Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 15 October 2007
Private Members’ Business:
Private Members’ Business:
The Assembly met at 12.00 noon (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes’ silence.
Mr Speaker: Last Monday, Mr Attwood raised a point of order about the absence of a ministerial statement on a matter that he described as being “of heightened public interest”. I undertook to report back to the Assembly after discussing the matter with the Business Committee.
Although I understand that Members may feel frustrated, I stress that I cannot direct a member of the Executive to make a statement to the Assembly. That decision is for the Executive or the individual Minister concerned.
I am also aware that the Committee on Procedures is considering the possibility of allowing written statements. I await with interest the Committee’s decision on that.
In the meantime, however, I assure Members that I have encouraged — and will continue to encourage — the Executive to ensure that Ministers make statements to the House on important matters. I will continue to accommodate Ministers’ requests when at all possible.
Therefore, no breach of Standing Orders has occurred.
Mr Attwood: On a point of order, Mr Speaker —
Mr Speaker: I understand that the Member is anxious to respond, but I propose first to deal with another point of order that was raised in the House last week.
During last Tuesday’s debate on the Irish language, Mr Alban Maginness raised a point of order asking me to rule on the issue of a Member’s leaving and returning to the Chamber during debate, and, specifically, whether that was a discourtesy to the Assembly.
I have alerted the Business Committee previously to certain standards relating to the attendance of Members who wish to take part in debates. Those standards include: attending for, and making references to, earlier contributions; remaining in the Chamber for at least two further contributions after their own; and returning to the Chamber to hear the winding-up speeches. I have also said that Members should, during their own speeches, provide an explanation to the House if they find that they are unable to meet those standards.
Having considered the request from Mr Alban Maginness, I do not intend to take any further action on the specific incident that gave rise to his query. However, all Members should act in an orderly manner at all times, both towards one another and to the Speaker and Deputy Speakers. Members should take care not to obstruct the business of the Assembly or challenge the authority of the Speaker, and I remind Members that Standing Order 60 allows the Speaker to take action if Members choose to behave inappropriately.
Although I am grateful to Mr Alban Maginness for raising the issue, I hope that we will not have to return to this matter soon.
Mr Attwood, you indicated that you wish to raise a point of order.
Mr Attwood: Thank you for the attention that you have paid to this matter, Mr Speaker. I welcome that you have said today that, where appropriate, you would encourage Ministers to make statements.
On a point of order, given that there is no procedure for written statements only as a means of communicating with Members of the House, is it in order for Ministers to use a note to Members as an alternative to a statement, when such a note is, in content, character, nature and in all other circumstances, the equivalent to statements that are covered by the Standing Orders of the House? The minute — as it was described — that was forwarded to MLAs last week through their pigeonholes was a statement in character, nature, content and in all ways.
Mr Speaker: I hear what the Member says. However, Standing Orders are clear. It was not a statement to the House — and that is the issue. It is for individual Ministers to decide whether to send letters or notes. I have said to the Business Committee and to the House continually that it is not for the Speaker to direct Ministers or the Executive on when they should bring ministerial statements to the House. Standing Orders cover ministerial statements only when they are brought to the House.
Draft Renewables Obligation (Amendment) Order (Northern Ireland) 2007
The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Mr Dodds): I beg to move
That the draft Renewables Obligation (Amendment) Order (Northern Ireland) 2007 be approved.
I seek the Assembly’s approval of this statutory rule, which introduces a technical amendment to the operation of the Northern Ireland renewables obligation (NIRO). The amendment is necessary to maintain the effective operation of the NIRO in the single electricity market for the island of Ireland. Therefore, there is the need for the Order to be in place by 1 November 2007, which is the go-live date for the single electricity market.
This statutory rule is being made under powers contained in the Energy (Northern Ireland) Order 2003, which prescribes that the Order must be laid in draft for approval by affirmative legislation of the Assembly. Nonetheless, although there is a statutory requirement for this detailed legislative procedure, I should explain at the outset that this particular statutory rule is purely technical: it involves no change to existing policy; it has no cross-cutting elements, and it is non-controversial.
I will now outline why the amendment is needed and also give some background to the renewables obligation, because it is a complex mechanism to comprehend for anyone who is not closely associated with its operation. NIRO is the main plank in our renewables policy. Since its introduction in 2005, it has supported the development of renewable sources of electricity generation in Northern Ireland as we progress towards our target of 12% for the proportion of our electricity that is to come from such sources by 2012. To date, the success of NIRO has been evident in the 60% increase in planning applications for wind farms during its first year of operation and the fact that we now have 1,000 MW of wind capacity in the planning process.
NIRO provides a financial incentive to eligible generators and renewables developers through a system of certificates known as NIROCs, which are awarded for each megawatt-hour of their output that is consumed in Northern Ireland. Those certificates are, in turn, needed by electricity suppliers to demonstrate that the proportion of their sales specified in the NIRO legislation for any particular year can be accounted for by renewables generation. Otherwise, they must pay a buyout fee to meet their obligation under NIRO.
NIROCs, therefore, have a tradable value, which is typically in the region of £40 to £50 and which provides an additional revenue stream to generators of green electricity. NIRO operates in tandem with similar obligations in Great Britain in a single United Kingdom-wide market for these renewables obligation certificates. That provides a viable market for such certificates and ensures the effective operation of NIRO. Moreover, the fact that the mechanism is enshrined in legislation provides certainty for investors and developers alike.
The introduction of the single market in electricity, and, specifically, the all-island wholesale pool into which all generators with a capacity of over 10 MW of electricity must sell out, will introduce complications for the operation of NIRO. That is because electricity is purchased from the pool by suppliers across Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, and it will, therefore, be difficult for our renewables generators to confirm that they are meeting NIRO criteria and that their output is consumed in Northern Ireland.
The provisions of the statutory rule before the Assembly are intended to address that issue. They augment the existing criteria specified in article 16 of the Renewables Obligation Order (Northern Ireland) 2007 to take account of electricity sold through the single market. Specifically, they will enable generators who sell electricity into the single electricity market pool to comply with the criterion relating to supply in Northern Ireland by entering into a bilateral agreement, referred to in the draft Order as a “relevant arrangement”, with a Northern Ireland supplier. That “relevant arrangement” will account for equivalent amounts of electricity being sold into the pool by the generators and purchased from the pool and sold to customers in Northern Ireland by the supplier. I am sure that Members will be grateful if I do not give a line-by-line explanation of the draft Order, but I am happy to provide any clarification needed in response to Members’ questions.
The Order will ensure that generators of renewable electricity — both existing generators and new developers — will be able to access the financial benefits of NIRO under the new single-market arrangements. Fundamentally, it will ensure that Northern Ireland’s renewables policy remains robust and effective after the introduction of the new arrangements on 1 November.
I want to refer briefly to the other small technical amendment in this statutory rule. Members will note that article 3 of the draft Order amends references to “the Company” in the 2007 Order from “Northern Ireland Electricity plc” to “NIE Energy Ltd”. That reflects the structural changes being made to NIE’s business in order to comply with article 15 of the European directive concerning common rules for corporate restructure, which, in the case of NIE, will separate its supply activities from its distribution activities.
The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Mr P Maskey): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. The Committee considered proposals relating to the operation of the Northern Ireland renewables obligation (NIRO) within the single electricity market on 22 May 2007, and then again on 26 June 2007. NIRO is the main policy mechanism to promote the development of renewable sources of electricity, and it plays a critical role in ensuring the continuing viability of renewable generating stations such as wind farms.
The Committee has considered the necessity of the Order in maintaining the integrity and effectiveness of NIRO within the single electricity market that is due to be introduced to the island of Ireland on 1 November 2007. Following consideration of the proposals for NIRO, the Committee subsequently considered the Order on 18 September and recommends that it be affirmed by the Assembly. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr Gallagher: I have a few points to make, and I will take them in the order in which the Minister dealt with them. He mentioned the number of planning applications that are in the system; I am sure that many Members will agree with me that applications for wind farms and other forms of renewable electricity are spending far too many years in that planning system. There are a great many obstacles there to be overcome. Given the importance of achieving the targets that have been referred to — and, in my view, we should be aiming to exceed those targets — there must be a more streamlined system for dealing with planning applications. They certainly need to be dealt with in a shorter time frame than at present.
My reason for making that point is that there is massive investment behind each of those applications, and the investors are unlikely to hang around for three or four years while our planners take the applications through the system. They can go to other countries in Europe — and, indeed, outside Europe — and have their plans dealt with in months, or certainly within one year.
The Minister referred to bilateral arrangements between companies — no doubt they are helpful to those involved. However, this problem goes beyond such arrangements. As far as the island of Ireland is concerned, with the single energy market coming in on 1 November 2007, there must be an arrangement between the two Governments to facilitate and promote the development of alternatives.
The current mechanism allows for the NIROCs to be tradable, but they are only tradable in Northern Ireland and the UK. Given the potential in the north-west of this island, and particularly in Ulster and Connaught, for the promotion of wind farms, there should be a mechanism that allows those certificates to be traded across the border. I call on the Minister to consult with the Irish Government about putting such a mechanism in place. I understand that, even if it were in place, there would be a problem as far as the Irish Government are concerned, because they have no equivalent of the NIROC system. I understand that their system is known by the acronym REFIT, which stands for the Renewable Energy Feed-In Tariff scheme. There is a challenge there for the Governments, and it is time that they got down to the work of harmonising the two markets and removing the restrictions to which I have referred. This island is the second-best wind resource in Europe and has the potential to produce much more electricity. The two Governments should be developing that potential.
I welcome the creation of a viable market, but I want to see a viable all-Ireland market as well, so that renewables can be sourced and traded on either side of the border. In that way, we will be taking steps to ensure that we achieve our targets.
Mr Neeson: I very much welcome the development of the single electricity market, and I look forward to proposals for the creation of a single natural-gas market. I have two questions for the Minister. First, will he assure me that he and his Department will co-operate with other Executive Departments on increasing the development of renewable energy sources in Northern Ireland? Secondly, will he update the Assembly on the progress made on the wave-power experiment in Strangford Lough?
Mr Newton: I thank the Minister for his statement. This is an important piece of legislation, and progress in this area will be welcomed by householders and the business community across the board. It is an example of co-operation with another state that will bring benefit to our people and, in the longer term especially, to the manufacturing industry, which is under great pressure.
The Minister will be fully aware that over the past years there has been a lobby for competitive supplies of all forms of energy in Northern Ireland, particularly the supply of electricity, and that there has been a strong feeling that more could have been done to bring unit costs more in line with those in other parts of the United Kingdom.
I note that the draft Renewables Obligation (Amendment) Order (Northern Ireland) 2007 imposes a compulsion on all electricity suppliers who are licensed under the Electricity (Single Wholesale Market)(Northern Ireland) Order 2007 to supply customers in Northern Ireland with specific amounts of electricity from renewable sources and, indeed, that targets have been set. That is to be welcomed. It is a step forward and will be welcomed by everyone; in particular, by those who are concerned about the environment. I suppose that we all should share that concern.
It is a very technical piece of legislation; however, the salient facts are easily understood. Suppliers must meet a legal requirement to account for a specific amount, and an increasing proportion, of their electricity being supplied from renewable sources. That cannot be a bad thing. Alternatively, they must pay a buy-out fee that is proportionate to any shortfall. They must also provide evidence of compliance by presenting renewable obligation certificates from generators of renewable energy for each megawatt hour of eligible output.
In welcoming the Minister’s statement, I am pleased that, in general, it is another indication of the Assembly working, and I hope that the benefits of the legislation may soon be seen across all sections of the Northern Ireland community.
Mr Storey: I support the motion, and I concur with the comments made by the Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone Mr Gallagher about the number of applications for wind farms that are currently in the system. Some have a particular importance and relevance for my own constituency of North Antrim. I concur also with the remarks of my colleague the Member for East Belfast Mr Newton with regard to the provision of this benefit to the Northern Ireland economy.
Although the Minister rightly said that the amendment introduced by Statutory Rule in the House today is technical, it gives Members an opportunity to focus their minds on the importance of encouraging the use of renewable energy sources such as wind, water, solar power and biomass. I take this opportunity also to remind the Minister and the House of the ongoing concerns in my constituency with regard to the particular problem that we have under the ground — lignite. I reassure the Minister that those concerns are still there, and in the light of the importance that is given to documentation with regard to renewables, I trust that that lignite will remain firmly under the ground for the rest of our generation and will never be exploited as a fossil fuel.
That being the case, I welcome the Minister’s announcement. He referred to the target of 12% of electricity from renewable sources by 2012. That is just five years away, so it is important that we give that target the priority that it deserves.
I welcome the proposed amendment to The Renewables Obligation Order (Northern Ireland) 2007, even though it will be a technical amendment. The single electricity market is imminent, so it is only right and proper that, under the renewables obligation, our renewable generators get the credit for supplying energy to Northern Ireland consumers. Can the Minister indicate the likely financial loss to the renewables industry if the current position is not rectified as proposed? Moreover, I should appreciate it if the Minister were to clarify whether a wind farm in the Irish Republic would qualify for a certificate if it were linked directly to the Northern Ireland grid.
The single electricity market has had negative press in recent days. Does the Minister agree that it has the potential to transform the electricity market in Northern Ireland? Does he agree that it could open up new and exciting possibilities for a regional European market that involves the rest of the United Kingdom and countries such as France?
In conclusion, I should appreciate it if the Minister were to agree that such a competitive market potentially has the dynamic to deliver considerable benefits to Northern Ireland’s electricity consumers.
Mr Dodds: I am grateful to all Members who contributed to the debate for their consideration of this draft Statutory Rule. I am pleased to note the broad support for its provisions. The draft Order is technical, and it deals with a complicated area, but Members touched on important points.
I shall try to deal with particular points that Members raised, but if I am unable to do so now, I shall respond in writing to Members in greater detail.
Mr Gallagher raised the matter of the planning context and the need to streamline decisions. As he will be aware, those responsibilities fall primarily to the Department of the Environment. However, I assure him that my Department will work closely at official level with the Department of the Environment, because, from our perspective, we wish to process those matters as quickly as possible.
Moreover, Mr Gallagher mentioned the harmonisation of renewable support mechanisms for Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. There have been indications that the Irish Republic will follow Northern Ireland down the renewables obligation route. As was mentioned, the Irish Republic decided to introduce a feed-in tariff as its principal support mechanism.
Attempts to make financial support in one jurisdiction available to generators in another would be fraught with complications. Harmonisation of the existing renewable-energy support schemes in Northern Ireland and the Republic presents practical difficulties that would take considerable time to address. As I mentioned, different schemes operate in the two jurisdictions. The Irish Republic operates a feed-in tariff, while NIRO is linked to the renewables obligation in Great Britain. Moreover, separate state-aid approvals would require separate renegotiation with the European Union. Therefore, major problems exist with the kind of approach that Mr Gallagher outlined.
Mr Neeson spoke positively about the single electricity market, and I welcome his comments. I shall deal with the more general issues that he raised in a moment. In particular, he mentioned the project for Strangford Lough, and I know that that topic has been raised on several occasions. The proposal for a marine-current turbine would put the lough at the leading edge of tidal-stream technology. If the turbine is successfully installed, the project will be a renewables exemplar for the world, providing 1 MW of marine-based electricity to the Northern Ireland grid.
Plans to install the turbine in August 2007 had to be aborted because of technical difficulties that were outside the developer’s control. I am informed that any revised installation date will have to take account of seasonal and environmental issues as well as the availability of the necessary installation equipment.
I am grateful to Robin Newton for his contribution and for his positive remarks about the single electricity market. Although that issue is not being debated, it is relevant in the context of the draft Renewables Obligation (Amendment) Order (Northern Ireland) 2007. Several Members, including Mervyn Storey, have already — and rightly — described the benefits that the single electricity market brings to Northern Ireland. That market is a good classic example of the sort of economic co-operation that works for the mutual benefit of business and domestic electricity consumers in the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland. It makes sense to co-operate in that area.
Under a wider EU policy aim, of which the single electricity market forms a part, not only will the electricity markets in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic be linked eventually, but they will be connected to the market in Great Britain and, ultimately, to that in France. That will create further benefits for domestic and business consumers across a much wider area, thereby representing a positive development for our consumers. An independent cost-benefit analysis has estimated that those links will create overall net benefits that are worth £103 million over 10 years. Those benefits, most of which will go to consumers, will be split between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. The new market has the potential to deliver additional dynamic benefits of £135 million to £170 million across the island over 10 years to facilitate the creation of more competitive and wholesale retail markets.
Those are important points, especially given that some comments have been made about the introduction of a policy that sometimes focuses on increases in tariffs. It is important to bear in mind that the overall effect of the introduction of the new arrangements will lead to downward pressure on prices in the medium to long term.
As Mervyn Storey tends to do assiduously on behalf of his constituents, he also mentioned lignite. It is no surprise that he chose to mention that subject again today. May I put his mind and, no doubt, those of his constituents to rest by making it clear that my Department’s policy focus remains on increasing the use of renewable energy rather than on the exploitation of alternative fossil fuel sources. The Geological Survey of Northern Ireland has proposed a three-year extension to the moratorium on lignite. People will welcome that move as a positive step, and I know that the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment discussed the issue recently.
Mr Storey also mentioned the potential financial loss if the draft Order did not amend NIRO. If we do not approve the draft Order today, a failure to provide for NIRO within the single electricity market could lead to an annual loss to the existing renewables industry of around £9 million. Therefore, although the draft Order is technical in nature, it has an important effect.
Members also asked what would happen if generators in the Irish Republic were granted renewable obligation certificates. As I have said, the Irish Republic operates a separate grant-based support scheme for its indigenous renewable generation, and NIRO precludes generating stations that are located outside Northern Ireland from being eligible for renewable obligation certificates.
I conclude by restating the importance of the draft Order to ensuring the effectiveness of NIRO in the new single-market arrangements. It is imperative that Northern Ireland develops increased sources of renewable energy as we seek to play our part in addressing climate change and making our energy supply more secure.
The draft Order will ensure that our renewables policy remains robust and effective in the new electricity-market arrangements. I am delighted to be able to introduce this important piece of Executive legislation. Members on all sides of the House will be delighted to know that we are discussing legislation, albeit technical and complex legislation. Nevertheless, it is important, effective legislation that will — and does — make a difference for the people whom we represent.
Question put and agreed to.
That the draft Renewables Obligation (Amendment) Order (Northern Ireland) 2007 be approved.
Bill of Rights Forum Membership
Mr Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for this debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes for a winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes. Two amendments have been received and are published on the Marshalled List. The proposer of each amendment will have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes for a winding-up speech.
Miss McIlveen: I beg to move
That this Assembly acknowledges that the unionist community has been largely excluded from the human rights process in Northern Ireland and under-represented within the human rights sector, resulting in the Bill of Rights Forum having a clear imbalance in the composition of its membership; believes that without the support of all sections of our community any Bill of Rights process is fundamentally flawed; and calls upon the Secretary of State to address these problems urgently, by ensuring processes that will facilitate better engagement with the unionist community and ensuring that the membership of the Bill of Rights Forum is more reflective of all the people of Northern Ireland.
Throughout history, those of the unionist tradition have had no difficulties with the issue of human rights in general; we need only look at the Bill of Rights, which was enacted in 1689 as a result of the activities of King James II. That piece of legislation is so good that the Republic of Ireland decided to retain it under the Statute Law Revision Act 2007. Indeed, it remains in force in the United Kingdom. In fact, it formed the basis of that most vaunted piece of legislation, the US Bill of Rights, which was produced in 1789.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClarty] in the Chair)
In addition to the Bill of Rights, we also have the Human Rights Act 1998, which incorporates into UK law the European Convention on Human Rights. The rights that are espoused are protected and enforced by an independent judiciary. Given that those two fundamental pieces of legislation are in place, I wonder why we need a Bill of Rights Forum at all. The answer is, of course, contained in the Belfast Agreement, in which a:
“new Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission…will be invited to consult and to advise on the scope for defining, in Westminster legislation, rights supplementary to those in the European Convention on Human Rights, to reflect the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland, drawing as appropriate on international instruments and experience. These additional rights to reflect the principles of mutual respect for the identity and ethos of both communities and parity of esteem, and — taken together with the ECHR — to constitute a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland.”
The Bill of Rights Forum’s role is to formulate recommendations to the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) as it fulfils its statutory duty in providing advice to the Secretary of State on a future bill of rights for Northern Ireland.
I am sure that Members will agree that those are noble enough sentiments. However, surely bodies that are set up to protect the rights of the people of Northern Ireland should be reflective of those people.
In the first incarnation of the NIHRC, a unionist with a capital “u” could not have been found about the place. However, one would have found: Tom Donnelly of the SDLP; Angela Hegarty, a former vice-chairperson of the SDLP; Francis McGuinness of Trócaire; and Ms Patricia Kelly of the Children’s Law Centre. Patricia Kelly was on the board of the Centre for Research and Documentation in west Belfast. That body was co-founded by Caitríona Ruane, the Minister of Education and expert in South American human rights, and it is renowned for its publication of republican literature.
Selection for the NIHRC was intended, naturally, to portray community balance: instead, it was reflective of a sector that has been skewed against unionists. Some efforts have gone into rectifying the situation in the present incarnation of the NIHRC, but the mistakes are once again evident in the Bill of Rights Forum.
Even though the forum comprises three representatives each from the DUP, UUP, SDLP and Sinn Féin respectively and two representatives from the Alliance Party — which is not indicative of the electoral wishes of the people of Northern Ireland — it is completed by 14 unelected representatives. I say “representatives”, but in the majority of cases, there is no accountability.
Two unelected representatives are from the Churches: one from the Roman Catholic Church, and one from the Irish Council of Churches, which has amongst its membership representatives from congregations as diverse as the Russian Orthodox Church, the Rock of Ages Cherubim and Seraphim Church, the Antiochian Orthodox Church in Ireland, the Church of Ireland and the Presbyterian Church. The evangelical Churches in Northern Ireland do not have the benefit of a voice on the forum. Of the 102,221 other Christian-related church attendees who took part in the 2001 census, approximately 95,000 have no say.
The alternate to Annie Campbell, as women’s representative on the forum, is Margaret Ward — a widely published author of numerous books about militant Irish nationalist women. It does not take an incredible stretch of the imagination to appreciate her political leanings: they are a little more red than pink. She is director of the women’s resource and development agency, and is co-convenor, along with Sorcha McKenna, of the children and young people and women’s working group. Children are represented by Patricia Kelly. I have no difficulty with republican children being represented, but unionist children must also have a champion.
