Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo


Monday 8 October 2007

Assembly Business

Ministerial Statement:
Further Education Lecturers’ Pay Dispute

Committee Business:
Report of the Committee for Finance and Personnel on Workplace 2010

Private Members’ Business:
Crisis in Burma

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

Assembly Business

Private Notice Question:
Strike Action by Classroom Assistants

Private Members’ Business:
Crisis in Burma
Referendum on the New European Union Treaty

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

Members observed two minutes’ silence.

Assembly Business

Mr Attwood: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I wish to address a matter that has just arisen. This morning, Members received in their pigeonholes a letter from the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) — signed by both Dr Paisley and Mr McGuinness — that advises of their proposed process in respect of the appointment of the Comm­issioner for Victims and Survivors. The First Minister and the deputy First Minister now wish to re-advertise that position.

Is it in order, on a matter of heightened public interest, if not concern — and on a matter that has been debated far and wide among the Northern Ireland public — that neither the First Minister nor the deputy First Minister has come to the Floor of the House to make a statement and to take questions from Members?

Is it in order that the height of the respect for this Chamber of the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister is such as to send a minute to Members, rather than to come to the Floor —

Mr Speaker: Order. I ask the Member to take his seat. I have listened to the point of order. I shall take the matter to the Business Committee and report back to the Assembly as soon as possible.

At the sitting on 24 September 2007, when I announced the retirement of the Clerk to the Assembly, Mr Arthur Moir, I reported that the Assembly Commission was taking steps to ensure the continuity of service to the Assembly.

In that regard, the Commission has asked me to announce the appointment of Mrs Carol Devon as interim Clerk and Chief Executive with effect from 17 October 2007. Mrs Devon is currently employed as Director of Access and Information at the Scottish Parliament and previously served the Parliament as Director of Clerking and Reporting.

I know that the House wishes Mrs Devon every success as she joins the Northern Ireland Assembly for a short period.

Ministerial Statement

Further Education Lecturers’ Pay Dispute

Mr Speaker: I have received notice from the Minister for Employment and Learning that he wishes to make a statement on the current position of the further education lecturers’ pay dispute.

The Minister for Employment and Learning (Sir Reg Empey): Today, I am pleased to announce the appointment by my Department of an independent adviser to facilitate an agreement in the further education lecturers’ pay dispute. Sir Joseph Pilling, a former permanent under-secretary in the Northern Ireland Office, has agreed to act as the independent adviser in the dispute.

Sir Joseph is eminently qualified for the role, having had experience of industrial relations in the Department of Health and in the prison service of England and Wales.

The terms of reference for Sir Joseph, which have been agreed by college employers and the lecturers’ unions are to explore the position of each interested party including, in particular, the employers and unions; and, using the insights that this provides, to facilitate a settlement of the dispute, which is acceptable to all interested parties.

Any settlement arising from the study will be compliant with the Government’s public-sector pay policy, the continued application of which in Northern Ireland has been endorsed by the Executive. It is in the interests of all concerned to get this process under way as soon as possible, in the hope of an early resolution, perhaps by the end of 2007.

This initiative has arisen from my recent discussions with college employers and with lecturers’ unions on what can be done to bring to an end this long-standing pay dispute, which is starting to impact on students’ education. It is clear to me that discussion between both parties needs to resume as soon as possible. A resolution to the problem will come about only through discussion and dialogue.

The appointment of the independent adviser, with his expertise and independent status, will facilitate this process. In the meantime, and without prejudice to any further negotiations on pay, I have suggested to the unions that lecturers accept the pay offer for 2006-07. Management is also in a position to make a similar basic pay offer to lecturers for 2007-08 as part of a two-year pay deal. If the offers were accepted by the unions, the pay increases could be in the pockets of lecturers by Christmas.

I am convinced that the appointment of Sir Joseph Pilling as independent adviser is a positive development in the dispute and that his work will be pivotal in helping to remove the impasse that currently exists in the negotiations.

With goodwill on all sides, I hope that it will be possible to bring an end to the dispute and to restore normal service in colleges for the benefit of all concerned.

The Chairperson of the Committee for Employment and Learning (Ms S Ramsey): Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Minister for his statement. I would like to say a few words on behalf of the Committee.

The issue came to the attention of the Committee at its first meeting on 16 May 2007 and has been on its agenda, in some shape or form, since then. The Committee has met the employer and trade union sides and is supportive of the principle of pay parity. The Minister has been helpful in keeping the Committee up to date, and I thank him for that. He has contacted me personally on several occasions in order to keep me up to date so that I can, in turn, update Committee members.

The Committee has worked hard to understand the dispute and, in particular, to assess the implications of the public-sector pay policy. Despite the restrictions within which the Committee is working, I stress that it views this dispute as being extremely damaging, and everyone must work together to ensure that it is resolved.

The Committee has not had the opportunity to discuss this ministerial statement. However, there is universal support for the renewed negotiations, and I hope that there will be a fresh impetus on both sides to find a clear way forward on this critical issue. With that in mind, will the Minister tell us when he expects the new round of negotiations to get under way and whether he will continue to keep the Committee fully up to date about progress and, we hope, outcomes? Go raibh maith agat.

Sir Reg Empey: The Committee, in order to fulfil its obligations, must be given as much information as possible, and I have endeavoured to do that. The Department for Employment and Learning will seek the help of the Committee in all these matters to ensure that students in our further education colleges receive the best possible service. It must be remembered that those colleges form a significant part of our economic development strategy, which is why the issue is important to the Department.

The Member specifically asked when the negotiations would start. As soon as the debate on my statement has finished, the first meeting will take place between Sir Joseph Pilling and officials from the Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP), and he will then meet me at lunchtime. Tomorrow, Sir Joseph hopes to meet officials from the Department for Employment and Learning, and the employer and trade union sides. Therefore, the negotiations are getting off to a quick start. In my statement, I said that I would like the process to be completed by the end of the year, but I do not want to prescribe that time frame unnecessarily. If more time is needed, that will be fine.

Mr Spratt: I thank the Minister for his statement and for his commitment throughout this process. I also thank him for keeping the Committee fully apprised about any ongoing talks.

Given Sir Joseph Pilling’s remit, will the Minister tell us whether Sir Joseph will be in a position to speak to Treasury officials to see whether that impasse can be broken?

Sir Reg Empey: DFP is the main link in the relation­ship between the Northern Ireland Administration and the Executive. As soon as the debate is finished, Sir Joseph will meet DFP officials, with whom he will discuss the mechanics of how we might engage with the Treasury. A report from the Sub-Committee on Public Sector Pay referred to “efficiencies”, but we do not know exactly what that means. There are also some technical matters to be discussed. Without protocol being broken, DFP officials will be able to facilitate a channel being opened to the Treasury to find out exactly what is meant by the word “efficiencies”.

12.15 pm

Mr McClarty: I thank the Minister for his statement this morning and congratulate him on giving this issue the priority that it undoubtedly deserves. I ask him to gaze into his crystal ball and outline what he thinks this might mean for the industrial action being taken by the lecturers.

Sir Reg Empey: The Member will be aware that there have been about seven strike days over the past 15 months or thereabouts. On 18 September, University and College Union (UCU) members and their colleagues wrote to the employers advising that they were preparing to step up industrial action. At the moment, the action is taking the form of not providing the college authorities with information on attendance at certain classes, and various other matters. The letter announcing the potential escalation of the industrial action highlighted matters such as non-compliance with the education maintenance allowance procedures, which would impact on the allowances being paid to students. I have indicated great concern at that proposal.

In the notes that I have been dealing with recently, I have said that I hope that, bearing in mind that the unions have to consult their members and their branches, when those talks commence, the best possible circumstances in which they could proceed would be in the absence of industrial action. I hope, therefore, that that action can be suspended once the union members are absolutely clear that the Department — and, I am quite sure, this House — is taking the process seriously. I would not have asked a senior person of Sir Joseph’s standing to come into this if we were not taking it seriously. I hope that, after consultation, the members of the trade unions will see fit to suspend their actions. However, that will be a matter for them to discuss with the independent adviser. I look forward to an early decision on the matter.

Mr Attwood: I welcome the Minister’s statement and his presence on the Floor of the House this morning, in contrast to one or two of his Executive colleagues. I note that, in response to Mr Spratt’s question about a facility whereby Sir Joseph Pilling may have access to the guardians of pay policy in London, it is my sense that, in the fullness of time, those guardians will have to bend on this issue when it comes to pay policy in the North.

Given that the terms of reference are silent on the issue of pay parity for the further education sector in Northern Ireland, and given that this is at the heart of the dispute, will the Minister confirm that it is his wish that the issue of pay parity be now met?

Sir Reg Empey: It is inconceivable to me that that issue would not be first and foremost in the minds of the trade unions when they meet Sir Joseph and the employers. In relation to the first point, about the Member for South Belfast, all Members know that there are certain protocols in dealing with the Treasury. However, officials from DFP have been extremely helpful to my Department throughout the process, and I am not anticipating any difficulties. It is important that people do not go off at a tangent and leave DFP unsighted. We are having very open discussions, and we are not confronting any difficulties. Those who are responsible for making and implementing the policy in London will be fully involved and consulted, and questions will be asked.

Pay parity is the issue. However, there are wider issues here. If we go down that route, terms and conditions will start to come into it, and there are considerable differences there.

I assure the Member that all those issues will be discussed. The terms of reference have — quite deliberately — not been drawn up in a prescriptive manner. I am not trying to rule out anything; I am trying to create the circumstances in which members of trade unions and the employers can bring all the issues to the table. Parity will be one of them. However, there are two sides to that coin: the money side and the terms and conditions. The terms of reference are such — and were designed as such — that they will allow a free and open discussion to take place between the two sides, under the chairmanship of the independent adviser.

Ms Lo: I thank the Minister for his statement, and I very much welcome the appointment of Sir Joseph Pilling. It is of great urgency and importance that this matter be resolved as quickly as possible. I welcome the Minister’s effort and commitment in trying to facilitate a meeting between the employer and the employees. Essentially, as other Members have said, it is about trying to put pressure on, and work with, the Treasury to resolve the UK public-pay restrictions in Northern Ireland. At a time when the new colleges are up and running, and with the start of the new term, it is vital that Members support further education lecturers in their demand for fair pay.

Sir Reg Empey: I thank the Member for her contribution. As she said, the colleges have been amalgamated to form new ones, and it would have been my hope that those could have started off, on 1 August 2007, with the lecturers, on whom we depend to deliver the policy, feeling happy and comfortable with their terms and conditions. That has not been the case. However, given the situation as it stands, I felt that it was important not to leave the issues to fester and that some initiative was required to move the matter forward.

The Treasury has a national policy on public-sector pay, which the Executive have endorsed. Again, in the debate on this issue on 26 June 2007, I made it clear that it was the most bizarre industrial dispute that I had ever been involved with. Everyone wanted to settle it, everyone had agreed to settle it, the money to settle it was there, but it could not be settled because of a national pay policy. That has created huge frustrations. As long as that frustration is there, combined with ongoing industrial action, there is always the risk that an event will take place, the employer will take action, and the dispute will escalate, with the upping of industrial action.

Although it is true that the Treasury sets the policies, it does not have to deal with the downstream consequences. That is the difficulty that we face. That is why I said earlier that I hoped that, on a without-prejudice basis, the lecturers could accept the money that has been offered, if for no other reason than to put it in their pockets this side of Christmas. That would not constrain them —it is a without-prejudice offer — in the event that there were to be a change in public-sector pay policy. I hope that the lecturers will accept the offer.

It is important, however, as the Member said, to ensure that there is the best possible atmosphere and commitment in the new colleges, if we are to get the best possible result for the people we represent.

Mr Newton: Like my colleagues, I welcome the Minister’s statement. It is an issue that needs to be resolved, and not only in the context of the further education lecturers; it is important to the economy of Northern Ireland.

I note that Sir Joseph has been appointed as an independent adviser. As the Minister stated, Sir Joseph is eminently well qualified for the role and obviously enjoys the Minister’s confidence. However, will the Minister tell us whether his Department will be bound by the report’s findings when it is published?

Sir Reg Empey: Standing Orders do not bind anyone to act on the findings of any report. However, public-sector pay policy is the overarching framework within which we must work. We must also be aware that a determination that was issued in February 2007 is on the record already. Having said that, there is a certain lack of clarity in some of the comments that have been made about efficiencies. I do not know exactly what creating efficiencies would mean in practice. A fresh proposal or approach could be made to the Committee for Employment and Learning if circumstances were to change.

Although I will not be bound by the report, and I do not think that any party to the dispute will be, if we were not taking the issue seriously, we would not bring in a senior career civil servant of Sir Joseph’s standing. Moreover, we would not go through the whole exercise, if we were going to cast aside the study’s findings lightly. I emphasise that the point of appointing someone of such standing is to send a clear signal to employers, unions and the public-sector pay bodies that we are taking the matter seriously and that everybody should look carefully at the outcome of the study. I am not legally bound by the study, but I intend to return to the House as soon as is practicable with a response to it. At that stage, whether I make another statement, whether we have a debate or whether the Committee intervenes, I want to ensure that Members are as fully involved in the matter as they have been heretofore.

Mr Butler: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his statement and for his continued efforts to resolve the dispute.

The Minister’s statement says that the settlement must be:

“compliant with the Government’s public-sector pay policy”.

That creates the perception that the unions have agreed to that policy. My understanding is that they would oppose any settlement that is restricted within the parameters of public-sector pay policy.

Will the Minister also clarify whether the terms of reference are such that the independent adviser will explore, if requested, the basis on which lecturers here belong to the only group in the educational sector that falls under the public-sector pay policy?

Sir Reg Empey: It seems inevitable that that fact will be addressed. I held meetings on either 7 or 14 September with representatives both of the trade unions and the employers, and when I met with the unions, national officials came to the Department along with local officials. Therefore, I met with a high-level delegation. They discussed the situation in Wales, and they mentioned all the issues that the House debated before the summer. As I said, the terms of reference are as broad and as open as I can make them. Notes are attached to those terms of reference, and they are essentially statements from me, but I understand the unions’ position on public-sector pay policy. I am not trying to force them into accepting or endorsing any particular policy, but we all live in the real world. Therefore, I must say — the Executive have endorsed this — that we are bound by current policy.

12.30 pm

However, I am unclear — as, it appears, is everyone else — over some explanations of what the Sub-Committee on Public Sector Pay meant by “efficiencies”. I am sure that Sir Joseph will look at that. I am sure that the honourable Member knows that there is no way in which trade unions are going to meet with employers and Sir Joseph and not raise his point about how their position compares with that of other workers in the same sector. It is precisely the type of forum in which those points can be raised. Although Sir Joseph is described as an independent adviser, he will also be an interested party, as will my Department and DFP. We are trying to attach some gravitas and weight to Sir Joseph’s role so that, when he comes up with his recommendations, everybody, including the Sub-Committee on Public Sector Pay, will take them seriously.

I have left the terms of reference, which have been accepted, as broad as possible. Let us allow the negotiations to take place in the best possible atmosphere that we can create, so that there will exist at least some possibility of a successful outcome. If we continue with the trench warfare that we have been in for the past lot of months, we will get nowhere, while the students and the colleges will continue to suffer. The employees are unhappy, and that does not make for the implementation of a successful policy in the further education sector. That must be self-evident.

I hope that the objective of the initiative will not be to restrict people in what they can say and what issues they can raise, but, nevertheless, I am obliged to set out the context in which we are operating.

Mr McCausland: I welcome the Minister’s statement. There is widespread interest in, and concern about, this issue. Will the Minister confirm whether he has discussed the pay offer for 2006-07 and 2007-08 with the trade unions, and, if so, will he outline their response?

Sir Reg Empey: The Member will be aware that the actual pay offer for 2006-07 and 2007-08 is primarily a matter for the employers and the employees to agree. It would not be normal for the Department to be involved in those discussions — but for one issue. When it became clear that this was within the scope of public-sector pay policy, the Department had a role to play. Our role was to ensure that that policy was adhered to. If not for that, we would have played no role in the industrial relations between the employers and the trade unions. That is how we got into the position that we are in.

The Department, along with the unions and employers, made a submission to the Sub-Committee on Public Sector Pay at the end of 2006. That submission was subsequently adjudicated on in February 2007. Hitherto, we would not have been party to the actual negotiation of terms and conditions and pay. Our role was created only because of the existence of the public-sector pay policy. That is how and why we became involved. We have not been involved in the minutiae of negotiations — that is between the unions and the employers — but their agreement triggered a reference to the Sub-Committee on Public Sector Pay, and that is where we came in. Both sides were agreeable to paying the agreed offer. The Department had no anxieties over paying it, but when the policy was imposed, and it was deemed that the offer had to be referred, that was the point at which we arrived at the position in which we currently find ourselves.

I hope that the pay offers that have been made can be accepted on the basis that I outlined earlier — at least for the current year — without prejudice to any subsequent change in attitude by the Sub-Committee on Public Sector Pay.

Mr Gardiner: First, I commend the Minister for his swift action in trying to resolve this difficulty. Would he be prepared, if invited, to help the Minister of Education to sort out the classroom assistants’ dispute?

Secondly, under the pay policy, what scope is there to improve lecturers’ pay?

Sir Reg Empey: That is what might be called a leading question, Mr Speaker. Are those still allowed in the House?

I will deal with Mr Gardiner’s second point first. As I tried to explain, at present, the scope for improving lecturers’ pay is limited, and DFP has been interpreting what exists. A referral to the Sub-Committee on Public Sector Pay is triggered only if DFP believes that a proposal exceeds the limit. DFP determined that measure last year — hence the referral.

Pay percentages may increase in some circum­stances, such as when there is clear evidence of a lack of retention of lecturers. Even though there were pockets where that was so, it was not the case generally, so the Sub-Committee on Public Sector Pay ruled out that option.

The Sub-Committee will want to explore what scope there is for efficiencies, and how that is interpreted and understood not only by DFP but by the Treasury. Those areas must be explored. I say to the honourable Member that we must wait and see. Although I do not want to over­state the position, I want to ensure that the negotiations take place in the best possible atmosphere.

The Member’s first question was whether I was prepared to help my colleague the Minister of Education to resolve the classroom assistants’ dispute. I will confine my remarks to saying that that is a matter for her, Mr Speaker.

Mr Durkan: I join other Members in thanking the Minister for his statement, his wider efforts and the initiative that he has taken. Does the Minister agree that lecturers are, through their work, providing benefits and key services not only to students but, in many instances, to communities, community organisations, other public services and, increasingly, businesses and small businesses through the Further Education Means Business review programme.

Even though the Minister mentioned the handful of days of industrial disputes in the past couple of years, one must remember that lecturers have delivered positively on that agenda and have delivered positively on college mergers. It is in that context that lecturers’ frustrations must be fully understood and appreciated.

The Minister referred to the pay offer for last year and this year. He said that it could be in people’s pockets by Christmas. Will the Minister inform the House of the sums involved so that we might be able to under­stand their relevance to the lecturers’ frustrations?

Does the Minister agree that the exercise that Sir Joseph Pilling will be undertaking is similar to the hole in dear Liza’s bucket? No matter what the unions and employers say, it comes back to the issue of the perverse adherence to public-sector pay policy. It is a self-contained grievance and anomaly, which should be resolved on its own terms, without threatening any wider run on public-sector pay policy.

Sir Reg Empey: I am grateful to the Member for his comments. He has a keen interest in the matter and has already expressed concern to me in correspondence on a number of occasions in recent weeks. First, I accept, agree with and endorse his comments that the lecturers provide a beneficial service not only to the colleges but to the wider community. I am also pleased that he mentioned the link with business, because that is becoming increasingly important and significant. It is unfortunate that that relationship is growing against a backdrop of an industrial relations dispute. That business link provides an even greater incentive to get the dispute resolved as quickly as possible.

The Member is correct that the dear-Liza-and-her-bucket scenario is an anomaly, but we have to examine some of the reasons for that. It is an anomaly because, as a Member for West Belfast Mr Butler said, lecturers are the only educational workers that are caught in this dispute. Why is that? Has there been a structural change as to who negotiates their terms and conditions and how that is done? The link between teachers and lecturers in Wales, for instance, will also have to be examined. If we get involved in a headbutting session with the Treasury, the Member knows better than most in the House that that will lead us nowhere. Therefore, we must keep as many options open as possible.

The offer for 2006-07 was in the region of 3·49%. There was a further cost of living offer of 2% for 2007-08, and other adjustments made that slightly higher. However, bearing in mind that that would be applicable from September 2006, quite a lot of back payment is available. There is, perhaps, an opportunity for immediate benefit without people having to accept an offer that, should public-sector pay policy change, would leave them trapped. That was not the intention for 2007-08.

I apologise to Mr Butler — a Member for Lagan Valley — for misnaming his constituency.

That is the current position, and I thank the Member for Foyle for his ongoing interest in the matter.

Mr Ross: I also welcome the Minister’s statement, but I seek clarification on one point. The terms of reference set for Sir Joseph are:

“To explore the position of each interested party, including, in particular, the employers and unions”.

Who are the other interested parties and what has been their role thus far?

Sir Reg Empey: As I define them, the interested parties are, of course, the employers, the unions, the Department for Employment and Learning, DFP, and the independent adviser. Everyone who is interested and can effect some change is involved, and, obviously, DFP will have a particular interest in interpreting and discussing some of the details with the Treasury. I am trying to keep involved everyone who is essential to resolving this problem.

The Department has two interests. From a policy point of view, it wants the sector to deliver for our economic, and other, benefits. However, the Department also has a specific role to play in ensuring that public-sector pay policy is adhered to.

Ultimately, Sir Joseph Pilling will be an interested party, and his appointment gives him some gravitas and status so that when people speak to him, or when he interfaces with Government at whatever level, he will have a real focus on reaching an outcome.

I hope that that explains the position.

Mr B McCrea: I commend the Minister for the innovative and creative way in which he has sought to tackle a problem that has frustrated us all. I note the comments of the Chairperson and the Deputy Chair­person of the Committee for Employment and Learning that we have all wrestled for quite some time with this issue. I guess that we are all still getting it in the neck — if that is not unparliamentary language — from people who are asking us to please do something.

Given that several disputes are currently ongoing, will the Minister tell the House whether what he is doing with regard to this dispute can be used as a model for resolution?

12.45 pm

Sir Reg Empey: The Member’s last point has an echo of the question asked by my colleague from Upper Bann Mr Gardiner, but maybe I am reading too much into it.

There is no doubt that any industrial action in the public service is of great concern to everybody in the House, and, regrettably, industrial action is taking place in several areas of the public sector. I do not know the details of all the other disputes, and I am not sure whether this model would be applicable to them. However, the model is there, and if anybody wishes to ask me about it, I will be happy to make any suggestions or make available any infor­mation that the Department has.

The Member for Lagan Valley Mr McCrea made the point about the frustration that Members have felt for some months — particularly those on the Committee. That frustration is also felt in the Department and every­where, because everybody wants the dispute settled. The Department thought that it was settled: the money is there to settle it, and there is universal agreement that it should be paid. However, Government are often more complicated than we would wish, and I am left in the middle of public-sector pay policy. The Department must look creatively to see whether all the issues that have been raised can be addressed.

I cannot promise Members that I will come back to the House at Christmas or in the new year with a glowing report and waving a piece of paper that says that the matter is settled. I do not know the answer. However, the past few months have got us nowhere. We are stuck in a rut, going round in circles saying that we want to pay the money and being told that we cannot. We have to see whether there is something that we can do. That is why we have this place — so that we can try to do things a bit differently on the local scene.

It is an anomaly, and the Member for Foyle Mr Durkan has drawn our attention to that. I am anxious to see whether matters can be fixed in some way, and this is a possible way. There are no guarantees, but at least we will give it a good try. All the relevant parties are around the table. We had excellent support from the Assembly during the debate in the summer, support from the Committee and support today. We are sending out a clear message to the parties involved and it is up to them to go away and see whether they can find a creative way of dealing with the matter within the context that I set out. I hope and expect that that will happen, but we will have to return to the matter at another date. I look forward to that opportunity.

Mr Cree: I also welcome the Minister’s initiative and the attempt to break the logjam. This dispute has been running for some time, and we will all be glad to see a satisfactory solution. However, the question that I was minded to ask has just been answered, and I am happy with that.

Committee Business

Report of the Committee for Finance and Personnel on Workplace 2010

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

The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel (Mr Storey): I beg to move

That this Assembly takes note of the first Report of the Committee for Finance and Personnel on Workplace 2010 and the Location of Public Sector Jobs, and the response to the Report by the Department of Finance and Personnel.

At its first meeting on 16 May 2007, the Committee for Finance and Personnel agreed to include in its work programme up to the summer recess an initial scrutiny of Workplace 2010 and the separate, but related, issue of public-sector jobs location.

Mindful that decisions by the Minister and the Executive were pending on both issues, the Committee undertook that scrutiny between 6 June and 4 July 2007 and published a report of its findings. The timing was unfortunate in that it did not provide an opportunity to debate the report in the Assembly before the summer recess. However, the Committee’s subsequent decision to publish a special report on the DFP response to the recommendations now provides such an opportunity.

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

Workplace 2010 is a major element of the Civil Service reform programme, for which DFP is responsible. The project’s stated aim is:

“to develop a strategic and affordable solution to the urgent accommodation problems facing the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS) office estate.”

In a separate initiative, in January 2007, DFP commenced a public consultation on ‘Guiding Principles for the Location of Public Sector Jobs in Northern Ireland’. Although the Committee recognises that jobs location is distinct from Workplace 2010, it has considered both issues in tandem. That approach reflects a general concern that Workplace 2010 has the potential to reduce the Executive’s freedom to determine the future location of public-sector jobs.

In scrutinising the Workplace 2010 project, the Committee focused on the best-practice approach to procurement and on the lessons learned from existing private finance initiative projects, both in Northern Ireland and in the rest of the UK.

On the issue of the location of public-sector jobs, the Committee gave initial consideration to the development of a strategic dispersal policy aimed at maximising and realising potential economic and social benefits throughout Northern Ireland. That included consideration of the scope and constraints for dispersal, approaches being taken elsewhere and the relevance of existing cross-cutting policies.

The Committee received oral and written evidence from a wide range of stakeholders, including the Department of Finance and Personnel, the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency, the Northern Ireland Audit Office, the National Audit Office, and the Northern Ireland Court Service. In addition, the Committee was able to draw on a range of published sources, including an inquiry report into public-private partnerships by its predecessor Committee and a report by the Committee on the Programme for Government into Workplace 2010 and public-sector jobs location.

I shall focus, first, on Workplace 2010. From the evidence received, the Committee made a range of key conclusions and recommendations that are designed to establish necessary safeguards and assurances before the Minister and the Executive make the final decisions on the project.

I want to draw Members’ attention to the Committee’s key conclusions and recommendations on Workplace 2010 and to the Department’s response in each instance. At the outset, I should point out that the Committee gave its full support to the strategic objectives of the project, which aimed to enable the Northern Ireland Civil Service to transform the efficiency and effective­ness of the public services that it delivers, provide accommodation in which staff are proud to work and safeguard funding for priority front-line services.

The Committee expressed concerns, however, with some of the findings from the initial, “health-check”, review of the Clare House pathfinder project for Workplace 2010, and awaits the outcome of the more extensive post-occupancy evaluation. The Department has advised the Committee that the results of that evaluation will be made available in December 2007.

The Committee recommended that, when finalising the business case, the Department should give due regard to concerns about the use of public-sector comparators and that it should broadly, and strategically, reassess procurement options. In its response, the Department gave a commitment that it will reassess procurement options when finalising the business case and will ensure that benefits, risks, uncertainties and costs are fully appraised.

The Committee considers that the acceptance of upfront capital receipts that are substantially lower than the full market value of properties is a high-risk aspect of Workplace 2010.

The Department has recognised the concerns of the Committee on that issue and has given an assurance that a significant amount of time and effort is being attributed to the commercial aspects of the contract.

The Committee further recommended that the properties to be included in Workplace 2010 should be valued by an independent commercial valuer in addition to the public-sector valuer, and that those valuations should be updated before the conclusion of negotiations.

The Department has accepted the Committee’s recommendation and is making arrangements to identify an independent valuer to assess a representative number of properties, providing a benchmark report against which best and final offer bids can be assessed.

