Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo


Thursday 25 October 2007

Executive Business:
Draft Programme for Government and Investment Strategy for Northern Ireland
Draft Budget 2008-2011

Ministerial Statement:
Rural Planning Policy and PPS14

Private Members’ Business:
IVF Fertility Waiting Lists

The Assembly met at 10.30 am (Mr Speaker in the Chair).

Members observed two minutes’ silence.

Executive Business

Draft Programme for Government and Investment Strategy for Northern Ireland

Mr Speaker: I remind Members that the first three items of business this morning are statements and will follow the normal format. Therefore, after each statement is made, Members will have the opportunity to ask questions of the relevant Minister.

I have received notice from the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister that they wish to make a statement on the draft Programme for Government and investment strategy for Northern Ireland. Before I call Dr Paisley, I remind Members that the First Minister will deliver the first half of the statement and the deputy First Minister the second half. They will then answer questions alternately, with the First Minister answering the first question.

The First Minister (Rev Dr Ian Paisley): This is another momentous day for the Executive. The deputy First Minister and I are today announcing the Executive’s first draft Programme for Government and draft investment strategy. Immediately after this statement, the Minister of Finance and Personnel will announce the Executive’s draft Budget to the Assembly.

It is worth pausing for a moment to remind ourselves of the sea change that has taken place since 8 May 2007.

Northern Ireland governance is now in the hands of local politicians. Those politicians were elected by the people here to be their representatives; they were born and bred here, and they know and under­stand the concerns of our people. They have a long-term interest in the Province and its people — our constituents. Our destiny is now in our own hands. We have a tremendous opportunity to shape our future, and we are determined to seize that chance with both hands.

However, we cannot fulfil our potential without engaging with all the people of Northern Ireland. We want to work with the business people who generate wealth and who want to provide more highly skilled and better-paid jobs. We must engage with the young people who are looking for jobs and homes and a stake in a better future. We must consider the young parents hoping for a better future for their children, just as they should. What parent does not have high hopes for his or her children? We must engage with older people, to whom we owe so much and who often suffer in their retirement as a result of ill health and poverty. We want to bring comfort and security to them — that is the only decent way for people who are in their twilight years to live. Farming families are important: they struggle with falling incomes and rising costs. We are all conscious of the difficulties that the farming community faces. We must also acknow­ledge the newcomers to our Province and the growing ethnic minority communities who are already making a positive contribution to our economy and who are full of hope for the future. However, let us not forget the victims in our community who have suffered — and who are still suffering — as a result of the legacy of the past. They, too, need to be engaged with and cared for.

As an Executive, we are determined to make a difference by building a better future for all, and we will focus our energies on achieving that. We shall not be satisfied unless we produce results that far supersede all that has happened over recent decades in Northern Ireland. We want to deliver those results through our Programme for Government and our investment strategy.

The Executive agreed a draft Programme for Government and a draft investment strategy for Northern Ireland on 23 October. Later this morning, the Minister of Finance and Personnel will reveal the draft Budget, which was agreed at the same Executive meeting. This process marks a significant milestone for the Government of Northern Ireland. We are now laying the draft Programme for Government and the draft investment strategy before the Assembly for scrutiny and future approval once the Assembly Committees have examined them.

Through the launch of those documents, we are announcing the start of a consultation process that will last until 4 January 2008. It is fewer than six months since 8 May 2007, when devolution was restored. On that day I said:

“Today, at long last, we are starting upon the road — I emphasise starting — which I believe will take us to lasting peace in our Province.”

At the time, we recognised that it would be a long and sometimes difficult journey, and one on which we must not falter if we are to build a Northern Ireland in which everyone can live in the sort of peaceful society that we all desire.

In May, many doubted the Executive’s ability to work together and to reach agreement on our priorities, key targets and spending plans for the next three years.

The achievement of the early publication of these three draft documents — just over two weeks after the Chancellor announced the outcome of the comprehensive spending review and the precise spending allocations for Northern Ireland — is no mean achievement. That has required considerable effort on our part, and today’s publication of this suite of documents is clear evidence that this Executive can and will work together in the interests of all our people.

I turn to our approach to the Programme for Government. The publication of these documents together will no doubt emphasise the close linkages among them. Taken together, they set out the Executive’s long-term vision and direction; they also explain how our priorities and goals will be resourced and delivered.

The draft Programme for Government represents a very different approach to that which was adopted by the last Executive. We have facilitated the creation of a more focused set of priorities and a smaller number of key goals. The Executive feel that it is important to be clear about our priorities and what we are trying to achieve.

I commend all Executive Ministers for the committed and co-operative approach that they have adopted in agreeing our priorities and key goals. I believe that we have produced a draft Programme for Government that addresses the real challenges that face Northern Ireland today. We believe that the Programme for Government offers a clear framework at a strategic level for us to develop our policies and programmes over the next three years.

Although the Programme for Government offers a clear steer, it is, of course, not set in stone. We will have the opportunity each year to review the Programme for Government and to make any changes that we may consider necessary. We hope that any such changes will be marginal, but that flexibility exists, should we need to deploy it.

The Programme for Government also indicates our longer-term aspirations and intentions in some areas. However, the immediate focus relates to 2008-11, which are the years that are covered by the comprehensive spending review. In simple terms, we know how much we will have to spend over those years, and we can, therefore, set detailed goals, targets and outcomes for what we intend to achieve over that period.

As Members will hear later from the Minister of Finance and Personnel, this has been a difficult budgetary settlement, and hard decisions have been made. We simply do not have the funding to do all that we would wish to do.

In developing our draft Programme for Government, we have also been conscious of the need for the Executive to look outward and to seek the help of our friends in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere. We cannot prosper without constructive links outside Northern Ireland. We will be working to foster and promote our North/South and east-west linkages to take forward mutually beneficial and practical co-operation with the British and Irish Governments.

We will continue to work with the European Commission Task Force that was created by the European President to consider how our region can participate more effectively in any new initiatives. We are also planning an investment conference for spring 2008, which will provide an opportunity for us to position ourselves as a competitive business location for US companies in information and communication technology, and in the financial and business services sector. On the wider world stage, we are also looking forward to the World Expo 2010 — we will make the most of that opportunity and participate fully in it.

The document that we are publishing today is strategic and high level. We are also publishing a series of public service agreements as an annex to the draft Programme for Government, and the deputy First Minister will say more about that shortly.

10.45 pm

The overarching aim of the Programme for Govern­ment is to build a peaceful, fair and prosperous society in Northern Ireland, with respect for the rule of law, and where everyone can enjoy a better quality of life now and in years to come. The Executive face many challenges in achieving this overarching aim. Therefore, we have decided to focus on five key priorities, which are interconnected and cannot be pursued in isolation.

Our approach to delivering our priorities will be underpinned by two cross-cutting key themes. First, all our policies and programmes must work towards building a better future; they must demonstrate fairness, inclusion and equality of opportunity. Secondly, the need to build a sustainable future will also be a key requirement for our economic, social and environmental policies and programmes.

Growing a dynamic economy will be our top priority during the lifetime of this Programme for Government. Sustainable economic growth and increased prosperity will provide the opportunities and the means through which we can enhance quality of life, reduce poverty and disadvantage, increase health and well-being, and build stronger and more sustainable and empowered communities.

To underpin our commitment to developing the economy, we have set ourselves a goal of halving the private-sector productivity gap with the UK average — excluding the greater south-east — by 2015. It is an ambitious target. However, we believe that we must have high aspirations if we are to make the kind of progress that we desire.

As an Executive, we recognise the characteristics of a successful economy: a highly skilled and flexible workforce; and employment growth. To that end, we will work to increase the employment rate from 70% to 75% by 2020. We will introduce measures that are designed to address the structural weakness in our economy, and that will help to develop a dynamic business culture in Northern Ireland. We will create an environment that will support 45 new businesses and 600 existing companies to become exporters for the first time by 2011.

We will seek to secure inward investment commit­ments, promising more than 6,500 new jobs by 2011 and ensuring that at least 75% of those jobs will provide salaries above the local private-sector average.

We aim to increase the number of tourists visiting Northern Ireland and by 2011 to increase tourism revenue from £370 million to £520 million each year.

We want to support business and create a culture in which enterprise can flourish. We will work with the business sector to deliver widespread access for businesses to the next-generation broadband network by 2011.

I have mentioned the importance of a well-skilled workforce. We aim to ensure that by 2011, some 70% of school leavers will achieve five or more GCSE passes at grade A* to C. By 2015, we aim to ensure that 80% of the working-age population is qualified to at least GCSE level or equivalent. We will increase the number of adult learners achieving a qualification in literacy, numeracy, and information and communication tech­nology by 2015. In particular, we will seek to develop the science base that is vital to the economy. By 2015, we will increase by 25% the numbers of students, especially from disadvantaged communities, at graduate and postgraduate level, studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics. By 2010, we will increase the number of PhD research students at local universities by 300, and we will introduce a new programme to increase the commercialisation of university and college research by the same date.

We will take steps to address problems of economic inactivity and to promote greater employment opportunities in rural areas and in disadvantaged communities. We will invest £45 million by 2013 to improve the competitiveness of the rural sector.

If we are to create the conditions for economic growth and deliver real improvements in health and well-being, we must continue to advance social transformation and the inclusion of all. We want everyone in Northern Ireland to be given the opportunity to contribute to and benefit from, a better future. Promoting tolerance, inclusion and health and well-being is, therefore, our next priority. Too many people, particularly the most vulnerable, live in communities that continue to experience high levels of poverty, disadvantage and exclusion. Those communities face higher levels of poor health and low educational achievement and, as a result, they fail to enjoy the benefits of progress. Therefore, a key goal for the Executive will be to reduce child poverty by 50% by 2010, and to eradicate it by 2020.

By 2011, some 30% of school leavers who are entitled to free school meals will obtain five or more GCSE passes at grade A* to C. By 2011, we will increase to 125,000 the number of children and young people who participate in sport and physical recreation. By 2012, we will reduce by 50% the number of children killed or seriously injured on our roads.

At the other end of the age spectrum, I am delighted to announce, as part of the draft Programme for Government, the extension of free public transport during 2008 for everyone aged 60 and over.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

The First Minister: I must say that I have an interest in that.

We aim to support the most vulnerable, to create strong, vibrant, sustainable communities and to build community capacity and leadership. We will continue our efforts to address divisions in our society and to eradicate sectarianism, racism and intolerance. We will regenerate our urban and rural areas and will invest over £500 million in regenerating disadvantaged communities, neighbourhoods, towns and cities by 2012.