The human rights sector is represented by Aideen Gilmore of the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ), who is also convener of the working group for the preamble and interpretation. Kieran McEvoy sits on the working group for civil and political rights, and Maggie Beirne sits on the working group for economic and social rights.
The CAJ is no friend of unionism, and that is clear from its recent report ‘Equality in Northern Ireland: the rhetoric and the reality’. It styles itself as an independent, cross-community, human rights organisation, but its documents reek of anti-unionism and anti-Britishness. The CAJ does not sit on the working group for criminal justice and victims, but its appointed legal advisers are Mary O’Rawe and Linda Moore who have been published by the CAJ. Mary O’Rawe has appeared as a member of the CAJ before the House of Commons along with previous NIHRC chief commissioner, Brice Dickson — hardly anything to enhance unionist confidence.
Mr Attwood: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Will you make a ruling on whether it is appropriate for a Member to list people’s names — [Interruption.]
Mr Campbell: That is not a point of order.
Mr Attwood: It is a point of order, and I ask the Member to hear me out. Is it in order for a Member to list a series of people’s names in the House for the record, associate those people with the CAJ and subsequently refer to them as producing documents that “reek of anti-unionism and anti-Britishness”? Is it in order to associate individuals with that sort of partisan and narrow comment? Is it not out of order that those people are named in such a way?
Mr Deputy Speaker: The simple answer to your question, Mr Attwood, is that it is in order to do so: it is part and parcel of political cut and thrust, and that is why Members have limited privilege in the House.
Mr Attwood: It may well be cut and thrust between political parties and politicians, but to visit those sorts of comments upon individuals who are carrying out their functions in the public world — I suggest to you, Mr Deputy Speaker — is out of order and inappropriate for the House.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Mr Attwood, I have made a ruling. It is perfectly in order.
Miss McIlveen: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I was merely setting the scene and putting my comments into context.
Amazingly, at a time when Northern Ireland seeks a bill of rights to:
“reflect the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland”
the Loyal Orders are not given their voice in any of the working groups, let alone in the forum itself. Instead, they have been given the token status of observer. What is more particular to Northern Ireland than our marching culture? The Orange Order has around 75,000 members. On the other side of the coin, Mr Hanway, the representative of the Travelling community, speaks for 7,100 Travellers, according to the 2001 census.
Over the years, Northern Ireland’s human rights sector has been hijacked for political purposes by anti-unionists. People who would not have been elected are given equal, and sometimes greater, status than those who have been mandated by the electorate of Northern Ireland. The NIHRC was meant to reflect the community make-up but does not, and neither does the Bill of Rights Forum.
Valid issues were raised in ‘The Irish News’ last week, when it was claimed that the bill of rights was in danger of becoming “a left-wing wish list”. That is little wonder, with the panel of communists, Marxists and socialists that has been assembled. I echo the representations made by the CBI to the NIHRC that:
“additional rights should only be included where there is clear evidence that the ECHR does not cater adequately for the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland.”
The Loyal Orders and the evangelical churches do not have a voice. Political representatives on the forum do not correlate with the views of the voting public, and the politics of Members who have been nominated to act for women, children and human rights are patently, and unequivocally, anti-unionist. The power to deal with that rests with the Secretary of State.
Those issues, raised by the DUP since the first meeting of the forum, have yet to be adequately addressed. There will be no confidence in the forum unless there is a balance.
The Assembly needs to send out a message to the Secretary of State that for a bill of rights for Northern Ireland to reflect the principles of mutual respect and parity of esteem for the identity and ethos of both communities, the body charged with advising the NIHRC must itself reflect those principles.
I ask Members to support the motion.
Mr A Maginness: I beg to move amendment No 1: Leave out all after “Assembly” and insert
“believes that a successful bill of rights process requires the input and support of all sections of our community; welcomes the cross-party, cross-community and cross-sectoral participation in the Bill of Rights Forum; acknowledges that additional resources have been granted to enable greater outreach to priority groups, including the unionist community; and wishes the forum well in all its endeavours.”
This is a very important debate, and a good opportunity to place on record the work of the forum to date and its noble objective to reach agreement on additional rights for people living in Northern Ireland.
For most of Northern Ireland’s history, certainly since the 1920s and through the Troubles, we have not had a rights-based society, and it is important for us to build one. We have had a society based on security considerations instead of rights. Now, we see a transformation into a rights-based society in which we are all winners, and a bill of rights will strengthen the safeguards and develop that culture of rights for all of us.
Throughout the world, the human rights culture arose from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, the genesis for which was the Second World War and the horrific crimes committed by the Nazis and others.
So horrible was the experience of people who lived through that war that they were determined to eradicate such horrors, in so far as they could. That is why we have the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of which the European Convention on Human Rights is reflective. It is important for all of us to remember that. We are dealing with something that is of great value and worth to our society, and which has shaped and formed many political systems throughout the world, particularly here in Ireland, Britain and throughout Europe. It is important that Members support human rights.
Human rights are not partisan, but reflect universal rights throughout the world. In trying to create a bill of rights, we are attempting to help everyone in our society.
The bill of rights arises from the Belfast Agreement, and the forum arises from the St Andrews Agreement. It is important that all Members remember that, and to bear in mind that those who seek to criticise that process are criticising what was agreed at St Andrews. The terms of reference for the forum are reflective of the original terms of reference in the Good Friday Agreement: that rights that are supplementary to the European Convention of Human Rights should be devised for the circumstances of Northern Ireland. The forum has been set that task. That is an important task and it will ultimately advise the NIHRC, which will present the bill of rights to Westminster, where, hopefully, it will be enacted through legislation. That is an important exercise.
There has been criticism that that exercise has been biased in some way. I cannot understand that. The terms of reference and the make-up of the forum show that it is clearly representative of the whole of society. It has 14 political representatives who represent all the main strands of political opinion in Northern Ireland, and that could not be fairer or more proportionate. The non-political representation reflects a vast cross section of our society, taking in the trade unions, the employers, the Churches, the human rights non-governmental organisation (NGO) sector, and the community and voluntary sectors. How much more representative could one get?
I have heard criticisms of individuals and, Mr Deputy Speaker, you have said that it is in order for Members to criticise people. However, it is not necessary for a Member to name individuals in that process. That is wrong because those individuals do not have an opportunity to respond, and it is wrong to personalise such matters. Those are good organisations. For example, the Committee on the Administration of Justice is a long-standing organisation that has done good and effective work in a wide range of justice and human rights issues. It has won international accolade —
Mr Weir: The Member has mentioned the Committee on the Administration of Justice, which has, apparently, done good work. Is that a different Committee on the Administration of Justice to the one that is commonly known?
Mr McCartney: Where is the point of order?
Mr Weir: If the Member listened, he would know that that was an intervention, not a point of order.
Is that a different CAJ to the one that the rest of us know?
Mr A Maginness: I do not understand the criticisms of the CAJ, which has been recognised by serious international bodies as an outstanding model of an NGO in this field. Members may laugh and sneer as much as they want, but that is the reality. The CAJ goes about its work seriously and professionally — not in a partisan fashion. That also applies to many of the other organisations that have been criticised today.
The Bill of Rights Forum was constructed to reflect the totality of society. If there are deficiencies, people are free to present their points of view. Recently, the forum, under the able chairmanship of Chris Sidoti, received an additional £100,000 of Government funding in order to engage in outreach work and to appoint outreach workers — the thing that Members have criticised it for lacking. The forum has that capacity, has been given that money and will carry out that work. The criticisms of it are misplaced.
The forum engages in valuable work. It is tedious, painstaking and difficult to reach consensus on such difficult issues. It is of value to every Member of the House and everybody in the community. The least that we can do is to show support for the forum’s good work. It is serious work, its members are serious, and political criticism of those people is extremely unfair. I believe that they would totally reject such criticisms.
Members of the Bill of Rights Forum have a sincere and open agenda. They come from different sectors and, of course, they have individual political — and other — points of view. However, they are united in a consensus to achieve the best possible bill of rights for everyone in Northern Ireland. Members should support them.
Ms Anderson: I beg to move amendment No 2: Leave out all after “acknowledges” and insert
“that the involvement of all people in the process leading to a bill of rights is vital; and that the absence of real participation and representation from within any sector would make the achievement of a bill of rights more difficult.”
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom seasamh i gcoinne an mholta agus ar son an leasaithe. I speak against the motion and in favour of amendment No 2. I welcome the debate and thank Gregory and Michelle for tabling the motion and for getting it on the Order Paper. Go raibh míle maith agat. Sinn Féin is content to support the SDLP amendment.
The proposal for a bill of rights goes to the heart of the historic process in which we are engaged. The heart is as much in the process as it is in the end product, and the process must achieve the real, inclusive participation of each and every sector of society. It is important for any sector that feels excluded from the process to action a remedy, and Members must ensure the greatest possible participation in order to make real the notion of democracy as a dynamic, ongoing, persistent and two-way dialogue between the Government and the governed.
As the DUP is aware, the NIO conducted a consultation process on the remit and composition of the round-table forum. Despite the fact that many, including Sinn Féin, wished to have a more balanced forum, the final product strikes an adequate representative balance. Furthermore, the DUP agreed to the establishment of the Bill of Rights Forum at St Andrews.
All parties in the forum have made the point that the observer facility must be used to address some of the gaps. The forum has many observers at its meetings, including organisations such as the WAVE victims’ group and the Loyal Orders. I hope that Irish speakers and the GAA will also attend soon.
Overall, the members of the forum comprise an even balance of representatives from political and civic society.
Every forum member has agreed that, in addition to the forum’s outreach programme, members have a wider responsibility to engage their constituencies and sectors so that they act as conduits for engaging the public in the bill of rights debate.
Many of the organisations represented on the forum deal with the rights of elderly people, disabled people, women and children, to name but a few. Those cross-cutting rights affect substantial sections of the population, regardless of religious or political affiliation. Therefore, it would be entirely wrong to suggest that sectors of the forum are partisan; they represent society as a whole. Shame on Michelle McIlveen; she has tarnished the names of groups that work hard for the people in our communities.
The special circumstances of our histories in the North necessitated the right to define, by participation, all the people in that discourse. The forum has identified many groups to which it must reach out, including those in the unionist and nationalist communities as well as those that do not identify with either community.
We have the opportunity to influence the drawing up of a bill of rights that enshrines, and rests on, the core values of humanity, human dignity, equality, freedom, non-racism and non-sexism. We must promote genuine agreement across political divides that human rights are for all. They are not a zero-sum game to be played out between conflicting partisan interests. We are not looking for an equal, negotiated balance between sides in a conflict; we are looking to the greater principles that underpin our humanity and can enable us to build a future that is not marred by unacceptable histories of conflict and division.
The fundamental issue, on which all this is based, is the participative process. Hence, the forum must employ outreach workers because, while sections of our community are excluded — or feel excluded — we are confined to the straitjacket of seeing this huge adventure as a zero-sum game.
The disconnection between the forum and the communities was discussed at length at the bill of rights conference in Derry over the weekend. All delegates agreed that the issue required urgent attention and that outreach workers must be employed as soon as possible.
However, from the outset, the crucial measure of the forum’s success — the very basis of its legitimacy — is that the majority of people, whatever their race, religion, ethnicity, political or community affiliation, can say that the bill of rights is theirs.
If the bill of rights is to achieve ongoing dialogue between the governed and the Government, we must be committed to the transformation of society. We have the opportunity to do that now. We must clearly negotiate the inseparable and inextricable link between civic/political rights and social/economic rights. The bill of rights must provide and deliver a remedy, or its legitimacy and people’s trust in its participating groups will vanish.
People justifiably expect that the peace process and the power-sharing Executive will vindicate rights. They await education, training, apprenticeships and good jobs for all, housing — and affordable housing at that — that will enable all people to live in safety, peace and stability, without fear, and that will allow everyone to develop their full capabilities.
A bill of rights must protect the disadvantaged, such as the 82-year-old woman, known only as YL, who had Alzheimer’s disease and who was evicted from a private care home in England, which was carrying out a public function. Such cases could happen here, but they must not be allowed to, and a bill of rights could prevent them from happening.
We must recognise that minorities must be protected from the majority, especially in a democracy in which minorities can always be outvoted and majorities remain indifferent. The involvement of all people and organisations, such as the Anti-Poverty Network, which is concerned about poverty wherever it resonates, is crucial. The absence of participation in representation from any sector makes the achievement of a bill of rights more difficult. It takes courage.
We must protect the freedom of expression of those whose opinions we find most obnoxious and respect the religious beliefs of those whose moral philosophy conflicts with our own most deeply held convictions.
Our bill of rights should become a beacon to Ireland, Europe and the world. It should be worthy of what has been described as one of the great triumphs of the human spirit — the power-sharing Executive that has been established here.
It is vital that all the people are involved in the process that leads to a bill of rights. The Bill of Rights Forum is clear that additional work is needed to engage with many groups, including those who may potentially mistrust the concept of human rights.
It is not simply a case of one community that is identified as not having engaged fully in the consultation process undertaken by the Human Rights Commission. The forum has agreed to target outreach efforts at engaging others too, such as the disabled, children, and those living in rural communities and TSN areas.
It is wrong to single out one community or group above all others. The bill of rights needs to be the people’s document, and we, in this Assembly, must lend our support to the facilitation of a process that will make it possible to better engage all the people, resulting in nothing less than rights for all. Go raibh míle maith agat.
Mr Kennedy: I am pleased to participate in what is private Members’ motion number 69 in the lifetime of this Assembly. I say that by way of context because the Ulster Unionist Party has advocated a bill of rights for a long time. As far back as 1972 our party proposed the introduction of:
“a precise and comprehensive Bill of Rights.”
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, we urged that the European Convention on Human Rights be incorporated into United Kingdom law to protect fundamental rights and liberties. In 1998, we supported the drafting of rights, supplemental to the European Convention on Human Rights, addressing the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland — described as:
“the principles of mutual respect for the identity and ethos of both communities and parity of esteem”.
We recently reiterated our support for a bill of rights through the Preparation for Government Committee’s ‘Report on Rights, Safeguards, Equality Issues and Victims’. It is on that basis that the Ulster Unionist Party is committed to participation in the Bill of Rights Forum.
The Ulster Unionist Party understands the sentiments behind the DUP motion and the two amendments. The motion, in particular, recognises unionist concern at how the bill of rights process has extended far beyond the remit and mandate provided by the Belfast Agreement. If the forum is to work properly, and if the bill of rights process is to be effective, it will be important that the concerns expressed during this debate are heard and responded to.
The SDLP amendment urges the forum to proceed by consensus in the interests of all the people of Northern Ireland, stating that:
“a successful Bill of Rights process requires the input and support of all sections of our community”.
That word “support” is vital. Support from across the political spectrum and the entire community will be essential if the process is to have a successful outcome. That, in turn, means that it will be essential that the bill of rights retains the support and confidence of the majority of the unionist community.
The Ulster Unionist Party is gravely concerned at some of the proposals that have been suggested for inclusion in a bill of rights — proposals that were not the original intention of the Belfast Agreement. The agreement talks of supplementary rights to the Human Rights Act, to address the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland. The purpose of such supplementary rights is to address the tensions and grievances in our divided society. That aim is modest, but it is still incredibly significant. In that context, it is worth noting that extensive socio-economic rights were never part of the mandate given by the agreement.
The DUP motion and the amendments share the concern to ensure consensus on the forum. I trust that a careful note will be taken of the concerns expressed during this debate. Without consensus, the forum will fail, and any bill of rights proposals will become a cause of great division.
Although it has some sympathy with the SDLP amendment, the Ulster Unionist Party will support the motion in order to express its grave concern at aspects of the bill of rights process.
The debate is not about names and backgrounds but about policy and ideology. One hopes that Miss McIlveen does not, at an early stage, find herself in the company of forum members, given that she did not have a good word to say about many of them. Nonetheless, there is a real debate to take place on policy and ideology, and on what the Belfast Agreement intended for Northern Ireland by:
“rights supplementary to those in the European Convention on Human Rights”.
That is the real debate.
Dr Farry: I speak both as a member of the Northern Ireland Bill of Rights Forum and as its supporter. In trying to find a degree of consensus between politicians and civil society that can form the basis of a way forward, the forum provides an important function in the long-running discussion over a bill of rights.
Mr Kennedy said that the Ulster Unionist Party’s involvement with a bill of rights goes back to 1972. I will go a decade better: we have been discussing a bill of rights for Northern Ireland since as far back as 1962, when the then Liberal MP for Queen’s University, Sheelagh Murnaghan, proposed a motion on the subject in this Chamber. More than 40 years on, we are still discussing the subject. It is important that we bring that discussion to a close as soon as possible.
In supporting a bill of rights for Northern Ireland, I speak as a liberal, not as a socialist, communist or Marxist. It is important to recognise that there is support for the concept of a bill of rights for Northern Ireland right across society. Opinion poll research shows that there is support for it among all sections of the community.
I was planning to recognise some of the DUP’s concerns and give it some reassurance, and I will still try to do that. However, I must say that I found the approach that the DUP took — of listing names — to be totally inappropriate and fundamentally counterproductive. It does not reflect well on those who tabled the motion.
Historically, the unionist section of the community has lacked engagement with the bill of rights process. We all recognise that, and the forum has taken that fact on board. Affirmative action to address that deficit is planned in the months to come.
We must recognise that the forum is a combination of civil society and political representatives. It has not been set up to represent the political balance of power that exists in the Assembly. Furthermore, it is a fundamental mistake to try to place party political labelling on any member who sits on the forum as a representative of civil society. Those members are not there to represent a political point of view but to represent their sector in what is an important debate.
There is an issue surrounding how representative of civil society the forum is. All Members will recognise that to try to represent the complexity of civil society in a body of manageable size is an impossible task. I have no doubt that mistakes have been made in that respect. However, the challenge of trying to create a purely representative body is an impossible one.
Consider the Churches. Given the religious diversity that exists in Northern Ireland, all the places that are allotted to civil society would be filled by representatives of Churches. To represent the vast number of Christian Churches in Northern Ireland would in itself be an impossible task, without trying to ensure representation from other faith groups, as well as non-faith groups, that we now have in Northern Ireland society.
The forum serves a purpose in that it allows a critical mass of views to be placed on the table. The fear that unionists have — if I understand the basis of their argument — is that they see a situation arising in which most, or all, of civil society will line up with the representatives of nationalism and push the two unionist parties into a corner. That outcome would then be at odds with the majority of political opinion in society, as represented by the most recent Assembly election results.
Those fears are unfounded for two reasons. The practical reality — if not quite the legal reality — is that the Assembly would have to endorse any draft Northern Ireland bill of rights. If it were not so endorsed, there would be fundamental problems in implementing it. Given their position in the Assembly, unionists must take some comfort from that fact.
Members must recognise that there are voices within the Bill of Rights Forum who will take a responsible attitude to avoid a situation where two parties are cornered on outcome after outcome. It would be a disaster for the Bill of Rights Forum if that pattern of voting emerged, and action would need to be taken quickly to address that fundamental imbalance.
There is value in the partnership approach to political and civil society working together. It is incumbent on the members of the Bill of Rights Forum to be mindful to ensure that their recommendations will have the power to influence the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, to get the support of the Assembly and to persuade the British Government. We have a very important task in front of us, and provided that we reflect universality, and international standards and conventions, no one in Northern Ireland has anything to fear. Rather, a proper bill of rights that addresses the circumstances of Northern Ireland is something to look forward to.
Mr McCausland: I am one of the DUP representatives on the Bill of Rights Forum, and I support the motion, which states that:
“this Assembly acknowledges that the unionist community has been largely excluded from the human rights process in Northern Ireland”.
When looking back over the years, Members will find that that is the case. Back in the early 1970s, the Association for Legal Justice was set up as an entirely nationalist organisation, and it was followed by the Committee on the Administration of Justice and the Children’s Law Centre. Dermot Nesbitt made a point at one of the meetings of the Bill of Rights Forum, with which I concur on the basis of personal experience. When unionist concerns are brought to those groups the letters are not answered, as Dermot put it, or ideas that were put into the melting pot somehow fall out of the system, are ignored and forgotten. It is clear that the unionist community has been largely excluded from the human rights process and the human rights sector in Northern Ireland.
I turn now to the next part of the motion, which says that unionists are:
“under-represented within the human rights sector, resulting in the Bill of Rights Forum having a clear imbalance in the composition of its membership”.
The DUP representatives raised that point at the first meeting of the Bill of Rights Forum when we highlighted the exclusion of representatives from the victims sector, the Loyal Orders and the smaller evangelical churches. Nine months later, nothing has been done about those concerns.
Mr A Maginness: The Orange Order is an observer to the Bill of Rights Forum, and any other organisation can become an observer easily.
Mr McCausland: The point that Alban makes is entirely correct. I proposed that a number of organisations should be given observer status, but the key point is that an observer does not have a vote. An observer is allowed to come and view the process, but is excluded from being part of the process.
Mr A Maginness: Will the Member take a further intervention?
Mr McCausland: No, I do not have time to take a further point as I have too much left to cover.
Let us get down to the core issue regarding the elements that make up the Bill of Rights Forum. My colleague Michelle McIlveen has already mentioned Paddy Kelly of the Children’s Law Centre, a good friend of Caitríona Ruane’s. It becomes obvious that there is an issue when the women’s sector is represented by Margaret Ward and Annie Campbell. There should be representatives from the Townswomen’s Guild, the Presbyterian Women’s Association, the Mothers’ Unions, or the Women’s Orange Order, for example. Who do we get? We get Annie Campbell and Margaret Ward.
It is wide of the mark to say that the current representatives are from civic society and are non-political. Take the example of Margaret Ward. I could do the same with a whole series of representatives, but I will tease out the history of that individual. Margaret Ward started off as a member of the People’s Democracy and was a founder member of the Socialist Women’s Group in October 1975, which was one of the key foundation organisations of the women’s rights movement — the other was the Women’s Rights Movement itself, which was set up largely by the Communist Party. However, let us stick with Margaret for a moment. As one of the founders of the Socialist Women’s Group, she said that it was made up of women from various places such as the People’s Democracy, the Revolutionary Marxist Group and the Irish Workers’ Group — obviously a broad spectrum. [Interruption.]