The Committee also called for transparency in the establishment of the affordability model and the efficacy of financing arrangements for the total property private finance initiative option. In addition, the Committee believes that there should be greater transparency in relation to the long-term commitments arising from private finance initiatives in Northern Ireland, and to their impact on future budgetary flexibility and affordability.

The Department has noted the findings and has provided assurance that, on the issue of transparency, a full audit trail on that project will be made available on budgetary transfers from Departments and financing arrangements in the Northern Ireland Civil Service.

The Committee further recommended that if the Workplace 2010 project is to proceed on a private finance initiative basis, the Department should ensure that the full range of applicable best-practice approaches and lessons are applied in respect of the final business case, the final contract and contract-management arrangements.

The Department has also accepted that recommend­ation and sought to assure the Committee that the programme has examined the recommendations of the Westminster Public Accounts Committee and related Treasury guidance on lessons learned. It has also sought to identify best practice from a range of projects, with a view to ensuring that the contract and the subsequent management arrangements reflect a best-in-class approach.

Moreover, with regard to Workplace 2010, the Committee sought firm assurances from the Depart­ment that the final business case will be independently and objectively assessed, that that assessment will cover the robustness of the public-sector comparator, and that the final contract will provide for all necessary safeguards, including those identified in the report.

The Department noted that recommendation and sought to assure the Committee that the need for an independent and objective assessment will be addressed through the Office of Government Commerce Gateway Review process, and the work of DFP Supply.

Regarding the location of public-sector jobs, the Committee recommended that the Department and the wider Executive should develop an affirmative policy for the dispersal of public-sector jobs that ensures the capacity of the public sector to deliver, efficiently and effectively, a range of services through a substantial and sustainable approach, and, as a priority, implement it for the benefit of the whole of Northern Ireland.

The Department has agreed with the Committee that it is important that a strategic approach is adopted. It also assured the Committee that the principles of achieving value for money and maximising social and economic benefits, in relation to the location of public-sector jobs in Northern Ireland, will remain a key feature in the final version of the framework to underpin decisions on the relocation of organisations under the review of public administration.

The Department has also committed a time-bound review of policy on the location of public-sector jobs. That will provide the opportunity to conduct a thorough analysis of the short- and long-term costs and the benefits of dispersal, as well as how best to maximise the longer-term economic, social and environmental benefits from an affirmative dispersal policy. That policy review will also take on board the Committee’s call for lessons to be learned from experience of dispersal policies elsewhere, particularly in Scotland.

The Committee sought further assurances that the final Workplace 2010 contract and projected costs do not militate against the future strategic decisions on the location of public-sector jobs.

1.00 pm

Mr Deputy Speaker: I ask Mr Storey to bring his remarks to a conclusion.

Mr Storey: The Department responded by explaining that work is ongoing to develop a flexibility model for the “best and final offer” stage of the procurement that will not only secure a competitive price but also demonstrate best value for money and appropriate flexibility.

Ms J McCann: Go raibh maith agat. I welcome the Committee’s report. There is no doubt that there is a need for efficiency and effectiveness in the way that public services are delivered. It is important to have modern working accommodation to provide that delivery. The report is important: it raises many questions about the efficiency of PFI, not least those issues identified by the Westminster Public Accounts Committee. It is claimed that, in order to justify the PFI option, Depart­ments have relied too heavily on the public-sector comparators, and that there should be a wider examin­ation of all other alternatives before an assessment of value for money is made.

The report has also raised important questions about the manner in which the long-term impact on the public purse has been assessed by the Department of Finance and Personnel. There are concerns that proper mechanisms are needed to allow for a form of continuous assessment, including an evaluation process through­out the life of the project, to ensure that value for money is obtained.

The successful management and delivery of PFI projects in recent years has also caused concern. The Clare House project provides an example of how problems can arise which cause disruption to staff and to the service they provide to the public. There is a compelling case for the redeployment of Civil Service and public-sector jobs more equally across the North of Ireland. The Committee has examined the proposed PFI for Workplace 2010 in the wider context of the redeployment of Civil Service and public-sector jobs, and of the long-term impact on such desirable re-employment across the North should it go ahead as a PFI project in its current format.

I welcome recent comments by the Minister of Finance and Personnel in relation to initiating a review of policy options on the location of public-sector jobs that would enable the Executive to come to an agreed approach on location policy in the North of Ireland. There is a need to create balanced local development throughout the North and to help kick-start local economies in line with equality and New TSN obligations.

My party is concerned that Workplace 2010, as presently constituted, will merely copper-fasten the status quo and replicate current patterns of investment and disadvantage. That is unacceptable. Serious questions must be answered in relation to the whole issue of PFI projects. In effect, the taxpayer is being asked to fund guaranteed profits for private companies. As a result of Workplace 2010 in its current form, not only will the companies have significant profit at the end of the contract, they will still own the buildings —­­­ and they will be ready to repeat the contract again at the taxpayer’s expense. In short, it could serve the interests of the private corporations more than those of the general public. Therefore, it is vital that the contract specifications of any proposed PFI project be robust and effective to ensure value for money and to protect the public interest.

Mr Beggs: The Ulster Unionist Party is committed to the provision of quality services in an efficient and effective manner. The objective to be achieved is quality public services. We have no ideological barriers as to how that can be achieved; however, we have concerns regarding the Workplace 2010 project that should be comprehensively addressed.

The setting in which we find ourselves is significant. To be fair to the Minister, it is appropriate that Members take that into consideration. The Northern Ireland block grant is under significant pressure — greater pressure than I have previously been aware of. As a member of the Committee for Finance and Personnel, the message I have been receiving from the Department is that the budget will be tight. There is not much money about.

Where is the £1 billion dowry that we were promised before devolution? We face funding difficulties in upgrading hospitals, schools and water and transport infrastructures, as well as Civil Service office accommodation, which is often of poor quality. There is significant pressure to find ways to finance all that. It would be helpful if the Minister could outline how the new resource accounting procedures will affect the capital assets that are held by the Northern Ireland Civil Service.

The PFI project exposes the public service to considerable risks. At the end of a contract, there is the possibility of a monopoly situation. We have been told that there is a buy-back option, but what if the buildings in question are irreplaceable? How that may affect their value must be considered carefully.

There is a risk that private-sector partners may make excessive profits if they decide to redevelop sites. How do we ensure that there is a satisfactory and legally enforceable clawback provision should that happen? Recently, the Public Accounts Committee heard evidence about how, in the past, the private sector has run rings around the public sector on occasion and made considerable profits.

A cost will be incurred if adjustments are made to the contract mid-process, so it is important to have some built-in flexibility. Such a situation may be expensive to adjust as the developer may have a strong hand, so it must be carefully gauged. The risk of the developer, having taken ownership of the properties, going bust must be carefully examined to ensure that the project is not entirely funded by loans from large banks. Such an essentially unstable situation must be avoided at all costs. We cannot afford to have uncertain ownership of the buildings. I am still seeking clarification from the Minister of Finance and Personnel as to why newly refurbished buildings are being sold. I ask him to address the issue of jobs and benefits offices being sold, despite millions of pounds having been spent on them.

I now turn to the Clare House pathfinder pilot project for Workplace 2010, which received a very poor rating of 3·9 out of 9 in the March 2007 report that was submitted to the Committee for Finance and Personnel. That rating is very worrying, particularly as it is for a brand-new building in a pathfinder project. I hope that there will be a much better pilot outcome before a decision is made.

I remind Members that there is significant disparity in the location of Civil Service jobs. It is not simply an east-west issue. Parts of constituencies in the east of the Province have few Civil Service jobs; that applies irrespective of whether one measures those jobs by the total number of jobs located in an area or the number per percentage of the population who are economically active. Regrettably, parts of my constituency of East Antrim come out worst. It is important that our actions achieve a balance. There are considerable costs involved in relocating Civil Service jobs, but there are potential savings and benefits to the environment. When oppor­tunities arise, they should be considered seriously.

Mr O’Loan: As other Members have correctly stated, Workplace 2010 is a major proposal, for which the stakes are high. However, potential gains and associated risks are great, so the right decisions must be taken. I broadly welcome the objectives of the project; they seek to achieve quality accommodation that will be linked to quality service. Good accommodation ought to lead to good staff morale, and good buildings ought to be fit for purpose and linked to good service. I welcome the reference to flexible accommodation.

I have concerns about the emphasis that has been put on open-plan designing, given that it is somewhat unproven as to whether that is always the best option. The objective is to have a smaller and more efficient property portfolio. Although everyone seeks efficiency, a smaller portfolio carries some risks as it might present barriers to decentralisation. There is no doubt, however, that major reform of the public-sector infrastructure is a worthy objective. Workplace 2010 is certainly a major step towards that. I welcome the specific objectives of local economic growth and flexibility of location, which tie in with the desire for the decentralisation of public-sector jobs.

The warnings about public-sector comparators, which compare PFI with conventional procurement, must be taken seriously. The Westminster Public Accounts Committee refers to past comparators as having been given:

“a spurious precision which is not justified by the uncertainties involved in their calculation”.

In general, the Workplace 2010 report issues a heavy health warning to the Department of Finance and Personnel to be wary of the uncertainties of the process, to assess the risks, and to build in a high level of protection. There must be wariness of the beguiling attractions of a PFI solution.

The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee referred rightly to the trade-off between the amount of the upfront capital payment and the annual unitary charge. That must be calculated properly, otherwise there may be a great loss to the public sector that might be visible only later in the contract. The Committee has sought and obtained welcome reassurance on the independent valuation of assets. It has also taken comfort from the assurances of the independent gateway review of the entire process. The Committee believes that a significant amount has been learnt from past PFI errors. It is chastened — as the Assembly should be — by the awareness that officials will have undoubtedly come before elected representatives and assured them that all contingencies had been considered during the develop­ment of those subsequent PFI projects that turn out to be disasters. It is not always the case, however, that all contingencies have been considered.

The scale of the contract and potential subcontracts is an important issue. There are many small businesses in Northern Ireland. It is crucial that local businesses are in a position to tender for subcontracts when they are awarded. I seek reassurance from the Minister on that.

My party is committed to the decentralisation of public-sector jobs. It recognises that there must be a strategic approach to that that maximises local economic development and the quality of Government services. It is a complex issue that must be tackled properly, and I welcome steps that the Minister has taken to do so. The report rightly continues to stress the need for Workplace 2010 to have the flexibility to provide dispersal. When queried on that, departmental officials have said that that is very much part of the scheme. An advantage is that it is clearly costed. Northern Ireland can learn significantly from the Scottish experience on decentralisation.

We must be conscious of Partenaire’s legal challenge. The Department currently seeks a further £0·6 million to cover potential legal costs, indicating the substantial blockage that could occur.

In summary, I give a cautious go-ahead to the process.

Dr Farry: Like other Members, I endorse the report from the Committee for Finance and Personnel. It is a valuable piece of research, and it is pleasing to see Committees bring detailed reports to the Assembly.

Workplace 2010 is an important project that has major implications for the entire Northern Ireland Civil Service. Potentially, 20,000 employees could be affected. It is important that the Assembly takes seriously its responsibility to provide quality facilities for staff to work in and quality service for the public of Northern Ireland. It is also important that Members do not judge PFI as good or bad on an ideological basis, but rather on a case-by-case basis, in order to decide when its use is appropriate.

1.15 pm

This project is of a huge scale and is the largest PFI project to date in Northern Ireland. It is also one of the largest PFI projects to be undertaken in the United Kingdom. Therefore, it carries major consequences. Undoubtedly, just as we learn lessons from elsewhere, people elsewhere will seek to learn from how we in Northern Ireland approach the matter.

I emphasis the importance of flexibility in what we seek to do with the contract. Mr Lunn has referred to the issue of what will now become subcontractors. A wide range of businesses in Northern Ireland have been contractors to the Civil Service. Now, in the single-contract approach, their only hope for business is to become subcontractors. There is concern that they may no longer have the access to work that they formerly had.

We must be conscious of becoming locked in to particular budgets — such as sustaining a certain level of maintenance costs relating to the actual implementation of any overall contract. I am thinking, in particular, of an extremely tight fiscal situation where Departments have to make efficiencies. If we are locked into a contract with respect to certain costs, there could be a danger that efficiencies will be sought disproportionately from front-line services, to the detriment of service delivery to the people of Northern Ireland. Again, we must be conscious of that concern.

I am wary of the timing of the Workplace 2010 contract and the Executive’s evolving policy on the dispersal of jobs. Since this report was drafted, the Minister has made it clear that the Executive will bring forward that policy in the next year. In his last appear­ance on the Floor of the Assembly, the Minister made it clear that decisions on the policy will largely be in place by the time the contract has been finalised. Perhaps we need to go a little further than that and ensure that the final contract is entirely informed by the Assembly’s wishes as regards to job dispersal. Otherwise, the cost involved in making contract variations later on might outweigh the savings gained by the Assembly — in the short term — from the early implementation of the contract. Some detailed financial analysis must be done on the pros and cons of the matter to ensure that the Assembly finds the best balance and ensures value for money for the people of Northern Ireland.

With reference to job dispersal, I feel bound to refer to the situation of Bangor — and I make no apologies for doing so. While there is no formal policy in place for job dispersal, under the current proposals Bangor will see a negative dispersal of jobs because Depart­ment of Finance and Personnel staff and Department of Education (DE) staff will be further concentrated in Belfast. That will have major implications for the local economy in Bangor. It will account for large job losses — with detrimental effects for local contractors — as the Civil Service is currently the largest employer in Bangor.

It will also add further burdens to the road network, which is already chock-a-block, and runs against the whole spirit of sustainability. That loss of jobs is opposed by the local workforce. I stress that as many as 500 civil servants are currently on a waiting list to relocate to Bangor. The situation, in which Bangor is set to lose jobs, should be highlighted. Bangor has an image of being rich in Civil Service jobs. However, those civil servants commute into Belfast. We do not have a concentration of current workers.

Mr Weir: I welcome the report and the response from the Department of Finance and Personnel. It is essential that we debate this important issue and that the first report of the Committee for Finance and Personnel is dealing with these two important subjects. Given the timescale under which we are operating, it is unsurprising that many of the proposals are being put forward in a cautious manner. The opportunity to evaluate a lot of this stuff has been relatively limited. Therefore, I will avoid the temptation — to which others have succumbed — to do a lot of hand-wringing, or display angst, about Workplace 2010 or PFI.

In particular, I will avoid the general tirade against the private sector that we heard from the party opposite. It struck me as strange that, at one stage, it seemed that that party was about to storm the Bastille in opposition to private-sector involvement, and then it effectively concluded that it is important to ensure that the PFI contracts are right. There appears to be a divergence between rhetoric and reality.

We should remind ourselves that the Committee, as the Deputy Chairperson said, endorsed the three main aims of Workplace 2010: to enable the Civil Service to transform its public services in terms of efficiency and effectiveness; to provide accommodation in which staff are proud to work; and to safeguard funding for priority front-line services. Irrespective of the financial circumstances in which Northern Ireland finds itself in the future, and whatever the budgetary constraints, it is important that we provide the most efficient and effective resources and that those are concentrated on front-line services. Workplace 2010, if implemented correctly, will provide the best possible and most efficient use of services at the earliest possible opportunity. For all the many concerns that have been expressed about Workplace 2010 — and it is right that we ensure that matters are delivered correctly — I have yet to hear a practical alternative being offered that can deliver and provide the best resources.

Some of the problems that arose with the pathfinder project at Clare House were highlighted. It is clear from DFP’s response that lessons have been learnt from that. Indeed, the whole point of a pathfinder project is to find out where problems arise, so that when the project is rolled out in a wider context, those problems can be addressed. I am convinced from the measured tones of DFP’s responses that this matter will not be approached in a cavalier fashion, that lessons will be learnt and that, as regards Workplace 2010, the best possible system will put in place.

Unfortunately, in the second part of the report, there has perhaps not been the same level of focus on the location of public-sector jobs. Paragraph 64 of the report states that:

“the Committee contends that this policy should not be framed simply in terms of the demographics of public sector jobs location or the need to transfer jobs outside the Belfast area. Rather, a strategic approach is required”.

As was mentioned by a Member who spoke earlier in the debate, it is not simply an east-west issue; there are areas, particularly in the greater Belfast area, that have either not received their fair share of jobs, or cannot face any potential job loss.

It is also important to note that the report states that the Department:

“in categorising the location of offices within the public sector, should accurately reflect geographic reality.”

In that regard, I concur with at least some of Mr Farry’s remarks. It is important that Rathgael House is not simply lumped in with the Belfast offices. Take, for instance, the allocation of the social security offices: we found it rather strange that Bangor and Newtown­abbey were lumped in as part of Belfast, whereas other offices that are part of the BMAP (Belfast metropolitan area plan) area were taken as being outside of Belfast. If there is to be proper dispersal of jobs, it is important that that dispersal is carried out on a basis that reflects reality.

The Committee also noted that the costs of dispersal are important. We must have an approach that delivers to people. That is why I welcome the Department’s indication that it will take this matter forward through the Executive, and that it will take a much more strategic look at it to ensure that whatever is implemented will be in the interests of Northern Ireland as a whole. I welcome the report. It offers us a firm foundation for a more efficient and effective public service.

Mr Hamilton: Given the sheer scale of Workplace 2010 — the money involved, the capital investment that will be released, the number of buildings that will be involved and the number of personnel that will be affected —I believe that the Assembly will not see many bigger projects in its lifetime. It was because it shared that sense of gravity that the Finance and Personnel Committee undertook this piece of work and sought this debate in the Chamber today — a debate which my colleagues and I welcome.

The Committee and I support the objectives of Workplace 2010, including, most importantly, the provision of accommodation for civil servants in which they will be proud to work, and from which they can deliver excellent public services. We also envisage immense benefits for Northern Ireland in releasing millions of pounds for capital reinvestment. Those are the two elements on which I want to concentrate.

As has been mentioned already, the health-check review into the Clare House pathfinder project revealed some minor glitches. The discovery of such problems was the reason why the review was undertaken. I am sure that a fuller analysis, which is due before the end of the year, will reveal further lessons that we must take seriously when implementing Workplace 2010. I welcome the fact that the Department of Finance and Personnel has already acknowledged that there are problems with the roll-out of information technology in Clare House, and has undertaken to learn from those lessons.

The realisation of an estimated £150 million to £200 million for the public purse to be reinvested into capital programmes across Northern Ireland is the other side of the Workplace 2010 equation, and it is important, therefore, that the best value is sought for the buildings that are to be transferred to the private sector. One of the recommendations of the Finance and Personnel Committee’s report is that properties included under the aegis of Workplace 2010 should be valued by an independent commercial valuer, as well as by the Executive’s own property experts in land and property services.

The Committee has also recommended that that assessment be made as close as possible to the time of transfer, so that best value for properties is achieved in light of the volatile property market in Northern Ireland. I welcome the fact that the Department of Finance and Personnel has agreed to the independent evaluation of a representative number of the properties that are involved in the project.

Workplace 2010 has been criticised from some quarters since its inception — sadly, in my view — by critics who are wrong, not least because they are beset by an out-of-date and old-fashioned view that the private sector cannot be involved in such a project. Unfortunately, it seems that some of those people are present in the Chamber. Those who argue that PFI is inappropriate for Workplace 2010 miss the fact that several Civil Service facilities, including some buildings that form a part of that project, are leased from the private sector. Any new arrangement would not be much different from what is already happening.

I welcome the Minister’s previous statement to the House, in which he announced that there would be no compulsory transfer of workers who are involved in estate and property management to the private sector. He stated clearly, and repeatedly, that the contract will permit the future dispersal of public-sector jobs, if so desired. Given that Workplace 2010 will provide first-class accommodation to deliver excellent public services, and will release significant amounts for capital reinvestment in Northern Ireland, this is not a difficult decision to take. I commend the Minister of Finance and Personnel for achieving agreement in the Executive for the pursuit of that policy.

I shall turn briefly to the other issue that is addressed in the Committee for Finance and Personnel report on the location of public-sector jobs. As a representative of a constituency in the east of the Province, it will come as no surprise that I do not view this issue in the simplistic terms in which others do — that it is solely about moving jobs from the east of Northern Ireland to the west. It is not as straightforward as that.

As has been said repeatedly during this debate, there are disparities in the east of the Province. In the borough of Ards, which forms a major part of my constituency, there are only 11·1 public sector jobs per 100 economically active people. It is also interesting to note that although approximately 59% of public sector jobs in Northern Ireland are in the greater Belfast area, 60% of Northern Ireland’s population live in that same travel-to-work area, so, if anything, some jobs should have to be pulled back from elsewhere and brought into the greater Belfast area. There is considerable merit in examining this issue, and the RPA may provide opportunities to disperse jobs elsewhere in Northern Ireland, but if the policy —

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

The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr P Robinson): First, I thank the Chairperson, Deputy Chairperson and members of the Committee for Finance and Personnel for what I consider a very helpful report, which has been submitted to the Assembly in a constructive manner. As I said in my statement to the Assembly a couple of weeks ago, the debate around Workplace 2010 and the location of public-sector jobs has been difficult, and the issues have been challenging for all parties, not least my own.

Therefore, it was particularly welcome to see a report that had taken the issues seriously and had dealt with them practically and pragmatically. The report has made a substantial contribution to the decision-making process at Executive level.


To sum up the Committee’s recommendations, they cover three main areas. First, we must ensure value for money and that PFI is the right solution for the project. I believe that it is.

Secondly, we need an all-encompassing and strategic location policy that maximises the benefits for Northern Ireland as a whole and that looks much wider that the current demographic spread to consider some wide-ranging and complex issues. Today, I have listened to appeals from Ards and north Down. When I am considering the composition of that review panel, I must see whether Solomon is available.

Thirdly, the Committee recommends the importance of learning from experience and of being satisfied that we have done what we can to achieve the best result.

I have already told the Assembly that the difference between a traditional procurement and the PFI option runs into hundreds of millions of pounds. However, in the final business case, issues such as benefits, risks, uncertainties and costs will be refreshed and fully appraised. Value for money and affordability will also be assessed across the lifetime of the contract, so, although the short-term gain of a capital payment will be welcome, it is only one component of a complex contract, on which long-term costs and benefits will be carefully assessed.

The only other point that I wish to make about value for money is that the business case will be subject to rigorous inspection by DFP supply section. For people in and outside the Assembly who are not familiar with that term, DFP supply section is, broadly, the Northern Ireland equivalent of the Treasury in Whitehall. It is responsible for making recommendations on the optimum distribution of resources to Northern Ireland programmes and for ensuring that Departments spend money for the purposes that Assembly agreed. It does that as much for DFP as it does for any other Department.

DFP supply section operates independently of Departments. I recently took its views on the latest iteration before I submitted the paper on Workplace 2010 to the Executive. Before final decisions are taken, DFP supply section will perform a further assessment, which will include value-for-money and affordability considerations. The Committee has been assured of that and of DFP supply section’s independence. Its assessment of DFP projects is no different from, and is conducted in the same manner as, that applied to other Departments.

The Committee’s recommendations on the location of public-sector jobs were helpful in shaping the way forward on what is a complex issue. As the Assembly will know, the Executive agreed a two-pronged approach, including a framework for decision-making and a review of location policy. It is not simply a case of moving x number of jobs out of Belfast, as some commentators might suggest. Feedback on the consultation high­lighted the need for a more holistic approach, which the Committee has also recognised in calling for a strategic approach and a cross-cutting strategy.

The consultation responses and the Committee’s report were key factors in our decision to initiate a review, which I am keen to get under way as soon as possible. In a private meeting, I gave a commitment to the Committee’s Chairman and Deputy Chairman that I will speak to them about the composition of the review panel. I will bring the draft terms of reference to the Committee shortly, before seeking Executive approval of them.

That will enable the Department to develop the type of strategic approach to policy on the location of public-sector jobs for which the Committee has called. Although I do not underestimate the task that lies ahead for the review team, it will be an opportunity to provide coherent and strategic direction, which will be in the interests of all the people of Northern Ireland.

I fully accept the need to learn lessons and to build on others’ experience as an entirely relevant principle. There is a wealth of information on PFI that has shaped much of the recent Treasury guidance. Too often, we hear about contracts that have been successful, or where huge mistakes have been made. Indeed, some commentators would lead us to believe that all PFIs are disastrous, which, of course, is not the case. There­­fore, some work on the issue will be fruitful. All too often, we tend to draw conclusions based on those cases, but it is important that projects learn from each other. PFI is not the answer in some cases, but in others, such as Workplace 2010, it demonstrates best value for money and delivers a solution that is in everyone’s best interests.

I accept the views expressed by the SDLP Member for North Antrim, Mr O’Loan. There will not be a risk-free option for the Assembly or for the Executive. However, we can use our skills and abilities to learn as much as we can from the experiences of others, good and bad. In this case, the Department has taken lessons and analogies into account, including, for example, effective gain-share provisions, and how we deal with surplus assets, manage risk and deal with flexibility and uncertainty. We have also drawn heavily on the extensive use of open plan in the private and public sectors. The question for us is not whether we move to open working, but how we do it. Again, I recommend that Committee members visit Clare House, and that offer is also open to all Members. My officials will be happy to arrange tours so that Members can get a more colourful picture of the type of environment that we are seeking for our public servants.

Rather than take a huge leap of faith, my Department ran a couple of pathfinder projects, one of which is now well established and working well. The second project, in Clare House, has experienced teething problems with its new technology, and that has taken time to resolve. We expect to receive a further report on that project, which the Committee will examine closely, as shall I. However, I do not accept any inference that the pilot projects are not working. The experience and lessons learnt, both technical and cultural, have been invaluable in moving things forward. At the moment, the full evaluation of Clare House will be completed in good time to feed into the final negotiations. I have been to Clare House and have talked to staff there. Nothing that I have heard or seen has led me to believe that we should not be doing this.

It will be helpful to understand the dynamics and drivers in other jurisdictions as regards the relocation of jobs. Other Governments will have taken the decision to relocate jobs for different reasons, and it will be useful to understand and reflect on those experiences. For the benefit of the Member for North Down Dr Farry, it is my desire to run the two projects in parallel. My only reluctance in this matter is that I do not like giving assurances on things that are outside my control. There are elements in both projects that are outside my control, not least because the courts, the Committee or the Executive may take a view that would make it difficult for me to comply. However, I have made it clear to the House and to people outside the House that I want the two projects to run in parallel so that one can inform the other, and decisions will be taken in the full knowledge of where we shall be overall.

I commend the Committee for its work, and I commend the Chairperson and his colleagues for the role that they have played in dealing with complex issues. I give the Committee and Members a firm commitment that we will address the recommendations and that we will engage positively with the Committee as we move forward in the coming weeks and months.

The Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel (Mr McLaughlin): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.

I thank my Committee colleagues, Members and the Minister for their contributions on what has been a constructive debate. From the outset, the Committee recognised that the Minister had inherited what was already a mature proposal, and he had to take the project forward on the basis of previous work.

That informed the work of the Committee. Our job was not to create additional difficulties in a complex and strategic area. The Minister has clearly recognised that, and has responded in a positive way to the generality of the Committee’s recommendations.

The implementation of the Workplace 2010 project and future policy on public-sector job location will clearly have a direct impact on the working lives of thousands of public servants for decades to come. We have heard carefully-considered contributions from a number of Members and from the Minister. I do not intend to go through all of those contributions, but I acknowledge that, generally, Members were supportive of the strategic objectives of the project. Members pointed to and recognised the many risks that are involved, and they welcomed the responses of the Department — particularly, given the concerns about the relocation policy, the announcement by the Minister of a time-bound review of that policy.

The stated objectives of Workplace 2010, as my colleague Mervyn Storey said, were to:

“Enable the NICS to transform the way it delivers public services;

Provide accommodation in which staff are proud to work; and

Safeguard funding for priority front line services.”

Go raibh maith agat, it is clear from Members’ contributions that we can all support those objectives. However, for them to be realised, aside from the particular method of procuring Workplace 2010 — to which I will return in a moment — it will be vital that the project’s imple­mentation is handled effectively. Otherwise, there is the potential for massive disruption to staff and to the provision of public services.