We are also announcing a £10 million package to combat rural social exclusion and poverty. We will seek to remove the barriers to employment and independent living for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged. In 2008, we will introduce a new employment and support allowance to enable those unemployed due to ill-health or disability to return to work. By 2010, we will also put in place a careers advice service to meet the needs of people with disabilities.

We will seek to address the health of the population by reducing treatment times and improving treatment outcomes, as well as taking steps to improve physical and mental health. We will work towards reducing mortality from strokes and bowel cancer by 15% by 2013, and by 2009, we will introduce a screening programme to improve survival rates from bowel cancer. We will help people with chronic illnesses to live more active lives and will reduce unplanned hospital admissions for such patients by 50% by 2013.

Our rich and varied natural heritage is a key asset for the people of Northern Ireland, and, as our next priority, we will seek to protect and enhance our environmental and natural resources for future generations. We recognise the links between a healthy environment, a thriving economy and high quality of life. Therefore, we are determined to take action to protect our natural and built heritage.

I am sure that many Members will be delighted to learn that we are now committed to delivering a fundamental overhaul of the planning system by 2011 to ensure that it supports economic and social development and environmental sustainability.

The Executive recognise clearly the potential impact of climate change. We will deliver a new sewer project for central Belfast by 2010. We are also determined to play our part in protecting the environment by reducing our carbon footprint by 25% by 2025. We will seek to promote greater use of renewables by ensuring that 12% of Northern Ireland’s electricity is generated from indigenous renewable sources by 2012. Finally, we will enable up to 4,700 farmers to comply with the nitrates directive of 2009.

We must also invest to build our infrastructure. Through making this a priority, we will invest to build a modern, efficient, twenty-first century infrastructure, which will help to deliver economic and social develop­ment. This priority will ensure that businesses can compete more effectively and will help to attract investment and skilled workers. It promotes inclusion and access to services, and raises the quality of life for everyone. The deputy First Minister will say more about this priority in detail when he presents the investment strategy to the House.

Our final priority is to deliver modern, high-quality and efficient public services, demonstrating our commitment to world-class public services that meet the needs of the people of Northern Ireland. We will take forward key reform programmes in areas such as water, planning, health and education, and establish a library authority and an education and skills authority by 2009.

11.00 am

To ensure that we have the most appropriate structures in place, we will review the overall number of Departments by 2011. We will also modernise the structure and powers of local government by 2011 and seek to modernise the infrastructure and processes of the Civil Service. I am pleased to be able to tell the farming community that we will reduce by 25% the administrative burden on farmers and agrifood businesses by 2013. Our aim in doing that will be to bring the Government closer to the people, revitalise public services and achieve greater efficiencies. We will introduce a single telephone contact point for public services by 2009 and streamline 70% of Departments and agency websites by the same date.

The draft Programme for Government represents a blueprint for Ulster’s future. We are building the foundation for a vibrant and successful future for the people of Northern Ireland. The deputy First Minister will continue by outlining the fifth priority and presenting the draft investment strategy. I strongly commend the draft Programme for Government to everyone in the House, and I intend to live to see it through.

The deputy First Minister (Mr M McGuinness): A Cheann Comhairle, with your permission, I welcome the presence of a sizeable delegation of Iraqi parlia­mentarians and politicians to Parliament Buildings. Some of them are in the Gallery listening to Members’ deliberations, and I am sure that I speak for all Members when I say that we wish them well during their stay.

The First Minister has highlighted the progress that the Executive have made in agreeing their first draft Programme for Government and given Members an indication of what we plan to achieve under four of the five priorities. I want to echo the First Minister’s comments about the seismic shift that we have seen since 8 May. This place is truly under new management. Who would have believed how far we have come in so short a time? The draft Programme for Government marks a real difference from what has gone before. Its presentation and content are different from that published by the previous Executive. We have tried to clearly set out the Executive’s key priorities along with the high-level goals that the Executive are working to achieve.

The First Minister referred to his speech of 8 May. Similarly, I commented on that day that we would:

“strive towards a society moving from division and disharmony to one which celebrates our diversity and is determined to provide a better future for all our people.”

Those sentiments are captured and expressed in the draft Programme for Government. There is much hard work to be done if the Programme for Government is to be delivered, but its publication after less than six months in Government shows that we are determined and able to apply ourselves to that task.

The First Minister mentioned that we are today publishing for consultation the draft Programme for Government, the draft Budget and the draft investment strategy. Today’s announcement marks the beginning of a 10-week period of consultation that will conclude on 4 January 2008. I know that many Members would like a longer time for consultation, but it is important that the Budget in particular be agreed in sufficient time to enable detailed spending plans to be drawn up and put in place by 1 April. There is, therefore, an imperative to finalise and agree the documents as early as possible in January so that the Executive’s plans can be put in place and we can ensure that the business of Government runs smoothly into the next financial year.

As the First Minister has already explained, the documents will be subject to revision as necessary as our policies develop and as we respond to changing needs. However, we must be clear about the goals that we are working to deliver, agree them and move forward collectively towards their achievement. The close linkages between the three documents mean that we have decided to undertake the consultation process in a co-ordinated fashion.

The consultation will be led by the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, but will also involve the Department of Finance and Personnel and the Strategic Investment Board (SIB), which will be responsible for the Budget and the investment strategy respectively.

The documents will need to be agreed by the Assembly in due course. The Assembly Committees will have an important role to play in putting forward their views for consideration, and will form an integral part of the consultation process. We will be asking the OFMDFM Committee to play a co-ordinating role in liaising with the other Committees and gathering their views. We will also be seeking a take-note debate in the Assembly at an appropriate point in the consultation.

Separately, we will consult key stakeholders and social partners, as well as members of the public. We look forward to active engagement with key interest groups throughout the consultation period. Once the consultation process has concluded and we have had an opportunity to consider the comments received, we will present a final Programme for Government, Budget and investment strategy to the Assembly — we hope to do that before the end of January.

The First Minister has provided the Assembly with an indication of some of the contents of the draft Programme for Government, and I do not intend to repeat what he has said. However, I want to emphasis that these are the Executive’s agreed priorities, and they provide the basis on which we plan to move forward in the future.

The First Minister has also referred briefly to the draft public service agreements that we are publishing today as a separate annex. Those 23 public service agreements, or PSAs, confirm the key actions that the Executive plan to take in support of our priorities alongside the outcomes and targets that we are seeking to achieve. Again, they seek only to capture the high-level targets and key cross-cutting issues and challenges. They will provide the framework through which the Executive as a whole will monitor progress, delivery of priorities and key objectives.

I will now provide some detail on the infrastructure priority, which the First Minister referred to earlier. Investing to build our infrastructure will be an important priority through which we will invest to build a modern, twenty-first-century infrastructure. All Members of the Assembly will know of the significant challenges we face in this area: schools that have gone on beyond their useful life; children who are still being taught in temporary classrooms or schools in dire need of refurbishment and modernisation; communities in need of new healthcare facilities; young families looking for social and affordable housing; a business community that needs better roads and modern information and communication links; and the legacy of a long history of neglect and underinvestment in our basic water and sewerage infrastructure, which we are all living with. All of those issues are fundamental for the health and well-being of everyone.

Members will know that we have inherited those huge challenges from direct rule. However, an as Executive, we are rising to meet those challenges. We are grappling with all of those issues and are determined to address them and to give our people the modern services and facilities that they need.

We will support infrastructure development, which will, over time, address the major deficiencies in key areas such as roads, public transport, water and sewerage infrastructure, and social and affordable housing. We will prioritise more balanced regional development, ensure compliance with EU directives, and address the backlog of maintenance in the health and education estates.

This will be delivered through the draft investment strategy that we are announcing today. The investment strategy will put in place a modern infrastructure that will provide a platform for us to achieve our key economic, social and environmental priorities, which will enable businesses to grow, tackle social and economic inequalities, and improve the quality of life for everyone.

Recognising that Government procurement can play an active and effective role in tackling socio-economic disadvantage, we have ensured that we will seek opportunities to promote social inclusion and equality of opportunity in the procurement of infrastructure programmes. That will impact through employment plans, by building opportunities for apprenticeships into major delivery contracts, and through a tendering process that prioritises the most economically advantageous option in this context.

Similarly, the quality of our environment is important, and our investment strategy will ensure that we protect and enhance it.

Those will be important considerations as we invest £5·6 billion into infrastructure over the next three years and at least £18 billion over the next 10 years. In those first three years, 25% more will be invested than in the preceding three years, which represents a further step change that the Executive is leading.

Strategic Investment Board Ltd — a wholly-owned company of the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister — has taken the lead in working with Departments to prepare the draft investment strategy for the Executive’s consideration. That document was agreed by the Executive at its meeting on 23 October.

The first three years’ figures in the strategy are consistent with those in the Budget, which the Minister of Finance and Personnel will announce shortly. The figures for later years fall outside the current Budget period but have been formulated within a financial framework that has been agreed with the Department of Finance and Personnel.

However, in order to provide a comprehensive picture of anticipated future investment, the investment strategy reflects the impact of additional sources of funding that lie outside of what is, by convention, included in the Executive’s normal public-expenditure Budget. That is clear in the published document, and all sources of funding are included in the figures that I am announcing today.

The draft investment strategy demonstrates our approach to infrastructure investment and clearly links the major £18 billion programme of investment to the key priorities that are set out in the draft Programme for Government. That is a significant funding envelope, which will enable us to embark on what is, by any standards, an ambitious programme of infrastructure development.

Although £18 billion is a considerable sum of money, it is not enough to fully meet the needs that we wish to address. The Executive, with the crucial advice of the Assembly, must come to a view on the optimum investment package that can be achieved using the available resources. However, it is also essential for the Executive to explore additional funding sources that would enable us to deliver a more ambitious programme of capital investment.

I cannot do justice to the full scope of what the Executive are setting out to accomplish for all of our communities through these investment programmes. Members will carefully study the draft investment strategy and, through the Committees, will formulate the Assembly’s views.

I will mention several areas in more detail to illustrate how we aim to build a peaceful, fair and prosperous society, beginning with an overview of how funding will be allocated up to 2018.

We intend to invest £3·8 billion in the strategic road network and in public transport. Key transport corridors will be upgraded to connect towns and cities to regional getaways, the Belfast metropolitan area and the Southern road network. The development of a modern rapid-transport system for greater Belfast will begin, and rail services will be improved by the introduction of new services and rolling stock.

We will invest £3 billion in the water, waste water and waste management infrastructures, which will produce high quality water and waste water systems that will be capable of meeting EU requirements. We will work in partnership with district councils so that by 2011 we will deliver a new waste management infrastructure that will recognise our EU regulatory obligations and make use of more sustainable technologies.