No, the Women’s Institute did not quite make it that day.
That is the sort of organisation from which Margaret Ward came. She explained that it was a Trotskyite group, to which women came from all those organisations. She, and others, went on to say that the organisation tried to link women’s oppression, partition and the imperialist domination of Ireland. There would not have been many unionists in that organisation. Clearly, it did not represent a broad spectrum of views.
The other organisation was the women’s rights movement, which was set up by Lynda Edgerton-Walker, who is a member of the Communist Party, and another communist, Ann Hope — the same Ann Hope who is also a Human Rights Commission observer at the Bill of Rights Forum.
I could mention a few more such people. However, the point has been well and truly made. When those points were made by my colleague Miss McIlveen, Alex Attwood and Alban Maginness squirmed and Sinn Féin Members laughed. However, the facts speak for themselves. It was an embarrassed laugh and squirm from those Members.
If there is to be a Bill of Rights Forum, it must be reflective of Northern Ireland society. Mr Maginness mentioned outreach — outreach is aimed at those who are on the outside. A basic human rights requirement in any society, if it is to sign up to international human rights standards, is the right to participation. The current membership of the Bill of Rights Forum denies that to large sections of society, including the Women’s Institute, the Townswomen’s Guild and others — the sort of ordinary women who are represented by Michelle McIlveen.
Mr Weir: Like the last two Members, I want to state that I am a member of the Bill of Rights Forum. I must also make an even greater confession: I agree with at least one comment that Martina Anderson made when moving her amendment. She said that the end result should be that every citizen of Northern Ireland is able to say that the bill of rights belongs to him or her. That is the point of the DUP’s motion: my party wants a bill of rights that is supported by everyone across Northern Ireland.
However, if a system is created in which there is not a level playing field and one community feels that it has not been given proper representation, an inclusive buy-in will not be achieved. For all the great words of the parties opposite in regard to their amendments, the problem is that, essentially, those amendments do not acknowledge the elephant in the room, which is the composition of the Bill of Rights Forum and, indeed, the process that has been put in place.
Much has been said about the political composition of the forum. The 14 political representatives do not reflect the electoral strengths of the political parties. The DUP has 36 representatives in the Assembly — one third of overall representation — but has just one more place in the forum than the Alliance Party, which has merely seven seats in the Assembly. If it were simply a question of the number of faces around the table, that would not matter. However, any voting systems that have been discussed have been on the basis that every member of the forum — irrespective of whether they are elected representatives, or what party they may come from — has exactly the same vote. Consequently, the DUP’s three votes will only outnumber the Alliance Party’s by one, despite the fact that it has over five times the political strength of that party. That does not create the necessary degree of political balance.
Mr A Maginness: I understand the Member’s argument. However, the real substance of the forum’s procedures is that agreement is by consensus, not by totting up votes. Even if there were disproportionate votes, ultimately it would not matter.
Mr Weir: It would not matter, if absolute consensus were the only method by which a motion could be passed. However, there exists a loose model of sufficient consensus, in which several members can object to a motion, but it can still be passed. Dr Farry voiced his concern that members could gang up against the two unionist parties, yet when the proposition was made, with the support of the DUP and the Ulster Unionists, that sufficient consensus should require the support of the political wings of both communities — that, if either the unionist community or the nationalist community was opposed to something, it would not pass — we found ourselves completely outvoted by everyone.
Six unionist hands went up — and not one other hand went up on the other side. The vast majority of the forum went against us, with the honourable exception of a couple of independents, who abstained on the issue. Few faces around that table were sympathetic to the unionist position. There were not too many people who —
Dr Farry: Does the Member recognise that the forum has deferred the final discussion on voting mechanisms to the end of the process, given the concerns that have been raised? Would he also accept that the Alliance Party did take unionist concerns on board at the meeting in July, and suggested that discussion be deferred, having recognised a fundamental problem?
Mr Weir: That issue came to head only when a solution was going to be imposed upon us, and the unionist parties were on the point of walking out of the forum. It was the imminent collapse of the forum that caused some, at least, to back off. When looking around that table, there were not too many people on whom I could be overly reliant if I were looking for votes in relation to that matter. Outreach is grand, but it does not give one a place at the table or a vote in the final say. Unfortunately, we are going to be faced with a forum that is likely — unless corrective action is taken by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland — to produce a report that is so off beam that it is sheer madness.
A representative of one of the Churches complained of loneliness because of the weight of opposition to the views of that Church — that demonstrates that things have gone badly wrong. Members of that forum are aiming to repeal trade union laws of the 1980s. How is that particular to the circumstances of Northern Ireland? The type of agenda that is being pushed may be particular to the circumstances of 1960’s Cuba, but it is not particular to Northern Ireland in the late 2000s.
With the best will in the world, some degree of corrective action must be taken, and a level playing field created, so that the voice of unionists, the voice of victims, and the voice of the Loyal Orders is heard. Is there any issue that is more particular to the circumstances of Northern Ireland than the cultural matters that surround the Loyal Orders? However, those people are excluded, and there is a raft of other people on the forum who are not representative. Unless those changes are made, we are going to waste an awful lot of time. That is not acceptable.
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Member’s time is up.
Mr Elliott: I thank the Members who proposed the motion. The Ulster Unionist Party has worked hard to ensure that the rights that are afforded to the people of Northern Ireland have always been in their best interests, in the context of the Union and the wider United Kingdom. For example, since 1998, we have continued to support consideration of the scope for rights that are supplemental to the Human Rights Act 1998, and which address the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland.
However, we are always mindful of the need to maintain our position in the confines of British rights that are afforded to all citizens throughout the United Kingdom. We are committed to ensuring that everyone in Northern Ireland shares in our cherished position of equal citizenship in the United Kingdom — meaning that all are guaranteed fundamental rights and liberties. That commitment shapes our approach to any ideas about a bill of rights. Rights are not just for nationalism; they are not just for Roman Catholicism; and they are not just for unionism — they are for everyone, and that is why I want everyone to be equal.
The forum does not exist to provide an opportunity for individuals to write a Programme for Government. The forum’s aim should be to address the potential need for some supplementary rights in Northern Ireland for all communities, and parity of esteem for everyone — given our special circumstances, which are sometimes described as the principles of mutual respect for identity and ethos. Northern Ireland’s position as a member of the United Kingdom, and, therefore, subject to the Human Rights Act 1998, has been ratified by the people of Northern Ireland.
There is no need to have a separate bill of rights to replace that which has been accepted in the rest of the United Kingdom. However, we are not ignorant of the differences that have existed in this part of the kingdom for the past 40 years; therefore, we recognise the need for discretion in matters that concern our country. That is why we continue to support the scope for supplementary rights and support the forum’s role in addressing those rights.
It is rich to hear some people in the Province talk about human rights, especially as over the past 40 years, the murderous attacks that many of them have waged against the people of this Province have destroyed the basic human right to life.
Although the motion is concerned with membership of the forum, that is not the most crucial issue. Rather, it is more important that the forum reaches decisions by consensus. Making any decision without proper consensus will lead only to division. I have no doubt that to draw up a bill of rights for Northern Ireland without consensus would lead to division. It would drive a wedge through our society at a time when people are trying to work together. We should not be forced together — people have too often attempted to do that. Only now are communities beginning to work together, and, in many areas, they are working together for the first time in over 40 years. Without consensus, a bill of rights would not only be a divisive element in a process that strives for cohesion, it would create a vacuum into which would return the distrust and hatred that has plagued our society for far too long.
The Bill of Rights Forum needs to be mindful of the mandate that the people of Northern Ireland have given to it. Through that mandate, the forum has the power to make decisions that should be beneficial to everyone in Northern Ireland. Dialogue and consultation have been guiding principles throughout the Province. I urge people to remember that any Northern Ireland-specific rights that supplement those in the Human Rights Act 1998 must be comparable to and compatible with any emerging broader UK framework, including, for example, the British bill of rights and duties that the UK Government suggested recently.
If the forum can keep to its mandate, pursue its goals with consensus in mind, and remember the broader scope for movement that exists in the rights issue in the United Kingdom, a positive outcome may be reached. However, if it does not take that approach, there can be no such outcome.
Mr Attwood: Miss McIlveen has done herself a disservice this morning. Members from across the Chamber have noted that, in previous debates, she has been at times thorough, and, at other times, thoughtful. However, this morning she was neither. I trust that she might reflect on her comments, which ill serve the debate on a bill of rights and proper party debate in the Chamber.
I disagree with her fundamental point. She said that she endorsed the CBI’s views on the proposals for a bill of rights. I presume that she endorsed those views on behalf of her party. As I understand it, the CBI has essentially said that it will sign up to little beyond that which is contained in the European Convention on Human Rights and in the Human Rights Act 1998. In that regard, we are missing a beat. If we do not, through the Bill of Rights Forum and the processes that are involved with that, reach a conclusion that relies not just on the individual and civil liberties that are outlined in the European Convention on Human Rights and the Human Rights Act 1998, and if we do not embrace the other international conventions, especially those that the UN has advanced, we will be doing another disservice to the people of the North.
Mr Kennedy remarked on the 69 motions that have been debated in the House. If we analyse those, it is clear that, time after time, they have addressed issues that involve income, health, housing and education. Indeed, they have addressed the full range of social and economic inequalities that exist in the North. If we adopt the approach of the CBI or the DUP, whereby issues that involve the economic and social entitlement and rights of the citizens in the North would not form part of the bill of rights, the Assembly, the Bill of Rights Forum, and, more crucially, the people of the North, will have missed an important strategic opportunity.
I ask the DUP to consider that point of substance in any further contributions that it might make to the debate on a Bill of Rights Forum.
In 2000, when Mary Robinson was in the North in her role as UN high commissioner on human rights, she said that our human rights proposals were the part of the political process in which the people of the world were most interested. That is a measure of the importance of the Bill of Rights Forum and the architecture around human rights that was created further to the Good Friday Agreement. As evidence that people are watching the North to see what we might or might not do, one only has to look back to the summer of 2007, when the DUP — rightly — went to a Scandinavian country to give advice to the people and parties of Iraq about lessons that could be learned, in their objective circumstances, given what we have endured over the past 40 to 50 years.
Mr Campbell: Scandinavia really is in the north.
Mr Attwood: I do not know whether that was an intervention. I will certainly give way to the Member.
The point is that there is something worth sharing. Mary Robinson said that the work being done by the people of Northern Ireland, through the parties and others, on human rights’ entitlements was most worth sharing. For those reasons, I suggest that the Bill of Rights Forum should have an impetus to have the maximum human rights protections available, rather than that which John Reid suggested when he was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, in which the British Government would listen only to proposals of a minimal rather than more general nature. In the wake of this debate, some of those who are involved in the forum process must carry out a strategic reassessment of its real requirements.
I do not really understand the motivation behind the motion. Is it to beat up on the Bill of Rights Forum process because of a perceived — and sometimes real — lack of proportion about its overall membership, or is the DUP positioning an obstacle in the way of political development in the North? Is this an attempt by the DUP to put down markers in order to bring about gridlock in the politics of the North in six months’ time, in the event that no consensus has been reached on the Bill of Rights Forum process?
Mr Hamilton: I am a member of the Bill of Rights forum, as unpopular as that declaration might be on the unionist Benches. Protestants and unionists do not fear rights; indeed, as the proposer of the motion said, going back to the bill of rights of 1689, which was a key element of the Williamite settlement, it was people of Protestant and Ulster stock who helped to form and pen the Declaration of Independence and subsequent Bill of Rights in the United States. Indeed, the solemn league and covenant of 1912 could rightly be described as a rights-based document. Rights are part and parcel of Protestant and unionist history and heritage.
Unionists, however, became detached — or more accurately, dislodged — from the rights process. That was understandable in Northern Ireland, as Tom Elliott mentioned. It was sickening for many unionists to hear the clamour for rights coming most loudly and frequently from those who denied basic rights to people in our country. It was nauseating to hear how barristers or solicitors who defended terrorists or suspected terrorists were referred to as human rights lawyers. That caused great unease in the unionist community.
That disconnection has led to under-representation in the human rights sector, and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission has been used as an example to demonstrate that. Membership of the Bill of Rights Forum is not fully or truly reflective of Northern Ireland society, and there is a clear under-representation of the unionist community. Perhaps in spite of that, however, unionists are participating in good faith in the process, but everyone involved must accept that, given the political realities of Northern Ireland, unionists must not only be part of the process but have ownership of it and agree to its outcomes.
As mentioned by other Members, the forum’s aim is to advise the Human Rights Commission on what should be included in a bill of rights for Northern Ireland. It has been argued that such a bill is required because of the particular circumstances of our recent past. I agree with the concerns expressed by Danny Kennedy that the discussion has concentrated extensively on economic and social rights. That perhaps reflects the membership of the Bill of Rights Forum.
I will concentrate briefly on two particular aspects of our past that are inalienable when it comes to rights. If any aspects are particular to the circumstances of Northern Ireland, they are those of culture, including parading, and of victims. Quite appallingly, there are no representatives on the forum who can discuss the rights of the cultural sector or of innocent victims. Indeed, at last Friday’s forum meeting in Londonderry, the convenor of the group that is dealing with victims’ rights, the Very Reverend Dr Samuel Hutchinson, said that one of the problems faced by the working group was that there was no representative from the victims’ group sector on the forum. The forum comprises representatives from a wide range of sectors in civil society, including women, sexual orientation, the Travelling community, children and ethnic minorities. However, there is nobody from the loyal orders or innocent victims’ groups. If issues such as cultural rights and victims’ rights are to be addressed, there should be representation from those quarters in the forum.
Although the Catholic Church and the Irish Council of Churches are represented on the forum, that does not reflect the broad swathe of Churches in Northern Ireland, particularly the evangelical Churches, which represent a growing sector in Northern Ireland. The Caleb Foundation, the Orange Order and the Ulster-Scots Heritage Council have observer status in the forum. However, they only have that status at the insistence of the DUP; and I am quite appalled at the suggestion by Alban Maginness that those groups should be happy to have second-class status in the forum, without either a vote or a voice. Those comments were not missed on the unionist side of the House.
I welcome the further investment of £100,000 by the Secretary of State into outreach work, including work in the unionist community. However, there would be no need for that outreach work if those groups were properly represented in the forum. The bill of rights cannot get off the ground and be a success without unionist support.
Mr Shannon: I support the motion. There can be no doubt to any impartial person of the fact that the unionist population has been severely under-represented in the formation of the Bill of Rights Forum. The ethos of many unionists when faced with a difficult situation has always been to get up and get on with it. There was no need to run to higher authorities; you took the knock on the chin and you dealt with it. However, that ethos has left the unionist people far behind in the realm of human rights and in dire need of representation to ensure that a fair deal is reached by all.
Nevertheless, I have no desire to have my words twisted and misconstrued into saying that I do not believe that rights should be enshrined in some form. When I listen to Americans recite the Declaration of Independence, I hear words that everyone would agree to and accept:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
For that reason, I make it clear from the outset that I do believe that rights should be enshrined. However, the manner in which that is approached is delicate; and thus far the entire community has not been shown to have played an equal part. One need not look any further than the composition of the forum, as my colleague Mr Hamilton has outlined, to see how unequal that has been and the undeniable irony of the fact that the forum’s remit is to process ideas on real equality for all. The imbalance in the forum has been made clear by the omission of certain bodies, the most glaringly obvious being the Orange Order. The Orange Order has well over 75,000 members and many other affiliates throughout the Province. As such, it represents a substantial proportion of the overall number of people and their opinions in the Province.
However, the Orange Order has no real say or voting rights in the forum — merely the tokenism of lip service and observation. Given that one of the main human-rights issues in the Province is the right to march and celebrate one’s cultural identity, that is grossly unfair.
The ethos of the Orange institution is concerned with the defence of the civil and religious liberties of all, including those of us who are Protestants. However, it apparently has no place in a forum on rights and equality. That is one of the biggest forms of hypocrisy and inequality pertaining unashamedly in the very forum that is supposed to advocate human rights and be a mouthpiece for change. It is little wonder that the people of the Province have no faith in it.
Such inconsistencies make the unionist people — and all right-thinking, open-minded people — of the Province sceptical about the true purpose of the Bill of Rights Forum, and human-rights processes as a whole. The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission backed up the unfair decree on 50:50 recruitment to the PSNI, which is perhaps the most disgusting and discriminatory such policy ever to have been introduced in a so-called modern country. It is easy to see why some people shy away from anything that smacks of human rights.
If a policy does not address human rights for all, it is of no use to anyone. How can 50:50 recruitment overrule the right to equal opportunity for jobs and other human rights? The manner in which the people of the Province were forced to accept that is nothing short of scandalous: there is no redress, no option and no excuse. That policy sends out the message that it is acceptable to discriminate against a majority. Until those at the highest level of Government accept that that is happening, there can be no change and no true equality in Northern Ireland.
Before she jumps up, I see that my colleague wants to come in at this point, so I will give way to her.
Mrs I Robinson: My intervention does, at least, have the advantage of giving Mr Shannon an extra minute to speak.
Does the Member agree that measures in connection with a bill of rights have had a more detrimental than positive impact on our community?
Mr Shannon: I wholeheartedly agree, and that is why the motion is being discussed in the Chamber today. This matter must be urgently addressed. Whether the Members on the opposite side of the Chamber like it or not, unionists are currently the poor relations in the world of human rights, and that cannot continue. That issue must be addressed now, starting with a more even composition of the forum’s membership.
A form of positive discrimination has been operating for far too long, and the Secretary of State must step in and rectify that inequality, which is rife, and create an even playing field for everyone.
I urge the House to ensure that a message demanding equality is sent to the Secretary of State and, ultimately, to the people of the Province. There must be an end to discrimination, whether against a minority or in the form of positive discrimination against the majority. The first step would be a proper, representative forum. I urge all Members, including those on the far side of the Chamber who have made statements today, to support the DUP’s clear motion.
Mr G Kelly: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I speak as a Member for North Belfast on this important issue. Níl mé ag labhairt sa phlé seo mar Aire, ach mar ball ar an ábhar tábhachtach seo.
The bill of rights was central to the Good Friday Agreement and was reinforced by the St Andrews Agreement, whereby all parties agreed to establish a forum to facilitate the development of an appropriate bill of rights. After the attacks that have been made on many of its members during the debate, it must be said that the Bill of Rights Forum has benefited massively from the impartiality of the world-renowned human-rights expert, Chris Sidoti. He has acted impartially throughout and has repeatedly stated his wish to create a bill of rights on which everyone can agree.
The forum has also benefited considerably from the input and the contribution of groups that represent disadvantaged sections of society, such as women, children, elderly people and disabled people. Representations have also been made by social partners and the human-rights sector. The forum has expanded its workload by employing recognised human-rights experts who act as legal advisers to its seven working groups. They come from Britain and Ireland, and the forum has also benefited from the advice of EU and UN human-rights experts in developing its recommended draft bill of human rights. No one should feel threatened by the concept of human rights.
A bill of rights would guarantee the fundamental human rights of those living on the Shankill Road and the Falls Road, in Derry, in Larne, or anywhere else. A strong bill of rights would create a win-win situation in which all sections of our community, especially the two main traditions, would gain.
The forum has been clear that additional work is needed to engage with many groups, including those that potentially mistrust the concept of human rights. A LeasCheann Comhairle, all parties in the forum have consistently argued for a robust consultation process and have always supported efforts to engage with members of the unionist and loyalist communities. The forum has engaged those groups that wish to play a more substantial role to attend with observer status and to submit documents expressing their views on all the issues. That provides a mechanism for effective input to groups that do not sit on the forum directly.
It has to be said, because of the attacks that have been made, that the representatives of civil society are selected on the basis of the internal procedures of the groups concerned, and not on the basis of religious or political affiliations. They are there to represent their constituencies. A great disservice has been done today to all those who are involved to suggest that they do not represent everyone in society whose lives they seek to improve, whether that is through working for a bill of rights for older people, for all children and young people, for all workers or for all who are disabled. They did not adopt, and have not adopted, party political lines.
I was disappointed at the personal attacks that were made by the proposer of the motion. I know that you have made a ruling, Mr Deputy Speaker, but that was a disgrace. It was followed by Nelson McCausland, who also launched into a series of personal attacks. I have a forlorn hope that Gregory Campbell will not go further and abuse the House by naming and defaming people in his winding-up speech.
The history of the bill of rights is closely associated with the conclusion —
Mr McCausland: Will the Member give way?
Mr G Kelly: No.
— of periods of conflict. The main body of human rights law in Europe and in the UN came immediately after the conclusion of the Second World War. In South Africa and other post-colonial societies, democratic Governments have moved to guarantee the rights of individuals through strong, world-class bills of rights enshrined in their constitutions. It has become confusing today whether the DUP, in particular, is against the make-up of the forum or the bill of rights itself. The DUP Members who have spoken simply want to introduce the unionist veto, which they will not do. They want to get back to the good old days of unionist domination, but we are well past that.
I support the SLDP amendment; I am willing to give way on that.
Mr Deputy Speaker: I call Dolores Kelly to make a winding-up speech on amendment No 1.
Mrs D Kelly: I welcome Sinn Féin’s support for the SDLP amendment. I join with others in expressing my disappointment at the way in which members of the Bill of Rights Forum have been slagged off, in particular by the DUP. Alban Maginness and I represent the SDLP in the Bill of Rights Forum.
I will come to the unionist motion on exclusion later. Some Members had concerns about socio-economic rights. My colleague Alex Attwood pointed out that socio-economic rights are, by and large, much of the work that the Assembly has addressed in the last 68 items of private Members’ business. Indeed, whether the bill of rights that we ultimately advise on for the North of Ireland contains specific mention of socio-economic rights is irrelevant, given that international case law has increasingly shown that the bill of rights in terms of socio-economic rights has largely been interpreted under other rights, such as the right to family life and the right to a private life. Therefore, if we examine in greater detail what is happening in Europe, we will see that many of those rights, including the right to health and education, are already enshrined and are being acted upon and informing decisions of Government.
Some Members addressed the issue of unionist participation and mentioned, in particular, a number of individuals, as opposed to their organisations.
Do the unionist parties seriously expect us all to believe that the trade unions do not represent people who are also unionists; that Disability Action Northern Ireland does not represent people who are unionists; that the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities does not represent people who vote for unionist candidates in an election; and that Age Concern does not have members who are unionists? The debate has been mischievous, and one wonders if the unionist parties’ attitude to participation — particularly that of the DUP — is constructive or obstructive.