The Committee has concerns about some of the findings of the initial health-check review on the Clare House pilot project. I recognise that, already, the Depart­ment has indicated that it is taking those lessons on board. The Committee will carefully examine the findings of the more complete post-occupancy evaluation, which will be available in December. Committee members intend to take up the Minister’s invitation to visit Clare House to see the accommodation at first hand.

I believe that there is a general acceptance that it is necessary to move to the best-and-final-offer stage in order to arrive at a final estimation of the value for money and affordability of the total-property PFI option. That will permit and inform discussion on the proposed safeguards of the public interest that can be built into the terms and conditions of the contract specifications. As Committee Chairperson, I look forward to working and commenting on that process with my colleagues on the finance scrutiny Committee.

As the Committee’s report states, taking into account the scale and duration of Workplace 2010, the stakes are high, and much hinges on the robustness and reliability of the final business case in reassessing the procurement options and determining the best solution in respect of value for money and affordability. The Minister has given specific commitments on the robustness of the final business case, including an assurance that an assessment will be made of the costs and risks of each procurement option before finalising the business case. The Committee has a statutory remit to carefully monitor developments and to ensure that those commitments are honoured.

The Committee has called for the final business case, including its underlying assumptions, calculations, analysis, conclusions and recommendations, to be independently and objectively assessed. The Depart­ment has suggested that the Committee’s concerns will be addressed through both the Office of Government Commerce gateway review process and the challenge role of DFP supply section, as my Deputy Chairperson said. The Committee had recommended a more independent and objective mechanism; nevertheless, I hope that the two review mechanisms will provide the level of assessment that was envisaged by the Committee. That remains to be tested.

The Committee also concluded that, if a PFI approach is eventually confirmed, the pivotal issues will be whether the final contract takes full account of best practice in PFI procurement and whether the subsequent contract-management arrangements are effective. Again, the Department has given a range of commitments on and positive responses to those matters.

1.45 pm

The Committee called for greater transparency on the long-term commitments to PFI deals generally and on the impact that they will have on future budgetary flexibility and affordability. The Committee believes that the affordability of the proposed PFI option for Workplace 2010 must be considered in the context of the collective commitments of the Executive that result from both PFI deals and other long-term borrowings.

The Department has helpfully provided further information to the Committee on how PFI commitment reports will be reported to the Treasury and on how departmental annual accounts will be reported to the Assembly. Although I welcome that information, I have concerns, and I believe that there is still scope for greater co-ordination and transparency on the reporting of PFI commitments to the Assembly. I also consider PFI commitments to be an aspect of departmental expenditure going forward, which Assembly Statutory Committees should monitor closely.

The one area in which the Department has taken issue with the Committee is on the Committee’s observation that the proposed PFI option will mean that Workplace 2010 will effectively double the present £1·5 billion PFI debt. The Department argues that ongoing charges for the contract will be met largely from the current funding envelope for the buildings in question. The Department further argues that if that figure is to be regarded as public debt, all current and future rents and utility charges would have to be regarded as public debt also. In my opinion, that argument avoids the important distinction between PFI debt and public debt. It also avoids the likely reduction in the Executive’s control and flexibility over commit­ments in a long-term PFI contract compared to those under traditional or existing arrangements.

Moreover, there is no getting away from the fact that if the PFI procurement option is taken, the resultant Workplace 2010 contract will be by far the largest PFI commitment facing the Executive. There is therefore a heavy onus on the Minister and the Department.

I emphasise that I recognise that responsibility explicitly. Indeed, it is on all of us to ensure that the procurement of Workplace 2010 is right. If the wrong procurement route is taken, or if a flawed PFI contract is put in place, the next generation will be left to pick up the pieces. I do not believe that any of us wish to leave such a legacy.

The Committee concluded that an affirmative policy on the dispersal of public-sector jobs could be an effective tool for supporting the development of the regional economic hubs that were identified in the regional development strategy, thereby closing the significant regional economic and prosperity gaps in the North. The Committee considered that an affirmative policy on dispersal would also complement and advance a range of other existing cross-cutting policies including: statutory equality provision; New TSN; rural-proofing; the anti-poverty strategy; and the forthcoming regional economic strategy.

It will be important for any dispersal policy to be framed and implemented in a way that ensures the strategic distribution of Civil Service jobs across the North. That argument was reiterated today. Careful research and consideration will need to be given to the locations, the number, types and grades of jobs that are selected, and the functions or business units that will be relocated.

The Committee welcomes the Minister’s proposal for a time-bounded review of policy on public-sector job location, and it will be considering the terms of that review shortly.

Go raibh maith agat. To conclude, I believe that the Committee’s report and the Minister’s response represent examples of positive and constructive engagement between the Department and its associated Statutory Committee. I look forward to ongoing engagement on that basis and to further debate on these important matters. I commend the motion to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


That this Assembly takes note of the first Report of the Committee for Finance and Personnel on Workplace 2010 and the Location of Public Sector Jobs, and the response to the Report by the Department of Finance and Personnel.

Private Members’ Business

Crisis in Burma

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

Mrs Hanna: I beg to move

That this Assembly views with the deepest concern the unfolding events in Burma; salutes the courage of the Burmese people in challenging the oppressive, corrupt and illegitimate military junta that has ruled Burma for decades and which has brought misery to the country and lives of its people; declares its support for Burma’s democratic leaders, in particular the imprisoned Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy, and calls for her immediate release; supports the call of the Prime Minister for the most extensive range of sanctions possible against the regime, under the auspices of the United Nations; and further calls on the British, Irish and other European Union governments to take all necessary action to help topple this despicable regime.

People of goodwill throughout the world have watched in horror as the fragmentary evidence of events in Burma over the past few weeks has unfolded. They have had to look through a glass darkly, because the vicious and degenerate military junta in Burma, which has effectively been in power for 45 years, has gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure that the world learns as little as possible about what is happening.

Thanks to modern technology — mobile phones, the Internet and camera phones — and unlike the previous uprising of the Burmese people in 1988, no one can doubt that the junta has degraded that country and made its people the most oppressed on the face of the earth. We have watched in horror as wholly peaceful, saffron-clad Buddhist monks and civilians have been shot dead, spirited away for torture — or worse.

Some people may say that to debate this motion is “gesture politics”, that all the sanctions and boycotts in the world make no difference to the junta and that Members should stick to their remit of governing Northern Ireland. With all due respect, I do not accept those views. Nor, indeed, do I accept the comments this morning from another sideliner. Although I want the Executive to be far more proactive, please do not let us ever get to the stage in Northern Ireland where we do not think that it is our business to raise such issues, give leadership and take action.

For several decades, the SDLP was a member of the Irish anti-apartheid movement, and, along with other Members, I participated in the boycott of South African produce in support of sanctions against the undemocratic apartheid regime. Throughout those decades, people told us that we were wasting our time, that the white Government was too strong and that they had too many allies and resources. At the end of the day, democracy triumphed, and, in an almost miraculous series of developments involving the leadership of Mandela, de Klerk and others, the apartheid regime was brought to an end, and democracy was brought to South Africa.

It may seem impossible to us now that this vile, murderous junta will, one day, fall and that its leaders will be brought to justice. We in the West may not have the necessary leverage to bring down this regime, but we do have some leverage on those countries that can take action.

I first became engaged with the situation in Burma when Aung Sang Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. This woman has won admiration across the world for her courage and steadfastness on behalf of her people; as she has said, “Fear is a habit”. In 2003, I travelled to Thailand to work with some Burmese minority groups — the Karen, the Shan, the Mon, the Chin, the Arakan and the Kachin. If the plight of the majority ethnic group — the Burman — is dire, that of the minority ethnics living in squalor in camps along the Thai and Bangladeshi borders is infinitely worse. They truly are the wretched of the earth, and they have had to endure all types of atrocity up to, and including, genocide.

In September 2005, as chairperson of the Assembly all-party group on international development, I hosted a briefing here at Stormont from Ministers and officials in the democratic Burmese Government in exile. I have kept in regular touch with them.

I am sure that Members will have a good overview of recent Burmese history; I will just give a brief account. Burma is a country of around 55 million people, and it should be one of the wealthiest countries in Asia. It has great natural resources of oil, gas, gemstones and forestry that are the envy of, and indeed exploited by, its larger neighbours, such as India and China. Its land is productive, especially of rice, but now its people are among the poorest on the planet. The great natural wealth of Burma has been looted by the military junta and their family interests, and its economy has been perverted to the position where Burma is the second-largest producer of opium and a major source of drug trafficking in Asia.

Burma is one of the poorest countries in Asia. Some 130,000 children die there every year, and 10% die before their fifth birthday. A third of Burma’s children are underweight. In a once highly literate country, less than half the children complete five years of education. Nearly half of Government spending goes on the military budget; less than 30p a year per person is spent on education, and less than 10p a year per person on health.

Burma achieved its independence from Britain in 1948, and was ruled democratically until the military coup of 1962. The military has been in control ever since. In 1988, unrest over the junta’s economic mismanagement and political oppression led to an uprising, and an estimated 3,000 demonstrators were killed. International pressure then led to democratic elections in 1990, when the National League for Democracy won 80% of the votes. However, the military, led by the current thug-in-chief Than Shwe, annulled the results of the election, and announced plans for a new constitution, which came to nothing.

In 1997, despite the misgivings of many, Burma was admitted into membership of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, on the ostensible grounds that contact with the outside world would help to civilise the junta. As we all know, the latest protests broke out on 15 August, when the price of fuel was increased fivefold — this in a country with vast supplies of oil and gas. That was the last straw for a people who had been provoked beyond endurance.

China has become the sponsor and patron of the Burmese military, cynically adopting a posture at the United Nations Security Council of purporting to oppose any interference in the internal affairs of another country and maintaining that there is a democratic process appropriate for the country. Nonetheless, there are two reasons why China may be susceptible to pressure to act in its own interests in a way that could lead to a transition to democracy.

The first is that the Olympic Games take place in Beijing next year. China’s human rights record is already under attack from the world; now its foreign policy is too. As Edward McMillan-Scott, a British Conservative vice-president of the European Parliament, said:

“China is the puppet master of Burma. The Olympics is the only real lever that we have to make China act. The civilised world must seriously consider shunning China by using the Beijing Olympics to send the clear message that such abuses of human rights are not acceptable.”

I hope that the British and Irish Governments, and the rest of the EU, are absolutely ruthless in pressing China to put pressure on the Burmese junta to allow international humanitarian aid to be given to the country, under the protection of the UN, without it being siphoned off; to stop shooting protesters; to free all political prisoners; and to end the pretence that a new constitution is being drawn up. The junta must be forced to yield to democratic rule.

I welcome the comments from Prime Minister Gordon Brown that he wants the pressure of the world put on the Burmese regime. He wants sanctions and pressure from the United Nations, China, India and the rest of the world to be placed on the Burmese regime. We are far away from Burma, but we can play our part in lobbying for the cutting off of all trade, tourism and investment links in Burma.

2.00 pm

I thank the aid agencies and Amnesty International for briefing Members and for organising rallies in support of the democratic movement. In most world affairs, economic development has required an accompanying process of liberal democracy and a representative Government, because a modern economy cannot be run by uneducated people. The greatest struggle in the twenty-first century will be between totalitarians such as the rulers of China and Burma —

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

Mrs Hanna: Lighting a candle is better than struggling in the darkness.

Mr Hamilton: I commend the Member for tabling the motion. I agree with her initial comments: I am sure that there are some people outside the Building who are saying that we should not be debating the motion, considering the problems that Northern Ireland’s people believe exist here.

However, for many reasons, it is our responsibility and duty to debate such issues. There are many good reasons, peculiar and specific to this part of the world, for the Assembly to debate the situation in Burma. It has already been stated that Burma is a former British colony, so we have a responsibility to be concerned about the people in that part of the world who were formerly ruled by Britain. Many servicemen fought in Burma in the Second World War. I am thinking particularly of the Burma Star Association, which had many members from this part of the world. In that regard there is a long association with Burma. Local people give generously to charities and aid agencies such as Save the Children, which does tremendous work in Burma. The United Kingdom is the European Union’s second-largest donor of humanitarian aid to Burma.

Mention has also been made of the lucrative drugs trade in Burma. It is the second-largest producer of opium, and it is a producer of methamphetamines. Those drugs are destroying the lives of people in our country. I always look at countries such as Burma as being on the verge of failed status — if they are not already there. It is similar to countries such as Sudan and Afghanistan, which international terrorist organisations such as al-Qaeda have seized on, with unimaginable conse­quences. It is, therefore, essential that Members add their voices to those of our national Government in the world­wide chorus of concern about the situation in Burma.

I am sure that Members have seen the images that were beamed into our living rooms by whatever means were possible in spite of freedom of speech and expression being suppressed. None of us could have watched the images of Buddhist monks and other ordinary Burmese citizens defying one of the world’s most brutal regimes without being inspired by their courage and bravery. Some 100,000 individuals took to the streets in spite of knowing that those who had protested similarly some decades ago were treated most brutally and oppressively, and that over 3,000 people were callously murdered at that time. As Members debate the motion, the whereabouts of many of those recent protesters, and the details of what happened to them, are unknown.

After almost 50 years of one of the most oppressive rules in the world, the people of Burma are once again following the example set in recent times by people in countries such as Ukraine, Georgia, Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. They are embracing democracy and freedom. For years, we were told that democracy and freedom were alien concepts in some parts of the world. However, it seems that freedom is infectious. Who could blame the people of Burma for, once again, doing what they are doing — taking to the streets in pursuit of issues that we take for granted? They are being subjected to the denial of democracy; political imprisonment; severe restrictions in freedom of expression and freedom of assembly; a brutal military offensive; forced labour; the use of child soldiers; and sexual violence by the army. I could go on.

There is also religious intolerance, a high rate of inflation and massive poverty, despite the country’s great wealth of natural resources. Burma is potentially a very rich country that is being brought to its knees by a brutal and oppressive regime, as is also happening in Zimbabwe. Burma also has malaria, TB, HIV and AIDS epidemics.

The world needs to say clearly, and with one voice, that this sort of behaviour is not only unacceptable, but will simply not be tolerated. I am encouraged by the positive reaction of our own Prime Minister, the UN and the US Administration. They are saying the right things but now need to start doing the right things.

Mr S Wilson: Will the Member agree that, rather than the British Government or even Europe, its next-door neighbour China, India and the Asian countries that should really be putting pressure on Burma? They can really make a difference.

Mr Hamilton: I agree entirely with the Member; it is almost as if he read my mind. I was about to say that while this is a challenge for all of us, the real challenge is for China, the growing superpower in the region. China is trying to project a more benign, cuddly image to woo the world in the run-up to the Olympics. Pressure must be put on it to back the right side in Burma.

Ms Anderson: Ba mhaith liom cur leis an mholadh seo. Sinn Féin, along with many people on this island, would like to voice its outrage at the recent events in Burma. There has been an appalling abuse of human rights by the military junta, which has usurped and imprisoned the democratically elected Government, and beaten down and killed many peaceful protesters. Sinn Féin acknowledges the brave people who have risked their lives in that country to bring news and video recordings of those events to the world.

Myanmar is not an isolated incident in the world of savagery and brutality. Abuse of human rights is wide­spread, and Governments have persisted in both legally and illegally supplying weapons to those regimes. Condemnations from afar are easy, but they are no more than hypocrisy if they come from a country where the Government allow the export of arms and munitions to Governments that abuse and ignore the human rights of their citizens.

I endorse the comments made by Amnesty International programme director Patrick Corrigan, who said:

“We are all concerned for the fate of those protesting for democracy in Myanmar. But what should concern us doubly is that…firms may be contributing — perhaps unwittingly and totally legally — to the miserable human rights situation in the country by providing weapons components to the military.”

The Amnesty International report this year identified firms based in the North involved in the arms industry. The report highlights companies such as Goodrich Engine Control Systems in Belfast and Martin-Baker Aircraft Co Ltd in Antrim that, according to Amnesty International, have made components that may have been incorporated in jets sold to China, which have then been supplied to Burma. Current loopholes in the export licensing system make it impossible to know for certain whether that is the case. There is no comprehensive EU-wide control system in place to ensure that Governments can effectively implement and enforce their embargo commitments.

To support the motion in its totality would be repre­hensible. Sinn Féin has concerns about the implication of the unfortunate, if not dangerous, language used. It calls for the taking of:

“all necessary action to help topple this despicable regime.”

That is unsafe language, particularly in the wake of the British and US Governments’ illegal invasion of Iraq. For that reason Sinn Féin cannot support a motion that could be seen to sanction a similar invasion against the people of Burma.

Sinn Féin voices strongly its concern and support for the immediate release of Burma’s democratic opposition leader from house arrest. Sinn Féin can support only half of the sentiments in the motion, and it is concerned about wording in the motion that states:

“to take all necessary action to help topple this despicable regime”.

For that reason Sinn Féin will abstain from the vote.

Amnesty International has called on all Governments to support actively the UN process to establish a global arms trade treaty with strong provisions requiring full respect for international human rights law and international humanitarian law when considering transfers of conventional arms so as to prevent arms transfers from contributing to the violations of such law. Sinn Féin supports Amnesty International and views that as the preferred option.

The reliance here on international human rights law puts into the sharpest focus the importance of our current work to frame a bill of rights for the North. This is our mutual achievement, that through the Good Friday Agreement and our power-sharing Executive, we are now engaged in working towards defining rights in framing a bill of rights. We in the Assembly along with key stakeholders in civic society are engaging in path-breaking work of global significance and we should congratulate all involved.

We would be detracting from that work if we were to support the unfortunate words in the motion that I read out earlier. We fundamentally seek to endorse the primacy of human rights.

Mr Savage: I support the motion. I thank the Member for bringing the events in Burma to the attention of the House.

Like many Members, I saw the shocking and disturbing pictures on television as Buddhist monks, clergy and other citizens took to the streets in protest to voice their concerns and try to bring about change in their country. All that those people want to see is a reduction in commodity prices, the release of political prisoners and national reconciliation.

The people of Burma have been in that situation before. The nationwide protests in 1998 were suppressed violently by the authorities with the killing of more than 3,000 people. Burma is a country controlled by fear due to the heavy-handed military presence, with many reports coming through of brutal beatings, killings and disappearances. According to media reports, it is difficult to confirm the details of those who have been arrested, where they are held and under what circum­stances. That has been compounded by the restrictions placed on the Internet and telephones. Random searches for mobile phones and cameras have been stepped up and those who have been caught with them have been beaten and arrested.

Since the peaceful protests in Burma last week were harshly repressed, the Burmese security forces have raided monasteries and attacked peaceful protesters; they have fired live rounds and tear gas, and they have beaten protesters with batons. It is believed that at least 1,000 protesters have been arrested in Yangon alone, the majority of whom were monks. There have been many more arrests in other towns and cities across the country. That is in addition to the many people detained since August last year, many of whom are key figures in the National League for Democracy.

The authorities have acknowledged that there have been 10 deaths. However, is it feared that the actual number is much higher. How many people have to die before the wider world wakes up, takes notice and does something about the situation? I welcome the fact that the United Nations has agreed a strong resolution and that it will be sending a special rapporteur on human rights to Burma on an urgent mission to give a detailed report on the human rights situation.

The Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, said:

“the international community is determined to see a process of genuine national reconciliation, democratisation and the establishment of the rule of law”.

I believe that everyone in the Assembly wants to see the same.

During the last war, our soldiers fought alongside the Burmese people, and we have a duty to stand by them at this crucial time. I support the motion.

2.15 pm

Ms Lo: I thank Mrs Hanna for proposing the motion, and I welcome the debate. However, although I endorse the sentiment of the motion, I am concerned about calls for the toppling of the Burmese Government.

Mrs Hanna: At no time did I call for the toppling of any Government.

Ms Lo: Our common humanity obliges us to provide the Burmese people with all of the help that we can in their fight with the military regime. The Burmese dictatorship is not only brutal and horrifying, but, tragically, insane. No regime can be described as sane if it locks up a Nobel Prize winner such as Aung San Suu Kyi for simply caring about the condition of her country. The Burmese regime cannot be treated as sane when its citizens live in misery, despite the fact that their country has a vast array of minerals beneath its soil. The generals are at war with the Burmese people. We must aid those people and the forces of democracy in that war.

The key to Burma is not in Rangoon or the new capital — the general’s lair — Naypitaw. The generals have been plundering their country and living the high life, at the cost of the ordinary Burmese, for decades. Time and again, they have shown that they have no problem with murdering their fellow countrymen and that they will not, of their own accord, change their evil ways.

The key to Burma is China, which has benefited most from the commercial and diplomatic boycott. China uses Burma’s access to the Bay of Bengal for military means, and is the prime customer for Burmese exports such as timber, oil and gas. As the 2008 Olympics approach, China is conscious of its international image. As the world has recently seen in Sudan, international public opinion can do much to encourage Beijing to put the squeeze on the generals.

Mr Kennedy: What is Ms Lo’s considered view on advocating a boycott of the forthcoming Olympics in Beijing, as a tool against the Chinese Government?

Ms Lo: No. Working with them, and continuing to exert pressure, is the best thing to do.

In recent weeks, there has been some soft pressure from China — and that is welcome. However, that is not enough. The time is ripe for a tougher stance from Beijing.

China is not the only country in the region that is failing to live up to its basic obligations to humanity. India, another neighbour, constantly struggles with Beijing for influence in Burma, but has little regard for how it is governed.

Thailand is no less guilty. That is the country that buys the largest share of Burmese exports, and which, itself, has problems in sustaining any sort of democratic Government.

The final guilty party is Russia, which blocks any anti-junta initiative in the UN Security Council and sells armaments to the generals — the only internal guarantee they have for staying in power.

The Burmese regime’s external guarantee is the nexus of support provided by the countries that I have mentioned.

Those nations hide behind the dogma of non-interference in the internal affairs of another country. However, in reality, they are the generals’ lifeline.

The UN must take action. However, given the possible Chinese-Russian veto, the British, Irish and other European Governments must be pressurised into taking joint EU action, and, indeed, collective action with non-EU states, in order to penalise the Burmese generals. That can be done by disrupting their wealth, which is allegedly already being moved to bank accounts scattered around the world.

Sanctions against the country would not frighten the generals and would only be to the detriment of the people. The generals are already at war, so they would not be worried about the misery of the ordinary Burmese people. However, were we to find a way to their pockets, they would surely be worried.

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

Mr Shannon: I thank the Member for tabling the motion, which is appropriate and timely.

It is a firm and long-held belief of mine, and of many others in the Chamber, that evil triumphs when good men do nothing. Essentially, it means that to stand and shake our heads, wring our hands and tut about how awful a situation is will by no means change that situation. It will, however, allow evil to prosper and overtake, and, in the case of Burma, to rule a nation.

For too many years, we in the West have wrung our hands and imposed sanctions on Burma. In doing that, without backing up anything that we say, we have lost any sway that we ever had over the ruling dictatorship in that country. Another brief or missive from the UN, or a strongly worded letter from Gordon Brown, would have as much effect on the Burmese ruling army as would politely asking a child in the street to put down the sweets that he or she is eating in favour of a Brussels sprout. Why would that child give up what he or she craves after, and has a taste for, for something less palatable? The simple answer is that the child would not.

In the same way, the dictatorship in Burma has gotten away with strong-arming the people for so long that it now has what it wants. It will not give that up on the say-so of nations that do nothing but write notes and impose sanctions, only to shake their heads the rest of the time. The real power, as my colleague Sammy Wilson said, lies with the influence of China, Russia and India.

The Burmese crisis is not new but has been brewing for many years; and for many years, the UN has been trying to do its best to influence the Government there to play fair. Sadly, it boils down to the fact that the UN has no influence. In saying that, I have no wish to detract from the tremendous amount of good that the UN does through providing relief packages and food and medical supplies.

The junta has doubled the price of rice, and that has led to 70% of wages being spent on food. The price of fuel has increased — 50% of some people’s wages is being spent on it. That means that less money is available for food and education. The food on which the Burmese people rely is rice. More sickness and disease will follow for people for whom rice, and nothing else, is their staple diet. Recent statistics show that more than one third of children in Burma suffer from a form of malnutrition.

The junta uses a strong military presence to ensure that those who question their authority do not do so for too long before they are “sent away”. A BBC corres­pondent reported a middle-aged man in a tea shop as saying:

“I really want change, but they have guns and we don’t, so they’ll always win.”

That is the reason why so many of the Burmese people have lived so oppressed for so long. There are sad and recurring incidents in many villages, where the people try to be self-sustaining, only for the military to arrive and steal their stores of food.

There are 20,000 internally displaced persons from the Karen region alone. People who are on the run number more than that. Indeed, people have also fled across the border.

It is little wonder that the peace-loving monks are the leaders in the stand against the regime. The time for them to stand and wring their hands has passed, and they have tried to lead peaceful protests, which is a human right of any person who wishes to express concern and emotion over a situation. However, in Burma, that has led to 4,000 monks being rounded up and sent away in an attempt to stop the peaceful demonstrations.

The demonstrators seek a price reduction in the basics of life — commodities such as fuel, rice and cooking oil. Secondly, they seek the release of all political prisoners, including — and I will try to say this in my Ulster-Scots accent — Aung San Suu Kyi and all of the detainees arrested during demonstrations against the fuel price hike. Thirdly, they want the Burmese Government to enter into dialogue with the pro-democracy forces to promote immediate national reconciliation and to resolve the crisis facing the people and the difficulties they suffer.

We, in the Western World, have little influence; however, China, India and Russia have significant influence and must be pressurised to effect change for good. If that is not done, stronger measures must be considered. If words — and international pressure — do not work, something else must be done to ensure that all the people of Burma have the freedom to live, eat, work and marry without fear and threat. Those are the basics of life.

It is the duty of the strong — the countries of the Western World and of Asia, including China — to speak up for, and uphold, the cause of the weak. We must demand that action is taken now; that the oppression stops now; and that the dictators are held accountable for their actions now. A helping hand is worth a thousand words of advice.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Members will be aware that questions to the Office of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister begin at 2.30 pm. I, therefore, propose to continue this debate later this afternoon. In the meantime, Members may take their ease.

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)

2.30 pm

Oral Answers to Questions

Office of the First Minister and  deputy First Minister

British-Irish Council

1. Mr Bresland asked the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to detail when the next meeting of the British-Irish Council will be held; and what issues will be considered.  (AQO 330/08)

The First Minister (Rev Dr Ian Paisley): In July, at the Belfast summit of the British-Irish Council (BIC), the Council agreed to host the next summit in Dublin in late 2007. Even though the Belfast Agreement provides for two BIC summits per year, it will be the first time in five years that that will have happened, and reflects the momentum and commitment to enhance east-west relationships that we have brought to the work of the Council. The date and the agenda for the summit will be subject to agreement by the participating administrations. We will wish to review progress on issues agreed at the Belfast summit including the strategic review of the Council’s works programme, and support arrangements for a standing secretariat. Once the date and agenda for the summit have been agreed we will inform the Executive and the Assembly.

Mr Bresland: Could the First Minister outline the current position on the commitment to have a dedicated standing secretariat?

The First Minister: The St Andrew’s Agreement provided that following consultation with members, with a view to giving further impetus to the work of the Council, both Governments would facilitate the establishment of a standing secretariat for the British-Irish Council, if members agreed. We have made it clear that our preference is for a standing secretariat, and the strategic review will take the views of the participating administrations into account when arriving at its recommendations.

Mr Attwood: On 18 September you indicated that you would enquire if the issues of affordable housing, suicide and the Irish Sea could be included in the ongoing review of the Council. Will those matters be part of that review, in particular the matter of the Irish Sea, which was previously on the BIC’s agenda?

I welcome you to Question Time, and say on behalf of many people in the House that it would have been welcome if the First Minister and the deputy First Minister had come to the House in order to announce a decision —

The Speaker: Order. I ask the Member to take his seat as his question is inappropriate.

The First Minister: As the host administration the Northern Ireland Executive bore the costs of the meeting held in Northern Ireland, which was a good meeting. However, the review body is its own boss. Although we can and do recommend that those matters must be dealt with, we cannot compel the review body to deal with them.

Mr K Robinson: Will the First Minister investigate the level of staffing of the British-Irish Council, which is currently at a markedly lower level than the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC)? Will the First Minister undertake to see that the staffing level is increased to reflect the importance that all unionists place on the British dimension of all the relationships between these islands?

