will be responding in due course, and the responses will be with them in the near future.
Mr Spratt: The Minister is aware that, in some areas of Northern Ireland, traditional residential areas are being destroyed by apartment development. My South Belfast constituency has suffered probably more than others. Does the Minister agree that the spread of apartment development threatens the character of some traditional residential areas?
Mrs Foster: I am aware of increasing public concern about apartment development and its effect on the character of long-established residential areas arising from policies in the regional development strategy and the Department for Regional Development’s policy for housing and settlements.
The demand for apartment living reflects ongoing changes in society, including the trend towards smaller households. As the Department that is responsible for planning, my Department must cater for that trend. My Department has published Planning Policy Statement 7 and Development Control Advice Note 8 to assist in controlling that type of development.
I am not sure whether the Member is aware that, on my instruction, the Planning Service recently issued a circular to all its professional planners in order to raise their awareness of the issue and particularly that of the cumulative impact of apartment developments. My officials are also liaising with Department for Regional Development officials about the build-up of developments in existing residential areas.
5. Mr Ford asked the Minister of the Environment what is her assessment of the need to reduce carbon emissions in Northern Ireland, given the announcement by her Scottish colleagues on the need for an 80% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050. (AQO 183/08)
Mrs Foster: Although Northern Ireland’s emissions are minute in global terms, it is important that we play our part in reducing them. That is why I sought, and received, agreement at last week’s Executive Committee meeting for the provisions of the United Kingdom Climate Change (Effects) Bill to be extended to Northern Ireland. That Bill provides for an overall United Kingdom emissions reduction target of at least 60% by 2050.
I am aware that, in addition to opting into the UK Bill, the Scottish Executive intend to produce a separate climate change Bill that has a higher reduction target of 80%. There is no simple relationship between long-term stabilisation and the pathways that are required to reach that point. The UK target of at least 60% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions is consistent with that approach. However, it is recognised that there is a need to keep targets under review in the light of emerging scientific evidence and other developments. The Climate Change (Effects) Bill will provide for that.
Mr Ford: I thank the Minister for her reply, although it is a little disappointing. Given the growing body of opinion that states that the UK needs to reduce carbon emissions by at least 80% by 2050 and the fact that Northern Ireland, along with Scotland, has huge potential to generate power from wind, waves and biomass, is it not time that she ensured that Northern Ireland took a lead in the battle against climate change and ceased to be a reluctant conscript?
Mrs Foster: I do not accept that Northern Ireland is a reluctant conscript; the opposite is the case. The 60% target was recommended by the independent Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution and cited in the 2003 White Paper on energy. There has been considerable stakeholder consensus that that figure represents an ambitious commitment for the UK; however, there is no similar consensus on any other figure.
In evidence to the joint committee that scrutinised the Bill in May, Professor Sir David King, the Government’s scientific adviser, recognised that 60% is the correct target at this stage. I want the Member to reflect on that. Two weeks ago I had the opportunity to speak with Jonathon Porritt, the chairman of the Sustainable Development Commission. I asked him about the 60% target, because I knew it to be an issue for some here. Mr Porritt is of the opinion that 60% is the correct target at this point; however, he said that it should be left to the Committee on Climate Change to revisit targets. Revisiting targets is built into the Bill, which states that the target is at least 60%. However, the Committee on Climate Change could raise that target if the need arises.
Mr P Ramsey: Will the Minister tell us what cross-departmental meetings have taken place on the reduction of carbon emissions and what action has been taken as a result?
Mrs Foster: The Member knows that sustainable development lies in the remit of OFMDFM, which is taking the lead on the matter. It will also lead on reducing carbon emissions across the Government estate.
My own Department is leading the way, and I hope that it will be carbon-neutral by 2010. I also hope that other Departments follow its example.
Mr Ross: Will the Minister advise Members how Scotland arrived at the proposal of a reduction of 80% for carbon emissions? Is there any merit in having specific reductions for Northern Ireland in the proposed climate change Bill?
Mrs Foster: Hopefully, I have partly answered that when replying to Mr Ford’s supplementary question. Targets have no value unless they are realistic and achievable. Scotland has agreed to the target of 60% set by the UK climate change Bill. The Scots feel that they can go further and aim for a target of 80% in the Scottish climate change Bill. The reason that Scotland, above other UK Administrations, can do that is that there is a better provision of natural resources, as well as carbon-dioxide-absorbing forests and heathlands, and an abundant water supply for the production of hydroelectricity.
The Scottish Administration believes that a higher domestic target is achievable. The target in the UK climate change Bill is 60%, but that may not be the ultimate target, and if the Joint Committee on Draft Climate Change Bill decides that the target should be raised, then the Northern Ireland Administration will take advice on that matter.
6. Mr T Clarke asked the Minister of the Environment what steps she is taking to support built heritage in Northern Ireland. (AQO 191/08)
Mrs Foster: I am determined to protect and promote the built heritage. Raising awareness, managing state-care monuments, saving buildings at risk and paying grants to owners of listed buildings are all important.
Recently, I launched the tenth anniversary of the increasingly popular European heritage open day, an event designed to promote our rich built heritage. The Proms in the Park event at Carrickfergus Castle highlighted Northern Ireland’s important heritage to a wider audience. I have launched a conservation plan for Derry’s walls. That initiative will strengthen the exemplary way that we seek to maintain the monument, and its guardianship, and indicates how the Department of the Environment intends to manage the other 183 monuments in state care.
The Environment and Heritage Service (EHS) has a database — Register of Buildings at Risk in Northern Ireland — the aim of which is to save 200 buildings by 2016. Last year, 32 buildings were removed from the register, including buildings such as Brownlow House in Lurgan, and the Irish Society’s Primary School in Coleraine.
The Department of the Environment, through EHS, offers grant aid to owners of listed buildings. The budget is £2·2 million, and we are reviewing that policy and hope to make funding more widely available. That includes the proposal for a new funding stream that will specifically target building preservation trusts. The proposals are subject to scrutiny by the Department of Finance and Personnel and to the views of the Committee for the Environment. In addition, during the last 12 months, 88 buildings have been added to the list of buildings of special architectural and historical interest.
Finally, since I took office, two preservation notices have been issued, and two others confirmed. That process is sometimes known as spot-listing and enables potentially list-worthy buildings to be protected from alteration or demolition for up to six months, to allow time for detailed research before a final decision is taken on whether to list them.
Mr T Clarke: Will the Department of the Environment continue to delist buildings as part of the second survey of historic buildings?
Mrs Foster: The short answer is yes. To be listed, buildings must pass the statutory test as set down in legislation — that is, they must be of special historical or architectural interest. Those buildings that no longer meet the legislative requirements must be delisted. However, as I have already said, over the last 12 months 88 buildings have been added to the list, and only 10 have been removed. Many buildings have been added to the list as a result of the second survey of historic buildings. Industrial buildings, vernacular houses and other structures such as pumps, which were less valued in the first survey conducted during the 1970s, are now better represented on the list.
7. Mr Molloy asked the Minister of the Environment what progress is being made in relation to the integration of the process for dealing with farm waste and municipal waste. (AQO 192/08)
Mrs Foster: The Northern Ireland waste management strategy is for all controlled waste, and, together with the Department of the Environment’s guidance on the best practical environmental options for Northern Ireland, forms a robust framework from which the three district council waste partnerships have developed waste management plans.
Those plans specifically provide for the management of all waste streams, whether municipal, commercial or farm waste. The waste strategy notes the value of exploiting any opportunities for the sharing of facilities to deal with both farm and municipal waste. The waste management groups will consider possible synergies when they procure facilities or services in relation to all controlled waste in their area.
Mr Molloy: Does the Minister agree that with the correct safeguards in place, an energy fuel could be produced, either from gasification or solid fuel, to help to deal with the wastes by bringing them together, while benefiting the community?
Mrs Foster: I am aware of the Member’s involvement with one of the waste management bodies, the Southern Waste Management Partnership, and with its proposals on those issues. In the first instance, the selection of appropriate technology on waste streams is a matter for the waste-management groups, which have come forward with particular plans for dealing with that. It is then a matter for the market, on a competitive basis, to determine a package of facilities that will provide the waste-management groups with an affordable solution. It is unlikely that a best-value solution will be able to depend on a single waste stream; therefore, agricultural, commercial and industrial wastes are likely to be treated along with municipal waste.
Mr Irwin: Can the Minister tell the House whether district councils accept and collect agricultural waste in the same way that they collect municipal waste?
Mrs Foster: Yes, they do. Agricultural waste falls under the classification of industrial waste in Northern Ireland. The Waste and Contaminated Land (Northern Ireland) Order 1997 allows district councils, if requested, to collect commercial and industrial waste on payment of charges. Civic amenity sites may also accept agricultural waste, and may charge for doing so.
Mr P J Bradley: I almost got the answer to my question in the Minister’s last response. However, is the Minister satisfied that all local authorities act according to the same criteria when collecting waste or having waste disposed of at landfill sites? I refer to the materials that they are allowed to dump and the charges that they can make.
Mrs Foster: All local authorities must comply with the requirements of The Waste Management Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2006 when dealing with agricultural waste that they have been requested to collect for treatment or disposal. However, if the Member is aware of any local government organisation that does not comply with those regulations, I am willing to talk to him about that.
Mr Speaker: Question 8 has been withdrawn.
9. Mr P Maskey asked the Minister of the Environment to detail the quantity of glass, paper and card, and plastics that have been recycled in each of the past two years. (AQO 169/08)
Mrs Foster: At present, the Department has no statutory obligation to collect figures. However, I receive returns from district councils on that matter. During 2004-05, the quantities of those materials that were recycled were as follows: glass, 10,258 tonnes; paper and card, 23,906 tonnes, and plastic, 1,712 tonnes. In 2005-06, those quantities increased to the following: glass, 13,107 tonnes; paper and card, 65,568 tonnes, and plastic, 7,666 tonnes. I am delighted to note the significant increase in the amounts that were recycled in 2005-06 compared with the previous year. That reflects well on the commitment of councils, the private and voluntary sectors and individual householders to increase the amount of waste that is recycled and thereby reduce the amount that goes to landfill.
Mr P Maskey: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. What efforts will the Minister make to enhance those figures and ensure long-term sustainability?
Mrs Foster: I am sure that the Member is aware of the Northern Ireland waste management strategy, which contains the following recycling targets: 60% of commercial and industrial waste to be recycled by 2020; 75% of construction, demolition and excavation waste to be recycled or reused by 2020; recycling and composting of household waste should be at 35% by 2010; 40% by 2015 and 45% by 2020. It is necessary to maximise recycling and composting practice in order to reduce the amount of waste that is sent to landfill and, with regard to biodegradable municipal waste, also to meet the challenging landfill directive targets.
