NORTHERN IRELAND ASSEMBLY
Tuesday 16 October 2007
Private Members’ Business:
Private Members’ Business:
The Assembly met at 10.30 am (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes’ silence.
Outcome of the Proposed Irish-Language Legislation Consultation Process
Mr Speaker: I have received notice from the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure that he wishes to make a statement regarding the outcome of the consultation process for the proposed Irish language legislation.
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure (Mr Poots): I have placed in the Assembly Library copies of a report summarising the responses received during the consultation of March to June 2007 on the proposed Irish language legislation. The main focus of that second consultation was to ascertain public opinion on a possible legislative framework for Irish language legislation.
The draft framework proposed the creation of a duty on public authorities to prepare a language scheme specifying the measures that they would take on the use of the Irish language in the provision of their services. The establishment of a new oversight body — an Irish language commissioner — was also proposed. The commissioner would have the function of approving and overseeing language schemes.
In addition, it was proposed that a person would be able to use Irish in legal proceedings in courts and tribunals sitting in Northern Ireland, subject to the provision of notice and the interests of justice. Finally, a draft provision was also included enabling certain statutory forms to be made available in Irish.
A total of 11,000 written responses were received, as well as petitions containing 629 names. Of the total number of respondents, 7,500 — 65% — indicated support for some form of legislation.
Over 4,000 — 35% — of all respondents were against any form of legislation. Approximately 80% of responses were submitted in the form of a pro forma, drafted by individuals or organisations to assist themselves and others.
I thank all the individuals and the 168 organisations who responded to the consultation. The sheer number of responses confirms the strong and divergent views on this issue in the community. It is my intention to publish all the responses on the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure website by the end of the calendar year, in line with departmental accessibility guidelines.
Among those in favour of the legislation, there was a divergence of views as to the form that it should take, with the majority advocating a rights-based approach. Those who opposed the legislation raised several concerns, including the significant resource consequences of implementing legislation, its potentially divisive repercussions and concerns that the proposed legislation was a political concession in the context of the discussions at St Andrews.
With regard to costs, in 2006-07, Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS) Departments and the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) incurred expenditure of £20·62 million on a range of Irish-language projects and translations. That figure includes £10·3 million from the Department of Education for Irish-medium education. It does not include expenditure incurred by the Northern Ireland Court Service or by local councils on Irish translations and linguistic-diversity projects, nor does it include resources — that is, salaries and running costs — deployed by the various Departments in arranging the commitments associated with the £20·62 million annual expenditure.
Members will appreciate that it is difficult to estimate the cost and resource issues that could arise from Irish language legislation. For example, a rights-based framework would likely have greater costs than a language-scheme framework. Equally, it is difficult to estimate the cost and resource requirements of a language-scheme framework without clarity on the content and extent of a typical language scheme.
Officials in my Department undertook a high-level exercise to estimate the cost of implementing a language-scheme framework, which was the indicative legislative framework set out in the consultation document of 13 March 2007. For the purposes of that exercise, the estimates were based on the assumption that the legislation would be applied across all Departments and the NIO in the financial year 2008-09, and drew, where possible, upon estimates based on experiences in Wales and in the Republic of Ireland.
For example, if Northern Ireland were to have an Irish-language commissioner’s office similar to that in the Republic of Ireland, the annual running costs would be approximately £500,000. The translation service for the Houses of the Oireachtas costs approximately £600,000 per annum, compared to £1·28 million in the National Assembly for Wales. It is estimated that almost £200,000 per annum would be required to provide simultaneous translation in Irish for the Court Service, and a similar amount for tribunals.
In respect of the 11 Departments and the NIO, it is estimated that, in 2008-09, if each were to deploy two dedicated staff members, each fluent in Irish, to develop Irish-language schemes, monitor their implementation, give advice and arrange translations, the annual cost would be approximately £927,000. The printing and design of forms to facilitate Irish-language schemes in the 11 Departments could cost approximately £309,000, and advertising costs could be in the region of £931,000, based on a 20% uplift to take account of the increased advertising costs for Irish.
It is important to stress that those broad estimates concern mainly the 11 Departments. Those Departments employ 22,973 civil servants, as opposed to the wider public sector, which employs 111,128 in local government, health trusts, education and library boards, and various NDPBs.
If estimates of the cost of implementing a language-scheme approach in the 11 Departments were to be extrapolated across the wider public sector, and if, for example, the agreed language schemes required public bodies to provide bilingual services, the costs would clearly be significant.
Members will be aware of current pressures on public expenditure in Northern Ireland. In light of that, it is highly debatable whether our community is prepared to contemplate the level of expenditure that would be required to introduce even a modest form of Irish-language legislation at this time. There will always be competing priorities for public expenditure; however, can the additional potential cost be justified in comparison with the investment that is needed for infrastructure, health, and other vital public services?
Furthermore, bearing in mind that approximately £20·62 million per annum is currently spent on Irish-language projects and translations, I doubt whether the legislative route will be necessarily the most cost-effective way of achieving the aims of enhancing and protecting the development of the Irish language.
My purpose in publishing the summary of responses to the 13 March consultation paper by way of this statement is to afford Members an opportunity to offer some initial views on the matter. I intend to fully engage with the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure before bringing the matter to the Executive.
Having reviewed the responses to both consultation processes, and having reflected carefully on all the relevant issues, I remain unpersuaded that there is a compelling case for introducing Irish-language legislation at this time.
My first reason for making that decision is that, in view of the political sensitivities on linguistic and cultural policy issues, it is clear that the proposal to introduce an Irish language Bill is divisive in our community. The proposal has given rise to highly politicised claims and counterclaims. As a community, we are faced with the challenge of finding new ways of managing our rich cultural diversity. Indeed, that challenge is enshrined in the duty that was placed on the Executive by the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006 to:
“adopt a strategy setting out how it proposes to enhance and protect the development of the Irish language”
“adopt a strategy setting out how it proposes to enhance and develop the Ulster Scots language, heritage and culture”.
The UK Government signed the European Treaty for Regional or Minority Languages on 2 March 2000. The resulting charter was ratified on 27 March 2001 and came into force on 1 July 2001. That is an international convention that was designed to protect and promote regional and minority languages. In Northern Ireland, it applies to Irish and to Ulster Scots. The committee of experts that is examining the implementation of the charter in the UK has recommended the development of a comprehensive policy for the Irish language.
It is my assessment that the proposal to introduce Irish-language legislation at this time is unlikely to command the necessary support in the Assembly on the grounds of being incapable of securing sufficient consensus.
If we reflect on the introduction of language legislation in Wales, the Republic of Ireland and Scotland, experience there clearly shows that giving legislative effect to linguistic policies needs to occur in a depoliticised manner that is capable of commanding broadly based community support. The two consultation processes that have taken place on the proposal to introduce Irish-language legislation, and the ensuing public commentary, clearly demonstrate the lack of community consensus on the issue.
Furthermore, given the sensitivities involved, if the development of the Irish language is to be enhanced and protected, it would be counterproductive to go down the legislative route. The proposed legislation is unlikely to command sufficient consensus in the community at this time, so, if it were to be advanced, it could damage good relations, increase polarisation and entrench suspicions and patterns of antipathy. That could seriously undermine the efforts of those in the Irish-speaking community who genuinely want to see the language developed in a depoliticised and wholly inclusive manner.
Based on a high-level cost estimate, the introduction of even a modest language-scheme legislative model would have significant resource implications. Mindful of the constraints on public expenditure, and, in particular, the pressures in my Department alone, I cannot reconcile the likely opportunity costs of introducing legislation and other spending priorities.
If our aim is to achieve the tangible outcomes of enhancing and protecting the development of the Irish language and facilitating those who wish to use Irish in their dealings with the public sector, I consider the legislative route to be a disproportionately costly method of achieving positive outcomes. The legislative requirement placed on the Executive to adopt a strategy to enhance and protect the development of the Irish language offers a more cost-effective and proportionate alternative.
I have carefully considered the proposal in annex B to the St Andrews Agreement to “introduce an Irish Language Act” and the consultation processes on which the previous Administration embarked. I fully acknowledge that there are those in the Northern Ireland community who have a close affinity with the Irish language and have legitimate aspirations to secure its official recognition and protection.
The enhancement and protection of the development of the Irish language is an important matter for Northern Ireland, as is the enhancement and protection of the Ulster-Scots language, heritage and culture. However, I remain unpersuaded that a compelling case for progressing legislation exists at this time. There is insufficient community consensus, and there are potentially significant costs. Moreover, there is a real possibility that legislation could undermine good relations. In so doing, it could prove counterproductive to those who wish to see the language developed in a non-politicised and inclusive manner.
In publishing the report that summarises the responses received to the consultation exercise that ran from March until June 2007, and in outlining in my statement my current assessment of the proposal to introduce an Irish language Bill, I trust that I can assist the Assembly’s deliberations. I will be most interested to hear Members’ views. I am scheduled to discuss the matter with the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure later this month, after which I will prepare a paper for discussion by the Executive.
Mr Speaker: Before the Minister takes questions, I remind Members that they are to ask questions, not make further statements. I shall allow Chairpersons of Committees some latitude.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure (Mr McElduff): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Ar maidin tá faill déanta sa Ghaeilge sa Tionól seo. Drochscéal ar fad atá i gceist agus drochshíniú ón Aire. Agus is mór an trua sin.
The Minister will know, a Chathaoirligh, that, both on Friday afternoon and yesterday, in my capacity as Chairperson — Cathaoirleach — of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure, I attempted, through my Committee staff, to contact the Minister by telephone and email on more than 10 occasions. I wanted to secure a meeting with him so that he might respond to developing speculation in the media about the content of this morning’s statement.
I will not go on at length, but, suffice it to say, the Minister demonstrated neither confidence nor courtesy, effectively giving the Cathaoirligh of the Committee the runaround. I was told he might be available to meet me in the afternoon but, of course, that meeting never came to be. [Interruption.]
Mr Speaker: Order, Members.
Mr McElduff: Speaking in a personal capacity, I wish to say that this morning’s announcement constitutes a mistake. It is a retrograde step that sends out a negative signal to the growing Irish-language community in the North of Ireland.
The Minister is missing a major opportunity to prove that he is capable of being, and willing to be, a Minister for all the people. I am suspicious of the Minister’s view that:
“it is highly debatable whether our community is prepared to contemplate the level of expenditure that would be required to introduce even a modest form of Irish-language legislation at this time.”
Is the Minister placing the Irish-language community in the North of Ireland outside of his community? Is his definition of “community” exclusive of the Irish-speaking community in the North of Ireland? If it is, it strikes me that the term “Minister of Culture” is an oxymoron when it is applied to the post’s incumbent.
One consultation was not enough. When the Minister did not like the outcome of the first one, he decided to carry out a second. Is it the case that the total percentage of responses, over the two consultations, in favour of Acht na Gaeilge — an Irish language Act — was 75%?
Does the Minister agree that, as with the Welsh example, the best way in which to depoliticise the Irish language is to place such rights at the heart of legislation? Is iad sin mo cheisteanna, a Cheann Comhairle.
Mr Poots: The Member spoke of placing the Irish language at the heart of people’s rights. Individuals have rights in this country. The first such right is the right to life, and, thereafter, there are a series of other rights. I am not denying anyone the right to speak in the Irish language. We do not necessarily need Irish-language legislation to enable the Irish language to flourish. For example, there is Irish-language legislation in the Republic of Ireland, yet use of the Irish language is diminishing there. In Northern Ireland, we do not currently have an Irish language Bill, yet it has been told to me by a number of sources that use of the Irish language is growing here.
Introducing a Bill will not, of itself, necessarily encourage or increase the use of the Irish language. Members must reflect on that and take a considered view of the situation when deciding how they want to take the issue forward genuinely.
When I refer to the community, I refer to the entire community. I am referring not to Irish-language speakers, Ulster-Scots speakers, unionists or nationalists, but to the whole community. Irish-language speakers are part of that community. There are those in the Irish-speaking community who are very keen to see the issue progressed in a way that is not politicised.
I have had the privilege of meeting people who are involved in the Scottish Gaelic-speaking community. The difference between the situation in Scotland and that in Northern Ireland is that, in Scotland, language is not a political matter. Language does not necessarily represent a barrier there. Members opposite, in particular, but also people outside of the Chamber, must reflect on that fact and determine how they can take the matter forward in a non-political way.
Mr McCausland: I thank the Minister for his statement, which clearly demonstrates that an Irish language Act would be divisive and extremely expensive. Does the Minister agree that the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, to which the United Kingdom Government are committed, provides a good framework for advancing both minority languages in Northern Ireland?
Will the Minister, in considering the matter further, take account of the situation in Wales, where there is growing concern, particularly in the business community, at the cost of implementing the provisions that some activists are demanding?
Mr Poots: The European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages is a European directive, so we must abide by it, even if we do not wish to. Indeed, through our actions, we are more than abiding by it. We do not need to introduce legislation to work within its framework.
Therefore, the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages is the context in which we must work and the means through which we can identify how to make progress.
Mr McCausland talked about the costs of language schemes in Wales, where such legislation has been enacted. The costs that I identified were at the lower end of the scale and were for a language-based rather than a rights-based scheme, which would be considerably more expensive than a language-based scheme.
Mr McNarry: It is regrettable that the Chairperson of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure did not consult with the Deputy Chairperson about his concerns, either last Friday or yesterday.
I welcome the Minister’s statement. [Interruption.]
Mr Speaker: Order. The Member has the Floor.
Mr McNarry: Clearly, the fact that last week’s Ulster Unionist’s motion on the Irish language was defeated has demonstrated that the House was both deeply divided and reflective of public opinion. Will the Minister confirm the Assembly’s authority on the matter by asserting that the powers to introduce an Irish language Act will not be transferred to Westminster, allowing it to be imposed on us? That would be counterproductive to local democracy and would further undermine the good relations that he and I know must be made in this matter.
Mr Poots: This is a devolved matter. If Westminster wished to take back devolved matters, under the Sewel guidelines, this House would have to vote in favour of Westminster’s making such a decision.
Members may wish to look to other places, but I say that they should look to this House to ascertain how we can make progress on this and other contentious issues. It will be a test of the Assembly — and of the willingness of Members — as to how we can work with one another for the benefit of the wider community in the months ahead.
Mr D Bradley: Go raibh míle maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Leis an fhírinne a dhéanamh, a Cheann Comhairle, níl mórán iontais orm ins an mhéid a chuala mé anseo ar maidin mar bhí an fógra déanta cheana féin an tseachtain seo caite ag an tUas McNarry anseo ar leathanach tosaigh den ‘News Letter’, só ceapaim go bhfuil poll áit éigin i long na Ranna Cultúir, Ealaíon agus Fóillíochta, agus b’fhéidir gur chóir don Aire paiste a chur ar an pholl sin.
Mr Speaker: Order. Let us have the question.
Mr D Bradley: To translate, I was just saying that I was not really surprised by what I have heard in the Chamber this morning, given that Mr McNarry made the announcement last week on the front page of the ‘News Letter’. It looks very much as though there is a hole — [Interruption.]
Mr McNarry: I will give you a copy, and that will keep you abreast of things.
Mr D Bradley: Thank you.
Mr Speaker: Order.
A Member: What is the question?
Mr D Bradley: There is a hole in the good ship CAL, and perhaps the Minister should seek to fix the leak in the future. The Minister seems to understand the cost of everything and the value of nothing. He uses the financial issue to cover up the fact that he has given in to pressures — [Interruption.]
Mr Speaker: Order. I ask the Member to take his seat. I have continually tried to give Members some latitude. I said repeatedly at the start of the debate that statements should not be made to the Minister; we should have questions.
Mr D Bradley: My question is that, given that the Minister has abdicated his duty to implement the promises made by the two Governments in the St Andrews Agreement:
“to introduce an Irish Language Act reflecting on the experience of Wales and Ireland”,
will he now advise the British Government of that abdication and ask that the matter be dealt with at Westminster? Go raibh míle maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.
Mr Poots: I have no responsibility over decisions that the Governments of the Republic of Ireland and the UK make. I make that completely clear.
This House is its own master, and this House will make the decision. For years, some Members on the opposite Benches were shouting “Brits out”, but now they want the Brits in to make this decision. I can assure the House — [Interruption.]
Mr Speaker: Order. The Minister has the Floor.
Mr Poots: I can assure the House that at no time during any talks was the DUP consulted on an Irish language Bill or legislation. If the Member cares to read the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006, he will find that there is no reference to proposals for Irish language legislation.
Dr Farry: The Alliance Party saw some potential in an Irish-language scheme as a means of trying to find common ground, albeit with a very light touch. What efforts did the Minister make to try to find common ground in the polarised debate between those, on the one hand, who want a rights-based approach and those, on the other hand, who want no legislation whatsoever?
With respect to costs, what consideration was given to pooling resources in a central Government unit, rather than duplicating translation services across all 11 Departments and the rest of the Northern Ireland Civil Service? Given that the Minister is now withdrawing proposals for an Irish language Act, is he prepared to come back to the Assembly with plans for a comprehensive language Act that will address not only the cultural demands of speakers of Irish and Ulster Scots but the real needs of those people who speak non-indigenous languages in Northern Ireland and who find it difficult to access services?
Mr Poots: Consultation has not finished on this issue. If the Member had listened to what I said, he would know that I am going back to the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure and the Executive Committee. The Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure is a microcosm of the House, and I can think of no better place to find common ground. If that Committee can identify an agreed way to proceed, I, as Minister, will be happy to work with it. I look forward to the Committee’s proposals and discussions, under Mr McElduff’s chairmanship, after which we can consider how to progress the issue in the way that the Member outlined.
Mr Shannon: I welcome the Minister’s report on the Irish language Act. It is good that we are discussing the matter, which is one of the biggest issues in my constituency of Strangford, from where the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure received 600 responses to its consultation. The issue gets people’s hackles up, and the costs are horrendous.
The Minister mentioned costs. Can he confirm that the Northern Ireland Office costs are £20 million? He also mentioned £500,000 for the language commissioner’s office, and that it would be £1·2 million if compared to the National Assembly for Wales. For the 11 Departments, he mentioned:
“annual costs … £927,000 … printing and design … £309,000, and advertising costs … of £931,000”.
It sounds a lot like that Abba song:
“Money, money, money …
It’s a rich man’s world.”
In this case, it is Sinn Féin’s world, but it is not in the mind, or in the world, of ordinary people. How much, per annum, will it cost the Civil Service and other public bodies if an Irish language Act is imposed?
Mr Poots: In 2006-07, all Departments and the NIO incurred costs of some £117,000 on Irish translations; the overall costs for translations were over £1 million. All Departments and the NIO spent £3,484,000 on linguistic diversity projects. The Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure spent over £3 million on the Irish-language broadcasting fund and £3,556,000 on Foras na Gaeilge. The Department of Education spent £10,303,000 on Irish-medium education, and the Department for Employment and Learning spent £100,000. If Members suggest that the Government are not committed to Irish-language funding, those figures show that that is not the case.
As regards additional commitments for Irish-language translation, we would be looking for an anticipated £1 million over the next 10 years. For Foras na Gaeilge, we would be looking for almost £12 million over the next 10 years. For the Irish-language commissioner’s office, we would be looking for £7,600,000 over the next 10 years. For the translation service, based on what is happening in Wales, we would be looking for a further £16,916,000. For the Court Service, we would be looking for £2,117,000. For tribunals, we would be looking for £2,117,000. For printing and design, we would be looking for £3,385,000. For advertising and publicity, we would be looking for £10,193,000, and for an Irish language branch, we would be looking for £10,150,000.
Totting all that up — and this is for the language scheme route, rather than the rights-based route — we would be looking at costs over the next 10 years of £291,538,000 for the Northern Ireland Civil Service and Northern Ireland Office alone. They account for 22,000-odd civil servants. If it were extrapolated out to local government, NDPBs and other functions of government, there would be 111,000 people, so the figures could be increased fivefold if we were to go down that route. That is the extent of what is being asked of me. When Members ask me to consider doing this, I have to look at the costs and the value of it. At the same time, there are other pressing and vital issues being raised by Members on a weekly basis on the Floor of this House.
Mr Adams: Go raibh míle maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle, agus tá mé buíoch díot agus tá mé buíoch den Aire, ach caithfidh mé a rá fosta níl iontas ar bith ormsa. Tá cúpla ceist agamsa. An bhfuil eagla ar an Aire roimh an teanga? Is leis an Aire an teanga. Is le achan duine an teanga seo agus bealach amháin nó bealach eile beidh Acht na Gaeilge ann.
I have just a few questions for the Minister, a Cheann Comhairle. Does he agree that it costs the same to provide English-language services as it does to provide Irish-language services? Does he agree — and perhaps he will reflect on this — that he did a disservice to two languages this morning? He did a disservice to the English language, in the perverted way in which he tried to put forward spurious reasons for his judgement this morning, and to the Irish language. [Interruption.]
Mr Speaker: Order, Members. Order.
Mr Adams: Does the Minister accept that the way to depoliticise Irish-language rights is to make them an administrative matter? Will he take the opportunity to spell out to us how he intends to deliver on the commitments that he and his party made in relation to the Irish language in the St Andrews Agreement? Will he accept, finally, that, one way or another, there will be an Irish language Act?
Mr Poots: As regards equivalence of costs, translation comes at a price, and I have identified that price very clearly. I have identified the lower level of costs that would be accrued, as opposed to the higher level of costs.
In education, I understand that there are around 4,000 children in the Irish-medium sector. The costs there are clearly higher than those in the mainstream, and if the educationalists in the Chamber want to look at that matter, they will see that it costs more money to educate children in the Irish-medium sector than in the mainstream. That is a choice for another Minister to make, but she has to make that choice within the budget that is applied to her. That should be reflected upon when we come to making budgetary decisions. I understand that the Department of Education needs substantially more money than it currently has in order to deliver many of its key priorities.
Certain Members opposite could greatly assist in depoliticising the use of the Irish language. When they speak in broken Irish in the House, it does nothing to encourage the wider community. Rather, it persuades people to resist the Irish language. It does not benefit Irish-language activists who genuinely want to make progress in a depoliticised way. I have spoken to people in the Irish-speaking community who have made it clear that they wish that the language issue were not politicised, because it should be a purely cultural one.
Members across the Chamber must reflect on that point, because the more that they politicise the issue and try to ram it down people’s throats, the less likely it becomes that individuals will be encouraged to think that the Irish language should be developed and preserved on the basis that it is important culturally. The approach that has been taken by the leader of the party opposite has been most unhelpful, particularly in the House.
Lord Browne: I congratulate the Minister on the way in which he has conducted business on the subject. Given the legislative restrictions contained in The Budget (Northern Ireland) Order 2007 that determine what can be taken from the Consolidated Fund, as well as our limited ability to raise further moneys, will the Minister clarify whether the introduction of an Irish language Bill would have a detrimental effect on spending on arts and sport?
Mr Poots: Were an Irish language Bill to be introduced, my Department would have to bid for substantially greater funds. If we did not receive those extra funds, that would have a detrimental impact on the arts, sport, and everything else for which the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure has responsibility. If we were successful in bidding for that extra funding, it would have a detrimental impact on other Departments, as that money would have to come out of their budgets.
The European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages identifies terms of value for protecting and enhancing languages. The suggestion by some Members this morning has been that Irish-language legislation is the best way in which to achieve that. I am open to listening to a convincing argument, but none has yet been made. However, I look forward to hearing the Committee make its case, and to agreeing a way forward.
Mr K Robinson: I am sure that members of the public who are watching and listening to the debate will have been horrified to learn of the sums of money that are already being expended on the Irish language. It may have come as a surprise to Members, too.
Doubtless, patients who are lying on a hospital trolley would be mightily comforted to look up and see a sign in Irish that told them that they were lying in a hospital corridor. I am sure that the parent of a child with literacy problems, who attends a school in one of the working-class districts about which the Minister of Education tells the House that she is concerned, would want to see a reading-recovery teacher in that school rather than an Irish-language sign at the end of the school’s street.
At one stage, on hearing the sums of money that the Minister cited, I thought that we were to get two stadia.