The First Minister: I have already commented on the extent of our authority, but I welcome the Member’s comments and I will draw them to the attention of the review body.

Children and Young People

2. Mr Shannon asked the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister what action the junior Ministers will be taking to serve the needs of children and young people.        (AQO 323/08)

The First Minister: The junior Ministers have specific responsibility to progress important commitments and priorities with regard to children and young people.

They will play a key role in driving forward the 10-year strategy for children and young people and in putting into place the most appropriate arrangements and actions for its delivery. The junior Ministers play an important role in keeping the needs of children and young people high on the agenda and in determining and shaping progress to improve their lives.

Mr Shannon: I thank the First Minister for his assurances on tackling the needs of children and young people. Will he indicate to the Assembly the work that has been done to eradicate child poverty, which is another important issue?

The First Minister: The United Kingdom targets are to halve child poverty by 2010 and to eradicate it by 2020. The 10-year strategy for children and young people includes outcomes that are linked to the elimination of child poverty in Northern Ireland; namely economic and environmental well-being. Poverty must be eradicated by 2020 in order to close the gap between the young people who do well in life and those who do not. Throughout the development phase of the strategy, child poverty, particularly social exclusion and multifaceted need, was consistently identified as a key theme in the lives of children and young people. In working to achieve the UK target to eradicate child poverty by 2020, Northern Ireland Departments will deliver a wide range of initiatives and programmes that will have a positive effect on child poverty and exclusion.

Mrs M Bradley: Will the First Minister confirm whether there are any plans to take forward a ministerial subgroup on children?

The First Minister: Yes, there are.

Mr Beggs: Child poverty in Northern Ireland is increasing. Will the First Minister and deputy First Minister set specific tasks for the junior Ministers so that strategic action will be taken to tackle that problem? Will they ensure that the junior Ministers will inform the Assembly of what is being done, so that they can be held to account for their actions?

The First Minister: The two junior Ministers are working hard. They are already occupied with other child-poverty matters. I assure the honourable Member that they have been well tutored on those matters by the deputy First Minister and me. The children of today will be the men and women of tomorrow. They deserve all that the Assembly can give them.

The Cost of Division –  A Shared Future Strategy

3. Mr Ford asked the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to indicate when the Deloitte Touche report on ‘The Cost of Division — A Shared Future Strategy’ will be published on the Department’s website.            (AQO 379/08)

The First Minister: The report was commissioned, conducted and finalised during direct rule. Copies of the report have already been placed in the Assembly Library and have been made available to the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister and to other Members. Furthermore, if anyone contacts OFMDFM for a copy of the report, it will be provided as quickly as possible. Our Department has no plans for formal publication.

Mr Ford: Since the report is not available elsewhere, I advise Members that it has been provided on the Alliance Party website, should they wish to see it. Is the failure to publish the report not a further example of the failure and inability of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to agree on difficult issues? For example, we have seen today their failure to announce movement on the appointment of a victims’ commissioner, which is another key aspect of a shared future. The way that that announcement was made showed absolute contempt for the Assembly, for victims and for people who had applied in good faith for the post.

The First Minister: I resent what the Member has said, and I challenge him to prove that we are insulting victims. We are trying to find the best possible way to find the best possible person to do the job.

Mr Kennedy: I broadly welcome, on behalf of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, the announcement that was made earlier today on the appointment of a commissioner for victims. Given the public interest in the issue, can the First Minister be more specific on the time frame that is envisaged for the appointment and, in particular, can he outline the final process by which any successful applicant will be appointed?

The First Minister: I have nothing more to say on the statement that was given to the honourable gentle­man by us this morning, before we made our statement to the press. He is aware of all the facts of this matter. I understand that all Members were sent a copy of that statement. Therefore, they all know what is in it.

Mr Spratt: I thank the First Minister for his answers. He has answered my question on the appointment of the commissioner for victims when answering the two previous questioners.

Mr Speaker: I call Martina Anderson —

I call the First Minister.

The First Minister: That is a new name that I have been given.

To put it bluntly, we believe that some potential applicants may have been deterred from applying for the post during the direct rule period because they could not be confident of securing the broad political support of local parties — [Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order. The First Minister has the Floor.

The First Minister: The commissioner for victims must become a true champion of victims and survivors. I knew that that comment would bring that response. Certain Members were looking for some excuse to make that response. I am simply repeating what I have already told them.

Ms Anderson: I ask the First Minister to outline the status of the report; his views on the statistics; and to reinstate OFMDFM’s commitment to equality as being the top, bottom and middle line.

The First Minister: The report that the honourable lady mentioned is independent. She will be well aware of that.

Mr A Maginness: I do not know whether I am more confused than the First Minister. I am confused by his answers, and I am also confused by some of the questions.

I thank the First Minister for placing the Deloitte report, ‘Research into the financial cost of the Northern Ireland divide’, in the Assembly Library. That was subsequent to my question of a couple of weeks ago on that report. Will the First Minister tell me why the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister will not publish, formally, that report? That is a serious report, it is important, and it is a twin to the ‘Shared Future’ policy document. Let us have a debate on it in the House.

The First Minister: It does not seem that other people are of the same mind as the honourable Member. Only 18 people requested the report. Is the Member suggesting that we should print hundreds — maybe a thousand copies — when only 18 people asked for it? It is not OFMDFM’s report; it is a private report. We are not in the business of publishing private reports.

Transfer of Policing and Justice Powers

4. Mr Burnside asked the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister what representations it has made to the United Kingdom Government, concerning the transfer of policing and justice powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive.         (AQO 335/08)

The First Minister: The Member for South Antrim will be aware that the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006 placed specific responsibility on the Assembly to report to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, by 27 March 2008, on progress towards the devolution of policing and justice matters. He will also know that the Assembly has asked its Assembly and Executive Review Committee to under­take an inquiry and report to the Assembly by March 2008.

We believe that that issue is not one in which OFMDFM considers it necessary to make such representations.

2.45 pm

Mr Burnside: I thank the First Minister for his answer. However, he must surely believe that before policing and justice powers can be transferred to the Executive and the House, there must be some confidence-building measures.

Does the First Minister not find it amazing that, over the weekend, Robert McCartney’s sisters said that there was no evidence of senior republicans in Sinn Féin/IRA taking part in the PSNI’s Historical Enquiries Team? Does he not find it totally unacceptable that his deputy First Minister will not personally, or corporately on behalf of Sinn Féin/IRA, take part in the Historical Enquiries Team? How can any confidence be built in the transfer of policing and justice powers when his deputy First Minister and Members of the Sinn Féin Bench are involved in such activities?

The First Minister: I remind the Member that his party is part of this coalition, so he should get on to his own party leader and his own party instead of reading to me what he thinks should happen. I repeat what I have said: the Assembly has referred this matter to the Assembly and Executive Review Committee. If the Member has something to say to the Committee, he should go to the Committee and say it. If he is not happy with the result of that, he can bring the matter to the Assembly.

Miss McIlveen: Can the First Minister indicate that such a transfer could come about only by agreement and with cross-community support in the House?

The First Minister: The answer is yes. I am very glad that the Member for South Antrim is convinced that what the DUP says on this matter is right. If the party has one convert, it is doing well. There are only 18 requests for some of these reports — I got one today.

Sexual Orientation Strategy  and Action Plan

5. Dr Farry asked the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to detail what progress has been made towards presenting and launching the sexual orientation strategy and action plan.    (AQO 380/08)

The First Minister: A consultation on the draft sexual orientation strategy and action plan was carried out during direct rule under the former Secretary of State Peter Hain. The draft strategy has yet to be considered by Ministers and the Executive.

Dr Farry: I thank the First Minister for that answer, even though it was rather brief. Can he assure me that all Ministers are working in harmony on sexual orientation issues and that this draft strategy will be brought forward as soon as possible? Does he agree that sexual orientation issues need to be seen through the prism of good relations? Will consideration be given to placing sexual orientation issues within the wider remit of the shared future strategy and, in particular, the second triennial action plan?

The First Minister: The First Minister and deputy First Minister have made it clear that the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister is totally committed to promoting equality and human rights and is completely opposed to any form of discrimination or harassment against any citizen.

Mr Storey: Will the First Minister inform the House who approved the current funding package, and has any further funding been agreed?

The First Minister: Mr Peter Hain approved the package; neither I nor my colleague across the way has since approved any funding.

Mr McCartney: Does the First Minister agree that, in order to be effective, the draft sexual orientation strategy needs the full and total support of the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister?

The First Minister: That is a matter for negotiation. I can say only that we have to face the facts that are before us, and the facts are that the money that is now being provided is based on the undertaking made by the then Secretary of State Peter Hain and that the draft strategy has yet to be considered by Ministers or the Executive.

Freedom of Information Requests

6. Mr T Clarke asked the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to detail (i) the number of freedom of information requests it has received; and (ii) the number of freedom of information requests received in total by all Northern Ireland Departments.            (AQO 342/08)

The First Minister: From 1 January 2005, when the Freedom of Information Act 2000 was fully implemented, to the end of August 2007, OFMDFM has received 272 requests for information.

During the same period, over 8,700 requests were received across all the Northern Ireland Government Departments. In over 77% of those cases, all the information requested has been released to the applicant. In 14% of cases, part of the information has been released to the applicant, and in 9% of cases, all of the information requested was withheld, using the appropriate exemptions.

Mr T Clarke: Does the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister have any plans to consider reform of FOI (Freedom of Information)?

The First Minister: There is no doubt that the evidence thus far already suggests that dealing with FOI requests takes up a considerable amount of staff time. On occasions, the requests are of a wide-ranging and detailed nature that requires many hours of research, and are sent in by lazy journalists, who will not do any work, but who think that we should pay them and give them the information that they want. That, inevitably, adds time and resource pressures onto the Departments.

If, in collating evidence on how the current procedures are working, the Departments discover that reform is needed — and I think they will — it will have to take place. The civil servants are not employed full-time to pursue the requests of enquiring minds. They are supposed to be serving the Departments that they are called upon to serve, and helping those who run those Departments.

Mr O’Loan: The First Minister may be aware that I have sent a freedom of information request to his colleague the Minister of the Environment asking for the opinion received from the Planning Service in relation to the private-sector application at the Giant’s Causeway. Will he use his close working relationship with the Minister to ensure that I get a reply?

May I also ask, given the publication of a letter written in 2003 in his name, signed on his behalf by Ian Paisley Jnr, now a junior Minister in OFMDFM, and carrying the reference IPJ, and given that that letter totally misrepresented UNESCO’s position in relation to development at the Giant’s Causeway, what confidence this Assembly and the public can have in the integrity of ministerial decision-making —

Mr Speaker: Order. I ask the Member to take his seat. That is the second occasion on which a Member has asked a question that does not relate in any way to the original question asked. I rule that totally out of order. I call the First Minister.

Mr O’Loan: It needs an answer.

Mr Speaker: I call Mr Gardiner for a supplementary question.

Mr Gardiner: Will the First Minister outline to the Assembly the cost to the taxpayer of a question for written answer from an Assembly Member, and in particular the cost of civil servants’ time and the various resources devoted to providing the answer?

The First Minister: All I can say is that it is the right of a Member to ask questions and it is the right of a Minister, if he so desires, to reply to them. We cannot tell Members that they cannot ask questions because they are costly. That is a matter for the Assembly, not for me.

North/South Bodies

7. Mr Weir asked the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister what action it is taking to review the work of the North/South bodies, as outlined in the St Andrews Agreement. (AQO 316/08)

The First Minister: At its plenary meeting on 17 July 2007 the North/South Ministerial Council agreed to take forward the review of the North/South implementation bodies and areas for co-operation, as provided for in annex A of the St Andrews Agreement.

The appointment of the advisory panel is under active consideration. Officials have now met to discuss the review, and preliminary work has commenced. It is anticipated that the intensive work will be undertaken from October to December, and that a final report will be made to the first North/South Ministerial Council plenary in 2008.

Mr Weir: I thank the First Minister for his reply. Will he confirm that the review group will examine the efficiency of the implementation bodies, and that any attempts to create new bodies will be subject to a vote in the House?

The First Minister: The answer to the Member’s question is yes. The House will have the final say.

Mr Gallagher: Does the First Minister agree that, in recent years, there has been a marked increase in co-operation on environmental issues through the development of recycling facilities and through tackling the dumping of illegal waste?

Does he agree that many other issues are crying out for a strong, all-island approach? Those include water quality, the protection of our marine environment and the protection of wildlife habitats. Will the First Minister tell the House whether, during the review, consideration will be given to the establishment of a North/South body on the environment?

The First Minister: The review will be undertaken by a review group, which will report to the NSMC. The review group includes senior officials drawn from the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, the Department of the Taoiseach, the Depart­ment of Foreign Affairs, the NSMC secretariat and an advisory panel of four experts, two nominated by the Northern Ireland Executive and two by the Irish Government. Those are the people to whom the honourable Member must direct his queries. He should provide them with the information that he wants them to study for their report.

Mr Elliott: I thank the First Minister for his answer. Does he concede that Assembly control of the North/South bodies was something that he spoke about a great deal before assuming office? Does he agree that any North/South parliamentary forum could lead to undue interference in the political affairs of Northern Ireland?

The First Minister: The Democratic Unionist Party, which I lead, always had strong views on that matter. We made those views known to the British Government and to the Southern Irish Government, and we are thankful that changes have been made. In no way will our representatives sell anyone out from the unionist side of the House at any of those meetings. We will keep our flag flying, and, as far as we are concerned, it will fly from the masthead. Others will do what they want, but the DUP will not be bribed or bludgeoned into any surrender of our unionist principles.


8. Mr Storey asked the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister what plans were in place to bring forward a new blueprint for the victims sector. (AQO 315/08)

The First Minister: The needs of victims and survivors are a high priority for OFMDFM and for the Executive as a whole. We intend to introduce a new strategy for victims. That strategy will direct available resources to the areas of greatest need. It will emphasise the importance of ensuring that what is done by all service providers makes a real difference to the lives of victims. In doing so, we will consider issues such as services and practical help for victims who are dealing with the legacy of the past and building a better future.

We will discuss our proposals with the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister before they are finalised. A key factor in the success of a new strategy will be the appointment of a Commissioner for Victims and Survivors who will play a central role in taking forward the strategy. I want also to add to that —

Mr Speaker: Time is up for questions to the First Minister and deputy First Minister.

3.00 pm

Agriculture and Rural Development

Foot-and-Mouth Disease

1. Mr McCarthy asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to give her assessment of the current threat of foot-and-mouth disease.       (AQO 386/08)

The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Develop­ment (Ms Gildernew): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. As I said in my statement to the Assembly on 1 October, in view of the strong suspicion of foot-and-mouth disease in England on 12 September, I took immediate precautionary steps to prohibit the import of animals and relevant products from Britain, to reintroduce biosecurity measures at local ports and airports, and to call for vigilance. Those measures remain in place. No further cases of foot-and-mouth disease have been confirmed in England since 30 September. Therefore, the number of confirmed cases of foot-and-mouth disease in Surrey since 3 August stands at eight.

By 14 September, my officials had carried out clinical inspections of all 75 consignments of cattle, goats, sheep and pigs that had been imported directly from Britain during the relaxation of the import ban between 23 August and its reinstatement on 12 September. All examinations were negative, which has given me some assurance that no disease has spread here. I reminded farmers of the importance of remaining vigilant by regularly — by that, I mean at least daily — inspecting their animals for symptoms of disease and reporting any suspicions immediately.

My officials and I continue to liaise closely with our counterparts in Britain and in the South to monitor and assess the situation. On the basis of our veterinary risk assessment, the movement of live susceptible animals from here to Scotland has gradually eased over the past few weeks for slaughter animals and for breeding and production animals. We will continue to work closely with the South to co-ordinate our actions in order to protect the whole island from foot-and-mouth disease.

Given our current controls and precautions, our veterinary assessment is that the risk of foot-and-mouth disease entering the North is considered to be low, and the most recent cases in Britain have not changed that assessment. I will keep the position under constant review, depending on developments in Britain, and will make any necessary changes in the existing preventative measures in response to any changes in the level of risk.

Mr McCarthy: I thank the Minister for her detailed response, and I congratulate her and her officials for the work that they have done in preventing the scourge from entering Northern Ireland. What steps will the Minister take to ensure that proper lessons are learned from this year’s outbreak across the water? Will those lessons be appropriate as we continue to face the threat of bluetongue or any other fatal disease that could threaten our agriculture industry?

Ms Gildernew: We reviewed our contingency plan for foot-and-mouth disease in August, on the back of the initial outbreak in England, and we have since reviewed it. That will be a live document, and we will continue to review and update it, as scientific evidence, etc, provides us with further information. We are on a constant learning curve.

It was important that we took the experience of the first outbreak in August and applied that when we imposed the bans in September. I imposed the bans before the disease was even confirmed, so we acted even more quickly than we had in August. We continually update our contingency plan, and that is the same for bluetongue and for any other epidemiological diseases. We want to try to keep on top of that as much as possible.

Mr Savage: Have the Northern Ireland food exporters experienced difficulties from any countries that may be confused over Northern Ireland’s regional status of being free from foot-and-mouth disease?

Ms Gildernew: I thank the Member for his supple­mentary question. There have not been as many difficulties in trading as there were in August, when, as Members know, we changed our certification require­ments. Restrictions were due to be lifted the day after the foot-and-mouth outbreak on 12 September. We have continued with the certification scheme and have had very few complaints from the industry.

We have asked farmers to contact us if they are having any problems, and we will do everything that we can to eradicate such problems. We have worked very closely with the farmers’ unions, exporters and the entire industry to maintain our trade with the rest of the world and to ensure that our farmers do not lose out financially because of the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in England.

I am happy to report that any recent problems have been fairly minimal and have been dealt with very quickly.

Mr T Clarke: What discussions has the Minister had with European Union officials on livestock move­ment restrictions between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom? How will any change in those restrictions affect Department of Agriculture and Rural Development’s (DARD) efforts to keep foot-and-mouth disease, as well as bluetongue, out of Northern Ireland?

Ms Gildernew: Officials are working with their European counterparts, and the Chief Veterinary Officer is in constant contact with officials in other EU member states and in DEFRA. We will continue to work at official levels. However, when the EU Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health makes a ruling, we cannot go beyond the confines of that. If SCoFCAH decides that we are free to trade again with Britain, I do not have the statutory power to prevent imports from coming into the country from England, Scotland or Wales.

I am bound by the statutory obligations of the Department, and by EU rules. I do not have any discretion to go further than the recommendations of SCoFCAH.

Rural Poverty

2. Ms Lo asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development what representations she had made to the Minister of Finance and Personnel in regard to the provision of funding to address rural poverty.                (AQO 390/08)

Ms Gildernew: I thank the Member for her question. My Department has submitted a significant number of bids for additional resources for tackling rural poverty to the Department of Finance and Personnel in the 2007 priorities and Budget exercise. That is for the period of 2008-09 to 2010-11. An integral part of those bids for funding is an element to deliver on my Depart­ment’s obligations under the anti-poverty and social exclusion strategy.

In order to tackle poverty and social exclusion in rural areas, I must ensure that the needs of rural communities are met by equitable access to public services and programmes and through activities that enhance economic opportunities while strengthening and enhancing social infrastructure. An example of that is the regeneration of former military sites into rural hubs where a range of services can be provided.

In addition, as part of the Northern Ireland Rural Development Programme (NIRDP), we will be targeting rural poverty by seeking to improve the competitiveness of the agriculture and forestry sectors through supporting restructuring, development and innovation, by improving the quality of life in rural areas and by encouraging diversification of economic activity. I hope that, by adopting that dual perspective, we will provide a synergistic approach to tackling disadvantage in terms of isolation, lack of facilities and quality of life. To that end, I had a meeting with the Minister of Finance and Personnel, Peter Robinson, on 19 September to discuss the bid that was submitted in the 2007 priorities and Budget exercise, in which specific reference was made to my Department’s bid for anti-poverty funding.

Ms Lo: I thank the Minister for her response and for her commitment to address rural poverty. The Minister mentioned the rural development programme. Will the Minister ensure that rural disadvantage is a key priority in the work of the new local action groups and in the rural development programme?

Ms Gildernew: Yes. We have had great experience of local action groups delivering rural development money over the last 17 years. We want to maintain that bottom-up approach, which I feel is the best way of delivering money on the ground. We are asking for councils to help deliver some of that through local administration, and so on. There will therefore be an enhanced role for councils in delivery of the programme. The local action groups will certainly be a key element in that work, and I see them as the strength of the success of the RDP in previous years.

Mr Kennedy: Is the Minister content that the roadshows planned for throughout Northern Ireland — which she announced on 27 September — to promote equality in the new rural development programme will be accessible by all areas of the Province, given that none is planned for County Armagh or for her own rural constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone?

Ms Gildernew: I will revisit that point. If there is any potential to expand the roadshows I will be more than happy to do so. I would like to see the public engaging with the roadshows and giving us some guidance, because I very much believe in working in partnership with the rural community. I ask MLAs and local councillors to engage with the roadshows to see how best we can tackle inequality through the rural development programme.

Mr Boylan: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Does the Minister agree that the purchase of the Forkhill barracks site in south Armagh could be of great benefit in targeting rural poverty, and will she advise the House of progress in any such initiative?

Ms Gildernew: Go raibh maith agat. Forkhill barracks is only one of several former military and PSNI sites being regenerated, and I believe that that will contribute towards combating social exclusion and poverty. My Department became involved with Forkhill after several approaches had been made to Ministers early in 2006 about the potential opportunities surrounding redundant military sites. As regards Forkhill, my Department is still negotiating, through the Valuation and Lands Agency, with the Ministry of Defence and the PSNI regarding the final purchase price.

I agree absolutely that the project will help to reduce significantly rural poverty and promote social inclusion in the area. It is intended that the site will be regenerated into a rural economic and social hub. It will provide a range of integrated services such as local enterprise units; light industrial units; community space; and childcare facilities; all of which have been identified as being much needed in the area.

Some social housing has also been provided for, and my Department is working with the Housing Executive on that aspect. Forkhill Development Company has developed a concept plan and business case, and those are with my Department for consideration.

Protected Regional Food Status

3. Mr Hamilton asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development what progress she had made in securing European Union protected regional food status for Comber potatoes, Strangford Lough oysters, and Portavogie prawns and scampi.     (AQO 308/08)

Ms Gildernew: Go raibh maith agat. I want to promote local produce whenever possible. Last week in the Long Gallery, I attended the launch of seafood week. My Department’s role is to publicise the EU protected food names scheme, encourage uptake, and progress applications, through DEFRA, to the EU Commission once they have been submitted by the industry.

At this stage, no applications have been received for Comber potatoes, Strangford Lough oysters or Portavogie prawns and scampi. However, I welcome applications from the producers of those products, which I, and no doubt many others here, have sampled.

My Department is happy to offer support and advice to groups that may wish to register products under the EU protected names scheme. We have liaised with Ards Borough Council, which is in the process of communicating with groups representing the products that the Member has identified.

Mr Hamilton: I welcome the Minister’s commitment to local produce. Would she would commit to engaging with local producers of Comber potatoes, Portavogie prawns and Strangford Lough oysters so that not only will those products be protected but that they will be enhanced and their full potential realised in the worldwide market?

Ms Gildernew: My Department has been proactive in promoting the scheme. We have consulted with producer groups from all sectors of the food industry and have provided specialist support through an experienced food-and-drinks marketing consultant to outline the benefits of the scheme, which includes the potential to link up with tourism initiatives for those visiting the North and those who are selling into markets that recognise the designation.

Mr McFarland: What are the Minister’s plans for bringing forward a positive case for the Northern Ireland fishing industry in negotiations at the EU Fisheries Council meeting in December 2007? Will she ensure that the facts are established, and robustly put, for the defence of the local fishing industry?

3.15 pm

Ms Gildernew: I congratulate the Member on his imaginative use of a supplementary question. Even though it is not directly related to the question, I will answer it. On Friday, I had a meeting with the devolved Scottish and Welsh Administrations, as well as Jonathan Shaw from DEFRA, in Peterhead in Scotland, about issues relating to the fishing industry and what needs to be done to protect it. In recent weeks, I have also met the processor and producer organisations. I will have further meetings in Brussels in October, and I am preparing a robust case for the December Fisheries Council meeting. While our fishing industry may be smaller than Scotland’s, for example, it is still an important part of our tradition and culture. I want to see our fishing industry protected, enhanced and sustainable well into the future.

Red Meat Task Force

4. Dr W McCrea asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to make a statement on the publication of the Red Meat Task Force report.        (AQO 325/08)

Ms Gildernew: I welcome the publication of the task force’s report, and I take this opportunity to thank the task force for its work in finalising a report on which all its members agree. While many of the conclusions and recommendations contained in the report make for difficult reading, it presents a more informed picture of the extent of the difficulties faced by producers. The report provides information that will enable farmers and others involved in the red meat supply chain to make more informed choices about the future of their businesses. We must take stock — collectively — to consider the recommendations and the ways forward.

My Department will respond positively to the report, and it is ready to work through it with the other key stakeholders. I have written to Dr McCrea in his role as Committee Chairman inviting views on the report, and I look forward to hearing interim views — tomorrow, I hope.

Dr W McCrea: As is clear from the findings in the red meat task force report, the returns to Northern Ireland’s beef and sheep industry at the farm gate are far from meeting the totality of cost. Can the Minister therefore inform the House what new practical or imaginative steps she will take to ensure the future stability of the industry? In light of the assessment that a significant increase the market price per kilo is necessary to give a proper economic return for the production of red meat, can the Minister inform the House what negotiations she or her Department have had with processors and retailers to assist in achieving that end?

Ms Gildernew: In my initial speech on coming into this Department, I said that I was keen to work with everybody involved in the supply chain, and that includes processors and retailers. Last week, I met Grampian Pork’s chief executive and members of his senior team, and I have met representatives from Foyle Meats. I have also had a recent meeting with Tesco, and I hope to meet Justin King from Sainsbury’s this week to discuss those issues. I will meet representatives from Asda on Friday.

I am conscious of the need to work with all the stakeholders in ensuring that primary producers get a better return. However, I do not have control over the price that is paid for produce. I will do everything in my power, but I cannot interfere with competitive issues, such as the retail price. The task force report states that the market is unlikely to deliver the significant pence-per-kilo increase that would be needed for our most efficient producers to break even. The report also makes it clear that the price that consumers pay does not reflect production costs for the quality beef and lamb produced in the North. I am doing all that I can, and I will continue to do so to encourage constructive relationships and dialogue across the supply chain. That will include working with retailers to ensure joint efforts in helping to address the challenges facing beef and lamb producers.

Mr Elliott: Considering the demoralising content of the Red Meat Industry Task Force report, will the Minister give consideration to the option of short-term direct financial assistance for the suckler cow farming enterprise?

Ms Gildernew: The task force report focuses on the economic viability of producing beef and lamb here. That does not translate to an immediate income crisis. The range of payments made to farmers through the single farm payment and other schemes are substantial, and they give us some space to take stock and to consider the way forward. My Department will assist in whatever way it can, but, as the task force report says, the current structure of our industry is not viable, and we need to secure change.

I will ensure that Government resources are focused and targeted on viable production options.

Mr P J Bradley: The Northern Ireland Red Meat Industry Task Force suggests that farmers should sell off their livestock; cut production; diversify; accept lower returns; or exit the business altogether. As the custodian of agriculture, does the Minister subscribe to that suggestion? If not, to what estimated timetable would she work to reinstate the red meat industry of Northern Ireland?

Ms Gildernew: Farmers certainly need to take stock, look closely at their own circumstances and come to the right decision for them and their families. However, I realise that there is an increasing decline in the number of producers, and we may need to look at alternative business opportunities and support for those producers.

I also have to keep wider environmental and social objectives under close review as we move forward on the report’s findings and recommendations. I will engage fully with all stakeholders in doing that.

Agricultural Careers

5. Mr Burnside asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development what measures her Department was taking to encourage young people to embark on an agricultural career.         (AQO 318/08)

Ms Gildernew: Young people entering the farming industry have a strong future and are vital for the prosperity of the industry and the rural community.

Through the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE), the Department offers programmes to equip young people with the knowledge and skills for successful careers, not only in farming, but in the equine sector, food processing, horticulture, floristry, land-based technology, veterinary nursing and related disciplines.