The Alliance Party sought to reassure the DUP and clearly set out its long commitment to a bill of rights. [Interruption.] Did somebody speak?
The Alliance Party clearly explained why limiting numbers on the forum is a necessity. We are all made up of several identities. Some Members spoke of an elephant in the room. Is there not an elephant in the room when certain Members fail to declare certain aspects of their identities — such as those who are members of the Loyal Orders, members of evangelical churches, and members of the Caleb Foundation? If there is going to be an honest debate, all Members must be honest. The bill of rights outreach strategy is soon to begin, and a clear commitment has been given that will include all those minority groups that, thus far, have felt excluded from the debate. Other groups may still wish their views to be represented, and it could be argued that, with regard to identity, such organisations as the GAA are not represented; however, there has to be a limit if the forum is to be effective.
The SDLP amendment clearly concerns consensus. We will learn later, and there will be questions about why the Assembly holds so many of these debates instead of advancing legislative timetables. The Assembly is not discussing a programme of Government or an Executive programme.
The credentials of other Members were mentioned. I welcome the Ulster Unionist Party’s more mature participation in the debate. Others — most recently, Jim Shannon — stated that 1689 was a key date for the protection of civil and religious liberties. If I recall my history lessons, the penal laws were introduced not long after 1689.
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Member’s time is up.
Mr Campbell: The debate could legitimately be described as having been worthwhile and energetic. Michelle McIlveen outlined the background of members of the forum and, along with others in my party, had criticism levelled at her that was totally unwarranted. If the DUP had criticised the forum in vague terms — by simply stipulating that certain people represented X and Y — what would the criticism have been? People would have asked which members of the forum represented those views. Now the House knows who they are, and the views that they have expressed.
Several Members mentioned the elephant-in-the-room analogy; and in winding-up amendment No 1, Dolores Kelly talked of the need to be honest. That is absolutely right. On occasions such as this, it appears that nationalists and republicans attempt to get into mitigation rather than own up to the facts.
Are the facts as follows: the Bill of Rights Forum does not adequately represent our community? The answer is either yes or no. If it does not, as we argue — and I do not think that any rational thinking person can dispute that — we can move on from that point. However, if Members on the other side of the Chamber constantly mitigate that fact and try to argue that there is a reason for it and state that unionists do not want certain rights enshrined in Northern Ireland, they miss the elephant in the room. They need to see that. Honesty, according to Mrs Kelly, is what we need, and we must sign up to honesty.
Martina Anderson, in her reference to the amendment, talked about groups that feel excluded. One may feel excluded if one is excluded. There is more to that than simply feeling excluded. If one is not included in a proportional sense, one has been excluded. It is not a matter of simply feeling or perceiving exclusion; it is the fact that one is excluded that matters.
Stephen Farry gave an exposition of the long tradition in his party, and in the liberal wing, of support for a bill of rights. That is quite right, but we wait to see arrival at the point when the Bill of Rights Forum will agree on its voting mechanism. It appears that those who talk about a consensus in the forum but have not been able to agree a voting mechanism hold a somewhat different view of consensus to the rest of us.
Peter Weir indicated that the amendments failed to acknowledge reality, and he too referred to the elephant in the room. Alex Attwood talked about the economic issues that he wished to see addressed. All of us in Northern Ireland society would like to see those issues addressed. However, we must ask ourselves whether a bill of rights, as currently envisaged by many in the nationalist and republican parties, is likely to achieve that objective. It appears that that is not likely, from what we are being told.
Simon Hamilton and Nelson McCausland referred to the historical support in the Protestant community for human-rights issues. Nelson McCausland mentioned the intrinsic bias towards republicanism of many of the women who sit on the forum. Although some Members complained that that matter was even mentioned, I did not hear any resistance to that being a factual statement. That is what should concentrate people’s minds.
Jim Shannon concentrated on the relevant matter of 50:50 recruitment to the police. Those Members who passionately advocate a bill of rights should agree that one of the first things that the forum must address is to state that it is 100% united in wishing to get rid of, at the earliest opportunity, the discriminatory recruitment procedures in respect of the police in Northern Ireland.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Mr Campbell: Those who advocate a bill of rights are against that; they are in favour of discrimination because that discrimination is against our community. In some instances, people seem to state that that is all right; that it does not matter; and that it is of secondary consideration.
Gerry Kelly spoke about what he regarded as personal attacks on the forum’s membership. That is quite erroneous. Unfortunately, Mr Kelly mentioned going back to the days of unionist domination. No one wants to go back to domination by anyone, unionists or republicans — or by RPG-7 rocket launchers. The day of that type of domination is over, and we are not going back to that either.
Dolores Kelly, in her winding-up speech, and in coming to the conclusion of her remarks, indicated that a consensus was needed. That is a positive contribution. Among all the negative comments that have been made by those who spuriously say that they are in favour of a bill of rights, that was a positive comment: a consensus is required. Are we likely to reach consensus in the direction in which some people appear to be going? I think not.
Do we want a rights-based agenda that is some form of leftist charter aimed at constantly thwarting effective delivery mechanisms for people — in the name of those very people? Conversely, do we want to adopt a minimalist approach whereby people will know that their rights are being protected, no matter what community they come from or sector they belong to, so that we can take Northern Ireland forward in a way in which the whole of our community can rest assured that a bill of rights has been achieved through the consensus and endorsement of all participants?
Mr Deputy Speaker: Before I put the question on amendment No 1, I advise Members that if amendment No 1 is made, amendment No 2 will fall, and I will proceed to put the question on the motion, as amended.
Question put That amendment No 1 be made.
The Assembly divided: Ayes 42; Noes 47.
Mr Adams, Ms Anderson, Mr Attwood, Mr Boylan, Mr D Bradley, Mrs M Bradley, Mr Brady, Mr Brolly, Mr Butler, Mr W Clarke, Mr Dallat, Mr Doherty, Dr Farry, Mr Ford, Mr Gallagher, Mrs Hanna, Mrs D Kelly, Mr G Kelly, Mr A Maginness, Mr P Maskey, Ms J McCann, Mr McCarthy, Mr McCartney, Dr McDonnell, Mr McElduff, Mr McGlone, Mr M McGuinness, Mr McHugh, Mr McKay, Mr McLaughlin, Mr Molloy, Mr Murphy, Mr Neeson, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O’Dowd, Mr O’Loan, Mrs O’Neill, Mr P Ramsey, Ms S Ramsey, Ms Ritchie, Ms Ruane, Mr B Wilson.
Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Attwood and Mr Gallagher.
Mr Beggs, Mr Bresland, Lord Browne, Mr Buchanan, Mr Campbell, Mr T Clarke, Mr Cobain, Mr Craig, Mr Cree, Mr Dodds, Mr Donaldson, Mr Easton, Mr Elliott, Sir Reg Empey, Mrs Foster, Mr Gardiner, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Irwin, Mr Kennedy, Mr McCallister, Mr McCausland, Mr I McCrea, Dr W McCrea, Mr McFarland, Mr McGimpsey, Miss McIlveen, Mr McNarry, Mr McQuillan, Lord Morrow, Mr Moutray, Mr Newton, Mr Paisley Jnr, Rev Dr Ian Paisley, Mr Poots, Mr G Robinson, Mrs I Robinson, Mr K Robinson, Mr P Robinson, Mr Ross, Mr Shannon, Mr Simpson, Mr Spratt, Mr Storey, Mr Weir, Mr Wells, Mr S Wilson.
Tellers for the Noes: Mr McQuillan and Mr G Robinson
Question accordingly negatived.
Question, That amendment No 2 be made, put and negatived.
Main Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly acknowledges that the unionist community has been largely excluded from the human rights process in Northern Ireland and under-represented within the human rights sector, resulting in the Bill of Rights Forum having a clear imbalance in the composition of its membership; believes that without the support of all sections of our community any Bill of Rights process is fundamentally flawed; and calls upon the Secretary of State to address these problems urgently, by ensuring processes that will facilitate better engagement with the unionist community and ensuring that the membership of the Bill of Rights Forum is more reflective of all the people of Northern Ireland.
The Deputy Speaker: Members will be aware that Question Time begins at 2.30 pm. The Assembly will therefore suspend for seven minutes.
The sitting was suspended at 2.23 pm.
On resuming (Mr Speaker in the Chair) —
1. Mr Shannon asked the Minister of Education to give her assessment of the current state of negotiations regarding the site for the new build at Glastry College; and to detail the anticipated start date for the work.[R] (AQO 436/08)
The Minister of Education (Ms Ruane): Go raibh maith agat. I am pleased that Glastry College is to get a newbuild, the cost of which is estimated overall at £12·6 million. I understand that those who are most closely involved with the school may be impatient about the pace of progress. However, I recognise that the procurement of a new school building can be a complex issue. I understand that negotiations between the South Eastern Education and Library Board and the landowner of the site have been concluded and that a sale price has been agreed between the two parties. Negotiations between the board and Land and Property Services on the vendor’s professional fees remain to be concluded. The board has advised that it expects work on the site to start in autumn 2008.
Mr Shannon: I wish to declare an interest as a member of the board of governors of Glastry College. I thank the Minister for her comments and for her confirmation of the newbuild for Glastry College. However, I wonder whether she will confirm two points. First, has the board sought planning permission? The Minister said that a price had been agreed between the board and the landowner, and that is good news. Is that the case? I understand that there may be doubt about that. Secondly, will the start date of the build definitely be autumn 2008?
Ms Ruane: The acquisition of the site must be completed. The South Eastern Education and Library Board is confident that all negotiations will be concluded in the near future and that the acquisition of the site will be completed in the current financial year. Once the site is purchased, work on planning permission will begin.
In answer to the second question, the board advises me that the start date is autumn 2008. I know that work was to begin earlier, but there were some delays in negotiating the vendor’s fees.
Mr O’Loan: What action is the Minister taking to expedite the current backlog of capital schemes that have already been approved?
Ms Ruane: As the Member knows, different organisations draw up proposals. We are working with the Strategic Investment Board to ensure that once any proposals are lodged, the build in question will be completed as quickly as possible. I am aware of the slow pace of the process where planning and other matters are concerned. The Executive need to look at those matters because they have an impact on Departments other than mine. However, I understand the frustration about the slow pace of builds that groups such as the boards, CCMS (Council for Catholic Maintained Schools), and Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta have proposed.
Teacher Induction Year
2. Mr Ross asked the Minister of Education to provide an update on her recent meeting with her Scottish counterpart to discuss the introduction of a teacher induction year in Northern Ireland. (AQO 430/08)
Ms Ruane: A provisional date of 12 December has been arranged for a meeting with the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning in Scotland to discuss a range of educational matters. I will let the Member know the outcome of our discussions at the earliest opportunity.
Mr Ross: Given that the issue was raised in the Assembly in June, it is disappointing that the Minister has still not got round to meeting with her Scottish counterpart or even telephoning her or corresponding with her. Will the Minister update the House on the latest figures that detail the numbers of graduates who qualified in July and in the previous July but who still do not have a permanent full-time teaching post?
Ms Ruane: We have made contact with the Scottish Cabinet Secretary, and a date for a meeting has been set. Members will appreciate that recent times have been busy. If, for example, I had been in Scotland during the classroom assistants’ dispute — [Interruption.]
Mr Speaker: Order.
Ms Ruane: I do not have the figures for last July, but I can get them for the Member. However, I have the figures for the number of teachers who are on the substitute teachers register: in June, 5,400 teachers were on that register. That includes not only young teachers, but those of all ages who wish to be employed as substitute teachers and those who no longer wish to be full-time teachers.
Of 5,400 teachers who registered in June, 1,747 are under 30 years of age. It is important to note that many of the teachers on the register are not actively seeking full-time employment.
DETI employment statistics for June 2007, for claimants seeking employment as teachers, are as follows: 240 unemployed teachers; 68 teachers aged under 30 and unemployed for fewer than 26 weeks; and four teachers aged under 30 and unemployed for 26 weeks.
As for the number of teachers on the substitute register who are available for work tomorrow, a free registration service is available to substitute teachers of all ages who are recognised as eligible to teach in grant-aided schools and who are registered with the General Teaching Council. Those teachers may specify how little, or how much, substitute teaching they wish to do, how far they are willing to travel, and the school in which they wish to teach.
After my meeting with the Scottish Minister for Education, I will update the Member. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr Ford: Given that the number of teachers who qualify each year exceeds the number of available posts, how can the Minister guarantee a permanent job for teachers who have undertaken a teacher-induction programme? Has she discussed the number of student teachers with her colleague the Minister for Employment and Learning?
Ms Ruane: Pupil numbers have declined from almost 347,000 in 2001-02 to almost 333,000 in 2005-06. During the same period, the full-time equivalent teacher count has dropped by just over 1,000. In the next five years, numbers will continue to fall. Demography and falling numbers are a huge problem for the system, and that further decline will obviously have a significant impact on the number of newly qualified teachers that are required in the coming years.
I am sympathetic to the plight of newly qualified teachers and I hope that they will be successful in obtaining permanent teaching posts; however, I ask them to be creative and flexible in the choices that they make to determine their career paths. There are subjects with too many teachers and others in which teachers are in short supply. For example, more maths, science and Irish teachers are — [Interruption.]
Mr Speaker: Order.
Ms Ruane: I shall repeat that. For example, more maths, science and Irish teachers are required. Irish teachers are required because of a growing demand for Irish.
In the past three years, my Department has reduced the number of students entering initial-teacher education by more than 20% — from 880 in 2004-05, to 699 in 2007-08. As part of the annual initial teacher-education-intake approval process, we will carefully consider the number of teacher positions that will be available in future years.
Mr D Bradley: Go raibh míle maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Does the Minister agree that, according to figures contained in a written answer to a question that I asked, it is unacceptable that 3,871 teachers on the substitute roll have never had full-time employment in education?
Does she agree that we have suffered emigration for long enough in this country, and why, as a so-called republican Minister, did she suggest to me in a written answer that young teachers take an bád bán, the emigration boat, to England, Scotland and Wales to gain employment?
Ms Ruane: First, at the risk of repeating myself, in June 2007, there were 5,400 teachers on the substitute teachers register. DETI unemployment statistics for June 2007, for claimants who were seeking to teach, show 240 unemployed teachers; 68 teachers under the age of 30 and unemployed for fewer than 26 weeks; and four teachers under the age of 30 and unemployed for 26 weeks.
Of course I regret that many people go to England, Scotland and Wales. Although, it is good for young people to travel and gain experience of other countries and other parts of the world, I would prefer that — [Interruption.]
Mr Speaker: Order.
Ms Ruane: I would prefer that opportunities existed for those teachers at home in the North of Ireland. I will also be — [Interruption.]
Mr McNarry: Guarantee one year.
Some Members: Northern Ireland.
Ms Anderson: The occupied Six Counties.
Mr Speaker: Order.
Ms Ruane: There is huge potential for North/South teacher mobility, which is one of the issues that I will be discussing in the forthcoming North/South sectoral meetings.
3. Mr Kennedy asked the Minister of Education, further to her stated intention to replace the existing transfer procedure, to detail what criteria she will be recommending to over-subscribed post-primary schools in selecting pupils who are transferring from primary school at the end of year seven. (AQO 407/08)
Ms Ruane: I consider it premature to speculate as to which criteria might be most appropriate for use by oversubscribed post-primary schools until the fundamental issue of how children should transfer from primary to post-primary education is resolved.
I regard that as a complex matter that requires the consideration of several factors, including the impact of demographic decline on school enrolment, structural changes arising from the review of public administration, the gradual move towards an area-based planning approach for schools, the implementation of the revised curriculum and, in particular, movement towards the entitlement framework, all of which must help children to access, on a fair and equal basis, a high-quality post-primary education.
Mr Kennedy: Will the Minister accept that, as a result of her adherence to political dogma and her determination to flog the absolutely dead horse of imposing a one-size-fits-all comprehensive system of education in Northern Ireland, she has effectively paralysed education here at all levels? Will she, even at this late stage, accept her ministerial responsibilities and act to find an acceptable and sensible way forward? Will she also extend that principle to ensuring a full and final resolution to the classroom assistants’ dispute?
Ms Ruane: The current system does not give every child a fair chance. It is essential that we create a system that has equality as its cornerstone. It is also essential that children’s individual needs are dealt with, rather than matching children to institutional needs.
Mr S Wilson: Does the Minister realise that she is gaining the reputation of being the Nero of education? She fiddles while the system burns with indignation. The previous question illustrates the point that there is chaos in schools, because principals, parents and youngsters do not know what they will face in three years’ time. The Minister still refuses to make a decision on that.
Will the Minister outline to the Assembly the legal position on academic selection as it stands in Northern Ireland? Will she tell the Assembly whether, legally, academic selection can still be used in Northern Ireland to determine which post-primary school children go to?
Mr O’Dowd: Is that a speech or question?
Mr Speaker: Order.
Ms Ruane: I take my equality duties very seriously, and it is essential that every child is given a fair chance in the system. The education system provides academic excellence, and I want to ensure that every child has the opportunity to attain academic and vocational excellence.
We also have an education system with a tail of underachievement, although the Member seems to find it difficult to understand that. If we are failing children — and we are failing many children in all communities — we must take responsibility for every child that we fail. I have been meeting principals from every part of Belfast and from all over Fermanagh, Tyrone, Derry, Down, Armagh and Antrim. Every one of them said — [Interruption.]
There is no need for Members to be rude and interrupt.
Mr Speaker: Order. The Minister has the Floor.
Ms Ruane: Thank you.
Mr Speaker: I remind Members that while Question Time can be lively, it is vitally important that both Members and Ministers address their questions and responses through the Chair. I also remind Members that this is Question Time; Members are almost making statements to the Minister — from all sides of the House. We have to be careful with that.
Ms Ruane: I take my responsibilities as Minister of Education very seriously. I will bring forward proposals that put the child at the centre of our education system. I will also bring forward proposals that will give every child a fair chance, whether he or she comes from the Shankill Road, Rathcoole, the Falls Road, or the Bogside in Derry.
Members need to have a mature discussion on this issue, rather — [Interruption.]
Mr Speaker: Order. I do not know how many times I am going to have to say this, but I ask the Minister and Members to address their remarks through the Chair, not across the Floor.
Ms Ruane: I ask Members not to play politics with the education of our children. We are bringing about changes that will result in significant advantages to the education system in the North of Ireland. There are huge changes to be made, and I ask that all parties work with me in bringing about those changes, rather than engaging in political point scoring. Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.
Ms Ní Chuilín: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Will the Minister agree that whatever replaces the 11-plus, it is essential to ensure that no child is labelled a failure at the age of 11 and that the end to academic selection must ensure that there is an end to the huge trauma and damage that it has caused to the children of society?
Ms Ruane: Go raibh maith agat. As I said, our system is telling far too many children, at a very young age, that they are failures. That is simply unacceptable. I agree that we have to find a method of transferring our children from primary to post-primary education that puts equality at the core, that values all children and that tells all children that they are a success. That is the challenge for me, as Minister of Education, and I take that challenge seriously. I assure the House that I will put the interests of all children at the centre and match educational needs with children, rather than matching children with institutions.
4. Mr Beggs asked the Minister of Education what steps she is taking to increase parent-pupil interaction in areas of high social need. (AQO 444/08)
Ms Ruane: I thank the Member for his important question. There is a substantial body of research regarding the influence of parents on their child’s educational achievements. Parents are the primary educator of the child, and, as such, should be part of a working partnership. Parental involvement in children’s learning is related positively to achievement. The more intensively parents are involved in their children’s learning, the more beneficial are the achievement effects.
I have attended several recent meetings with school principals and parents. I was encouraged by the fact that they all recognised the importance of parental involvement and the need for all of us to seek and develop ways of supporting parents with their child’s development.
While we encourage all schools to work closely with parents, the extended schools programme provides the means by which schools in socially disadvantaged areas can develop their relationships with parents.
The position in socially disadvantaged areas is more challenging because some parents view the school as not being a welcoming place. Perhaps that is because of a poor personal experience when they were at school, an incident at school, or a perception of the school being critical. In many cases, those perceptions are unfounded; in others, there may be a degree of truth. Either way, we must alleviate their fears and engage positively with parents who have such a crucial influence on their children’s educational experience.
Parents are being provided with opportunities to engage with extended schools through programmes of activities that have been developed in consultation with parents — for example, family learning, parent support groups and IT classes.
Mr McNarry: On a point of order, Mr Speaker.
Mr Speaker: No points of order can be made during Question Time. I am happy to take a point of order after Question Time.
Ms Ruane: My Department’s earmarked budget for parenting initiatives is currently £260,000 per annum and is allocated entirely to the education and library boards.
Each board received £52,000 this year. The purpose of the funding is to develop support for parents whose children are experiencing difficulties in mainstream schooling, with particular emphasis on pupils and parents from disadvantaged backgrounds. It is a matter for each board to determine how these earmarked resources should be used. Boards are also free to supplement this funding by allocating further resources from within their overall block grant.
Mr Beggs: I declare an interest as a member of the New Horizon Sure Start committee, which operates in Carrickfergus and Larne.
I thank the Minister for her answer, but I am concerned about the level of funding that is available for parenting support. In particular, the children’s fund is coming to an end in March 2008. Given the Minister of Finance and Personnel’s statement that that fund will not continue, will the Minister assure us that the valid parenting support programmes that have been developed through the children’s fund and other mainstream funding such as Sure Start will be continued beyond March 2008?
Ms Ruane: I agree with the Member on the importance of the children’s fund, and also in relation to early intervention. For everyone I speak to — and I know that it is the same for every Member who is interested in education — early intervention is of key importance. The role of parents is of key importance. In schools that have been founded by parents — in the integrated and Irish-medium sectors, for example — you can see that. Recently, I visited the Belfast Boys’ Model School and the Belfast Model School for Girls — the full-service extended school. There is proof that when parents are involved in their children’s education and involved with the school in a direct way, where they feel ownership of the school and of the curriculum, you see positive outcomes.
Whatever we have in place after the Budget, it is essential that funding be earmarked for parent-school initiatives and extended schools.
Mrs Long: I declare an interest as a member of the board of governors of Sydenham Infants’ Primary School. Given that the Minister recognises the importance of engaging parents directly in the school and creating a welcoming environment, what plans has she to accommodate that within the school buildings handbook?