Mr Speaker: I ask the Member to come to his question.
Mr K Robinson: I am coming to the question, Mr Speaker. Does the Minister agree that Sinn Féin has succeeded in scoring a spectacular own goal, and that its strident approach has scuppered what might have been accepted had it been genuinely presented as one form of cultural diversity in our community?
Mr Poots: I will allow Members to make their own judgements on what Sinn Féin has done. I am prepared to continue to speak with people in the Irish-language community, and to others, to identify a way in which to ensure progress in Northern Ireland.
What members of other parties do is up to them. However, I did indicate in my response to Mr Adams that, very often, people do not help themselves.
Mr P Ramsey: Will the Minister agree that deep anxiety, concern and frustration will be felt by Irish-language groups across Northern Ireland as a result of his statement?
Bearing in mind the Minister’s comment that the two consultation processes to date led him to believe that an Irish language Act would not command community consensus, does he agree that there is deep worry and suspicion that the second consultation process was contrived to enable troops to gather momentum in opposition to the first consultation process? Why was the second consultation process necessary, when the first one commanded 93% support for an Irish language Act?
The Minister gave a commitment that he would make himself available to the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure on any Thursday. Why, then, did he not feel that it was appropriate, good manners and respectful to bring his statement to the Committee for discussion? The Minister talked about securing consensus from the Committee — failing to discuss this issue with the Committee is not a good way of doing that.
Given that legislation exists to support the Welsh language in Wales and Scottish Gaelic in Scotland, and given Northern Ireland’s current constitutional status as part of the UK, why does the Minister not consider that an exception should be made in Northern Ireland for the Irish language?
Mr Poots: The Irish-language community has lost nothing today. The money that was on the table is still on the table. I have not taken away the level of expenditure on the Irish language that currently exists. Let not the message go out that I have decided, in a sectarian or bigoted way, to move against the Irish-language community.
I have reflected on a consultation process that indicated that clear divisions on this issue exist in the community. A previous contributor indicated that I introduced the second consultation process because I did not like the results of the first one. That is absolute rubbish. I inherited a situation in which the second consultation process was under way. In fact, I was under pressure from people outside of this House, such as Jim Allister, to stop the second consultation process. He must have been satisfied by the outcome of the first consultation process because he did not want the second one to proceed.
It is clearly evident that the second consultation process, in conjunction with the first one, identified clear community division on this issue. When there is clear community division, it is unlikely that there will be consensus in this House.
As for working with the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure, I am scheduled to attend the Committee meeting on 25 October 2007 to discuss this matter in detail. The figures have been drawn together, and the analysis has been completed. The normal protocol for a Minister is to bring those matters to the House, which encapsulates everyone who was elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly. I am happy to go into this issue in much greater detail with the Committee, and to discuss it with the Committee to ascertain the best way forward. I look forward to illumination from that body.
Mr Brolly: Go raibh maith agat. The Minister must be aware of the message that he is sending out, not only specifically to Irish-language organisations, but to all organisations in the North who are involved in cultural matters. Most Gaelic cultural bodies and sporting bodies are committed by their constitutions to the promotion of the Irish language. That includes the GAA and Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Eireann — the Dublin-based organisation that looks after traditional Irish music and other cultural matters, and which will be appearing in the Long Gallery tomorrow night or the night after that.
So there is a huge community outside those specifically Irish-language organisations that will take great offence at the statement, and the Minister will certainly hear from them. If I could make another point before I ask the question —
Mr Speaker: I ask the Member to put his question.
Mr Brolly: I will. The Minister is being a bit disingenuous regarding costs, particularly with respect to Irish-medium education. As Mr Adams said, youngsters will be educated in any event. The Minister should have given figures for the difference in costs between Irish-medium and English-medium education. Is the Minister fully aware of the impact that his decision will have beyond Irish-language groups?
Mr Poots: I am not sure that I am fully aware of the impact that my decision will have. However, I am fully aware that any decision I make will have a tremendous impact on the wider community. For example, while more than £20 million is being spent on the Irish language, when I took office, my Department was spending zero — no pounds — on sign language, which benefits people who cannot speak, who have only that language, and can choose to speak no other language.
On 6 October, I was in Dungiven, which is in the Member’s constituency, and I had a tremendous evening with the Hands That Talk group. My sympathies are clearly with those who have to communicate in a language that is exclusive to them and who are unable to communicate in any other language. Taking £20 million from the Budget and pouring it into Irish- language schemes would have an impact across the community. Whatever my decision, there will be an impact, and I must consider these issues in the round.
The matter is still open for discussion in Committee. I have identified the costs, the results of the consultation process and the difficulties. If Members can demonstrate to me that those difficulties are surmountable, I am open to hear what they say.
Lord Morrow: I congratulate the Minister on his positive statement, which will send out a clear message. No-one would understand why he should commit to expenditure of £291 million over the next 10 years on the Irish language. That language is its current position because of the attitude of the folk opposite who have sought at every turn to politicise it.
Will the Minister assure Members that he will not bend to political pressure such as that which comes from the other side of the House? The Members opposite may have got an assurance at St Andrews, but they must go and talk to those who gave them that assurance. They got no assurance from this side of the House, and they had better face up to the fact that their dream is falling apart at their feet.
Will the Minister assure the House that the money saved will be spent effectively and in a way in which the whole community can benefit? I am thinking of soccer, rugby and activities in which both sections of the community already participate.
Mr Poots: I find pressure readily absorbable. People can apply pressure if they wish.
As regards spending, I cannot spend this money in any other way because I do not have it in the first place. I do not think that the Government has that money because during the comprehensive spending review, and at the Executive Committee meeting last Monday, every Minister was outlining how more money is needed for his or her Department.
Perhaps the Ministers of the parties opposite would identify which part of their Budgets they would like to see cut so that this scheme could be implemented. If they could demonstrate that, Members on this side of the House might be able to take some of their cries more seriously.
Ms J McCann: The Minister quoted many figures in his statement. Does he accept and acknowledge that the £10·3 million of Department of Education money that he mentioned is, in fact, ordinary education costs and not additional costs, and that that money would be spent on children’s education anyway, regardless of the language in which those children are taught?
Mr Poots: I accept that an element of those costs represents ordinary education costs, but certainly not all of it. If I wanted to open a school for 12 children in my area, I would be told to go away. However, if someone wants to open an Irish-language school for 12 children, it seems that that can be achieved. The reason that that situation is most aggravating lies in examples such as the one in my constituency, where four schools that were to amalgamate, with more than 100 pupils among them, were all closed, yet a few weeks or months later, new schools are being opened with as few as 12 pupils on the enrolment list. Obviously, double standards are being applied.
If a child happens to be taught in the controlled sector, that child will be discriminated against. Children in that sector have less funding per child than children who are taught in the Irish-language sector or, indeed, in the integrated sector. It is clear that preferential treatment is being given to those who are taught in Irish-medium schools, over and above those who are taught in other education sectors.
Mr Easton: I welcome the Minister’s statement. Does he agree that any Irish-language group or Irish-speaking person would not want cuts to front-line services, such as education and health, in order to pay for an Irish language Act? Does he further agree that the fact that only 75,000 people out of a population of 1·7 million can speak the Irish language means that that would have been a waste of taxpayers’ money?
Mr Poots: I have laid down a challenge. I look forward to other Ministers stepping up to the table to indicate the reductions that they can make in their departmental spending in order to enable me to go ahead and produce the finance for that measure. I do not believe that people want a reduction in health services, infrastructure not being developed and promoted, or the economy taking second or third place. They want the country to progress. The Celtic tiger was not based on the Gaeltacht, but on the economy. Northern Ireland must identify with that by moving the economy forward and, therefore, by releasing more funding to develop education, health and the other areas that most require it.
Mr McGlone: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. De réir gach dealraimh is é an rud atá againne inniu ná leithscéal i ndiaidh leithscéil agus fáthanna nár chóir rud ar bith a dhéanamh mar mhaithe leis an teanga Gaeilge. The Assembly has been given excuse after excuse as reasons not to advance the Irish language. However, I seek some clarity from the Minister. In his speech, he referred to the European Charter that applies to Irish and Ulster Scots, and to the report of the Council of Europe committee of experts. Can he confirm whether he has now rejected that report?
Mr Poots: I can confirm that the answer is no.
Ms Anderson: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Bearing in mind that the Welsh language has been protected by the Welsh Language Act since 1967, Scottish Gaelic is now protected by legislation, and Irish is protected constitutionally in the rest of Ireland, does the Minister agree with Eamon Ó Cuív’s assessment that the North is the missing piece of the jigsaw? Does the Minister care about the reaction or feelings of the Irish-speaking community? Does he care about the effect of his statement on the wider community?
Mr Poots: I have taken the wider community into consideration in looking at this situation. It is important that we consider the views of the wider community. As I have said, the Irish-language community has not lost anything today. There are those who have suggested that legislation was the best way forward on the matter. I have outlined the issues that surround that — [Interruption.]
Mr Speaker: Order. The Minister has the Floor.
Mr Poots: I have outlined the financial issues that surround the proposal. I have also outlined issues relating to community support and the communities that are opposed to any legislation, and the difficulties therein. Looking at the issue for the wider community shows that there are very clear difficulties. If Members cannot see those difficulties, it is they who have a problem, not me.
As I said earlier, the Irish-speaking community appears to be growing in Northern Ireland, where we do not have an Irish language Act, and declining in the Republic of Ireland, where there is legislation. Therefore, there are people in the Irish-language community who will not be particularly dissatisfied if Irish-language legislation is not introduced. An Irish language Act would not necessarily help the language.
Training and Employment Places
Mr Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to two hours —[Interruption.]
Lord Morrow: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Is it not the convention in this House that, while you are on your feet, everyone else should be in their places? I see that some Members have not yet learned that rule.
Mr Speaker: I thank Lord Morrow for raising that point of order. [Interruption.]
Order. I ask Members to take their places.
The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to two hours for this debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes for the winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes. Two amendments to the motion 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 the winding-up speech.
Ms S Ramsey: I beg to move
That this Assembly expresses its concern at the dearth of training and employment places for disabled children and young people; and calls on the Minister for Employment and Learning to undertake an immediate review and produce an action plan to address this issue as a matter of urgency.
Go raibh maith agat. I welcome the opportunity to bring this issue before the Assembly and to put the focus on young people with special educational needs, disabilities or learning difficulties. I also welcome the Minister to the debate, and I welcome his personal commitment to dealing with the issue.
Young people with special educational needs are a group about which it is difficult to get accurate statistics. In 2005-06, there were 53,000 children and young people with special educational needs attending school. That number has more than doubled in the past 10 years. All indications are that that figure will continue to rise. The issue is particularly important because disabilities affect so many young people, who will face many hurdles in their lives and who need and deserve our support. I have a number of questions to ask the Minister during the debate. I would be grateful if he could ask his officials to respond in writing, if it is not possible for him to provide answers in the time that has been allocated to the debate.
In 2006, the Minister’s Department, in conjunction with a number of other Departments, published a report on this issue. It recognised that there are real difficulties in ensuring that children and young people with statements of special educational needs can realise their full potential in school and achieve their goals, whether in training, education or work. Too many disabled young people still find themselves, having left school, without access to the kind of employment and training that can allow them to have fulfilling lives. For some disabled young people, the lack of appropriate training and places at day care centres means that they spend the majority of their time at home with nothing to do. Some develop associated mental-health problems.
Too many parents remain concerned that their children will not be able to access further education or training, or that the opportunities that are on offer will not allow them to develop their independence. On leaving school, many young people with learning difficulties or disabilities find that there is no clear path of transition to employment ahead of them. In fact, they often experience multiple layers of discrimination and disadvantage. That means that they have many barriers to overcome to achieve their potential and find suitable employment — barriers that those without disabilities or special needs would struggle to overcome.
Those young people find that there is a lack of full-time vocational training and employment options that lead to meaningful paid employment. In a recent Barnardo’s survey of young disabled people, the following barriers were identified: lack of choice in post-school options; lack of accessible colleges; low expectations for young people with disabilities; fewer opportunities to gain recognised qualifications; lack of co-ordination among agencies that work with young people; lack of suitable equipment or adaptations to meet their needs; and a view that there was a policy of cost above need.
Many young people said that they felt that they were pushed into courses in which they had no interest. Administration courses were often cited as those that they were most likely to be offered, even if such courses did not suit their needs. Many young people then dropped out and some failed to find an alternative option. Some young people said that they were not permitted to select the college or course of their choice because the building was inaccessible or the necessary support was not available. Some who had a day care place rather than a training or employment place said that they felt neglected and ignored, with little sense of a hopeful future.
Research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows that the scope and level of aspirations among disabled 16-year-olds are similar to the scope and level of aspirations among other 16-year-olds. However, by adulthood, a sharp change is evident, with only half of disabled young people reporting that they received the education, training place or job that they wanted.
The failure to provide access to the type of training, education and employment places that young disabled people need is also linked to poverty. At the age of 26, disabled people are more than four times as likely to be unemployed or involuntarily out of work than non-disabled people. They are likely to have lower levels of educational qualifications and are more likely to have not fulfilled the employment aspirations that they had set for themselves 10 years previously. However, the research clearly demonstrates that poverty of aspiration is not the main barrier for disabled young people, but the need for additional support, information and opportunities.
Many disabled young people have identified as a major problem the failure of training courses to provide industry-recognised qualifications, which means that they will have spent time on qualifications that have no currency in the real world. A number of reports commissioned by the Department for Employment and Learning have confirmed that that is a problem.
A report on educational provision for students with learning difficulties and disabilities found that improvements have been made since 2001, but that a number of problem areas still need to be addressed. Those areas include the need for colleges to review learning-support structures; the need to ensure that provision exists across curriculum areas; the need to provide broader access to accredited courses; and the need to initiate a process of effective whole-college staff development in special needs. Can the Minister advise the House how each of those recommendations has been taken forward, and what progress has been made?
That report further suggests that, although current further education links are satisfactory in the majority of cases, provision would benefit from a review of the value and outcomes of existing courses developed for that pupil population. Can the Minister advise the House on how that matter is being taken forward?
As well as further education colleges, a number of voluntary organisations, such as Mencap, the Cedar Foundation and Barnardo’s, to name but a few, provide training and support for disabled young people. Such organisations provide training, employment and ongoing personal support. However, most of them are dependent on short-term — usually European — funding, and it is difficult to develop services when funding is constantly at risk. Those types of services can provide young people with the additional support and resources that make a real difference.
I ask the Minister to undertake a full review of all provision available in training and employment, further education and the voluntary sector, to assess its effectiveness and determine any other requirements, and to put in place an appropriately funded action plan that will provide young disabled people with the kind of quality choices and training support that will improve their lives.
Two amendments have been tabled, and I accept the Ulster Unionist amendment, for which I thank David McClarty and John McCallister. The SDLP amendment merely restates the Sinn Féin motion; it is an amendment for an amendment’s sake. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr McClarty: I beg to move amendment No 1: Leave out all after “Assembly” and insert
“expresses its commitment to securing training and employment opportunities where appropriate for young people with disabilities; and calls on the Minister for Employment and Learning to review the provision of such training.”
It has been well said that the true test of the value of a society is how much care it takes of its weakest and most vulnerable members. All of us in the Assembly have a responsibility to see that that duty is carried out. I congratulate the Chairperson of the Committee for Employment and Learning for tabling the motion, and I thank her for accepting my party’s amendment. However, we are concerned that the motion has the potential to be too narrow in its focus.
It is important to remember that training and learning courses and further education college places may not always be the most appropriate choices for children and young people with disabilities. In dealing with the transition of young people with disabilities beyond school, it is necessary for other Departments and agencies to fulfil their responsibilities. Although I make that point, I also acknowledge that there is a significant need for governing bodies of further education institutions to provide sufficiently for the needs of students with a learning disability, where appropriate. That is important.
The results of the Northern Ireland survey of people with activity limitations and disabilities, which was conducted throughout 2006 and 2007, showed that among children, 6% were noted as being affected by a disability, there being a greater prevalence among boys in comparison with girls. Eight per cent of boys aged 15 years and under had a disability, compared with 4% of girls of the same age.
The latest Disability Rights Commission briefing, based on the UK-wide labour force survey of April to June 2007, shows that half of people with disabilities are in work, compared with four fifths of non-disabled people. As 9% of those aged between 16 and 24 years of age have a disability, such a figure can be seen to imply that a significant number of disabled young people are out of work. The chances of getting a job are also significantly reduced, as 25% of people with disabilities have achieved no qualifications, compared with 10% of non-disabled people.
A review of the provision of employment and training places by the Department for Employment and Learning would go a long way in addressing those facts and statistics that are of such concern. Since the motion refers to that Department, it is worthwhile pointing out some of the commendable measures that that Department is undertaking on those issues. In 2006-07, an additional £4·7 million has been made available in further education for the provision of extra auxiliary aids and services and special staff training. Almost £1 million has been allocated to special needs projects in further education in 2006-07. Furthermore, an inclusive learning project has been established throughout further education. Young people can now access mainstream further education with additional support; special provision is available if mainstream education is not suitable.
Personal development programmes such as Training for Success and Skills for Work are tailored for trainees with disabilities. The Department for Employment and Learning is in the process of establishing an expert group to ensure that the programmes meet, specifically, the needs of disabled young people
Those programmes take forward work, which 26 training organisations have been involved in for the past few years, to ensure that the provision meets the needs of disabled young people.
Finally, the Disablement Advisory Service (DAS) has a programme called Workable NI, which supports people with disabilities to work in a wide variety of jobs. There is a clear liaison and referral service between the Department’s careers service and DAS. That is of great benefit to children and young people with disabilities and their families, and I commend the Department for that.
The motion calls on the Minister to produce an action plan to address the dearth of training and employment places for children and young people. I conclude by referring to an important document that has been published by the Department: ‘Department for Employment and Learning: Disability Action Plan: 1 April 2007 - 31 March 2008’. The action plan outlines measures to:
“● Promote positive attitudes towards disabled people; and
● Encourage participation by disabled people in public life”.
Much of that is related to the realm of employment and learning. Therefore, it can be seen from the document that the Department is working hard to address the issue.
I accept that we have much more work to do on the matter, and I have every confidence that the Minister and his Department will deliver for those children and young people with disabilities who depend on, and can greatly benefit from, training and employment provision.
Mr Attwood: I beg to move amendment No 2: Leave out all after ‘concern’ and insert
‘at the inconsistency of transition support and the limited choices available to disabled young people moving towards training and employment; and at the lack of mainstream training and employment opportunities that meet the individual needs of all disabled young people leaving school; and calls on the Minister for Employment and Learning to develop a strategic plan, in consultation with disabled young people and their parents, for the commissioning of services jointly with other relevant Departments and for the delivery of effective support.’
I welcome the debate, and I acknowledge the assistance provided to us by the organisations in the disability sector. I ask Sue Ramsey to reconsider the SDLP’s amendment because the people who assisted me to draft the amendment did not do so for the sake of it. I take what they said as the best advice and I urge the House to do likewise. They would like to offer some further direction to the Minister in those matters. Therefore, in addition to developing a strategic plan, which is common to the motion and the amendments, the plan should be developed in consultation with —
Ms S Ramsey: The Member will appreciate that Sinn Féin proposed the motion because of its concerns at the lack of training places for disabled children and young people. This morning, I was faced with two amendments and, in my view, the SDLP’s amendment is no different from the motion. I take on board the arguments that have been made by the Ulster Unionist Party. If the organisations that Mr Attwood referred to had concerns about the Sinn Féin motion, he could have come to me to work out an arrangement. Sinn Féin does not want to split the House on the issue.
Mr Attwood: I concur with Sue Ramsey that the issue is not one of division or contention. The House should not, and from our point of view will not, divide as the substance of the motion is not in dispute. However, people with knowledge of the disability sector, genuinely, and in good faith, looked to build on the substance of the motion to say that there should be consultation with disabled young people and their parents, and that services should be commissioned jointly with other relevant Departments. The Government need joined-up thinking and strategies when the disability sector in the North is being considered. Therefore, although the SDLP will not split the House on the matter, I urge all parties to consider that those directions to the Minister would be useful additions to the motion.
I am mindful that the disability community is diverse. There are different views on how to address the needs of children and young people with disabilities, particularly on whether they should be integrated into the workplace or develop opportunities in a separate environment. Each view has value and merit, but I will not start a debate on that. Rather, based on the advice that the SDLP has received, I wish to map out the issues of concern that my party believes exist in the disability sector. I shall address, therefore, the transition from school for young people with disabilities. I will highlight five areas of concern, to which the Minister, in due course, may respond, in writing if necessary.
First, in comparison to non-disabled young people, disabled young people face limited choices when making the transition from school. Based on SDLP Members’ experiences in their constituencies, that is self-evident. Therefore, it is necessary to test the accessibility and relevance to young people with disabilities of the opportunities that are available in vocational training, further education and higher education. As has been outlined, the Department has developed some good and sensible initiatives. However, those opportunities must be tested to determine their appropriateness for young people with disabilities.
Secondly, although the transition-planning process is set out in a code of practice, accessible information is needed on that process and on the choices available to young people. The delivery of a transition-planning process remains, in part, inconsistent. Such inconsistency is perpetuated by the lack of monitoring of the process across Northern Ireland. Ambiguity remains on the role of transition officers in the education and library boards. Therefore, the availability of information is critical in allowing disabled young people input into the process and in making them fully aware of the opportunities that are available to them.
Thirdly, the SDLP has been advised that there is no strategic plan on how to fund the specialist transition-support services for young people with disabilities, who require significant preparation and support in moving to adult life. Currently, support services are tied by funding to particular geographic regions or impairment-specific groups. Transition support should be universally available to all young people with disabilities, including those with complex and multiple disabilities.
The fourth area of concern relates to the report of the transitions interdepartmental working group, which was published in 2006. That was a welcome initiative but, in the view of some in the disability sector, it has not resulted in significant progress. They maintain that there appears to be little active cross-departmental collaboration or joint working. It is hoped that the ongoing review of special educational needs and inclusion may provide a vehicle for progress when its proposals are announced in 2008. However, at the moment, responsibility remains with the Department of Education, the Department for Employment and Learning, and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. They should review their roles in the transition process to ensure that disabled school leavers receive an effective service.
Finally, the Department for Employment and Learning has an ongoing responsibility to deliver a range of provision, including vocational training and employment programmes that support the economic independence of people with disabilities. The principal programmes, as has been mentioned, are Workable (NI) and Training for Success, which are in the early stages of delivery. Their success in meeting the needs of people with significant disabilities will be tested in the coming year. I suggest to the Minister and to the Committee for Employment and Learning that they monitor the new programmes as they evolve and develop over the next 12 months.
I will try to address other matters, particularly vocational training, during the course of the debate. However, for now, the SDLP will not divide the House on this matter. That would be an inappropriate mechanism to employ on a matter that will attract cross-party support. I suggest that, in the course of the remaining one and a half hours of the debate, each party considers that the motion could be enhanced by offering the Minister some direction on whom to consult, in and outside Government.
In that way, enhanced support for disabled children and young people could be better achieved.
Mr Spratt: I welcome the Minister’s commitment on this important issue. I also thank the Chairperson of the Committee for Employment and Learning for proposing the motion. It is the responsibility of Members to ensure that we provide an education, training and employment framework within which everyone can achieve more independence and fulfilment in their lives.
Many disabled people in Northern Ireland believe that they do not have the same opportunities as able-bodied people. The Department for Employment and Learning must make the provision of such opportunities a priority in order to meet the needs of everyone in our society. The Department has set out the criteria that govern special educational provision in the further education sector in the Further Education (Northern Ireland) Order 1997. We are told that further education institutions must have regard to the needs of students with learning disabilities who are over compulsory school age. Furthermore, the Department states that provision for students with learning difficulties is a key element of the Government’s drive to increase participation and widen access. On paper, the Department has the right mindset, but it is necessary to call for an immediate review to ensure that there is delivery on those words and that the necessary provision is in place for the community.