If they have not already done so, I recommend that Members visit the CAFRE campuses at Enniskillen, Greenmount or Loughry, where they will be impressed by the programmes that are being delivered. College staff are working closely with post-primary schools to promote careers in the industry and CAFRE programmes. Each year, schools receive a college prospectus, associated promotional material, school visits and briefings for careers teachers. College staff attend careers conventions and major industry events, and host open days for prospective students, parents and DEL careers advisers, while promotional adverts and articles are regularly published in the farming press.

Although CAFRE full-time courses have already commenced this year, places are still available on some part-time courses, such as the part-time NVQ programmes in agriculture that are provided by CAFRE at various locations throughout the North. I am keen to raise the profile of agriculture, food and the rural environment among young people, and I commend the work of CAFRE, Lantra and the CCEA in preparing a land-based occupational studies option for the 14- to 16-year-old age group in schools under the new entitlement framework.

As well as further and higher education programmes, CAFRE will be delivering agricultural training under DEL’s new Training for Success programme. I will ensure that our highly innovative and successful multi-skilling programme, which helps young people combine off-farm employment with part-time farming, can continue under the new framework. College staff are working with DEL and the regional colleges to secure that outcome.

I apologise that this answer is so long, but I wanted to give Members all the information. The new entrants’ scheme is still open to young farmers under 40 who possess adequate competence and who are setting up as head of a holding for the first time. The scheme provides an interest-rate subsidy on loans for eligible projects that add value and make a positive impact on the farming industry and the broader economy.

Mr Burnside: I thank the Minister for that almost comprehensive statement, but it was not quite comprehensive enough.

Will the Minister consider giving the new entrants’ scheme more flexibility in the head-of-holding requirement that currently has to be within one year — which excludes a number of applicants who may be head of holding for 15 months to two years?

With regard to the response that the Minister gave to my colleague Tom Elliott on the relationship between DARD and the Planning Service on viability criteria, it is her Department that recommends most of the criteria, but 50% are being turned down by the Planning Service. Therefore, there must be many applications for the holding criteria that are being turned down. Why is the Department doing that?

Ms Gildernew: First, my Department does not make the decision on planning permission. That is made by the Planning Service, which is under the auspices of the Minister of Environment.

Secondly, the Planning Service asked the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development for figures on viability. However, the decision is not made on that basis alone. If someone applies for planning permission and is turned down for ribbon development for lack of integration or for green-belt reasons, those are also the criteria for turning down an application. The Member’s figures do not point to the fact that the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development does not turn people down for planning permission: the Planning Service has the statutory obligation to look after planning.

Mr Burnside’s supplementary question was so long that I have forgotten the first part. Can he remind me of it?

Mr Burnside: It was about the head-of-holding requirement, which at present —

Mr Speaker: Order.

Ms Gildernew: I apologise. I have carefully examined the issue of head of holding. I have also asked young farmers’ clubs for their advice and have made several changes. I accept the fact that sometimes matters take a wee while to bed in. However, the Department has criteria to follow. It tries to get a resolution as early as possible, and it tries to get as many young farmers as possible into the new entrants’ scheme. However, it is not always easy in respect of the head of holding. I will do more to try to ensure that more young farmers get in. I am keen on the new entrants’ scheme, and I want to see as many people as possible taking it up.

Mr Shannon: In a way, the Minister has answered my supplementary question. The DUP has campaigned for the new entrants’ scheme for a long time, as have many others. To that end, has the Minister carried out any work to review the new entrants scheme in order to introduce tangible and practical recommendations for the future?

Ms Gildernew: I do not have the answer to that question as it relates to educational issues. However, I am happy to write to the Member with the relevant information.

Mr McGlone: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. The Minister has touched on the issue that I want to raise, which is farm viability. She was technically correct when she said that the ultimate decision rests with the Planning Service, but I am asking about cases in which there are no other planning criteria. Incidentally, the green belt has gone. Last week, we heard from the Minister’s party and her ministerial colleague Mr Murphy that the rural planning review group, set up by the Executive and chaired by him, had not met for three months. In light of the severely restrictive farm viability criteria —

Mr Speaker: Order. This is the third time that I have had to call for order. Members ought to know that a supplementary question must relate to the original question. On several occasions today, that has not been the case. Will the Member ask a supplementary question on the original question?

Mr McGlone: I am sorry, Mr Speaker. I will clarify. My point is that the original question referred to embarking on a career in agriculture. If people want a career in agriculture, where will they live? Will the Minister give an update on whether a review has been carried out on farm viability criteria for part-time farmers to ensure that they could embark on that part-time career and live beside their work?

Ms Gildernew: I am a member of the inter­departmental working group and I will examine that issue. I am opposed to PPS 14, and I am in favour of doing anything that can be done to allow farmers to live at their workplace. The interdepartmental working group will consider all the issues, and I will make my decision based on what is right for our young farmers.


6. Mr McCallister asked the Minister of Agri­culture and Rural Development, in light of the decision to dispose of the facilities at Crossnacreevy, to detail how she intends to maintain the work undertaken at the site.     (AQO 368/08)

Ms Gildernew: The relocation of the work programme at the plant testing station at Crossnacreevy will be progressed through a project led by the Agri-Food Biosciences Institute (AFBI) and DARD. During the initial stages of the project, the focus will be to specify the scientific and agricultural requirement of any new site. That will assist in identifying and evaluating options for the relocation of the ongoing services provided at the site, so that the work programme, and AFBI’s contractual commitments, are not prejudiced. It will also inform AFBI on decisions regarding its future estate strategy. Once a site has been agreed with my Department, a detailed timescale and implementation plan will be developed, which will involve the orderly transfer of the work programme, some of which will take over three years to effect.

That is due to the cyclical and long-term nature of the trials. During that time, the work programme will continue on the Crossnacreevy site, and decisions on its disposal and on the associated timetable will complement the relocation project. Key scientific staff will be closely involved throughout the process.

3.30 pm

Draft terms of reference and an outline business case for the relocation of the functions conducted at Crossnacreevy are being agreed with AFBI. Preliminary fact-finding work has been undertaken, and I assure Members that the greatest possible care will be taken to manage the relocation of that valuable work.

Mr Speaker: Time is up.

Culture, Arts and Leisure

Creative Arts and Culture

1. Mr Cree asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure what is his assessment of the role played by Creative Arts and Culture in strengthening the local economy and supporting regeneration; and what plans he has for encouraging such initiatives.   (AQO 371/08)

The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure (Mr Poots): Arts and culture play an important role in strengthening the local economy and supporting regeneration. In 2005, it was estimated that there are more than 2,500 creative enterprises in Northern Ireland, employing 34,600 people, and representing 4·7% of employment.

Cultural and creative industries and a thriving art scene act as catalysts for developing tourism, inward investment and enhancing the quality of life for all. Cultural tourism is growing faster than any other tourist segment, with an estimated 224,000 visitors a year to Northern Ireland engaging in cultural activities. Arts Council programmes, such as the art of regeneration and re-imaging communities, help to regenerate public spaces.

I aim to exploit the potential of culture and the arts to develop Northern Ireland as a world-class creative and cultural region that generates wealth and sustainable employment opportunities in the creative-industries sector.

The arts are the backbone of the creative industries, and I recognise that a public-funding deficit has accumulated in Northern Ireland over many years. I have called for an increase in funding for the arts in the comprehensive spending review; I am bidding for seed funding to help emerging businesses in the creative-industries sector, and I will continue to support Northern Ireland Screen to develop the film and television industry, which has gone from strength to strength in Northern Ireland.

My Department is investing more than £27 million to significantly enhance the arts infrastructure in Belfast and Londonderry, and I am bidding for additional capital funding from the investment strategy for Northern Ireland (ISNI 2).

DCAL will continue to work with colleagues in the Department of Education, the Department for Employ­ment and Learning, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and with Invest NI to promote the creativity agenda.

Mr Cree: I thank the Minister for that full and comprehensive response. Will he provide details of the funding provided to the creative arts and culture during the past three years and set out how that compares, on a per capita basis, with funding in other parts of the United Kingdom?

Mr Poots: I will provide the Member with a written breakdown of the funding over the past three years. The arts and creative industries employ 4·5% of the working population in Northern Ireland and 6·8% in the rest of the UK. We intend to meet that gap.

Mr McCausland: In view of the fact that the creative industries are the fastest growing sector in the British economy, what measures is the Minister taking to boost those industries in Northern Ireland?

Mr Poots: DCAL established a creativity seed fund in 2001 using Executive programme funds and distributed £2·8 million to 96 creative-learning and creative-industries projects between 2001 and 2004. That funding has now been terminated. However, there is still a gap in support. Many micro-businesses and small enterprises operating in that sector are too small to become Invest NI client companies. Many entrepreneurs in the sector require start-up finance, business-planning assistance, access to finance and help with product development and marketing. Therefore, the Department will be bidding for a further creativity seed fund in the 2007 comprehensive spending review.

Mr Durkan: I thank the Minister for his answer, which underlines the importance and potential of the creative-industries sector. Has he considered how his Department might work with Invest NI, and others, on bids and plans to support growth in that sector using new money from the innovation fund, arising from the representations made to the former Chancellor by all parties prior to devolution?

As some people seem to think that there are going to be difficulties in spending that money, the creative-industry sector could have come up with a sound platform for expenditure.

Mr Poots: We are happy to work with Invest Northern Ireland, and, indeed, with DETI in assisting them to spend the funding that comes from the innovation fund. Obviously, DETI has the lead role regarding the creative industries; we are involved in seed funding, particularly for the creative youth categories. Therefore, if the Chairman of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment is encouraging my Department to get some of that money, we would be happy to oblige.

Performing Arts Facility

2. Lord Morrow asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, given the high level of talent in Northern Ireland in the performing arts, what priority he has given to a dedicated performing arts facility for Northern Ireland.    (AQO 327/08)

Mr Poots: Rather than invest in one performing arts facility for Northern Ireland, it is the policy of my Department in conjunction with the Arts Council of Northern Ireland to support existing organisations to develop their infrastructure and performance facilities.

In addition to the £6·3 million already invested in the extension to the Grand Opera House, further funding has been committed for the following performing arts venues: the Lyric Players’ Theatre has been awarded a DCAL contribution of £6 million and £2·25 million from the Arts Council; the Old Museum Arts Centre will receive £4 million from DCAL and £4·25 from the Arts Council; the Crescent Arts Centre will receive £2·5 million from DCAL and £1·45 million from the Arts Council; the Ulster Hall will receive £2 million from DCAL and £687,000 from the Arts Council; the Waterside Theatre in Londonderry has received £777,000 from DCAL; the Playhouse Theatre has received £416,000 from DCAL and £1·1 million from the Arts Council; and An Gaeláras has received £363,000 from DCAL and £650,000 from the Arts Council.

That money will deliver a new Lyric Theatre on Ridgeway Street, a new metropolitan arts centre in St Anne’s Square in the Cathedral Quarter, and a refurbished and enhanced Ulster Hall and Crescent Arts Centre. In Londonderry, it will help to deliver a refurbished and enhanced Waterside Theatre and Playhouse Theatre, and a brand new Irish language centre and arts centre in Great James Street.

In addition to the Arts Council funding, Lottery capital grants provided funding to the following main regional venues: the Marketplace Theatre and Arts Centre in Armagh received £3·67 million; the Ballymena Arts Centre received £2 million; the Flowerfield Arts Centre in Coleraine received £1·38 million; the Burnavon Arts and Cultural Centre in Cookstown received £1·12 million; the Millennium Court Arts Centre in Craigavon received £1·09 million; the Island Arts Centre in Lisburn received £1·3 million; the Strule Arts Centre received £4 million and the Alley Arts and Conference Centre in Strabane received £758,000.

Lord Morrow: I thank the Minister for his detailed and comprehensive answer. If I lived in Londonderry or Belfast, I would be quite happy. However, I do not live in either. Does the Minister share my concern at the lack of funding and expenditure in places such as Fermanagh and South Tyrone, but also in rural Northern Ireland in general? Will the Minister give an assurance that his Department will consider funding for rural areas in Northern Ireland?

Mr Poots: Yes, I will. A number of regional councils have stepped up to the mark. For example, I believe that Omagh Council has spent somewhere close to £10 million developing the Strule Arts Centre, of which my Department has contributed £4 million. We contributed £758,000 to the Alley Arts and Conference Centre in Strabane to help to deliver a £4 million project.

From what I have read regarding venues in the Belfast City Council area, there is a substantial shortfall in the case of the Lyric Theatre, the Old Museum Arts Centre, the Crescent Arts Centre and others. It is not for my Department to pay for it all. Ultimately, if Belfast City Council does not step up to the mark, in the way that the regional councils have done, I am afraid that there is a risk of those projects being lost.

Mr McNarry: Will the Minister assure the House that the advent of a dedicated performing arts facility will ensure that all sections of society are equally encouraged to participate in its activities, and that it will make strenuous efforts to reach out in a spirit of inclusiveness?

Mr Poots: That is certainly my desire, and if there is any indication or evidence that that is not the case, those matters should be brought to my attention.

Mrs M Bradley: Has the Minister’s Department had discussions with universities to explore partnerships or synergies that could be developed between the performing arts in the academic, community, civic and commercial settings?

Mr Poots: My Department works closely with the Queen’s University of Belfast on the Belfast Festival at Queen’s to ensure the ongoing delivery of that festival, and is happy to work with universities in delivering arts projects.

Minority Ethnic Groups: Arts Funding

3. Ms Lo asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure to detail the funding given to minority ethnic groups by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland to fund arts events or projects.         (AQO 392/08)

Mr Poots: The funding provided for minority ethnic groups by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland in recent years is as follows: in 2005-06, the Mandarin Speakers Association received a grant of £10,000 and a grant of £134,930, which was spread over three years; the Chinese Welfare Association received £9,785; the Afro-Community Support Organisation of Northern Ireland received £5,150; the Belfast Travellers Support Group received £4,370; St Columb’s Park House received £8,394; Newtownards Road Women’s Group received £7,500; Live Music Now! Ireland received £8,200; Border Arts received £6,140; and the Indian Community Centre received £5,920. The Chinese Welfare Association received a further £5,550 in 2007-08.

Ms Lo: Those are all very small grants. In the past, ethnic minority groups have been marginalised in getting access to Arts Council grants. Will the Minister assure me that such groups will receive encouragement and support in accessing better public arts funding in future?

Mr Poots: In proportion to my Department’s budget, those are not small amounts. The Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure is one of the smaller Departments. A grant of £134,000 is a significant grant. Nonetheless, within the Arts Council, a dedicated officer works with ethnic and minority communities, and we will consider each application on the basis that it is made. Perhaps the reason for the lower amount in 2007-08 is that applications were not forthcoming; we cannot give grants if applications are not made.

Mr K Robinson: Does the Minister agree that the recent successful Belfast Mela 2007, held in the Botanic Gardens in Belfast and staged by ethnic groups resident in Northern Ireland, provides a useful model for cele­brating diverse cultures and aiding the process of integration? Will his Department undertake to work with its organisers to build on that event for future years?

Mr Poots: My Department is happy to work with those who bring forward proposals that meet the relevant criteria. I believe that that festival did so.

Mrs Hanna: Has the Minister considered the potential for the North’s growing ethnic minority community to contribute to social and cultural diversity and, in so doing, improve international relations?

Mr Poots: People from other countries bring fresh cultures to Northern Ireland, and that has been to the good. As I have said, the Department has a dedicated officer within the Arts Council of Northern Ireland who deals with people from ethnic communities and assists them in developing the arts infrastructure for those communities.

Irish League Football

4. Mr Spratt asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure what action he intends to take to improve the quality of stadia in Irish League football. (AQO 305/08)

10. Mr Elliott asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, in light of live screenings of Cliftonville Football Club versus Linfield Football Club on television, to outline his plans to encourage and promote television coverage of Irish League football.           (AQO 372/08)

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

Responsibility for improving the quality of stadia in Irish League football rests with the owners of the venues. However, Sport Northern Ireland, which is responsible for the development of sport, including the distribution of funding, runs a number of programmes to help owners of sport venues, including Irish League venues, to improve the quality of their stadia. These include a stadia safety programme and a soccer strategy playing facilities programme.

Responsibility for encouraging and promoting television coverage of Irish League football rests with the governing body of football in Northern Ireland, the Irish Football Association (IFA), and Irish League football clubs. Improving the visual coverage of football, including television coverage, is also one of the key recommendations of the soccer strategy initiative, which is being implemented by the IFA, with assistance from Sport Northern Ireland. In line with that recommendation, the IFA recently agreed a new four-year contract with Sky TV for televising major Northern Ireland matches.

That deal covers full international games, under-21 international games and Irish Premier League games. The live screening of the Cliftonville versus Linfield league game was the first match to be broadcast under this contract.

3.45 pm

Mr Spratt: Will the Minister agree that Irish League football is an improving product, evidenced by, as he has said, the recent Sky TV coverage of the Linfield versus Cliftonville game, and that the stadia and training facilities should similarly improve in order to further enhance the game in Northern Ireland? Furthermore, following speculation at the weekend about the future viability of Windsor Park, what support does Sport Northern Ireland contribute to improve the quality of Irish League stadia? In the light of the entry requirements, is there likely to be further support?

Mr Poots: Very few Irish League grounds meet UFEA standards, and, therefore, work must be done to improve spectator safety and comfort at their venues.

Under the programme, Sport Northern Ireland has already made offers of awards to five Irish League clubs — Ballymena United Football Club, Cliftonville Football Club, Crusaders Football Club, Donegal Celtic Football Club and Portadown Football Club, which are collectively worth approximately £3 million. Over the past two years, Sport NI has provided an additional £610,000 from the soccer strategy for improvements to Irish League grounds that were used for the staging of the UEFA under-19 football championship finals in 2005.

We will look at all bids as they come in, including bids from Linfield Football Club, if it wishes to make one.

Mr Elliot: I thank the Minister for his answer on the televising of Irish League matches. Has the Minister had any communication or contact with television companies regarding the contract or future coverage?

Mr Poots: Personally, I have not had contact with them as that is not my task. That is a matter between the Irish League and the television companies. I understand that the Irish League negotiated a successful contract with Sky TV to the tune of £10 million over four years, which will lead to a significant cash injection into local football.

Mr P J Bradley: Will the Minister provide his Department’s assessment of the value of the Setanta Cup in view of its increasing popularity? Will he encourage a Celtic cup competition to include participation of Welsh, Scottish and Irish teams, which would undoubtedly improve the quality of football and create greater revenue for spending on local stadia?

Mr Poots: The Setanta Cup has been a success story and has brought fresh money into Irish League football, and I look forward to the completion of negotiations for the Celtic cup and to the extension of the Setanta Cup competition to include clubs from Scotland and Wales, which will raise the quality of competition that exists in football in Northern Ireland.

Mr Kennedy: Will the proposed national stadium, whether located at the Maze or at any other venue, have other financial consequences for necessary improvements to Irish League stadiums?

Mr Poots: The IFA has made it clear that a maximum capacity of 14,000 is not enough for it to operate as it would wish. Therefore, it is imperative that it gets a larger stadium for its matches. If it does get a larger stadium, there will be more money to spread around Northern Ireland football in general. The IFA has made it clear that it needs a larger stadium, and if we choose to do up one stadium in Northern Ireland, it will lead to less money going to other clubs.

Gaelic Language Event: Mull and Iona

5. Mr Ross asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure to detail the total cost for the Gaelic language event held in Mull and Iona in Scotland; and the number of paying participants that attended the event.            (AQO 337/08)

Mr Poots: I assume that the Member refers to the Colmcille festival, Fèill Chaluim Chille, which was held in Mull, Iona and Oban between 8 and 10 June 2007. The total cost of the festival was £130,330 of which £64,469 was provided by Colmcille.

Colmcille receives one third of its overall funding from my Department. Its draft report on the festival states that 2,611 participants attended, several thousand visited the three ancillary exhibitions, and 252 attendees paid entry into the only ticketed event, which was a concert held at Torosay Castle on Mull. Ticket sales for the event raised £4,200.

Mr Ross: Given the significant cost of the event, the poor number of paying attendees and the fact that part of its funding comes from his Department, does the Minister believe that the festival was value for money? What plans does he have for Colmcille’s future operations?

Mr Poots: Consideration is being given to the transferral of Colmcille’s operations to Foras na Gaeilge. A judgement on whether the festival was value for money is one that Members may wish to make themselves on the basis of the information that they have heard.

Mr McClarty: Will the Minister give an assurance that similar Ulster-Scots, Ullans and Lallans and other events and projects to be held in Scotland will be given equal encouragement and funding from his Department?

Mr Poots: Its status means that the Ulster-Scots Agency cannot work outside the boundaries of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Therefore, the Ulster-Scots Agency could not hold such a festival in Scotland. That has been inherited from the first Administration, which the Member may know a little more about than I do.

Mr D Bradley: Ba mhaith liom a fhiafraí den Aire an bhfuil pleananna ar bith eile áit ar bith nascanna soisialta teangan agus cultúrtha a níomh idir teangacha dúchais na hÉireann, na hAlban agus na Breataine Bige. I congratulate the Minister on his excellent pronunciation. Can he outline whether his Department has plans to develop further the social, linguistic and cultural links among the various native languages in Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales?

Mr Poots: The Member will be aware that most speakers of Scots Gaelic are Scottish Presbyterians. The difference between what is going on in Northern Ireland and what is going on in Scotland is that the Gaelic language is not being politicised there. Some Members could improve that situation greatly if they were to take a more measured and considered approach to the matter.

2013 World Police and Fire Games

6. Mr Hilditch asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure to detail the support he is giving to assist with hosting the World Police and Fire Games in 2013.      (AQO 311/08)

Mr Poots: My Department was actively involved in the bidding process to secure the World Police and Fire Games for Belfast in 2013, and it continues to work closely with the organising committee on the preparation of a strategy to ensure that the games are delivered in accordance with the World Police and Fire Games Federation’s requirements and the procurement and accountability practices of all stakeholders.

Mr Hilditch: I am sure that the Minister will agree that hosting the games will be an excellent sporting success for Northern Ireland, with an expected 25,000 visitors to the greater Belfast area. What economic benefits are the games expected to bring to Northern Ireland?

Mr Poots: The value of hosting that event cannot be overestimated. The total economic benefit of the games to Northern Ireland is predicted to be £19·293 million, which will come primarily from visitors from outside Northern Ireland. An economic-impact-ratio calculation in the draft strategic outline business case showed a projected return of £6·38 for every £1 of public-sector investment. That is a significant return on investment when compared to that of other major events.

Moreover, significant media coverage of the games is delivered around the world. Based on previous games, it is anticipated that the 2013 World Police and Fire Games will generate more than £500,000 from international television coverage, primarily in Northern Ireland’s key markets, which are the United States, Canada and Europe.

Mr Burns: Does the Minister’s Department support the first ever all-island emergency service games that were held in Dublin at the weekend? Will he support the staging of those games in Northern Ireland in 2008?

Mr Poots: No one has ever before brought that matter to my attention, or lobbied on it. Everything will be given due consideration if it is brought to my attention.

Mr Elliott: Will the Minister inform the House of what other major sporting or cultural events he has secured for, or is hoping to attract to, Northern Ireland during the five-year period of 2008-12?

Mr Poots: Among those events that are being bid for are football matches in the 2012 Olympic Games. We are also considering UEFA events for the under-21s, which would be held in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Aside from those events, we have bid for the World Transplant Games, and a series of bids for significant sporting events has been launched by the Northern Ireland Events Company. The World Police and Fire Games is the second-largest world sporting event, after the Olympics. That is why I said — at the outset — that the benefits that that event could bring to Northern Ireland’s community cannot be overestimated.

The Northern Ireland Strategy for Sport  and Physical Recreation 2007-17

7. Mr McElduff asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure to give a timescale within which he will bring the draft consultation on the Northern Ireland Strategy for Sport and Physical Recreation 2007-2017 before the Executive.            (AQO 356/08)

Mr Poots: The responses to the draft Northern Ireland strategy for sport and physical recreation 2007-17 were submitted to the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure for consideration in June 2007. The Committee was also briefed on the context of the document by DCAL and Sport Northern Ireland officials at its meeting of 28 June 2007. Since then, I have circulated the draft document to Ministers, who discussed it at the meeting of the Northern Ireland Executive on 27 September 2007. At that meeting, Ministers agreed to my recommendation that the draft strategy should be published for consultation. I plan to make a statement to the Assembly on that matter on 9 October 2007.

Mr McElduff: What level and extent of consultation has there been with the governing bodies of sport, such as the GAA, Cumann Lúthchleas Gael, the IFA and the Ulster branch of the Irish Rugby Football Union, in relation to the strategy? Also, could the Minister explain why, earlier today, he refused my request — as Chairperson of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure — that a copy of the statement that he will make to the House tomorrow be made available this afternoon? Instead, I received a fax at 1.30 pm that stated that a statement would be made tomorrow, and that I should wait until then. I was a bit put out by that.

Mr Poots: All good things come to those who wait. There has been extensive consultation with stakeholders throughout the process. In developing the strategy, DCAL and Sport Northern Ireland have worked closely with other Departments, including the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety; the Department for Social Development and the Department of Education.

In addition to that, and prior to beginning to work on the strategy, there were extensive independent consultations with key stakeholders, including district councils, the voluntary sector, the sports governing bodies, clubs, athletes, business interests, community and rural interests, and the wider public. The purpose of those consultations was to gather views on the issues facing sport in Northern Ireland, and how those could best be reflected in the new strategy.

It is normal protocol for ministerial statements to go out at the time of the statement being made. The Speaker has been furnished with the statement already.

Lord Browne: I welcome the fact that, after two years, the draft Northern Ireland strategy for sport and physical recreation 2007-17 will be made available for consultation. It is a comprehensive and ambitious document. I ask the Minister whether sufficient funding will be made available to deliver the much-needed strategy contained in the document?

Mr Poots: That is certainly a challenge. If we deliver a strategy on that scale, which embraces all aspects of sport in Northern Ireland, there must be a genuine partnership approach to funding among all stakeholders. I am keen to do whatever I can to support the strategy’s delivery and, for that reason, it forms a major part of my bid under the comprehensive spending review. I await the outcome of that process. However, all bids are subject to the normal budgetary processes.

Ulster-Scots Academy

8. Mrs Long asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure to outline the process his Department will use to consider proposals for an Ulster-Scots academy.        (AQO 391/08)

Mr Poots: The public consultation on proposals on for an Ulster-Scots academy closed on 24 September 2007, in accordance with the guidance contained in OFMDFM’s ‘A Practical Guide to Policy Making in Northern Ireland’. The Ulster-Scots academy implementation group will now undertake an analysis of the consultation responses and reappraisal of the options. I expect the implementation group to present me with a revised set of proposals, and I will then take a decision on which recommendations should be implemented. My decision will, of course, be subject to engagement with the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure and my Executive colleagues.

4.00 pm

Mrs Long: Can the Minister provide an assurance that, as a minimum, the Department would require a full business proposal, including a budget and clarification of auditing, accounting and recruitment processes, before embarking on the academy?

Mr Poots: That would always be the case.

Assembly Business

Mr K Robinson: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Before we move on to the next item of business, can I draw your attention to the ‘Northern Ireland Assembly Companion: Rulings, Convention and Practice’, in which a previous Speaker, the then Initial Presiding Officer, outlined the protocol for the use of languages other than English in the Chamber. He felt that, as a courtesy to other Members, a Member who chooses to speak in another language should give a full translation of what has been said.

During Question Time, a Member prefaced his remarks in what I believe was Irish. He then transferred some of his thoughts into English. Mr Speaker, can you assure the House that he complied with the guidance that the previous Speaker gave, and did you take steps to check that? I believe that you have at your disposal a device that allows you to hear a simultaneous translation. I raise this issue just in case another language is used in the next 15 minutes.

Mr McElduff: Further to that point or order, Mr Speaker. Will the a Cheann Comhairle perhaps extend the simultaneous translation system, the Córas aistriúchaín, to all 108 Members, so that Members can make up their own minds whether Standing Orders are being adhered to? Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Keep her lit.

[Mr K Robinson rose.]

Mr Speaker: Order. I ask the Member to take his seat.