There will be £3·5 billion invested in schools and youth services and a further £632 million in further education and libraries. Schools are at the heart of communities, and our aim is to substantially modernise the schools’ estate, enable schools to link better with the further education sector and allow them to become better aligned with the needs of the population and the skills that will be required in the future. Between 2008 and 2011, we will progress major works in more than 100 schools.

The universities will be supported in order to help them increase their research and teaching capabilities.

Further education colleges will be modernised, with a new campus for Belfast Metropolitan College and new accommodation at the North West Regional College to open by 2010.

11.15 am

There will be investment of £3·5 billion in health and social care. The Executive recognise the increase and changes in the need and demand for health and social services that we can expect over the next 20 years. Therefore, we will make substantial investments across the key sectors of primary and community care and acute and local hospitals.

We will develop a regional network of primary- and community-care facilities to bring services to the heart of the community; an acute hospital network that can deliver the best health outcomes; local hospitals that will form a crucial bridge between acute hospitals and primary and community care.

We plan to designate £1·4 billion for social and affordable housing, together with more than £600 million for regeneration and £500 million for culture, arts and sport. High quality and well-managed housing is a cornerstone of sustainable communities. Throughout the lifetime of the investment strategy, we will invest in socially rented and affordable housing to address the needs of communities across the region. Our programme of investment in social housing will enable us to work towards our ambitious target of completing up to 10,000 new social housing units over the next five years.

We will continue with major public-sector-led regeneration initiatives that will have a positive impact on social and economic issues. We will also invest in the Ilex regeneration plan for Ebrington and Fort George and in the Crumlin Road jail and Girdwood sites.

Investment in arts and culture infrastructure will enable us to keep pace with the artistic and cultural expectations of a modern society. We will have invested £100 million in our sports facilities by 2011, thereby ensuring a lasting legacy from the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

We are also supporting the potential of our inland waterways, where development is an area of practical North/South co-operation.

Although that represents a significant and ambitious programme of investment by any standards, it still does not represent adequate resources to meet all needs. Therefore, we have decided to create a capital realisation task force. The first stage of the task force’s work will be complete in December 2007, when it will report on immediate additional disposals that could impact on the capital affordability envelope for the CSR years by increasing the available resources.

We hope that the task force’s recommendations can be taken into account when finalising the investment strategy in January 2008. The Executive have agreed that social housing and schools will be priority areas for consideration, if additional funds are identified as part of that work.

As I explained, the documents published today will be subject to consultation before being finalised in the new year. I ask all those who read the draft Programme for Government and the draft investment strategy to look for the positives in them; to set aside narrow sectional interests and naysaying; to pursue the general good, to understand the difficult choices that we have had to make about priorities; to be optimistic and enthusiastic about the future, and to join us in this great enterprise of shaping our future. In short, I ask everyone to bend their energies to helping us to build the better future that we all want.

The Executive consider that our approach and plans mark a radical change from direct rule and from the previous Executive. The style of our plans is very different; we have adopted a more strategic and outcome-focused approach. We have also adopted a more integrated and complementary approach with the Programme for Government at its centre.

In the documents, readers will find more details of our goals, targets and spending plans than we have been able to cover today, and which will demonstrate the course that we are on. The plans provide a framework within which we will work. The Executive must lead the development of our policies and the delivery of our plans, so that we can demonstrate in practice the difference that we can make.

A Cheann Comhairle, the First Minister acknow­ledged that we cannot fulfil our potential without engaging all of the people.

I wish to reinforce that point.

We must strive to connect with all people, particularly those members of society who are marginalised and disadvantaged and those who are new members of society. It is absolutely right that Government should be close to the people and should operate in their interests.

We want to make a positive difference in people’s lives, and we want to make a difference for everyone. As an Executive, we are committed to the promotion of inclusion and a shared future built on equality and respect for diversity, in which sectarianism, racism and other forms of intolerance are a thing of the past. We want people to feel confident and secure in their identity and in their place in society. We must build a future in which people are cherished for their rich diversity and many talents, and in which we all share in economic growth and prosperity. We want a future that is fit for our children and our children’s children. We believe that, by working together, and harnessing the talents of all sectors — public, private, voluntary and community — we can build a better future for all.

Those are the challenges that we have set ourselves, and those are our commitments to those who elected us to represent them. We are determined to fulfil those commitments. We owe nothing less to the people who elected us to this House.

Mrs Long: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The Programme for Government has just been introduced to Members, and questions are about to be taken on it. However, a significant number of pages appear to be missing from the documents that have been circulated. The documents are exceptionally thin, and those sections to which the First Minister and the deputy First Minister referred in respect of a shared future and good relations appear to be absent — certainly from the copy that I have. Is there a chance that those pages have been left at the printers, and will it be possible to have them circulated later?

Mr Speaker: I understand the point that Mrs Long is making. However, that is certainly not an appropriate point of order.

Before I call the Chairperson of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, I inform Members that more than 40 Members wish to ask questions. That is understandable, considering the business of the House this morning. I remind Members that if their questions are short, that will enable their colleagues to also ask questions.

The Chairperson of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (Mr Kennedy): That is timely advice, Mr Speaker. As Chairperson of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, I welcome the publication, for consultation, of the draft Programme for Government 2008-11, and the draft investment strategy. I also welcome the clear indication of the First Minister, confirming the status of the document — that it is a draft Programme of Government, for consultation, which may be subject to change.

Given the importance of the proposals, I have some concern that, taking into account the Christmas holidays, the consultation period will effectively last for a shorter period than normal. It is a pity that the proposals could not have been published earlier to ensure that there is a full 12-week consultation period.

I inform the First Minister and the deputy First Minister that, yesterday, my Committee — in the historic location of Magee College, Londonderry — received an informative and thought-provoking presentation from representatives of Save the Children on the level of child poverty. That presentation was part of the Committee’s inquiry into that matter.

I welcome the commitment in the Programme for Government that it will be a priority of the Executive to tackle the levels of poverty in Northern Ireland in general, and, in particular, the intention to halve child poverty by 2010, and end it by 2020. What are the specific actions that have been included in the draft Programme for Government to achieve those aims?

In respect of the co-ordinating role of my Committee, which was outlined by the First Minister and the deputy First Minister, I can advise the House that early indications suggest that my Committee will welcome the opportunity to fulfil that role and work with other Committees.

Mr Speaker: I ask the Member to take his seat. I know that he is speaking as Chairperson of a Committee, and I have always said that I will try to give Chairpersons some latitude. However, this morning, as is appropriate, other Members wish to speak in their capacity as Committee Chairpersons. Therefore, I ask them to be as brief as other Members in asking their questions.

Mr Kennedy: Given the criticisms of the first investment strategy, will the First Minister and deputy First Minister indicate how the fundamental issues that are connected to the ability of the public sector to deliver the proposed investment strategy in full have been addressed? Full delivery of the strategy is essential in order to prevent the year-on-year high levels of capital underspend that have been a regular feature.

Speaking not in my capacity as a Committee Chairman but as a Member, I ask the First Minister and the deputy First Minister to describe the progress that has been made in securing an adequate financial deal from the Treasury for Northern Ireland. Both parties have placed importance on such a deal being a prerequisite for the re-establishment of devolution in Northern Ireland. Bearing in mind that the people were promised the mother and father of a financial deal to go with the mother and father of a political deal, when can Members expect to receive details of the package?

The First Minister: I am surprised that the honourable gentleman thinks that a 10-week consultation period is not long enough. The Executive has to make a move. With every week that passes, poverty and difficulties in the Health Service remain. The time has come for us to put on our running shoes. The Assembly has been criticised for doing nothing: now we are being criticised for moving too fast. As far as I am concerned, we could not move fast enough on those issues.

Does the Member not have any words of comfort for people? We have said that we will overhaul the planning system fundamentally. What does he have to say about that? He has forgotten about it. From today, all large-scale investment planning proposals will be decided within six months, provided that a pre-application consultation has taken place. The Member does not have any words of comfort about that. He has forgotten all about the poor old people such as me who want a free bus ride, and he has forgotten all about the rapid transit system and many other things that we have mentioned. Does he not have any words of comfort at all, or is he here just to make a cheap political point?

Mr McQuillan: What priority will the Executive give to inward investment?

The deputy First Minister: Securing high-value inward investment is a key objective for the Executive. The draft Programme for Government includes the key goal of securing commitments on inward investment, promising over 6,500 new jobs by 2011. We want at least 75% of those jobs to provide salaries that are higher than the local private-sector average.

Given the events of the past six months, it is clear that there is tremendous international interest in the political developments that have occurred here. Many Ministers have already visited the United States, particularly during the Smithsonian festival. It was obvious from that visit, and from all the visits that have taken place, that the Irish-American, Scots-Irish and Ulster-Scots business communities are phenomenally interested in everything that happens here. We hope that the build-up has commenced to what will probably be the most important economic investment conference that has ever been seen in the North, which will take place in May next year. We hope that further delegations will arrive to tee up the agenda for that conference to ensure that it will produce results and real jobs — particularly for young people — rather than aspirations or fine words.

11.30 am

Ms S Ramsey: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I welcome the statement from OFMDFM and the publication of the draft Programme for Government. I welcome the commitment from the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister and the Executive to make a positive difference in people’s lives.

Can the Minister advise how the Programme for Government will address the needs of children and young people? Which specific programmes for children and young people have been included?

The First Minister: I thank the honourable lady for her question. Northern Ireland’s children are our future, and it is right that we support them and help them to realise their potential. We are determined that our children will receive the support and help that they need through the PSA framework. The Executive have outlined clear commitments to eradicating child poverty, improving educational outcomes, particularly for the most disadvantaged, and ensuring that all our children are cared for, live in safety and are protected from abuse.

The Chairperson of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Mr Durkan): I thank the First Minister and the deputy First Minister for the statement, and the Executive for the draft Programme for Government. As Chairperson of the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee I welcome both the commitments to enterprise and innovation and the interventions designed to ensure that Northern Ireland has a competitive economy. The commitments are welcome, but they are not new, as they are exactly what we had in the Committee on the Preparation for Government and the Programme for Government Committee. The saccharine jargon does not differ much from what went before, including during direct rule. Most of the same phrases are there in statements by the former Secretary of State Peter Hain. The deputy First Minister said that the Executive had inherited challenges from direct rule — [Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order. The Member has the Floor.

Mr Durkan: It has also inherited some policies from direct rule.

The Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment looks forward to using the consultation period for both the draft Programme for Government and the Budget to contribute ideas that might amplify the plans to create a more articulate and effective outlook. The deputy First Minister said that he did not want naysaying, but both the deputy First Minister and the First Minister have naysaid the achievements of the previous Executive. The previous Executive put in place the basis for the investment strategy for Northern Ireland and the Strategic Investment Board, against opposition from Sinn Féin and the DUP. Now, those are the centrepieces of their draft Programme for Government. [Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order.