If we are to move forward with improved access, it is necessary that those colleges that are examples of best practice be used as models for others in the sector. There must be an increase in the provision of courses, with appropriate and nationally recognised accreditation. There is no doubt that the training is of the highest quality, and the commitment of staff in the further education sector is unquestionable. That is reflected in the general positive participation of students who have disabilities. However, we will push forward with staff training to ensure that there is an even higher standard of delivery in the future.
The provision of places is below the level required, and it is, therefore, important that an immediate review, such as this motion calls for, should be undertaken. The necessity and priority is to increase the employability, confidence and independence of those who have learning difficulties and disabilities. That can only benefit everyone involved.
Members on this side of the House support the motion and amendment No 1, as proposed by Mr McClarty. We look forward to the Minister’s undertaking a review and producing an action plan to tackle these problems at the earliest opportunity. I hope that there will be no Division on the amendments. I hope that all Members will unite and send out a message to those folks who are less fortunate than ourselves that we intend to better their position in future Committee deliberations. I know that the Minister will do everything in his power to address the issue, and we look forward to that. I support the motion and amendment No 1.
Mr McCarthy: No one disagrees with the idea that there should be more opportunities for training for disabled children and young people.
This is not only a matter of equality — which is a vital issue — but of economic necessity. Despite the Northern Ireland economy facing a shortage of skilled workers, too many people of working age are either on the unemployment register or are economically inactive. Disability Action Northern Ireland states that there are some 300,000 people with disabilities in Northern Ireland. Many economically inactive people want to work, but they need support to close the skills gap between what they can offer and the needs of business. The challenge in narrowing that gap is magnified for people with disabilities.
Although I broadly support the motion, I am not sure that I can support all its provisions. For example, there is a risk that a review might last ages, cost millions of pounds and produce more recommendations that may — or may not — be implemented in the long term. For similar reasons, if an action plan is produced, it must be done within a tight timescale and remit. Although a short, focused project that leads to an action plan might have some benefits, this is not an area where there is any great mystery about what needs to be done. Action is needed rather than more glossy documents.
Moreover, this is not an issue that the Minister for Employment and Learning can tackle on his own. The Minister of Education has a key role, because of the importance of schools in providing training opportunities for children with disabilities and other young people. I hope that Sinn Féin is not phrasing the motion in order to provide political cover for one of its Ministers, who must play a vital part in advancing this agenda. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment also has a key role to play in ensuring that training links not only with aptitudes and interests of young people but —
Ms S Ramsey: I was going to let the Member’s comment about Sinn Féin pass, but the more I thought about it, the more I needed to respond. If the Member reads the motion, he will understand that it is the Minister for Employment and Learning who must take the lead on this issue. There are other Ministers who have responsibility, such as the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and, as the Member stated, the Minister of Education. However, it is the Minister for Employment and Learning who provides training places for young people with disabilities. The Member must not focus on the Minister of Education.
Mr McCarthy: I thank the Member for bringing that to my attention. She acknowledges that I am saying that more than one Department has a vital interest in advancing the issue. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment also has a key role to play in ensuring that training links with the needs of business as well as the aptitudes and interests of young people. It is wrong to raise the hopes of young people with disabilities — or anyone’s hopes — by training them for jobs that do not exist. Instead of a lengthy review, there should be a highly focused strategy led by the Minister for Employment and Learning that also involves the relevant Ministers and their Departments.
Although the Alliance Party agrees with the substance of the motion — and I thank my colleagues from Sinn Féin for tabling it — it feels that a different approach is more likely to deliver improvements for children and young people with disabilities. We all want to see improvements. I support the motion and both amendments.
Mr Newton: It is appropriate that the motion is debated. My colleague Jimmy Spratt has indicated how DUP Members will vote — if that becomes necessary. People who suffer from disabilities in Northern Ireland need socially inclusive and sustainable alternatives to traditional, separate day services. Such people should be given full access to a wide range of community-based educational, vocational and social opportunities. That is not to detract from the valuable work that is being done, which I will mention.
Those who suffer from disabilities should not be disenfranchised and segregated. I support initiatives that promote person-centred planning methods; approaches that facilitate access to mainstream further education; and vocational opportunities that provide young people with real qualifications that have equal status to those acquired by their more able-bodied fellow students. It is the responsibility of the Minister for Employment and Learning to smooth progress and facilitate access to increased college-based learning support, and, therefore, the delivery of education and training for disabled children and young people.
I commend two organisations in the Province: the Cedar Foundation, and Ulster Supported Employment Ltd (USEL). The Cedar Foundation is an award-winning organisation that works in partnership with community-based organisations, local institutes of further and higher education, training organisations, a range of statutory and voluntary organisations and, importantly, the private sector, to deliver the community inclusion programme. I urge the Minister to look carefully at the programmes that are in place due to the work of the Cedar Foundation — however limited they might be — and to increase the awareness of the needs of disabled people in the wider community and in further education.
The Committee for Employment and Learning was concerned about training and employment opportunities for disabled young people, and it invited representatives from USEL to give evidence at one of its meetings. I believe that Jimmy Spratt was in the Chair for that meeting, but I might be wrong. USEL has grown from what were originally workshops for the blind, and it has a long tradition in Belfast and throughout the Province. The organisation was invited to provide evidence on the work that it carries out. It has an excellent ethos and can-do attitude, and it provides manufacturing training and development opportunities to those with disabilities. The skills training provided by USEL offers those who gain expertise and knowledge to move outside of that organisation and into full-time private-sector employment. That gives the people dignity and responsibility, and enables them to prove their full worth in a competitive business environment, making them fully independent and appreciated members of society.
USEL is a charity, so although it provides manufacturing training, it is restricted in that it cannot apply for support from Invest Northern Ireland for its manufacturing training and development places, and it is, therefore, restricted in what it can offer. That obstacle was mentioned by USEL representatives in their evidence to the Committee.
The core focus of USEL is to assist its employees, and that is the ethos that Members have talked about. Examples that have been quoted by Members require us to think positively about how to address these issues. There will be different opinions on how that can be done, or how to provide the best service and opportunities, but Members’ thinking must always be towards ensuring that the potential of the individual is maximised.
Mr Ross: The motion highlights an important issue: equal opportunities for those who have a disability. It is important to state that improvements have been made and that it is not all bad news, but that does not mean that further improvements are not necessary.
It is important that disabled people have the opportunity to further themselves and achieve greater independence and fulfilment in life. Good education and training opportunities are important for all children and young people, particularly those who are disadvantaged by a disability. A sound educational start provides the best building block in life, and an incomplete or substandard education or training means that young people will have fewer qualifications and fewer job opportunities. Statistics show that disabled people are twice as likely as non-disabled people to have no qualifications, and there are fewer disabled people of working age in employment than able-bodied people.
We must also improve the retention in training of those disabled young people, and overall, there should be better skills training through the various Pathways to Work programmes, for example. Not all courses are available to people with a disability or learning difficulty although, through the learning support funds, students with a learning difficulty can participate in a number of mainstream courses. A sound learning support service should be attached to all those courses for students who require it, and staff need to be given specific training on special-education issues. Many teachers, lecturers and other staff have little or no training in special needs, which makes things difficult for them.
Efforts must be made to root out employment discrimination and reduce disability disadvantage in employment by ensuring that young disabled people are given the same opportunities as their able-bodied counterparts. As my party colleague Robin Newton said, the Committee for Employment and Learning recently had the privilege of meeting with USEL. That company has been around for over 40 years and is the largest employer of disabled people in Northern Ireland. It employs a disabled workforce that earns a proper wage and produces commercially competitive produce. As well as running its own factory, USEL supports more than 1,000 people with disabilities and mental-health conditions in hundreds of mainstream jobs throughout Northern Ireland. It is through that kind of practical support that disabled people can improve their employment prospects and live more fulfilling lives.
The Department’s role must be to enable disabled people to get into employment, but more of them need to be in high-profile jobs. It is also important that when disabled people get jobs, they stay in them. Just as teachers and lecturers need more training in special needs, the same applies to employers. A key message from the Committee meeting with USEL was that employers need training and advice on how to deal with disabled employees and the different challenges and situations that may arise.
Today’s motion is important because it highlights the issue, and I give my support to the amendment tabled by the Ulster Unionist Party in the hope that the whole House can unite behind it.
Mrs M Bradley: Members will agree that there are concerns for families from the day and hour that their young people are diagnosed with a disability and that frustrations are abundant throughout the education of those children. The decision to fight for the education of a son or daughter in a suitable establishment is not an easy one to take. Nonetheless, there is often a sense of relief for many parents when their children are finally accepted into the system even though, due to underfunding and ever-increasing demand, it is constantly in financial dire straits.
For many years prior to my participation in politics, I worked with young people and adults with learning difficulties and various disabilities. I worked as a carer in a purpose-built hospital, which was one of the first of its kind in the Western Health and Social Services Board area. I witnessed, at first-hand, the desperation and determination of individuals to lead a normal life in a society that was very difficult and not accepting. Help was needed then to promote acceptance; and, unfortunately, in today’s financially restrictive health and education services it is even more important to provide a vehicle for the personal development of each disabled person.
At the weekend, I had a phone call from a very proud mother telling me how her daughter had won two gold medals and two bronze medals at the Special Olympics in Shanghai. That parent’s pride was palpable, and I have no doubt that that was one of the proudest moments of her life.
Unfortunately, if the general rule of natural law is played out, parents will predecease their children, which is the next worry for a parent after having secured education for the child or young person. The question: “How will they cope after I am gone?” has been asked by many of the parents I have spoken to and worked with over the years.
In order to ease that burden, young people must become as independent as possible, particularly those without siblings — they should be able to cope with day-to-day tasks without the active supervision of a carer.
In today’s society, it is even more important that the threefold spectrum of requirements and expectations is acknowledged by all Departments, and each should participate in achieving the aims and objectives of each interested party. So, who are the interested parties?
According to research carried out in my area by one of the north-west’s most proficient special-needs establishments, the interested parties are the parents, the service providers and, most importantly, the young people themselves. There can be no more powerful vehicle for achieving fulfilment than that which lies — sometimes dormant until provoked — within all disabled young people.
Those young people have told us, in a paper presented to the Special Olympics international symposium on disability, that they want to be allowed to stand on their own two feet, but they want support to try different things until they get the right job or the home that is best for them. We can see that happening in many of our bigger retail establishments, where it is obvious that there are members of staff with disabilities. However, those disabilities are lost in their sense of achievement and acceptance by their fellow workers as contributing individuals.
Where do we go, and what must be done, to help young special-needs individuals to achieve and exist as independent members of society? They say that they want partnerships between agencies, and that parents should work together to assist them in achieving their goals. They also want the creation of more opportunities to allow them to enter the workforce at an acceptable level, if that is applicable and beneficial for them. There is a need for greater encouragement and funding of transitional projects and an increase in the support networks that already exist.
All Departments should acknowledge that the right to say yes or no is a fundamental right of any individual. The right to control their future and to become a fully participating party in any transitional planning process is a big issue for any young disabled individual. They also need support and assistance, not to be controlled and cared for in departmental terms.
I could list many more requirements that those young people have. However, they cannot get the help that they need without the assistance of their families, teachers, classroom assistants and interdepartmental workers, who strive to provide for them, even when funding is consistently cut and school places limited.
I hope that the motion has prompted a great deal of thought among us all. I hope that, when we leave here, this will not be just another debate, but that we will see some action, and not just promises from the teeth out.
I support the motion and both amendments. I welcome the Minister for Employment and Learning to the Chamber, and I hope that the other Ministers who hold the budgets for our children will be generous in looking after them.
Mr Shannon: I thank the Members who tabled the motion and the amendments. I hope that Members can unite behind the thrust of the proposal. I will be supporting the amendment from the Ulster Unionist Party.
In 2003, DEL (Department for Employment and Learning) produced statistics that showed that over 20% of working-age people in the Province had a disability, whether physical or learning. Ten and a half per cent of the 18 to 30 age group have disabilities, and yet they come nowhere near that number in higher and further education. That is a startling statistic. There are those with moderate learning difficulties who can seek employment and fulfilment in skills that are more practically focused, rather than literary subjects. That is one field that DEL must begin to put time, effort and money into developing.
A major skills pool is lacking, and apprenticeship applications are down, meaning that there are fewer young people to fill that gap than there were a few years ago. The situation is getting worse. A young man in my constituency consistently misbehaved in class and was thrown out of more lessons than he sat through. After much pressure from his parents, it was found that this was happening because the boy had a learning disability. That frustrated the boy, and his frustration was acted out through bad behaviour, resulting in him being placed in many schools — and he was moved from a brave few. His parents pushed and persisted, and their son was taken out of mainstream education and enrolled on a vocational course. He began his training as a joiner, and in his first year he was named joiner of the year in his class. That is a success story, and there are many similar success stories that could be repeated many times if DEL would give young men and women who do not excel with words and numbers the chance to excel with their hands.
Vocational skills are just as important to any nation as learning skills, and the lack of young people applying for those apprenticeships to foster skills is very worrying. After being approached by parents who felt that their children would do better in vocational education than academically, I asked the Minister about the number of apprenticeships in the manufacturing industry available in Northern Ireland for the past three years. The answer may not have been what I was looking for.
Statistics for Ards Borough Council or for the Strangford constituency were not available. However, the answer showed that the number of apprenticeships fell from 1,027 in 2004-05 to 988 in 2006-07. Given the need for skills in the Province and the amazing difference that a successful apprenticeship or a new skill can make to the life of a young person who may have consistently failed in the three Rs, I do not understand why those figures fell.
Recently, I met David Hatton of the Engineering Training Council who told me that, 10 years ago, there were 1,000 applicants a year for apprenticeships. That figure has dropped dramatically to between 250 and 300 a year. I have digressed slightly, but that is a worrying drop in the number of young people applying for apprenticeships, and an aggressive approach must be adopted before a point of no return is reached. I could say much more on the subject of apprenticeships, but I will leave that for another day.
I wish to draw Members’ attention to the success that has been achieved in my constituency by those with learning difficulties and disabilities. There are many charity shops in Ards town that not only donate their profits for the help and betterment of others, but play an active role in encouraging people with mental disabilities to take jobs, such as looking after a book section or sweeping the floor. Those jobs may not be big, but they are jobs and, importantly, they give those people a start. Jobs enable those employees to gain confidence around other people. Often, confidence is what they lack. Employment offers those people a chance, and the employer gains a willing helper. DEL should be working to enable more young people to undertake those types of activities — that is its remit, and it is not doing enough to accomplish it.
The Minister and many Members are aware of the example of Daisies Café at Ards Hospital, in which disabled young people have been given the jobs of baking, and serving tea and coffee. That is a café that, regrettably, my waistline knows well. My colleague Iris Robinson takes a special interest and visits that café regularly. Obviously, she does not eat the food that I do.
Mrs I Robinson: It does not show.
Mr Shannon: It just shows on me. That café has had success after success in training young people and enabling them to go on to further jobs.
My colleagues will present statistics that outline how the Department has not been keeping up to date. However, I urge the Department to recognise that current standards are insufficient and to step up its efforts — sort out an apprenticeship scheme, become more involved in organising placement schemes and assist young people with activities to better themselves and the community in which they live. Members have seen the results of such efforts — it can be done, and, therefore, I urge the Department to act now. I support the thrust of the motion and the UUP amendment.
Mr Speaker: Members will be aware that the Business Committee has arranged to meet as soon as the Assembly suspends for lunch. I propose, therefore, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm, and to return to the debate after lunch.
The sitting was suspended at 12.23 pm.
On resuming (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Dallat] in the Chair) —
Mrs I Robinson: The subject of the motion overlaps with some of the responsibilities of the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, and that is what I want to highlight. Objective 3 of the report ‘Equal Lives: Review of Policy and Services for People with a Learning Disability in Northern Ireland’, which is part of the Bamford Review, is:
“To ensure that the move into adulthood for young people with a learning disability supports their access to equal opportunities for continuing education, employment and training and that they and their families receive continuity of support during the transition period.”
Sections 5.7 and 5.9 of the report detail the need for better provision in further education and employment for those who have learning disabilities.
My colleague Alderman Jim Shannon has already mentioned a success story in my constituency that is worth highlighting as having a particularly thriving outcome. Daisies Café, which is situated on the Ards Hospital site, provides an alternative form of day care for people with learning disabilities and mental illnesses through training and employment opportunities in a commercial environment.
The staff of Daisies Café take pride in providing its many regular customers with freshly cooked food using only the finest and freshest ingredients. That description may sound like an advertisement, but I hope that Members will bear with me. A different menu, developed to meet the needs and preferences of customers, is available daily. A wide range of food is available to corporate customers for business meetings and events, as well as for meetings of clubs and other organisations. Daisies Café has extended its programme of work to include outside catering for parties and occasions.
Behind the enterprise was a vision of providing alternative day care, training and employment to help those who otherwise may not have had the opportunities to gain the skills, self-belief and confidence that they need to take their place in the community as equals.
In 1999, the statutory and voluntary sectors worked together under a peace-initiative project to identify an alternative to day care in Northern Ireland. The aim was to provide opportunities for day care as well as training and employment in the community for people with a learning disability or mental illness. Social firms already in operation in Europe provided several useful examples. A social firm is an ordinary business that provides goods and services under normal business terms and conditions. The fundamental difference is that a proportion of its trainees require a carefully planned, supportive working environment because of mental ill health or other disabilities.
Extensive research that included visits to Finland, Holland and Germany was undertaken to develop a model that was suitable for Northern Ireland. Discussions were held with service providers, staff and trainees on trading, recruitment, and training as well on as the roles of directors and staff. A proposal was drawn up and shared with the local health and social services trusts as a new concept in day care for adults who require support to access the labour market.
The development of the proposal coincided with a greater public awareness of equality issues and a growing demand for acceptance and social inclusion of people with learning disabilities or mental illnesses. A suitable location was found on the Ards Hospital site, and extensive renovations were carried out to satisfy the rigorous building and environmental health regulations that must be met by all catering facilities.
Action Mental Health and the Ulster Community and Hospitals Trust led the partnership that developed Daisies Café. Other organisations have provided ongoing and critical support to ensure its continuing success. In particular, the Ards and North Down peace partnership boards have enabled Daisies to become a successful social firm that contributes to the local economy and provides day care, training and employment for residents of both boroughs.
Daisies Café has won awards for its service and business achievements, and it was showcased at the Tate Modern in London as part of The National Lottery’s tenth birthday celebrations. Over the seven years that Daisies Café has been in existence, the number of permanent staff has risen from two to five and the average number of trainees to 15.
Its success shows what can be achieved when the needs of those with learning disabilities are taken seriously and they are assisted to live fuller lives.
Mr Deputy Speaker: I expect Daisies Café to have an influx of new customers after that, and, indeed, I hope that it does.
The Minister for Employment and Learning (Sir Reg Empey): I thank the Members who have taken the trouble to take part in this debate and to make their points. The tone of the debate has, so far, been very constructive, and as Mrs Robinson mentioned, there are cross-cutting issues. This is not a stand-alone issue for one Department; a number of Departments are involved, and it is important, therefore, that, as far as possible, a joined-up approach is adopted. I wish to set out some points, and then deal with the issues that have been raised by Members.
My Department is committed to the provision of appropriate training and employment opportunities for disabled young people and adults. The aim of the Department for Employment and Learning is to promote learning and skills, to prepare people for work, and to support the economy. Its remit includes the provision of training to prepare young people and adults for employment and to help people, including young disabled people, to overcome barriers to work.
The Department is also responsible for the provision of impartial careers information, advice and guidance for young people and adults, with a particular emphasis on 14- to 19-year-olds and those vulnerable to social exclusion.
The Department makes, through its Disablement Advisory Service (DAS), a substantial list of provisions. It currently funds a range of training and employment provision. Those include the job introduction scheme; New Deal for disabled people; Access to Work — that is, Workable (NI); Ulster Supported Employment Ltd; residential training at Parkanaur College; the condition management programme; and the work preparation programme under Pathways to Work.
The careers service also works with young people in schools. In particular, the career advisers attend transition-plan meetings for year-10 pupils with special educational needs and provide subsequent annual reviews. They work with a range of professionals and contribute to the transition plan by providing impartial information, advice and guidance on the range of educational, training and employment opportunities that are available.
Training for Success, a professional and technical training provision for Northern Ireland, commenced on 3 September 2007. The focus of that new provision is firmly on the individual young person and his or her needs and aspirations. Training will be flexible in duration to meet the needs and abilities of the young people.
The Department is committed to endorsing flexibility in respect of the training time permitted to enable young people with disabilities or additional needs to realise their full potential and to achieve targeted qualifications.
The new provision includes a job-ready strand, which is designed to enable participants to progress to higher-level training, further education or employment, by providing training to address personal and social-development needs, where necessary, including essential skills training. Additional specialist support services are available to any participant with an auditory, visual or other physical disability.
I have decided, because of my commitment to those young people, that a group with expertise in dealing with young people with disabilities and additional support needs will be established. That group will keep the Training for Success provision under review, and highlight any areas to be addressed — I know that a number of Members called for that. I have some other measures to announce during the course of my remarks.
The Department is also committed to improving access to further and higher education by students with learning difficulties and/or disabilities. It provides funding for further education colleges to support the enrolment of students with learning difficulties and/or disabilities on mainstream courses. Funding for such students is incorporated in the further education funding stream mechanism. That ensures that colleges are able to meet the cost of students with disabilities who may require an extra level of support.
As part of the Further Education Means Business review of funding, the Department, following consultation with the further education sector, agreed to ring-fence funds to ensure the sustained provision of education to students with learning disabilities who require a discrete learning environment. The funding of £1·5 million in the current academic year is an increase on the previous year’s £1·2 million. That increase is to allow the colleges to address specific issues that were raised during the consultation, such as the need for additional classroom support in discrete classes.
An additional support fund has been increased from £1·1 million to £1·5 million in the current academic year, and that is available to provide further technical and/or human support, such as braillers, specialist software and signers.
Further education colleges collaborate with adult day centres to provide discrete training and development opportunities for young people aged 19 and over who have left special schools and who might benefit from further educational provision. However, further education colleges cannot provide the close supervision, nursing or other personal care that some young people with disabilities require.
In 2005-06, the number of students aged between 19 and 25 with learning difficulties and/or disabilities who were enrolled in further education increased by 751, compared to the 2001-02 academic year. There are now 1,549 such students and, of those, 693 — 45% — are taking discrete courses, and 125 — 8% — are on courses that are delivered in such places as day centres. The remainder are in mainstream further education classes.
The Department, in co-operation with the Association of Northern Ireland Colleges (ANIC), is currently undertaking a review of the nature and extent of special-needs provision throughout the further education network to determine how provision might best be improved in the context of the further education remit. That matter was raised by some Members during the course of the debate. That review, with the co-operation of ANIC, will enable us to continuously assess how things are going, because the cohort with which we are dealing will have different needs as we progress. The same provision will not be required at all stages — those needs will change, depending on the students who are coming forward.
As for higher education, the Department makes funding available for the disabled students’ allowance, which is administered by the education and library boards. The disabled student’s allowance helps to pay for extra costs that students may incur while studying, as a direct result of their disability, mental-health condition or specific learning difficulty. Those allowances can help with the cost of a non-medical personal helper, items of specialist equipment, travel and other course-related costs.
Through the disabled student’s allowance, the Department funds the register of support providers, which is a register of professional and non-professional support workers who are recruited and trained to assist students with disabilities. The register, which is administered by the University of Ulster, is available to all disabled students in the universities, university colleges and further education colleges with higher education provision.
The Department also funds the Let’s Work project at Queen’s University, Belfast, which is aimed at students and graduates with a disability. A specialist careers adviser offers individual careers guidance and information sessions, supports access to work placements and part-time work, and provides workshops on job skills and options after graduation.
Moreover, the Department pays the universities a widening-access premium for students with disabilities. That is based on the number of full-time undergraduate students in receipt of the disabled students’ allowance.
Capital funding must be mentioned. Since April 2000, the Department has allocated over £14·5 million to colleges to improve access for young people with disabilities. In 2006-07, that amounted to £943,000 and, in the current year, £1 million has been set aside with that specific aim. In addition, over the past three years, the Department has made available an extra £12·1 million for further education colleges, and some of that funding is being used to provide additional auxiliary aids and services, as well as extra staff training.