Mr Newton: The Minister has provided impressive figures, which the House and the district councils will welcome. However, can the Minster tell the House how those figures will be monitored on a daily, weekly and monthly basis, so that the Assembly is confident that those targets are being achieved?
Mrs Foster: As I have already indicated, the Department does not have a statutory obligation to collect those figures. However, that may change in the future. The district councils submit their recycling data via the waste data flow database system on a quarterly basis, two months after the end of each quarter.
The data are collected from bring sites, civic amenity sites and kerbside collections. Information is gathered on 30 waste streams. The Environment and Heritage Service audits and validates the data through visits to district councils, 13 of which, to date, have been carried out this year.
Mr Speaker: Question 10 has been withdrawn.
Planning Policy Statement 14 (PPS 14)
11. Mr McElduff asked the Minister of the Environment if she will make a statement on planning applications refused under Planning Policy Statement 14: Sustainable Development in the Countryside. (AQO 148/08)
18. Mr Gardiner asked the Minister of the Environment what discussions she has had with the Minister for Regional Development regarding the establishment of new rural planning guidelines, in the light of Mr Justice Gillen’s ruling on Planning Policy Statement 14: Sustainable Development in the Countryside. (AQO 150/08)
Mrs Foster: Mr Speaker, with your permission, I shall answer question 11 and question 18, which is Mr Gardiner’s question, together.
Although the High Court has decided that the Department for Regional Development does not have the power to prepare it to draft PPS 14, the planning policy statement has not been formally quashed. A remedies hearing will take place on 27 September 2007. The Planning Service currently holds all planning applications that fall to be determined under PPS 14. The implications for applications that have been refused, wholly or partly on the basis of PPS 14, will be considered in the light of the final court judgement. There are about 600 such cases.
I will now answer Mr Gardner’s question. In light of the High Court’s recent judgment on the judicial review of PPS 14, I met Conor Murphy, the Minister for Regional Development, on 10 September 2007 to discuss the way forward. It was agreed that we would seek to place further evidence in front of the court on the issue of remedies. That matter was heard before Mr Justice Gillen on Friday 14 September 2007, when the Department for Regional Development was afforded a further week in which to submit additional evidence. As I have already stated, a further hearing on the issue of remedies is scheduled for 27 September 2007.
Mr McElduff: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Does the Minister accept that PPS 14, which is effectively a blanket ban on building in the countryside, has proven to be totally disastrous for the entire rural community? Does she also accept that refusals that were issued after 16 March 2006, on the basis of PPS 14 criteria, are now unlawful and invalid? How are those applications to be reviewed, and does PPS 14 still pertain?
Mrs Foster: I thought that I had made it clear — perhaps I did not — in my answer to the Member that applications that came before the Planning Service to be determined between March 2006 and the present still stand. At present, that is our legal advice, and I have no reason to demur. I am sure that the Member has read the judgement from Mr Justice Gillen in full. It is interesting that Mr Justice Gillen made no comment on the content of PPS 14. The crux of the judgement related to which Department made PPS 14, not to the content of the policy.
Mr Gardiner: I thank the Minister for her response. Does the Minister accept that considerations of sustainability, rural economy, family cohesion, social need, affordability and landscape compatibility should all be good reasons, either separately or in various combinations, for permitting development in the countryside, and that that rationale approach would be preferable to the mindless activity of PPS 14 and the chaos that has followed its demise?
Mrs Foster: I am sure that the Member is aware that a ministerial subgroup was set up to deal with the whole issue of PPS 14. Before the new devolved Administration took power on 8 May 2007, there had been a number of discussions in the House on what should be in a new PPS 14, both in the Committee on the Programme for Government and in the House. All those matters will be taken into consideration when the ministerial subgroup convenes. We have not proceeded with a ministerial subgroup meeting, but work has been done in the background with which we shall not proceed until the outcome of the appeal on Thursday 27 September 2007.
Mr Wells: I am sure that the Minister is aware that if the courts finally quash PPS 14, that will put enormous strains on the Planning Service. Is the Minister minded to put in place contingency plans, ready to be used, should that eventually happen?
Mrs Foster: Yes, I am minded to do so. Thank you very much for that wording, Mr Wells. Enormous strain will be placed on the operational side of Planning Service, as and when that decision is made.
Approximately 4,500 PPS 14 applications were received after 16 March 2006, up to early September 2007 —
Mr Speaker: I must interrupt the Minister as Question Time is now over for her.
Local and Regional Rates
1. Mr K Robinson asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel to detail the total amount raised in local and regional rates, both household and industrial, by (a) council area; and (b) parliamentary constituency, in the past five years; and to detail the amount of rebate paid out on the same basis. (AQO 151/08)
The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr P Robinson): I would have been happy to spend the next 30 minutes answering this question, but instead I placed tables in the Library showing the detailed information requested. The Land and Property Services Agency does not hold these figures by parliamentary constituency, so I provided the information on the basis of council area.
The Member for East Antrim asked for figures for household and industrial rates. We have taken that to mean domestic and non-domestic rates, as the category of industrial rates is only a small percentage of all non-domestic properties, and figures are not readily available for that subset.
The Member will be interested to note the following from the figures for 2006-07: in the Carrickfergus Borough council area, £7·7 million was raised in local rates, and some £10 million in regional rates. Over £1 million was refunded by way of rate rebate. In the Larne Borough Council area, £7·4 million was raised in local rates, and some £9·2 million in regional rates, with some £1·2 million being refunded by way of rate rebate. In Newtownabbey Borough Council area, in the other part of his constituency, £18·7 million was raised in local rates, and some £24·6 million in regional rates. Some £2·6 million was refunded by way of rate rebate.
Mr K Robinson: I thank the Minister for his full reply, and I look forward to reading the documents that he placed in the Library. Does the Minister agree that a significant proportion of the regional rates for a local government area should be spent in that area, as local rates currently are? Will he indicate what he considers to be a reasonable proportion?
Mr P Robinson: The regional rate is not a hypothecated rate. I can understand, arising out of contributions by his friend in the Workplace 2010 debate, the concern that is being expressed, particularly by those in East Antrim. Off the top of my head this morning, I said that my understanding was that Larne, which is in the East Antrim constituency, came out lowest in the indices for public-sector jobs. I checked those figures — I was right, as usual. [Laughter.]
The figures for public-sector jobs per 100 economically active people ranged from Larne at 10·4 to Belfast at 53·2. Again, the figures that were originally given show that the Belfast travel-to-work area had 28·1 public-sector jobs per 100 economically active people. It disguises the fact that the whole of East Antrim is at 10·1, Ards is at 11·1, Newtownabbey is at 13·1 and North Down is at 13·6. The low level in those areas — not surprisingly — means that Belfast is at 53·2. Again, the disparity is evident, particularly in the outlying areas of the Belfast travel-to-work area, which makes more complex the kind of decisions that we have to take with regard to job dispersal.
Mr O’Loan: How much of the domestic rate currently goes towards paying for water? If the Minister does not have that information at this point, can he confirm that he will bring that information to the Assembly and say when he will do so?
Mr P Robinson: Again, people are testing me — I am giving these figures off the top of my head. The answer at the moment is, of course, none — because at the time of the last Executive, his colleague Mark Durkan decided to break the link between water and the regional rate. I believe that the present-day equivalent of the figure at that time would be, on average, about £160.
Mr Hamilton: Can the Minister set out the percentage increase in the domestic regional rate over that period, the reasons for that increase, and whether he believes that such increases are sustainable.
Mr P Robinson: My colleagues are supposed to ask me easy questions, not hard ones. The percentage increases to which the Members referred occurred over a five-year period. For the past three years I calculate a 37% increase, which is a sizeable figure. Over five years the increase is approximately 60%, largely brought about by the negotiations of those involved in the Belfast Agreement with the reinvestment and reform initiative, which tied rate increases in Northern Ireland to the level of increases in Great Britain. That made for substantial increases; thankfully, we managed to break that link during the St Andrews Agreement negotiations, and are, therefore, no longer tied to the increases in Great Britain. The Executive can now make more reasonable decisions on rates.
2. Mr Ford asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel to detail the resources he has allocated to tackle rural poverty across Northern Ireland, and to meet the targets set out in ‘Lifetime Opportunities: Government’s Anti-Poverty and Social Inclusion Strategy’, given the ongoing comprehensive spending review. (AQO 184/08)
Mr P Robinson: The UK comprehensive spending review is due to conclude in October, and will have important implications for us in determining the share of UK public expenditure to be allocated over the next three years to the Executive and Assembly for those public services for which we are responsible.
I have not yet made any resource allocations for consideration by the Executive. Draft spending proposals put forward by Departments as part of the 2007 Budget process were informed by a broad range of issues, including the need to address social exclusion and poverty. I held bilateral meetings with Ministers last week in order to develop a Budget position. That will provide me with a basis to produce spending proposals for individual Departments for discussion and agreement at a subsequent Executive meeting.
Mr Ford: I thank the Minister for his response, although I had hoped for a little more detail. Given that many groups that tackle rural poverty depend on EU peace funding for some of their core activities, does the Minister have any plans to assist those groups in dealing with the reduction in funding from that source?
Mr P Robinson: It is worrying that there are a number of difficulties. Money from Europe will be about half of what it has been in previous years, and the future of a number of worthy projects will have to be considered. However, they must be considered by the Departments taking the respective lead responsibilities; they rank the priority of those projects as against departmental commitments, and I, in turn, when examining spending allocations, take account of all of the competitive pressures across all Departments. That is a matter that will be informed both by the Programme for Government and the amounts available to us through the three-year comprehensive spending review period.
The Member heard the Deputy First Minister state his and the First Minister’s priority. Poverty must be addressed, and rural poverty is just as real as urban poverty. If we are to mean anything when we say that we want devolution to work, we have to make it work for people in that position.
Mr Storey: Will the Minister set out the total Northern Ireland resource element of the departmental expenditure limit for 2006-07, compared to 1998-99, in real terms? What does the Minister expect the increase to be over the comprehensive spending review period, and how does he expect the Departments to address their priorities in that period?
Mr P Robinson: There has been a massive increase in public spending in Northern Ireland over those years, and, although we expect to be operating within a tight fiscal framework, we are still talking about economic growth; that is, economic growth upon what has been substantial economic growth up until now.
In the period to which the Member refers, the increase has been around 24%. Therefore, much more money is available to us today than there was in years past, and there has been, year-on-year, around 1% real growth over the period of the comprehensive spending review. We are still talking about more being available, but with a new Assembly and a new Executive in place, there is an ambitious programme, which can only be curtailed by the amount of spending available to us.
Mr P J Bradley: I was not in the Chamber earlier when the ministerial statement was made, so my question may have been asked already. Does the Minister agree that rural areas must be included in any future decentralisation programmes?