The deputy First Minister: The First Minister and I have both made it clear that we plan to do things differently. We made no criticism of the previous Executive. The big difference is that we have decided to take —

Mr Durkan: Our ideas. [Laughter.]

Mr Speaker: Order, order. I remind Members that the business conducted in the House today may give rise to strong emotions among some Members. [Laughter.] However, when Members are speaking on the Floor they should not be interrupted, but should be allowed to speak.

The deputy First Minister: As I said, we have made it clear that we plan to do things differently, and that this Executive are adopting a more strategic approach to the Programme for Government, the Budget and the investment strategy over the course of 10 years. People should accept that this is a good day for everyone. After only five months in office, the Executive have set out their Budget, Programme for Government and investment strategy, which is a remarkable achievement. I pay tribute to all of my ministerial colleagues, including those from the SDLP, the Ulster Unionist Party and the DUP, for the good work that they have contributed towards bringing us to this position.

The Programme for Government and the investment strategy offer: a good future for everyone, North, South, east and west; thousands of new jobs; new schools and hospitals; new roads; better public transport; better support for farmers and rural communities; and better support for business. The Executive are determined to make a difference. We will not be satisfied unless we produce results that far supersede everything that has happened in the past.

Mr Ford: I thank the Ministers for their statement. The deputy First Minister has urged the House to look for the positives in the Programme for Government and the investment strategy. I have tried to do that, but there is little to be positive about in those fairly thin documents.

I remember when the previous Programme for Government was presented to the House. I criticised it for its failure to take community relations seriously, but at least it contained a reference to — and a commitment on — that issue. This draft Programme for Government contains nothing on that matter except a passing reference by the First Minister and the deputy First Minister. Is a weak statement about promoting tolerance not completely inadequate when one considers the community-relations problems that we face? Why is there no objective to implement the shared future action plan alongside the racial equality action plan, if the Executive are serious about making a difference in solving the problems that we face?

The First Minister: The honourable Member either needs a new pair of glasses or a new earpiece. I remind him about the inward-investment commitments, which promise to create over 6,500 jobs by 2011. Is that not positive? Is the commitment to halve the private-sector productivity gap with the UK by 2015 not new and concrete? There are commitments to increase the number of tourists who visit Northern Ireland each year to 2·5 million, and tourism revenue to £520 million; to reduce child poverty by 50%; to ensure that every child leaves school with a level of literacy and numeracy that will, at least, equip them for work and life; and to make record investment of £5·6 billion in infrastructure during the next three years. I could continue. I deeply regret that the honourable gentleman has neither listened to nor read the commitments that have been made. [Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order. I remind Members that they are not permitted to make an intervention from a sedentary position.

Mr Hamilton: I congratulate the First Minister and the deputy First Minister on the draft Programme for Government, which was unanimously agreed by all parties in the Executive. I welcome the centrality of economic development in the draft Programme for Government, which was glaringly missing from the previous programme. That fact has not been lost on anyone in the House or beyond; except, perhaps, Mr Durkan. It is essential that economic prosperity benefits everyone in Northern Ireland. What priority have the Executive given to the promotion of economic growth in all areas of Northern Ireland?

The deputy First Minister: I thank the Member for his question. The Executive have recognised that, during recent years, investment in business and industry has tended to focus on the greater Belfast area. A key aim of the Programme for Government and the investment strategy is to promote and facilitate economic growth and social progress everywhere. In particular, the Executive are determined that investment in networks and roads infrastructure will increase the attractiveness of the wider region as a destination for business investment and will enhance the competitiveness of businesses that are based outside the greater Belfast area.

Like other Members, I am somewhat surprised at the negativity of some Members. Recently, the Executive have been criticised for not taking decisions.

Today, we have taken £18 billion-worth of decisions that will address the needs of our society, and our people, over the course of the next 10 years. That is rapid progress.

Ms Anderson: Go raibh maith agat. I, too, thank the First Minister and the deputy First Minister for their statements. Will the First Minister confirm that the Executive’s collective decision to mainstream the equality agenda, Section 75 duties, and the equality impact assessment process into all strategic-level Executive functions — including the draft Programme for Government and the draft Budget — is now a demonstration that the delivery of equality and social justice can, and should be, the central premise for governmental spending?

The First Minister: I thank the lady for what she has said. The equality impact assessment of the draft Programme for Government, and accompanying PSAs, is in accordance with our statutory duties, which we will carry out to the full.

Lord Morrow: I draw Member’s attention to page seven of this hefty document, where it states that there will be:

“free public transport during 2008 to everyone aged 60 and over”

I am sorry that Mr Ford has left the Chamber. I have no doubt that — [Laughter.]

Mr S Wilson: He has been banished to the Back Benches for being bad.

Lord Morrow: I see that he is in the Chamber. Since he is such a naysayer and a begrudger, I ask him to take note of that item in the document. Will the First Minister and deputy First Minister tell us, in more detail, the exact extent of the draft Programme for Government that they intend to implement? The programme will be greatly welcomed by the community.

The deputy First Minister: I agree that it is an excellent announcement that should be welcomed by all right-thinking people. Reducing the age at which people can avail of free transport from 65 to 60 means that women who reach retirement age will no longer find themselves being penalised unnecessarily. This is only one of a series of measures to improve public transport. We will also be introducing concessionary fares on rural services and increasing public transport provision for rural areas and rural communities.

Mr B McCrea: The deputy First Minister and the First Minister started off by asking that we should, perhaps, have some words of comfort. Those of you who are familiar with the television programme ‘Yes Prime Minister’ will be aware that Sir Humphrey used the famous phrase: “a courageous speech, Minister.”

A question that is closer to hand — and perhaps in line with the points raised about the planning process — is that talk is cheap but it takes money to buy land. What we are hearing are aspirations. Will the First Minister, with his laudable aims to increase economic participation from 70% to 75%, tell me exactly how many people that represents? How will that figure compare with the figure of 140,000 that Pricewaterhouse­Coopers said that we needed to reach over the next 10 years? How does the First Minister intend to achieve that figure if, as stated in his document, he is only going to create 6,500 jobs?

The First Minister: This is not an Official Unionist document, which would be published and then be forgotten. The ‘Draft Programme for Government 2008-2011’ will not be forgotten, for we will carry out the measures set out in the document. The Member should look carefully at the overarching aim, which is to build a peaceful, fair and prosperous society in Northern Ireland, with respect for the rule of law. That is where we hang our colours in today’s debate. If the honourable gentleman does not like what is done, the process will move on and he will be left behind.

Mr B McCrea: So, you do not have an answer.

The Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment (Mr McGlone): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I have two questions. First, what measures or procedures will be put in place to deliver, monitor and oversee the sustainable development strategy and ensure that it is delivered on a cross-departmental basis?

11.45 am

I welcome the commitment today to delivering an effective Planning Service by 2011. There was mention of the delivery of draft and full area plans by 2011. However, how will those plans be delivered, given that the Planning Appeals Commission, which is involved in public inquiries into those plans, is under severe pressure as it stands? In fact, this morning I was told that an individual appellant can wait as long as three years for a decision. I would like clarification of how the expectations that were created today will be met and delivered on.

The deputy First Minister: Sustainable development is built on three pillars: economic growth, social progress and environmental protection. As our Programme for Government states, sustainability will be a key cross-cutting theme that will underpin our approach to delivering our priorities. Building a sustainable future will be a key requirement for all our economic, social and environmental policies and programmes. We believe that sustainable development is not simply about resources; it is about changing the culture and doing things differently.

As regards planning, we all know and understand that workload pressures have been building for some time. Over the past five years, the overall trend in the volume of appeal cases has turned sharply upwards. Figures show that appeal intake in 2006-07 has increased by over 600% since 2002-03. There are a number of reasons for that. There are increasing demands in relation to major planning applications and non-determination appeals, which are cases taken to the Planning Appeals Commission because the Planning Service and DOE have failed to reach a decision within the permitted time.

The commission is also required to take on the public inquiry work associated with the DOE’s development plan programme, as well as a range of other non-planning-related appellate functions that have been assigned to it over the years. Planning Policy Statement 14 (PPS 14), which was announced last year and which introduced a presumption against development in the countryside, has also contributed to the surge in appeal applications.

We recognise that the planning system is a key mechanism for delivering sustainable development and for enabling the delivery of jobs, homes, better transport and lively communities. We are committed to securing the additional resources to tackle the backlog. In recognition of the backlog, we supported a case made by the Planning Appeals Commission for additional resources and submitted a bid. I accept that this issue represents a real challenge, and it is a challenge to which we must rise.

Mr McLaughlin: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I welcome the statement by the First Minister and deputy First Minister. This draft Programme for Government is a positive development and an improve­ment on the first Programme for Government in so far as we have prioritised goals that have attached timetables. All Members, not just those in the Executive, have a responsibility to match that programme with delivery, and people are entitled to judge us on our performance.

My question is about the priority entitled ‘Invest to build our infrastructure’ and procurement policy. Will the First Minister and deputy First Minister assure the House that local companies will not find themselves in difficulty or at a disadvantage when competing to provide services to the Executive as part of the delivery of the programme?

The First Minister: I can give the honourable Member the assurance that local companies will have every opportunity to participate, in all fairness, in that development. I would like to see the people of Northern Ireland engaged in such work. As the Member knows well, laws have to be observed with regard to procure­ment, but I give him assurance on that matter today.

The Chairperson of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Mrs I Robinson): I very much regret that the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety is absent from the Chamber. It shows little respect for the draft Programme for Government.

I welcome the statement on the draft Programme for Government and the investment strategy for Northern Ireland.

I am reminded of the words of Franklin D Roosevelt:

“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much, it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”

What reassurance can the deputy First Minister offer that issues such as the prevention of illness and the promotion of a healthy lifestyle will now be addressed in a much more holistic manner through a Programme for Government that is fully meshed and dovetails with the Budget priorities to ensure the best possible outcomes for our people?

The deputy First Minister: In formulating the Programme for Government, we identified health as a major issue. Huge challenges face us as we move forward. I have no doubt that the ambitious targets that we have set ourselves can be reached, given the will of the Assembly and the ability of the Executive to deliver. We are moving forward with a joined-up approach, which will see all Departments — not least the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety — recognise the huge responsibilities that we have to improve the health and well-being of all our people.