Special support services are available to young people who have an auditory, visual, or other, disability. Financial support of up to £1,000 is available to suppliers, enabling them to buy specialist support. The Department refunds the cost of taxis to and from a supplier’s premises in those situations where it has been decided that public transport is unsuitable for a young person who has a disability or additional needs.
Twelve projects receive a total of £8·9 million of European social fund assistance. That funding will last for two years and will end in March 2008. It was awarded through open competition to projects that have limited funds. Three of those projects — Barnardo’s, Disability Action Northern Ireland and Triangle Housing Association Ltd — are aimed specifically at young people who have significant learning disabilities. Assistance to those projects totals £830,000.
I will deal, in no particular order, with specific matters that Members raised. Although he is not in the Chamber, Jim Shannon mentioned apprenticeships. The Department does not limit the number of apprenticeships that are on offer: numbers depend on employers’ uptake of training for their own employees. The uptake for Training for Success is about 90% of that for Jobskills at the same time last year. We expect that uptake to pick up in the next three months, and we are initiating additional marketing campaigns to promote professional and tactical training and apprenticeships.
Mr Newton, who, I also regret to say, is not in the Chamber, mentioned Ulster Supported Employment Ltd (USCL) and The Cedar Foundation. I intend to meet representatives of the foundation in the next week or two, and I visited USEL’s workshops in Belfast a couple of weeks ago. I was immensely impressed, and even moved, by the work that goes on there. Excellent products were being made. People had worked there for a long time, it was the centre of their lives, and they were doing an excellent job. I do not know whether the Committee has visited USEL’s shops yet, but I urge it — and other Committees — to do so. Members would be very impressed were they to see USEL’s work in action. Indeed, that organisation has some excellent plans.
Given that USEL is a non-departmental public body, my Department is its core funder. That is the reason that it has no access to Invest NI funding. However, perhaps the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and I can discuss that.
Several Members referred to the transition into employment from school. The Department had 14 actions on which it was supposed to follow up. I received a report on those on 3 September, and, after reading it, it seemed that two of those actions had not been provided for fully. Action has, therefore, been taken to ensure that we meet all our targets and that we follow up on all the actions on which we are required to move. I am optimistic that within a short time we will be in a position to describe fully how we will implement that report.
When moving his amendment, David McClarty spoke about how we treat people in our society. The relative unanimity of the debate indicates that Members believe that a society is marked out by how it treats those who are less fortunate and those who are disabled. Listening to Mary Bradley’s contribution, it is clear that she has had hands-on experience of the matters that are being debated. One could not help but feel the strength of passion in what she was saying.
In moving the motion, the Chairperson of the Committee for Employment and Learning referred to several matters, including European funding and the review of training in the voluntary and further education sectors. That review will take place, and I have authorised it already.
Alex Attwood referred to the appropriateness of some of the provision and to what he regarded as inconsistencies in it. Those comments are of concern to me, because my Department prides itself on ensuring that, no matter where people live in Northern Ireland, they have as much access as possible to services. We could all have been in different places or been born into the world with disabilities, so where one lives should not be a barrier.
As I have said, we are looking at the transport issue. I take on board what the Member says. I shall look at it and decide whether the Department is satisfied that there is consistency. There is certainly supposed to be, because, when we provide funding to colleges and other bodies, we expect that to be the case.
Jimmy Spratt talked about the provision of opportunities being a priority, and that is the rationale behind what we are trying to do.
Mr McCarthy said that a review could take ages and cost millions, but I can assure him that neither will be the case. Reviews are ongoing. There will always be reviews, because, as I have said, the cohort that is coming through at any point in time changes. What we fix today in order to achieve a balance will not necessarily survive a change in the make-up of the cohort that requires help. I will inform the House of the outcome of the reviews, and the Committee for Employment and Learning may wish to include the matter in its work programme in due course.
Robin Newton mentioned access to mainstream further education for disabled children and young people. In so far as we can encourage that, we shall. However, we must take account of the fact that, sadly, some of the folk who are coming forward require such extensive help that qualified medical help must be made available. That is why we take places in Parkanaur College; there are 15 residential places there, which ensures that people have their physical needs properly catered for.
It is not always possible to incorporate disabled students into mainstream further education, but one would wish to do so if it were possible. I think that the word “segregation” was used during the debate, and that is a word that we want to try to avoid. However, there are cases in which specific, qualified people are required to look after those young people.
I shall give Members one final piece of information in which they will be interested. In providing training and employment support, the Department is making every effort to give young people the best chance. I am pleased, therefore, to report that the Department is currently offering extensive support in this area. I dispute the suggestion that there is a “dearth” of provision, because, as far as the Jobskills programme and other initiatives are concerned, there is no limit on the number of places.
However, I agree that it is vital to ensure that provision meets the needs of particular client groups. For that reason, an expert group has been set up to keep the Training for Success initiative under review. Moreover, the Department has already begun work on commissioning a scoping study to ascertain the full extent of the Department’s current provision for disabled young people and adults. When that study is completed, any gaps in provision of training and employment opportunities for disabled young people and adults will be identified. Consideration will then be given to how those gaps can be plugged.
I will endeavour to keep the Assembly involved, and I hope that the announcements that I have made about reviewing provision will satisfy Members that my Department is taking the matter seriously.
Mr Attwood: I thank the Members who contributed to the debate. There were 10 contributions, and I cannot do justice to the range and quality of those contributions in five minutes. I particularly welcome the Minister’s announcement on three issues: the scoping study; the review involving ANIC; and the expert group that will consider, among other things, how the Training For Success programme is working for those who are the subject of the debate.
I say to the Minister, and this point was touched on by Alastair Ross, that there are a number of requirements needed to ensure that the Training For Success programme for young people with disabilities measures up. Those requirements include the need for in-service training; achievable goals; communication support; extended training time; and the need to ensure that training providers are providing quality of opportunity and access. We trust that the expert group, which will monitor how those issues develop, will consider some of those requirements.
A number of broad themes emerged during the debate. Jimmy Spratt, Robin Newton and Iris Robinson invoked best practice in the further education and commercial sectors; for example, in a place such as Daisies Café. USEL, more than others, certainly to the knowledge of the Committee for Employment and Learning, has achieved a lot in rolling out best practice. The Minister said that he visited USEL last week, and I understand that the Committee also intends to make a visit. USEL’s presentation to the Committee, concerning its contribution in rolling out best practice to the further education and broader sector, was compelling and uplifting. I trust that that aspect can be worked on and developed over time.
Mary Bradley and Jim Shannon relied on providing examples of young people with disabilities having excelled and achieved great things. I trust that in one way or another the Assembly, or OFMDFM, will take appropriate steps to acknowledge the achievements of the Special Olympians from across this island, who have been in the press so much over recent days. Those who excel in business, sport or enterprise are role models to whom all of us should aspire.
Kieran McCarthy was right to put down a firm marker as regards a tight timescale, and I note the Minister’s reassurance on that issue. As Kieran said, there is no mystery about what needs to be done. I do not know how true that is; nonetheless, tight timescales and firm deadlines are appropriate in order to try to maximise opportunities for people with disabilities.
In opening the debate, David McClarty said that one third of people with a disability are not in work. That is something that should always be to the forefront of Members’ minds. That hard cold fact should be the impetus for the Minister, the Assembly and the Committee for Employment and Learning to take forward all the matters that have been discussed today.
There was one discordant note during this debate, when it was stated that the SDLP’s amendment was:
“an amendment for an amendment’s sake”.
For the record, our amendment was informed by people from the disability sector. They certainly were not thinking that the amendment was being tabled simply for the sake of it. However, when judged in comparison with the UUP’s amendment, I suggest that our amendment adds to the motion, whereas the UUP’s amendment, arguably, takes away from it. That in itself demonstrates the quality of our amendment.
However, as I said earlier, it is not our intention to divide the House on an issue of this nature and given the range and quality of Members’ contributions. I look forward to the Minister updating the Committee and the Assembly on a rolling basis regarding the matters that he has announced this morning.
Mr McCallister: In this debate, we are dealing with a vulnerable group, along with their carers and parents, who deserve our support and regard.
Much has been done by further education colleges and their staff. It is important that we pay tribute to their work.
I reject what Mr Attwood said. The UUP’s main focus in tabling the amendment was to broaden the debate and not lay all of this on the Department for Education and Learning. I will go into that later.
As has been mentioned by most of the Members who have spoken, there are many groups and community and voluntary agencies that should be involved in addressing this very important issue. All those involved in working for and caring for these groups deserve our thanks, and we give them credit.
I wish to place on record my thanks to Ms Ramsey, the Chairperson of the Committee for Employment and Learning. This is a vital issue. The Assembly has faced criticism over some of the issues that it has debated in recent weeks. However, one had only to listen to the debate: with a couple of exceptions, there has been unanimity on the way forward. Ms Ramsey spoke about real difficulties, such as limited opportunities, lack of choice, low rates of participation, and lack of co-ordination between Departments and agencies. Disabled people are four times more likely to be unemployed than able-bodied people. Those are all important facts that must be addressed.
Mr McClarty had to attend another meeting and made his apologies to the House. He opened his remarks by saying:
“The true test of the value of a society is how much care it takes of its weakest and most vulnerable members.”
He went on to outline some of the work that, thankfully, is being done.
With respect to Mr Attwood, my party feels that its own amendment has struck the right note with the Members present. However, I agree with Mr Attwood that the House should not divide; this issue is far too important to be pushed to a Division. Mr Attwood was concerned about the delivery of training, and rightly so. He went on to mention the role of the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety.
Mr Spratt used some phrases about having to get to a stage of having more fulfilled lives. That is a key point. He also supported the review.
Mr McCarthy said that there are 300,000 people with disabilities, so it is an economic necessity to get this right. They must be supported, and the skills gap must be closed. I agree with him on that. There was a note of discord, however, when Mr McCarthy questioned why the motion and the amendments had been tabled. It was unfortunate and unhelpful that he brought that up. On the whole, his remarks were much more positive.
Both Mr Newton and Mr Ross mentioned USEL and the creation of partnerships involving not just Departments and agencies, but the community, voluntary and private sectors. It is important to create employment in commercially competitive companies.
Mrs Bradley mentioned concerns about personal development. Mrs Robinson referred to the Bamford Review. It is worth reiterating two points about the review.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. The Member must draw his remarks to a close.
Mr McCallister: I want to thank Members for their support of my party’s amendment and the proposers of the motion for their acceptance of it.
Mrs McGill: Go raibh míle maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. At the outset, I want to mention that I am closely related to two young people who have physical disabilities — two young people who have achieved and of whom I am proud. I thank Minister Empey for his presence throughout the entire debate. I was heartened by his comments.
There are two amendments to the Sinn Féin motion. I want to turn to the SDLP’s amendment. My party colleague, Chairperson of the Committee for Employment and Learning, Sue Ramsey, and I listened to Mr Attwood’s remarks during the earlier part of the debate. I reassure him and Mary Bradley that all the points that are included in their amendment will be given due cognisance by the Committee if the Minister agrees to the review. If the Minister brings forward terms of reference, they must be examined by the Committee. In view of the debate and wider participation, which is important at all levels, I do not want Mr Attwood to feel that the points that have been raised in his amendment have been ignored. That would not be the case. Both he and Mary Bradley can be assured of that.
Sinn Féin accepts the UUP amendment. When Mr McClarty moved the amendment, he referred to Pathways to Work and the positive contribution that that programme has made towards getting disabled people back to work, or, perhaps, into work for the first time. Coincidentally, I attended a departmental seminar on Pathways to Work in Omagh yesterday. Officials from the Department for Employment and Learning and, indeed, some of their colleagues from the Department for Social Development were present. I found it extremely valuable. It is clear that a lot of good work is being done. There is no suggestion in the motion or either of the amendments that that is not the case. The Minister referred to that in his remarks.
Mr Newton, Mr Ross and the Minister referred to USEL. I happen to know the chairman of that organisation, with whom I spoke yesterday evening. He made several valuable points, which, interestingly, were raised by my party colleague Sue Ramsey and other Members in the Chamber. He referred to the lack of choice that is available to disabled people. They must have the same options as able-bodied people. I was glad that the Minister said that the review would be ongoing and that it is important that through the Training for Success programme, disabled people have the same opportunities and choices that are afforded to others.
I was interested in Mr McCarthy’s comments about the cost of a review.
None of us wants to spend money foolishly. I am completely confident that Minister Empey — with his background — will not be foolish with the funds. If we have this review, the terms of reference will be scrutinised by the Committee for Employment and Learning. I do not expect that any Member would sit there and not challenge the spending of money foolishly by any Department.
Mr Shannon and Mrs Robinson referred to a particular café, and the points that they made about it are valid and valuable. They reminded me of something that the chairman of USEL said to me last night, which was that the social benefits of work are sometimes overlooked. It is extremely important that people with disabilities, and people who do not have the same opportunities as everyone else, engage and interact with others in the workplace. It is a positive act. Yesterday, at the Pathways to Work seminar, that point was made by people from DEL. Therefore, there is a bit of joined-up thinking here. Of course, that is all very welcome.
The Minister has made reference to an ongoing review of ANIC. That is valuable, because ANIC and the further education colleges have a very important role in the matter. I expect that, if that review is ongoing, its results will be put before the Committee for further scrutiny. The Minister also referred to capital funding for the improvement of access to the colleges. That is also important. I know that there have been improvements in all of this in recent times. Again, that is welcome. The fact that there will be an ongoing review, and that everybody will be keeping an eye on it, is very valuable.
In concluding, I want to say that the debate has been very valuable. When I think of two of my relatives, I want to reassure anybody who thinks that some of us do not engage with disability groups that that is not the case. We do engage with them. We have close experience of it. Again, for those who feel that that might be the case, I reassure them that it will not be. Sinn Féin accepts the amendment from the UUP. However, all that has been raised by the SDLP will be taken on board. Go raibh maith agat.
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.
Question, That amendment No 1 be made, put and agreed to.
Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.
That this Assembly expresses its commitment to securing training and employment opportunities where appropriate for young people with disabilities; and calls on the Minister for Employment and Learning to review the provision of such training.
(Mr Speaker in the Chair)
The Future of the Conflict Transformation Initiative
Mr Speaker: I have received notice from the Minister for Social Development that she wishes to make a statement on the conflict transformation initiative.
The Minister for Social Development (Ms Ritchie): As Minister for Social Development, I have been reviewing the programme funded by my Department known as the conflict transformation initiative (CTI). As Members can appreciate, there has been considerable public interest in that initiative and in my Department’s position in relation to the continuing funding of the programme.
On taking office, I made a pledge in the Assembly to the people whom we represent. That pledge requires me to promote the interests of the whole community. It is not only the guiding premise of my contract with the people who put me here, but it is the benchmark and standard of what is expected of me and of all Ministers in the Executive.
As Members will know, this initiative was established under the previous Secretary of State, Peter Hain, during the tenure of my direct rule predecessor, David Hanson. From the outset, considerable concern was expressed across the entire spectrum of political opinion about the rationale behind this project, its proximity to an illegal terrorist organisation, as well as its monitoring, evaluation and fairness. Indeed, with the benefit of hindsight, it appeared to many to have been very hastily introduced before devolution returned.
Before returning to the context of the programme, I want to point out that any initiative that targets socially and economically deprived hard-to-reach communities will have worthwhile aspects. The legacy of our violent past has left many of the most disadvantaged people in the grip of paramilitary activity. Therefore, I recognise the need for creativity and flexibility in the provision of such programmes. I am therefore putting on record my confidence in the Farset organisation as a managing agent for a programme funded by the Department for Social Development.
It is important, at this stage, for Members to understand the distinction between the role of Farset Community Enterprises as a managing agent and the return expected from those at whom the initiative was specifically targeted through the actual programme. That distinction is important because there has been much misinformation circulating in relation to my view on the role of Farset Community Enterprises. There has also been the deliberately misleading suggestion that CTI was simply about targeting social need and not connected to a reduction in criminality, paramilitary activity and violence by the UDA. Those who initiated this programme, and those who were to benefit from the programme’s outreach, knew full well from the start what was expected from them.
Notwithstanding the problems arising from the hurried nature of the introduction of CTI by direct rule Ministers, it is a matter of record that, at the time, both Secretary of State Hain and Minister Hanson expected that that funding would lead to, in Minister Hanson’s words:
“a quickening in the pace of”
They also pointed out that that funding would be stringently monitored and reviewed for evidence of progress and breaches. It was very clear that progress was contingent on good faith throughout.
In my view, this initiative was risk-prone from the very start, as it appears that the political will never existed in the direct rule Administration to see through the implementation of penalties, even if the UDA defaulted through continued involvement with criminality, violence and paramilitarism.
Every Member of this House is aware of the circumstances that led to my announcement on 10 August 2007, and, in particular, the assessment of the Chief Constable, following the violent incidents in Carrickfergus and Bangor, who said that he would not give the UDA 50p if the violence that we witnessed was an example of the return on our investment. Indeed, at this stage, I would like to put on record my personal appreciation for the efforts of the PSNI in trying to manage an escalating and difficult situation, which has been brought about by the continued involvement of various UDA factions and their internecine violent feuding.
I would also like to convey the best wishes of the House to the constable who was shot in the back during the incidents in Carrickfergus, while trying to uphold law and order. I would further like to express my admiration for the people of Carrickfergus who spoke so powerfully about their experiences on the radio this morning.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Ms Ritchie: It has been my hope that our new Administration would adopt a significantly different approach to that of the direct rule Administration by ensuring that the integrity of our institutions was safeguarded, and that it would recognise the supremacy of law and order. That is still my hope. By setting a deadline for the UDA to begin meaningful engagement with the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD), and make a start to decommissioning, I wanted to support not only the Chief Constable in his attempts to make our streets safer, but to remind everyone of the background to this project.
I had hoped that the UDA would use that as an opportunity to draw a line under its unlawful activities, and its use of violence, which has ensnared entire communities in its grip. The UDA could have grasped that opportunity by responding to the will of the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland and demonstrably starting the decommissioning process.
In the past few weeks, the UDA has met again with the IICD. We are told that there are those in the UDA who have tried to engage more meaningfully with General de Chastelain than they have over the past two years since commencing talks with the commission, or over the past 13 years since the UDA first called its ceasefire in 1994. I welcome those moves, but the context of Northern Ireland — politically, economically and socially — has shifted so positively over the past 12 months that the onus is now on the UDA leadership to deliver fully on its responsibilities to the entire Northern Ireland community.
Those who live in communities in which the rod of paramilitary rule still reigns are often among the most disadvantaged and poorest in society, whose dreams are being trodden on by an organisation that has not recognised that the world has moved on.
Over the past number of months, I have considered carefully what the Chief Constable and his senior officers have said. Following each of the outbreaks of violence, I have listened to the comments of the First Minister and other elected representatives of the affected areas, and I have consulted widely.
I offered a CTI options paper to my Executive colleagues in early July. They indicated that they were content for me to decide the way forward on this challenging issue. I have studied intensely the recent reports of the Independent Monitoring Commission, and I have met and spoken with a broad range of interested parties, including highly-respected and well-meaning intermediaries, locally elected representatives, British and Irish Government Ministers, community organisations, General de Chastelain, and, indeed, the UPRG (Ulster Political Research Group) and the UDA. I would like to emphasise to the House that, on each occasion, I listened very carefully to what was said, and factored that into my overall thinking.
More importantly, perhaps, I have been out and about, visiting people in some of the areas that have been targeted. Although I can appreciate the difficulties of programmes aimed at conflict transformation, it is not surprising that the people who live in the estates at the receiving end of paramilitary violence and dominance were united in their view.
They felt that, no matter how well intentioned, the CTI initiative was being undermined by the continuation of violence and paramilitary attacks and was not delivering what was expected of it. I should add that I was delighted personally by the warm welcome that I received from the people in those disadvantaged loyalist areas. Whatever can be said about CTI, I will not abandon those neighbourhoods. The views of people who live there are shared by citizens the length and breadth of Northern Ireland, who are subjected to media reports of violence, pipe bombings, shootings, and beatings. I do not believe that any law-abiding or right-thinking citizen in Northern Ireland considers that the continued use of illegally held weapons for illegal purposes by members of an illegal organisation does not constitute a breach of the good faith or risk taken by the Government’s initiative.
I am aware that there are people who think that that type of initiative should never have been embarked upon. I know that there are people who say that the funding should have been cut the day that the police officer was shot, or when the Chief Constable made his scathing remarks. I am aware that there are people who think that Ministers should treat deadlines as though they were elastic bands. I am also aware that there are people who think that I should carry on regardless. I understand the diversity of opinions and the frustrations on all sides. Of course, there is also the argument that any initiative that hastens the dismantling of a paramilitary group should be given the chance to do just that. It would have been wrong for me to completely close my door on any such opportunity. However, it would also be wrong if I were to fail now to show determination and resolve.
I cannot stand over programmes that are aimed at quickening the pace of decommissioning and reducing paramilitary activity when those same paramilitaries are prepared to flaunt their criminality in the face of the police and the rest of our community. The UDA seems intent on doing that by its continued use of violence. Its fractious nature suggests that the organisation is presently unable to meet the objectives of CTI.
I have obligations to people who are working on the ground, to the managing agent, and also to the continued problem of extending outreach to hard-to-reach communities and devising the most appropriate vehicle to get there. CTI has produced some outcomes, but its primary aim, for its primary target audience, does not seem achievable at this time. I am sympathetic to the people who are involved in CTI; they are totally unconnected to the UDA, and the failure of others is no reflection on them. However, now is the time for me to exercise political judgement and leadership.
Such is the ill-thought nature of the initiative, I am aware that there are people who would seek to judicially review any decision to withhold the funding. There are others who are planning to judicially review, under equality legislation, any continuation of the funding. Therefore, I have had to consider the options available to me. I have considered the legal opinion of senior counsel, both in-house and externally, on the aims of the CTI programme and the Department’s obligations to the various parties.
Although others may view recent events differently, or may decide that law and order is not a priority, I beg to differ. My political compass is fixed, and it does not involve prioritising the illegal over the legal, or the lawbreaking over the law-abiding. The cycle of community involvement equating to paramilitary involvement will have to be broken, once and for all.
I do not believe that the CTI project can be justified any longer, and I propose to end it immediately. Furthermore, at a time when budgets are keenly contested and numerous groups are having their applications for relatively minor sums turned down, I cannot continue to justify the funding of a programme that is unable to deliver. I pledge that no community will be left behind or disadvantaged, and I will talk to elected representatives and others in the target areas to consider how to achieve that objective together. I will also come to the Committee for Social Development to have dicussions.
Above all, I will make every effort to ensure that additional funds are allocated to deprived loyalist communities. I have instructed my officials to ensure that any employees who are affected by my decision are given due consideration, but the CTI initiative now ceases to exist as a DSD-funded project.
Contrary to some comments, I have not simply been waiting for 60 days to elapse before axing the CTI project: I do so with regret and after long and arduous consideration. However, I have heard contradictory comments from some UPRG spokespersons. They argue that the project has nothing to do with the UDA, but that any interference with it could derail the peace process. I entirely reject that argument. The UDA must not use today’s announcement as an excuse to go backwards. There is only one way to go, and that is forward. The UDA should proceed with its good plans for November and, if there is tangible evidence of a positive move on decommissioning and a decrease in criminality, I am confident that my Executive colleagues will not be found wanting in their support.
It has been a difficult and pressurised time for me. There has been a sustained campaign of briefing against me and attempts to destabilise those around me. Ultimately, however, over and above the complexities of assessing CTI, I know in my heart and in all conscience that my decision is correct.
Under the new political dispensation, the Executive seek to make a real difference for our people. The first step is to set higher standards for justice and democracy. Staying true to the position that I announced over 60 days ago and terminating CTI is my modest contribution to that process.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Mr P Robinson: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Today, Members are observing one of the most absurd, if not bizarre, parliamentary experiences for many generations, and I seek your advice on how to handle the next hour.