Schools which are currently engaged in involving parents use spare classrooms. However, when they get new school buildings, they do not have any facilities for bringing in parents and engaging with them. Are there any plans to try to encourage that further by amending the school buildings handbook to reflect its importance?
Ms Ruane: I will bring that question to the attention of my officials and we will discuss that.
Mr P Ramsey: What progress has been made on the formulation of a new literacy and numeracy strategy? What elements have been built into it to address the recommendations of the report of the Westminster Public Accounts Committee, ‘Improving literacy and numeracy in schools (Northern Ireland)’?
The Minister will be aware that 1 in 4 adults in Northern Ireland have literacy and numeracy problems. We want to ensure that future generations do not have the same difficulties.
Ms Ruane: I thank the Member for his question. I agree wholeheartedly with him about literacy and numeracy. It is one of the key issues that faces the Executive and me as Minister of Education.
If we continue to produce a tail of underachievement, and if 4,000 young people continue to leave our schools each year with poor literacy and numeracy skills, we will continue to have problems in our society. Not only will we have failed those 4,000 young people each year: we will have condemned them to great difficulty in getting jobs and getting on the first rung of the ladder. It is essential that we bring forward proposals on literacy and numeracy. I am currently considering those proposals and the make-up of a task force. I am examining the school improvement policy and the literacy and numeracy strategy. All the initiatives to deal with disadvantage come into play here. I thank the Member for his question; it is a key challenge that faces us.
5. Mr Gardiner asked the Minister of Education what plans she has to develop the successes of the Dickson Plan, which has been operating in north Armagh for the past 38 years, across the whole of Northern Ireland. (AQO 408/08)
Ms Ruane: I recognise the good work that is taking place in schools participating in the Dickson plan. I consider the Dickson plan, which involves children transferring at ages 11 and 14, to be an interesting model, but the part that selection by ability plays in it is something that I find unacceptable as a basis for new arrangements.
Rather than try to match children to types of schools, I intend to introduce proposals that focus on matching education provision to individual children, so that every child may have access to a high-quality post-primary curriculum.
Mr Gardiner: I declare an interest. I sit on the board of governors of both Carrick Primary School and Dickson Primary School in Lurgan.
I welcome part of the Minister’s answer. In her early months as Minister of Education, she spoke about giving every child a fair chance and that none would be considered a failure. It would be welcome were she to accept the Dickson plan or incorporate it into her proposals. If she does not, I will be sorely disappointed in her.
Ms Ruane: Children naturally make choices at the age of 14, and that is an interesting aspect of the Dickson plan. At Key Stage 3, children decide whether to concentrate more on science, or on professional or technical subjects. As a pathway, that age is more appropriate. I have been to some of the schools involved, and the use of academic ability as a criterion is an unacceptable part of the Dickson plan. It is unnecessary, and other systems around the world do not do it. There is a better way in which to have a fairer system. However, I will look at the Dickson plan and at the age of 14 as a model for transferring.
Mr Gallagher: Does the Minister agree that, whatever the shortcomings of the Dickson plan, and it may have some, it is at least a local solution, which has the support of parents and governors in the area? As the Minister does not appear to be able to think her way out of this situation herself, has she any intention of welcoming local solutions from other areas that have the support of parents and governors? Alongside that, will she welcome a transfer age of 14 for pupils?
Ms Ruane: I am perfectly able to think, and the Member will see plenty of the results of my thinking in the near future. [Interruption.]
Mr Speaker: Order, Members. The Minister has the floor.
Ms Ruane: I have met recently with many principals, parents and governors who are crying out for change. I have met the parents and the principals of the children that we are failing, and I have met the principals of secondary schools who want change and fair play in the system. I have met many people in the grammar school sector who also want change, so there will be change.
As I have said, 14 is a more natural age at which to transfer. It is a natural age for young people to make choices and decisions along with their parents and teachers. Our young people know what they want, what they are good at and what they are interested in. It is vital that young people have power and a voice in the process. At the age of 11, they have no power, and adults are making decisions that are not fair to children or in their best interests. It is time that the children’s voice were heard.
Mr Moutray: Given what the Minister has said, will the Minister inform the House whether she considers selection on the basis of ability and aptitude to be more appropriate at the age of 14 than it is at the age of 11?
Ms Ruane: I shall read out my answer again, because perhaps certain Members are not listening. I consider the Dickson plan, which includes children transferring at 14, to be an interesting model, but the part played in it by selection by ability is unacceptable as a basis for new arrangements.
6. Mr McCallister asked the Minister of Education what percentage of pupils in year 12 failed to achieve at least one GCSE at grade C or above (or equivalent); and to outline how these figures compare with other regions of the United Kingdom. (AQO 446/08)
Ms Ruane: Go raibh maith agat, a John. I thank you for your question, which is very important[Interruption.]
Mr Speaker: Order, Members. I rise for the third occasion this afternoon. I remind the Minister to address her remarks through the Chair.
A Member: Go raibh maith agat, William. [Laughter.]
Ms Ruane: Through the Speaker, I want to congratulate the Member on his Irish.
In 2005-06, the percentage of year 12 pupils who failed to achieve at least one GCSE at grade C or above, or the equivalent, was 14·4% in the North of Ireland, compared with 23·4% in Wales, 20·1% in England and 13·9% in Scotland. Those figures are far too high. The system is failing too many children. Of a total of just under 25,000 year 12 pupils, 14·4% equates to over 3,500 children.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Dallat] in the Chair)
Research and Development Spending
1. Mr K Robinson asked the Minister for Employment and Learning to detail the total level of spending on research and development in Northern Ireland universities in each year for the past five years. (AQO 403/08)
The Minister for Employment and Learning (Sir Reg Empey): Investment in research and development is central to the future success of the economy. In total, the universities have spent over £614 million on research and development between the academic years 2000-01 and 2004-05. The yearly breakdown is as follows: £98·8 million in 2000-01; £105·8 million in 2001-02; £127·8 million in 2002-03; £136·1 million in 2003-04; and £146·2 million in 2004-05.
Mr K Robinson: I thank the Minister for his detailed answer. I am glad that the figures are going in the right direction. Can the Minister indicate whether he is still inclined to support the concept of an innovation fund, which, I believe, originated with the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, in November 2006?
Sir Reg Empey: The Member is correct; the concept of an innovation fund first appeared at Downing Street in November 2006 and was subsequently reinforced at a second meeting there in early spring 2007. The Chancellor indicated that he would set up an innovation fund. My colleague the Minister of Finance and Personnel will confirm that it was indicated that a sum of money would be provided for that fund in the current financial year. However, that money cannot be spent instantaneously or in-year: it takes three to four years to roll out a meaningful programme. I assure the honourable Member that Ministers are interested in the fund.
The Irish Government have indicated that they are prepared to put forward £36 million for a similar fund, to which Northern Ireland would have access. However, the details of that innovation fund have not yet been resolved. I hope that whatever is available will emerge during the CSR (comprehensive spending review)process in the next few weeks.
Mr O’Loan: The Minister will be aware of the third-level research-and-development forum that has been set up by the Irish Government, the function of which is to develop R&D initiatives. It is a major initiative that involves the expenditure of around €1 billion. The purpose of the fund is to lead to investment and job opportunities on the island at the highest technological level, which is what the economy needs if it is to reach the point that everyone talks about. What plans does the Minister have to provide the necessary funds to Queen’s University and the University of Ulster in order to enable them to participate in that initiative?
Sir Reg Empey: Departmental officials and I have been in regular contact with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the Department of Education and Science in Dublin in order to identify which projects we can undertake jointly, over and above the work that is already being done.
First, we must establish the availability of an innovation fund for Northern Ireland, and ascertain how the money that will be allocated by the Republic of Ireland’s Government would be phased in, when it would become available, and for what purposes. That work is ongoing. I am aware that, as part of the Irish Government’s national development plan, approximately €1·2 billion was allocated for research and development. Therefore, it is clear that the Irish Government are making that issue a high priority. We share that priority, and we are working together to see what projects can be jointly undertaken and funded.
Mr McCausland: What actions has the Minister taken to increase the number of university places, particularly PhD places, at Queen’s University Belfast and the University of Ulster?
Sir Reg Empey: That is a matter of key importance. We have made bids in the comprehensive spending review for funding aimed at increasing those numbers. Currently, we receive funding for that purpose through Europe, which will come to an end in the current financial year. That funding will not be replaced. Therefore, we must make good on the funding that we used to get from Europe and, in order to make progress, we hope to go further. I have been in touch with the universities, which have told me that they have the capacity to do more. However, we need money to do that, and that is work in progress. I assure the Member that the securing of funding to provide for more PhDs and for research and development is one of our highest priorities
Mr Speaker: Question No 2 has been withdrawn.
Young People Not in Education, Employment or Training
3. Mr Attwood asked the Minister for Employment and Learning to confirm the number and percentage of young people aged (i) under 25; (ii) under 21; and (iii) 16-18, who are not in education, employment or training. (AQO 480/08)
Sir Reg Empey: The closest approximation to the figures that have been requested comes from the April 2006 to March 2007 labour force survey. At the time when the survey was undertaken, it was estimated that 34,000 — or 15% — of 16- to 24-year-olds in Northern Ireland were not in employment, participating in Government training schemes, or in full-time education. For those aged 16 to 20, the estimates were 19,000 — or 15% — and for those aged 16 to 18, the estimates were 9,000 — or 12%.
Mr Attwood: I thank the Minister for his reply. It is somewhat shocking to hear that 12% of 16- to 18-year-olds are not in education, employment or training. There is an even higher figure in respect of older age categories. Does the Minister know what the Department is doing, in broad terms, to address the matter of 16- to 18-year-olds who are not in education, employment or training?
Will the Minister comment on last week’s media report that stated that social policy will no longer dominate the Programme for Government, as it has in the past? Given that 16- to 18-year-olds require all sorts of social policy frameworks, is the Minister concerned by the contents of that media leak as an indicator of the Government’s policy on young people?
Sir Reg Empey: I thank the Member for his question. Shocking as those figures are, I will put them in context. An examination of the equivalent position in the UK as a whole shows that 15% of 16- to 24-year-olds are not in education, employment or training in Northern Ireland — while that figure is 18% in the UK as a whole. For 16- to 24-year-olds, that figure is 15% in Northern Ireland, and 16% in the UK as a whole. For 16- to 18-year-olds, that figure is 12% here, and 14% in the UK as a whole. However, I take little comfort from those figures.
As for the matter of an alleged leak, that may have been due to a comment that someone made. However, at present, the Executive have not determined their Programme for Government, which is a work in progress. I assure the Member that the economy and all matters relating to it, including the matters that he raised, are very much in our minds.
My Department is trying to reduce the number of people who do not have qualifications, as one of its key priorities. What are we doing about that? The Department has a full range of interventions to help young people, such as Training for Success; New Deal; and the Disablement Advisory Service.
There is the Local Employment Intermediary Service (LEMIS), the progress2work (NI) initiative, not to mention the extensive range of jobs and benefits offices and job centres. Careers Service Northern Ireland actively targets people at risk of exclusion and works with schools to identify vulnerable groups at an early stage. My colleagues in the Department of Education are currently reviewing policy in respect of alternative education provision to encourage young people to continue to engage in learning even though they have disengaged from school.
The problem is difficult. Of course, the figures I mentioned clearly include those who live at home and who are not participating in education. A wide range of reasons are involved, but I assure the Member that we are acutely aware of the problem. Although our progress on this matter is slightly better than that in the rest of the United Kingdom, we still consider the statistics to be, as the Member said, shocking.
Mr Ross: The Minister has detailed the steps that the Department is taking. Will he inform the House of the specific targets that he and the Executive are working towards in order to reduce the number of economically inactive people in Northern Ireland?
Sir Reg Empey: The rate of inactivity is 27%, compared to the national figure of around 23% or 24%. There is no doubt that we have a great distance to cover. One of the new proposals being rolled out is the Pathways to Work programme, which is designed to offer alternatives to people on incapacity benefit and help them to find work. It will be rolled out across Northern Ireland by next spring and it is specifically designed to get people into work. Everyone qualifying for incapacity benefit must now automatically attend an interview, and trained advisors are available to help them.
The Pathways to Work for Lone Parents programme is designed to target lone parents, for whom childcare and other matters are clearly huge issues. That programme is being piloted in a number of areas. The Steps to Work programme is being rolled out simultaneously, and that is open to claimants on a variety of benefits. Indeed, benefits are available to help those who have found work to overcome the transition from being on benefits to being in employment. A substantial range of programmes has been designed to bear down on the issue. Although we have not set a target in the Programme for Government, which is under consideration, I will bear the Member’s remark in mind. Perhaps we ought to set a target. However, if we set targets, we must have the resources to achieve them. There is no point in tilting at windmills, and I am sure that the honourable Member would agree.
4. Mr Cobain asked the Minister for Employment and Learning to detail the strategies his Department has put in place to provide access to training for those in the small and medium-sized enterprises sector. (AQO 467/08)
Sir Reg Empey: Through ‘Success through Skills: The Skills Strategy for Northern Ireland: A Programme for Implementation’, my Department is currently taking forward a range of strategies to provide the access to training for businesses, including the small and medium-sized enterprise sector. Among them is the Training for Success initiative, which includes the apprenticeship and preparation for apprenticeship programmes, management and leadership courses, and training in the essential skills of literacy and numeracy.
At local level, six employer-led local workforce development forums are charged with identifying local skills shortages and with the implementation of appropriate local interventions through the further and higher education sector and other training providers.
Mr Cobain: Does the Minister accept that many small companies are reluctant to engage in training employees due to the fact that a high level of employees leave once qualified? What steps does he have in mind to reduce the risk to such companies and therefore ensure that training is available to all?
Sir Reg Empey: Northern Ireland has a very high proportion of very small businesses, which are often owner-managed. There is no doubt that it is difficult to convince such companies that there is benefit in training. Part of the reason is that many owners of such companies carry out a host of different jobs, and it is extremely expensive for them to spare their staff time and allow them to go on training. Thus, many companies opt out of training and do not bother with it.
However, Northern Ireland has a range of sector skills councils that represent the views of employers on the types of training that are required, and apprenticeship programmes are in place. There is a further opportunity at local level with workforce forums, in which the colleges can engage with the local business community. It is not impossible for the colleges to go to external venues to assist with training.
The further education sector is prepared to be flexible. We must continue to get the message out to small businesses that training is absolutely critical. The more I talk to businesses, at home or abroad, the more I find that skills are at the top of the agenda. We have a huge task to convince businesses that skills training is in their interest, and I take on board the comments that the Member has made.
Mr Buchanan: Will the Minister tell the House what monitoring and assessment of training will be conducted to ensure the successful delivery of all the strategies that he has outlined?
Sir Reg Empey: There is no doubt that if a business does not monitor its programmes, it has no way of assessing their success. Training providers know that monitoring procedures are built into their service contracts, and reviews are frequently carried out. The Pathways to Work programme, for example, has reviews built in, as does every similar programme. We often have to bring in experts to provide an impartial view in tandem with our own review process, and regular figures are provided on our performance as regards getting people into proper full-time work. The Member is correct; it is essential that we monitor progress. Every programme and every contract has monitoring procedures built in.
5. Mr Elliott asked the Minister for Employment and Learning what assessment he has made of the impact on other service providers of the decision to deliver a higher proportion of community training through regional colleges. (AQO 443/08)
Sir Reg Empey: The Department has not yet taken a decision to deliver a higher proportion of community training through regional colleges. Further education colleges continue to offer an extensive range of vocational and non-vocational provision throughout the network of 48 campuses and 876 outreach centres across Northern Ireland. As incorporated bodies, responsible for their own day-to-day management and decision-making, further education colleges may enter into collaborative training partnerships with third-party organisations, provided such arrangements comply with the guidance set out by my Department.
Mr Elliott: Has the Minister any plans to allow further education colleges to outsource any training provision to third parties or outside organisations?
Sir Reg Empey: My Department has no plans to contract directly with third parties for further education provision. That is due to stringent quality assurance, audit and accountability requirements and the potential duplication of services. However, as I said in my original answer, there are 48 further education campuses with 876 outreach centres; they have a very large catchment area. They are prepared to be flexible, and to go out and conduct training in a variety of venues. The experience of other countries tells us that we can use our college system in that way as a major tool for economic development. I encourage everyone to avail of that, and urge local companies with problems to go to the colleges, whether for technical assistance or to use the excellent machinery or equipment. There must be greater engagement in that regard; but we have no current plans to introduce third parties into the equation.
Mr McCarthy: Since the establishment of the new regional colleges, senior citizens have been hammered by increased charges, so much so that they are now deprived of courses in community training and other subjects. Will the Minister admit that the new colleges are discriminating against our senior citizens? As the Minister responsible, what does he intend to do about that?
Sir Reg Empey: Although the Member’s question deals with a separate issue, I am happy to answer it. The colleges are incorporated bodies, and they set their own courses and fees. In recent weeks, I have had correspondence from many Members about the issue. An odd quirk has arisen. Age-discrimination legislation was introduced ostensibly to prevent people being discriminated against on the grounds of age. However, there appears to be conflicting legal advice on the matter. One such piece of advice is that one cannot discriminate in favour of someone because of age. Consequently, the colleges have been faced with the problem that, if they were to give preference to someone on the grounds of age, they may be deemed to be acting outside the law.
Furthermore, amalgamation of the colleges has resulted in several of them setting different fees. Therefore, they have had to co-ordinate on that. The Department does not control or direct the setting of fees; it is done entirely by the colleges. However, given that there are fee-setting discrepancies in different parts of the country, I have been in contact with the colleges. Given that colleges cannot discriminate in favour of older people on the grounds of age, other criteria are being considered so that assistance can be made available. I agree that the issue is concerning many Members. I have asked for work to be done on the matter; however, I stress that the colleges set their fees and determine their courses.
Mr Gallagher: Does the Minister accept that there was general support for the way in which community education was delivered under the old college system? Does he agree that, since the amalgamation of the colleges, the minimum enrolment threshold has been raised and that that has had an adverse impact on community education? In the west, enrolments have dropped dramatically. Does the Minister share my concern about the adverse impact that that is having, particularly on rural communities? Will he look into that further?
Sir Reg Empey: Access remained a criterion before the college amalgamation could proceed. The footprint of the colleges has not changed: the campuses all still exist. If the Member has specific issues to raise about his constituency, I am happy for him to write to me and I will take up his concerns with the relevant colleges. However, I repeat that, based on the number of people that must participate in a course to make it viable, colleges decide on the courses that they run and the fees that they charge. Other Members have pointed out that part of the problem is that several people sign up to a course, making the college believe that sufficient numbers allow it to be run. However, some of those students may drop out midway through the course or do not attend, making it unviable. If the Member has a specific example that he wishes to discuss, I will be happy to take it up with the relevant college. However, it is a matter for the colleges to set their own thresholds.
Scottish Executive Counterpart
6. Mr McClarty To ask the Minister for Employment and Learning what contact he has had with his counterpart in the Scottish Executive. (AQO 401/08)
Sir Reg Empey: Following the earlier visit to Northern Ireland by the First Minister of Scotland, I met the Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, Fiona Hyslop MSP, in Edinburgh on 30 July 2007.
We discussed areas of mutual interest including the potential for greater co-operation in higher education, support for students and the skills agenda. I look forward to continuing our discussions and I have invited the Minister to visit Northern Ireland to follow up on her interest in our skills strategy.
Mr McClarty: I thank the Minister for his response. During those discussions with his Scottish counterpart, did he raise the issue of offsetting or subsidising the cost of student travel between Northern Ireland and Scotland?
Sir Reg Empey: Yes, I did. When Alex Salmond visited Northern Ireland earlier this year, the First Minister and the deputy First Minister asked for co-operation with the Scottish Government at several levels. This specific issue was raised, and my discussions with the Scottish Government are ongoing. Clearly there is a range of issues, including transport. However, it must be understood that the Scottish Government are taking legal advice, because it could be argued that to subsidise travel costs for students from Northern Ireland, and not from elsewhere, would be discriminatory.
We are also considering whether bursaries for student hardship funds can be made available because, as the Member knows, about 5,500 students from Northern Ireland are studying in Scottish universities. The Scottish Minister acknowledged that that represents a huge inflow of money to the Scottish economy, and our discussions on that continue. However, reciprocal arrangements would have to be made for the small number of students who are domiciled in Scotland but study in Northern Ireland.
Mr P Ramsey: I noted the Minister’s comments at the weekend, particularly on inward investment. He said that American companies in particular were no longer seeking grant aid but wanted a skilled workforce. Given the Republic of Ireland’s success in providing such a skilled workforce for the high-tech and IT sectors, does he intend to hold discussions with his counterpart to identify how the North could benefit from the successful training schemes that have been operating in Southern Ireland?
Sir Reg Empey: As I said in answer to an earlier question, I am in regular contact with my counterparts in Dublin. I met both the relevant Ministers on my visit to Dublin on 3 September. My Department and its Southern equivalent each hold an annual skills conference, and we have suggested that there be a joint conference next year. It is hoped that that will take place in early summer of 2008.
One of the conference’s focal points will be how to assist employers, particularly in the border counties. We want to ensure that labour market intelligence is shared in order to satisfy the training institutions and colleges in the border region that they offer training relevant to the local people and employers.
Although no venue for the conference has been fixed, the honourable Member may be interested to know that one suggestion is to hold it not a million miles away from his constituency. We are hoping that it will happen around May or June next year. I assure the Member that we are pursuing every avenue with our counterparts, particularly because, if the innovation funds of both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland become available, there will be a much larger pot with which to work.
Mr Shannon: What plans does the Minister have to meet Ministers from other constituent parts of the United Kingdom, apart from Scotland? Is he prepared to make a statement to the Assembly identifying the areas of mutual benefit?
Sir Reg Empey: I am happy to consider making a further statement. I have invited my opposite number from Wales to visit Northern Ireland at the earliest opportunity, but as yet no date has been fixed.
My Department is in daily contact with the relevant Department in the Scottish Government, and I have frequent contact with our opposite numbers in Whitehall in the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills. There has been recent correspondence and video conferencing. I hope to join Bill Rammell MP, who is the Minister of State for Lifelong Learning and Further and Higher Education, at an event in London in December. I assure the Member that the Department has an active programme of involvement with its counterparts in the rest of the United Kingdom.