Mr O’Dowd: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I congratulate not only the First Minister and the deputy First Minister but the whole Executive on introducing a draft Programme for Government for consultation with the general public. Although some Members are looking through the programme for words about a shared future, etc, the best way to advance a shared future is through the example shown by the Executive in bringing forward a draft Programme for Government for the future, instead of some fluffy document that inevitably ends up in the employment of serving and former members of the Alliance Party.

In their statement, the First Minister and deputy First Minister said that the restraints on fiscal policy meant that the Programme for Government has not been as adventurous as it could have been. What restraints has a lack of fiscal independence placed on the Programme for Government?

The First Minister: I am sure that the honourable gentleman will be in the Chamber when the Minister of Finance and Personnel makes his statement, which will bring even more comfort to him.

Continual pressure will be exerted on the Westminster authorities to do what is right for the people of this Province.

As the Member is well aware, there are certain military installations that are not going to be used in the future. I have demanded and will continue to demand that the money from the sale of those properties is not taken out of the country.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Mr Storey: In welcoming the announcement of the Programme for Government, I am somewhat amused at the emergence of Pontius Pilate politics from Members who had previously lectured us about collective responsibility and governance. Now it seems to suit their political agenda to wash their hands of any responsibility, bearing in mind that their Ministers did not table any amendments in the Executive. I would appreciate it if the deputy First Minister would indicate the thinking behind the choice of the strategic priorities that are set out in the Programme for Government.

The deputy First Minister: We have aimed to produce a Programme for Government that addresses the big challenges facing us all. Our overarching aim is to build a peaceful, fair and prosperous society in which everyone can enjoy a better quality of life, now and in the future. In support of that aim, five emerging strategic priorities have been identified: growing a dynamic and innovative economy; promoting tolerance, inclusion and health and well-being; protecting and enhancing our environment and natural resources; investing to build our infrastructure; and delivering modern high-quality and efficient public services.

Growing the economy will be our top priority over the period of this Programme for Government. However, the priorities are all interconnected, and we recognise that they cannot be achieved in isolation. For example, we cannot grow the economy in isolation from determined efforts to transform our society and enhance our environment. Those priorities will be supported by our key goals and public service agreements, which will help to ensure that the Executive can focus on the key issues and outcomes to which we are all committed.

Mr Elliott: I thank the First Minister and deputy First Minister for bringing forward the draft consultation. Will they give the House an assurance that, following the consultation period, if any specific proposals come forward that Committees believe should be included in the priorities, the Executive will give them due consideration and include them?

The First Minister: I can assure the Member absolutely that that will take place.

Mr O’Loan: I thank the Ministers for their statement. The programme contains much detail, and it will require analysis, scrutiny and public consultation. The SDLP will be heavily involved in that. The content is significant, and our party has no objection to our good ideas being built into the programme — as indeed they are.

The First Minister described the announcement as “momentous”. We will know that it is momentous when it is delivered — that is the challenge for OFMDFM. The programme contains ambitious plans, and we want to see them happen. Rather than seeing today’s announcement as momentous, the Assembly will breathe a heavy sigh of relief that, at last, real business and work is coming before it. It has been an arid time here.

The overarching aim of the programme is for a peaceful, fair and prosperous society, and nothing is more important than that. The deputy First Minister referred to truly new management and to setting aside sectional interest. Those are also good sentiments. However, much of the content of debates in the Chamber, and the manner in which those have been debated, has been contradictory.

Mr Speaker: Order. I ask the Member to come to his question now.

Mr O’Loan: Much of that divisive content has come from the two parties that are represented in OFMDFM. What contribution will those parties make to ensure that the matters brought forward, and the manner in which those are debated, make a genuine commitment to a shared society?

The deputy First Minister: It never ceases to amaze me how out of touch some members of the SDLP are with the mood of public opinion. It is quite clear that the parties that lead the Executive enjoy overwhelming support from the community, as was clearly identified in the outcome of the Assembly elections. [Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order.

The deputy First Minister: People are delighted at the progress that has been made over the course of the last four or five months. After today’s announcement, people will be even more delighted that we have taken, in the course of our deliberations today, huge decisions that affect their lives. Those decisions are taken for the betterment of our people, not to worsen the conditions under which people live. The time has come for some Members to waken up and smell the coffee. They must waken up and recognise that people are really pleased and delighted at the efforts that are being made to move forward to put in place a real future, not only for themselves, but for their children and their children’s children.

Mr G Robinson: I welcome the Programme for Government. How have the First Minister and deputy First Minister decided on the key announcements and key goals?

The First Minister: We are determined to make a real difference. We will not be satisfied unless we produce results that far supersede all that has happened over recent decades in Northern Ireland. Our goals and key announcements are ambitious, and rightly so. They show how we have listened to our people, and how we will drive forward the type of change that is long overdue in our society. I trust that when the Committees deal with the issues, and we take our consultation from all outside authorities, we will be able to speed the Programme for Government on its way as quickly as possible.

12.00 noon

Ms McGill: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the First Minister and the deputy First Minister for their statement, and I welcome the many positives that it includes. How does the draft investment strategy address regional imbalance, particularly west of the Bann?

The deputy First Minister: We sought to identify balanced regional development as a key element in the cross-cutting strategic objective of the draft investment strategy. In seeking to prioritise more balanced regional development, there will be a particular focus on cross-border links and on developing infrastructure in the border areas.

The development and upgrade of transport links along the Dublin/Belfast corridor will ensure that it forms a major axis for economic development on the island. In the north-west and Donegal, we will tackle regional disparities by further improving road links, enhancing the capacity and resilience of energy support networks, strengthening telecommunications infrastructure and developing the City of Derry Airport.

I also highlight the investment in health care: there will be a developing network of health and care centres across the region and new hospital facilities in the south-west. Schools will also receive a boost, which will benefit communities across the region.

The list goes on. We have taken important steps in the right direction. During the public consultation that is being launched today, I look forward to hearing about what more should be done with the resources that we have available.

Mrs Long: Before asking my question, I want to reassure Members that I have read all 17 pages of the document. I noticed that when Lord Morrow referred to a “hefty document”, he was holding a 25-page speech, not the 17-page document.

In the document, I cannot find any substantive reference to many issues, such as a shared future, good relations, community relations, post-primary transfer, sustainable schools policy, free personal care or the environmental protection agency — amongst others. How long do the First Minister and deputy First Minister intend to dine out on the feel-good factor created on 8 May 2007? When will they back it up with substantive action to deliver on a shared future and make that hope a reality?

Some Members: Hear, hear.

The First Minister: I am sure that the honourable lady enjoys dining out herself.

She should read from page 3 of the document:

“our approach to delivering our priorities will be underpinned by the two cross-cutting key themes:

A better future: fairness, inclusion and equality of opportunity will be watchwords for all our policies and programmes.

This places an overarching responsibility on the Executive to proactively change the existing patterns of social disadvantage by using increased prosperity and economic growth to tackle ongoing priority.”

I am sorry that the lady does not read more carefully before making such statements.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Mr Speaker: Order.

Mr Buchanan: I too welcome the Programme for Government, particularly its commitment to supporting businesses and helping the entire business and enterprise culture to flourish. How do the Executive propose to support local businesses across Northern Ireland, particularly the small to medium-sized enterprises west of the Bann, which are the life and soul of the rural economy?

The deputy First Minister: The Executive are totally committed to supporting local businesses. There is a long history of business ingenuity and leadership. We are determined to create the conditions that will unlock potential and to assist local businesses to succeed in an ever more competitive global market. That commitment is reflected in the priority that we have attached to developing the skills base and investing in infrastructure

The Programme for Government also includes specific commitments to supporting local businesses to enter the export market and increasing expenditure on research and development. As one of the elected representatives from west of the Bann, and the Speaker is another, I assure the Member that, as we move forward, the Executive are committed to ensuring that everyone gets a fair share.

Ms Ní Chuilín: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. My question on the promotion of equality has been answered.

Mr Craig: I also welcome the draft Programme for Government. Given the commitments in the programme to reform the planning process, can the Assembly be assured that, as part of that reform, private developers will be forced to tackle the social housing problem that this Government face?

The First Minister: Yes; I can say that in the Programme for Government, we have made an undertaking that there will be 10,000 homes built in order to address the very grave situation that we have. We all acknowledge its gravity, and we have a good foundation on which to build.

Mr Gallagher: It is good to have the Executive’s priorities set out, and they appear to be framed by an overall aim of building a fair and prosperous society. The message is coming through loud and clear that there is to be massive investment in infrastructure in Belfast and in Northern Ireland Railways. I am sure that there are possible justifications for that, but given the neglect of infrastructure in the west, particularly in Fermanagh and Tyrone, where we rely on the roads network, is the west in that frame? There is to be a move to second-generation broadband by 2011, but parts of the west, despite claims to the contrary, still do not have first-generation broadband. May I have a commitment that that infrastructural problem will also be addressed?

The deputy First Minister: We refer to that issue and the need to ensure that broadband is accessible to everyone. There are plans to do that specifically in the Programme for Government. On the situation west of the Bann, we all accept that, over the course of the years, many elected representatives have commented on the state of the roads in different counties. No doubt, when the Minister for Regional Development makes his contribution to that debate, he will outline his plans to ensure that all areas get their fair share.

Mr McKay: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I want, first of all, to put on record our appreciation that OFMDFM recognises that the environment is an important asset and that it is to be protected and enhanced through the investment strategy. Will the First Minister assure the House that that will remain a key priority for the Executive?

The First Minister: I refer the honourable Member to the statement. We will strengthen the protection of key areas. That will apply to all parts of the report; everything will be strengthened in the way that it should be, with fair play for everyone in the community.

Mr Spratt: I too thank the First Minister and deputy First Minister for this morning’s statement. How will the overarching aim to build a peaceful, fair and prosperous society in Northern Ireland, with respect for the rule of law, guide the work of the Executive over the next three years?

The deputy First Minister: It is a very positive development that all Executive Ministers have agreed that overarching aim. It sets out the type of future that we all want to see here, and I am proud that, as an Executive, we have agreed on the aim of building a peaceful, fair and prosperous society, with respect for the rule of law. That represents huge progress for all of us. I want the Assembly to understand that every one of the priorities and key goals in the Programme for Government will contribute to the achievement of that aim. That is how it will guide the Executive’s work.

Mr Brady: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I welcome free public transport’s being extended in 2008 to those who are aged 60 and over.

A Member: That is a matter of self-interest.

Mr Brady: It will be a matter of self-interest shortly.

What other measures that will benefit older people are contained in the draft Programme for Government?