Mr P Robinson: I assume that the Member is referring to the decentralisation of public-sector jobs, particularly in the Northern Ireland Civil Service. Earlier, I said that the Executive has agreed a review of public-sector jobs, and I will be bringing the terms of reference to the Committee for Finance and Personnel and to the Executive so that we can have a robust policy to ensure that there is a fair spread, taking into account all of the factors, not least of which is the importance of Belfast as our capital city. However, the need to have a fair distribution around the country was also mentioned earlier and, as he was not present, I can tell the Member that a series of bids was made during the course of the morning, stretching from Larne through to Enniskillen and Omagh.
Review of Rating
3. Mr Weir asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel to give a timescale within which he intends to bring proposals to the Executive in relation to the review of rating. (AQO 137/08)
Mr P Robinson: The public consultation finished on 31 August, and the consultation report will be published shortly. That report will be sent to the DFP Committee for it to scrutinise and, if it wishes, to take further evidence. Following that, I will bring proposals to the Executive. I hope that that will take place in early November to allow changes to be made for next April’s rates bills. More fundamental changes cannot be implemented as easily because that would require primary legislation. In that context, it will take longer to develop firm proposals. The Executive and the Assembly will wish to examine any long-term options for change in more detail. Therefore, it may be that all we can decide on this year is a shortlist of realistic, long-term options for future and further consideration.
Mr Weir: The Minister recently indicated that he was considering increasing the savings limit for pensioners beyond which they are not entitled to certain benefits. Can the Minister give more detail about that, and could such a proposal be in place by next April?
Mr P Robinson: The answer to the latter part of the question is yes. Those types of changes can be made within the existing legislative framework. I do not wish to indicate what I believe the outcome of the review of rating should be; I think that it is important that the Committee for Finance and Personnel have the opportunity to examine the responses that the Department has received from consultation and give its considered opinion. I want to be able to take the Committee’s opinion into account, as well as the responses from the consultation, but I can tell the Member, as I said to a rating conference last week, that the type of proposal that he has mentioned has attractions and I am sure that the Executive will want to consider that carefully.
Mr Burns: Will the Minister confirm that the ability to pay will be a factor in any new rating scheme?
Mr P Robinson: I can confirm that. There are always difficulties with what might be regarded as a property tax, and the issue that is most at stake is that of the ability to pay. In the initial phase of the Department’s consideration, we can only consider ability to pay in the context of the existing legislation. That means that we have to consider the types of reliefs that are available and also issues such as how they affect senior citizens, vacant properties and the issue of the capping of rates. The ability-to-pay issue is at the heart of the matter, but it is not easy to fashion that within a capital-based rates system.
Mr McClarty: Does the Minister acknowledge that increasing industrial rates from the present 30% would have a significant detrimental impact on job opportunities, not only in my constituency of East Londonderry, but in the Minister’s constituency of East Belfast? Is the Minister aware that Northern Ireland manufacturers already experience the disadvantages of additional gas, electricity and transport costs?
Furthermore, is he also aware that several manufacturers have indicated that such an increase would result in the reduction of research and development budgets and medium-term investment, thus leading to significant job losses in the private sector that will be difficult to replace?
Mr P Robinson: The Member will be aware that the Economic Research Institute of Northern Ireland is carrying out work for the Department on that issue and, therefore, I should mark time until I receive its report. However, I was sufficiently indiscreet at a recent Confederation of British Industry conference to indicate that if the focus and centrepiece of Government policy is economic growth, it would be inconsistent to make life more difficult for businesses. The Member can extrapolate my view on the subject from that.
Childcare Voucher Scheme
4. Mr McFarland asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel to advise on the estimated savings which could result to the Northern Ireland Civil Service through the implementation of a childcare voucher scheme, such as that provided by Employers for Childcare. (AQO 210/08)
Mr P Robinson: The Northern Ireland Civil Service is committed to introducing a salary-sacrifice childcare voucher scheme when the new electronic human resource (e-HR) payroll system is introduced in 2008. Savings to the Northern Ireland Civil Service will result from a reduction in employer’s National Insurance contributions in proportion to the salary that staff will be sacrificing in return for childcare vouchers.
It is difficult to estimate how much will be saved as it will depend entirely on the number of staff who join the scheme and the value of the childcare vouchers they choose to take. However, projections based on a 3% uptake by civil servants estimate the total annual savings to be about £78,000.
Mr McFarland: I thank the Minister for his answer. Does he acknowledge that the childcare voucher system results in savings for employers and employees? Will he tell me why it has taken so long for the Civil Service to offer tax advantages that employees in progressive companies, such as Bombardier Shorts, currently enjoy? For the benefit of Northern Ireland employers and employees, will he encourage his Executive colleagues to promote childcare voucher systems in their Departments where appropriate?
Mr P Robinson: I accept that the scheme has great advantages. Incidentally, my Department will be introducing the scheme throughout the Civil Service, and therefore all of my colleagues’ Departments will be included. There have been difficulties in introducing the scheme, not because of lack of enthusiasm but due to a lack of manpower.
To introduce the scheme, the manual input of computer programmes is required. The programmes are adequate for the scheme, but staff pay rises, and so forth, were being implemented at the same time, and given the choices that the Department had to make, the introduction of the childcare voucher scheme had to be postponed. However, it is only delayed, not cancelled. The Department intends to proceed with the scheme, which will be of value.
Mrs M Bradley: Will the Minister update the House on any interdepartmental work that has been carried out to deliver an affordable childcare policy?
Mr P Robinson: Childcare policy is my responsibility insofar as it applies to the Civil Service. The scheme, as the Member for North Down Mr McFarland indicated, benefits individual employees and employers. The Civil Service will want to take up the scheme and the workforce in all Departments will benefit from that.
Mr Donaldson: As the Minister knows, I have corresponded with him on the issue and, therefore, I understand the reasons for the delay in implementing the scheme. However, will he confirm his support for the principles behind the childcare voucher scheme, and will compensation be made available to staff and the company involved for the delay in implementation?
Mr P Robinson: The Member is never slow at coming forward on such issues. I support the scheme absolutely and I want it to be up and running as quickly as possible. As there is no statutory requirement to introduce the scheme, the question of compensation does not arise. However, the Department is talking to the company that was going to run the scheme because it will have incurred some costs due to the withdrawal.
However, the scheme is voluntary. The company cannot be certain whether anyone will take it up, but, obviously, people will join. We will talk to the company in order to achieve a sensible outcome.
5. Mr O’Dowd asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel to outline the time frame for bringing forward the Workplace 2010 strategy. (AQO 176/08)
Mr P Robinson: I am more interested in hearing the Member’s supplementary question considering that he said that I had answered his main question this morning. As I announced earlier, the Executive approved a recommendation that Workplace 2010 should proceed to the next stage of procurement. Subject to the injunction that was imposed as a result of the legal challenge being lifted, I expect an invitation to submit best and final offers to be issued to the two final bidders during October 2007. Based on current projections, it is, therefore, likely that the contract will be awarded by autumn 2008. Workplace 2010 would then be phased in across all Departments over five to seven years.
Mr O’Dowd: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. The Minister gave a comprehensive report this morning during his ministerial statement, so I have been puzzling over my supplementary question. Will the Minister outline what further role the Assembly will have in the process? Will there be regular reports to the Assembly on the contracts, etc?
Mr P Robinson: In the first instance, I am keen to keep the Committee for Finance and Personnel informed of issues that arise. I have promised to meet with the Committee to discuss Workplace 2010 and the job locations issue, and officials will keep in touch with the Committee about the terms of reference for such issues. Before the matter is decided, the Committee will be informed of the up-to-date position, and the Executive will want to see the contract to ensure that we have the best possible deal for the people of Northern Ireland. I will return to the House with a statement at the appropriate time.
Mr McQuillan: What will happen at the end of the contracts?
Mr P Robinson: The contracts will last for 20 years. I am almost tempted to say that it will be someone else’s problem, but if there is any difficulty, it will be my problem. We have built a requirement into the draft contract whereby the estate can be put out for public sale again if the Department is not satisfied with the new option at the end of 20 years. That will provide a further safeguard to ensure that public interest is the priority.
6. Mr Kennedy asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel to indicate when the Varney Review of tax policy in Northern Ireland was likely to bring in its findings; and what was the scope of the representations he has made to the review. (AQO 178/08)
Mr P Robinson: On 19 July 2007, the Executive issued their formal response to the Varney Review’s call for evidence. I have no further insight into Sir David Varney’s intentions, but he will present his final report to the Chancellor of the Exchequer in early October. In the light of that, I will press for a meeting before the publication of Sir David’s final report.
Mr Kennedy: In a recent statement to the Assembly, the Minister stated that it was premature to call for tax-varying powers, and said that he did not believe that the timing was right. In his responses to the Varney Review, will the Minister confirm whether he may consider tax-raising powers in the future? Do the Minister and the Department of Finance and Personnel and, indeed, the Executive have a plan B to put to the Treasury on other tax-varying measures?
Mr P Robinson: Sir David Varney’s request to receive evidence resulted in a report which was unanimously agreed by the Executive with all parties, including that of the Member, signing up to that submission.
The Member will not be surprised to hear that back-up positions are not offered in those types of submissions. We made Northern Ireland’s special circumstances very clear: that we have a land frontier with a state that has a more competitive corporation tax rate; that we are emerging from years of conflict and instability; that we need to grow the economy, and that we need a new instrument to allow us to do that. That case was put forward by the Executive, and universally by the business community in Northern Ireland and was supported in evidence that Sir David received in the Republic of Ireland. At this stage I do not want to look at any plan B. I am looking to Sir David to do what is right and to give Northern Ireland the new fiscal instrument that will provide it with the step change it needs to get real economic growth.
Mr Neeson: Does the Minister believe that the Assembly’s recent refusal to endorse the need for tax-varying powers has damaged our case — if not the process — for achieving lower corporation tax in Northern Ireland?
Mr P Robinson: No. That is not the case, and no reasonable argument can be made to support that view. During the debate on tax-varying powers, I made it clear that HM Treasury would probably be happy for us to have them, but that when a calamity would occur — as difficulties undoubtedly do happen — we would be left on our own to deal with it.
We do have a level of tax-varying powers in the regional rate, which is an instrument that we could use to vary the income we would require to fulfil spending needs. We will make our submission to Sir David available so that Members may see it, although it may also be made available at the foot of his report.
Mr Ross: Apart from any recommendations that may come from Sir David Varney, will the Minister indicate how the Executive can make a difference to our economic performance?
Mr P Robinson: The one concern that I have from all discussions about the Varney Review is that we foster the belief that the only way we can better ourselves is through the outcome of that review, and that unless we get a variation in the rate of corporation tax we will be floundering where we are at present.