Standing Orders are quite clear. Members can speak in whatever language they choose in the House, but, as a courtesy, they should then translate their comments into English.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Mr Speaker: That is the issue. Let me make that absolutely clear.

Mr D Bradley: Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker In light of the previous comments, I want to assure the House that I provided a full and faithful translation of everything that I said, at no extra charge to the House.

[Mr K Robinson rose.]

Mr Speaker: With the greatest respect, I ask the Member to take his seat. This debate is now over. The last point of order moved away from the original point of order. I do not want to repeat myself, but Members ought to know the procedures in the House with regard to Standing Orders and speaking in another language.

Private Notice Question

Strike Action by Classroom Assistants

Mr Speaker: I have received a private notice question, in accordance with Standing Order 20, for the Minister of Education.

Mrs Long asked the Minister of Education, given that the continuation of strike action by classroom assistants has resulted in the closure of special schools, what arrangements are being, or have been, put in place for children with special needs who access specialist therapy, such as physiotherapy, occupational therapy, speech and language therapy, through their respective schools.

The Minister of Education (Ms Ruane): Two weeks ago, I advised the Assembly that I had undertaken to intervene in this matter with three objectives in mind. The first objective was to ensure that the interests of the children, classroom assistants and parents are paramount. The second objective was to ensure that the employers pay those staff the money that they deserve and for which they have already been waiting too long. The third objective was to facilitate the discussions between the management and the unions so that the outstanding issues can be resolved.

Nuair a phléigh muid an t-ábhar seo ar 19 Meitheamh, ghlac mé leis go raibh an scéal ag dul ar aghaidh ar feadh ró-fhada agus gá é a réiteach. Rinne mé amach labhairt leis na boird agus leis na ceardchumainn faoin ábhar.

When we debated the issue of classroom assistants on 19 June 2007, I accepted that the dispute had gone on for far too long. I undertook to speak to the education and library boards and the trade unions to urge them to resolve the dispute. It is my priority to ensure that classroom assistants receive promptly the money that they are due, and to do all I can to prevent the disruption of the affected children’s education.

I have made it clear that I want an agreement, and I continue to do everything in my power to ensure that outcome. There are established channels through which the issues are to be resolved; I have always made it clear that parallel talks would be totally counter-productive. Any imposed solution would be a contradiction in terms. I am determined to see an agreed settlement.

Ba mhaith liom a chur in iúl, arís eile, go bhfuil an-mheas agam ar chúntóirí ranga agus an obair a dhéanann said. Tuigim go bhfuil litir oscailte eisithe ag an Taobh Bainistíochta ag míniú go mion téarmaí na tairsceana. Mholfainn do gach duine machnamh ceart a dhéanamh ar an tairiscint. [Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order.

Mr Burnside: On a point of order. This is terribly important for the fair conduct of business in the House. Mr Speaker, do you or your clerical assistants have a full, educated understanding of the Gaelic language? If you do not, how can you rule that contributors are in order?

Mr Speaker: Order. The Member must take his seat. That is not an appropriate point of order.

Ms Ruane: Ó rinneadh tairiscint níos fearr a mholadh ar an 29 Meán Fómhair chuirfinnn ceist orthu siúd a bhfuil baint acu leis an ghníomhaíocht tionsclaíoch gan aon aicsean a dhéanamh a chuireann ualach an aighnis ar na páistí agus ar na teaghlaigh is mó a bhfuil cuidiú de dhíth orthu.

As a result of my intervention in this matter a revised offer was tabled by the management side, and all sides have described the result as representing substantial progress. I understand that three of the four unions involved in the collective negotiation process, and which are not taking industrial action, are currently consulting with their members about the full terms of the proposed offer. I am glad that those unions are giving the offer the consideration it deserves. It is important that that consultation process is completed before the unions meet again with the management side.

I reiterate that I have the utmost respect for class­room assistants and the job that they do. I am aware that the management side has issued an open letter to all classroom assistants, explaining in detail the full terms of the offer. I urge everyone to give the offer their full consideration. I am aware that, from today, a number of the unions intend to hold a series of meetings to explain the details of the offer, and have provided their members with a question-and-answer document, as they are concerned to ensure that classroom assistants are in receipt of the maximum amount of information.

The particular focus of Mrs Long’s private notice question is the position of children with special educational needs, and in particular, those in need of specialised therapies. The most effective way of addressing that will be to bring an end to the dispute. Once again, therefore, I ask all classroom assistants to carefully consider the offer.

My Department has sought information from each of the education and library boards as to the contingency measures for that particular group of pupils. They have advised us that the paramount consideration in this situation is the safety in the classroom of children with special educational needs. Where an assessment of risk carried out by the special school determines that a child’s safety cannot be assured, that child’s attendance is deemed inappropriate. Education and library boards will ask schools to undertake an assessment of risk in order to determine the application of uniform criteria for the admission of children to individual schools.

I have also noticed that some misinformation exists in the Chamber. Let me be helpful, and give Members a brief idea of what the revised offer actually means. As a result of the additional £15 million, every classroom assistant will receive a one-off payment that can be £1,613 or £2,478, depending on length of service. That offer recognises a movement from the historical terms and conditions of service. Up to 50% of classroom assistants will receive job evaluation arrears amounting to around £25·2 million. Classroom assistants in special schools will receive the highest payment for job evaluation arrears, which could be up to £20,000 each. As I announced last week, there will be a review of support staff in schools which will consider such issues as qualifications and career development for classroom assistants.

No classroom assistant will lose any pay. No class­room assistant will be forced to increase their hours, and there will be no cut in hours. There will be full salary and pension-protection arrangements. Those classroom assistants who were on protected salaries will continue to receive salary increases on elements of their salary. Therefore, nobody will be worse off. Many will receive considerable back pay in arrears, and every classroom assistant will gain from the £15 million that is designated for the movement from historical terms and conditions.

Whatever people’s views on the wider issues, there can be no denying that the offer is substantial. It recognises the important role that classroom assistants play as staff, while taking account of the cost implications for the rest of the education budget. As I said earlier, the unions that are not taking industrial action are currently consulting their members about the full terms of the revised offer, and it is important that that process be completed. The continued disruption to our children’s education is not the way forward. I remain hopeful that the revised offer can lead to a fair and equitable settlement being reached in the near future. I assure the House that I will continue to do everything that is in my power to bring about a resolution to the issue.

In light of the improved offer that was made on 28 September, I call on those who are engaged in industrial action to desist from any activity that places the burden of the disagreement on those children and families that most need help. Go raibh maith agat faoi do cheist.

The education of our children must be paramount, and I implore all those who are involved to do what is needed to prevent further disruption.

Mr B McCrea: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Is it in order for the Minister to have given an all-encompassing answer and strayed off the point of the question?

Mr Speaker: Order. I am not in control of how a Minister answers questions. I wish that I were sometimes, but, unfortunately, I am not.

Mrs Long: I thank the Minister for providing such a comprehensive answer to what was a different question about the general progress of the dispute. More specifically, I am concerned about those who need paramedical therapies, which are normally provided through the school. Therefore, will the Minister explain what, if any, liaison there has been between her and the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety or between the respective boards and trusts regarding interim provision of specialist paramedical therapies during the current dispute? Will she advise to whom parents should refer for advice? Currently, when parents approach the trust, school or board, they are referred to someone else in that triangle. It is important that parents know to whom they should speak about the issue.

Ms Ruane: First, the dispute must be resolved, and I thank Naomi Long for her interest in the matter. It has been a difficult time for the parents and the children. We must ensure that our children get the best possible education and that all their needs are attended to.

The boards have asked all schools to carry out a risk assessment for the children who need paramedical therapies, and I am waiting for the details of that. My departmental officials are in consultation with the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. My priority remains the health and safety of the children and resolving the dispute.

Parents who are concerned about the provision of paramedical therapies should contact the schools and the boards.

The Chairperson of the Committee for Education (Mr S Wilson): The Minister has outlined the current position on the dispute, but we are none the wiser about her role. Does the Minister agree that on 19 June, the matter was raised in the Assembly and she promised that she would take immediate action? On 24 September, it was raised again, and she promised then that there would be immediate action.

Last Friday, on the eve of an all-out strike, the Minister took herself off to Drumcondra to talk about promoting oral Irish in English-medium schools, rather than addressing the issue that was most prevalent back here at home, namely those children.

4.15 pm

Since 19 June, Members have been asking the question that Naomi Long has asked again today, which is whether the Department of Education has a contingency plan if the dispute ever ends up in a strike. Although the youngsters are not likely to find the school doors open tomorrow, all we are told today is that parents should contact the boards or the trusts. Does the Minister really believe that that is how the general public, the parents, the principals and the classroom assistants expect her to deal with what has now become a crisis situation? Thirty special schools will be closed tomorrow, and the most vulnerable youngsters will be left on the street without the kind of backup care that, in some cases, they need for their physical attention, let alone their educational attention.

Ms Ruane: Go raibh maith agat. First, I was in Drumcondra meeting the Minister for Education and Science in the South of Ireland, Mary Hanafin. North/South interventions between Mary Hanafin and me are important, and developing North/South links is a priority for me. I trust — [Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order.

Ms Ruane: One of the joint actions that Mary Hanafin and I are working on is looking at the issue of special needs, and ways in which we can co-operate. We are co-operating substantially on the Middletown centre for autism, which will be a world-class centre of excellence. Therefore, I hope that people will not play politics with this issue. It is important that we continue our North/South links. I pledge to the people of the North of Ireland that I take my North/South statutory duties very seriously.

Mrs Long: Will the Member give way?

Ms Ruane: No, I want to answer the question.

Secondly, the classroom assistants’ dispute is 12 years old. When I came into office, I said that the matter must be resolved and that I would intervene to ensure that there would be a fair and equitable settlement. My priority has been, and remains, ensuring that classroom assistants receive promptly the money that they are due, and doing all that I can to prevent anything from adversely disrupting the education of the children affected. I trust that everyone in the House will work with me on that. I have made it clear time and time again that I want an agreement to be reached, and I continue to do everything in my power to ensure that that is the outcome.

Following the previous debate on the dispute, I asked employers and unions to resume their talks, and they did so that same evening. I also asked employers to act as swiftly as possible to get the long-overdue payments into the hands of their staff. Today, I issued a statement calling on all classroom assistants to give full consideration to the offer that has been outlined. This offer is a substantial improvement, and I ask all classroom assistants to read it carefully. I am aware that many classroom assistants from various unions have contacted the boards and their trade unions to get detailed information. I have also called on those who are engaged in industrial action to desist from any action that places the burden of the disagreement on the children and families who most need help.

This is a 12-year-old dispute. It must be resolved, and I believe that it can be resolved. Three of the four unions are currently consulting. That is part of the process, but we must wait and listen to what the classroom assistants say about the offer.

Mr Storey: Will the Member give way?

Ms Ruane: No, I will not give way.

We also need to put in place health and safety assessments of every child for whom we are responsible, and we are doing that. My officials are in discussions with the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to ensure that health and safety arrangements for our children are in place. Go raibh maith agat.

Private Members’ Business

Crisis in Burma

Debate resumed on motion:

That this Assembly views with the deepest concern the unfolding events in Burma; salutes the courage of the Burmese people in challenging the oppressive, corrupt and illegitimate military junta that has ruled Burma for decades and which has brought misery to the country and lives of its people; declares its support for Burma’s democratic leaders, in particular the imprisoned Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy, and calls for her immediate release; supports the call of the Prime Minister for the most extensive range of sanctions possible against the regime, under the auspices of the United Nations; and further calls on the British, Irish and other European Union governments to take all necessary action to help topple this despicable regime. — [Mrs Hanna.]

Mr P Maskey: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. In recognising that sanctions can have a positive influence, one must also be aware that sanctions may hurt the poor — not the regime leaders. One has only to look at the situation in Iraq, where United Nations sanctions have killed between 500,000 and 1 million young people and children due to the lack of medicines. Sanctions must be directed against the military, rather than the people, and they must be imposed by non-violent and non-military interventions. The motion does not state that, and that is why Sinn Féin will abstain.

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

Sinn Féin strongly condemns the oppressive regime of the ruling military junta, which, during its 40-year rule, has driven the Burmese economy into the ground and held its people hostage. The unrelenting violence by the state against its people over the past few weeks has left an unknown number of people dead and injured. That is unacceptable and must be tackled by the international community. Everyone has seen the horrendous scenes from Myanmar on their television screens.

There has been an escalation in mass peaceful protest nationwide since 21 September 2007, and those have been met by force. There is a need for a co-ordinated and prompt international response. We have had our experience of state violence, not least when 14 civilians who were protesting for their civil liberties — and ours — were murdered by the British Army on the streets of Derry.

Buddhist monks, clergy and ordinary people have taken to the streets in protest against the Government, calling for the release of political prisoners and for national reconciliation. The Government of Myanmar and their military, security and police forces have a well-documented record of serious human-rights violations that the United Nations has described as “widespread and systematic”. Excluding recent arrests and imprisonments, more than 1,160 political prisoners are held in prison, and most senior members of the opposition parties continue to be detained.

State abuses include extrajudicial killings and torture, and the routine suppression of opposition politicians. On the evening of 25 September 2007, the authorities introduced a 60-day curfew between 9.00 pm and 5.00 am. The heavy military presence and the mass arrests have led to an increase in the already intense climate of fear. There are many reports of brutal beatings, killings and disappearances. The Myanmar/Burmese military has raided monasteries and attacked peaceful protesters. The authorities have acknowledged 10 deaths; however, it is feared that the actual number is much higher.

The demonstrations were sparked by rises in fuel prices, and recent research from Save the Children identified that almost 50% of families in rural areas cannot afford a basic healthy diet for their children. However, increases in fuel prices represent only a part of a much bigger problem for local people. Myanmar is a rich country: it is the world’s largest exporter of teak, and it has deposits of jade, pearls, rubies, sapphires and off-shore oil and gas. There is an arms embargo in place, but it is being flouted by the Chinese, Indian, Russian, Serbian and Ukraine Governments in particular. Loopholes in the European Union legislation mean that arms, weapons and components manufactured in the European Union are finding their way into the weapons systems that are being sold to the Burmese regime.

Save the Children has been working in Myanmar for 12 years. Its representatives say that the agencies working there face some operational constraints from the regime. The key problems identified by Save the Children are severe underinvestment in basic services and huge poverty. Children in Myanmar are facing some of the worst poverty in Asia. More than 130,000 children under the age of five die every year — one third are underweight, and hunger contributes to half of those deaths. Less than half of the children complete five years of school. Myanmar is one of the few places in the world where children are likely to have worse health and education outcomes than their parents.

Child trafficking — particularly across the eastern border — has also been identified as a big problem, with many children involved in prostitution or child labour. The international community has, in many ways, abandoned Burma. International assistance is less than $2.50 per person per year, and that is one of the lowest figures in the world. That is why we need an international approach that avoids further bloodshed and which supports and leads to inclusive political dialogue. Regardless of the political outcome, there is an obligation to address the dire humanitarian situation for children.

The international community needs to increase its assistance to aid agencies and its efforts to improve the human rights situation in Burma. A LeasCheann Comhairle, go raibh maith agat.

Lord Browne: I agree with the declaration of support for democratic forces in Burma as set out in the motion. I am sure that all Members earnestly hope that the oppressive, undemocratic rule of the military junta in Burma will soon be brought to an end.

I also join with other Members in the Chamber in saluting the courage and determination of Aung San Suu Kyi, whose steadfast support for civil and religious liberty has been an uplifting example for freedom-loving people throughout the world.

It is essential that the United Nations should speak with one voice in making clear to the regime that its actions in suppressing legitimate dissent are completely unacceptable to the international community.

However, I have some concerns about the wording of the motion. First, calling for the most extensive range of sanctions possible to be introduced against the regime might well result in great hardship for the ordinary people because the Burmese economy is already in a powerless state and the military junta might be well able to protect itself. It could lead to further political instability, which would further impede the restoration of democracy.

Secondly, I am also concerned about the call for the British, Irish and other EU Governments to take all necessary action to topple the regime, which is a little too broad. As the motion stands, military action by those countries would not necessarily be ruled out, and I am sure that all Members would agree that military action would be misguided and would be contrary to international law. In any case, action taken against the regime should be under the auspices of the United Nations and should not be undertaken by individual Governments, or groupings, acting independently.

I am old enough to remember the campaign against the communist Afghan Government of Najibollah and its Russian backers, which led to the boycott of the Olympic Games in 1980 by the United States and other countries. That campaign was followed by a long period of western military support for the Islamic mujahedin fighters, who eventually achieved power, and as we know, set up what might be described as the wicked Taliban dictatorship. Care must be taken when seeking to undermine one Government and replace it with another, and care should be taken now.

A free and democratic society is a priceless asset; and I am sure that no one would disagree with that or the fact that the Burmese people do not deserve anything less. It is important that western countries think carefully about the best way to achieve that, rather than precipitating a knee-jerk response. However, there is great merit in the motion in front of the House today, and I support it.

Mr Burnside: I agree with Lord Browne’s sentiments. I also express my concern at the wording of the motion, which is open ended and threatening and is not the right language to use to have this dealt with through the United Nations. Topple a military regime and one will not end up with a democratic regime the next morning.

Pressure needs to be brought to bear through the United Nations, especially on the two superpowers; China, which is still not democratic and free, but is a totalitarian, capitalist regime, and the Indian Government, which can also exert great influence. In international affairs, there comes a time when the mood is right for change, and the mood is right in Burma. A devolved Assembly such as ours can only express opinions, but our voice should be added to the United Nations international community action.

4.30 pm

Sanctions should be brought against Burma and consideration given to putting pressure on China over the Olympics, but I would warn that that could be a double-edged sword: one does not know where to start or where to end when taking action and interfering in politics. Every international soccer tournament and athletics event could be non-existent in six months’ time if the political structure of all those countries involved were not supported. I am worried about international boycotts.

However, Burma may be a special case. China is suffering as a result of its own international image. Although it was some years ago, the image of the student in Tiananmen Square is still in our minds. The television pictures that we have seen from Burma recently have stirred the same emotions and international outrage. We should, without forcing the Chinese to lose face, put pressure on them. When dealing with the Chinese, it is important that they are not seen to lose face. China, which is slowly evolving, wants and needs the Olympic Games, so it could help to bring about the sort of change that we all want to see in Burma.

We should admire the individual courage of those who go out and stand in front of tanks: they are very brave people. I support the motion, while sounding one note of caution. I feel that the language used at the end of the motion is rather extreme. We should apply international pressure through the United Nations. I support the sentiments of most Members: what is happening in Burma is unacceptable and the military regime must be replaced with a better and fairer form of Government for the depressed and oppressed people of Burma.

Mr A Maginness: I thank my colleague Mrs Hanna for tabling the motion. She does a great service to the House and to the struggle of the Burmese people for liberation from their military rulers.

I have a couple of points that I hope do not repeat the other Members’ contributions. The context in which to place the current situation is in the wake of the 1988 suppression of the Burmese people when they stood up to their military dictatorship. Many people in the West and in other parts of the world regret the fact that more pressure was not applied at that time to those people who have pillaged the country. It is not simply a dictatorship but a kleptocracy, in which the generals and their minions exploit the exchequer and the riches of Burma for their own ends. It is not simply a nasty military regime but a regime whose members are enriching themselves and are totally self-interested.

It is not usual for me to agree with anything that Mr Burnside says, but he has made very pertinent points today about the Chinese. It is very important that pressure be put on China. It is a big international power that is approaching superpower status. It is right and proper that any legitimate pressure should be put on it to intervene peacefully and to use its good offices and its tremendous influence — both political and economic — on that particularly ghastly regime. If any country in the world can do that, it is China. Therefore, we in the West and other countries must exercise legitimate pressure on China. The people who belong to that regime are clearly so self-interested and so self-sustaining when it comes to their military power that it would be very difficult for Western countries to exercise the necessary pressure to change their minds.

I emphasis the point made by Ibrahim Gambari, the special envoy of the United Nations Secretary-General, who said that the purpose of his visit, and the common purpose of us all, must be to achieve dialogue between the legitimate opposition to the regime and the regime itself.

After his meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi, he believed that there was a window of opportunity to create a dialogue between the regime and the opposition, and that it was important to encourage that, in a spirit of national reconciliation. The Assembly must also encourage that. The motion does not, in any way, suggest any form of military intervention. Rather, it suggests that non-military pressure should be applied. The United Nations Charter states that, other than in self-defence, only the Security Council can authorise the use of force. Neither the former nor the latter currently applies.

Unfortunately, the Burmese military regime enjoys the consequences of a culture of impunity, as do other military regimes and dictatorships that extensively and systematically abuse human rights. Members must help to undermine that culture of impunity by supporting the United Nations and in particular High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour. We must send a strong message to those people in the Burmese military regime. Remember Milosevic, Saddam Hussein and Pinochet. Throughout the world, there must no longer be a culture of impunity.

Mr S Wilson: I congratulate the Member for South Belfast Carmel Hanna on securing the debate, which is good for several reasons. Although it is not within the Assembly’s remit to do anything, I welcome the happy participation of Sinn Féin, which complained last week about the tabling of motions that do not fall within the Assembly’s remit. Secondly, it is incumbent on Members, and a sign of how politics have developed in Northern Ireland, to consider issues that lie further afield, rather than engaging in a form of introspection in which we only considered our own problems.

Before I address the substance of the motion, I wish to mention an earlier Sinn Féin comment about Northern Ireland’s part in supporting the Burmese regime. A scurrilous allegation was made in which several Northern Ireland firms were named as — possibly — having supplied parts for planes, which might eventually have found their way into Burma. Firms were named that provide local jobs. Of course, in the past, Sinn Féin had no worries about importing arms from other dictatorial regimes in order to engage in human-rights abuses — so it is a bit rich for Sinn Féin to get weepy now.

On the substance of the motion, the UN’s involvement has been mentioned. Even amid the storm of events in Burma, when the UN debated the use of sanctions on 27 September, China and Russia used their vetoes. The UN cannot be relied on too heavily. Sanctions would tend to hurt the people of Burma as much as, or more than, the leaders of the country.

It is significant that the gap created by American-imposed sanctions was quickly filled by Burma’s neighbours — the Association of Southeast Asian Nations — which felt that Burma was better in than out, and that it would learn that, by behaving properly, it would experience high economic growth. That did not work.

Of course, attacking the aid budget will hit only the poorest in that society.

There are a number of pressure points that should be examined. Alban Maginness made the point that the people who perpetrate the abuse must know that whatever action is taken will hurt them personally. If there is change in the future, they need to know that there will be nowhere for them to hide. The first point of pressure should be to ensure that the assets of the leaders of that military junta cannot be hidden and squirrelled abroad, so that when things go pear-shaped and they have to leave, they cannot go and live a life of luxury. They also need to know that once they leave the borders of Burma, they will be hunted down and held responsible for the abuses that they have carried out.

The second point of pressure is China. In dealing with China, we have to be careful. China, of course, has got a vested interest. It is involved in 17 oil and gas projects and a 1,500 mile pipeline to transfer oil. It has military bases on the Indian Ocean. That is all as a result of co-operation with Burma.

There are, however, a couple of pressure points that must be examined regarding China. First of all, the instability in Burma could not be helpful to the Chinese economy. It does not want an unstable neighbour, and the longer it supports the military junta, the more instability there will be. That instability is leading to the manufacture of drugs in Burma, which is already affecting China. Secondly — and this has to be used carefully — China needs international support for its hosting of the Olympics. The issue of the Olympics, if handled properly, could be used to put pressure on one of Burma’s biggest backers at present.

Mr G Robinson: In Northern Ireland we are fortunate to live in a democracy with freedom of speech, movement and political expression, which have been so obviously and brutally denied to the people of Burma. We have experienced, what are in comparison, minor troubles. However, in Burma, the world’s media are being denied access to the occurring events, telephone links have been deliberately cut and Internet services have been consciously disrupted by a military dictatorship desperate to hide the violent and abusive nature that characterises it. The Burmese Government are not the protector of the Burmese people — they are its enemy.

In the past number of weeks, on our television screens, we have seen pictures smuggled out of this oppressed country — often at great personal risk — that have highlighted the appalling abuse of power by the military regime in Burma.

That so-called Government triggered the present crisis when they doubled fuel prices and raised the compressed gas prices fivefold. That compressed gas is used to fuel the buses that are the main means of transport for the vast majority of Burma’s population. Those increases have had a knock-on effect on food prices with devastating consequences for the Burmese people, who struggle to provide basic foods for their families. This is a country that was already afflicted by poverty of the deepest and truest kind.

The Burmese Buddhist monks, who are the religious leaders and spokespeople for the man in the street, came onto the streets in peaceful protest at the devastating consequences that those price rises had on the already impoverished population. By walking past the home of the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, they made it abundantly clear that regime change and democracy was an essential element of their protest.

The so-called Burmese Government’s reaction to that was to use tear gas and baton charges to clear the monks and their fellow protestors off the streets. The fear now is that a repetition of the August 1988 slaughter will occur, or already has. It is essential to acknowledge that a cornerstone of Buddhist teaching is non-violence, and it can therefore be determined that the protests that are taking place are non-violent, as those monks have great influence on and immense respect from the Burmese people.

I wish to stress again that those monks are engaged in peaceful protests, and the brutal suppression of the recent marches in which they were involved has raised not only much anger, but defiance among the Burmese people.

4.45 pm

On 1 October, the BBC website reported that the body of a monk was seen floating in a river. Monasteries have been raided, and some 4,000 monks have been detained and are being been sent away in an attempt to quell the marches. One defector from the Burmese army stated:

“I knew the plan to beat and shoot the monks”.

If the military dictators will do that to religious leaders, imagine what they will do to the ordinary citizen and to the political opposition.

Aung San Suu Kyi is the political leader of the people of Burma. She won a Nobel Peace Prize for her attempts to bring democracy to Burma. She has spent 11 of the past 18 years under house arrest and has dedicated her life to representing the average Burmese citizen. Her father, also a pro-democracy advocate, was murdered when she was two years old. In August 1988, after the violent oppression of opposition marches, she stated that:

“I could not, as my father’s daughter, remain indifferent to all that was going on.”

She is a woman of courage and dignity, and she is inspired by the non-violent campaigns of figures such as Martin Luther King and Gandhi. In May 1990, her party, the National League for Democracy, won the general election, but the military regime refused to recognise the result and has dictated in Burma ever since.

The current dictator enjoys a lifestyle of which the people of Burma can only dream. A video of his daughter’s 2006 wedding showed a bejewelled and champagne-drenched occasion. Understandably, it caused outrage, because the country that that leader claims to represent is impoverished and desperate for democracy.

The brave monks, citizens and Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy seek only one thing: democracy. We all accept that as a normal state of affairs because we live in a democracy. Indeed, some Northern Ireland soldiers in the Second World War made the ultimate sacrifice so that the people of Burma could be freed from oppression and enjoy democratic institutions.

Mr Durkan: The debate has been important for all the reasons that so many Members mentioned. In moving the motion, Carmel Hanna said that the Assembly was being given the opportunity to express its sense of responsibility. That is something that all democrats have felt motivated to do since seeing the pictures from Burma. However, we understand that pictures of other actions have been suppressed from international view.

Carmel Hanna reflected on how her own contact with that country and its ethnic groups had deeply touched and impressed her. She reflected on the misery and the atrocities — including genocide — that people in that country have suffered. She emphasised that, as in South Africa where the regime did terrible things, visitors are conscious that Burma is a beautiful country that has numerous natural resources, but it is an ugly state that has a very corrupt and ruthless regime.

As the first Member to speak to the motion, she was the first to pay tribute to Aung San Suu Kyi, and she quoted her famous statement: “Fear is a habit”. Carmel set out Burma’s historical context, describing how it had been under military control for several decades and how the military rulers moved to annul the results of a democratic election in 1990. Carmel was the first Member to touch on the need to pressurise particular Governments in that area, especially China, Burma’s puppet-master. She also mentioned the Beijing Olympic Games. In moving the motion, Carmel made it clear that sanctions under the auspices of the UN are crucial. With reference to some of the points that other Members raised, the motion must be seen in that context.

Simon Hamilton spoke about the legacy of responsibility and concern that many people here feel about Burma. He mentioned the personal links that many have had through military and other experiences.