The First Minister: The draft programme rests on protecting all sections of the community, especially those who, in the past, have not done so well. No one will be left out; everyone who has a right to be included under our propositions will be included. We could not say that we want a fair and just society in which the rule of law is acknowledged, but then not bring that to everyone. Therefore, we are pledged to bring that society to all those who rightfully should benefit from certain aspects of life that they do not currently have.

Mr S Wilson: I also welcome the announcement of the draft Programme for Government. I noticed that the First Minister and deputy First Minister talk about investment in schools. Direct rule Ministers, and, indeed, the previous Executive — which Mr Durkan seems to think did such an excellent job in investing in schools — delayed the schools building programme. That has meant that work on some school buildings that was announced five years ago has not even started. Given that, will the deputy First Minister tell us what plans have been included in the draft Programme for Government to ensure that finance, but, more importantly, procurement are such that the new building programme will not face the same delays?

Secondly, will the deputy First Minister tell the House whether the final Programme for Government will include a clear date for the implementation of the new transfer arrangements from primary to post-primary school? That matter is causing grave concern among teachers and parents.

The deputy First Minister: All those who have been involved in the education world in recent years understand some of the difficulties that the Member outlined. However, it is fair to say that committing £3·5 billion to our schools and youth services clearly represents a massive investment in schools. The reason for that investment is that schools are at the heart of our communities. Our aim is to modernise substantially the schools estate in order to align better the links between further education, the needs of the population, and the skills that we will require in the future. Therefore, we will proceed with major works on over 100 schools between 2008 and 2011.

Transfer mechanisms are a matter for the Department of Education in consultation with the Committee for Education and all the different interest groups. We all know and understand that the transfer system is a vexed issue; however, it is not beyond us. Here we are, after four or five months in Government, having completed a massive amount of work to bring the draft Programme for Government to the Assembly today. If we can do that, I think that we can do nearly anything.

Mr McCallister: The deputy First Minister has stated that he believes in working together to harness all the talents that exist in our society. Does that apply to all Members of the House? Will he guarantee that we will all be represented and that he will not merely continue to work ever more closely only with his Rt Hon friend the First Minister to achieve a more inclusive House?

The First Minister: I would just like to say to the Member: better luck next time. [Laughter.]

Mrs M Bradley: Will the Executive confirm that children and young people remain a priority for the Government? If so, how have they evidenced that in the draft Budget? What overall level of investment are the Executive making in early intervention and prevention services for children and young people?

The deputy First Minister: The Executive’s overarching aim in the draft Programme for Government is, as I have already said, to build a peaceful, just and prosperous society in which everyone, including our children, can enjoy a better quality of life, now and in years to come. We recognise that action is required to ensure that all our children receive the support that they need to achieve their full potential, become more independent, and grow into well-adjusted adults who can take their place in the community.

12.15 pm

The needs of children are taken into account in our Programme for Government. In the PSA framework, the Executive have outlined clear commitments to eradicate child poverty, improve educational outcomes — particularly for the most disadvantaged children, and to ensure that all our children are cared for, live in safety, and are protected from abuse.

Mr Newton: I join other Members on this side of the House in welcoming this morning’s statements. In response to the remarks of the Alliance Party Member for East Belfast: yes; there is a feel-good factor, certainly on this side of the Chamber. That comes from enjoying the confidence of the electorate, as is evidenced by the growth of our party.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Mr Newton: I particularly welcome the underpinning of the political process through investment in the economy. That is essential, particularly in preparing the way for more jobs, including the provision of skills training. With that in mind, how will the investment strategy benefit the Northern Ireland tourism sector’s drive for more visitors to the Province, which will increase the potential for job creation and prosperity?

The First Minister: I thank my honourable friend for his words. We will provide investment to enhance tourism infrastructure and will work with key partners to continue to advance the implementation of our tourism signature projects. We will also invest in our rural areas, which offer real opportunities for growth in job creation and tourism.

Mr Burns: I welcome the Programme for Gover­nment. Do the plans for the rapid-transport system for the greater Belfast area include any proposals to reopen the Lisburn to Antrim railway line and to build a new railway station at Belfast International Airport to enhance our tourism industry?

The deputy First Minister: The Minister for Regional Development will outline his view of how those matters should be taken forward.

Mr I McCrea: I also welcome this morning’s announcement of the Programme for Government. Will the First Minister inform the House how the Executive will ensure that the proposed overhaul of the Planning Service contributes to economic growth?

The First Minister: A key objective of the proposed overhaul of the planning system will be to examine how we can speed up the decision-making process and create more certainty. That is essential if we are to be successful in promoting business investment. Moreover, we are giving a commitment that, from today, decisions will be made on all large-scale investment planning proposals within six months, provided that a pre-application consultation has taken place. That is the current position.

Dr Farry: The Programme for Government of the previous Executive, despite all their faults, ran to 144 pages. The current Programme for Government runs to 17 pages. Either the Executive believe that all the problems that face Northern Ireland have been solved, or they are condemning Northern Ireland to three wasted years. The Executive made great play of the fact that they have had only since May to prepare that document. Did the Northern Ireland Office not fund the appointment of special advisers since January, specifically for the purpose of preparing the Programme for Government? Will the Northern Ireland Office be getting that money back?

The deputy First Minister: That is a ridiculous question.

In formulating this Programme for Government, the Executive have adopted a strategic and joined-up approach, which will be welcomed overwhelmingly by everyone in our society.

Mr A Maginness: Like others, I welcome this draft document, and we do take hope from it. However, I emphasise that we do not have to buy the hype contained in the document. As regards hope, there are 36,000 families on the waiting list for houses in Northern Ireland. The document makes reference to investment, but will the First Minister and deputy First Minister assure me, and the people who are waiting for houses, that the finance for those houses will be made available to the Minister for Social Development?

The First Minister: It is all very well to be critical, but the Member’s party, after all, was associated with the last Executive, and they did not do very much. Their record was despicable, and those in glass houses should not throw stones.

We have made it a point that our Programme for Government and investment strategy are bound to be good news for the people of Northern Ireland. We are going to tackle the issues: North, South, east and west. There will be thousands of new jobs, new schools, new hospitals, new roads, better public transport, better support for our farmers and rural communities, and better support for business. What more does the Member want? We are determined to produce the goods, and I look forward to the day when he will be able to enjoy the plum pudding on his plate.

Mr T Clarke: I join others in welcoming the state­ment. Following almost 40 years of conflict, my question is about victims. What priority are the Executive giving to the needs of victims and their families, the vast majority of whom were brought about by the party opposite?

The deputy First Minister: We recognise the need to support victims and survivors as we seek to move forward and build a better future for all our people. That is clearly reflected in the PSA framework and in our commitment to develop a new and comprehensive strategy and approach to victims and survivors. More details will be made available in due course.

The Government are committed to making a real difference to the lives of victims and survivors, and we made a public statement on 8 October concerning the appointment of a new Commissioner for Victims and Survivors. The post has been re-advertised, and we hope that we can announce the appointment before Christmas. Re-advertising the post against the background of a fully-functioning Executive will bring forward a greater number of candidates. We will bring forward detailed proposals shortly that will represent a comprehensive approach to victims and survivors. In doing so, we will be focusing on three important areas: services and practical help for victims; dealing with the legacy of the past; and building a better future.

Draft Budget 2008-2011

Mr Speaker: I have received notice from the Minister of Finance and Personnel that he wishes to make a statement on the draft Budget 2008-2011.

The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr P Robinson): I am pleased to present the new Executive’s first draft Budget. Lest anyone tuning in is beginning to wonder — it should be pointed out that that is a four-party Executive. I am sure that all four parties in the Executive, who unanimously agreed the Programme for Government that has already been outlined, will want to promote Northern Ireland rather than talk it down.

At the outset, I thank my officials for the assistance that they have given me in the preparation of the draft Budget. I also thank the Ministers and officials from all the other Departments, as they have assisted remarkably over recent weeks and months.

The draft Budget marks a clear break with the past and a new direction for the future. The days of direct rule Budgets with Labour Party priorities are over. This draft Budget comes with the proud stamp: “Made in Northern Ireland”. The primary focus on economic growth is an indication of our long-term commitment to build a better future for the people of Northern Ireland. At a time when the public expects greater public services, this is a Budget that demands more from Government and more for the people. Now is the time for Govern­ment to respond and for devolution to deliver.

For almost 10 years, we have seen increases in public spending in Northern Ireland. Now it is for the Executive to set a course that will meet the needs of the people, not simply by spending more, but by ensuring that we get value for money for every pound that we spend. Our future success lies in our hands, and we must seize the opportunities that are before us. This is the first draft Budget of a new era, and it must lay the foundations for a better future for everyone in Northern Ireland.

The First Minister and the deputy First Minister have set out the Executive’s proposals for a Programme for Government for the next three years. They have also provided a draft investment strategy that will define our priorities for investment over the next decade. Those documents set the context for the public expenditure proposals that the Executive also agreed on 23 October to submit to the Assembly and to the public for consultation. The draft Budget document published today provides details of proposed expenditure allocations to Departments for the next three years. Those are the resources that they will need and use to deliver the priorities and targets that are highlighted in the draft Programme for Government and in its annexes.

The last occasion on which a Finance Minister in a devolved Administration confirmed public spending plans for Northern Ireland was in December 2001, when Mark Durkan announced plans for 2002-03. On that occasion, he announced plans for current and capital expenditure totalling just over £6 billion. The spending proposals that I will announce today will total almost £10 billion next year, growing to almost £11 billion by 2010-11.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Mr P Robinson: Those figures reflect the growth in public spending that has occurred in recent years. Our current spending will be over 28% higher in real terms than it was in 2002. For capital investment, the increase has been even more dramatic, with a real terms increase of over 60% in annual public investment in new infra­structure in 2010-11, compared to seven years ago. We now have more money to spend in real terms than ever before. However, we also face many new demands on those resources.

During recent discussions with Executive Ministers on the draft Budget, they highlighted the real pressures that they face in maintaining and improving the public services for which they are responsible. However, the challenge that we face here is no different from the challenge that confronts every democratic Government around the world. Expectations of public services are rising everywhere, but people do not want to pay more tax than is necessary, and they certainly do not want the taxes that they do pay to be wasted on inefficiency or on programmes whose purpose and value are no longer relevant.

The First Minister highlighted the Executive’s wish to focus on a small number of key priorities and goals. That is the right approach, if we are going to make differences that matter to the community. That is the direction in which the Assembly should move.

It is also the right approach to take when we consider how best to allocate the use of public expenditure. Consequently, that means that we have taken some difficult decisions on how best to allocate resources across Departments. However, I believe that the draft Budget proposals, agreed by the Executive for consultation, are fully consistent with the key priorities as set out in the draft Programme for Government.