Ultimately, the difference will be in the time we take to get real economic growth. If we can achieve a step change by getting a proper fiscal instrument that meets the requirements of Northern Ireland in the present circumstances, a very expeditious change in the economic growth and prosperity of Northern Ireland will be seen. If that instrument is not given, then it will be up to the skill and ingenuity of the Executive and our officials to put in place whatever measures are possible. However, that will mean that it will take much longer to reach the same level of economic growth and prosperity.
Northern Ireland Audit Office: Earlier Intervention
7. Mr Dallat asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel what plans he had for earlier intervention by the Northern Ireland Audit Office in the financial affairs of governmental Departments and agencies. (AQO 142/08)
Mr P Robinson: Section 65(3) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 clearly states:
“The Comptroller and Auditor General for Northern Ireland shall not, in the exercise of any of his functions, be subject to the direction or control of any Minister or Northern Ireland department or of the Assembly”.
Therefore, I have no plans — or authority — to direct or encourage earlier intervention by the Comptroller and Auditor General or his staff in the Northern Ireland Audit Office in the financial affairs of Departments and agencies.
Mr Dallat: I find the Minister’s answer very disappointing. [Laughter.] I am glad that he can laugh at these matters. Millions of pounds have gone missing because there is no system of early intervention. If the Northern Ireland Audit Office cannot intervene, does the Minister intend to do so and thus save millions of pounds for the Assembly and prevent embarrassment when the Public Accounts Committee constantly unravels huge amounts of waste that could have been prevented?
Mr P Robinson: The Member should sit down in a dark room and think about what he is asking of us. He should consider the issue for one moment: the Comptroller and Auditor General will not want to get involved in a decision — [Interruption.]
Mr Speaker: The time for questions to the Minister of Finance is up.
Mr P Robinson: The Comptroller and Auditor General will not want to get involved in a decision that he might have to revisit later.
Mr Speaker: That ends questions to the Minister of Finance and Personnel. We move to questions to the Assembly Commission. I ask Members to take their ease as we go into questions to the Commission.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Molloy] in the Chair)
Mr Deputy Speaker: The next item on the Order Paper is questions to the Assembly Commission. Mr Paul Butler will answer question 1 and Mr Sean Neeson will answer question 2 on behalf of the Commission. Question 3 has been withdrawn.
Parliament Buildings: Recycling Levels
1. Mr McKay asked the Assembly Commission to give an assessment of the level of recycling in Parliament Buildings. (AQO 177/08)
Mr Butler: Maith thú. The Commission is keen to promote environmentally friendly waste-management and energy policies throughout the Assembly. Since 26 June 2006, Parliament Buildings and annexe C have been involved in an estate-wide recycling initiative to reduce the amount of waste sent to landfill. Estate maintenance collects waste from the entire estate, compacts all general waste on site and segregates all recyclable waste for onward processing. A recycling company has provided us with the receptacles for segregation, and that is collected daily. The average recycling level in the estate stands at 30%, and the average recycling level in Parliament Buildings is between 25% and 30%, which is comparable to Westminster. The Office of the Keeper, in discussions with estate maintenance and the recycling company, plans to add more streams to the recycling policy to improve our recycling figures.
The Assembly Commission and its staff are developing excellent links with other Parliaments and assemblies, which will provide a forum for sharing good practice on environmental best-practice initiatives.
Mr McKay: What energy-efficiency measures are the Commission taking?
Mr Butler: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. The Office of the Keeper works closely with the energy conservation branch and the Carbon Trust to improve the efficiency of the Building’s lighting and heating. We are introducing energy-saving bulbs, where feasible, in the Building. Several offices have powered lighting that turns off when there is no one in the office. Eurest has adopted the Assembly’s recycling policy, and, for example, all its used cooking oil is collected by the supplier and recycled. With regard to IT, there is a 60% reduction in the amount of energy absorbed by the display screens of the new computers, and there is a reduction in the heat produced by those machines. Printers go into low-power mode after approximately five minutes of inactivity, and that leads to an 80% reduction in the power used. Furthermore, the enhanced capabilities of the printers permit a reduction in the amount of paper used through double-sided printing and multiple-page presentations. A contract is in place for recycling all printer consumables from Parliament Buildings and constituency offices.
Mr McGlone: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. What renewable energy sources are used for Parliament Buildings?
Mr Butler: The Office of the Keeper and the Assembly’s recycling policy is something that we need to consider. I will get back to the Member with a response.
Parliament Buildings: Artefacts
2. Mr Dallat asked the Assembly Commission if it will publish a list of all artefacts in Parliament Buildings, their value and proposals for their future. (AQO 141/08)
Mr Neeson: There are approximately 60 items to be considered. A list of the artefacts has been prepared and will be provided to the Member. Copies can be provided to other Members on request.
A valuation of the artefacts was undertaken in 2001, and a further valuation took place in August 2007. The revised figures for that are not yet at hand, but will be provided to the Member when they become available.
A number of the most well-known artefacts are now being displayed in rooms in Parliament Buildings, with the remainder securely stored. The future use of the artefacts has yet to be decided, but it is intended that the Assembly Commission will consider options for their display in Parliament Buildings in the coming year.
Mr Dallat: I thank Mr Neeson for his answer.
There is a painting, currently hanging in the Speaker’s office, of King William marching towards the Boyne with Pope Innocent VII hovering overhead, apparently giving his blessing. Does the Minister agree that having it in a public place to intrigue the visitors and put another slant on our beleaguered history would be an exciting venture?
Mr Neeson: I am well aware of that particular painting, and, in fact, during the summer a request was made for it to go on loan. The pictures that we do have are currently being displayed in the Members’ Dining Room, the Speaker’s office and the First Minister’s office. Clearly, that is a significant painting, and where it should be is a consideration for the Commission in the future.
Mr Shannon: I understand that there are some artefacts of historical, and probably military, importance in the courthouse in Newtownards. Has an inventory been done on those and, if so, what is the intention for them?
Mr Neeson: A number of artefacts were put into very secure storage after the fire in the Building, which Members may remember. Over the coming year, the Commission will be looking at the whole question of the display of artefacts, and consideration will be given to those that the Member referred to.
The Deputy Speaker: Those are all the questions for the Assembly Commission.
Private Members’ Business
Debate resumed on amendments to motion:
That this Assembly calls upon the Minister of Education to intervene immediately in the classroom assistants’ dispute, in recognition of the vital role of classroom assistants, and to prevent disruption to children’s education. — [Mr B McCrea.]
Which amendments were:
(1) Leave out all after “Education” and insert:
“to implement the recommendations put forward by the trade unions in the dispute over classroom assistants’ pay evaluation, and to liaise with the Minister of Finance and Personnel to ensure that funds are made available in order to resolve the situation and avert strike action.” — [Ms Purvis.]
(2) Leave out all after the second “assistants” and insert:
“, by convening an urgent meeting of the Department, employers and Trade Union side in the dispute, with an agenda to include (a) retention of the Special Needs Allowance; (b) retention of the 32.5 hourly pay divisor; (c) NVQ III and the job evaluation exercise; and (d) adequate pay protection arrangements, in order to prevent disruption to children’s education.” — [Mr Donaldson.]
Mr B McCrea: I am pleased that the Minister has given a clear commitment that she will intervene personally in that dispute. It is high time, and she should have done it before, but at least she is doing it now.
There were only a couple of points that came up in the debate, because she spent eight minutes attacking everyone else, about everything else, rather than talking about the issue. The Minister was asked a number of specific questions, and she did not answer any of them. That is not the way to go forward in this Assembly. For the Minister to fall out with just about everyone in the Assembly, including the entire Education Committee save Mr Butler, is not a clever, winning strategy.
The situation facing the classroom assistants is dire. Why should they suffer a cut in pay to finance financial mismanagement and inappropriate budgeting over a long period of time? The employers may feel that they have made a generous offer, but that is not for me to say, despite what the Minister said in her attack on me. Who is going to fix that problem? There is absolute consensus in the House that we should get the issue sorted.
My colleague Ken Robinson said, and research carried out by the Ulster Unionist Party shows, that other employers who employ a lot of teaching assistants, as they are called in England, say clearly that NVQ 2 is only for beginners and that established, professional people at the top of the scale should hold NVQ 3 qualifications.
That information comes from Government papers and statistics, and it should have been brought into play.
People do not understand the pay cuts. The language that we hear is that most of the jobs will be OK, and that not all of them will disappear. However, the people out there are being asked to do more work for less pay. People say that classroom assistants are wonderful and great, and that they could not be done without, but that is not the way to reward them.
The Minister seemed to suggest that she alone was the only person doing any work to resolve the dispute. However, when the Committee questioned her, it discovered that she had held only two meetings with the relevant parties. Had time permitted, I would have brought to the attention of the Chairperson of the Committee for Education that the Committee has brought the matter to the fore at every available opportunity. However, the Committee has only received research documents, which have been discussed. We then asked for a statement from the Minister’s Department. Did that turn up? No. Did the Committee have to ask again? Yes. Eventually, the Committee received some information, but it amounted to nothing. The Department has taken a hands-off attitude, in case it would dirty itself with that type of problem. Somebody somewhere will have to take control of the situation.
Earlier, we thought that we might get a result. There were faxes going around to that effect. I have a statement from UNISON. I know that the Minister does not think that we speak to the unions, but today — one hour ago — a statement from UNISON stated that:
“We have been formally advised by the employers that no meeting will be convened today”.
We thought that there was going to be a meeting. We were also advised that:
“No offer will be made. This is on foot of the attached from”.
The statement goes on to name a permanent secretary.
The Committee talked to UNISON and to the Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance (NIPSA). It has been to the meetings in Ballynahinch. People come and talk to the Committee, and the Committee has tried to understand and resolve the problem at every single juncture. It is not acceptable for the situation to continue for 12 years, and that is the way that it is going.
Many Members have contributed to the debate. I am mindful of the positive contributions made by my friend Mr Donaldson in tabling his amendment, which we will support. There should be some way to give a bit of direction. We are not trying to be prescriptive. If there are other avenues, fair enough. We are not trying to constrain anybody’s way forward.
I have explained the situation to Ms Purvis. I readily acknowledge that she has been at the forefront of the debate — I have been told so by the unions and the classroom assistants. However, although she spoke most eloquently, it is not right or proper that we should dictate a settlement; that is for others to do. Although I applaud the stance that she has taken — and I understand that it is personal, and she has my full support for that — I regret that I cannot support her amendment.
Ms Purvis: I thank the Member for giving way. Does he accept that his motion was somewhat weak in its substance, and therefore he has to support something stronger? Does the Member also accept that, although he does not want to be prescriptive on the issues relating to a deal, almost every Member in the Chamber has referred to NVQ level 3, the hourly pay divisor, and the unfair pay? While the Member does not want to be prescriptive on a deal, those are the issues that he has addressed during the debate.