Job Ready Scheme
7. Mr Storey asked the Minister for Employment and Learning to detail the remaining issues that surrounded the completion of arrangements for the management of the new Job Ready scheme. (AQO 459/08)
Sir Reg Empey: All management arrangements associated with the Job Ready strand for the Training for Success provision are in place, including the operational guidelines. They will be updated as required throughout the life of the programme. I am also pleased to report that, to date, we have enrolled almost 3,000 students.
Mr Storey: Although I understand what the Minister has said, I have been listening to the disquiet among the private training providers who have been hitched to contracts for Training for Success and its Job Ready component, and they still await definitive guidelines from the Department for Employment and Learning. Are those training providers being unreasonable in requesting those guidelines from the Department after three or four months?
Mr Deputy Speaker: Time is up. The Minister will have to respond to the Member in writing.
Investment from India
1. Lord Browne asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment what action he was taking to deliver investment from India to Northern Ireland; and to outline what sectors were being targeted for investment. (AQO 463/08)
The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Mr Dodds): From 2004 to March 2007, Invest Northern Ireland (INI) worked with six Indian companies to secure over £65 million in planned investment into Northern Ireland, promoting some 2,235 jobs. In the past three years, Northern Ireland has seen increasing success from the Indian market. Investors from India include Firstsource, HCL Enterprises, Polaris Software Lab, Pix Transmission, BPO Services and, most recently, the announcement by Tech Mahindra.
To build on that success, and with investments from India increasing, Invest Northern Ireland is setting up an office in India to capitalise on the opportunities there. That office will be based in Mumbai, and it will seek to promote further trade and investment links with India. The key sectors to be targeted will be the areas in which Northern Ireland offers a globally competitive proposition, notably in financial services, business services and information and communication technology.
Lord Browne: I thank the Minister for that informative answer. We often hear about outsourcing of jobs to India, but it is good to know that investment is moving in the other direction and bringing much-needed jobs to Northern Ireland. It is important to focus our attempts on attracting inward investment, in particular in the financial services sector. It is also advantageous to concentrate such investments in particular geographical areas. Does the Minister agree that the Titanic Quarter is ideally suited for financial service investment?
Mr Dodds: The Member has made some important points about the significance of the Indian market for Northern Ireland, and he is right to draw attention to that. The Titanic Quarter has strong advantages, particularly in the financial services sector. Other honourable Members have also raised the point about locations, but Invest Northern Ireland does not determine the location for any potential investor. That decision is ultimately taken by the investor. Invest Northern Ireland tries to promote the Province as a whole, so that it is competitive in areas where it might attract foreign direct investment. However, ultimately, the decision on the location rests with the investor. If investors propose specific areas in which they are interested, Invest Northern Ireland will work with local stakeholders to best position that investment.
Mr Molloy: Thank you, a LeasCheann Comhairle. In view of the forthcoming economic investment conference, will the Minister outline what steps he is taking to ensure that Invest NI will involve all councils and constituencies, particularly west of the Bann, to get a proper opportunity for involvement in the conference and for future investment in that area?
Mr Dodds: With your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I am happy to deal with the question although it concerns the United States rather than India. The conference is very important, and is one that the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) has made a priority. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, announced that he would give the conference a lot of his attention. The Department is about to establish a steering group to oversee arrangements for the conference, and it will comprise representatives from all key stakeholders — not least, the US consul general.
The Department will be mindful of the best interests of the whole of Northern Ireland during preparations for the conference. Although not every Department, nor the councils, will be represented directly, I expect that councils will welcome the opportunity for a very strong case to be made to potential American investors on why they should bring important foreign direct investment opportunities to the Province.
Mr McCallister: I declare an interest as someone who is involved in the agrifood industry. The Minister will know that agrifood businesses have huge potential for further development in India. Has he had any discussions with Northern Ireland processors with a view to partnering and improving their prospects in the Indian market?
Mr Dodds: The Department has not had any specific discussions about the Indian market. However, in recent days we have engaged directly with the industry and processors to discuss how they can best be promoted. The industry is a key part of our manufacturing sector, and it is also a very important area for Invest Northern Ireland, supplying it with the largest number of clients and sales. My Department and I will continue to give the industry a lot of attention over the coming months and years.
2. Mr G Robinson asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to outline his plans to increase the overall percentage of the power requirements of Northern Ireland produced from renewable sources. (AQO 419/08)
Mr Dodds: The Department is aiming to increase the percentage of our electricity consumption that is generated from indigenous renewable sources from 3·8% in 2006-07 to 12% in 2012-13. The Northern Ireland renewables obligation (NIRO), which is part of the successful UK-wide certificate-trading scheme, is the main support mechanism to help the Department reach that target. NIRO is complemented by other initiatives, particularly the Reconnect programme in the environment and renewable energy fund, which supports investment in non-wind renewables and micro-generation.
A major cross-border electricity grid study is also nearing completion, which will help determine the investment needed to ensure that grid networks in both Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic are sufficiently robust to accommodate the growth in the generation of renewable electricity until 2020 and beyond.
Mr G Robinson: As the aim is to increase the percentage of electricity consumption from renewable sources to 12% by 2012-13, will the grant aid that is available to people building new homes or refurbishing existing ones to install renewable-energy features, such as solar panels, be maintained to encourage the integration of such systems into their plans?
Mr Dodds: The majority of the contribution to the 2012 target will be made by large-scale wind farms and energy systems. The contribution from household schemes is important, and is something that the Department wants to encourage, but it is relatively small — around 1% of the total renewable energy generated. My colleague, the Minister of Finance and Personnel, is looking at scope for including micro-generation in building regulations, which would be an important contribution.
Mr Beggs: The Northern Ireland environment is particularly suited to willow production. Can the Minister advise how his Department has assisted large-scale trials of willow production? Any assistance will instil confidence in producers and, ultimately, in the systems that use willow to generate electricity or heat.
Mr Dodds: The Member is right to stress the importance of willow production. There are good examples of those types of projects and work, particularly in the north-west of the Province, and I hope to visit one of them soon. During the summer, several Ministers visited the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in the United States; one of Northern Ireland’s major displays was on energy generated by willows and related issues. Therefore I assure the Member that the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment will continue to work closely with partners to ensure that what can be done to progress willow production will be done.
Mr Gallagher: Even though the Minister says that the implementation of the Reconnect scheme is unimportant in the bigger picture, does he agree that it is important in encouraging people to act locally in relation to what is a serious problem for the country — indeed, for the world? Can the Minister tell the House whether he has plans for the better promotion of the Reconnect scheme, or if there are plans for its refinement or extension?
Mr Dodds: It is right to highlight the important contribution that people can make in their own homes by ensuring that more energy comes from renewable sources, and that can be done by the implementation of such schemes as Reconnect. Recently, I had the pleasure of visiting a home in the Strangford constituency that had lately installed solar panels, and the householders commented on the savings in fuel and energy costs and their contribution to the environment. The Reconnect scheme has been going for a while, and I have been engaged in efforts to raise its profile. I encourage people to apply. Members will be aware of recent television and other media advertisements that have attempted to raise the scheme’s profile and to encourage more applications, and help is available with those. The Reconnect scheme, therefore, has an important contribution to make, but, as the Member stated, the majority of the contributions in the area of renewable energy will come from bigger projects. However, that must not lessen the impact that each of us can make if we do our bit.
Northern Ireland Tourist Board
3. Mr McQuillan asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment what plans he had to enhance the role of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board. (AQO 426/08)
Mr Dodds: Tourism makes an important contribution to the local economy, and the Northern Ireland Tourist Board plays a key role in supporting the sector’s development. As a first step in strengthening that role, I recently approved a new senior management structure for the Northern Ireland Tourist Board. In addition, I am in discussion with the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure regarding the merger of the Northern Ireland Events Company with the Tourist Board. That will further enhance the role and portfolio of the Tourist Board by drawing together the expertise and staff of both organisations. I am also mindful of the recommendations of the report of the House of Commons Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs, which included references to the fragmentation of support services. I am keen to address those issues over the coming months to ensure that the Northern Ireland Tourist Board is properly equipped to deliver its important objectives.
Mr McQuillan: Does the Minister agree that the Northern Ireland Tourist Board should have a role to play in the promotion of tourism in Great Britain?
Mr Dodds: I was in Edinburgh last Tuesday to discuss that and other matters — including renewable energy — with my Scottish ministerial counterpart, and we discussed the marketing of Northern Ireland. The Scottish Minister wanted to share the marketing of Scotland with me.
The Tourist Board and Tourism Ireland are co-operating on a Northern Ireland-specific campaign to market the Province to Scotland and the north of England — areas with which we have a very close affiliation. There has been a slight reduction in the number of visitors from Great Britain, and that needs to be addressed very urgently.
However, it must be recognised that with so many opportunities now available for people to fly to foreign destinations at relatively low cost, the short-break market in Northern Ireland and other parts of the United Kingdom is under pressure.
I will monitor the work of Tourism Ireland and the Tourist Board very closely to ensure that there is value for money and delivery for Northern Ireland.
Mr Elliott: Is the Minister satisfied that Tourism Ireland is providing value for money in its role in Northern Ireland compared to the work of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board?
Mr Dodds: I am very conscious of the need to ensure that Northern Ireland taxpayers get value for money, not only from Tourism Ireland, but from every organisation that is under the remit of my Department.
Under the structures that were set up when the Ulster Unionist Party was negotiating those matters, Tourism Ireland is responsible for the marketing of the island of Ireland for tourism purposes outside Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. I am determined that the substantial amount of money that is put into tourism each year will show a return, that the number of out-of-state visitors coming to the Province will increase and that the Northern Ireland tourism product, for which DETI has responsibility, will be enhanced. Considerable investment is going into tourism, because we all recognise that the tourism industry has enormous potential for the economy of Northern Ireland. There is an opportunity to grow the figures for out-of-state visitors, and that is an area where we can really make tremendous strides. Therefore we must ensure that there is value for money from the investment that we have put in.
Mr P Ramsey: I welcome the Minister’s comments on increased tourism in Ireland. In view of the increased use of international websites to book accommodation, has there been any discussion between the tourist boards North and South about the creation of an all-Ireland booking system to enable easier access?
Mr Dodds: I will look into that, although the issue of an all-Ireland booking system has not been raised with me by anybody in the tourist industry as a priority.
4. Mr McCarthy asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to give his assessment of the impact on small enterprises of the activities of paramilitary groups. (AQO 448/08)
Mr Dodds: There has been no formal assessment of the impact of paramilitary activity on small enterprises. Small businesses play a critical role in providing employment and contributing to the growth of the local economy. Attacks on small businesses, whether through threats, extortion or physical damage to premises or the workforce, are hugely detrimental and are to be condemned thoroughly. A number of Organised Crime Task Force events were held for the business community during 2006-07 to raise awareness of the help and support that is available for victims of extortion and to encourage victims to report those crimes to the police. The PSNI, supported by the task force, has also launched an extortion helpline that provides access to professional advice and guidance from specially trained PSNI officers who are experts in that field. I encourage anyone in business who has been a victim of extortion to contact the police extortion helpline.
Mr McCarthy: I thank the Minister for that answer. However, given his totally and utterly disgraceful remarks on local radio recently, suggesting that loyalist paramilitaries should be allowed to take their time giving up their weaponry, how can the small-business community have any confidence in the Minister’s determination to combat the loyalist gangsterism that costs our genuine business community very dearly?
Mr Dodds: I wait in vain for the honourable Member to get his facts accurate. What he has just described is totally inaccurate. In pointing out the facts, the honourable gentleman leaves a lot to be desired. Of course it is in all of our interests to ensure that businesses are freed from threats of extortion — from wherever they come. My Department and I utterly repudiate and condemn all threats from paramilitarism; we condemn all extortion, threats and all violence and intimidation of businesses or anybody else. I wish that the honourable gentleman had been as strong in his condemnation of the violence of others when the Members on this side of the House were pushing for such matters when we were in positions — [Interruption.]
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order.
Mr O’Loan: The Minister will be aware that there has been an endemic problem of extortion against building contractors by loyalist paramilitaries, particularly in certain geographical areas. What specific discussions has the Minister had with the PSNI in relation to that matter, what is his assessment of that situation, and will he give an assurance that that problem is being eradicated rapidly?
Mr Dodds: The honourable gentleman draws attention to a very important issue, and it does raise its head from time to time in the work of my Department. He can be assured that, as far as I am concerned, the matter is being taken seriously, and I will continue to monitor the situation closely. However, it is essentially a matter for the police and the criminal justice agencies. I assure the Member that in my discussions with the police and those agencies I will apply whatever pressure is necessary to ensure that the matter is properly highlighted and emphasised. It is totally unacceptable that any business — whether in the construction industry, or anywhere else — should be under threat of extortion or anything like it.
Mr Simpson: Is the Minister satisfied that there is a role for the Serious Organised Crime Agency in providing small businesses in Northern Ireland with the protection that they need and deserve against paramilitary organisations?
Mr Dodds: The Member raises an important issue. As I said, the Organised Crime Task Force has organised and held several events. It was set up in 2000, and it includes among its membership a multi-agency approach. It has a stakeholder group chaired by the Minister of State Paul Goggins, and it is made up of representatives of the Serious Organised Crime Agency, the police, customs, the Assets Recovery Agency, the Home Office, etc. It is important that all the agencies here are around the table doing what they can to bring their collective expertise to bear on what is a very difficult problem to eradicate, but one that we must continue to put pressure on.
Salt Caves: Licences
5. Mr Ross asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to detail what licences have been granted for the exploration of salt caves underneath the Larne area; and what is the purpose of these licences. (AQO 431/08)
Mr Dodds: No mineral prospecting licences have been granted by the Department for the exploration of salt beds underneath the Larne area. A licence for mineral prospecting in the Larne area has been offered to an applicant, subject to the outcome of the statutory and public consultation process. Two mineral prospecting licence applications for areas of Island Magee have been approved by the Department and will issue shortly. I understand that a company is negotiating with the Crown Estate to obtain a lease to explore the area beneath a part of Larne Lough. Offshore licensing falls outside the responsibility of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment.
The purpose of the licences is to explore, by means of geophysics and drilling, the thick salt beds known to exist at depth beneath the south-east Antrim area, and to assess their suitability for the engineering of caverns for natural gas storage.
Mr Ross: I thank the Minister for his answer. Given that there is considerable concern among local residents about the prospect of storing natural gas underneath areas of south-east Antrim, will the Minister give me, and the people that I represent, an assurance that they will be consulted fully throughout the entire project and, furthermore, that the local community will not experience disruption during the initial exploratory drilling stages?
Mr Dodds: First and foremost, I must emphasise that a prospecting licence only authorises exploration. The granting of mining leases for extraction does not automatically flow from the granting of a prospecting licence. That is a separate matter that must undergo the normal planning processes.
The Member mentioned safety concerns, which I understand; however, worldwide, there are more than 650 underground gas storage facilities, of which 50 are in soft caverns. It is well-known and well-proven technology that has been extensively used throughout the world.
Of course, there must be full and proper consultation, not least because that is set out and required as a mandatory obligation by legislative provisions. If the process were to reach the stage of an application for a mining licence, it would be necessary to follow planning procedures and for DETI to grant other statutory approvals.
Small and Medium-Sized Business Sector
6. Mr Campbell asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to provide an assessment of the state of the small and medium-sized business sector across Northern Ireland; and to outline the problems currently being faced in that sector. (AQO 400/08)
Mr Dodds: The small and medium-sized business sector is growing and makes an increasing contribution to the Northern Ireland economy. There are more than 58,000 VAT-registered enterprises in Northern Ireland, 99% of which employ fewer than 250 people. We are working to increase the number of small businesses in Northern Ireland and, in the past five years, Invest NI has provided assistance to help to create, on average, eight new businesses every day. Small and medium-sized enterprises in the Province employ 350,000 people — approximately two thirds of all private-sector jobs.
Mr Campbell: The Minister has alluded to the success of the small and medium-sized sector in Northern Ireland. Will he ensure that Invest NI continues to work to improve the skills base that that sector offers and will he ensure that that sector continues to offer much-needed employment across Northern Ireland and, in particular, for the north coast and East Londonderry areas?
Mr Dodds: The honourable Member mentioned the skills base, and it is important that my Department works with the Department for Employment and Learning on that matter, because an increased skills base is a key driver of productivity and entrepreneurship in Northern Ireland.
The Member can be assured that the Department and Invest NI will not neglect the north coast and East Londonderry. For example, between 2002-03 and 2006-07, there were 865 new business start-ups in East Londonderry, which compares favourably with other areas. I can assure the Member that the Department wants to build on that success in the future.
Mr A Maginness: The Minister spoke of the need to provide the appropriate skills for small and medium-sized businesses. Another problem facing that sector, particularly for new start-up businesses, is a delay in VAT registration. That creates serious problems for start-up companies because of their need to claim back VAT on money that they have spent on machinery and plants. Will the Minister use his good offices to raise that problem with the Revenue and Customs?
Mr Dodds: That matter has been pointed out to me before. That is of concern to the Department, and the Member can rest assured that we will pursue that matter with the relevant authorities. As the Member knows, VAT is not the responsibility of my Department or of the Assembly. Some Members may be thankful for that — others less so. The Alliance Party is keen for the Assembly to assume tax-raising powers, and its members may wish to elaborate on that policy in due course.
We will follow up the matter about which the Member asked with the relevant authorities in HM Revenue and Customs.
Mr McFarland: What plans does the Minister have to encourage clustering of small and medium-sized enterprises in order that their knowledge can be shared and their export potential increased?
Mr Dodds: Clustering does not apply just to small- and medium-sized enterprises; it applies right across the board. It is a well-known fact that it is much easier to attract foreign direct investment where there is a cluster of knowledge-based industries or businesses that deal with life sciences, for example. The same logic can apply to small and medium-sized enterprises, and Invest Northern Ireland looks closely at that.
However, at the end of the day, we in Northern Ireland must focus on those areas of which we can take best economic advantage, such as life-sciences industries, business services, ICT, and financial services. Those are the key cluster areas on which we must focus as we progress.
Enterprise and Investment Zone, Newtownabbey
7. Mr K Robinson asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment what contact he has had with the Minister of Finance and Personnel in relation to the establishment of a major enterprise and investment zone in Newtownabbey, based on the expertise of the University of Ulster and on tax incentives for inward investors. (AQO 424/08)
Mr Dodds: Across the United Kingdom, enterprise zones are no longer seen as an effective way to target resources, given that they can distort economic activity over wide areas through displacement effects. Tax incentives are reserved matters, for determination by the UK Government.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Unfortunately, the Minister’s time is up. That concludes Question Time.
Executive Legislative Programme
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one and a half hours for this debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes for a winding-up speech. All other speakers will have five minutes.
Mr Kennedy: I beg to move
That this Assembly calls on the Executive Committee to produce, before the Hallowe’en recess, an Executive legislative programme detailing executive business for the current Assembly session.
Mr Deputy Speaker, on behalf of the whole House, I congratulate you on your shrinking personage. I understand that you are working hard on a diet, and you seem to be making progress. Congratulations, and keep up the good work.
It is 166 days since the Executive assumed office. How time flies. That is almost 24 weeks — or nearly half a year — and it is well beyond the 100-day honeymoon period that most Administrations can expect to enjoy on entering office. In that time, the Assembly has debated some 69 private Members’ motions — by my figures, this is number 70. I emphasise the word “motions”.
Such motions must not be confused in the public mind with private Member’s Bills, which are public Bills that go through several Stages, including a Committee Stage. Those are substantial undertakings. Private Members’ motions, on the other hand, have no practical effects. They are not binding on Ministers, and they are, basically, nothing more than a way for Members to highlight issues of concern. They may be worthy and well intentioned, but they go absolutely nowhere where action is concerned.
I contend that the sheer volume of private Members’ motions is undermining the reputation of this Assembly. It is causing journalists to comment that this is not a legislative Assembly and is nothing more than a debating Chamber. Indeed, some less-generous types have called it a “school debating society”.
As an MLA, the deputy leader of one of the Executive parties and the Chairman of a Committee, I am deeply concerned about the Assembly’s reputation and standing. The current dispensation was too long in the making, and the efforts made to establish it too great, for the Assembly’s reputation to be damaged in the way in which it is being damaged by the recurrent failure of the Executive to engage in public business.
Since the Assembly started business on 8 May 2007, the House has debated 69 private Members’ motions; a further eight Adjournment debates, which, again, were initiated by private Members; 17 items of Committee business; and 21 items of Assembly business. All those items of business — all 115 of them — could be said to have been initiated outside of the Executive Committee, by the ordinary Members of the House.
During the same period, Ministers and the Executive have initiated 36 items of business. Business initiated by private Members since May therefore outnumbers ministerial or Executive business by a ratio of more than three to one. That means that more than three quarters of Assembly business has been initiated by private Members, and only one quarter by Ministers and the Executive.
Even those figures mask an even greater disparity in performance. Many of those private Members’ motions were debated for at least one and a half hours, whereas most ministerial and Executive business is comparatively short in duration. Therefore, the time that is used for the Assembly’s business is overwhelmingly dominated by private Members’ motions, which are going nowhere. That situation simply cannot be allowed to continue.
It would be more normal for Executive business to take up 70% and private Members’ business 30% of the Assembly’s time — not the other way around. In the first mandate, that was the case.
This is a legislative Assembly, but where is the legislation? The Assembly is designed to be a vehicle for implementing Executive-led government. However, because the Executive have failed to lead, the Assembly has had to busy itself with private Members’ motions.
I say all that more in a sense of sorrow than of anger. My party has two Ministers in the Executive, and they sit beside five DUP Ministers, four Sinn Féin Ministers and one SDLP Minister. The Ulster Unionist Party may have Ministers, but the strategic leadership of the Executive lies with the two major parties — the DUP and Sinn Féin. That strategic leadership is now seen to be lacking.
The Ulster Unionist Party did not comment on that growing problem in the two months before the summer recess, because we accepted that business was just beginning. However, it must be said that the Civil Service and the leading parties knew, as far back as March 2007, that the Executive would become operational.
September has now passed and October is half gone — it is almost like a poem — yet there is still little by way of concrete business. In fact, the situation appears to be getting worse rather than better. During the entire month of June 2007, two whole days of business were dominated by Ministers and the Executive. Since returning from the summer recess last month, the Assembly has discussed 28 private Members’ motions, with long hours of debate. However, there have been only 11 items of ministerial or Executive business, many of which have been brief.