Members have heard the statement from the Minister for Social Development, and the whole House will share her sense of outrage at the activities of the UDA. Moreover, I have no doubt that Members will agree entirely with her on the need for that organisation to catch up with the rest of the community and move forward in a peaceful and democratic fashion. However, her announcement is contrary to a process set out by the Executive —
Mr F McCann: That is not a point of order —
Mr P Robinson: I am on a point of order.
The announcement she has made is contrary to a process set out by the Executive, and the decision is not consistent with the advice offered by the Departmental Solicitor’s Office and senior Crown counsel. I believe her decision is also a breach of the ministerial code and the Pledge of Office. In such circumstances, I wonder whether it is sensible for Members to ask questions based on such a statement.
Mr Speaker: I thank the Member for his point of order. Some of the issues that Mr Robinson has raised in his point of order are extremely serious to the House. Due to the point of order, and the manner in which it was raised, I intend to suspend the sitting.
Mr Durkan: Mr Speaker, not one of those —
Mr Speaker: Order. There are some very serious issues —
Mr Durkan: The point of order is not based on any Standing Order.
Mr Speaker: Order until I am finished. Some very serious issues have been raised on that point of order. I want to be absolutely — [Interruption.] Let me finish. I want to be absolutely sure that the House is safeguarded legally and in every other way. I intend to suspend the sitting for 20 minutes in order that I can get some clarity through legal advice on the issue. If all sides of the House can wait for 20 minutes, we can possibly bring clarity to the matter. Under Standing Order 60, I intend to suspend the sitting for 20 minutes.
The sitting was suspended at 3.06 pm.
On resuming (Mr Speaker in the Chair) —
Mr Speaker: I apologise to the House. I said that we would suspend for 20 minutes, but we ran slightly over that. Meetings have been held with a number of people and groups in order to try to bring some clarity to the issue. I have spoken to Nigel Hamilton, the head of the Civil Service, who has some concerns. In fact, he expressed some serious concerns on the issue’s legality. I have also spoken to other members of the Executive, who also expressed some serious concerns about the matter and about the Minister’s statement.
However, I have considered Mr Robinson’s point of order, and I am satisfied at this time there has been no breach of Standing Orders. I will take no further points of order until after questions to the Minister. I call the Chairperson of the Committee for Social Development, Mr Gregory Campbell.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Social Development (Mr Campbell): I have no questions, Mr Speaker.
Ms Ní Chuilín: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I have heard what the Minister said. Does she agree that, as someone who is in the public eye, she, as Minister for Social Development, and her Department funded the UDA? Moreover, does she agree that, had the UDA behaved itself and decommissioned, she would have continued to fund the UDA and provide it with resources? UDA decommissioning should have happened because it was the right thing to do. If the UDA decommissions, will the Minister continue to provide it with funds?
Ms Ritchie: The statement that I have made today still stands, and its content is quite clear.
Mr McNarry: After the proceedings earlier, it is important for the Minister to confirm to the House that all previous contractual arrangements entered into will be honoured. Will she tell the House whether she had any communication with her Executive colleagues on her final decision on the matter in advance of making her statement?
Ms Ritchie: As agreed, I furnished the First Minister, the deputy First Minister and the Minister of Finance and Personnel with two sets of legal advice on the matter.
In response to the other point that the Member raised, my officials will today be exploring all issues with the managing agent, Farset Youth and Community Development Ltd.
Mr D Bradley: Go raibh míle maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an ráiteas a rinne sí agus go deimhin déanaim comhghairdeas léi as an ráiteas. Tá ceist amháin agam uirthi. An dtiocfadh liom a fhiafraidh di cad é a tharlóidh anois do Airgead Chiste Chlaochlaithe na Coimhlinte?
I thank the Minister for her statement and congratulate her on the stance that she has taken. I am sure that she, like me, is taken aback by the willingness of some Members to jump to the defence of the UDA. What will happen with the CTI money now?
Ms Ritchie: From the financial and accounting perspective, the money will stay in the Department’s budget for community development. The bulk of the money pays development officers’ wages.
I hope to direct funds to some of the most hard-to-reach and disadvantaged areas, and I will consider the best way to do that by holding discussions with MLAs and councillors from those target areas. I am aware of the needs of those communities and the fact that they differ from one another. I will talk as soon as possible to Assembly colleagues who represent disadvantaged loyalist communities about those communities’ needs, and I will then consider how to meet those needs within the criteria of existing DSD programmes.
Before making today’s announcement, I spoke to the Chairperson and the Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Social Development, and I have attempted to reflect their concerns and wishes.
Mr Ford: On behalf of the United Community Group and many other people in the community, I thank and congratulate the Minister for her statement and for her willingness to stand up for integrity in the political process, despite all the pressure to which she has been subjected, inside and outside the House. I also wish to thank the Chief Constable and other police officers for the roles that they have played in combating terrorism.
The Minister said that she will ensure that areas that were previously part of the CTI scheme will not be neglected and that she is willing to engage with elected representatives from those areas to determine how to move matters forward. On behalf of the Alliance Party, and Naomi Long in particular, I assure the Minister that we will engage with her in those discussions. In that context, how does the Minister intend to target the needs of disadvantaged unionist areas without creating different gatekeepers in the future?
Ms Ritchie: I thank Mr Ford and his party for their support. First, I wish to talk to all representatives from the various target areas about their perceived issues of need. Funding equates with need, and I want to meet those needs. I want to hear what Members have to say about this matter, and I want to correct past problems in order to ensure that money is directed towards building communities, targeting disadvantage, deprivation and poverty and reaching those most in need.
In the months since being appointed as Minister, I have had various opportunities to visit Protestant, loyalist communities — the Village, Ballyclare, Coleraine, north Belfast and Kilcooley. People in those communities told me that they want the yoke of paramilitarism lifted from them. They want to be liberated, to have funding directed at projects that address needs such as poverty, disadvantage and deprivation, and help to rebuild their communities. I am passionate about helping them to do that, because I want to help all people. As a Minister in the Executive and the Assembly, my Pledge of Office commits me to strive towards that.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Mr O’Dowd: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. The Chamber has seen many twists and turns, and we have just seen another one. Wider society may find the matter difficult, and Members must be conscious of that in their deliberations.
I must ask again whether the Minister agrees that the UDA should not be funded by public money. Will she say whether the statement means that she intends to fund the UDA in the future? The Minister may have stopped funding what she described in the statement as a UDA organisation — and there is no other way to read it. However if the UDA does the decent thing and puts its guns beyond use, stops intimidating the loyalist communities and moves into a peaceful mode, regardless of all that is she prepared to fund such an organisation?
Ms Ritchie: I am not at all clear what the Member’s question is. However, I will make it clear that my intention is to target disadvantage, poverty and deprivation, and the statement that I made to the House still stands.
Mr Durkan: I assure the Minister that people who are watching today’s events will recognise that, although her critics have some neck, she, at least, is showing backbone in dealing with an important issue.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Ms Ní Chuilín: Is she funding the UDA?
Mr Durkan: I heard some questions that were asked from a sedentary position. Sinn Féin is giving clear advice and conclusions. Was that the sort of advice that the Minister received from the deputy First Minister, the Minister of Education, the Minister for Regional Development, the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development or the junior Minister in the Office of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister when her Executive colleagues received the circular about the issues in the summer? Were her colleagues content? Did the Sinn Féin Ministers offer the sort of advice that is coming from the Sinn Féin Benches today, or did they say something else?
Ms Ritchie: I thank my colleague and party leader, the Member for Foyle Mr Durkan, for his question. I will be absolutely clear about that issue. When I circulated a paper to the Executive way back at the end of June and early July, notwithstanding my reservations about the project, I outlined that I was prepared to go ahead with it. The response that I received from the First Minister and deputy First Minister was that they did not see a need for a decision to be taken, that it was not a matter for the Executive, and that they left it solely to the Minister for Social Development.
I clearly remember comments from the Minister for Regional Development and the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, which clearly recorded that they had no comment to make. That is all that was ever said to me.
Mr Speaker: Order.
Mr F McCann: When all is said and done, I was alarmed when I found out that the Minister was considering funding the UDA. I must touch on one policy that has been mentioned several times — that of targeting social need. The Minister has been selective in her targeting —[Interruption.]
A Member: Big talk.
<Mr Speaker: Order.
Mr F McCann: She has been selective in targeting social need. Why did the Minister go against her Department’s policy of targeting social need and abject poverty, by funding one community over the other, when social need stretches across the community?
Ms Ritchie: I thank Mr McCann for his question. There is some confusion in the House. I am trying to correct problems that were created by the direct rule Administration, which insisted on using funding from the Department for Social Development for that project. It is clear to me that it was a policing and community safety project, which, if it required funding, should have been funded by the Northern Ireland Office. It was nothing to do with the Department for Social Development.
I have already stated to the House my earnest desire to target deprivation and poverty, and to build communities right across Northern Ireland, irrespective of whether the problems lie in a loyalist, Protestant area or in a nationalist, republican area. The most compelling issue for me is that need, disadvantage and deprivation must be addressed, and that we must build communities; we must make a difference if the new devolution is to mean anything to the people of Northern Ireland.
I want to build those communities, and I want to be able to build those communities. I want to ensure that all the people to whom I have talked over the past months — from whatever community they come — are given the freedom to live.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Ms Anderson: Go raibh maith agat. The Department for Social Development’s role is to eradicate poverty wherever it exists. Without doubt, Sinn Féin will support the Minister if she uses that criterion to allocate funding. However, I remain concerned, as do other Members in the Chamber, that the Minister’s statement clearly indicates that it has been left open for the UDA to receive funding should it decommission. The Minister is setting out funding criteria for decommissioning that is not being done on the basis of objective need. That is wrong, and the Minister should provide Members with clarification.
Ms Ritchie: Sinn Féin never proposed a motion in the Executive, or even in the Assembly, to suspend or terminate funding for the conflict transformation initiative.
I have made it absolutely clear in the House, during Question Time and various debates, that my earnest desire is to eradicate poverty through addressing disadvantage and deprivation.
I look forward to support from my Sinn Féin ministerial colleagues for my bids to address disadvantage and deprivation in social housing, where an urgent and compelling need exists. I hope that their voices will not fall silent on those particular issues, because poverty must be addressed, irrespective of the community in which it is found. That is my earnest desire.
Mr P Robinson: Will the Minister share with the Assembly any advice that she received from the Departmental Solicitor’s Office on the matter? Does she accept that every Minister must act in accordance with the law? Does she accept that no Minister can act outside their legal competence? Will the Minister share with the Assembly the advice that she received from the Executive’s secretary, the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service?
Ms Ritchie: I am not sure whether Mr Robinson is asking the question as Minister of Finance and Personnel or as the person who likes to think that he controls the Executive.
Mr P Robinson: On a point of order, Mr Speaker.
Mr Speaker: Order. I understand that the Member is speaking as a private Member.
Ms Ritchie: I was simply seeking clarification. [Interruption.]
Mr P Robinson: That is why I am sitting here.
Mr Durkan: The Member was on the Front Bench. The DUP is good at changing position.
Mr Speaker: Order.
Ms Ritchie: As I outlined at the beginning of my statement, I fully adhere to the principles of the Pledge of Office. Of course, the Member was not present when I said that. I was very careful —[Interruption.]
Mr Speaker: Order. The Minister has the Floor.
Ms Ritchie: I stated clearly that I had sought internal and external legal advice on the matter. I am perfectly satisfied that I have legal support for the decision that I have taken. [Interruption.]
Mr Speaker: Order.
Mrs D Kelly: I heard comments earlier about advice from Mr Nigel Hamilton. Certainly, the review into the appointment of the Interim Commissioner for Victims, and the shenanigans surrounding that appointment did not stand up well to scrutiny.
It may come as a surprise to some, but people in the nationalist community — if not the wider community — are aware that the UDA was not a proscribed organisation until 1993, much to the shame of the British Government at that time.
The Minister has clearly given her commitment that funds to address social need will target deprived communities across the North. Will the Minister again confirm, for slow learners and Sinn Féin, that that is the case and that there will be a level playing field for all community groups to apply for funding under the criteria as set out by her Department?
Ms Ritchie: I thank Mrs Kelly for her question. I agree with her. It is my intention to address the issues of social deprivation and poverty. I will ensure that funding is directed where the need lies.
Mr McLaughlin: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Will the Minister agree that the kernel of this debacle is the initiative, taken by the direct rule Ministers, to direct funding towards the UDA, and which she has continued? Will she also agree that lessons should be drawn from this unfortunate experience? If the policy of targeting social need on an objective basis were the only criterion, the UDA would never have been granted money, either in the past, the present or the future.
Ms Ritchie: I thank Mr McLaughlin for his question.
I do not disagree with the issues that he raised about the direct rule Administration. It is unfortunate that many Ministers inherited policies that were not rightly placed or correctly implemented by that Administration. Many Members in this House, including members of his own party, and members of his party in the Executive, have been silent on these issues over the last number of months. I hope that there will be support for proper standards in Government and for tackling deprivation, disadvantage and poverty. The purpose of the Department for Social Development is to build communities through tackling deprivation, disadvantage and poverty, irrespective of where they lie.
Dr Farry: I add my congratulations to the Minister for her courageous stand and for showing integrity, despite the challenges coming from outside and especially from some quarters of the Chamber.
Will the Minister join me in recognising that the vast majority of people, especially in the unionist section of the community, want the UDA off their backs? Will she also recognise that, in allocating resources to address need, that is distorted by self-appointed middlemen? Will she recognise that the Pledge of Office requires Ministers to act to uphold the rule of law and that this decision is consistent with the rule of law in our society? Will she ask the Northern Ireland Office, which referred this matter to the Department for Social Development, to respect the decision that she has taken?
Ms Ritchie: I thank Dr Farry for his question and for his support. I fully agree with what he has said. I am anxious that resources are targeted where the need lies.
All Members should uphold the rule of law. When I found out that a policeman had been shot — and I am sure, and hope, that nobody would disagree with this — that a community was being held to ransom in Kilcooley and that similar acts were taking place, and are still taking place, in Carrickfergus, I had to take action to ensure that the best possible principles of democracy — the very principles that this House holds dear — are upheld, and that money is directed to those who need it and used to tackle disadvantage and deprivation. Once again, I thank the Member for his support.
Mr Donaldson: On this side of the House, it has been our long-held objective to see paramilitarism removed from everywhere in Northern Ireland, regardless of its manifestation. That remains our objective. Nevertheless, we cannot fight unlawfulness by taking unlawful decisions. We need to be absolutely clear that the decision taken today is legally competent.
In the interests of transparency, the Assembly must be clear about the advice that the Minister has been given by the Departmental Solicitor’s Office. However, the Minister has not told the Assembly what advice she was given. The Assembly is entitled to know what that advice was, because that is essential if Members are to be able to defend the decision that has been taken. Therefore, can the Minister clarify what advice she was given by the Departmental Solicitor’s Office?
Ms Ritchie: I thank Mr Donaldson for his support. Everyone in the House agrees that the yoke of paramilitarism must be removed. I do not believe that anyone disagrees with that. The information that was provided to me internally by the Departmental Solicitor’s Office and by senior Crown counsel, and that which I received from an independent legal person, is privileged information. Therefore, I shall leave it at that.
Mr Attwood: Does the Minister agree that people who have long been silent on this issue have suddenly found their voices in the Chamber? Those people gave advice, the height of which was, “no comment”, when the Minister sought guidance from her Executive colleagues. The people whose advice amounted to “no comment” now have all sorts of advice for the Minister on how she has handled this matter. Does she not find that contradictory and somewhat insulting to the people of Northern Ireland, who have a clear view about how this matter should be handled, unlike members of Sinn Féin and its Ministers in the Executive? Has the Minister consulted General de Chastelain to seek his assessment of the situation in respect of decommissioning by loyalist paramilitaries?
Ms Ritchie: I thank my colleague Mr Attwood for his comments and questions. First, I wish to point out that I am happy to share the legal advice that I have been given with the Committee for Social Development.
I have had a meeting and a telephone conversation with General de Chastelain. I can assure the House that I fully and carefully considered the information that he provided. I am sure that the House will understand that I cannot share what I have been told. However, I can tell the House that no one to whom I have spoken during the past weeks and months has told me that the requirement for decommissioning would be fulfilled as I had requested, and which is so evidently required by the people of Northern Ireland.
Everywhere that I have visited throughout Northern Ireland during the past several months, people have told me that they want the yoke of paramilitarism removed from their backs; they want deprivation and disadvantage addressed, and they want illegal weapons removed from society and decommissioned — they were very clear about that and they were also clear that they want criminality, violence and terrorism to be removed from society. There is a new political dispensation. In view of the fact that the dial on the political compass has changed, the public must see UDA decommissioning and the yoke of paramilitarism and criminality removed from our society.
Mrs Long: I thank the Minister for Social Development for her statement. I am pleased that she has shown a degree of integrity that was lacking in that area under direct rule. Given that the programme was brought in under direct rule, has the Minister received any assurance from the Northern Ireland Office that those who have, for so long, lectured local representatives to get on with the job for which they were elected, will now respect the Minister’s decision, having made the choice for which she was elected, and will desist from further interfering in the matter?
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Ms Ritchie: I thank Mrs Long, a Member for East Belfast, for her support and for her question. However, I very much regret that I am not in a position to provide her with a clear answer. I hope that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and Minister Goggins will support me in my decision — and support me publicly — and ensure that any side briefing is stopped.
I want to clear up two things. First, for the benefit of ministerial colleagues and Sinn Féin Assembly Members, I will not be funding the UDA now or in the future. Secondly, for the benefit of my DUP Assembly colleagues, my decision has an entirely robust legal basis. The Departmental Solicitor’s Office has observed that I am behaving entirely legally.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Mr McCartney: Thank you, and go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.
Given that some of the Minister’s party colleagues cannot distinguish the difference between criticism and clarification, she has cleared the matter up. We sought clarification of one issue and one issue only. [Laughter.]
Mr Speaker: Order.
Mr McCartney: We sought clarification of one issue and one issue only. Will the Minister guarantee the House that she will never in the future fund the UDA?
Ms Ritchie: I thank Mr McCartney for his clarification. For the benefit of ministerial colleagues in Sinn Féin, for Sinn Féin Members and for other Members, I will not fund the UDA either now or in the future.
Mr Speaker: Order.
Mr Kennedy: I thank the Minister for her statement, at least. I assure Members and place on the record that the Ulster Unionist Party has neither sanctioned nor supported the actions of any illegal paramilitary organisation, loyalist or otherwise.
In her statement the Minister drew attention to the work of the managing agents, the Farset organisation. I ask her to clarify beyond any doubt that, as a result of her decision, its integrity is in no way affected, nor will it be affected or impeded in the future as it continues to carry out important community work in that entire area.
Ms Ritchie: I thank Mr Kennedy. I fully agree with him about paramilitarism. Neither I nor my party have ever supported paramilitarism, irrespective of where it may have come from. I want to put that on public record. My statement also expressed my support for the Farset organisation. I have never, at any time, said anything different. On the day that I made the original statement, I said that I supported the good work that was undertaken by Farset and what they have done for community development in Belfast over the past 35 years.
Mr Speaker: Order. That concludes questions on the ministerial statement.
Mr Campbell: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In circumstances where a Minister gives a briefing to the Chairperson and Deputy Chairperson of a scrutiny Committee of the House immediately before an important decision that that Minister is about to announce, what redress do the Chairperson and Deputy Chairperson of that Committee have in ensuring that they get satisfaction in the future? That occurred today, 30 minutes before the Minister for Social Development made a statement on the important decision on which she has just been taking questions. That briefing included a specific reference to legal advice that she obtained that supported her decision. However, it has transpired that that was not the case.
A Member: That is not a point of order.
Mr Campbell: It is a point of order.
A Member: What are you worried about?
Mr Speaker: Order. I have listened to the Member, and that is not a point of order in which the House should become involved.
We will now move on to the next item of business.
Mr Ford: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The issue of legal advice to Ministers was raised on a previous occasion, and it concerned the appointment of an interim Victims’ Commissioner by OFMDFM. Surely that must be taken into account now, because, on that occasion, the House conducted its affairs very differently, and there was a very different ruling.
Mr Speaker: Again, I hear what the Member is saying. However, it is not an appropriate point of order for the House. It is certainly a matter for the Executive, but not for this House.
Mr A Maginness: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. At the end of the Minister’s statement, Mr Peter Robinson raised a point of order. I have checked the blue book, the ‘Northern Ireland Assembly Companion’, which contains a ruling by Speaker Alderdice on such matters. That ruling was that no point of order would be taken during the course of a statement, or during the course of questions following a statement.
Mr Speaker, I am in no way criticising the Chair. However, in view of the precedent established by Speaker Alderdice, can you consider whether the point of order made by Mr Peter Robinson, was, on reflection, out of order and should not have been taken at that point? Mr Speaker, I ask that you reflect on that matter and report back to the Assembly on what I believe was an improper point or order — and Mr Peter Robinson should, of course, have known that.
Mr P Robinson: Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Based on the terms used by the Member himself, is it not true that I did not make a point of order during the statement or questions?
Mr Speaker: I will clarify the issues raised in those two points of order. Mr Robinson is correct in saying that he did not make a point of order during the ministerial statement. He waited until the end of the statement before he made his point of order, which is appropriate. I have continually reminded Members that I will not take points of order during a statement, but that I am happy to do so after a ministerial statement is made and before questions to the Minister are taken.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Will you give some consideration as to how long the rulings of previous Speakers abide? Are those rulings eternal? Do we hold forever to the rulings of a person who sat in the Speaker’s Chair but was never elected to it by this House? Does there come a time to say “Amen” to those rulings and bury them?
Mr Speaker: I am very happy to report back to the House on that point of order. I must remind Members that, as always, the Speaker’s decision is final. It is important that Members remember that.
I ask Members that if they intend to leave the Chamber, to do so quickly, and if they intend to stay, to please take their seats.
Mr Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to two 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 Members who speak will have five minutes. One amendment has been received and has been published on the Marshalled List. The proposer of the amendment will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes for a winding-up speech.
Mr Neeson: I beg to move
That this Assembly recognises the complexity of the global economy and calls for fiscal reforms, and other measures, to ensure that Northern Ireland is competing on a level playing field.
The events of this afternoon will be a hard act to follow; I hope that they will not overshadow the content of this debate.
The real purpose of the motion is to keep the question of the economy to the fore in the Assembly. Members will recall that before the restoration of devolution the Subgroup on the Economic Challenges facing Northern Ireland reported back to the Transitional Assembly. The main purpose of the subgroup was the creation of economic advantage as part of the peace dividend. However, the Chancellor’s pre-Budget statement last week clearly showed that Alistair is not the Darling of businesses in Northern Ireland. Despite that, I want this debate to be a positive one. I am aware that the US ambassadors have been to Northern Ireland in recent days, preparing for next year’s economic conference in America. That will provide a major platform for the exploitation of opportunities and the development of Northern Ireland’s economy
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Molloy] in the Chair)
The unemployment rate in Northern Ireland currently stands at 4%. I remember that when I was Chairman of the Economic Development Committee of the 1982 Assembly, unemployment was over 20%. It is somewhat ironic that that Assembly was elected 25 years ago later this month; there are very few survivors from that time. The days of the culture of economic development grants are gone, which is to be welcomed. That Committee had to deal with issues such as DeLorean and Learfan, which, ironically, were not total failures.
We must realise that we are now living in a global economy, and that new challenges are coming from new economies such as India and China. The real issue that faces us now is competitiveness; we have to recognise that there is a structural imbalance between the private and public sectors. The challenge is to strengthen the private sector and reduce our undue dependence on the public sector.
Although the focus of the motion is on fiscal reforms, there are other issues that must be addressed in order to assist the growth of the economy here. The reform of corporation tax is an obvious priority, and the Assembly and others have made submissions to Sir David Varney on that subject. It is to be hoped that his report will be presented to the Assembly sooner rather than later.
Last year, the Subgroup on the Economic Challenges facing Northern Ireland heard from a wide range of organisations and individuals — as has the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment this year — who expressed their concerns about the unfair competition coming from the Republic of Ireland as a result of its lower rate of corporation tax. There is no doubt that that lower rate has attracted a substantial amount of foreign direct investment into the Republic of Ireland, particularly in high-value industries. Other areas of the UK do not share a land border with another country that has such fiscal advantages.