Mr B McCrea: I will reiterate for the Member that I was most impressed by her eloquence and her point about us caring about the outcome and solving it. I agreed with all of those sentiments. However, as I made clear in the Chamber and outside, I do not think that her amendment would help, although that is only a difference of opinion.
I want to achieve unanimity. That is why I will accept the amendment tabled by Jeffrey Donaldson and Michelle McIlveen. I want Members to come together to assist the Minister of Education to resolve the issue. That is what this debate is about.
The Minister may feel that Members were making unwarranted attacks on her. She made accusations about gender and Irish-language bias. I am surprised that the Minister feels that she needs special attention. Every Member is equal and trying to do a job. Our job is to hold her to account. Her job is to sort this problem out.
Members have tried to be as constructive as possible. What we really want is action. We have deliberately not said that one side is better than the other. Ms Purvis stated that I could have been stronger. The trouble is that being stronger does not necessarily achieve consensus or a way forward. I plead with the Minister to stop talking about irrelevant matters such as Irish-medium schools and academic selection — tackle the issue at hand. Those issues are important and should be discussed, but there is another, more pressing, issue that must be dealt with now — the issue of classroom assistants.
If Members do not take action, we will face a strike on Wednesday. There will be a rally, which is unlikely to fix the problem, and that will result in another three days of strikes, which will not fix it either. The next strike will be for a week — or forever. That is not the way to solve the problem. There must be a better way.
The Minister confers with Paul Butler, but Members should be working together. The UUP motion is an attempt to bring all parties together. The general consensus in the Chamber is that all Members want classroom assistants to be looked after properly and fairly. Members are not pointing the finger of blame — we just want the problem sorted out.
It may sound strange, but Members understand that the Department of Education works within constraints. However, the Minister must realise that the Department — and only the Department — has the resources to resolve this. If she must put other questions to other people, let her come back and talk to the Education Committee after she has done so. Although it is for the Chairperson to say, I believe that she will find the Committee to be most accommodating.
I want the Chamber to unite to defeat, regrettably, Ms Purvis’s amendment and give 100% support to the motion as amended by Jeffrey Donaldson and Michelle McIlveen.
Question, That amendment No 1 be made, put and negatived.
Question, That amendment No 2 be made, put and agreed to.
Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.
That this Assembly calls upon the Minister of Education to intervene immediately in the classroom assistants’ dispute, in recognition of the vital role of classroom assistants, by convening an urgent meeting of the Department, employers and Trade Union side in the dispute, with an agenda to include (a) retention of the Special Needs Allowance; (b) retention of the 32.5 hourly pay divisor; (c) NVQ III and the job evaluation exercise; and (d) adequate pay protection arrangements, in order to prevent disruption to children’s education.
World Alzheimer’s Day
The Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to 1 hour 30 minutes for this debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes for the winding-up speech. All other Members will have five minutes to speak.
Mrs Hanna: I beg to move
That this Assembly expresses support for world Alzheimer’s day on 21 September 2007; acknowledges that over 15,000 local people are currently living with Alzheimer’s, and that dementia is expected to rise by 27% over the next ten years, due to people living longer, which would result in 20,500 people in Northern Ireland living with dementia by 2017; and notes that maintaining current levels of service provision is not sufficient for such an increase, and that it is important for patients and their carers to receive the best care available and access to clinically effective drugs, when appropriate.
All around the world, Alzheimer’s associations, individuals, people with dementia and carers came together on Friday 21 September to mark world Alzheimer’s day, 2007. It is fitting that the Assembly acknowledges the attempts that are being made to raise awareness of an illness that affects millions of people.
The theme of this year’s world Alzheimer’s day was “No time to lose”. I hope that the Assembly will express its support by agreeing with me that there is no time to lose in addressing this major health challenge.
Alzheimer’s disease and dementia are such a challenge for us, as so many people are unaware of these serious illnesses or properly understand them. More must be done to promote awareness so that people recognise the first symptoms of dementia and seek early help. In turn, communities must be educated so that they can understand and accept people who suffer from dementia.
I am alarmed by recent figures published by the Alzheimer’s Society that show that more than 15,000 people are already affected by Alzheimer’s disease in Northern Ireland. Furthermore, the prevalence of dementia is expected to rise by 27% over the next 10 years.
No doubt the number of people affected by the illness is significantly higher when one considers its effect on partners, carers and family members as they struggle to meet the daily challenges of caring for someone with the disease. However, the figures demand more attention for the illness and better care for people suffering from dementia in our communities.
However, the statistics do not tell the whole story. They cannot convey the breakdown of relationships between relatives who care for a loved one or how that can result in the loss of a lifelong friend. I have met representatives of the Alzheimer’s Society in Northern Ireland several times, who tell me that that is the case. The society provides a range of services and is committed, at all times, to promoting the autonomy and self-determination of people with dementia.
People who suffer from dementia and their carers need proper medical attention and care. The Alzheimer’s Society’s recent report from Dementia UK recommends the development and support of a whole range of services for people with dementia that responds to their specific care needs. Those services range from informal home care, day care and social care to specialist, residential and palliative care. It is clear that the capacity of health and social care services to meet the multiple needs of people with dementia and their families is a key policy issue for Northern Ireland. With demand for services growing, the issue is becoming ever more pressing.
Caring for people with dementia affects the quality of life of carers considerably. Many carers spend more than 10 hours a day caring for a person with dementia, so it is important that the Assembly recognises the burden on them and supports the development of adequate respite services.
The availability of adequate care services for people with dementia and of carer support poses a challenge. Many carers are unaware of services, or they feel that services are not available to them when and where they need them. There are also inequalities of access to treatment for Alzheimer’s disease.
Members may be aware that the Alzheimer’s Society took part in the first ever judicial review of guidance issued through the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE).
That challenge related to the guidance on the availability of Alzheimer’s drugs on the Health Service. That landmark High Court decision ordered the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence to review and rewrite guidelines on access to Alzheimer’s drugs. The court has ruled that the guidance is discriminatory, and therefore, must be reconsidered. However, the ruling upheld the guidance restricting Health Service availability of the only licensed drugs for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease in its very early stages. NICE accepts the clinical effectiveness of the drugs in question, which cost £2·50 a day. That acceptance of the effectiveness of those drugs is important.
The decision is now the responsibility of the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. I urge the Minister to ensure that everyone, at any stage of Alzheimer’s disease, has access to appropriate drugs when those drugs are clinically recommended — it is, however, clear that they are not recommended for everyone.
I appreciate that the Department and the Minister have to manage finite resources and choose priorities carefully. I believe that Alzheimer’s patients and their carers are a priority. The Minister and the Department must look for savings — perhaps that could be done through the prescription of generic drugs, and making more appropriate use of acute hospital beds, among other savings. I appreciate that any extra cost is a cost to the taxpayer. However, it is important to realise that we are talking about a quality-of-life treatment for the patient, which reduces the burden experienced by carers and, therefore, reduces the cost to the taxpayer.
In the immediate future, the potential impact that dementia will have on the Health Service and on the quality of life in Northern Ireland is of serious concern. It is crucial that the Department gives dementia the priority it requires now — before the demand for services significantly increases. What is required is greater awareness and de-stigmatisation of dementia; the building of effective partnerships among policy-makers, clinicians, researchers, carers and people with dementia; and the development of care services that are responsive to the needs of people with dementia and their families.
Policy-makers need to be engaged in order to provide adequate resources for care and research, now and for the future. Care staff need to be trained, and the skills of healthcare professionals further developed to diagnose and manage dementia, as well as promoting research into developing better treatments for the future.
It is clear that the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety must develop plans to adequately respond to the challenges posed by the growing number of people with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
Mr Buchanan: I support the motion, which concerns yet another health issue for the House to consider. I also welcome the Minister’s presence.
Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia are devastating conditions that can take away people’s capacity to remember; to make decisions and choices; to take responsibility; to communicate, and to undertake daily living activities including personal care, eating, and mobility, all of which leave the patient totally dependent on others for help.
Because people are living longer — and statistics reveal an expected increase of 27% of dementia patients over the next 10 years — it is inevitable that action must be taken to make provision for both patient and carers in order to ensure that they receive the best possible available care and clinically effective drugs in future months and years.
Over the past number of decades, a lack of attention from policy-makers and service-commissioners to the needs of people with dementia has led to treatment for dementia being delivered in a piecemeal and inefficient manner. Therefore, more investment, accompanied by careful planning, and a focus on quality outcomes for dementia patients will be required in future years in order to deliver a better quality of life for patients and their families in a more efficient manner, while using available resources.
Improved home care support packages, including low-level support, are required to help patients retain independence and dignity. The Bamford Review of Mental Health and Learning Disability (Northern Ireland) highlights the value of early diagnosis and intervention, yet access to home care support is increasingly restricted to those with the highest levels of need, making it even more difficult for people not assessed as having substantial or critical levels of need to access those services.
Unless community support improves, the situation will be compounded as the population ages and the number of people with dementia increases. People with dementia can only remain at home with their family and friends if the right support is put in place. Family and friends who provide care must have guaranteed access to carer support of a quality and frequency that meets their needs. It should include practical support services, carer information, training and access to support groups, as well as emergency back-up support and quality respite care.
Having watched a loved-one deteriorate from the dreaded Alzheimer’s disease, I know something of the stress, anxiety and burden that is placed on the family unit as it devotes itself to caring for that loved one. A recent report from the Alzheimer’s Society includes the following quotation from a son caring for a father with dementia, which highlights the family’s anxiety and the gap which exists within current care provision:
“I don’t think anyone really understands how exhausting and distressing it is to care for the person you love most in the world as they deteriorate before your very eyes. Our family wants to continue to care for my father at home for as long as possible — but we really do need more help — reliable and well-trained people who understand dementia and have the time to develop a real relationship with my father.”
The real challenge now, aside from providing quality care and care homes, is to support people with dementia in their own homes. More effort is required from the public, private and voluntary sectors to find good quality, cost-effective options to meet the needs of patients with dementia and their families in the years to come.
Mr Brady: Go raibh maith, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Sinn Féin supports world Alzheimer’s day, and I welcome the motion.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia and accounts for 62% of the population with dementia. As has been stated, there are possibly 16,000 people with dementia living in the North; and it is estimated that by 2051 that number will have increased to more than 47,000. Dementia largely affects people over 65, though 2% of sufferers are under 65.
I had a very good friend who died at the age of 48 from Alzheimer’s disease. It took two years to diagnose his condition, and it is possible that, had the disease been diagnosed at a much earlier stage, his life could have been prolonged and its quality improved. Unfortunately, that did not happen.