That has been going on for far too long. As a Committee Chairman, I believe that we cannot allow the situation to continue indefinitely without taking action. The matter has been raised in the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, which I chair, but it has now been going on for so long that it had to be brought to the House and into the public domain. That is why we tabled this motion, which asks the Executive to produce a legislative timetable that details Executive business that is to come before the Assembly before Christmas.
I am deeply concerned, for example, that no Executive action has been taken — within the bounds of power that the Assembly already possesses, such as power over rates — to help business. Instead, the Minister of Finance and Personnel appears to be like a rabbit caught in the headlights, waiting for Westminster to agree to reduce corporation tax. That reduction may never come. Sir David Varney’s review of corporation tax is due to be published soon, so we will then know the truth. I suspect that it will be an unpalatable truth.
Even if a deal on corporation tax were to be agreed, it may materialise only through some device whereby businesses in Northern Ireland could pay tax in the Republic — and what will the DUP say about that?
Why are the Executive waiting? Why do they not do something for business now, through areas such as the rates where the Assembly already has had power devolved? Waiting until all is agreed before anything is agreed — a concept that seems to underpin the premise that before the Programme for Government is agreed there must be agreement on the Budget — is a recipe for political paralysis. I suspect that negotiating habits learned by the DUP and Sinn Féin during the constitutional negotiations, when that was their mantra, mean that neither party can proceed in any other way. They are caught like dinosaurs in rock sediment.
I have something to tell those parties on behalf of the Northern Ireland people and the taxpayers — that approach is just not getting the job done. The DUP and Sinn Féin are not cutting the mustard when it comes to executive action, legislation or — for want of a better term — government. It is difficult to identify the cause of that inaction: perhaps it is the difficulty of having two inexperienced and opposing parties forming the majority of Ministers in the Government, or the more serious political problem of dissension within the enforced coalition; or perhaps the whole government machine is rusty after so many years of unaccountable direct rule. It may even be a blend of all three factors. Whatever the cause, we have to ask whether, after 166 days, the two lead parties of the moment can deliver. The signs are that they cannot. Let us hope that that changes.
In another sense, there is action that we in the Assembly can take outside this ministerial inaction: we could begin the process of revising current legislation in the Committees of the Assembly. That would have a positive impact on people’s lives. It would begin to change things for the better. However, it would be preferable for the Executive to do what I am asking them to do in the motion, and issue a timetable for Executive-led business in the coming months so that we could all see an end to the drift.
The Assembly is meant to work, legislate and administer. It is not meant to sit like a Third World dictator’s Rolls Royce without petrol. So I say to the Executive: get a move on. Fill the Assembly automobile with the petrol of legislation and Executive action.
Mr Deputy Speaker: We could always write a poem.
Mr S Wilson: I must say that, having listened to the Member, I expected that we might have been given some ideas for legislation. I did not hear one concrete — or sediment of rock — example from Mr Kennedy about what kind of legislation is needed. However, I congratulate him on his courage in tabling the motion for two reasons. First, it is clear that he has no political ambition, because he has offended his party leader and Mr McGimpsey the Member for South Belfast both of whom are Ministers. Neither of them has brought forward any legislation.
Mr Kennedy: The Member should do his homework properly, which he ought to be able to do, having been a teacher in a previous life. Will he confirm that Mr McGimpsey has already introduced the Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, which is currently with the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety for consideration? Mr McGimpsey is also the Minister who attends the House most frequently. He has responded to 15 motions introduced under private Members’ business and to one in an Adjournment debate, and he has provided answers to over 400 oral and written questions. So I have not fallen out with Michael McGimpsey.
Mr Deputy Speaker: I am awarding the Member one extra minute for the intervention.
Mr S Wilson: I should get two minutes for that.
I have not failed to do my homework. I deliberately did not mention the Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill because I was hoping that the Member would mention it himself. That is the other reason why I think the Member is being courageous. There have been five pieces of legislation so far, and Mr Kennedy — the Member who is so keen to get legislation into this House and who is so keen to be involved in legislation — did not speak on any of them. He had 12 occasions on which to speak on legislation.
I should say that he did speak once — he spoke during the debate on the Budget Bill, when he hoped that he would not be put outside to get wet when the fire alarm went off and the rain was coming through the roof.
I have three points to make: the first one is that lots of legislation’s being passed by the Assembly would not necessarily mean good Government. Many people would say that the less Government interference there is in their lives, the better. Many businessmen have made the point that, rather than more legislation, they would love to see some of the current legislation repealed. The absence of legislation does not mean bad government, although there are pieces of legislation that should be brought to the Assembly quickly.
Secondly, quick legislation is never good legislation. If the Member had done more research on the legislative process and the drafting of legislation, he would know that a piece of legislation is not ready to print the day after a decision has been made. The legislative process and the drafting of legislation require time and skill, and there are a limited number of people who can do it. Very often, quick legislation turns out to be bad legislation. So far, many of the Bills that have gone through the Assembly have been Bills that were drafted under the direct rule Administration, perhaps a year ago, and it has taken that long to put them on the statute book. That is not unique to this Assembly; it is common to other Assemblies and Parliaments, such as Westminster.
Thirdly, there is a need for legislation. In particular, there is one piece of legislation that should be included in the Programme for Government when it comes, and that is legislation to deal with the transfer procedure from primary school to post-primary school. That is one case where the Minister should show urgency.
Finally, the Member said that the Budget is being used as an excuse to delay the Programme for Government. In his naivety, he may have ignored the fact that legislation usually requires resources. The worst kind of legislation is not only drafted quickly but does not have the necessary backup to enforce it. That causes people to become cynical about the process of government. Without a proper Budget and knowing what spending we have in place, it is impossible to know what kind of legislative programme we can afford and what resources we have to back it up. Therefore, while I support the idea that we must have a Programme for Government in place as quickly as possible, the opportunism of the Member for Newry and Armagh — who has not shown much interest in legislation in this House — does not become him, nor does it become this House.
Mr Molloy: A LeasCheann Comhairle, go raibh maith agat. I attended this debate to examine whether serious arguments would be put forward for debate, or whether it was an opportunity for Mr Kennedy to bash the DUP. He has done neither. I know that Mr Kennedy sees himself as a bit of a comedian, but in this proposal he says that we do not need to worry about the Budget or what the legislation is, but that we simply need to make legislation. Therefore, he is proposing that we make legislation for the sake of it without any thinking behind it. He said that he wanted the Executive to produce the legislative programme before the Christmas recess, although the motion cites the Halloween recess; perhaps he can clarify which session of the Assembly he means.
It is important that the Assembly produces legislation that is proper and necessary. Undoubtedly, it must still review and amend certain legislation that was brought in under direct rule. Much of the legislation that was introduced under the old Executive must also be reviewed. In particular, the issues of water taxes and the rates review must be examined. All of those issues are important. Certain legislation was rushed through in the last Assembly. Often, Members were loaded with papers, legislation and documents in order to keep them busy while the Executive did not really do anything on that particular programme.
Sinn Féin will listen to the views that are expressed in the debate and to any alternative proposals that are made. It is important that every Member has the opportunity to suggest what legislation they believe is required. I hope that, by the end of the debate, the Assembly will have heard from Mr Kennedy’s party about the issues for which it wants legislation and those on which it wants debate. It is good to hear Mr Kennedy say that the Assembly has been a talking shop. Sinn Féin has said that for the past two years. The Assembly was quite prepared to exist as a talking shop during the Hain Assembly so that it could, at least, discuss relevant issues over which it had no real power to instigate change.
Therefore, if the Assembly is to deal with legislation, my party hopes that it will be meaningful legislation which will benefit people’s lives, and will not just simply rubber-stamp that which came from Westminster under the direct rule Administration. The stop-start nature of government by the previous Executive was unhelpful. Mr Kennedy says that the present Executive does not have enough experience. Certainly, the experience of the last Executive was not good. Therefore, a new situation can only be an improvement.
It is clear from Mr Kennedy’s introductory comments that he does not consider the debate to be serious, but sees it as an opportunity to cause a reaction. If he were serious about bringing forward legislation, he could do so by way of a private Member’s Bill or through Committee legislation, which could be brought to the Floor. I sit on the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister, which is chaired by Mr Kennedy. At present, that Committee’s business does not include any to propose or amend legislation; nor, indeed, have any particular ideas on how to do so been suggested.
Therefore, I welcome the Assembly’s opportunity to support the Executive’s in-year development and to bring forward legislation. All Members want that to happen. However, legislation need only be brought forward when changes are required, and not simply for the sake of doing so. It is up to the Assembly to take control of the situation and to pursue the issues that it wants to debate and be dealt with. During all of the negotiations that have taken place during the last couple of years, the onus was on Members having an input on what matters are legislated for by the Assembly. Instead of debating some less relevant issues, now is the time to bring forward motions that propose changes to legislation and new legislation that the Executive can take forward for the future. Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.
Mrs D Kelly: I am interested by Mr Molloy’s comment and criticism of the stop-go nature of the previous Assembly, given that it was the IRA’s failure to decommission that held its work to ransom.
The SDLP supports the motion. The debate is long overdue. If Mr Molloy wants to know what legislation Members want, I will tell him what basic, simple legislation is needed; a repeal of PPS 14 (Planning Policy Statement 14). In my constituency, neighbours are in dispute over hedges and trees. I want legislation on that. Consultation on the matter finished earlier in 2007. It appears that a straightforward piece of legislation is all that is required.
My party also wants the single equality Bill to be brought forward. Ministers who belong to certain parties had given clear commitments to bringing forward equality legislation. However, there is now a political dead hand on that matter. Furthermore, my party wants a better sustainable development framework. At last week’s Committee, the Office of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister could not put forward any proposals on that issue and wants further time to deliberate.
The Committee is also interested to note that, thus far, the bids for efficiency proposals — and proposals for new moneys —have been overseen only by departmental officials and not by Ministers. That is, perhaps, because some issues may be too controversial, and Ministers do not want to be associated with them at present. An example of that is the £0·96 million that is to be deducted from the community relations budget.
We want progress on the Civic Forum, but we are now told that the terms of reference have not been agreed. We also want some economic development. We want to know what is happening with the Maze/Long Kesh site so that there can be proper regeneration, jobs and houses, and the sporting fraternity can know where their home will be for their big games in the coming years. Are those matters being delayed because they are not important enough for the Executive to debate, or is it, as many observers believe, the fact that the two major parties cannot agree on much at present?
We have also seen delays in the appointment of a Commissioner for Victims and Survivors of the Troubles, and the manner in which the Committee was given that piece of news was quite deplorable — an announcement in the press that afternoon, 20 minutes after the Chairperson and Deputy Chairperson of the Committee were informed of the matter.
Some Members have already spoken about the legislative framework. Mr Molloy talked about debates and debates. Members do not want to be in the Chamber, debating and debating. We often hear Members referring to themselves as belonging to the two leading parties. Where are those parties leading us to? What impact have they made on social and economic matters? Yes, we have greater peace, but do we have better community relations? The events that occurred in some areas over the past two weekends show that we have not made much progress in that matter. We need to build on a shared future.
Mr S Wilson: Will the Member give way?
Mrs D Kelly: Of course I will give way.
Mr S Wilson: I am surprised that the one area that the Member has not mentioned is social and affordable housing, which is a big issue for people in Northern Ireland. It is also the remit of the Minister for Social Development, the Member’s party colleague, who has been silent on proposals on that issue.
Mrs D Kelly: I refute that suggestion in its entirety. Perhaps the Minister of Finance and Personnel should make a decision on the Executive’s Budget and on the Programme for Government. The Minister for Social Development has said, time and time again, that her Department should be given the money with which to build the houses. Have we heard anything about the Programme for Government in the House? No, we have not. Are we going to be treated to such a programme by the end of the year? Thus far, there has been nothing but delays and slowdown in any sort of legislative framework or decision-making.
Mr Lunn: It might have been expected that this motion would come from the Alliance Party, as the only party that is not involved in the so-called Government. Therefore, it is the only party that should not be embarrassed by the necessity for such a motion or have to defend its own party’s Ministers. That irony has arisen from the fact that the motion has come from a party of Government, with two of the main culprits in its own ranks. That fact has not been missed by Members who spoke earlier in the debate. Therefore, I will not dwell on the matter, nor will I dwell on the revelation on ‘The Politics Show’ on Sunday — courtesy of Mr O’Dowd — that it was not even the Ulster Unionists’ first choice of motion at last week’s Business Committee meeting. There we are. It is amazing what one hears on television. I wonder how many times, in Parliaments around the world, ordinary Members have had to remind Government Ministers of their primary function.
Effectively, a new Government was put in place five months ago. It was brought into office on a tide of goodwill and public expectation. It pledged to roll up its corporate sleeves and put right all the dreadful things that direct rule Ministers inflicted on us. We might have expected an avalanche of legislation, such were the pressing needs of the people. Instead, we have inertia, paralysis and an evident failure to agree about anything in the Executive, except to promote an image of peace and harmony to cover up the complacency that appears to have gripped them.
We wait for action on so many major issues, some of which have been highlighted today: help for businesses, rating, education, the transfer procedure, planning, and the farce surrounding the appointment of a Commissioner for Victims. At a time when classroom assistants have gone on strike, further education lecturers have become totally frustrated, and people wait for non-existent ambulances, we spend our time discussing ridiculous motions, such as last week’s on the use of the Irish language in the House, which was inflicted on us by Mr Kennedy’s party colleague. I hope that all Members noted the reaction to that debate out in the real world — it was one of total exasperation and is evidence of the widespread cynicism about our activities.
Mr Kennedy: It would be very helpful if the Member could outline, in any part of his speech, what side he will eventually come down on. Is he in favour of the motion or against it? It is not clear at the moment.
Mr Lunn: Some declare their intentions at the start of their speeches, and others wait until the end, but I will do so in the middle of my speech — the Alliance Party supports the motion. There is a feeling that we are doing nothing useful in this Chamber and that we are filling our days with discussions on non-binding motions. Some of those motions are perfectly worthy and should be accommodated, when times allows. However, they should not be centre stage — that should be reserved for primary legislation, given that this is a legislative Assembly.
We in opposition are happy to support the motion that has been brought forward by a party of Government to criticise the Government. Once again, that highlights the dilemma that faces the Ulster Unionist Party, and, perhaps, the SDLP, too — whether they are in or out of Government. We have no such problem on these Benches, and we will continue to press for the activity demanded by the motion.
In conclusion, I must say that I admire Mr Kennedy’s optimism in setting a timescale of 11 days. Given the way in which things are going at the moment, Halloween 2008 would be a more realistic target, but we live in hope. The Alliance Party supports the motion.
Mr Spratt: I do not believe that there is a crisis of confidence in this Assembly due to a perceived lack of legislation. So far, five Executive Bills have passed through the House, which is comparable to the record of the previous Executive, which also averaged a Bill every two weeks. It should be noted that further pieces of legislation have been delayed for several weeks by some departmental Committees. If we are to progress legislation, we must ensure that Committees work with their Ministers when required so that such delays do not hinder the work of the Assembly.
When we compare the record of this Assembly with that of our friends in the Scottish Parliament, we see that no Bills were introduced by the Scottish Executive before the summer recess, and that one Bill has been introduced since September. That comparison shows this Assembly to have been quicker to bring forward Bills and does nothing to fuel the claims of some that the Assembly is not doing its job.
It is important to state that finalising the Budget and formulating a legislative programme cannot be done overnight. Those decisions are vital to the future success of the Assembly. As such, the necessary time and consideration must be given to them. We should not denounce OFMDFM or the Executive for taking that approach. I am confident that, when revealed, the legislative programme will show the benefits of devolved Government and how that can impact on the daily lives of our constituents.
It is sad that, since devolution has been restored, members of the Ulster Unionist Party have sought to undermine the Administration through cynicism. Now that we have our devolved Assembly, we must question just how serious the Ulster Unionist Party is about devolution. The motion calls for an Executive legislative programme. In my opinion, that is a fair request. However, I believe that, unfortunately, the Member who proposed the motion has done so for the wrong reasons. The Member for Newry and Armagh has made an accusation that this Chamber is nothing more than a glorified debating society. I believe that those were the words of Mr Kennedy.
Mr Kennedy: Yes, they were.
Mr Spratt: Mr Kennedy said that someone else used those words, but I think that he used them over the weekend. However, some debates, such as the one on attacks on Orange Halls, should not be discredited by such a slur.
Mr Kennedy: I understand the important point that the Member is making. I tried to stress that most of the motions that were debated were on important subjects. Unfortunately, as we have seen this weekend, attacks on Orange Halls have not stopped, despite the fact that there was a useful debate on the subject in the Assembly. That remains a matter of ongoing concern.
Mr Spratt: I agree; it is disgraceful that those attacks have continued. I hope that Members opposite, and on all sides of the House, will make sure that something is done to end those attacks as soon as possible.
The Ulster Unionist Party is in no position to lay such a claim or to stand aloof from such an accusation. After all, it submitted the same motion for debate twice in four months. Is Mr Kennedy criticising the members of the UUP who sit on the Executive — the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and the Minister for Employment and Learning — for the lack of legislation coming from their Departments?
I have every confidence that OFMDFM and the Executive will bring forward a programme when the time is right and that it will be for the good of all the people of Northern Ireland.
Mr O’Dowd: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Mr Kennedy began the debate by bombarding us with figures and statistics, which is always a useful tactic when there is no substance to the argument, and to fill up the allotted 10 minutes. It all added up to nothing, but the most important figure among those that Mr Kennedy threw at us was two — the two Ulster Unionist Ministers sitting in the Executive. If we add on Mr Kennedy’s ally, there are three Ministers sitting on the Executive, all of whom can introduce legislation if they so wish. I have not heard any of the many political correspondents who hover around this place state that there has been any demand by, or any record of, those Ministers lambasting other members of the Executive for not bringing forward legislation.
Mr McNarry: They are not being given a lead from the dominant parties.
Mr O’Dowd: I have no problem in giving you the lead. If you wish to learn and follow — [Interruption.]
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. All Members must make their remarks through the Chair.
Mr O’Dowd: A LeasCheann Comhairle —
Mr S Wilson: Will the Member give way?
Mr O’Dowd: For you, Sammy, certainly.
Mr S Wilson: Does the Member not find it incredible that the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP require the DUP and Sinn Féin to hold the hands of their Ministers to guide them through the legislative process? Does that not say a lot about the quality of their Ministers?
Mr O’Dowd: It is a long time since anybody held my hand.
The Ulster Unionist Party has indulged itself in criticising the amount of private Members’ business that has been transacted. Perhaps we could have introduced legislation last week instead of having the anti-Irish language debate, or, the week before, instead of discussing the state of Peter Robinson’s back garden. I do not know whether the motion on fuel poverty, which the Ulster Unionists moved twice, was the result of a clerical error or a genuine attempt to address the issue.
That brings me to Councillor Kelly of the SDLP. What legislation has the Minister for Social Development brought before the House to tackle fuel poverty? None whatsoever. It is all part of the handbag fight at dawn between the UUP and the DUP. That is all that it is, and since none of the Ulster Unionists are of the female persuasion, I will leave it up to Members’ imaginations as to who it put forward as combatants.
Listening to the Ulster Unionist Party recently, however, it seems that there is no point in introducing legislation. There will be no money to finance legislation because the Ulster Unionist Party is telling the manufacturing industry that there is no need to pay rates; it is telling society that water and sewerage services do not need finance; and it is telling the public sector that there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Mrs D Kelly: Will the Member give way?
Mr O’Dowd: I am flowing, Dolores; I will give way in a minute.
Even if we were to introduce all this legislation, the Ulster Unionist wish list would be impossible to finance.
Mrs D Kelly: The Member’s last few comments sound remarkably like the Sinn Féin party manifesto. Is the Member saying that Sinn Féin is going to renege on its manifesto promises on water charges and manufacturing tax?
Mr O’Dowd: I hate to break the news to the Member, but the SDLP has broadly welcomed the water report. [Interruption.]
I will not accept any more requests to give way.
If the Ulster Unionist Party wants legislation, I can lead the way for it and suggest a few areas where it can introduce legislation. Bring forward legislation based on the 11 individual reports that formed the Bamford Report. Bring forward legislation on the RPA and the Health Service. Bring forward legislation that ensures that staff have proper representation on trust boards. I am sure that every Member of the House would be more than happy to debate those three areas.
Discussions to agree a Budget and a Programme for Government will take place in the House in the near future. Until then, it is a waste of time to say that a programme of legislation must be agreed before the recess — and Mr Kennedy has yet to decide whether that should be the Halloween recess or the Christmas recess.
I return to my old sparring partner, Dolores Kelly. If the SDLP wants us to lead the way for it, DSD could bring forward legislation on social housing, registration of landlords, support for the community and voluntary sector, and repeal of the repressive measures in the Welfare Reform Bill. Perhaps Margaret Ritchie could say what she is going to do about so-called UDA funding. She put the cart before the horse and did not check the legal advice before she made statements.
Sinn Féin’s view is that the process must be followed through its logical steps. If the Executive are to produce a programme of legislative measures, they must follow steps. In the meantime, any party from the Executive can publish whatever legislation it chooses, and I look forward to seeing it. Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.
Mr Shannon: Thers nae doot whut-sae-iver that in oarder fer Norlin Airlan tae gaun fort we hae tae mak laws. Hoo-iver thees laws shud nae be pit throo in aa’ hurry. Fer we fin whun laws er hurried throo, it is tha ivery dae foulk whau pay. Tak tae oany first-yeer law student whut they din in ther first yeer o’ trainin, en ther anser wull be: tae fin oot tha loop hols in tha law in oarder tae bend tha rools an defen tha in-defensible. Twau much law is hurried throo an in daein this, we gie lawyers – o’ whau ther is a wheen in this getherin — a tiem tae twust an ben in oarder tae alloo rang tae be seen as richt. Thon lawyers canny dae ocht but agree.
There is no doubt that in order for Northern Ireland to progress and move forward, we must legislate. [Interruption.]
If Members listen, I will now translate the Ulster-Scots part of my speech.
However, legislation cannot and should not be rushed through, as whenever things are rushed through the legislature, it is the everyday people who pay. If any first-year law student is asked to explain what they are trained to do in their first semester, the reply will be that they are trained to find loopholes in legislation in order to bend the rules and defend the indefensible. Too much legislation is rushed through, giving the lawyers — of whom there are several in this Chamber, although they may not be present at this moment — the opportunity to twist and bend and allow the illegal to be seen as legal. The lawyers cannot do anything but agree.