He highlighted the work of locally represented charities, including Save the Children. He also identified other dimensions of the Burmese situation, such as the fact that Burma is a major source of illegal drugs. He spoke of the inspirational bravery of the democratic protesters, and asked where so many of them have been taken.

Martina Anderson addressed the issue of the arms trade and the countries and companies that provide weapons to the military junta, either directly or through others, particularly China. She criticised the motion for what she felt was dangerous language, suggesting that the phrase:

“to take all necessary action to help topple this despicable regime”

was an endorsement of an invasion of Burma on the model of the US and British invasion of Iraq. The motion is consistent with the UN, and the invasion of Iraq was illegal and was not done under the auspices of the UN. Neither Carmel Hanna nor any other SDLP Member would propose violent action. In the past the SDLP has proposed motions using similar language. Many motions in the Assembly have used the terms “taking all necessary means”, and it has never raised such an issue before.

George Savage spoke of how, like many others, he was moved by the brave protests and the repression suffered by the monks. He pointed to the significant restrictions used by the regime to ensure that those inside the country do not report the full story and those outside the country do not hear the full story. Mr Savage asked the poignant question: how many people have to die before the wider world does something? He also welcomed the appointment of the UN special envoy and talked of the need for a genuine process of national reconciliation.

Anna Lo said that common humanity obliges us to provide all possible help to the Burmese people in their fight with the brutal military regime. She also high­lighted the significance of China’s role, as well as that of the Taiwanese Government. Another Member touched on the fact that India has time to use its influence.

Jim Shannon used the well known line from Edmund Burke that:

“It is necessary only for the good man to do nothing for evil to triumph.”

He feared that there would be a lack of impact if international action amounted to letters of protest and resolutions for sanctions. He complained that the UN has no real influence and, like others, he stressed that China is the key. He highlighted the impact of the commodity price rises, as well as the economic plight and the malnutrition of the Burmese people and their children.

Paul Maskey warned that sanctions do not always work quickly and must be carefully targeted. Again, he reflected concern that the motion did not specify that sanctions should be non-violent. I hope that I have provided sufficient assurance in that regard. He went on to highlight the extrajudicial killings, the torture and the 60-day 9.00 pm curfew that has been introduced.

Lord Browne expressed support for the democratic forces against the military junta and, along with many others, saluted the courage of Aung San Suu Kyi. He expressed concern that if sanctions were as extensive as the wording of the motion suggested, that might have an impact on suffering people. Again, I draw Members’ attention to the fact that the motion suggests sanctions targeted at the regime, not at Burma or the Burmese people. He said that the West should think carefully and avoid having a knee-jerk response. Given the length of time that the regime has been in power, to take action now is not a knee-jerk response.

David Burnside warned of the possible dangers of using the Beijing Olympics in a careless way. He believed that the circumstances warranted careful use of such pressure on China.

Alban Maginness put the debate in its historic context of a long-standing military plutocracy, and identified the need for legitimate pressure to be put on China. He quoted the UN special envoy, who said that the purpose of his current diplomatic exercise is to achieve dialogue to bring about a true process of national reconciliation.

He underlined that the challenge for all of us is to confront the culture of impunity for systematic human-rights violators, be they in Burma or elsewhere.

Sammy Wilson took exception to some Members’ having named local firms as possible sources of weapons. However, I will not dwell on that. He too highlighted China’s and Russia’s veto of UN resolutions. It is precisely the UN’s undemocratic structure, in which superpowers have vetoes, that limits its effectiveness. If people want to call for a more democratic international world order, they must support significant reform of the UN, which would remove those vetoes. All too often, however, people support the vetoes of other super­powers while complaining when China and Russia exercise theirs. Superpowers must earn the privilege to use vetoes.

George Robinson highlighted the fact that the military dictatorship is desperate to hide its tyranny and that Burmese Government are not the protectors of the people, but their enemies. He also referred to the violent response to non-violent, democratic protest.

The regime in Burma is absolutely vile and bestial; people are randomly tortured, and it has the highest number of forcibly conscripted child soldiers in the world. The Government spend more than 40% of their budget on the military and less than 60p per person a year on health and education combined. Since 1996, the regime has destroyed more than 3,000 villages in eastern Burma alone. Members have rightly said that the UN must take stronger action on that issue.

The motion reflects the fact that the UK Prime Minister has said that countries must take strong action and that the only way to do that is through the UN. Many Members have rightly highlighted China’s position: however, there is the question of India, the country of Gandhi and Nehru, which has stated that it cannot intervene, but yet provides military equipment and training. Of course, there is also the issue of EU sanctions that stop a firm investing in a pineapple juice factory but do nothing to interfere in investment in oil, gas and the gems sector, which are the very businesses that prop up the corrupt military rulers.

Question put and agreed to.


That this Assembly views with the deepest concern the unfolding events in Burma; salutes the courage of the Burmese people in challenging the oppressive, corrupt and illegitimate military junta that has ruled Burma for decades and which has brought misery to the country and lives of its people; declares its support for Burma’s democratic leaders, in particular the imprisoned Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy, and calls for her immediate release; supports the call of the Prime Minister for the most extensive range of sanctions possible against the regime, under the auspices of the United Nations; and further calls on the British, Irish and other European Union governments to take all necessary action to help topple this despicable regime.

Referendum on the  New European Union Treaty

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

Mr Easton: I beg to move

That this Assembly calls on the United Kingdom Government to hold a referendum on the new European Union treaty.

Members are familiar with organisations that are relentless and single-minded in the pursuit of their own agenda, even when the beliefs that they promote are held only by a minority of the population. They are also familiar with how powerful political and commercial interest groups have, for half a century, attempted to bring into being a united states of Europe, which would cause each member state to lose its individual identity as it became absorbed into a bureaucratic monolith.

The powerful agenda to subdue individual nations to the will of the European Central Bank has been characterised at every step of the journey by the surrender of the civil and religious rights and liberties that are enjoyed by citizens of the United Kingdom. It has also been characterised by a determined effort by sinister forces to diminish our distinctive British identity.

When the European Economic Community was formed in 1957 with six member states, we were assured that it was a beneficial organisation that was designated to enable European neighbours to tackle mutual social and economic issues. By 1973, when the United Kingdom was absorbed into the EEC without a national referendum, the principle of the primacy of European law over the national law of member states was already clearly established. Even then, it was clear that there would be major winners and major losers. Some countries such as the United Kingdom paid an extreme price for its continued membership, while other countries became major beneficiaries, with massive amounts of financial and other gains flowing their way. One only has to look across the border to see how the Celtic tiger has flourished as a result, while the UK pays the second-largest contribution, worth £12 billion, to the EU, of which, it has been said, it only gets a fraction back.

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In the past 34 years the European Union has grown to include 27 member states. At no stage during those decades of enlargement were the people of the United Kingdom afforded the opportunity to declare their consent, or opposition, in a referendum. Now, countries like Croatia, Macedonia — and Turkey, with its dubious reputation on human rights and still in military occupation of parts of Cyprus, another EU member state — want to join the European Union. The admission of a country such as Turkey, without a referendum, flies in the face of common sense.

The agenda established with the Treaty of Rome has been vigorously pursued through the Single European Act 1986; the Treaty of Maastricht in 1992; the Treaty of Amsterdam in 1997 and most recently through the Treaty of Nice in 2001. The European express train, with large numbers of net beneficiary countries already on board, came to an abrupt halt when the people of Holland and France halted its progress by voting against further expansion of the European constitution in 2005.

The treaty, to which they declared their opposition in referenda, was developed and proposed by an intergovernmental conference in 2004 so as to create a constitution for Europe and give the European Union all that would flow from that, such as a legal identity, a president, a motto, a flag, an anthem, and all the trappings of constitutional power, with no accountability to the people of any individual member state.

People in the United Kingdom, including the majority of people in Northern Ireland, do not want to lose their distinct British cultural and political identity to a European Union whose powers supersede those of its member states. We want to have a genuine say in the direction of our foreign policy, and we want to retain independent control of the way in which we relate to deprived countries and communities in the Third World.

We are all appalled at the enormous increase in bureaucracy and fraud that characterises many departments and programmes in the European Union. We want to have a say in changing things to suit the people who pay the European piper but never get to choose the tune. We want to be able to control our borders and have the power to impact directly on issues such as immigration, terrorism, asylum and crime.

We do not want an international system of rolling devolution to take us to the point where we surrender power to the people of a hugely expanded European community. We do not want to pay over the odds for every morsel from Europe that might come our way. Can anyone honestly say that EU membership has made a major difference in the lives and life chances of the people of Northern Ireland?

Our farmers get the worst deal in Europe, and at no stage in the whole European journey have we been given the chance to have a democratic referendum. We do not want the United Kingdom Government, acting on our behalf, to move the European process forward without a full and open discussion on the issues involved and without submitting proposed changes to a referendum.

Throughout Tony Blair’s administration we became accustomed to spin and the overcoming of reasoned arguments and justice. We became accustomed to Government deceit and unaccountable decision-making that was not in the best interest of our country or the Province. It is my considered view that what we have had to endure in Northern Ireland is indicative of the need to have power in our own hands, as far as possible, to influence our laws, our lives, our future and that of our children. Direct rule Ministers taught us that lesson.

We all understand the need for co-operation in matters of mutual interest. Indeed, we can see many benefits in European co-operation. However, we do not want a treaty that establishes a constitution for Europe that will lead to complete integration into a European super-state without our Government affording us the democratic right to have a referendum on the issue.

As Members of this Assembly, our duty is to defend the rights and freedoms of those who put us here. Gordon Brown is attempting to get the European train rolling again by declaring that if certain red lines are drawn in the amended treaty — that is, if certain subtle, but significant changes in the text are made — he will proceed with submerging British interests into a federal Europe.

It is not for Mr Brown alone to determine what represents an acceptable treaty for the people of the United Kingdom. Mr Brown and his party do not represent the majority of the people in the United Kingdom on this issue. This treaty is not right for the majority of the people of the United Kingdom, and we must be given the opportunity to declare our opposition to it by means of a referendum. It is wrong for the UK to give up 60 national vetoes and agree to an EU foreign minister and a president of Europe. It is wrong to agree to 96% of the original EU constitution. Just like there will never be a united Ireland, there must never be a united states of Europe.

Mr McLaughlin: Thank you very much, a LeasCheann Comhairle.

I support the motion, but possibly for different reasons from those of the proposer. I welcome the debate. [Interruption.] Let me assure the Members opposite that this debate will be an all-island one — the people of the South will also have their say in the matter.

We should all be concerned about the issue of the democratic deficit. Already, the Council of Ministers and the European Commission exercise powers and vetoes over the democratic decisions of the European Parliament, and much of the legislation that we pass here originates from them — they initiate the process, and the legislation eventually arrives in legislative Assemblies such as this one. Thus, the democratic deficit is a considerable issue. We must consider the idea of participation in a process that elects MEPs who then often find themselves following a trail that has been set out by unelected members of the Council of Ministers or European commissioners. That is a serious issue for us all. I very much welcome the debate, and I look forward to the amplification of those important issues.

There is the question of the ability of sovereign Governments in Dublin, London or Paris — let alone a legislative Assembly such as this one — to rein in the bureaucrats in Brussels and Strasbourg. The idea of the new European Union treaty was to set up a superstate. The treaty was rejected in referendums in France and in Holland. Did that deter the Council of Ministers? No, it doctored the text and presented it again. It took out words such as “constitution”, but its intention is still very much the same. That is very important. There are people here who have long experience of the issues of either a lack of democratic accountability or the absence of democracy itself. We must therefore do our utmost and play our full part in bringing to the attention of the populace the implications of this drift towards a centralisation of power in the hands of unelected bureaucrats at the heart of Europe.

That is not a Euro-sceptic approach. [Laughter.] It is an approach that ensures that we address the questions. Members can make their own contribution to this debate. However, it is important that they reflect on whether critical engagement with the reality of the European Union is, in fact, protecting democratic rights. Alternatively, we can simply close our eyes; it will still be there, and it will still take more and more powers onto itself. However, we cannot walk away from the European Union, nor will deciding simply to ignore the reality of it enhance or protect democratic rights. Likewise, we cannot adopt the position that no progressive legislation has emerged; such legislation has emerged, and we must acknowledge the positive impact that it has had on society in Ireland. However, the key issue that must be addressed is whether people’s democratic rights and judgements are being respected when they cast their votes in European elections. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Kennedy: It is interesting to follow the comments of the Member for South Antrim Mr McLaughlin. He claimed that he was not being a Euro-sceptic — his speech was a little more to the right than Attila the Hun.

It is deeply disquieting that Ministers want to sign the United Kingdom up to a treaty without first asking the British people their opinion. There is, after all, no pressing reason why a decision has to be made quickly. The debate on a new constitution is already years old and has been the subject of a great deal of spin, fudge and misrepresentation. No change there, then.

The essence of the debate was summed up by Keith Vaz, the Labour MP and former Minister for Europe — an unlikely person for me to quote. He said on 31 August this year:

“We don’t need a referendum on the reformed treaty because we didn’t have one on the Nice Treaty or on Maastricht. But I think there’s a difference between need and desirability.”

That, in a nutshell, sums up why there should be a national debate, followed by a referendum. It is not because there has to be, in a technical or legal sense, but because, for a variety of reasons, it is desirable that there should be. At the top of that list of reasons must be the Prime Minister’s own professed desire to make matters more transparent than they had been under his predecessor. What has the Prime Minister to fear if he believes that this new treaty represents a good deal for Britain? Surely he is capable of defending such a good deal in any referendum or election campaign. One thing is certain: a national debate followed by a referendum would confer legitimacy on the whole process. However, the evidence of the past week, and, particularly, of this weekend, suggests that the Prime Minister may not want to engage with the people. His rapid U-turn on an election suggests precisely that.

The Foreign Secretary says that the Government have made it clear that because of the real changes in form, substance and style, and the abandonment of the constitution, we have moved away from the previous situation and now have a treaty that is in line with previous treaties. In that approach he misses the point. The French and Dutch voters rejected the previous versions of this treaty — which was then known as the new European constitution — and, in doing so, forced its modification. Without those referendums we would be facing an EU constitution that has taken centralism in Europe one step too far.

Would the Government deny the British people the same rights as French and Dutch citizens? Surely in doing so they are being bad Europeans, since they are arguing for a two-tier Europe. In one of those tiers the people are allowed the right to vote and decide, but in the other they are not. There is, then, a democratic Europe in France and in the Netherlands, and a top-down despotic one in Britain, of all places.

The Prime Minister’s intellectual case against allowing a referendum has now collapsed. If he persists in forcing this issue through without a referendum following “the election that wasn’t” last week, his moral authority will continue to be seriously under­mined. How can he pose as a democrat or as someone who wants to listen to the people, and yet deny a referendum on an issue which most disinterested observers say is little different from the original form of the —

Mr Burnside: Does the Member agree that if the United Kingdom Parliament and Government deny the right of the British people to have a referendum here in Northern Ireland, we should organise our own referendum to express the views of the people of Northern Ireland?

Mr Kennedy: I would have much preferred that a general election campaign had been called at the earliest possible time so that this issue could have been fully debated and amplified among the people and a verdict given, so that we could have taken our place in that national argument as part of the United Kingdom. The situation is little different from the original form of the EU constitution, on which this Government promised a referendum. That is why I support the motion in its undiluted simplicity.

Mr A Maginness: I oppose the motion, but welcome Mr Easton’s refreshing honesty, which, I presume, reflects the DUP’s anti-European Union position, and contrasts with the representations made by Sinn Féin’s representative Mitchel McLaughlin who disingenuously said that he was not a Euro-sceptic. His speech could quite easily have been an editorial from the Daily Mail.


There is absolutely no difference between the type of things that he was saying and the type of things that the ‘Daily Mail’ says, day in and day out. That is scarcely surprising because, at heart, Sinn Féin opposes the European Union. Recently, it changed its mind and has given nominal support to the European Union. However, Sinn Féin has opposed every major change to the European Union. It opposed enlargement and it is opposed to the present proposals.

It is claimed that the proposals create a greater central control in the European Union. Nothing could be further from the truth. The treaty proposes that the EU have a president to serve permanently for two and a half years, instead of chopping and changing every six months. That would provide continuity of service to the European Commission. A high representative of the European Union would speak for the EU on foreign affairs and security policy. That would be a positive step for continuity in the European Commission. The national Parliaments would have an increased role in making European law. I would have thought that Members from both sides of the House would agree that that would be a positive step.

Mr Kennedy: Will the Member give way?

Mr A Maginness: No, I have to get through this and I have only a few minutes left.

I am, perhaps, a sole voice in the Chamber today, apart my good friend, Carmel Hanna.

Mr S Wilson: And the Alliance Party.

Mr A Maginness: And maybe the Alliance Party as well.

The treaty proposes to reduce the size of the European Commission to two thirds of its current membership. Surely that is something that Members should welcome. The treaty also extends qualified majority voting in a sensible, weighted manner. The proposed system will give the larger countries less voting weight, and that is important because it gives smaller countries, such as Ireland, a greater say in European affairs. A new system of voting is also proposed for the European Council. That is also helpful for allowing smaller countries, such as Ireland, a greater degree of influence over decision-making. Surely that is to be welcomed because people have criticised the European Union over many decades for ignoring the smaller voices in its member­ship. The expanded EU, with its 27 member states, cannot allow each of those countries a veto because it would grind to halt.

Under the treaty, MEPs would have increased responsibility for determining policy, and would be involved in co-decision-making with the Commission. I would have thought that all Members of the House would want that, if they were in favour of more democracy. The European Parliament and ordinary MEPs would have more power. That is important and it would enhance the role of politicians from here and elsewhere. Another important aspect of the treaty is that it would allow countries of the European Union to come together and engage in areas of enhanced co-operation.

Mr Ford: I shall do my best to annoy Sammy Wilson as much as possible by congratulating Mr Easton on proposing the motion. I welcome the opportunity for the House to debate the motion, which I shall support. I do so almost entirely not for the reasons that were put forward by the three Members who have spoken in favour of it, and with considerable agreement with the points that Alban Maginness made against the motion. Such is the kind of politics that takes place in the Chamber.

Fundamentally, I disagree with the narrow-minded interpretation that has been put forward by Mr Easton in his proposing of the motion. Yet, Mr Easton hit on a key issue if Europe is to make progress. That was highlighted when Danny Kennedy referred to the difference between the need for a referendum and the desirability of a referendum. Those who are involved in European Government at different levels have, largely, envisaged their futures in enhancing co-operation; however, it is clear that there are problems in bringing the citizens of Europe with them. That is why I disagree with Mr Maginness’s point in opposing a referendum.

At least we have been spared the “bent banana” debate, but we have been concerned about national self-interest in a nineteenth-century version of sovereignty. Frankly, that is no longer the world in which we live. Eleven or 12 years ago, on a visit to Copenhagen, I met a Danish politician and sat with him on the banks of the Skagerrak looking across the narrow stretch of water to Sweden. As a boy, he had watched the Soviet Baltic fleet steaming past in a way that directly threatened to the people of Denmark.

In December 2004, I had the pleasure of returning to Copenhagen when the Europe of 15 became the Europe of 25. Three former states of the Soviet Union were among the ten extra nations that joined. That is how much the European project has moved on. We should concentrate on what Europe has done to build a culture of peace and prosperity for its citizens. That is why the European Union is not made up of 6, 9, 10, 12, 15, or even 25 member states; rather it is composed of 27 member states. Other countries wish to join, as huge progress has been made, and working together in Europe has benefited everyone.

However, it is clear that many people have been left behind and have not reaped the benefits. That is why I urge Alban Maginness to take heart and to have confidence that, in a referendum, the case can be argued for the benefits of belonging to the European Union. Many of the points that he highlighted about the new arrangements in the reform treaty are valid. By and large, they are tidying-up exercises, yet there is a need to show that people can be brought along with them.

The hypocrisy of the Conservative Party that refused a referendum on the Maastricht Treaty, which is of great significance, has now been turned on its head into demanding a referendum, but that does not mean that those of us who want the people of Europe to be engaged with Europe and engaged with a cross-European future, should not also support such a call.

I remember the 1975 referendum to which Alex Easton briefly referred, in that it was actually a fundamental debate about whether the United Kingdom should be in or out of Europe. Indeed, that is the argument that Mr Easton advances today. It is not about the treaty — it is about whether we should participate at all. I welcome the opportunity to have a debate about the role of the United Kingdom in general, and Northern Ireland in particular, and the benefits that we will have from the future of Europe. That referendum was called as an opportunity for the Harold Wilson Government to escape difficult decisions, by palming them off on a referendum. It resulted in a convincing and clear decision among the people of the United Kingdom that they wish to remain in Europe. Against expectations, a resounding majority in Northern Ireland also wished to remain in Europe and to play their part in it.

Therefore, let us have the referendum. Let us have an honest, clear and open debate about all the implications, and let us not pretend that it is simply about the fine detail of the treaty, because there is a strong argument to be made for the United Kingdom being active in Europe. The case, frankly, is whether we will be influential in Europe, or irrelevant in Europe. I want that case to be discussed, and I want the United Kingdom to continue to play its part in that Europe as we move forward. A referendum on the EU treaty is long overdue: bring it on.

Mr McCausland: The European Union treaty is a matter of the utmost importance. Two years ago, a proposed constitution was rejected in France and in the Netherlands. There was also widespread opposition to a proposed constitution in many other countries across Europe. We now look back and realise that there was stalemate on the issue. In June 2007, during a European summit, EU leaders agreed on a detailed mandate to finalise the text of a new treaty.

If one looks at the extent of the opposition and the debate around the EU treaty that has taken place over the past two years, and the nature of the proposals that are currently being pushed forward, one will see that it is a matter of some substance. This is not a minor issue; it is a matter of the utmost importance. That is why we are entitled to have a referendum on the new European Union treaty.

Mr A Maginness: Will the Member give way?

Mr McCausland: No; I will follow the Member’s example and not give way. The treaty makes a proposal for an EU foreign minister, dressed up under the name of a high representative. There is also a proposal to extend qualified majority voting, and other proposals are being put forward that would significantly change the nature of Europe. Danny Kennedy said that centralism in Europe has been taken a step too far, but many Members would say that — when it comes to Europe — there have already been many steps too far.

There is a strong and overwhelming case for a referendum. The danger is that the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, appears to be afraid of a referendum. Last weekend, he ran away from an election, and I was pleased to see that Alex Salmond — in good Scots — described him as a “big feartie from Fife”. The Prime Minister is afraid; he ran away from an election, and he is trying to run away, again, from a referendum on Europe. If he believes that the European Union treaty is a good thing, he will be willing to have a referendum, because he will be sure and certain of the quality of his case and of the strength of his arguments. He will have no fears or doubts; he will go into a referendum with confidence, believing that he will win. However, the Prime Minister realises that if he goes into a referendum, he might well lose.

I believe in co-operation among different nation states, but I do not believe in the ongoing, gradual or incremental integration that is being put forward as the vision for the European Union, and which will eventually lead to a united states of Europe. I also believe in democracy and that the people should have a right to a say on matters relating to Europe. I do not believe in Gordon Brown, as a dictator, enforcing his decision on the treaty without consulting the people. We were promised a referendum, and we deserve one.

In Great Britain, it is clear that there is growing momentum for a referendum, and there is a cross-party coalition including such Labour MPs as Kate Hoey and Frank Field, which is promoting the case for one. As democrats, we should add our voices to that campaign and send out the loud and clear message to Gordon Brown that the political representatives of the people of Northern Ireland — this part of the United Kingdom — are convinced that there should be a referendum, and that they are joining their voices with those across the rest of the United Kingdom in saying that the referendum must take place.

Mr Doherty: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I support the motion, which, if passed and implemented, will give the entire Irish nation an opportunity to have a say on their national future by way of a referendum. However, if a referendum is not held, the imposed treaty that embodies the revised EU constitution will cause a great many problems for the people of Ireland.

The new treaty will, first, add to the powers of the Brussels institutions, which already make the majority of our laws while, correspondingly, reducing the powers of national states and their citizens. Secondly, in making those laws, the new treaty will increase the voting weight of the bigger states and reduce that of the smaller states. Thirdly, it will deprive the member states of the right to have a permanent representative on the European Commission — the body that has the monopoly on proposing European laws. Large states, as well as small ones, will lose a permanent commissioner. Fourthly, the new treaty will contain a mechanism to enable majority voting for European law-making to be extended to new policy areas by agreement among Governments, without the need for new treaties or treaty ratification.

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Fifthly, it would make the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights legally binding on member states and their citizens, and that would give the 27 judges of the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg the final decision on the wide range of human rights matters covered by the charter. Their decisions would, therefore, supersede national constitutions, the Supreme Court, and the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. It would greatly extend the power of the European Court of Justice. The charter would apply in all areas of EU decision-making, which makes most of our laws, and it would lead to disputes between the EU Court of Justice in Luxembourg and the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, as the former would have superiority in the event of any conflict between the two.

Moreover, the constitution would provide that the exercise of the rights and freedoms recognised by the charter would be limited to meet the objectives of general interest recognised by the EU, which means that the rights set out by the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights would not be fundamental after all, but would be varied in the interest of the smooth running of the market.

Sixthly, and perhaps most important, the treaty would, in effect, create and establish a super-national state for the first time, making the new EU separate from, and superior to, its 27 member states. That would make it like the United States, inasmuch as the United States is separate from, and constitutionally superior to, individual states such as California and New York. It would mean that the citizens of the new EU state would become real and legal citizens of that state, rather than the national, or ordinary, citizens they are at present. It would give the new treaty the character of a constitution, or basic law, and that is a fundamental step that we should not take until the people have had a thorough debate on its full implications, which are deep and wide. I urge that the people are made aware of them.

The revised treaty will contain 90% or more of the constitution that the French and Dutch voters rejected two years ago. In effect, that means that an EU elite could avoid referendums and push through issues that they deem relevant without reference to national Parliaments.

Mr S Wilson: If there is any group of people in the UK who would understand the reason for having this issue debated and resolved, resulting in a referendum being held, it is the people of Northern Ireland, because they know the impact of undemocratic governance and what that looks like.

The Member for North Belfast Alban Maginness said that people have nothing to worry about in the treaty and that it should be welcomed because it gives them greater say. Despite what he said, when the detail is examined, it is quite clear that anyone making such an argument would make Arthur Daley look like an honest car salesman. Pat Doherty has already gone through some of the problems, and do not forget that others who support the treaty said that it is a constitution in all but name. Indeed, some people say that 99% of what was in the old constitutional proposal is contained in this treaty.

Alban Maginness says that we are now going to have a president, who would be in office for two and a half years. That president could have a second term and would not have to be elected; indeed, he or she could be someone who has never stood for election. Yet the draft treaty is supposed to create a democratic organisation and lead to more democracy in Europe. Alban Maginness says that someone would hold the position, with the fancy name of High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. Effectively, however, that is a European foreign Minister.

There could be a situation in which the UK is taking a national route in foreign affairs but the EU, through that High Representative, is taking another. That is supposed to be a step forward. The European Union will take on the legal personality through which it can have its own treaties and agreements with other nations. Again, those arrangements would diminish the sovereignty of the UK.

There will be an increase in qualified voting in about 70 new areas. Alban Maginness has said that the national Governments would have more of a say in a range of areas. However, more powers in matters such as defence, foreign affairs and migration will be centralised in the European Union.

I do not count the European Commission as a democratic body, but at least each state is entitled to representation on it. However, that will no longer be the case. Nonetheless, Alban Maginness says that we should not worry about that: there will be no need for a referendum because all those changes will make the European Union more democratic. The more that one looks at the terms of the draft treaty, the more it becomes clear that the document is about centralising power and putting it in the hands of those who can subvert the wishes of local people. There seems to be a total contradiction: on the one hand, people in Northern Ireland welcome the fact that there is now a devolved Assembly where decisions can be made locally and in which local people have a input, but at the same time, Europe is moving towards concentrating power more centrally into the hands of people who have not even been elected. That is the reason that there should be a referendum on the draft treaty.

The other Euro fanatic who spoke in the debate disappointed me in the stance that he took. However, he supports our motion so I cannot have a go at him. He believes that people can be persuaded to hand over yet more powers to Brussels. I say to Mr Ford that all the evidence shows that people in the United Kingdom — and all over Europe — are sick and tired of the centralising tendencies. However, at least he is a democrat and wishes to give people the opportunity to have a say about whether they wish to move towards centralisation.