There are almost 10,000 people in the North with Alzheimer’s disease. Some 5,500 of them are in the early stage of the illness and 3,200 are in the moderate stage. The statistic that over 1,400 people develop Alzheimer’s disease every year is frightening. Part of their problem is that it can be difficult to obtain a diagnosis. Only 40% of those with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease are diagnosed as having the disease and can, therefore, be prescribed drug treatments.
Alzheimer’s disease is more common in women than in men, even though women generally live longer. Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia present as one of the world’s most significant emerging health and social care challenges. Unfortunately, there is lack of awareness about it among policy-makers, clinicians and the general public.
People affected by dementia do not seek health services, and even if they were to do so, health care services tend not to meet their needs. Dementia is a stigma, and people who suffer from it can be excluded, in some cases, from residential care.
As has been stated, families are the main carers. The emerging themes are lack of understanding, and how distressing it is to care for the person you love most in the world as they deteriorate before your very eyes.
On Friday, I spoke to a man whose wife was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in the past two years. Before she descended into the final stages of the disease she was able to articulate how she was affected. It struck me that he said that the person whom he had married 40 years before no longer existed; the body was there, but the spirit had gone.
Primary healthcare services play an essential role in the detection, management and prevention of dementia. The Bamford Review highlights a range of important issues that need to be addressed urgently. Those should include access to independent information and advocacy services for people with dementia and their carers. There must be a focus on early diagnosis, intervention and treatment and improved access to general health and social care intervention for people with dementia. However, community care services are only available to those who have complex needs, in situations in which carers are under so much stress that they are unable to cope.
Drug treatments for Alzheimer’s disease are currently available on the NHS for all patients who are recommended by clinicians. I have spoken to carers who say that the drugs can be effective, but not necessarily in all cases. The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) recommends withdrawing access through the NHS for people in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease to the only drug treatments that are licensed and clinically effective, as they are deemed not to be cost effective by NICE. The drugs — Reminyl, Exelon and Aricept — cost approximately £2.50 per day. In October 2007, the Minister of Health Social Services and Public Safety, Mr McGimpsey, will make a decision about whether to keep drugs for Alzheimer’s disease on the NHS.
The provision of nursing and residential homes is also in need of review. Groups such as the Alzheimer’s Society, which is the leading research charity for people with dementia, their families and their carers, need all the support and funding available to enable them to carry on their important and valuable work. Local branches, such as the Newry branch in my constituency, do valuable and important work. Over the years I have had a close working relationship with the Newry branch of the Alzheimer’s Society, the members of which deserve all the support and funding available to help them deal with approximately 584 cases of Alzheimer’s disease our area. By the year 2021, that number will have increased by an estimated 36%. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr B McCrea: I support the motion tabled by Carmel Hanna with pleasure. Only now is this issue coming to the fore: society is adapting to the fact that we are living longer, which is good and something that many Members are thankful for.
Society must learn to cope with that change, but for the individuals concerned, and their families, Alzheimer’s disease is a tragedy. Members must ensure that we support those affected, their carers, healthcare professionals and voluntary organisations, like the Alzheimer’s Society, which do sterling work.
The sad fact is that there is no cure for this disease. When looking at how one might help, the conclusion is that the only thing one can do is to try to ease the suffering. Society must do everything possible when it comes to drugs, respite or other interventions, and I am sure that the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety will address those matters later.
Many questions of a similar nature will continue to affect us and are probably part of a bigger problem that will become even bigger in the future. How will society cope with an aging population which has done its fair share of work and will require more medical intervention in the later years of life?
In an associative sense, that reminds me of when I tried to help people with severe learning disabilities. The same issues must be dealt with: the need for 24-hour care; the lack of breaks or respite, and the worries of carers about what will happen when they have passed away.
I will not labour that point because I am sure that — as with all such issues — there is general support from Members. In the fullness of time, and as soon as possible, the Minister must bring forward a strategic vision for Alzheimer’s. There cannot be a quick fix. Long-term investment for the future must be examined. Members must take a long, hard look at that because the level of expenditure that is required is one that the Assembly is not used to having to deal with. There is no point in simply saying that the matter must be dealt with: money needs to be found in order to do that. That is what civilised people do. The Assembly must box clever in order to provide respite to the people who need it, and to be able to afford appropriate drugs.
The Assembly can be assured of my party’s support for the motion. I look forward to the Minister’s comments.
Dr Deeny: Having listened to other Members’ contributions to the debate, perhaps I can add to it by speaking as someone who has worked with people before their being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, when they were fit and healthy, and, indeed, when they have reached the end stage of the disease, just prior to death. I am sure that Members are aware of how devastating the disease is, not only for the sufferer, but for his or her entire family circle.
I wish to outline some facts about Alzheimer’s. It is a progressive, incurable and physical disease of the brain that results in ongoing deterioration of brain function. As has been stated, there are many types of dementia. Dementia simply means a lessening of brain function. The most common form is Alzheimer’s, followed by vascular dementia, which is circulatory. There are other rarer forms.
Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease, which means that, gradually, more parts of the brain are damaged. As that happens, the symptoms become more severe and distressing. They involve memory loss, confusion, and problems with speech and understanding, which progress until sufferers end up in a baby-like mental state. That is well known. However, it is extremely disturbing for family members and for those who have to care for Alzheimer’s sufferers. Patients become completely disorientated in time, place and person.
As has been rightly pointed out, Alzheimer’s sufferers are stigmatised, rejected, dismissed, shunned and ignored. It appals me to see that, but it happens. It is a major societal problem. Society must change its views to that most distressing disease. Having worked with people for years in general practice, I believe that we forget and ignore the older and much wiser generation at our peril.
There is no straightforward test for dementia. Doctors do not know why some people get Alzheimer’s and others do not. It is known to be inherited in 5% to 10% of sufferers. Some statistics from the Alzheimer’s Society have already been mentioned. I wish to recap on some of those: there are 700,000 sufferers of dementia in the UK, of whom 400,000 have Alzheimer’s; there are 24 million sufferers of dementia worldwide; at present, as another Member mentioned, 15,000 younger people in the UK suffer from pre-senile dementia, and there will be more than 1 million sufferers of dementia in the UK by 2025. The Assembly must, therefore, consider future health provision.
Two thirds of dementia sufferers are women. The proportion of dementia sufferers doubles in every five-year age group: in other words, there are twice as many dementia sufferers among 70- to 75-year-olds as there are among 65- to 70-year-olds. It is estimated that delaying the onset of dementia by five years would reduce the number of deaths that are directly attributable to the disease by 30,000 a year. The financial cost of dementia in the UK is more than £17 billion each year. Some 64% of people who live in care homes suffer from a form of dementia. Two thirds of people who suffer from dementia live in the community and one third live in care homes.
As my colleague Basil McCrea mentioned, there is no cure for that dreadful disease. Therefore, the basis of treatment is to alleviate, as far as possible, some or all of the symptoms of the disease and to slow down its progression.
Some drugs, such as Aricept, Exelon and Reminyl, can do that. Of course, there is major controversy at the moment about Ebixa, which is said not to be clinically effective. That is why the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence has said that it should not be prescribed. However, if it is, subsequently, proven to be clinically effective, then it should be prescribed. That is my view, as a medical person.
It is believed that eating a healthy diet which includes omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in oily fish such as salmon and mackerel, and staying physically and mentally active are very important. Also, recreational activities that promote conversation and mental stimulation are very important in helping to prevent dementia, or at least in delaying its onset. It has also been proven that those activities can help to improve life for those who already have the disease.
World Alzheimer’s day — held on 21 September each year — promotes awareness of the disease so that people can understand its early symptoms; provides support and accessible information to sufferers and their carers; trains staff and develops the skills of healthcare professionals; engages policy-makers to provide adequate resources; promotes research; and educates communities.
In my view, having been a doctor for 27 years, Alzheimer’s disease, and dementia in general, presents one of the greatest health and social challenges of our time which, across the world, often goes unnoticed. We all need to play our part in improving the quality of life of all those who are unfortunate enough to suffer from dementia, and that of their families and carers. I support the motion.
Mr Easton: I am pleased to join with other Members to encourage the Assembly to express support for world Alzheimer’s day, which was acknowledged across the world last Friday. An increasing number of people are suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. I can see the significance of that as regards its impact on services and care provision, and the need for increased expenditure on appropriate drugs.
Resources are finite, and healthcare provision cannot command unlimited support. There are challenges to be faced by the Assembly as we consider the distribution of available resources. Those challenges will require all of us to have more realistic expectations and an understanding of the need to establish priorities. We must all recognise that dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are conditions that can knock on any door. They are among the greatest challenges to be faced by health professionals, and communities, in the century that lies ahead.
These illnesses are often hidden from the public gaze, unnoticed, stigmatised, often dealt with by family members and carers who make the best of a very difficult situation — often with little help. They are increasing in frequency, with an estimated 24 million sufferers worldwide — though that statistic may only be the tip of the iceberg when compared to the real situation. It is incumbent on all of us to challenge the myths, remove the stigma and support the carers.
We can all contribute to improving the situation. It is clear that additional resources must be matched by specific actions. There is much that we can do to promote awareness, as we are doing by using the Assembly to educate the public about dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. We need, in our health provision, to provide accessible information and support for carers and health staff. Training and education programmes for carers and health professionals will equip people with diagnostic skills so that treatment can be made available at an early stage of the disease.
Policy-makers must be encouraged to see the need for increased resources for care and research. Research is vital in helping us to understand the problem and give effective treatment. The education of the wider community is also a challenge that we can meet. We must encourage everyone to empathise with those who are ill and recognise the burden placed on their families.
I am sure that Members are keen to send a strong message of support from the Assembly to the 35,000 people in Northern Ireland who are directly affected by such illnesses, and to give an assurance to all those involved in caring for them that we understand their situation and will encourage the provision of appropriate support. I support the motion. Go raibh maith agat.
Ms Ní Chuilín: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I support the motion, and I thank Carmel Hanna and Tommy Gallagher for proposing it. Alex Easton mentioned 35,000 people — multiply that figure by three to give a conservative estimate of the number of people who are affected by Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.
As a society, we are living longer and, therefore, we need to consider — as other Members have said — the impact of that on the Health Service. The costs need to be built into future budgets. Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia are devastating conditions.
They take away someone’s capacity to remember, to make decisions and choices, take responsibility, communicate and do the everyday things that we take for granted. It is a devastating condition. The Alzheimer’s Society sent me some information, and I will read out some comments from a woman who has recently been diagnosed at age 62. She says:
“The medication I take seems to be stopping me from getting worse at the moment. But I know that won’t last forever — and I am so, so frightened. I live on my own; I have no relatives close by. What am I supposed to do, who am I going to be able to trust to keep me safe and help me lead as full a life as possible. I am just so frightened.”
That is the fear that most sufferers have — that they will no longer be able to live the life that they lived previously.