I am aware that there are issues in the EU over the Azores ruling. Those issues could be overcome if the Assembly had tax-varying powers in line with those devolved to the Scottish Parliament. That would give us greater fiscal flexibility to grow our economy and expand the private sector. Research and development tax credits must be closely examined. The evidence shows that there is a lack of take-up of those incentives, especially by SMEs (small and medium sized enterprises).
It must be asked: do those tax credits need to be enhanced? Could the universities do more to encourage that? I have been greatly impressed by the work that has been carried out in the science parks and other research institutions in Northern Ireland. It would be remiss of me not to take account of the excellent lobbying work carried out by the Northern Ireland Manufacturing Focus Group on the question of industrial derating. The Assembly has already debated the issue, and I know that it is a matter to be considered in the comprehensive spending review. I remind Members that industrial derating was first introduced here to compete with the lower rates of corporation tax in the Republic of Ireland.
Last week, the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment heard a submission from the Department on its regional innovation strategy. In fact, the Committee discussed that matter at its meeting today. The success of the strategy is dependent on close co-operation between Northern Ireland Departments. It is important that joined-up government is developed. It is clear that we live in a changing world and a changing global economy, so we must develop the skills and expertise to meet the needs of today and the future. That is why a regional innovation strategy is so important.
Flexibility and responsiveness are also needed in regulation and planning. Fiscal reform alone is not the panacea for the future. However, there are many challenges ahead for the Assembly to make Northern Ireland a competitive country in today’s global economy.
Although I accept the spirit in which the amendment was made, it does not take into consideration all of the issues that I hope are included in my motion. Therefore, the Alliance Party will not support the amendment.
Mr Beggs: I beg to move the following amendment: Leave out all after “Assembly” and insert
“calls upon the Executive, on receipt of the report of the Varney Review, to work in conjunction with Her Majesty’s Treasury to provide a competitive fiscal framework for business in Northern Ireland.”
I am sympathetic to much of what the proposer of the motion has said, but I have sought to improve what I believe to be the spirit of the motion.
First, I like plain English. The first part of the motion says:
“That this Assembly recognises the complexity of the global economy”.
That is wonderful language, but I am not sure what it conveys or what its purpose is. The relevant word that I have used is “competitive”; we must be competitive, and not simply recognise the complexity of the global economy.
The motion continues:
“calls for fiscal reforms, and other measures, to ensure that Northern Ireland is competing on a level playing field.”
It is unclear what the intention is. What is meant by “a level playing field”? I presume that it refers to corporation tax, but many of our EU neighbours have higher corporation tax levels. We do not necessarily want a level playing field with those countries; again, the important word is “competitive”. I presume that everyone in the Assembly wants lower levels of corporation tax, not the same levels as other countries.
Secondly, in the latter part of Mr Neeson’s speech he called for tax-varying powers. That was not specifically contained in the motion, although I feared that it might be mentioned.
Income tax is an important tax in any economy. Income-tax levels would increase if they were brought in line with other European countries. There is no doubt that a rise in income-tax levels would have an adverse affect on the Northern Ireland economy. It would disincentivise individuals from working, and we need to encourage more people to move from incapacity benefit to employment in order to improve the efficiency of our economy. There must be no disincentives that limit what might occur. The use of the term “level playing field” is wrong, so I have used the word “competitive”.
The Varney Review is particularly relevant to the current fiscal framework in Northern Ireland and is another glaring omission from the motion. Members look forward to hearing the outcome of the review, and it would be helpful for the Minister to indicate whether Sir David Varney has submitted his report to him and the devolved Administration. If so, when will that report be made public?
My amendment calls on the Executive:
“to work in conjunction with Her Majesty’s Treasury to provide a competitive fiscal framework for business in Northern Ireland.”
Members must remember that when business performs well, there are genuine, sustainable jobs, and everyone prospers and has more opportunities. To achieve that, a reduction in the level of corporation tax could play an important role, although it is not yet known whether that will be considered or implemented.
In the United Kingdom, the Northern Ireland economy is unusual in that it relies heavily on small businesses. To date, the Chancellor has introduced to the Northern Ireland economy an increase in the tax on small businesses from 19% to 22%. Rather than giving advantages to the Northern Ireland economy, he has penalised it particularly harshly.
Among the other options that must be considered is industrial rating, which is in the Assembly’s grasp. The industrial rates escalator in which the direct rule Administration have placed Northern Ireland would be disastrous for the economy. Given the additional electricity, energy and transportation costs, many employers have indicated that an increase would lead to a reduction in R&D, investment and, ultimately, local jobs. It is important for Northern Ireland not to be tied to that escalator.
An increase in tax credits for R&D is important. In a survey, the Federation of Small Businesses found that 65% of its members were unaware of them. Progress must be made by improving advertising and ensuring that employers are better informed of the opportunities that tax credits offer to their businesses. As with many other systems that Government operate, it must be made easy for businesses to apply for tax credits. The advantages that they bring allow local businesses to make improvements. Additional investment in R&D can improve their competitiveness and increase sustainability and job opportunities.
Capital allowances also offer opportunities. My amendment states that the Executive must work in conjunction with Her Majesty’s Treasury on the development of various areas to create a “competitive fiscal framework”. Capital allowances enable businesses to make significant investments rather than paying tax, and they must be encouraged.
Rates relief for rural post offices and isolated convenience stores exists in other parts of the United Kingdom, and its application to Northern Ireland must be considered. Why should that benefit only be available elsewhere?
My amendment enhances the intention of the motion by removing the doubt created by Mr Neeson’s use of the phrase “level playing field”. Rather, the Assembly wants to create a more competitive playing field in which businesses can operate and thereby create more job opportunities. Therefore, I ask Members to support my amendment.
Mr Storey: I welcome the opportunity for the Assembly to debate the health and growth potential of Northern Ireland’s economy, and I support the amendment.
I concur with the Member for East Antrim Mr Beggs that it is crucial for the Assembly to ensure that competitiveness is at the heart of fiscal policies.
Every time I speak on this issue, it is in the full knowledge that some of us lack the relevant expertise, especially following the loss that our party experienced with the sudden passing of my dear friend and trusted colleague George Dawson. His maiden speech in the Assembly was on the Northern Ireland economy, which was dear to his heart. Therefore, we are discussing the subject today with mixed emotions.
When we are considering the problems facing the Northern Ireland economy, we must have all the relevant tools at our disposal to ensure that Northern Ireland is a prosperous place for everyone. We are developing a model of devolution — which gives us some autonomy to make responsible decisions that will have a positive, or, depending on the decisions that we make, adverse effect on our local economy. That is the single biggest challenge facing the Administration.
The economy is our key priority, particularly if we accept the prevailing view among some economists that Northern Ireland does not pay its way. It is not alone in that respect. When we look across this island, we see a contributor to our economic difficulties, namely the lack of what has been described as the cornerstone of industrial development policy — a competitive corporation tax.
At first glance, Northern Ireland’s economic performance has been impressive. We have an unemployment rate of 5% — lower than the UK as a whole and well below the rate of unemployment in Europe, which is at 8·4%. In the past 10 years, the employment rate has grown by around 20%, which is double the UK rate.
We have innovative companies that can compete with the best in the world, and I am always mindful of companies such as Wrightbus Ltd, which I have mentioned in the past, in my constituency of North Antrim. That company has been exemplary in how it has faced up to its challenges. Such companies have proved that they are well able to compete with the best in the world. However, they and many others who may be encouraged to set up base and invest here need realistic and competitive incentives. We are unenviably limited, due, in part, to our inability to competitively entice substantial inward investment.
Our fiscal deficit, which is funded by the Treasury, is around £7 billion. That is almost double the figure for Scotland, which has the ability to vary income tax by three pence in the pound but has never done so — for sound fiscal reasons. Surely, a one-size-fits-all approach for the UK is inappropriate for the Northern Ireland economy.
The Westminster Government must recognise the unique circumstances in Northern Ireland and acknowledge that now is the time to permit a measured degree of diversity. A strong one-off case can be made for corporation tax. However, we should be cautious about departing from UK-wide policy and we should consider the implications of doing so in such cases. We would probably be left to meet the financial burdens for a policy that could backfire economically. After all, there are strong arguments for continuing to benefit from the protection that comes from being part of the UK-wide tax system.
The report of the Varney Review, which is due to be made public soon, has been mentioned. The Executive will carefully consider their response to that report, as part of a wider directional change to stimulate our economy.
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Member’s time is up.
Mr McLaughlin: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I listened carefully to the proposal that my party supports and to the comments of Roy Beggs in moving the amendment.
I acknowledge that both Members attempted to address an issue that the House must confront at some stage. To some extent, Roy Beggs allayed my initial concerns about the amendment when he elaborated on his reasons for tabling it. His contribution was, therefore, constructive and helpful.
The issues that were raised in the debate were addressed by the economic subgroup that the Preparation for Government Committee established during the Hain Assembly. The subgroup carried out its work on the basis of an all-party consensus. That united front was evident when the parties went to see the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, and his Treasury team. The hostility of the Treasury to any modification of the one-size-fits-all approach, to which Mervyn Storey referred, was made clear at that meeting.
However, the issue remains a conundrum for the Executive. This island has an economy that performs competitively in the global economy. Therefore, a level playing field would compel one to examine the reasons for that hostility and, perhaps, apply circumstances that were more suitable to an island-wide approach. What clearly works in London and the south-east of England does not necessarily work in the north of England, Scotland, Wales, and it definitely does not work in this economic region.
Statistics that cover a long period demonstrate the failure of the policy of convergence. The draft economic projections that were prepared under the direct rule Ministers, and that continue to underpin the Department of Finance and Personnel’s economic approach until such times as the Assembly can impose itself, predicted a 0·5% improvement in the divergence of performance and productivity for the next six to seven years. That was a policy of failure, which, in addition to the fact that the advocates of the status quo are not arguing that the situation will improve, means that the Assembly has an inescapable responsibility to secure as much flexibility and as many fiscal instruments as possible to enable the Executive to do their work and deliver on the Programme for Government. However, the current arrangements do not facilitate that.
We will study the Varney Review, but there is no expectation that it will challenge the orthodoxy that has governed the Treasury’s approach up to now. Therefore, it appears that the failure of our efforts to regenerate, broaden, deepen and make the local economy competitive will continue.
The motion deserves support. I do not know whether the Alliance Party will respond to Roy Beggs’s amendment. The movers of the motion and the amendment presented arguments of merit that could be supported. My party supports the motion and looks forward to the Minister of Finance and Personnel’s response. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr O’Loan: Although it is customary to compliment a Member for moving a motion, I am reluctant to do so because this debate is artificial, repetitive and will not add hugely to human wisdom or to the contribution that the Assembly can make for the betterment of our economy. I support the general purpose of the motion, as anyone would, but I am not hugely enthusiastic about its wording.
Neither do I have any great enthusiasm for the amendment. The views of the SDLP on fiscal measures will not be limited by the outcome of the Varney Review: the party will continue to pursue constructive solutions on fiscal matters that are specific to our situation. There are some good examples of that in relation to variations that have been achieved on climate change and aggregates levies. However, I prefer the objective of the motion because of the inclusion of the phrase “and other measures”, because it is important to recognise that the betterment of our economy will not be obtained solely by fiscal means; that fact has been well recognised. Therefore, the Ulster Unionist Party should withdraw its amendment, because it does not help the motion. It is certainly not something on which the SDLP will seek to divide the House; the addition of a pointless Division to a pointless debate will not contribute anything. However, the debate will have some significance if the Assembly shows unity on issues raised in the Varney Review.
I said previously that I had no great enthusiasm for the original motion; it is vague on what fiscal reforms and other measures it is proposing. I am particularly concerned about the phrase “a level playing field”, because I do not think that such a concept exists. The business world here and throughout the world could be better compared to a jungle. The use of such phrases invokes the idea that there is some sort of deus ex machina that will solve all our business problems. That view is commonly held, and I detect some special pleading around the business community and this discussion of our economy.
All companies — including what is sometimes referred to as “Northern Ireland plc” — must look for a niche in which they have a competitive advantage. The ground is always shifting, so companies must be one step ahead and be ready to move if it seems that their niches might disappear. The Government have a vital role in creating a favourable environment for business and in giving direct appropriate assistance, but we cannot expect some magic bullet from the Government. Success for our businesses will require hard work, initiative and the courage to take risks. The broad cultural attitude to business is important, and I am not convinced that the attitude in our business community is absolutely right; I detect that from what I hear in the Chamber.
I submitted an amendment to the motion, the intention of which was to initiate a discussion on the comments made by the Minister of Finance and Personnel that North/South co-operation is essential for global success. It also sought to ask the Assembly to consider a recent proposal by Dr Alan Gillespie, the chairperson of the Ulster Bank, to merge Invest NI and the Industrial Development Agency Ireland. That proposal appeared in ‘The Irish Times’ on 3 October 2007. The article not only dealt with that specific issue but broadly discussed the state of our economy and what it requires to go in the right direction. It is an important article, and it is perhaps no harm that my amendment was not selected, because the issue deserves wider debate. In the meantime, I will circulate the article to all Members, because it is worthy of their study, and I hope that we will find a methodical way of discussing it.
Mr Hamilton: I support the amendment. I am confused by the text of the original motion, as were other Members: it is unclear what exactly it is calling for. I share the concerns of others that it is about the introduction of blanket tax-varying powers in a somewhat less subtle fashion than the Sinn Féin motion from a couple of months ago.
The text of the motion could best be described as naïve in some respects. Anyone who does not appreciate that the global economy is complex should not be in this Building. Some concentration has been placed on competing on a level playing field, but one of the complexities of the global economy is that there is no such thing as a level playing field. One of the problems that comes with globalisation is the movement of heavy-labour jobs to low-wage economies. I am sure that the Member who proposed the original motion is not advocating that Northern Ireland should have the same low wages as China, India or some of the other Far East economies. The amendment offers more clarity on that important issue, not least because it puts the debate in context.
A global economy means that Northern Ireland, and other Western economies, cannot now easily compete with low-wage economies for heavy-labour jobs. Most Members know of towns and villages in their own constituencies — and my constituency of Strangford is no different — where traditional heavy-labour jobs in textiles and engineering have moved to other parts of the world. That is a fact of life in the global economy. For a long time, we have been told that the muscle that we must engage is not in our arms and legs, but between our ears, and that innovation is the key to competition in a global economy. However, it is now no longer even as straightforward as that.
Low-wage economies such as India and China are now investing heavily in education, skills, research and development, and innovation. India has around 300 universities and over 15,000 colleges generating 2·5 million graduates every year, 350,000 of which are in engineering. That is twice what the USA produces each year. The OECD recently described China’s investment in research and development as “stunning”. The number of researchers in China has increased by 77%, and its investment in innovation has doubled. China is now spending more on research and development than countries such as Japan, which used to be considered to be at the cutting edge.
The DUP has long supported fiscal reforms for Northern Ireland that can retool our economy and allow us to — as Roy Beggs said — compete in the global economy. There has been an understandable fascination during the debate with retooling our economy through measures on corporation tax, and the Varney Report’s conclusions are awaited with keen interest. However, corporation tax itself was never going to be the panacea, or the silver bullet, for all of our ills. We must not lose sight of the fact that there is much that the Assembly and the Administration can do to make Northern Ireland competitive, which does not necessarily require Treasury support or tax incentives — although both of those would be helpful. I refer particularly to research and development, skills, and education in general.
Indeed, whatever the Varney Report states, our economy must have skilled workers in place to seize the jobs that Northern Ireland may attract. There is little point in telling the world that we have a competitive business-tax regime if, when companies wish to set up here, we do not have the people who are capable of taking up those high-value jobs.
Our indigenous companies also need to be supported, and there have been some suggestions that that could be done by encouraging them to engage in research and development. I hope that the Programme for Government will ensure that the economy is at the heart of the Assembly’s work. There are some encouraging signs in our economy, and it is important that the message that is sent out is upbeat about our economic prospects. We are seeing growth, not least in financial business services, tourism and software, in which we are now developing a critical mass of expertise. The economic future of Northern Ireland is bright, especially now that we have a locally accountable Administration that can respond to the needs of our economy.
I have some sympathy for the comments made by the previous contributor. However, I welcome this debate and the opportunity that it offers to once again highlight the important issue of economic development in Northern Ireland.
Mr F McCann: A LeasCheann Comhairle, go raibh míle maith agat. I support the original motion. The North of Ireland’s economic performance has been — and continues to be — poor in comparison to the rest of Ireland, and compared to Britain. The lack of economic development is due to political instability, deep societal divisions, over 30 years of conflict, and deep patterns of discrimination and disadvantage.Deeper problems are exacerbated by an artificial border — the real cost of division on this island.
The case for fiscal reform in the North of Ireland rests on the fact that existing policy measures are inadequate. Several economic challenges have been identified in a report by the Committee on the Preparation for Government. The local economy has an imbalance when it comes to the contribution of the public and private sectors to economic activity. Inward investment is sluggish, the growth of local business is low-key and employment, with low-paid, low-skilled jobs, is not concentrated around the service sector.
Public spending is responsible for 63% of our gross domestic product, and although public-sector spending should be maintained, private-sector growth must be encouraged. Economic output here is about 20% below the British average and has also been falling steadily behind the Twenty-six Counties. Low unemployment figures of 4% conceal the fact that the levels of economic inactivity are far higher. The number of people on incapacity benefit is 74% higher than the average. There is a clear deficit of skills, and university graduates continue to leave, exacerbating that deficit.
Something different must be done in order to create a strong and vibrant economy. Competitive fiscal incentives, alongside other measures, will encourage investment and growth in foreign direct investment and SMEs. While there is no doubt that the lowering of corporation tax is important to the economy, and a level playing field on the island of Ireland would go a long way towards attracting and sustaining foreign direct investment, we must do more to deliver investment in people, skills and the infrastructure.
Initiatives such as marketing the island of Ireland to investors in key areas such as agriculture and tourism, and the opening up of the debate around the benefits of merging Invest NI with IDA Ireland, would see a single inward-investment strategy — a move towards effective marketing.
Other tax reforms, such as targeted tax relief for local and rural businesses, the manufacturing sector and small and medium-sized enterprises would be beneficial. A crucial aspect of strengthening enterprise is the nurturing of new businesses. Part of that should involve lightening the financial burden on those businesses during their start-up period, and a system of tax relief for new businesses on the basis of a compulsory, agreed and accountable action plan, particularly for those that locate in TSN areas.
Those fiscal freedoms could unlock our potential to set our own funding priorities. They would also be an essential component in developing a radical plan of action to tackle deprivation and ensure long-term economic development.
There are many tough choices facing us. If there is no move to develop greater fiscal freedom and strengthen the local economy, there will be many difficulties ahead. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr McQuillan: The impact of being part of a global economy has been clear to us all over the past few weeks. Rocketing oil prices and the international credit crunch arising from loan defaults in the US housing market are having a knock-on effect across the globe, and we in Northern Ireland are not immune.
Although the ‘Northern Ireland Economic Bulletin’, published at the end of June 2007, highlighted higher-than-ever levels of employment and a low rate of unemployment, it also pointed to significant areas of continuing structural weakness in our economy — lower levels of productivity than in the UK as a whole, higher levels of economic inactivity and, of course, the relatively small private sector.
Like all modern, developed economies, the challenge facing us is to manage the transition to high-value-added activity and to be competitive locally and, most importantly, internationally. We need a better-qualified workforce and a re-energised private sector that embraces innovation and develops a culture of enterprise in our young people.
Further encouragement in the economic bulletin was in tourism, where it is recognised that 3·5% gross value added to the economy in 2003 has the potential to grow and improve on the 24,000 jobs already supported in that sector.
I recognise growing trends in my constituency of East Londonderry, where tourism is such a vital part of the local economy right across the north coast. Indeed, money invested in projects to improve the infrastructure for tourism would be a wise investment and would provide a healthy return in both jobs and economic activity.
However, I am not sure that this is the best time to launch a series of fiscal reforms such as those suggested in the motion. The Executive have been in place only for a matter of months, and they must concentrate on establishing the scale of the various economic and policy issues that must be faced, and then prioritise them. Meanwhile, Members anticipate the publication of Sir David Varney’s report — particularly its recommendations on corporation tax.
Frequently, during the period of direct rule, business leaders emphasised the need for political stability. As the business sector attempts to create new industries and grow existing businesses, the Assembly must demonstrate a measured and considered approach to the economy that will inspire confidence. In the coming months, I know that my colleague the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment will ensure that the economy is at the forefront of Members’ minds.
It is premature to talk of fiscal reforms before examining and prioritising the range of issues that we face. I support the amendment.
Mr Cree: The motion is well intentioned, but it provides no clear vision of a way forward. Members are aware of the term “global economy”, but do we fully understand its implications? There has never been a global economy before. The closest example might be the Marshall Plan of 1947, which few Members would remember. Following the destruction of Europe in the Second World War, that plan was an attempt to create a more balanced international economy.
Members have seen what a market economy can do to encourage growth, particularly over the past two decades, when people witnessed perhaps the greatest ever increase in living standards. That is the success of globalisation, which amounts to an economic revolution. With it, however, come significant risks.
Much of the world’s manufacturing industry has gone to China and the Far East. It is estimated that China’s exports account for 70% of the world’s GDP. Members have referred to the wording of the motion. That is an illustration of how Northern Ireland can never compete on a level playing field with low-wage economies such as China, India and other Far East countries. We must accept that reality and fundamentally reappraise our economy and its future.
Members have referred to the large amount of work was carried out in the past year by the Subgroup on the Economic Challenges facing Northern Ireland. The reports that that subgroup produced still make good sense and should be implemented. The Varney Review is about to publish its report, and it may contain good news about corporation tax. More likely than not, it will be unhelpful. In any event, we must move forward.
Closing the gap in living standards with the rest of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland is a key challenge for Northern Ireland. In order to do that, there must be a major increase in productivity, performance and economic growth, and that growth must be geared towards export markets.
The United Kingdom Government have a policy that is designed to achieve economic convergence in the regions. That has not worked and must be revisited. In a fiscal union such as the UK, a one-size-fits-all policy operates, and devolution has made little difference. The Treasury must address the failure of that policy. It seems to be content to continue to subsidise regions that are in deficit, such as Northern Ireland, at the rate of £6 billion to £7 billion per annum, instead of allowing additional policy flexibility or fiscal autonomy. Only three of the 12 UK regions operate at a surplus. The other nine spend £60 billion more than they pay in taxes.
As part of a competitive fiscal framework, more mundane issues must also be addressed. Research and development credits must be enhanced to raise the low level of business R&D in Northern Ireland.
Fuel excise duty is a major problem, and the large disparity between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland has encouraged crime, harmed commerce, deprived the Exchequer of many millions of pounds and is a source of revenue for organised crime.
Capping industrial rates would help existing manufacturing businesses, and a highly-educated and skills-based pool of workers is required in order to attract foreign direct investment. To create a world-class economy in Northern Ireland, entrepreneurs, inventors, financial services, technologies, transfer processes, venture capitalists, higher and further education, the universities, and the IT and software sectors must be brought together.
We need the full support of HM Treasury to provide a competitive fiscal framework for business in Northern Ireland, and that is why I support the amendment.
Mr G Robinson: All Members must acknowledge that Northern Ireland is at a major disadvantage in comparison with the rest of the United Kingdom and Europe due to its peripheral location. That location means that businesses here must pay a higher tariff for the electricity they depend upon to produce goods, because the fuel for the generating stations must be imported.
Also, our employment base seems to be anchored in the public sector; and the difference between the rates of corporation tax in Northern Ireland and in the South does us no favours when trying to attract investment from global companies and puts us at a distinct disadvantage.
However, Northern Ireland has some positive features, the main one being this Assembly. The political stability that was brought about through the strong leadership of the DUP sees Northern Ireland enjoying a global good-will factor that we must capitalise on fully.