12.30 pm

I will now set out some of the basic facts about the amounts of money that will be available to us over the next three years. Greater detail is provided in the draft Budget document published today; Members and Committees will want to examine that document further over the coming weeks. Our main source of funding for public services is the Northern Ireland block grant, which will be increased by the Treasury over the next three years on the basis of changes in comparable spending programmes in England, using the Barnett formula.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer announced the outcome of the comprehensive spending review on 9 October 2007. As part of that review, he announced that after the application of the Barnett formula, the Northern Ireland departmental expenditure limit would increase in real terms by an average of 1·7% per annum over the next three years. I must, however, clarify that Treasury figure by highlighting that it is predicated on a reduced baseline figure for Northern Ireland that emerged just before the comprehensive spending review announcement, and after adjustments were made to baselines of some Whitehall Departments, particularly the Department of Health. The Treasury made similar adjustments to baselines in Scotland and Wales.

After taking account of those adjustments, a more accurate figure for the average real-term growth in expenditure in Northern Ireland over the next three years is an average of 1·2% per annum. However, after that adjustment, our total resources over the next three years will be £443 million more than the position we had reached in our negotiations with the Chancellor just before devolution in May.

In total, our departmental expenditure limit will increase by £254 million, £622 million and £1·661 billion over the next three years. I want to make it clear that we did not apply any reduction to our health baseline to match the reduction made to the Department of Health in England. In addition to those amounts, we will continue to have access to borrowing for investment in infrastructure. The amounts available to us will be £260 million, £246 million and £200 million over the next three years, to include amounts of available borrowing not drawn down in previous years. This borrowing is a valuable source of additional spending power for infrastructure investment.

Thanks to the negotiations leading up to restoration, it is now also borrowing without strings attached. The era of taxation for its own sake is over. The agreement that the previous Executive negotiated with the Treasury included a punitive clause that required us to increase domestic rates each year, year-on-year, above the average council tax increases in Great Britain. That had to be done whether or not we needed the extra revenue, and led to regional rate increases of up to 19% per annum. What householder does not remember that bill falling on the mat? The removal of that linkage was a key priority in our negotiations with the Treasury, and I am pleased that we succeeded in having that imposition removed by the Chancellor earlier this year. Instead of our regional rate effectively being set by local government in England, we are now free to make our own decisions on how much we must raise from domestic rates.

An additional source of spending power for the Executive and the Assembly over the next three years will be our capacity to draw down funds under the end-year flexibility arrangements. I stress that those sums reflect the amounts of money that were left unspent in previous years, and, in that sense, is not new money. However, it is money that is now tightly controlled by the Treasury. By gaining access to those funds now, on a one-off basis, we can address some of the costs facing Departments as they move to restructure and reform public services over the next few years.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury previously restricted our access to those funds. Members will recall the position that we reached with the Chancellor in May — a position that I regarded as unfinished business. I am pleased to report to the Assembly that after further negotiations with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, I have secured access to our full stock of end-year flexibility over the next three years. That represents an addition of some £295 million over the next three years, which is greater than the position that we reached in our negotiations with the Chancellor in May. I have also been able to secure the significant front-loading of those resources to enable us to address the costs that Departments will face as we move to restructure and reform the way in which we organise and deliver public services.

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

Finance Ministers in the previous Executive introduced the use of planned over-commitment to manage the implications of rapid growth in public expenditure and to reduce year-end underspends. The use of planned over-commitment continued under direct rule. We have reviewed its future under the new Executive and concluded that although it will still have some use, the size of the over-commitment must be reduced to below the levels that we inherited from direct-rule Ministers. That is essential if the Executive are to have greater flexibility to respond to the new and unexpected financial pressures that can arise in the course of any financial year. Therefore, the draft Budget is based on a planning assumption that the level of over-commitment will be reduced to £100 million in 2008-09 and further reduced to £80 million and £60 million over the following two years.

Taking account of those funding sources, the total current expenditure that is available for allocation by the Executive across the three years is £8·28 billion, £8·55 billion, and £8·93 billion. In addition, public expenditure allocations of £1·64 billion, £1·5 billion, and £1·83 billion are available for investment in infrastructure over the same three years. In addition to those amounts — and under the direct control of the Executive — we will receive funding to support social security and other expenditure that is managed directly by the Treasury. If those sums are added to the above figures, we will receive total public expenditure allocations that exceed £19·7 billion by 2010-11.

Before explaining how our proposed financial allocations have been deployed, I will say a few words about how we will work to make our public services more efficient. The outcome of the comprehensive spending review (CSR) has confirmed that the years of rapid growth in public spending across the United Kingdom are over. We can look forward to continuing real increases in public spending over the next few years, but at a much reduced rate of growth. That means that we must place a renewed emphasis on ensuring that we deliver maximum value for money from every penny that we spend on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland. Our public services will suffer if we do not take that challenge seriously. The formula is simple: if we free up resources through greater efficiency, they will remain in Northern Ireland for reinvestment in improving front-line services. However, if we allow inefficiencies to remain unchallenged, the people who will suffer will be the young, the old, and the vulnerable in every community across Northern Ireland. The only people who benefit from public-services inefficiencies are those who have a vested interest in resisting change and maintaining a status quo with which they have grown comfortable.

I want to serve notice today to the Assembly and to the wider community that I am determined to take the drive for greater efficiency in public services to a new level. I am not prepared to simply stand back and leave unchallenged the countless instances — large and small — across all our public bodies in which taxpayers’ money is being wasted on overstaffing, absenteeism, poor working practices, and a resistance to radical change in the way in which we go about delivering services. We owe that not only to those who use and need our public services, but to the many public servants who want changes to and improvements in how they can do their jobs.

I have also asked my officials to examine the recent report published on the cost of division, to see whether there is any scope to free up resources. Their work is not yet complete, but the indications are that the areas in which there would be most potential to make savings are also those areas where there is little realistic prospect of radical change in the short term.

Clearly, we can make savings with different arrangements to educate our children, and new arrangements for local government could free up money, but it seems unlikely that those reforms will deliver significant savings in the CSR period. However, that does not mean that we should not start the journey now. We have made a giant political step forward, and we must examine the benefits that can flow from the resultant growth in community stability.

Other costs associated with the division in our society fall to policing and security budgets, which, of course, fall outside the scope of the present Budget.

I have already announced my intention to create a new high-level public sector efficiency task force — the performance and efficiency delivery unit (PEDU) — to examine the scope for generating new cash-releasing efficiencies and improving delivery and performance across the public sector. The unit’s membership will be limited to a few respected individuals with a strong track record in overseeing successful organisational change, and it will be supported by a small number of staff. The unit will include individuals from outside the public sector, and it must be prepared to challenge even the most widely accepted assumptions about how we go about the business of delivering public services.

The Executive have already agreed that Departments and public bodies here should deliver cash-releasing savings of 3% a year over the next three years, including a 5% per annum real-terms reduction in administration costs. That will produce an additional £790 million by 2010-11 for reinvestment in our public services. However, I believe that we can go further than that in finding ways to free up more resources for reinvestment in public services.

Between now and my announcement of the final Budget in January 2008, I want to finalise and publish details of how Departments will deliver on their efficiency programmes. I also want to examine the scope for delivering even higher levels of efficiency beyond the 3% a year targets already set —

Mr Deputy Speaker: A mobile phone is interrupting the audio recording. I apologise, Minister.

Mr P Robinson: I will announce new targets for reductions in the size of the Civil Service over the next three years. What we are going to do to release funds from current expenditure for better use, we also intend to do to increase funds for capital investment. We want to maximise the opportunity presented in the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s financial package to retain receipts from asset disposals for reinvestment in our local infrastructure.

To that end, we have set up a task force to identify further opportunities to dispose of surplus and under-utilised assets. We believe that with a professional and focused approach to asset realisation and reuse, we can plan for even higher levels of investment in new infrastructure beyond the figures in the draft investment strategy published today. The capital realisation task force has been asked to report its initial findings to the Executive by December so that they can be incorporated into the final Budget and investment strategy to be published in January. Therefore, a glance at departmental allocations will not reveal the full extent of the new Government brand. We are not content to simply accept the present resources at our disposal and dole them out. We are actively and aggressively seeking to grow the pot.

Moreover, it is not simply the amount of funding each Department will enjoy that counts. The key to success will be the use to which those resources are put. The Executive intends to squeeze value out of every pound spent. That means cutting out waste; getting more for the same or more for less; doing things differently and better; challenging the worth of staid programmes; testing the way things are done; and reforming the public sector so that it delivers services of a kind and in a manner that people deserve.

12.45 pm

The Executive are committed to delivering the economic vision of an innovative, entrepreneurial, wealth-generating, export-orientated economy. In order to achieve that, we must ensure that policies are in place that will encourage private-sector growth and enterprise. For too long, the local private sector has been constrained by the dominant influence of the Northern Ireland public sector. Now is an opportune time to change the focus of economic policy.

We have the lowest unemployment rate of the UK regions, and employment growth is at unparalleled levels. Despite that favourable transformation in the labour market, there has been no material improvement in our relative prosperity. Indeed, our GVA (gross value added) per capita, when benchmarked against the UK average, has actually deteriorated in the past five years.

That is confirmation of the fact that we must change tack in economic development policy, and it is a warning that we cannot be complacent about the serious economic challenges that confront us. The focus should now be on creating better jobs — not just more jobs. We must encourage private-sector growth in sectors that deliver high-value employment. Although Invest NI and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) have a key role to play in that transformation, co-ordinated input will be required from many other stakeholders, inside and outside the public sector.

The private sector has signalled that it understands the nature of the challenge that it faces. The challenge for the Executive and the Assembly is to ensure the delivery of the infrastructure, skills and communication networks which are essential in order to raise regional productivity.

Particular emphasis will also be placed on ensuring that innovation funding promotes new and innovative ideas that can be turned into opportunities for wealth creation in the economy. There must be a co-ordinated, cross-departmental approach to the management and targeting of innovation funding sources, including the Chancellor’s financial package, EU competitiveness and employment programmes, and Irish Government support for collaborative research and development.

In highlighting the implications of the proposed budget allocations for Departments, I will not attempt to repeat the details that were published today in the draft Budget, and which, during the coming weeks, will be subjected to separate and detailed scrutiny by the Assembly’s Committees.

In line with the priority given to economic growth, it is proposed that the reductions experienced by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment in recent years be reversed. Over the Budget period, there will be average growth of 4·8% in the amount available to spend. That additional funding will be used to support Invest Northern Ireland’s efforts to stimulate exports, promote higher value-added activity in firms that already operate in Northern Ireland, and attract high-quality foreign investment. That Budget proposal will also allow for increased investment in marketing Northern Ireland as a tourism destination, as well as visitor servicing and tourism signature projects.