Although the Member has proposed the motion for the right reasons, he has not considered the whole picture. With great respect to Mr Kennedy, those points must be enlarged. The people, whom we seek to aid and protect through legislation, end up being dragged through a legal quagmire, which could have been easily avoided through legislation that is properly worded, instead of a rush job in an attempt to show progress.
Since devolution was restored, five, or perhaps six, pieces of legislation have been introduced and more are on the tables of each Department. Those Departments are represented by all four of the parties that comprise the Executive, not only the two biggest parties. However, it is my firmly held belief that the strict timetable for legislation leaves it wide open for mistakes. That belief is backed up by people with legal knowledge. A well-known saying is that if something is worth doing, it is worth doing right. Let us get legislation right when we bring it to the Chamber.
Undoubtedly, there is a frustration that more must be done. However, rushing it through would only create further problems. Dolores Kelly talked about the changes that Members wanted to see. All the parties are agreed about changes to PPS 14, but let us get the legislation right. The lone ranger, to my rear, may have a different opinion on that.
The Assembly must consider housing issues, and the Minister for Social Development can introduce changes, such as freeing up land, to help with the provision of social housing.
It is easy to bring legislative issues to the Chamber. There have been proposals to leave aside money from the health budget for drugs to treat Alzheimer’s disease, cancer and arthritis. Reg Empey can introduce legislation on apprenticeships. All parties can have their say in the Chamber on issues such as industrial rating and EU directives on sewage. Departments, including the Department of Education and the Department for Regional Development, must introduce legislative changes.
Mrs D Kelly: Given the Member’s commitment to bringing legislation before the House, does he not think that it was disgraceful that, during the summer recess, the DUP and Sinn Féin snuck off to the Secretary of State to seek a change in the legislation and an increased budget of £100,000 for special advisers to junior Ministers?
Mr Shannon: I do not agree with the Member, but Dolores probably expected me to say that.
The important consideration is that junior Ministers have a job to do. Mrs Kelly wants child poverty and other issues concerning children to be addressed. That is a job for the junior Ministers, and that is why the Assembly needs them. Therefore, the Member’s question was most unfair. Several potential subjects for the new legislative programme have been mentioned: high- hedges legislation, car-parking legislation for private residents and a ban on the sale of cigarettes to those under 18 years of age. All parties want legislation on those, and probably many more issues, to be introduced.
Ministers and their officials are not sitting on their hands, but are working to introduce relevant legislation that will stand the test of time, rather than having to be repeatedly amended to cope with the machinations of the legal profession. Some Ministers — and Members know who they are — could, perhaps, have moved more quickly. UUP Members on my right have been shouting, but perhaps they should introduce legislation. The Assembly must put legislation on the table and get it right, first time. Case lawyers must not be allowed to shape the legislation: that is the right of the elected representatives in the Assembly.
Mr K Robinson: Even if there is no result today, it is a long time since there has been such an animated and good-humoured debate across the Chamber. The list of potential legislation that Members have suggested will keep the Assembly busy for the next 20 years.
Mr S Wilson: That means that there will be overtime.
Mr K Robinson: As Sammy says, we will be asking for overtime.
Mr Kennedy introduced today’s motion because this is a serious matter, and he wanted to focus the attention of the House on what the UUP considers to be a problem. Several Members, including one or two on the far side of the Chamber, have touched on the relevant issues. I want the House to treat the motion as a serious attempt to focus attention on an existing problem. Despite what was said earlier, the public perception is that the Assembly is becoming a debating society. The Assembly has been up and running for some time, but has yet to deliver what the public perceive as a punch — although some Members may disagree.
High-hedges legislation has been mentioned several times. I asked questions on that matter during the Assembly’s first mandate, and the UUP tried to progress the issue during the second mandate. I have approached two direct rule Ministers and the current Minister of the Environment to try to get such legislation passed. That legislation would be fairly simple and non-contentious, and much of the homework has already been done.
However, today’s debate has been occasioned by the persistence of private Members’ motions on the business agenda of the House. During the Assembly’s first mandate, there was 70% of Executive business and only 30% of private Members’ and Committee business. In fact, the Business Committee lamented the fact that there had been so little private Members’ business. Plans were afoot to increase that by encouraging MLAs to produce private Member’s Bills and encouraging Committees to initiate legislation.
The situation in the current mandate is different, partly because the Assembly’s second mandate lasted for four years. I will not say on which part of their body Members sat, but they did nothing. As a Member at that time, I felt frustrated, as I am sure did others. The problem is that that Assembly became a talking shop, and some of the bad habits from those days persist into the current mandate.
Two elements are at work here. The first concerns the sheer amount of talking that is taking place. Even some of the questions to Ministers are major speeches in their own right. It is sometimes open to doubt as to whether they contain questions at all. You and your colleagues have addressed that matter several times, Mr Deputy Speaker. The second element concerns the Executive’s failure to lead the Assembly strategically. The fault for that lies squarely with the two largest parties, in spite of what they have said today, because they dominate the Executive. It lies specifically with the First Minister and the deputy First Minister, and with their junior Ministers —
Lord Morrow: Will the Member give way?
Mr K Robinson: Yes, I will.
Lord Morrow: I have listened to the debate, and there has been much criticism of the Executive. I will not comment on whether that criticism is justified, but I remind Members that probably everyone sitting in the House today is a member of a Committee. I have not seen any business coming from Committees, and I am not aware of anyone who is restricting those Committees from bringing business to the House.
Mr K Robinson: I thank the Member for his intervention. It is a valid point that Committees also have a role to play. However, at the top of the tree is the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. As lowly Back-Benchers, we feel that it is the responsibility of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister to introduce policy and to try to co-ordinate it. That is what is lacking, and that is the major problem.
The idea seems to have grown up in the Executive Committee that until the Budget has been finalised, we cannot have a Programme for Government. Why is that? Government financing is a continuous process — it is like a conveyor belt. There is always a certain amount of money that we know that we will have, and there is a certain amount of money that we may have. We also have a borrowing facility, but I urge that we use that wisely, if at all. Therefore, there is no reason why more of the business of Government cannot begin immediately, before the Budget is finalised. It is ludicrous to suggest that we wait — I hope that Sammy is listening to this one — like the South Pacific islanders who believe in the cargo cult, with money dropping from heaven, directed by the current object of their worship, Gordon Brown. Sammy can research that for his homework tonight. A good enough reason does not exist for the Assembly not to address the real issues now. It must start to make decisions, using the devolved powers that we possess at this time. Business cannot wait for the corporation tax debate to be finalised.
Mr McNarry: Will the Member tell me, in his eloquent way, what would happen were private Members’ business to stop? How would we fill our time on Mondays and Tuesdays?
Mr K Robinson: I am glad to know that I am in good standing with the party Whip. That is praise indeed. Thank you very much.
I honestly do not know how we could fill our time. I watch the monitor when I am in my office doing real business and I come out of Committees drained, after three hours or more of trying to cover Committee business. However, when I have come to the Chamber, I have found the repetitive nature of all the debates up to now to be boring. I am sure that people who study events in the Chamber sometimes wonder why we are here at all.
Government must go on, and it must be seen to be going on. There is no reason why elements in the Programme for Government cannot be prioritised and set against their own budget. There is no reason why it should not begin here as quickly as possible.
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Member’s time is up.
Mr K Robinson: Do I not have a couple of extra minutes, Mr Deputy Speaker? I have been up and down like a yo-yo.
Mr Deputy Speaker: I have been generous and added one minute.
Mr K Robinson: Your generosity has run out. Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Mr Attwood: I have two points to make, the first of which concerns the approach that the DUP and Sinn Féin have taken to the debate. If Members cast their minds back six months, everyone in Northern Ireland was told that the Executive could not be formed until May, because it was necessary to have six weeks in order to hit the ground running. The Executive were not formed at the end of March, or in April, so that the parties could hit the ground running in May. Since then, some parties in Government have failed to do that.
Secondly, I wish to refer to the comments that were made about the Minister for Social Development. People tend to forget that it was the Minister for Social Development who introduced the first piece of legislation in the House — the Welfare Reform Bill.
The Minister for Social Development has been trying to introduce further legislation, including, for example, Bills on charities, child maintenance, and pensions. Those were signed off by the Minister long ago. Why have they not been introduced? They have been held back by the Office of First Minister and deputy First Minister. It is true that, in recent times, the Department has released two of those pieces of legislation. However, legislation that should and could have been introduced, and that the Department for Social Development wanted to have been introduced, has been held up at the centre of Government. I invite the junior Minister to comment on that.
Deeper patterns of concern are beginning to emerge in the Chamber, and Members need to be aware of those. When the DUP and Sinn Féin were negotiating the St Andrews Agreement, they stated, as articles of faith, that there would be increased accountability to the Assembly on North/South bodies. Where Ministers’ functions were concerned, another St Andrews article of faith was that three Ministers would be able to bring one Minister to account on any matter, thereby increasing Executive accountability. Although I am mindful of and respect the ruling of the Speaker on statements about this matter, what did we discover a week ago when the decision to re-advertise the position of victims’ commissioner was announced? We discovered that there was no accountability to the Chamber either on the decision not to appoint that commissioner or on the decision to re-advertise the position, a process on which work will be carried out over the next four months. On the one hand, therefore, the DUP and Sinn Féin agreed at St Andrews that the North/South bodies would be more accountable, as would individual Ministers. However, they did not accept that those who made decisions on high-profile, sensitive matters such as the appointment of a victims’ commissioner should be accountable to the Chamber.
Mr S Wilson: Will the Member give way?
Mr Attwood: I will give way in a second.
Members must be aware that a concerning pattern of treating the Chamber in that way is beginning to emerge.
Mr S Wilson: The Member has made an important point. However, will he state whether the SDLP Minister sought the support of two other Ministers to have the appointment of the victims’ commissioner referred back to the Executive?
Mr Attwood: I am sure that the Minister, who is not in the Chamber, will take that on board. [Laughter.] I am sorry; she is here, I was, literally, unsighted.
There has not been an Executive meeting since the announcement about the appointment of a victims’ commissioner. The Executive met on the Monday evening, after the announcement was made and before the agenda could be determined.
Members should be concerned about the wider patterns that are emerging. Government business that will be held up includes the Irish language Act, the 11-plus, and the RPA. Looking six months ahead, it is likely that further legislation that will be held up will include that on the Parades Commission review, the bill of rights and the devolution of justice and policing.
Therefore, the SDLP is putting down the marker that, not only has there been no business of any great substance in the Chamber, but major pieces of Government business are already being held up, and more will be held up in the next six months. Gridlock is emerging, particularly between the two major parties.
The reason that Members should support the motion can be summed up by what someone said to me in my Falls Road office last week. He said that six months after this Government was formed there has been little Government, no Government and bad Government. There has been bad Government on the classroom assistants’ pay dispute, no Government on legislation, and little Government on everything else.
The junior Minister (Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister) (Mr Paisley Jnr): My briefing note tells me that I should thank those who proposed the motion. I thank them sincerely. If the motion represents a kicking for OFMDFM, I would mark their homework “could do better”. I am impressed by, and Mr Ken Robinson was right to mention it, the enthusiasm of Members to get to grips with Executive business.
Members want to get to grips with the Assembly’s business, and they should be commended for their interest.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. Someone has a mobile phone switched on. Please check the phone discreetly and turn it off.
Mr Paisley Jnr: The Executive recognise the Assembly’s understandable wish to discharge its right and responsibility to scrutinise their work, including the important area of draft legislation. The Member for East Antrim is right when he says that good Governments are not measured by the number of laws that they make: it is important to put that on the record. Ministers’ acknowledgement of the importance of legislation is on the record, and since the restoration of devolution, Ministers have sought, where possible, to introduce primary legislation in several areas. However, Ministers must be satisfied that the legislation is required in policy terms and is appropriate to meet those needs, and they must secure the agreement of the Executive to do so.
Members will be aware that five Bills were introduced soon after restoration: the Budget Bill, the Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, the Libraries Bill, the Taxis Bill, and the Welfare Reform Bill. Three of those Bills are under consideration by the relevant Committees. Other pieces of legislation are being worked on and scrutinised. The same amount of legislation has been introduced in the nine weeks of the Assembly’s present mandate as was introduced in the first 11 weeks of the Assembly that commenced in 1999. It is important to put that on the record. It just so happened that the so-called dominant parties in 1999 were not the DUP or the party opposite: two other parties were dominant. It is important to — [Interruption.]
The DUP were not the dominant party then, but I thank the Ulster Unionists for giving us the position of dominance today. I fully acknowledge the importance of the Executive’s informing the Assembly of their legislative intent as soon as they are able, and we intend to inform the Assembly of the business for the current session in a matter of days. However, several observations might usefully be made about the subject of legislation.
First, the Assembly and Executive were restored to bring back accountability — an important issue that was raised by the Member for West Belfast Alex Attwood — and to make the work of the Government here more relevant. The Executive did not take up office to promote, without question, the policies and legislative proposals of their predecessors. If people think that the Executive came here to implement, willy-nilly, legislation that direct rule Ministers had in mind, they are wrong. We intended to bring to this process our own thoughts, strategies and policies and to implement what the public expects us to put in place. All Executive members have brought their own ideas to the table. It would have been an easy option for us to follow, without apology, the policies of the direct rule Ministers, but we have considered — and have to consider — our own policies.
Mr S Wilson: Does the Member accept that the Libraries Bill is a good example of an instance where the Assembly will have to undo some of the legislation that emanated from direct rule and that it will lead — if it goes through — to an unaccountable library authority?
Mr Paisley Jnr: Those are all points that the Assembly and the Executive will consider.
Secondly, the introduction of legislation is not an end in itself. It represents one, albeit important, stage between policy development and implementation. Legislation based on inadequate policy development and consideration is bad legislation and will lead to problems when we try to put it into practice. It is, therefore, right that Ministers are fully satisfied about the purpose, effect and intention of legislation before they bring it to the House — a point that has been ably made by other Members.
Mr McNarry: I accept the junior Minister’s valid comment on direct rule, and thank goodness that we are here. He mentioned the repeal of legislation introduced by direct rule Ministers.
What provision will there be in the forthcoming Programme for Government for repeal of legislation?
Mr Paisley Jnr: If the Member will bear with me until the end of my statement, he will hear something that may at least whet his appetite, if not entirely satisfy him.
Legislation does not represent the totality of the engagement among the Executive, Ministers, the Departments and the Assembly. In the relatively short period since 8 May, some 100 pieces of subordinate legislation have also been laid, following scrutiny of their policy content by Committees. Where appropriate, Ministers have also considered asking the Assembly to approve provisions in respect of legislation that is being passed at Westminster to ensure that those provisions are available in Northern Ireland at the earliest opportunity. The Assembly has consented to that in respect of the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Bill, and a number of other proposals that will shortly come forward after discussion with Committees.
It is easy to take potshots and criticise the Executive for not doing enough, but it should be recognised that a considerable amount of work has already been done, which makes that criticism unfair.
Mr Kennedy was critical of the Business Committee when he proposed the motion. That was rather unfair because that Committee decides the business to be done, and its timing. The draft Renewables Obligation (Amendment) Order (Northern Ireland) 2007 was brought before the Assembly today by the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, and it was allocated only half an hour for debate, which shows a lack of interest from some of those who would be the first to criticise the House for not bringing legislation forward. I am not sure whether the Member was interested enough to contribute.
Mr Kennedy also criticised the strategic leadership of OFMDFM, and said that he wants it to follow direct rule Ministers blindly. The Executive sets their own agenda, and do not follow dictates from another place.
The Member did not name one single piece of legislation that he would like to see enacted, although he did make a comment on the rates process. He also outlined what I can only describe as a recipe for financial ruin, because consideration must be given to budgetary concerns before an agenda is set. Therefore, the Executive are showing strategic leadership by taking that process seriously, stating what they want to do, and asking how that can be paid for.
Mrs D Kelly: Will the Member give way?
Mr Paisley Jnr: I am coming to the Member in a minute.
Mr Kennedy promised the Assembly jam tomorrow, which is not a good policy. The Member for Newry and Armagh criticised the Government, and if he must do that, he should at least be consistent, because he cannot claim one day that Ministers are not getting on with one another, and the next day write to ‘The Newsletter’ describing them as “Chuckle Brothers”. He cannot have it both ways.
The Member for Upper Bann Mrs Kelly mentioned eight pieces of legislation that she would like to see introduced to the House. Of those eight, not one was to do with the Minister whom she is closest to, which tells its own story. If the Government and OFMDFM are going to be criticised about the appointment of a Commissioner for Victims, it is important that the appointment process should not be dragged into a debate in the House against a background of Members having gone public and having named people in the press who are not even shortlisted for interview. That brings the entire process into disrepute. When Members do that, they cast a slur on the credibility of the Assembly, and the process, and they should bear that in mind. It is little wonder that there was not enough confidence to put that matter up for debate. Mrs Kelly raised two other points, one of which was PPS 14, on which a remedy hearing will take place in court.
The Assembly cannot legislate where a remedy hearing is ongoing. The Member said other things that were critical of the Government, and one was the appointment of special advisers. Again, that is a matter for Westminster, our national Parliament, and not a matter for here.
The slur cast on the Assembly has been amplified by the conduct of some Members who turn up and debate in the way that they do. I am glad that the Member for Strangford Mr McNarry is here. His revolving-door antics last week, when he had so many walk-ins and walk-outs, brought this place into disrepute, not the actual content of the debate. It is rather strange to be told that there is a slur on the House and a slur on the Executive when Members behave in that way.
Mr McNarry: Will the Member give way?
Mr Paisley Jnr: I have given way to the Member once. He has had his chance. We accept — [Interruption.]
Mr McNarry: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Was the issue that the junior Minister has just referred to not dealt with adequately and responsibly by the Speaker this morning, and should the junior Minister not accept the ruling of the Speaker of the House?
Mr Paisley Jnr: I do not believe that I have questioned the ruling of the very wise Speaker of the House.
We accept that a balance must be struck between taking time to dot every i and cross every t on each individual Bill on the one hand and, on the other hand, giving Members a reasonably accurate forecast of what lies ahead during the current session. It is with that in mind that the First Minister and deputy First Minister are bringing to the Executive this Thursday a draft legislative programme for the Executive’s agreement. As Members will appreciate — [Interruption.]
Do not worry — I will answer that in a minute.
As Members will appreciate, it would not be appropriate for me at this stage — [Interruption.]
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. This is supposed to be a serious debate.
Mr Paisley Jnr: It would not be appropriate for me, at this stage, to discuss the potential content of that programme. When agreement is obtained, the legislative programme of the Executive for 2007-08 will be announced to the Assembly as soon as practicable thereafter.
Some criticism has been levelled at the Executive, and people wondered what the House would have done had it not been for private Members’ business. Knowing what is coming, Members should be very careful about what they ask for. They might find that there are extra days and extra sessions on legislation in the House. I am sure that the same Members who are critical of the Executive today will be the first Members to criticise the Executive for overworking them. However, we will wait for that in the weeks ahead.
The programme will, undoubtedly, provide the Assembly and its Committees with much to consider and debate over the coming year, as they scrutinise the intentions of each Department. In doing so, I am sure that the Assembly will share and sustain the aim of the Executive by introducing good legislation that is relevant and will make a real and positive difference to every citizen in Northern Ireland.
Rev Dr Robert Coulter: This has been one of the best debates that it has been my pleasure to listen to, not only for the comedy and the repartee from across the House, but for the depth of understanding of what we are trying to get at in the debate.
Mr Kennedy set the tone when he said that the balance of business was the problem. While it is easy in a debate like this to forget the real thrust of the debate, it is the balance of business in a House such as this that is the important factor. When one looks at some of the impressions that are expressed by the public outside concerning the House — and I take as an example an email on the television on Sunday evening that said that the Assembly is a joke — it is time that we, as Members, began to look at the reason why someone, in their wisdom or otherwise, would say that the Assembly is a joke.
The balance of business is important not only for the work of the House but for the respectability of the House.
One must consider the figures. Mr O’Dowd has poured scorn upon them, but figures are history — they are there. The figures are true, and show that non-Executive business, including private Members’ business, currently accounts for about two thirds of what the Assembly does. Considering that Members now constitute the Government, is that balance of business right?
I was intrigued by the logic in some of the speeches — and more intrigued by the lack of it in others. Sammy Wilson said that there have been no concrete proposals. Obviously, he was not listening to the suggestion that one way forward would be for past legislation to be revised by Committees. After congratulating Mr Kennedy, he said that, in life, it is better not to interfere. If that is the case, why have this place at all? Members would agree with Mr Wilson that quick legislation is not good; however, he went on to contradict himself by saying that there is a need for legislation.
Francie Molloy wanted to hear the arguments, and said that it is important for the Assembly to move legislation forward. That is exactly what the UUP is asking for — we must move the legislation forward.
Dolores Kelly said that the debate was long overdue, and gave examples of legislation that must be advanced. She wanted to know what differences between the major parties are holding up legislation.
Trevor Lunn said that he might have expected an avalanche of legislation, but saw only legislative paralysis.
In his attack on the Ulster Unionist Party, Jimmy Spratt said that he does not believe that there is a crisis of confidence — even though people take the time to say on television that the Assembly is a joke.
John O’Dowd bombarded Members with statistics, but, as I have said, those figures are history. Is Sinn Féin depending on other parties to bring legislation forward? He did not tell Members what legislation Sinn Féin wants to promote.
Jim Shannon said that too much law is hurried through and that mistakes are made. That is true; however, he went on to say that we must get the legislation on the table. That is what the UUP wants.
Ken Robinson outlined the problem as the UUP sees it. He said that the Assembly should begin the proper work of Government.
Alex Attwood highlighted the Sinn Féin and DUP approaches and that they said that they needed six weeks in order to hit the ground running. We are still waiting to get the race started.
I thank the junior Minister for his summing up, which was much better than I could have managed, and I am glad that draft legislation is forthcoming. He told Members that it would be before us in a matter of days.
I am reminded of another piece of wisdom from the Good Book:
“Before they call, I will answer.”
The UUP calls for an improved balance of business in the House and for responsibility in legislation. I support the motion.
Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly calls on the Executive Committee to produce, before the Hallowe’en recess, an Executive legislative programme detailing executive business for the current Assembly session.
Adjourned at 5.20 pm.