We have an opportunity to attract employers who will bring well-paid jobs to Northern Ireland; reduce our labour market dependence on the public sector, and become a wealth-creating part of the United Kingdom. To do that, we must ensure that our workforce has the skills to fill all employment opportunities, whether they are in research and development, tourism or finance.
However, some areas of fiscal reform contain policy matters that the Assembly cannot control. The main issue is the difference in the rate of corporation tax between Northern Ireland and the South. Considering the South, statistics show that the low rate of corporation tax has helped the Government there to attract high-productivity businesses, for example, in the chemical, electronics and IT sectors.
We want and need those types of industries to be established in Northern Ireland. We want them for the employment and the opportunities they provide, especially for our young graduates, many of whom have to leave their home soil.
We must also remember those who do not have the opportunity to enter third-level education. According to reports, 25% of the adult population of Northern Ireland have a literacy or numeracy skills deficit, which undoubtedly contributes to the 27% figure for economic inactivity. Therefore, it is essential that fiscal reform must incorporate the direction of moneys to help people obtain essential skills for a marketplace increasingly dominated by global, transnational companies that demand the highest skill levels from their employees. It is also essential that programmes that aid people to retrain or obtain new qualifications at all stages in life are maintained.
Northern Ireland may have an education system that is the envy of many countries, but with one quarter of our population having difficulty with the basics, we must remain aware of the need to address problems with literacy and numeracy.
Furthermore, it is necessary to ensure that our infrastructure is up to the standard that transnational companies expect. The road network has some clearly identified weak spots, such as the A26 Belfast to Coleraine corridor, the A8 from Belfast to Larne and the A4 from the M1 to Enniskillen, all of which allow access to those areas of the Province and provide cross-border links.
Upgrades to the rail network are required, and the lines from Belfast to Londonderry, Dublin and Larne all require investment. There should be stops at Aldergrove and Eglinton airports to facilitate business and tourist traffic. Those are just some items that a fiscal reform project must examine for the development of Northern Ireland plc.
For Northern Ireland to benefit fully from fiscal reform, we must work with the Westminster Government to seek funding levels that will allow us to take advantage of the present global good will. I mentioned a few areas in which we can make Northern Ireland a more appealing place for investors. I support the amendment.
The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr P Robinson): I have listened with great interest to the debate, and it is clear to me that the days of ducking and weaving have gone, and that the days of hiding behind NIO Ministers are over. The time for mature politics has clearly arrived. Every Minister in the Executive and every Member of the Assembly will have to avoid the routine of political adolescence, which allows calls for more resources without coming clean and acknowledging that that will either require higher local taxation or the reduction of resources elsewhere. The test for the Assembly will be found in its willingness to confront those hard decisions in the coming months and years.
The challenges and threats posed by the global economy have been acknowledged for some time. The Chancellor highlighted last week in his pre-Budget statement the importance of improving UK competitiveness, and that applies ever more so to Northern Ireland. With GVA per capita in Northern Ireland lagging behind the UK average by some 20 percentage points, there must be a concerted effort to improve our international competitiveness.
The key issue for the Executive now is to ensure that it creates a policy environment that will facilitate economic growth and development in Northern Ireland. That growth and development will be achieved only by delivering the 2015 economic vision of an outward-looking, export-orientated, innovative, wealth-generating economy.
A domestic market of 1·7 million is not alone going to provide the basis for higher growth and productivity. Our private sector, with a few notable exceptions, is too insular and reliant on local demand. That has to change. How can we effect such change?
Clearly the Executive will have an opportunity to create an environment that is conducive to economic growth. We need to encourage those sectors and activities that can provide a foundation to compete internationally. That means assisting those individuals and companies who are enterprising and innovative and who have skills and talents that are valuable in a global context; and providing an environment that is attractive as an investment location, with quality infrastructure such as good transport, energy, and communications systems.
The draft Budget that the Executive will shortly issue for public consultation will highlight our commitment to growing the economy. I make that commitment in an environment of ever-tightening public expenditure resources because I believe that a strong and vibrant economy offers the best prospect for enhancing wealth and living standards for all the people of Northern Ireland.
The Executive will obviously consider all proposals that offer the prospect of additional resources, but Members need to appreciate the limited room to manoeuvre that a devolved Administration has when working within the framework of the Treasury’s statement of funding policy.
Fiscal policy remains a reserved matter for determination solely by the Chancellor. He jealously guards that role, and the level of tax revenue is closely monitored to ensure that the stability of the UK fiscal regime — including the so-called golden rule — is maintained.
A number of Members have referred to the Varney Review. The Executive has presented a robust case to Sir David Varney, calling for a corporation tax dispensation for Northern Ireland, which would indisputably transform the attractiveness of the region as a place in which to invest.
I understand that Sir David Varney is expected to release his report in the coming weeks. I have not seen any of the emerging findings, but the concerns that the Treasury will have on issues such as repercussiveness and revenue loss should not be underestimated.
If it is any guide to Members, I can say that I have a feeling that there are suggestions that the Varney Report will be more concerned with analysis than recommendations. I also believe that Sir David Varney is likely to leave it to the Chancellor to respond, based on the economic assessment that he has made. Time, of course, will tell.
There are some, limited, policy levers that the Executive can use to generate resources for deployment in the Budget process. Determination of rates and water charges resides with the Executive. Obviously, a balance needs to be achieved as to what people can afford and what is fair on both issues.
Members will be aware of the release last Friday of the Independent Water Review Panel’s report. It covers some complex issues, and I will consider its implications with my Executive colleagues over the next few days. As with many other financial issues, there is a need to adopt a balanced approach in that area.
Members have debated the need for fiscal powers, but we need to appreciate that they represent a double-edged sword. Increasing the tax take in Northern Ireland would generate additional public expenditure, but possibly at the expense of constraining regional competitiveness, making this a high-cost region for companies to operate in. Alternatively, we might decide to lower rates and water charges, but that would reduce available public expenditure, impacting directly on public services for which many Members have lobbied vociferously. Perhaps some Members think that HM Treasury will provide the additional funding, but with a regional fiscal deficit of somewhere between £7 billion and £8 billion, I do not think that there is much hope for help from that quarter.
Let me turn to some of the specific comments made by Members. The proposer of the motion indicated that it was his purpose to keep the spotlight on the economy. That is a worthy purpose, and he set out with the best and most altruistic of motives. However, I think that other events today may have dimmed that spotlight a little. I suspect that the ‘Belfast Telegraph’ has not held its front page for the outcome of this debate. Nevertheless, he rightly indicated the importance of strengthening the private sector and redressing the imbalance that exists between public and private sectors. That must be a key consideration in the policies advocated and implemented by the Executive.
Mr Neeson and a number of other colleagues referred to industrial derating. I will say a word about that. The Economic Research Institute of Northern Ireland (ERINI) is finalising its report on industrial derating. I have some knowledge of the conclusions that it is moving towards; however, the institute has still some macroeconomic analysis to carry out. I hope that that report will be published before too long, and that the Committee for Finance and Personnel will consider its contents.
However, I have made it clear elsewhere that I accept the strong arguments that are being put forward in relation to the level of industrial rates. I recognise that there would be some contradiction if, on the one hand, we wanted economic growth and sought to encourage industry in Northern Ireland, while at the same time laying a heavy burden upon it. Those issues will have to be considered by the Executive, and I hope to make a statement on that subject to the House within the next month or so.
The Member for East Antrim Mr Beggs made some comments about what he considered to be the inadequacy of the wording of the original motion. For many Members, there is much agreement on the general issues relating to the economy. There is an agreed analysis of where our economy stands, what needs to be done and what the drivers are. I could support either Mr Beggs’s amendment or the motion. The proposers of both want the same thing. However, the amendment will be taken first and, if it is made, the other choice will not fall to us.
Mr Beggs made specific reference to the Varney Review. I have touched on my early feeling for what the eventual shape of that report might be. Mr Beggs and others indicated that they are not exactly holding their breath for the answers to our economic questions to come out of the Varney Review.
At any rate, Members must recognise that the report itself will not be the key element but the consideration and decisions that fall to the Treasury as a result of Varney’s findings. Of course, as the amendment suggests, the Executive want to work with the Treasury on the outcomes of the Varney review.
The Member for East Antrim Roy Beggs also raised the issue of small-business rate relief. During a previous Question Time, I believe that I told the Assembly that I had asked ERINI to consider the matter of small-business rate relief. It will do so when its current consideration of other rate matters has concluded. However, it will probably be further down the line before that work is completed. We are all mindful of the important role that small business plays in Northern Ireland. Although a recent ERINI report suggested that business costs in the region are not uncompetitive with those of other UK regions, it is a concern that the Chancellor’s proposals on business taxes appear to hinder small businesses disproportionately. Small businesses in Northern Ireland make up a considerable part of the economy, so that will have a detrimental effect. I will highlight that matter and express the Assembly’s concern in my engagements with Treasury Ministers.
The Deputy Chairman of the Committee, Mr Storey, appropriately reminded the House of the loss of our former colleague, Mr George Dawson. Mr Dawson made many contributions to economic debates, which, I am sure, are missed by all Members. I certainly miss his wise counsel.
Mr Storey also mentioned the role of Wrightbus Ltd in his constituency — I am not sure whether that was advertising. Having visited its plant in North Antrim, I am convinced that the business has considerable export potential. Indeed, its StreetCars can be seen in Chicago and elsewhere around the world. That is exactly the kind of business that can lift the Northern Ireland economy.
Mr Storey also referred to the need to stimulate the economy, and pointed to corporation-tax reduction as being one of the mechanisms for doing so. I have consistently warned the House that, although the lowering of corporation tax would be a step change that would significantly encourage economic growth, other mechanisms could be used that may not have such an immediate or powerful effect but that would, nonetheless, be useful. As some of his colleagues have indicated, the Assembly has the power to take certain steps in order to stimulate the economy.
The Chairman of the Committee, Mr Mitchel McLaughlin, referred to economic forecasts. He is correct: the economic forecast until 2015 shows only marginal economic improvement in GVA per capita. However, he and I will agree that that is a reflection of the direct-rule policy framework, which the Executive and Assembly are keen to leave behind. I confidently expect the Executive to set more ambitious targets. If they are not, I am pretty sure that the Chairman and his Committee would ask why. Therefore, we must ensure that the policy delivers those material improvements, which I hope will start with the Budget, the Programme for Government and the investment strategy for Northern Ireland.
Moreover, the Chairman also expressed some doubts, which, I suppose — in a quiet moment — I would share, about the extent to which Sir David Varney might separate himself from some of the thinking that has been a pattern in the past. However, we shall have to wait and see.
The Member for North Antrim Mr Declan O’Loan referred to the fact that our economy can grow by other than fiscal means. There are a whole range of mechanisms that can be employed by the Executive. I take, very strongly, the point made by Mr George Robinson that there is a feel-good factor. However, I warn everyone that the window for a feel-good factor — as regards to Northern Ireland — does not stay open for long, especially in a global economy. Therefore, it is essential that we make full use, and take real advantage, of that window while it is open.
The Member for North Antrim urged me to endorse the policy of merging the IDA and Invest Northern Ireland. He will not be surprised that I do not jump to take him up on his suggestion. Leaving aside the political issues involved, there are a number of other matters that I ask the Member to consider. We have talked about some of those differences during the debate. The Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland have different tax regimes. There are different accountability processes, different legal remits, and different funding sources. We need to remember that we are often in competition.
As I said week before last to the Irish Taxation Institute, there is much advantage in greater collaboration and co-operation with the Republic of Ireland in economic matters. However, we should remember that, in many cases, we will be seeking the same jobs and the same type of development. Nevertheless, there will be occasions when working in collaboration with the Irish Republic will be to our mutual advantage. We do not want to miss out on that.
Mr O’Loan: Will the Member give way?
Mr P Robinson: I am short of time, so please forgive me for not giving way. I want to try to cover everyone’s contributions to the debate, as far as time allows me.
The Member for Strangford Mr Simon Hamilton referred to the drivers of growth in our economy — skills, innovation, enterprise and infrastructure. He is absolutely right. They go to the heart of our ability to compete in the global economy. He, too, warned that we should not put all of our eggs in the one basket and wait for them to be delivered as part of the Varney Review. There is a lot that we can do for ourselves. That must be the important role that the Executive and their Ministers play.
Mr McCann gave an accurate analysis of the present economic situation in Northern Ireland. He, properly, drew attention to the need to increase the role of the private sector. He said, rightly, that the Assembly needs to do something different. If we continue to do what the direct rule administration did in the past, we can expect the same results. That is why we must consider more radical ways of dealing with those issues. I hope that we will see that in the weeks to come.
Mr McQuillan also referred to the North/South economic issue. I say to him that we in Northern Ireland can have the best of both worlds. We are an integral part of the United Kingdom and of its economy. At the same time, we can take the advantages of the North/South economy. If we can get the best of both worlds, we should by all means do so. In my own community — the unionist community — there exists sufficient confidence to take full advantage of that.
Mr Adrian McQuillan referred to the views of business leaders, particularly, as regards corporation tax. He felt that it was too early to talk about fiscal reforms before the Executive’s trajectory had been set. The Executive’s policy must be unveiled. We must see the direction that the Executive takes before we begin to look at some of the wider issues that might come under the heading of fiscal reform.
Mr Cree made a very worthwhile speech in which he talked about low-wage economies elsewhere in the world.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Will the Minister draw his remarks to a close?
Mr P Robinson: I will.
Mr Cree also mentioned the need to find our own niche market to help the Treasury to create a competitive economy in Northern Ireland.
I trust that Members will continue to remain focused on the economy in Northern Ireland. Over the next few weeks, the Executive will certainly give Members opportunities to debate the matter further.
Mr Beggs: I again thank Mr Neeson for bringing the motion to the House. As we move towards the Budget process, it is important that this issue remains foremost in our minds. However, it is regrettable that Mr Neeson once again advocated tax-varying powers. I remind Members that nearly every time that that term is used, tax-raising powers are often meant. For that reason, I will stick with my amendment, and I hope that the House will support it.
Mr Mervyn Storey noted that the Scottish Parliament has wisely chosen not to use its tax-varying powers because of its fear of the implications that they may have on the Scottish economy. I welcome his recognition of the importance of the word “competitive” in my amendment.
Mitchel McLaughlin highlighted the poor projected growth in our economy that past direct rule administrators set out. There is an obvious need to improve that situation and to introduce changes to enable such an improvement.
Given that Declan O’Loan had no enthusiasm for the motion or the amendment, it is disappointing that he did not table an amendment himself. Should any Members find themselves in that situation in future, I advocate that they consider tabling an amendment.
Mr O’Loan: I did table an amendment, but unfortunately it did not appear on the Marshalled List.
Mr Beggs: Fortunately, the Member did not table a competent amendment. [Laughter.]
He advocated merging Invest NI and the IDA, but he did not explain how that would bring about the supposed miraculous change. His argument seems to be stuck in the North/South, all-Ireland agenda, and he does not appreciate the risks and dangers that could arise were companies to experience the tax advantages of another jurisdiction. In fact, some of the companies that could have chosen to come to Northern Ireland could relocate elsewhere.
Like myself, Simon Hamilton recognised the lack of clarity in the motion and the confusion about the meaning of the expression “level playing field”. He highlighted the importance of the economy’s being at the heart of the Programme for Government. I am sure that we all look forward to learning more about the final shape of the Programme for Government.
Fra McCann highlighted the fact that the level of incapacity benefit in Northern Ireland is 74% higher than average; however, he then advocated supporting the motion rather than the amendment. The proposer of the motion advocates tax-raising powers that will make it more difficult for people on incapacity benefit to return to work. Thus, there is some inconsistency in Mr McCann’s comments. I imagine that he also predictably believes that our problems would be miraculously solved should the IDA and Invest NI merge. Again, however, I did not hear any facts to support that argument.
My colleague Leslie Cree spoke of the global economy, and it suddenly struck me how much the economy has changed in recent years. There is much more world trade and freedom to trade throughout the world than ever before, and we can all take cognisance of that. Mr Cree also highlighted the challenge to the Treasury. Either it will allow devolved regions such as ours the freedom to compete more successfully, or three regions of the United Kingdom will continue to subsidise the other nine, as presently occurs. However, we hope that we will be able to create a more sustainable Northern Ireland ourselves and that subsidisation will not remain forever.
George Robinson highlighted the fact that lower corporation tax levels had attracted high-value industry, high levels of productivity and foreign direct investment to the Republic of Ireland. I am sure that we all wish that we could attract additional spending here.
I thank the Minister of Finance and Personnel for attending the debate and giving us his insight. Like him, I look forward to seeing the detail of the Varney Review. I appreciate his comment that it may well be the Chancellor or the Prime Minister from whom we will subsequently eagerly wish to hear. I hope that Members will support the amendment, as I believe that it proposes better solutions for Northern Ireland’s economy than does the original motion.
Dr Farry: Discussions of the economy have been rare in this Chamber over the six months since devolution, which may be surprising, given the importance accorded to it by so many parties, and indeed, the Minister of Finance and Personnel. I hope that this debate has gone some way to addressing that imbalance. It is not without significance that a special subgroup was set up alongside the Committee on the Preparation for Government this time last year to examine the economy.
To set the debate in context, the local economy is improving and there have been very respectable levels of growth over the past decade. The current rate of unemployment is as low as it has been for 40 years, and there are tangible signs of growing wealth across society. There are signs of increased investment, and there is no doubt that there has been a peace dividend.
Nevertheless, as other Members have said, there are major structural problems in our economy that must be addressed. Overall, our economy is too small, and on a per capita basis, compared with the Republic of Ireland, we are well behind. At an incredibly high and unsustainable 71% of GDP, our public sector is too large and is well out of line with all the other regions of the UK and other European Union countries. A very interesting table in ‘The Times’ last Thursday set out all those figures in some detail.
Our public sector has been badly distorted by the legacies of conflict and division, and we have a very small domestic market. Northern Ireland’s huge subvention from the UK Treasury currently stands at over £7 billion; over 40% of public spending in Northern Ireland depends on money that is raised elsewhere. The level of economic inactivity stands at an unsustainable 26%, which, again, is well out of line with other regions of the UK. Although there has been growth in recent years, it has tended to be in low-added-value jobs and low-added-value investment.
The fundamental problem was set out by Mitchel McLaughlin: the lack of convergence of Northern Ireland with the rest of the UK economy. Our GVA per capita is around 80% of the UK average. Indeed, it is well short of the GVA of the Republic of Ireland. As Leslie Cree said, the British Government are committed to regional convergence, but more in theory than in practice. There is a “one size fits all” approach that allows nothing to jeopardise the status of London and the south-east of England as the main drivers of the UK economy. My party believes that the British Government are happy to leave the regions of the UK financially dependent, rather than give us the powers to compete on a more level playing field. That would allow us to address social and environmental problems more effectively.
The current capacity of the Assembly permits us to examine issues such as infrastructure, skills improvement, the encouragement of enterprise and entrepreneurship, and the promotion of research and development. As Mr Hamilton said, those are the drivers of the economy that we can control.
The draft regional economic strategy, which was a legacy of direct rule, did not foresee any meaningful convergence of our GVA with the UK average based on the powers that we have.
I appreciate that the Minister of Finance and Personnel will bring forward a comprehensive spending review, and he has already told the House that that will include a revised regional economic strategy. However, without fiscal powers, I am not entirely sure how those underlying predictions can be any different on any tangible and real basis.
Fiscal powers will provide a greater capacity to attract high-value investment, high-value well-paid jobs, to grow the local tax base and to make the local economy more sustainable. Fiscal powers do not relate solely to corporation tax; they might also include powers such as research and development tax credits, — which, admittedly, have not been taken up as effectively as was hoped — fuel excise duty, climate-change levy and also the concept of enterprise zones. Members have also referred to industrial derating, which could also be part of fiscal reforms. If the Assembly were to have fiscal responsibility for tax-varying powers, it could consider other taxation policies. For example, it might wish to raise green taxes that would allow the regional rate to be lowered. That could be done on a tax-neutral basis.
The problem with the amendment is that it restricts the issue of fiscal reform to the Varney framework and, as Sean Neeson and Declan O’Loan said, much more can be done outside the context of corporation tax. Tax-varying powers are a prerequisite if the Assembly is to have the ability to vary corporation tax.
Mr Beggs: Will the Member recognise that the Varney Review entails much more than just corporation tax? It will consider R&D tax credits and capital-investment tax advantages. The review will address more than corporation tax.
Dr Farry: Although that is factually true, Mr Beggs, on the one hand, states his party’s support for corporation tax and, on the other hand, rubbishes tax-varying powers. How does he envisage that the Assembly will exercise its ability to vary corporation tax? The Azores ruling is clear; the Assembly will have to take on the power to vary tax in order to deliver a differential rate of corporation tax from the rest of the United Kingdom. That would lead to a loss of revenue, which would need to be made up from local expenditure. The issue is becoming rather confused; some people say that they want corporation tax but are against tax-varying powers. Such a position does not add up. To be straight about the matter: if we want a differential rate of corporation tax for Northern Ireland, we must support tax-varying powers.
Tax-varying powers can mean higher taxes; equally, they can mean lower taxes. Taxes can be lowered with the acceptance that there is less money to spend on public services. As an Assembly, we may wish to make that choice in order to encourage growth in the short term, rather than investing in public services. That is perfectly fine. Equally, tax-varying powers can produce a tax-neutral outcome. The Assembly may wish to increase green taxes and lower the regional rate. That would be an example of using fiscal powers for a good outcome.
I echo the contribution that was made by the late George Dawson on this subject, and I pay tribute to his economic knowledge. Mr Storey and Mr McQuillan took a conservative approach; they seemed to want to put off the Assembly’s setting its stall out for an economic vision of what must be achieved in society. I found that disappointing.
Mr McLaughlin set out the one-size-fits-all approach of the British Government, which is to the detriment of Northern Ireland. I am surprised at Mr O’Loan’s lack of enthusiasm, given that he is usually enthusiastic on such matters. He would recognise that the Assembly must discuss the economy much more.
Mr Hamilton and Mr Cree both talked about globalisation and the importance of competing on the basis of high wages, not low wages. I have no argument with that. For Mr Cree’s benefit, the Marshall Plan was not a precursor to a global economy on today’s scale. The Marshall Plan was about creating political stability in Europe and creating a market for US exports. However, the Marshall Plan took place, not in an open world economy, but in very much a closed world economy.
Perhaps the best comparison is with what happened between 1870 and 1914, a period sadly ended by the outbreak of the First World War.
These are interesting times as the Assembly awaits the results of the Varney Review. I appreciate the scepticism that many Members expressed about the outcome of that review. However, it is incumbent on us, as an Assembly, to challenge that outcome and any further statement by the Chancellor, should either be disappointing. The Assembly must have fiscal powers in order to make a step change to the economy.
I appreciate the spirit of the amendment, and the Alliance Party will not force a Division on it. It is important that the Assembly sends out a united message, albeit that the amendment is somewhat deficient. A united voice from the Chamber would be most helpful to the interests of the economy.
Question, That the amendment be made, put and agreed to.
Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.
That this Assembly calls upon the Executive, on receipt of the report of the Varney Review, to work in conjunction with Her Majesty’s Treasury to provide a competitive fiscal framework for business in Northern Ireland.
That the Assembly do now adjourn. — [Mr Deputy Speaker]
Traffic-calming Requirements at Loughview Primary School and Nursery
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to introduce limits on speaking times for Adjournment debates. The proposer will have 10 minutes and other Members will have approximately five minutes, depending on how many wish to speak.
Dr McDonnell: I will be brief, and I hope not to take the full 10 minutes, but thank you for the kind offer.
The main reason for seeking today’s Adjournment debate is that I was approached by several of my constituents, who are parents of children attending Loughview Integrated Primary School. There are serious road-safety problems in the area, and parents are extremely worried that a major accident is waiting to happen. An accident could easily occur and cause serious injury to one of their children — or, God forbid, even worse. Thank God that there has been no serious accident so far, but anyone who has surveyed the road layout around the school would realise how dangerous it is.