I now turn to the implications for future public health policy in developing countries. We must look at possible means of prevention. Prevention should focus on targets suggested by current evidence: risk factors for vascular disease, including hypertension, smoking and type 2 diabetes. It is quite obvious that more research is needed to look at other risk factors in the developing world, and work in that area has already started.
We must make progress in dementia care in developing countries. There is a lack of awareness among policy-makers, clinicians and the general public, and I will outline the many consequences that that has. People affected by dementia do not seek health services — even if they do, healthcare services tend not to meet their needs. Sufferers are stigmatised, and they can be excluded from residential care. It is quite evident that there are no co-ordinated lobby groups to provide information or advice to Governments. Families are the main caregivers, and they lack support and understanding from others and can experience considerable strain and isolation.
Carmel Hanna and others mentioned the Bamford Review. The Bamford Review report on older people, mental health, and dementia, ‘Living Fuller Lives’, has not yet been costed, prioritised or implemented. We need to include access to independent information and advocacy services for people with dementia and their carers. We need to focus on earlier diagnosis, intervention and treatment, and we must look at improved access to general health and social care interventions for people with dementia.
Kieran Deeny and my colleague Micky Brady mentioned drug treatments for Alzheimer’s that are currently available on the national health service. NICE recommends withdrawing from the NHS the only effective licensed clinical drug treatments for people with early stages of Alzheimer’s. NICE has deemed that those drugs are not cost-effective. Kieran mentioned Exelon and Aricept, and they cost £2·50 a day. That matter will be considered by the Department of Health, Social Services and the Public Safety, the Minister and, I hope, the Committee, and a decision will be made sometime in October. We must look at that matter, too. If drugs are effective, they must be prescribed to people, as Kieran has said. If they are not effective, an effective alternative must be found. It is quite clear that people suffering from Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia are already excluded and stigmatised, and we must ensure that we do all that we can for them. It is with pleasure that I support the motion, which seems to have cross-party support. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr G Robinson: I am sure that the present Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety — who I am glad to see in the House today — and his successors will be keenly aware of the changing health priorities that increasing longevity brings. Although the motion gives a large projected number of future sufferers of Alzheimer’s, the requirements for services and effective medication will, I am sure, be kept under review by the Department.
Changing demographics require that all public services need to be adaptable and proactive in planning for future requirements. It is also essential that the contribution that family members make in caring for those with Alzheimer’s is not underestimated.
The Health Service saves a huge amount of capital expenditure on finding nursing beds or other suitable accommodation because many families keep their loved ones at home. Every Member will be happy to recognise and applaud the contribution of those families, who take such great care of their loved ones. Too often, the dedication and sacrifice of carers goes unnoticed and unrecognised by society in general, and everyone should remember that Alzheimer’s disease, or any other form of dementia, affects the family circle and not just the individual.
It is hard to understand fully the dedication required of people caring for relatives with Alzheimer’s disease, as they watch their loved ones become a shadow of their former selves. That only adds to the burden of care and is why provision for and access to the support services available for carers must be maintained. It is also why the best clinical treatments should be under constant review to ensure that quality of life for sufferers and carers is kept at the highest and best possible level.
I am more than happy to express my support for world Alzheimer’s day and will certainly keep an interest in the provision of services and effective medication for sufferers. I support the motion.
Mr Kennedy: I add my support to the motion and thank those who proposed it. I am not a member of any health committee nor do I pretend to be an expert on health matters, least of all on Alzheimer’s disease. In many ways, this is a personal statement, as I am a member of a family that recently lost a loved one to the disease. It has created enormously difficult family circumstances, as, over a six-year period, we have had to come to terms with each of the very trying, and, in many ways, cruel stages of the condition.
The disease began six years ago with ordinary, simple mistakes, such as overlooking minor matters, and as time wore on, those apparently simple mistakes multiplied and were amplified to the extent that we were able to identify the cause of something that had wrought enormous change in one whom we loved so deeply. It led a once very capable, cheerful, efficient, pleasant and outgoing person to retreat almost into a shell, which was enormously difficult for the family to come to terms with. A concerned and loving husband, children, grandchildren and the wider family circle knew that something was not right and that certain things were happening.
Medical help was, of course, made available but was always going to be limited, not least because there is no cure. There may even be issues in the medical profession about the condition. It is important that the medical profession does not write off people who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease; finding that balance in the medical profession can sometimes be difficult. Medication is available but not always successful.
Care is available, and, like Mickey Brady, I pay tribute to the Newry branch of the Alzheimer’s Society, which gave my family all the help and support that it could. However, as the years passed, it became inevitable that we as a family could no longer provide adequate nursing care for our loved one, and we were then so grateful to Avila nursing home in Bessbrook for taking on that care, attention and love, which was quite exceptional.
However, that did not completely dispel the feelings of guilt or inadequacy that we, as a family, felt. Although the nursing care was excellent, we somehow felt that we were letting our relative down.
Alzheimer’s is an illness that has not been treated with proper respect or recognition, largely because of ignorance. It has been a topic for rather poorly judged jokes, but there is nothing funny about Alzheimer’s — ask any family that has been through it with a relative. I hope that, through debates of this nature, we can improve and increase the public understanding of the illness.
Our loved one passed away peacefully on 10 May, and we were gratified and comforted by the fact that she had strong personal faith. Her passing came in the middle of so-called huge, important political events, which were a reminder that there are some events over which we have little or no control. I support the motion.
Mr Gallagher: My contribution comes after a graphic account of another Member’s personal experience. Mr Kennedy’s speech has sent Members a clear message that our Health Service has a long way to go to meet its response to the needs of people with Alzheimer’s.
Every year, there is a rise in the number of people who are identified as sufferers. With that increase, a growing number of families is brought into the net, and must face the challenges and responsibilities of caring for family members. Most of my comments will be directed towards carers, because families in my constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone do not understand the reason for the local health trust’s many shortcomings. The carers have huge demands placed on their time and on their health. They pay a price with their well-being, yet they still save the Government millions of pounds every year.
There are ongoing serious problems with the level of support that is available to carers. The Western Health and Social Care Trust cannot meet the need of Alzheimer’s patients because of budget constraints. Moreover, its care budget is in deficit. Some care packages are being cut, and the vulnerable people to whom the motion refers are being asked to use their pensions and benefits to pay for care packages.
Every week, my constituency office receives enquiries from families who are trying to cope with someone who has dementia. I am sure that other Members have the same experience. Those families are always distressed, particularly over the lack of support that they receive. Instead of being given support, they face cutbacks.
It is completely wrong that someone who is caring for a family member who has Alzheimer’s should also have to fight a battle against cuts in their care package. I do not understand the situation. The families find it unsatisfactory and certainly do not understand the situation. In some areas of the west, facilities such as residential care, day care and respite care are either scarce or non-existent. Those areas must be examined urgently and further developed. There are often not enough places in those care homes that have the appropriate skills and facilities to deal with people who have Alzheimer’s.
The assessment, around the time of the onset of the illness, should be based on need. My experience is that the assessment is based more on how much money is available in the budget than on the needs of patients — and I am afraid that that is increasingly the case. I am aware of several cases in which basic needs are not being met because of lack of money, and I referred to the extra stress that that puts on those involved with the patients, particularly those who cannot access respite care.
People suffering from Alzheimer’s disease can sometimes deteriorate quickly, and that can result in major changes in their overall circumstances. When that happens, the Health Service is slow in providing the extra support needed.
As anyone in the west will know, the area has a poor occupational therapy service and suffers from a shortage of occupational therapists. Money is available for home adaptations and the provision of facilities in the home. However, although the money is available, an occupational therapist is not always available to come to the person’s home to carry out the assessment.
Mr Shannon: This bes a topic fowk hae strang feelins aboot an hit’s yin A hae spoke aboot monie tims afore es the figures ir vexin’ an’ far reachin’. I dinnae hae tae gae intae the nummer o’ fowk smit wi’ this disease i Norlin Airlan noo an in tims tae cum.
Hooiniver A’hm gyely anxious tae point oot at severe dementia can bae pit aff fer years bae the uise o’drugs. Thon leuks laike a guid thing, hooiniver lif’ isnae sae straight forrit an’the reccomendations o’ the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence hae meant at i Inglan’ an’ Wales gien this drug tae fowk fer £2.50 a day, an sae gien a betther quality o’ lif’ fer thaim i the early stages o’ the disease, wul nae langer bae a chuse oan the NHS.
Hooiniver i Norlin Airlan thon decision wul bae maide bae oor ain Meenester fer Healtht an A want tae tak’ this chanst tae ax him tae think lang an haird aboot thon drug an aboot blinly follaein the mainlan’s lead i this matther.
Alzheimer’s disease is an emotive subject on which I have spoken many times, because the statistics are worrying and far-reaching. I do not need to talk about the number of sufferers that the disease has affected, and will affect, in Northern Ireland.
However, I am at pains to emphasise that the onset of severe dementia can be deferred for years by drug treatment. That sounds positive, but, as ever, life is not that simple. The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence recommendations mean that in England and Wales, the provision of the drugs that can provide a better quality of life to early-stage sufferers of the disease, at a cost of £2·50 a day, is no longer an option for the NHS.
However, it is the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety who will be making the decision in Northern Ireland, and I take this opportunity to ask him to think long and hard about those drugs and whether he will blindly follow the mainland’s lead.
I was greatly moved by Danny Kennedy’s speech. His passion and compassion sums up for every Member how the disease affects people. Several people have come into my advice centre, and I remember some who were in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease and who have now passed away.
For a relatively small amount of money, drugs can, and do, make a positive difference to the lives of sufferers and carers. They enable sufferers to remain independent, which decreases the burden of cost for the state, as they are able to stay at home and be cared for by loved ones for longer. That reduces their reliance on the state for care provision.
The number of dementia sufferers is increasing, and it is projected that there will be a 200% increase by 2050. Members will not be here then, but that projection indicates the extent of the problem and how much it will grow. It does not take a mathematician to work out that the state cannot afford the £40,000 per annum needed to care for each person suffering from severe dementia.
It would be better to ensure that the development of the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease is delayed for as long as possible, which is what the motion is all about. It is about providing drugs to the sufferers, delaying the onset of dementia and giving families confidence and support when they need it. To deny people in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease the only clinically-effective licensed drugs for their condition is cruel and unfair. Moreover, we must always remember the carers and families who, unashamedly, and without pay or financial assistance, care for their loved ones. They are the mainstay of dementia care in Northern Ireland. I ask Members to support the motion.
I do not pretend to be a statistician; however, the following figures have a purpose. A Dementia UK report states that people caring for dementia sufferers save the public purse over £6 billion a year, £141 million of which is attributable to Northern Ireland. I urge the Minister to look to the future and allow effective drugs to be used where appropriate, helping not only the dementia sufferers, but their families, so that the sufferers can have a few more years of freedom, independence and some semblance of normal life. I support the motion.