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

Mr S Wilson: The SDLP has been shown to be undemocratic on this occasion.

Mr Savage: I speak as a member of the only main­stream unionist party in the House that has representation in the European Parliament. [Laughter.]

I share the concerns of the proposers of the motion that, in the next few weeks and months, a document that is, to all intents and purposes, the rewrapped EU constitution will be approved.

The EU constitution fell because it did not receive the support of either the French or the Dutch, who both rejected it in referendums in 2005. Although the 2001 Labour manifesto promised a referendum in the UK on a new constitution, it was held off in order to allow for what was described as “a period of reflection”. That was time to basically allow the Brussels bureaucrats to think of a new way to achieve their aims.

The period of reflection is now over, and what we have is the EU constitution in all but name. It is now to be called a “reform treaty”. Surely the Brussels bureaucrats could have come up with a better name than that.

I fear that we are being sold a pup. Many of the original elements of the EU constitution are to be found in this wonderful new reform treaty. There will be a full-time president of the European Council, who will sit for a 30-month term; an EU foreign minister; fewer European Commission members; and a change in national-voting weightings to reflect population levels.

New treaty proposals are being drafted during the German presidency, which is keen to include a shift to qualified-majority voting in an extra 51 areas of EU policy. Germany also wishes to make the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union — a declaration made in 2000 — legally binding.

Members acknowledge that Europe is a difficult issue. The Labour Party is scared to lose a referendum, and the Conservative Party has split asunder on the issue. The bottom line is that we must not allow Europe to impose a pseudo-constitution on us — a document that, to all intents and purposes, is the same as the one that was rejected two years ago. The only difference is in the repackaging. Contrary to statements from Brussels bureaucrats, that pseudo-constitution would erode national sovereignty and damage Britain’s global position. As a British citizen, and an elected representative, I will not vote to allow that to happen.

Members acknowledge Northern Ireland’s unique position as the only part of the UK to have a land border with another EU member state, and, because of that, people in Northern Ireland are well aware and astute when it comes to European issues. They want to have their say — and they deserve that.

As a member of the European unionist party, I know that our party provides the people of Northern Ireland with that mainstream unionist voice that they want to hear — and that must be heard — in the corridors of power in Brussels. I support the motion.

Mrs Hanna: I welcome the debate, although it will come as no surprise that, at this time, I do not support the proposal for a referendum. It is premature; we do not have the full picture. We have some substance, but we must still fill in the blanks. At this stage, we cannot make an informed decision.

I am not a Euro-fanatic, but I believe in the European ideal. I am not sure if Mr Ford — who is not in the Chamber — is aware that Sir Menzies Campbell said that the reforms to the new European Union treaty were sufficiently different as to not require a plebiscite. That is for David’s information.

Since the SDLP was founded in 1970, it has supported the European ideal, and every Member of the Assembly must be aware of the immense benefits to the people of Northern Ireland — many hundreds of millions of pounds from structural funds, cohesion funds, special support programmes and other EU contributions to the International Fund for Ireland. Given those benefits, the rest of the EU member states — if they have ever thought about it — must be somewhat amazed that all three Northern Ireland MEPs are negative on the idea of Europe.

I am old enough to remember when our esteemed First Minister ran on the platform that the whole idea of Europe and its union was a devilish Roman plot. Sinn Féin has called for a Europe of equals; however, since 1972, in the Republic, Sinn Féin has opposed every referendum on Europe. Its inconsistency lies in the fact that, although it wants European institutions to intervene, it simultaneously denies them the authority to do so because it knows that health and education matters, and so on, are the preserve of the sovereign states.

These are institutional changes to the constitution, and they still require considerable discussion, which is why I welcome today’s debate. People must have a better understanding of those matters in order to allay fears — and they do seem to be fears — of the planned reforms.

5.45 pm

We want a constitution that is effective, transparent and accountable, and, of course, we must look after our own interests in Northern Ireland. However, it is important to think of it in a much wider context, owing to the involvement and needs of less-well-off countries. As David Ford has said, it is a culture of peace as well as prosperity — that is important to remember.

If there were a referendum, would a positive outcome really make any difference? Would the DUP continue to be instinctively and reflexively anti-European anyway, and would Sinn Féin continue to be in the same anti-European camp?

Mr Spratt: Whether we are pro-Europe or anti-Europe in our politics, when something is brought forward that has a massive constitutional impact on the United Kingdom, it is only right that the people should decide. In this case, the EU treaty is quite clearly, if progressed, going to fundamentally change the European Union and Britain’s place in it.

The packaging of this latest European treaty is mis­leading to the country. It is not a treaty; it is a constitution in all but name. Furthermore, it is a constitution that has already been rejected. The bureaucrats in Brussels want to fool us into believing that it is non-threatening and based on slight tech­nicalities that will have little impact on the sovereignty of our own Government.

Mr Brown says that there will not be a referendum, because the constitution does not fundamentally change the relationship between the EU and the UK. Mr Brown is fooling no one, especially not the British people. There is near unanimity across Europe that the new EU treaty is fundamentally the substance of the EU constitution repackaged. The Prime Minister of the Republic of Ireland, Bertie Ahern, says that 90% of that constitution is still there; I do not always agree with the man, but on this occasion, it is hard to differ.

When we examine what is in that 90% that is recycled from the constitution, we see dangers that must be repelled, and which the people of the UK must be given a say on. Paragraphs 1, 4 and 18 of the mandate for the current intergovernmental conference bring back, unless stated, the whole of the EU constitution. For example, paragraph 18 tells us that parts of the old EU constitution:

“will be inserted into the Treaty [regarding such areas as] security and justice, … the improvements to the governance of the euro, … specific provisions such as public services, space, energy, civil protection”.

The list goes on.

Further provisions, such as that for a new EU president, would allow that individual to set the EU’s agenda. There would also be an EU foreign minister. Such provisions would allow the EU to sign treaties in its own right, and our sovereignty in foreign policy would be further eroded. The jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice would be widened. Those proposals are dangerous to our sovereignty. The effects might not be immediate, but they would be far-reaching in the future.

The proposals will not stop here; they will, I am sure, evolve into a broader agenda whereby the lines across Europe are further blurred and our powers in home affairs on issues such as asylum, immigration and many other key policy areas are diminished. We totally reject anything that allows that, and we vehemently oppose anything that threatens our vetoes on EU affairs, which this treaty does. In my opinion, we should be looking at ways to pull back from involve­ment with the EU, rather than bolstering our links.

The current British Government lay much weight on the supposed opt-outs that they have been assured of by Brussels. The vain attempts by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to dispel so-called myths fool no one. The assurances received from Brussels in the past have proved to be worthless. Surely we should learn from the mistakes of the past.

A recent ‘Daily Telegraph’ poll shows that two thirds of voters want a referendum on the EU treaty. In the past few days, we have seen that Gordon Brown is not keen to go to the polls. However, on the issue of the treaty, the British people must decide.

What is there to fear, Mr Brown? That the vote will be against the treaty? Let the people speak. I support the motion.

Mr Shannon: I, too, support the motion.

Thomas Jefferson once said:

“Information is the currency of democracy.”

There can be no democracy if people do not know what is happening, and they cannot know what is happening when statements that cloud the facts are issued and distract from the real topic. The topic, in this instance, is that the British Government, through Gordon Brown, are trying to induct the United Kingdom, through the back door, into a united states of Europe. That information must be recognised and processed. People must be given a chance to exercise their democratic right to have a say in something that will affect their national identity.

As many of my colleagues have said, we, in Northern Ireland, are no strangers to strong-arm tactics, to the overriding of fairness and democracy and to having little say in the decisions made for our country. Direct rule has taught us much, and we are, therefore, in a strong position to say to the Government on the mainland that to be dictated to by an overseer far removed from the day-to-day life of the nation, can never be a good thing.

Whether Gordon Brown admits it or not, it is not difficult to see what the treaty means for the UK. It means that our social policy will be dictated to us, and our Health Service inundated with Europeans who feel like using our superior NHS. Since practically every case in the European Court of Human Rights is bogged down in litigation and costs thousands and thousands of pounds, those who threaten legal action will always be shunted to the top of the queue to save the hassle.

What of the embassies? The EU will have a 5,500 strong diplomatic service and maintain EU embassies all over the world. What will happen to our embassies and consulates?

The City of London could lose the freedom that has turned it into a multi-trillion pound hub of world finance. The increase in EU influence will jeopardise UK independence with respect to the police, justice, energy, transport, employment policy and financial regulation. Those are vital areas that affect the lives of all of us every day. We could even find Brussels dictating energy prices and quite possibly casting an envious eye on our North Sea oilfields.

It goes further than that. The EU will also have the right to regulate wage caps and transfer caps for soccer clubs, with the European Commission taking over as ruler of the game right across Europe. With respect to justice, the proposed treaty means more rights for criminals, making it harder to fight crime. EU judges could stop the Secretary of State for Justice from recommending longer sentences for horrific crimes, or make it impossible for him to recommend that serial killers should not be released from jail.

The implications of the treaty go on and on. Police will have the right to enter your home, even if they are from outside the United Kingdom. We have heard much talk about the EU army, and we all know the stories about it. Is it true? Do people feel that it is right? Is it worth asking whether we would prefer Britain to be defended by its world-class armed forces, or by those of some of the other EU states? I leave Members to decide for themselves.

The EU Commissioner for External Relations will be given a lovely new wordy title and be known as the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. He will represent our country at the UN and elsewhere.

Those prospects are horrendous, and many of us have concerns about them. The irony of Gordon Brown taking the strong line against the Burmese junta for not listening to the wishes of the people is paradoxical considering the Labour Party’s promise of a referendum on the EU constitution.

Members have probably seen the results of the YouGov poll, which showed a large majority of those asked about the European Union reform treaty to be opposed to it. Two national newspapers, ‘The Sun’ and ‘The Daily Telegraph’, represent opposite ends of the journalistic spectrum with regard to the type of readers that they appeal to, but 100,000 readers of ‘The Sun’ objected to the treaty and wanted to be able to vote on it in the referendum, and 100,000 readers of ‘The Daily Telegraph’ also wanted to have a referendum on it. The two ends of the spectrum were agreed on the subject.

I am very concerned about how the treaty will affect agriculture and fishing. I represent a rural area, and the more power the EU has, the more worried I become.

Gordon Brown must not be allowed to pull the wool over our eyes in this case. We in Northern Ireland must take a firm stand and settle for nothing less than what is our right — to have our say.

I have no desire to become part of a second-rate, characterless, spineless, united states of Europe. I am British, and proud to be so, despite our faults and failings. I will not stand back and allow Gordon Brown to accomplish the unification of Europe by the back door. I support the motion.

Mr Burnside: In a debate on European unity, in order to find out who sold the pup, it is worth examining the language and presentation of the Euro-fanatics and that of Euro-sceptics since we joined the Common Market. The pup was first sold when membership of the Common Market was described as membership of an area for free trade in goods and services. At that time, it was not even concerned with labour and people, but then slowly developed.

Following the establishment of the self-perpetuating bureaucracy called the European Commission, it gained power and interbred. The Commission wants to have more central control, and the one thing in Europe that has stopped — and will continue to stop — the new constitution has been the consultation by national Parliaments of their people.

The con job has been carried out by the Euro-fanatics, starting with Edward Heath and his supporters, and including David Ford and the Alliance Party. The Euro-fanatics said that we would gain a free-trade area. The European Union has grown and gained powers including that of intervention.

In the United Kingdom, and, I hope, in many other countries throughout the European Union, we now have the opportunity to take a decision and say enough is enough. We do not want centralisation, an increased bureaucracy, or a foreign minister. The honourable objectives represented by David Ford that arose post war, and the resolving of the conflict between east and west, were not dependent on the creation of a European Union.

It was the strong and powerful countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom, who stood up to communist dictatorships, and the inherent weak­nesses of the economic dictatorship of Eastern Europe that caused those systems to collapse. They collapsed because those of us in the west who believed in freedom and democracy stood up against them.

We must stop this centralising bureaucracy, which can only take power away from the people in Northern Ireland, and throughout the United Kingdom. Let us consult the people. At least the leader of the Alliance Party says let the people decide, unlike the SDLP, who are the real Euro-fanatics in Northern Ireland. The constitution is unnecessary.

I am optimistic about the association of states in Europe, because of the increase in membership since 1969. Those countries that are coming into the European Union do not want centralised power and control. There is a blocking factor by virtue of the increased membership in the European Union — the people we must stop are the Euro-fanatics in the Commission, the full-time directorates, and the full-time politicians who would like to turn what is not a Parliament into a Parliament. I do not know whether I am member of the European unionist party or not — that was news to me this afternoon, but it seems to be an interesting new initiative.

The European Parliament is not and should not be a parliament that has sovereign power over the member states of Europe. It should be a consultative forum that can be used on behalf of the member states, to exert pressure whether in the case of the reform of the common agricultural policy, or at whatever stage the social and regional grants are at within the European Union. That is how we should use it — as a lobbying platform for our elected representatives to try to get better executive action through the Commission and the Council of Ministers.

I feel strongly that it is time for people to control the professional politicians and the Euro-fanatics, and to tell them that enough is enough, and that they do not want the new constitution. If there is a referendum in the United Kingdom, Scandinavia, France, and perhaps Germany, a massive proportion of people will vote to say that they do not want or need a constitution. We are not a one-nation state; we will remain as individual nation states, as when we fought against the rise of communism and dictatorship from the East. If that happened again, I hope that Europe would operate together in defence of freedom and democracy within the European Union. I support the motion, and the resulting alliance between the DUP and Sinn Féin.

I do not support many such alliances. However, the people must decide. If they are given the choice, they will make the right decision.

6.00 pm

Mr Deputy Speaker: It will be clear to Members that the business on the Order Paper will not be completed by 6.00 pm. In accordance with Standing Order 10(3), I will allow business to continue until it is completed.

The junior Minister (Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister) (Mr Paisley Jnr): I have listened with interest to the views of the House. Having heard Members’ concerns and examined the draft provisions, it is clear that the new draft European reform treaty will give increased powers to Brussels. It must be asked whether the citizens of Northern Ireland will benefit from such a transfer of power or whether their interests are better served by the status quo. Members on all sides of the House will have noticed that several speakers highlighted that the draft treaty is a constitution reform Bill in all but name. The European Scrutiny Committee of the House of Commons, which, I understand, will report soon, has indicated that the draft treaty is equivalent in substance and effect to the European draft constitution.

Many Members would be advised to take home a copy of the draft constitution and to compare it with the new text, which is now available on the Internet, and judge for themselves whether its 440 clauses differ at all from those of the draft treaty. They will, therefore, be able to draw their own conclusions on the similarity of those documents.

The Executive considered a paper on the draft European Union reform treaty on 27 September 2007. It is important to state that the Executive unanimously agreed that there should be a referendum. They have mandated the junior Ministers to negotiate to that end on their behalf. On 2 October 2007, I represented the Executive at a meeting of the Joint Ministerial Committee on Europe in London. In attendance were, amongst others, the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband — who chaired the meeting — the Attorney General, Baroness Scotland QC, and the Scottish Parliament’s Minister for Europe and External Affairs, Linda Fabiani. I took the opportunity to strongly press for a referendum and also to put on record my displeasure that the Prime Minister, without first consulting the people of Northern Ireland or the regions, has stated that there would be no referendum.

In concluding that there should be a referendum, the Executive said that there must be no dilution of the principles and provisions that relate to subsidiarity or proportionality, of the recognition of regional and local self-government within member states, or of the recognition of cultural and linguistic diversity that is enjoyed by many throughout the European Union.

Ratification of the draft treaty is a matter for each member state’s Government according to its constitutional rules. Member states may choose to ratify through parliamentary procedure and/or a referendum. The UK Government has stated their position on ratification, which is that a referendum is not necessary because the draft reform treaty is an amending one. The Administrations in both Scotland and Wales deferred a decision on whether to lobby for a referendum until after the text of final treaty is known. That text is now available. I am sure that they will soon make their positions clear.

Carmel Hanna said that it would be premature to have a vote. As the text of the draft treaty is now available, the point has been reached where Members can study it and make their own conclusions on whether a referendum is necessary. As I have said, if one compares the 440 clauses of the draft constitution with the 440 clauses of the draft treaty, one will see little difference between the two documents.

The Government in the Republic of Ireland have indicated that a referendum will be held there, most probably in the summer of 2008. Denmark is also planning a plebiscite, and referendums are possible in the Czech Republic, Poland, Portugal, and the Netherlands. The Labour Party promised a referendum on the draft treaty for the establishment for a European constitution in its manifesto for the 2005 general election. The pressure on Gordon Brown to hold a referendum on the draft reform treaty is steadily increasing.

Members of his parliamentary party — as well as of the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats — are clamouring for a vote on the issue. At last week’s Conservative Party conference in Blackpool, few will have missed the shadow Foreign Secretary, William Hague, promise a change in the law. He wants to amend the European Communities Act 1972 and require future Governments to hold referendums on future transfers of powers to Brussels.

There is a legal position for holding referendums in Northern Ireland. It is important to put that fact on record, given what Mr Burnside said in one of his interventions. I am sorry that he is not in the Chamber to hear what I am about to say. As a result of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, and the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, both holding referendums and the proposed reform treaty are excepted matters. No Department in Northern Ireland has the power to organise or fund such a referendum. That could only happen after primary legislation were laid at Westminster.

I note that Mr Burnside, during Danny Kennedy’s speech, said that he would like a referendum to be held in Northern Ireland alone. The new “ourselves alone” position that has been adopted would fundamentally weaken our position for holding a UK-wide referendum. That is an important point of distinction. The people of Northern Ireland would be sold a real pup were a referendum held here. It would be the biggest con job of all, because we know the sort of political capital that many would make out of it. I hope that Mr Burnside will recant that position when he has had time to reflect on his heat-of-the-moment outburst in the Chamber.

Whatever views individuals and parties in the House may hold on the European Union, and the parties that are represented on the Executive hold a wide spectrum of views, the European Union affects us all. It is important to note that the Executive have expressly stated that they are not taking a joint position on the fundamental principles contained in the treaty but are saying that there should be a referendum. Changes in the way in which the European Union is run, and in its powers, procedures and its administration, matter to us all.

Approximately two thirds of the legislative and administrative actions in the region originate from decisions made in Brussels. Europe is integral to the policy-making and legislative process — it is not an add-on. Any Member who represents a rural constit­uency will know that European issues are not add-ons but are an integral part of much of the actions and activities in which the farming community is involved.

We are responsible for implementing the legislation that will affect the everyday lives of people in Northern Ireland and across the European Union. In administering those responsibilities, we become an essential step in the process of implementing the European Union’s decisions. The way in which decisions are taken on such matters, and our opportunities for influencing those decisions, are of essential interest to us all.

Europe, and how it equips itself to respond to future challenges, is not of abstract concern to us; rather, it is of fundamental concern to us. Hence, there should be a referendum on the issue. In my view, the draft EU reform treaty is significant. We cannot pretend that it is not as far-reaching as its predecessor, the draft constitutional treaty of the EU, as some have claimed. That would be a deliberate misrepresentation of what is in the draft EU reform treaty. The Amato Group of high-level politicians, led by the former Italian Prime Minister Giuliano Amato, confirms that the draft EU reform treaty takes over all of the innovations contained in the draft constitutional treaty of the EU.

If it looks like a duck, if it walks like a duck and if it talks like a duck, it is fair to conclude that it is duck. The draft EU reform treaty speaks for itself — or quacks for itself — in that regard. The draft treaty, if ratified, will streamline voting in the European Council using qualified majorities rather than unanimity. All amending treaties — the Single European Act of 1987, and subsequently, Maastricht, Amsterdam and Nice — have extended qualified majority voting. The draft EU reform treaty will extend majority voting under 50 articles and require codecision with the European Parliament under 39 articles. About 80% of EU legislation is already codecided with the Parliament. In the most sensitive areas of justice, home affairs and social security, the United Kingdom has the right to insist on unanimity or not to participate.

The extension does not apply to us in other areas; for example, as regards rules about the Eurozone. Benefits to us, such as the lifting of the beef ban, were secured through qualified majority voting, when they would almost certainly have been blocked through unanimity voting. Therefore, the so-called “red lines”, which Alex Easton mentioned, are not as secure as some would try to portray them.

Mr Maginness talked about bringing Europe closer to its citizens. Indeed, the recognition of the need for reform coincided with a new awareness that the European Union has become remote from its own citizens. Many people think that it adds an unnecessary layer of governance and also restricts the freedom of action of national and regional Governments. Of course, one way to redress the balance is to give the citizens a vote on the reform treaty, and Mr Maginness himself posed the strongest argument for that. If he is so convinced by his argument, he would support putting the question to the people and letting them have a say on this important matter.

A ‘Financial Times’/Harris outline poll conducted in June of this year found that the majority — around two-thirds or more — of Spaniards, Germans, Britons, Italians and the French believed that the revised treaty was important enough to warrant a vote. The people of the United Kingdom are entitled to have a vote on that basis, too. We need a debate with our citizens on how to maximise the benefits that we derive from our member­ship. To a large degree, that debate was started by OFMDFM when it brought Mr Barroso to Northern Ireland.

EU legislation, EU funds, and the internal market have had a huge impact on the economic, social and environmental fabric of this region. Indeed, many thousands of community-based social-inclusion projects have been assisted through Peace moneys, which the Member for South Belfast Carmel Hanna rightly pointed out. Indeed, our farmers have received around £1·6 billion in direct support.

However, while many benefits have come from Europe, those funds should not be portrayed as perks or privileges; they are our rights. We are entitled to them, just as we are entitled to our right for a referendum. It is vitally important that the people of Northern Ireland get the opportunity to have their say on this important matter.

In conclusion, the Executive want to ensure that Northern Ireland citizens have their say. They should not be robbed of their right to vote. If we call for a referendum, we have a responsibility to lay the facts before the people. The issues are complex, but Northern Ireland has good reason to be interested in them. As elected representatives, we should not shirk our collective responsibility to explain the treaty to our electorate, and the reasons why we are for or against it. We should seek to engage in a transparent and well-informed debate. We must explain the context of the treaty to the people, focusing especially on how it will impact on their lives, so that our voice will be heard and we can have a greater say in how Europe is shaped in the future.

Lord Morrow: The debate has been useful and interesting, and many useful and interesting comments have been made. A great constitutionalist once said the referendum is the “people’s veto”, and that:

“The nation is sovereign and may well decree that the constitution shall not be changed without the direct sanction of the nation.”

If that is one reason that we should have a referendum, then there is another good reason why we should have one: the Government promised in their 2005 manifesto that there would be one. However, it would not be the first promise that this Government have broken, and I suspect that it will not be the last.

I was very interested to hear what Minister Paisley had to say, and I am sure that Mr Alban Maginness cringed when he heard him say that the Executive were united in deciding that there should be a referendum. I am sure that he is listening to every word that we are saying now. The Executive were united on that decision, so the SDLP is committed to it. Mr Maginness and Carmel Hanna may not be, but at least the SDLP is.

So, Mr Maginness, you are a lonely voice, if not a lone voice. Your party is now up for a referendum, and we welcome it on board.

6.15 pm

I was a bit concerned by Mr Burnside’s intervention, although his speech was infinitely better than Mr Maginness’s. He said that Northern Ireland should consider having a referendum on our own. No, thank you. We are not in Europe because we are Northern Ireland; we are in Europe because we are a part of the United Kingdom.

Mr Burnside: I thank the Member for allowing me to make a point of clarification. A referendum is not mandatory under the British Constitution. If the United Kingdom Government and Parliament deny the people of Northern Ireland the right to express their view, I would be interested to know the opinion of the people of Northern Ireland in that process. That is my understanding of the British Constitution. I would want our national Parliament and Government to hold a referendum first, but if they did not, I do not see why we should not have a local referendum that expresses an opinion for the Government to take account of.

Lord Morrow: I will take that as a climbdown. However, the Member is acutely aware that there is no such thing as a British Constitution.

Mr Burnside: There is.

Lord Morrow: I beg to differ. The Member and I will have to differ, as we do on many things.

I must take issue again with Mr Maginness. He was so steadfast in his position, and although what he said was not convincing, he tried to convince us. The challenge for the likes of Mr Maginness is simply this: why does he fear a referendum? Is he afraid of the result?

Mr Maginness has every right to be afraid of the result, because a recent study found that, in the rest of the United Kingdom, 85% of Conservative Party voters wanted a referendum and 55% of Labour supporters wanted one. I see that Mr Ford has flown the nest. I wish he had stayed, because he is another fanatical European. A total of 59% of Liberal Democrats — a majority of Mr Ford’s sister party — wanted a referendum.

Mr A Maginness: Will the Member give way?

Lord Morrow: Since I have named the Member, I will give way.

Mr A Maginness: First, I want to emphasise that the SDLP has never been against a referendum in principle. Secondly — and this was reflected in both SDLP contributions — because the treaty has not been completed as yet, and despite what junior Minister Ian Paisley Jnr has said, it is premature to make a decision. On the substance of what we have seen, and in respect of the document that Mr Paisley Jnr is holding in his hand, we are talking about institutional changes, not constitutional changes. Therefore, the argument that constitutional changes demand referendums does not hold, because we are talking about institutional changes.

Lord Morrow: Only Mr Maginness could explain that. His task is now in front of him: does he support his Minister in calling for a referendum, or does he not? We are all confused. As Mr Maginness sat down, I saw the forlorn looks on the faces of everyone in the House. He will have to sort that out in the not-too-distant future, but his intervention has not clarified the issue at all, because he has made it distinctly clear that he is not in favour of a referendum. I listened to what he said — that his was a lone voice. I did not understand the implication of that at the time, but I understand it now, because it seems that his is a lone voice in the SDLP too. That is the Member’s problem, and he will have to square that.

Following World War II, there was no stronger symbol of Britain’s central role in shaping the architecture of the world than its place as one of only five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. That position promoted Britain substantially, and permitted it to form part of a major influence on a global platform. That strength would be greatly jeopardised, however, if the Minister for Africa, Asia and the UN, Lord Malloch Brown, a former UN deputy secretary general, gets his wish to relinquish Britain’s seat in favour of representation by the European Union.

The EU constitutional treaty proposes to have its own foreign minister, to be known as a high representative, who will act on the world stage on behalf of all of the 27 member states, as a whole. That will mean that more power and control is exerted from the EU’s central headquarters over its 480 million citizens.

I cannot understand for the life of me why those who are opposed to a referendum would want the centralisation of control. I am absolutely delighted that the House, with one or two exceptions, has practically united in the view that there should be a referendum. I am delighted that Mr Ford is back in the House, and even he accepts that there should be a referendum, although for different reasons from those of us on this side of the House.

Why should there not be a referendum? The treaty is everything. It is a constitution, and let no-one say that it is not a constitution but only a bit of tweaking here and there. No less a person than Bertie Ahern has said that 90% of the old treaty has been retained. I suspect that Mr Maginness, his party and others opposite would listen more readily to him than to some of the Members in the Chamber.

The centralisation that is proposed by the treaty is a dominant force that will pull away from the democracy and democratic rights that are at the heart of the United Kingdom. Despite that, people in the Assembly have claimed today that that would be legitimate. I am delighted that the Executive are united on the issue and said that they feel that it would be unacceptable for there not to be a referendum. I am also delighted that the House has delivered a loud and clear message that a referendum is a must.

I am not talking about an all-island referendum, but a referendum for the United Kingdom, of which Northern Ireland is an integral part. Therefore, the Assembly must speak with one voice, without any suggestion that there should be separate referendums for Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic to find out what the whole island wants. The Irish Republic must do what it feels is necessary, and the Assembly does not say what the Republic should, or should not, do. However, as part of the United Kingdom, we want a referendum for the United Kingdom so that we can speak as one voice and one people. We are confident that that voice will say “no” to the new treaty and “no” to the new constitution. Anyone who advocates otherwise should be man enough to accept what the people decide.

Question put and agreed to.


That this Assembly calls on the United Kingdom Government to hold a referendum on the new European Union treaty.

Adjourned at 6.24 pm.

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