Most of my colleagues have seen the area, but I will briefly describe it for those who have not. Some 10 or 15 years ago, the area was rural, but it is now becoming urbanised. However, the contour of a narrow country road remains and carries heavy urban traffic. The school is on Church Road in Castlereagh, which is not far from Stormont and close to the boundary between the South Belfast and East Belfast constituencies. It is a highly successful school with a wide catchment area, and it attracts children from both constituencies.
In the past decade, the school has grown immensely from a small base of 26 pupils in 1993 to a 2007 enrolment of some 435 children. The grounds at the side of the school include a well-spaced turning circle off the main road. It can accommodate buses and some limited short-stay parking areas for parents to drop off or pick up their children.
A few children arrive on foot, but the vast majority arrive by bus or car. That generates a massive additional amount of traffic in the area and on the adjacent Church Road during school starting and finishing times. As Members can imagine, it takes many cars and a few buses to transport 435 children. It is almost too dangerous for children to arrive on foot. I plead with the Minister to try urgently to create the circumstances whereby children living in the vicinity or within half a mile of the school can access it on foot.
In the immediate vicinity of the school, there are two day-care facilities that double up as after-school facilities.
One of those, the Learning Tree, has a roll of over 120 children. The other day-care facility is in the Orange Hall, and over 50 children attend. Both are situated about 30 or 40 yards away from the school, so that creates a complex that is attended by 600 to 650 children every day. In addition, Castlereagh Borough Council’s Henry Jones memorial playing fields are opposite the school, so it is a busy junction when the school and the playing fields are in operation. I repeat my earlier point that Loughview Integrated Primary School is on a narrow, winding, country road, close to the junction of Church Road and Manse Road, and about half a mile from Lagan College. It is situated between two bad bends, where the road rises and there is no footpath, so all the hazards are present.
A few hundred yards away, a 30 mph speed limit is in place, where the Church Road meets the Ballygowan Road, near the junction with Upper Newtownbreda Road. A 40 mph speed limit is in place about half a mile on the other side of the school, from Manse Road to Garland Green at Four Winds, to facilitate children going to Lagan College. However, the speed limit for the stretch of road in between, which is the vital part of road for Loughview Integrated Primary School, is 60 mph. Even if the road were clear and there were no children around, traffic travelling at 60 mph would be at risk of having an accident due to the poor road conditions. Thank God, there has never been a serious accident involving a child, and I pray that there never will be. We should not wait until an accident happens — we must do everything in our power to ensure that the circumstances for an accident are avoided before they arise. Parents are worried, and they are right to be.
I reiterate the risks: there is no footpath in the vicinity of the school, which is located on a hill between two bends, on a narrow road. Between 600 and 650 children attend the complex every day; and the Henry Jones memorial playing fields are located across the road, adding to traffic entering and leaving the school at particular times. Like the parents, I am concerned that cars and lorries travel along the road with impunity at speeds of up to 60 mph.
As winter approaches, there is always the added risk of a slippery road surface caused by falling leaves or ice. A long-term solution is necessary, but that would require discussions with the school principal, the board of governors, the parents, and everyone else concerned. The road may need to be widened and the bad bends removed, but that would entail cutting into approximately 20 ft of the Henry Jones memorial playing fields. Such measures would take a long time; however, in the short term, the speed limit on the road must be reduced to 30 mph, or, preferably, 20 mph, in the immediate vicinity of the school. That limit must be introduced as soon as possible. In fact, I would go further and say that perhaps we should look at other schools in similar circumstances and take —
Mrs I Robinson: Does the Member recall that when members of Castlereagh Borough Council lodged objections to the location of Lagan College and of Loughview Integrated Primary School, we were accused of sectarianism? We said that the locations were unsuitable because the roads infrastructure was hazardous. Improvements costing hundreds of thousands of pounds have now been made to Lagan College. Pavements have been laid, trees have been removed, and a road widening scheme has been introduced. Surely it is unfair that the integrated sector gets the schools where it wants them — in very unsuitable areas — and, when those have bedded down, looks for money to improve the neighbouring roads, which was the very reason we objected to the location of the schools in the first place.
Dr McDonnell: I am happy to debate all aspects of education with the Member on another occasion. However, we are where we are. Fourteen years ago the school was located there. It now has 450 pupils, with around 170 children also attending nursery and after-school facilities nearby. I was not privy to any of the decisions that were made in 1993; therefore, I can consider only the current situation. The school has proven itself and is one of the biggest in the area, so it must be doing something right. Credit for that success must go its principal, the board of governors and the parents. I am all in favour of parental choice, and parents are voting for that school with their feet.
Whether the school should be moved is a moot point. It would be cheaper, and simpler, to widen the road and erect some speed-limit signs rather than relocate the school. Although I specifically mention the speed limit, we must ensure that there is a general improvement in safety outside schools, and we must do that by looking at all schools. Safety outside many schools is very good, but there are some outside which it could be improved. Other traffic-calming solutions may exist, and I compliment the Minister for Regional Development, his Department and Roads Service on their contribution to finding some ingenious solutions. I urge the Minister to do everything possible to make Loughview Integrated Primary School and its nursery school a safe place for its pupils to attend.
Mr Spratt: As a Member for South Belfast, I am speaking on the issue because several of my constituents have contacted me about it. However, the matter concerns the constituency of East Belfast, and I know that its local Member of Parliament has, on a number of occasions, raised issues concerning the school. A little bit of me — the cynical part — suspects that the reason why the Assembly is debating Loughview Integrated Primary School is that Dr McDonnell thought that there might be a general election campaign under way. Many of the parents of children at that school come from South Belfast, where he would be fighting for his political survival, so he may have thought the school would have been a good topic to debate.
Dr McDonnell: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. The Member should not be allowed to make those accusations and degrade what is a sensible and intelligent debate about school safety.
Mr Deputy Speaker: That is not a point of order. Mr Spratt, you may continue.
Mr Spratt: I stand by the point that I made. That said, I support the parents’ campaign, because the road in question is very dangerous and its safety has been debated for a number of years. I can speak with some authority on the issue, because I am a councillor for the area concerned. I know that the issue has been raised on many occasions, including in meetings of Castlereagh Borough Council. Every party on the council has raised the problems that are associated with the road over a number of years.
As Dr McDonnell mentioned, Church Road is a rural road that must cope with a great deal of traffic. He also mentioned the car park at the Henry Jones memorial playing fields, which belongs to Castlereagh Borough Council and is used by parents of pupils at the school in the morning, at lunchtime and in the afternoon during the week.
That car park was not open on Friday morning for some reason, and one of the parents told me that that created a lot of problems because cars were parked everywhere. It is a dangerous area, as Dr McDonnell said, but that matter has been raised before over the past several years — as I am sure the Minister will confirm. The Roads Service has examined the matter, and I hope that the Minister can confirm that some traffic-calming measures will be put in place. There is a need for more traffic-calming measures around the school, and I hope that the Minister can inform the House that road surveys have been carried out, because the road in question is dangerous, with a considerable amount of traffic, particularly at busy times when the school and the two playschools are operating.
The need for traffic-calming requirements in that area has been raised on a number of occasions with the Roads Service district manager. He briefs Castlereagh Borough Council every three months, and I have been present at council meetings when members from all political parties have supported the taking of additional measures in the area of Loughview Primary School. There is no doubt that a footpath would be helpful, because children, some of whom are very small, have to walk 60 or 70 yards from the school to the car park at the Henry Jones playing fields. That is dangerous. Flashing lights have been fitted, but no speed limit is currently enforced in that area. A Presbyterian church, its car park and hall are also beside the school. Occasionally, there is a funeral or a wedding at the church during the day, and that increases the traffic in the area.
As Dr McDonnell said, no one has been injured thus far — thankfully — but a number of minor accidents have taken place, and some folks have told me that there have been many near misses. It is right that the parents have raised this issue, and I know that they have raised it with the school principal, the parents’ council and the board of governors. There has been a concerted campaign to do something about this matter.
I urge the Minister to have his officials examine the traffic situation around Loughview Primary School in particular, and to see what additional measures can be put in place to alleviate the problems that are affecting small children who are going to and from school. I support any action that will be taken to address this issue.
Mr A Maskey: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I support the comments that have been made. Regardless of motivations, concerns or objections, I commend Alasdair McDonnell for securing this debate. I commend the parents and the representatives of the school who have long been determined to raise the issue of traffic management around the school, bearing in mind the danger to the children.
Like the previous two contributors, I am thankful that no children have been injured as the result of any accidents. However, there is a chaotic traffic situation in close proximity to Loughview Integrated Primary School, and, as Alasdair McDonnell said, the Learning Tree day-care facility and the Young Ones nursery are alongside the primary school, and Leadhill Primary School is only slightly further down the road.
Within that small geographical area, are three speed-limit zones: 60mph; 40mph; and 30mph. The Member for South Belfast Councillor Spratt has hit the nail on the head. Representatives of all parties on Castlereagh Borough Council, other elected representatives, the school principal, representatives from the school, and the board of governors have been campaigning for a long time for effective traffic-management provisions at that school. Very often, elected representatives and others are frustrated at the length of time that it takes for decisions of this nature to be taken. I do not wish to rehearse the arguments that have been made, because they have been well put, but there is a danger to the children of that school.
The turning circle at the school facilitates only about 50 or 60 cars and, as has already been pointed out, the school and the two facilities beside it are growing fast, with increasing enrolments. That is good and should be encouraged.
Will the Minister have the Department consider restricting the speed limit around the school to 20 or 30 miles per hour, perhaps on a part-time basis when the children are coming and going? Will the Minister also consider the provision of a footpath outside the school? As Alisdair McDonnell said, it is really a semi-rural area.
Will the Minister also have his officials broker further measures? The school is adjoined on either side by two nurseries, so walkways could be established that might ease pedestrian traffic throughout the day. Those are three simple measures.
Flashing pedestrian lights were installed on the road after previous representations were made, but they have either not been working, or they have been covered. Why have those lights not been repaired? Why do the school and elected representatives persistently have to make representations to have those matters addressed?
I thank the Minister for being in the Chamber this afternoon, and I look forward to hearing his response to long-standing basic demands from the parents and representatives of the area for reasonable speed limits and traffic-management measures to be established around the school to ensure the children’s safety.
Mr McGimpsey: I speak as a representative for South Belfast, although I am aware that the school is located geographically in east Belfast. However, a number of the pupils live in south Belfast, and I too have been lobbied and approached by parents over the years about the difficulties of traffic and congestion in that area at busy times during the school day.
I am grateful to Alasdair McDonnell for raising this matter, and I strongly support his view, which was also expressed by Mr Spratt and Mr Maskey, that a modest amount of traffic calming will go a long way to meeting the needs of the area. The road, which was once a rural one, is now in a built-up area with no footpaths and a 60 miles-per-hour limit, and the school currently has well over 400 pupils. That is an awful lot of traffic coming and going to the primary school and the facilities on either side of it. The Roads Service could deal with that matter with a modest amount of investment.
I am grateful that the Minister is in the House, because he could make a lot of people very happy with a modest amount of expenditure. Traffic-calming measures, changing the speed limit, and ensuring that traffic that passes the school does so at a safe speed, are all that is required.
The best people to indicate where the dangers and perils lie are the users of those facilities. The headmistress, the staff of the school and, above all, the parents should be listened to when they point out the dangers in taking children to and from school. The children’s safety is the key priority, and that requires intervention by the Roads Service. Plans for the improvement of the road probably exist, and they could be brought forward for a comparatively modest amount of investment. Speed limits and traffic calming will go some of the way towards making the school safer for the people who use it — above all, the children.
Mrs Long: I am speaking as a representative of East Belfast, where the school is located. What Mr Spratt has said about Castlereagh Borough Council’s activity must be recognised, as quite a number of demands and requests have been made to Roads Service.
I will outline the history of the situation. The school is located — as other Members have said — on a relatively rural stretch of road. However, it is rural only in the sense that, historically, it was a rural area; the volume of traffic is certainly not of a rural nature. Indeed, the road is a cut-through to what has now become the “outer outer ring” along Manse Road that takes traffic off the main dual carriageway and across from east to south Belfast without having to come as far as the Knock Road junction. Therefore, it is an extremely busy part of the road network.
As regards the work that has already been done, other councillors in Castlereagh, from my party and from other parties, have been campaigning on the matter for a long time, and I will outline some of the stuff that we have been doing of late.
In 2001 and 2002 a petition for the extension of the 30 mph speed limit on Church Road to cover both Loughview Primary School and Leadhill Primary School, both of which were outside the 30 mph speed limit area, was presented to Roads Service. Mr Maskey has referred to the need for quick decisions — there has been no shortage of decisions, but unfortunately they have all been negative. There was also a request for fixed speed cameras. Both requests were turned down at that time, on the basis that it was a rural road and that the fixed speed camera scheme would not extend to it, although mobile patrols were put in at that time to try to control some of the speeding.
In 2002 and 2003 the matter was raised again, and there was a site meeting between Castlereagh councillors, Roads Service and the police. Again, in 2003, any request for traffic calming was refused. In 2004 I again raised the issue, in a letter this time, asking that traffic calming — not necessarily speed humps, but some form of traffic calming — be considered, and that at least a 40 mph speed limit should be extended beyond the schools. Again, that was refused. We also again requested fixed cameras, and that was refused for the third time.
In 2005 we made enquiries about pedestrian facilities — both crossing facilities and footpaths — on Church Road. Again, that was refused. Roads Service said that it recognised that there was a cluster of activities in the area from schools, play facilities, churches and so on. However, Roads Service said that there was low pedestrian demand, and that the need for land acquisition ruled out a footpath at that time. The issue of pedestrian demand is controlled by the fact that no one in their right mind would walk along that stretch of road at the moment and, therefore, it would be hard to note any footfall along it. If a pavement were there, people would certainly use it.
Roads Service initially agreed to put in flashing lights on the signs for Leadhill Primary School, and that was extended to include Loughview Primary School as part of the safer routes to schools scheme, and I welcome that. There was further correspondence, and Roads Service upgraded the street lighting along Church Road with new lanterns as an interim measure, while it waited for further upgrades of street lighting. Again, the road’s being poorly lit was a further concern.
In 2006 there was a further request for some kind of speed-reduction measure. Surveys had been conducted in 2002 and 2005, but again Roads Service said that the road was not wide enough to sustain anything other than traffic humps, which would not be suitable on what it called a rural road. Roads Service did, however, move the 30 mph speed limit by about 100 m towards Manse Road, so it now covers Leadhill Primary School, but not far enough to cover Loughview Primary School. Roads Service did install the flashing warning lights under the safer routes to schools scheme at both schools.
Unusually, I want to pay tribute to some people. Normally when people’s names are mentioned in the Chamber, it is to say less than pleasant things. However, I want to pay tribute to John Kee from the Castlereagh section office, who has done a lot of work and dealt with a lot of enquiries over the years on the issue. I also want to pay tribute to Tom McCourt and his predecessor Joe Drew, both of whom have been very active, along with Alan Micklethwaite, who dealt with the issue of street lighting.
Having received further enquiries earlier this year, I talked to the parents who had contacted me. I went through the requests that had already been put and explained the history of the site. I suggested that I was happy to lend my continued support, but that it would be more appropriate to progress the matter through the board of governors and the parent council at the school, as there might be other local solutions that could be introduced. While I welcome this opportunity to raise the issue again, that might be a more appropriate mechanism to get a resolution. It is important to ensure that whatever measures are suggested have the full support of the parents and the board of governors, and also the involvement of the transport officers from the two education and library boards.
In cases such as Lagan College, which was mentioned by the Member for Strangford, road safety improvements led to the removal of free school transport for a small number of children. They did not benefit from those road-safety improvements because the exceptional hazard was deemed to have been removed. Therefore, the board’s transport officers must be involved in discussions.
Mr Newton: Naomi Long is a councillor who, like me, represents East Belfast. I say “Amen” to the comments she made about those in the Roads Service, and I hope that I get the same favours that she is now bound to get, having paid tribute to them in such a manner.
All Members are concerned about the safety of children as they go to school and all other road users, including pedestrians. We are calling for traffic calming. However, we are not specifying what we mean by that term, which covers a wide range of issues. Devon County Council states that:
“Traffic calming consists of a package of measures affecting the movement of vehicles and other traffic for the purpose of promoting safety, or preserving or improving the environment. The essence of traffic calming lies not so much in the use of specific measures, but in the achievement of the objectives of improving driver awareness and behaviour. Traffic calming is a generic term used in reference to tools used to change the horizontal and/or vertical alignments, introduce narrowing/build outs, roundabouts, entrance gateways or coloured surfacing.”
In my experience, traffic-calming measures are usually introduced only after a long campaign to have them incorporated into budgets. Hull County Council states that:
“Traffic calming is usually introduced as part of a local safety scheme or outside schools in an attempt to reduce injury accidents or vehicle speeds. Traffic calming is often part of a 20 mph speed limit zone and can in some cases include traffic calming measures such as speed humps or cushions.”
When the Minister and his officials are applying their minds to the introduction of traffic-calming measures, according to East Sussex County Council, they should consider the following factors:
“the number of reported crashes resulting in injury;
the speed and volume of traffic;
whether there are schools nearby;
the width of the road.”
Although I support the need for action in the vicinity of the school, it would be wrong to identify traffic calming as important only for that school area. I am interested to hear from the Minister about how much money Roads Service has spent on road realignment and traffic-calming measures in the vicinity and what is planned. No single solution can be applied to make the roads safer for everyone; indeed, the potential for several solutions must be considered.
Members have referred to the use of the Henry Jones memorial playing fields and the local Presbyterian church. However, at times when sporting activities or church services, weddings or funerals are occurring, people must be cognisant of the needs of those associated with those facilities. Before any changes are made to roads or footpaths, each factor that I have highlighted must be considered holistically to include all people in the area who use the facilities. It is wrong to isolate and encourage changes only for the benefit of a school.
That, in itself, is probably not the best way forward. The school would obviously benefit, and we are all concerned about the safety of parents and children on their way to the school. We want to make all roads as safe as possible for all road traffic and pedestrians.
Mrs Hanna: Like other representatives for South Belfast, I have been approached by parents who have children at Loughview Integrated Primary School. As has been said, those parents know the bad traffic situation inside out.
I welcome the Minister’s being present in the Chamber, and I wish to reiterate what my colleague Alasdair McDonnell has said and add my concerns to the debate. Alasdair painted an accurate picture of the geography of the area and the traffic situation. He mentioned that there is a 60 mph speed limit and that there is no footpath near the school. It has also been said that there is a long history of campaigning with very little to show for it.
Roads Service is aware of the debate, and I hope that officials will report back to us with positive news in the near future. Parents are very concerned about the possibility of a serious accident’s occurring. A recent accident reignited the safety campaign, so we must do all that we can to reduce the risk to children.
The Minister for Regional Development (Mr Murphy): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome this debate, and I thank Dr McDonnell for tabling the Adjournment topic. I thank all the Members who have contributed; they are all familiar with the difficulties that the school has experienced. Most of them have been working to resolve those problems for some time.
I will address in my contribution some of the issues, but I have also asked my officials to take note of some of the points that were raised. For example, Robin Newton asked how much money had already been spent. If there are any points that I am unable to deal with now, I will write to the Member concerned.
I acknowledge Jimmy Spratt’s point that, over time, many people have contacted the Department about the need for traffic-calming measures at the school. Yesterday, I received a letter from the school, and I will respond to that in due course. I will also respond to correspondence that I received from parents and other interested parties.
Alasdair McDonnell described the geography, and I am sure that other Members are more familiar with the location of Church Road and Loughview Integrated Primary School than I am, so I do not propose to go over it. As Members have said, the school is on a semi-rural part of the road that has changed over time. The area around the school is subject to the national speed limit from the junction between Church Road and Manse Road for approximately 800 metres towards Ballygowan Road. A 30-mph speed limit is in place between that point and Ballygowan Road, which is a residential area, unlike the upper section of Church Road.
Carmel Hanna referred to accidents. No personal injury collisions had been recorded around the school in the past three years until March of this year, and I accept that recent collisions have heightened concerns.
Over the past few years, my Department’s Roads Service has carried out several measures on Church Road that are aimed at improving road safety, including the repositioning of the 30-mph speed-limit signs on the lower part of Church Road to make them more conspicuous and, under the Safer Routes to School initiative, the provision of flashing warning signs and associated bands of red road surface to highlight the presence of the school.
Some Members mentioned the introduction of traffic-calming measures on Church Road, such as road humps. Those are normally only considered for residential streets in a 30-mph area, where the main objective is to reduce the average vehicle speed to approximately 20 mph. Such severe measures would not be regarded as appropriate for a road such as Church Road. Other forms of traffic-calming measures, such as central-hatching road markings with pedestrian-refuge aisles are not possible because of insufficient road width. I know that some Members have argued for widening the road.
Several Members mentioned the provision of a footway. Roads Service has carried out a preliminary investigation into extending the existing footway from the urban portion of Church Road to Manse Road, and Naomi Long mentioned that. I note from the school’s survey that few, or no, children walk to school. However, one might say that that is a chicken-and-egg situation — if there were a footpath, more children might avail themselves of it. I accept that that is a valid argument.
However, the initial survey into the provision of a footpath has indicated that such a proposal would be costly due to the extent of accommodation works that would be required at a number of properties; the considerable earthworks that would be required due to the typography of the area; the extensive land take due to the existing steep side slopes at the road edge; and the severe environmental impact there would be, with the loss of mature trees and hedges.
Roads Service also carried out a recent site inspection, which highlighted that one of the flashing school signs was partially obscured by foliage. An arrangement has been made to have that rectified. It was also reported that school flashing signs were not operating properly — Alex Maskey referred to that issue — and I have asked for those to be inspected and reprogrammed to ensure that they are fully operational.
Several contributors mentioned reducing the speed limit. The character of the road is such that a speed limit of 30 mph is not warranted. However, Roads Service officials, in association with the PSNI, have reviewed that section of the road, and I am pleased to advise Members that it has been proposed — subject to completing the necessary legislative process — to introduce a speed limit of 40 mph along the upper section of Church Road, which includes Loughview Primary School.
I also fully appreciate the concerns raised by parents about their children having to walk between the school and the adjoining nurseries: again, Mr Maskey referred to that. However, both nurseries share a common boundary with the school, which would permit the construction of access to and from the school without the need to use the public road. Provision of such access facilities are the responsibility of the owners of the nurseries and the school authorities.
Since entering office, I have received many requests to reduce the speed of traffic outside schools. As a parent, I appreciate that this is a very sensitive topic; and parents are quite rightly concerned about the safety of children going to and from school and the increasing volume and speed of traffic and how that contributes to those concerns.
I assure Members that my Department and I take child safety at schools seriously. Roads Service has installed a range of measures outside many schools to improve safety and has been researching the possibility of introducing part-time speed limits around schools at key times, such as when the children are arriving or leaving. Such a proposal would be aimed especially at roads where the national speed limit applies and where traffic speeds are high.
As part of its studies, Roads Service has investigated experiences in Scotland, where a comprehensive system of part-time speed limits has been introduced outside many schools. Following its positive findings, Roads Service has been preparing to install pilot schemes at a couple of schools here to determine their effectiveness in reducing speeds. The PSNI has agreed to ensure enforcement at those locations, where the proposal is that a speed limit of 20 mph will be applied.
Depending on the legislative process and the availability of suitable electronic signage, Roads Service hopes to have the system operating in this financial year. Following a comprehensive assessment of the trials, including speed surveys, Roads Service will consider bidding for resources to roll out a more extensive installation programme.
I hope that all the concerns and points raised by Members have been addressed. If not, my Department and I will address them in writing. I certainly intend to respond to the school and to any parents or representatives who have contacted us in writing.
With Roads Service, I am happy to discuss the idea — suggested by several Members — that a holistic approach is required to deal with the issue. There are implications for some of the measures that may be adopted — Naomi Long pointed that out — and we need to ensure that we have a proper consultation process and discussions with schools authorities; transport authorities; Roads Service; the PSNI; and whoever else may have an interest in travelling on that length of road, to enable us to address all those concerns.
I have asked my officials to take note of the Hansard report. Therefore, if I have missed any points that Members raised, I will write to them.
Adjourned at 6.29 pm.