Mr McFarland: Alzheimer’s disease is one of the most disturbing diseases. To watch a loved one progressively become a total, and sometimes hostile, stranger is devastating. My father suffered from vascular dementia after a series of strokes. The effect is similar to Alzheimer’s disease, and my mother cared for him for 10 years before his death. The effect of the demolition process is profound on both sufferer and carer.
It is encouraging that the issue of Alzheimer’s disease is now to the forefront. I commend the Alzheimer’s Society for its efforts in supporting sufferers and carers. For the record, I commend to the Minister nine recommendations made in a recent 2007 Dementia UK report to the Alzheimer’s Society.
Dementia must be made a publicly stated health and social care priority. That must be reflected in plans — something unusual in Northern Ireland — for service development and public spending.
There must be an urgent review of Northern Ireland medical research funding to establish current levels of dementia-focused research. An ambitious funding programme into the causes, prevention, cure and care of dementia sufferers must also be developed.
Dementia carer training should be a made a core, and substantial, part of the training curriculum for nurses and social care staff. Standards must be developed in Northern Ireland to include dementia-specific requirements on dementia-care training.
People with dementia need improved home-care support packages, including low-level support to retain their independence and dignity.
Families and friends who provide care must have guaranteed access to carer support of a quality and frequency that meets carer needs. That must include practical support services, carer information, advocacy, training and access to support groups, as well as emergency backup and support and quality respite care for dementia sufferers and their carers.
We must have Government-backed debate on who pays for care to establish a clear and fair balance between the contributions made by the state and by the individual. We will not get into that debate today, but it would be helpful if the Minister were to address the issue with the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety.
An integrated, comprehensive range of care models for dementia sufferers could be developed to bridge the gap between care at home and care in the care home. Dementia sufferers and their carers need guaranteed access to specialised health, social care and support services.
Finally, Northern Ireland politicians must ensure that dementia sufferers continue to benefit from clinically-effective drugs on the NHS.
That is from a recent academic study, given to the Alzheimer’s Society. Those recommendations make sense to me. I commend them to the Minister, and I commend the motion to the House.
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Mr McGimpsey): I, like all Members in the Chamber, am concerned about meeting the needs of those suffering from Alzheimer’s — and other forms of dementia — and of their carers.
I have already stated my commitment to improving the services for people with mental-health problems or learning disabilities, regardless of age. Alzheimer’s, and other forms of dementia, seriously impact upon the lives of the families and carers of sufferers.
All Members will be aware of the Bamford Review, which is central in providing us with a future strategy for mental-health and learning-disability services in Northern Ireland. The Bamford Review highlights that 16,000 people aged over 65 currently suffer from dementia in Northern Ireland. In 20 years that figure will have increased to 20,500, and by 2051 to 47,000, which represent increases of 30% and 200% respectively.
Dementia is essentially a disease of the elderly; 10% of people over 75 suffer from dementia, a rate which doubles every five years of increasing age, so that over 40% of people over the age of 85 are likely to be affected. There are also approximately two women for every man affected, which is due to the longer life expectancy of women.
Although dementia is predominantly a disease of the older generation, it can also affect younger people. The Bamford Review reveals that dementia in younger people is a significant problem, with an estimated 500 people affected — although the true figure could be much higher. Early-onset dementia is particularly common in people with Down’s syndrome; 40% of those aged 50 with Down’s syndrome have signs of dementia. There is no one cause for the early onset of dementia, although research shows that alcohol-related brain damage accounts for 10% of the overall dementia population and 12·5% of dementia in people under 65.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most widely recognised form of dementia. The Alzheimer’s Society estimates that, of the 16,000 dementia sufferers in Northern Ireland, 10,000 have Alzheimer’s. It is a disease that is likely to have existed for a long time, but in the past it was simply accepted that people got confused and forgetful as they got older. Increasing recognition, and increasing lifespan of the population are probably the reasons why Alzheimer’s is now more prevalent. However, the possibility that modern lifestyles and toxins could be making this disorder more widespread cannot be ruled out.
Researchers believe that for the majority of sufferers, Alzheimer’s disease is due to a combination of different risk factors rather than a single cause. Such factors, which vary from person to person, may include age, genetic predisposition and other diseases or environmental agents. Alcohol can contribute to the onset of dementia, and smoking is now recognised as a possible contributory factor of the disease. It is not unreasonable to suggest that modern lifestyle may be having an impact on the growth of dementia.
Dementia is a cynical syndrome, characterised by the widespread loss of mental functions, such as memory loss, disorientation, changes in personality, self-neglect and uncharacteristic behaviour. It is also important to state that Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease, for which there is no cure and from which sufferers will eventually die. Stages of the disease are often characterised as mild, moderate and severe, which require particular and appropriate treatments at each stage. That is why we must ensure that sufferers receive the best help available: services must be tailored towards the needs of the individual and must not be based on assumptions made about the disease. Alzheimer’s affects each person in an individual way.
Several drugs for treating dementia are available on prescription in Northern Ireland. These include drugs to treat specific symptoms such as depression or aggression, and anti-dementia drugs, which can improve cognitive function in patients for a limited time by increasing the availability of neurotransmitters in the brain. However, they do not work for all patients, and indications are that they do not slow the progress of specific dementias such as Alzheimer’s disease. Anti-dementia drugs are available on prescription in Northern Ireland, and treatment is initiated under the recommendation of a consultant. Any prescriptions can be subsequently repeated and monitored by a GP. Over 44,000 prescriptions are dispensed annually.
The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety is currently reviewing the NICE guidance on Alzheimer’s disease. Several Members mentioned that guidance. The Department is also reviewing a broader NICE clinical guideline on the management of dementia. That includes advice on the use of antipsychotic drugs in treating non-cognitive symptoms of dementia. Antidepressants are also used to treat associated depressive symptoms.
NICE has recommended the use of anti-dementia drugs to treat people who have moderate Alzheimer’s disease. The institute is determined that the drugs can be clinically effective when the disease is at a moderate stage. NICE make its recommendations, and although the Government — or I, as Minister — will not question its decisions on the clinical effectiveness of a drug, I will question a drug’s application and appropriate use. That is why I have not considered that matter. However, I will do so this autumn and will inform the House in due course.
Drugs are not the only available support for dementia sufferers. There is a unique integrated system of social care in Northern Ireland. That means that integrated care teams can take a holistic approach to assessing and meeting all health and social care needs. I know that there are differential applications of the service in Northern Ireland, but there is a strategy behind that. For instance, the ‘Caring for Carers: Recognising, Valuing and Supporting the Caring Role’ report, which was published in January 2006, is still a work in progress. When treating and supporting anyone who has dementia, our intent must be to allow those people to live as independent and fulfilled lives as possible. We intend to make the best use of their structural advantage by introducing a single care-assessment process. Work on that is already under way and is being led by a team from the University of Ulster. As well as improving and harmonising standards of assessment, it will reduce unnecessary duplication for users and professionals.
We already have some excellent examples of flexible and responsive community-care services both for people who have dementia and for their carers. In the Northern Health and Social Care Trust, for example, the Causeway Hospital is working in partnership with the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and the Fold Housing Association. They have developed residential, therapeutic and support services on a single site. Voluntary groups, such as the Alzheimer’s Society, also have access to those facilities for the delivery of their services.
In 2007–08, an additional £4 million was invested in flexible and responsive community care services for older people, including those who have dementia. Families living with dementia should also have the opportunity to avail of direct payments in order that they can exercise choice and independence in assessing the services that they need. I am not suggesting that everything is perfect or that we have implemented all recommendations, but a strategy exists, and it is very much a work in progress.
As part of the Bamford Review, ‘Living Fuller Lives’, a consultation report into mental health and learning disabilities, was published. That report deals with future services for those who will develop dementia and/or mental-health issues in later life. The Department is leading on preparing the Government’s response to the Bamford Review and is taking the recommendations of that report into consideration. Work has already begun on its implementation. For example, Bamford recommended the establishment of a policy- and practice-development centre for mental-health services for older people. Such a centre would provide information, training, consultation and research and would help to secure comprehensive and relevant dementia-service provision. In May 2007, a regional dementia services development centre for Northern Ireland was launched.
The service was funded for two years by the Atlantic Philanthropies organisation and will be supported by the team at Stirling University until March 2009. The purpose was to enhance the standard of care for people with dementia and their families through education, consultancy, research and development.
I also recently established the Mental Health and Learning Disability Board, and I expect that board to be a champion for people with mental-health and learning disabilities and one of the driving forces in delivering the Bamford reforms. The role of the board is also to advise and challenge me on the approach and pace of implementation of the recommendations.
I am on record as saying that I accept that there is a need to do more to develop mental-health services for the people of Northern Ireland. I am committed to building on what is currently in place and to improving services, in line with the recommendations in the Bamford Review, for sufferers and carers alike. That is increasingly important now that more of us are living longer.
Mrs M Bradley: I would keep the House here all night if I commented on everything that Members have said, but everyone who spoke touched on the same issue, which makes it plain that people do understand some of what dementia brings to a family. I nursed my father before he died of senile dementia, and it is very hard for any family that has to do that. You watch that family member fading away before your eyes, becoming a stranger to you as you become a stranger to him, and you wonder whether there is anything that you can do to stop him from doing some of the things that he does, but everyone is helpless in that situation. It is very, very difficult to cope with. I always respect people who care for those with dementia, because they can never get enough support.
I welcome the Minister to the House today and thank him for telling Members about the current position on treatment and support for sufferers of Alzheimer’s disease, and the way forward, but I urge him to do everything in his power to relieve the situation for both the victims of dementia and, particularly, for the families and loved ones who have to live with them. I can say for sure, that it is not easy — it is very, very difficult.
It is good that the motion was brought to the House today. The wording of the information booklet on Alzheimer’s disease ‘No Time to Lose’ is right — there is no time to lose when someone develops dementia. There is no time medically, or for the family, because early intervention is necessary to stop sufferers from being so badly affected that they do not know their family members and their family members do not know them. It is very bad for everyone.
With the help of the Minister, the Assembly is going in the right direction towards helping those affected by Alzheimer’s disease.
Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly expresses support for world Alzheimer’s day on 21 September 2007; acknowledges that over 15,000 local people are currently living with Alzheimer’s, and that dementia is expected to rise by 27% over the next ten years, due to people living longer, which would result in 20,500 people in Northern Ireland living with dementia by 2017; and notes that maintaining current levels of service provision is not sufficient for such an increase, and that it is important for patients and their carers to receive the best care available and access to clinically effective drugs, when appropriate.
Adjourned at 5.28 pm.