Recognising our responsibility to minimise the impact of climate change, DETI will be able to provide support for sustainable energy projects and to meet the legal and consultancy costs of planned energy initiatives that promote a greater use of renewable energy sources.

The additional £87 million allocated in the draft Budget will enable the Department for Employment and Learning to complete its roll-out of the Pathways to Work scheme and support the introduction of the employment support allowance, which will enable people who suffer from ill health or a disability to return to work.

In order to underpin our commitment to promote a dynamic, innovative economy, a highly-skilled and flexible workforce must be created. An outcome of the draft Budget allocations will be that support will be provided to help 42,000 adult learners to achieve a recognised qualification in numeracy, literacy or ICT — or in all three. In addition, by 2010, a comprehensive careers advice service will be introduced to meet the needs of all — including disabled — people.

The Department would also be able to provide comprehensive support to enable people to overcome the obstacles that they face in finding employment. The capital allocations in this draft Budget will fund new further education colleges in Belfast and the north-west, along with the modernisation of existing colleges, in recognition of the importance of those institutions and their contribution to equipping our future workforce with the skills that it will require.

Turning to education, over the next three years, the challenge will be to continue to raise overall educational standards while reducing the gap in achievement between those who have the highest and lowest levels of attainment. The proposed allocation will increase the Department’s budget by 4·3% per annum over the period to 2010-11, with further resources coming from efficiency savings, which allow for a significant increase in the aggregated schools budget.

In addition, the allocation will support the imple­mentation of the various elements of curriculum reform to give our youngest pupils an improved start to primary school, as well as placing a greater emphasis on developing the skills that young people need for life and work and to provide greater flexibility for schools to tailor what they teach to best meet the needs of their pupils.

To ensure that our children are properly equipped for the future, it is essential that we have a modern and sustainable schools estate that provides them with the opportunities to excel that they deserve.

The draft Budget allocation will enable over 100 major schools projects to be taken forward — along with 18 PPPs over the period, including those for eight special-needs schools — as well as providing for continued investment in the youth estate.

I have told the Minister of Education that I share her ambition to add to her Department’s capital resources from funds freed up by further asset disposals to enhance her capital programme.

The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety has not only the largest spend of any Northern Ireland Department, but it has also been allocated an increasing share of the overall resource budget in recent years.

The proposed Budget allocation of an additional £450 million by 2010-11 will enable the Department to meet all of its very substantial cost pressures over the Budget period, including inflationary pressures in respect of pay, non-pay and pharmaceuticals.

That will be the largest amount of money ever invested in the Health Service in Northern Ireland and the largest share of available resources ever allocated for investment in the health and well-being of our community, which reflects the importance that the Executive attach to that key service.

The proposed allocation will address many of the key determinants of ill health as well as issues of actual illness. That includes reducing the number of persons institutionalised in learning-disability and mental-health hospitals, as well as a reduction in hospital admissions for those suffering from severe chronic disease, such as heart disease or respiratory conditions.

There should also be increased access to specialist drugs, as well as improvements in cardiovascular and cancer services, with the aim of reducing the mortality rates associated with those illnesses. The proposed allocation will also enable the Department to provide additional resources to public-health programmes, including those aimed at reducing the level of suicide in society.

The draft Budget provides significant capital resources for investment in the Health Service. That recognises the importance of providing a complementary service with investment in primary- and community-care programmes, acute hospitals and local hospitals.

The proposed Budget allocation for the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) will enable it to continue to support the improved performance of local farmers in the marketplace through lifelong learning at the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise, the provision of processing and marketing grants, and the delivery of agrifood scientific programmes by the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute.

The allocation will also enable DARD to provide full funding of the 2007-13 Northern Ireland rural development programme and to address rural poverty.

The programme is worth £500 million and is aimed at improving the competitiveness of the agriculture and forestry sector, improving the environment and the countryside, and contributing towards improving quality of life in rural areas and the diversification of the rural economy.

DARD will continue to develop a more sustainable environment through: further increasing the public and private forest area; developing more sustainable fisheries; and producing flood-protection measures through the Rivers Agency.

The Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure will want to attend to matters that concern the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. The proposed Budget allocation of an additional £18 million by 2010-11 to that Department should enable it to increase participation of local people in sport and physical recreation through the phased implementation of the strategy for sport and physical recreation. As I have indicated, that allocation will help to realise significantly the benefits that the 2012 Olympic Games and Paralympic Games will bring to Northern Ireland.

Furthermore, the proposed Budget allocation will enhance the accessibility of information on our cultural assets, enabling as many people as possible to experience, and, I hope, appreciate the excellence of our cultural assets. The proposals should facilitate growth in the activities that are funded by the Ulster-Scots Agency in line with what was negotiated at St Andrews.

The Department for Regional Development will experience average annual growth in its budget of 6·4% over the period to 2010-11. That growth does not include the funding for water and sewerage services, which is being considered separately. The growth will enable the Department to implement a range of measures, in particular the extension in the incoming financial year of the concessionary-fares scheme to those who are over 60 years of age. Like the First Minister, I appreciate that particular project, and I am glad that I have been able to comment on it before I need to use it and am required to declare an interest.

The draft Budget allocation will also allow continuation of work on a number of major roads schemes on the key transport corridors, most notably the improvement work on the Westlink, as well as completion of the dualling of the A1 Belfast-border route, and the A4 from Dungannon to Ballygawley. In addition, further funding will be available for structural maintenance, reversing the short-sighted decision that direct rule Ministers made in reducing funding for that essential activity.

The draft Budget also makes provision for a major bus- and train-replacement programme to ensure that a modern, high-quality service is provided. Preparation on the introduction of a rapid transit scheme in the greater Belfast area will be advanced, and the draft Programme for Government sees the Executive setting their target for work starting on that project.

The proposed allocations should allow the Department of the Environment to implement an enhanced approach to road safety and to establish an environmental crime team. Although my statement says “environmental crime team”, I hope that we have set up an anti-crime team. The purpose of that team will be to combat the illegal dumping of waste, which is a serious issue.

In addition, and in direct response to concerns that Members and other stakeholders have raised, the proposed draft Budget allocation will allow the Minister of the Environment to further reform our planning system. The aim is to develop reforms that will enable the planning system to play its part in delivering on our Programme for Government priorities, particularly by contributing to growing a dynamic, innovative and sustainable economy. The Minister of the Environment wants to advance proposals to fast-track job-related planning applications. That initiative should be encouraged, and it needs to be properly resourced.

The draft Budget will part fund the capital costs that district councils will incur in complying with the EU landfill directive targets, thus reducing the financial burden on local ratepayers.

The draft Budget allocation for the Department for Social Development will facilitate the continued modernisation of social security services and welfare reform over the period to 2010-11. That will enable the provision of improved services to clients.

1.00 pm

In respect of the voluntary and community sector, the draft Budget will enable the establishment of a charities commission for Northern Ireland.

With regard to capital, the Department will be able to make some progress towards the achievement of the target of delivering 10,000 new social housing completions over the next five years, in conjunction with its goal of eradicating fuel poverty in the most vulnerable of households. Moreover, I am a fully signed-up member of the Social Development Minister’s club, which aims to aid her in identifying further land disposals that may become available in order to increase the number of affordable and social housing units that she can deliver.

On the matter of town and city-centre regeneration, the draft Budget provides significant resources for a number of initiatives that will have a positive impact on social and economic issues. The draft Budget allocation will allow the Office of the First and deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) to deliver a new compre­hensive approach to victims and survivors, including the appointment of a Commissioner for Victims.

My Department will also work to enhance the rights of older people. The higher-than-average increase in the OFMDFM budget is linked to the additional costs associated with the restoration of devolution.

As far as my own Department is concerned, the main focus over the Budget period will be to advance the process of Civil Service reform and to set the foundations for modern, high-quality and efficient public services that will allow further resources to be redirected to front-line services.

We must ensure that public services match the standards that our community now expects. That means investing in new technology and the new systems that are required to support modern and more efficient ways of delivering high-quality services. The Department will also enable the necessary preparations for the delivery of the 2011 census, and allow Land and Property Services to conduct a revaluation of non-domestic properties.

I will also introduce Northern Ireland’s equivalent to New York’s “311” scheme. When it is fully rolled out, that scheme will enable the public to reach all Government Departments by using the same three-digit telephone number.

The draft Budget proposes new financial allocations for Departments. In every case, Ministers would like to have been allocated more, had more been available. However, that also underlines the importance of ensuring further improvements in the quality of financial management in Departments. If Departments have argued successfully for more money, they must ensure that they spend that money when they said they would. I will therefore be monitoring Departments’ underspend figures in the future, and will report those figures to the Finance and Personnel Committee and to the Assembly.

The spending proposals contained in the draft Budget will now be subject to consultation with the Assembly, its Committees and the community. The Committees and the wider community will want to examine those proposals and comment on them. However, this exercise needs to be earthed in reality if it is to be worthwhile. There is no point in simply stating that more money must be spent in this Department or on that project, without recognising that some other allocation will have to be reduced to make way for such additional funding.

We also need to ensure that consultation includes scrutiny of how Ministers allocate money to priorities in their Departments. Setting a new direction for public spending cannot just mean spending more money — it must also mean spending existing money more effect­ively, in line with our priorities. It is not just a question of how much we spend; it is also a question of how well that money is spent.

Earlier this year, I informed the Assembly that I would carry out a review of the policy on industrial derating that we inherited from direct rule Ministers. Like other Members, I have met representatives of the manufact­uring sector to hear their concerns. The Department commissioned a study from the Economic Research Institute of Northern Ireland (ERINI), and I have received its preliminary report. The final report is expected within days. In the light of that preliminary report and, in particular, of the institute’s assessment that there is a risk to some of our manufacturing firms in phasing out derating, the best approach would be to hold the current level of rates at 30% over the CSR period.

There is simply no point in making economic development our top priority while, potentially, making life even more difficult for certain key businesses. I would have preferred it if the Committee had been able to address the subject before I had to make any judge­ment but the timing of the Budget has intervened and I am required to make the call. However, before our final Budget position is agreed in January 2008, the Committee for Finance and Personnel will have considered ERINI’s final report, and the Executive will have had the opportunity to take a strategic look at the whole issue in light of the evidence presented. I believe that the Executive must demonstrate their encouragement for our manufacturing industries with more than words.

My final announcement is on the regional rate. In the last three years there have been regional rate increases of 9%, 19% and 6% respectively. Under direct rule, similar increases were planned for the years ahead. In fact, the average regional rate bill has increased by 62% since 2002, and, too often, that additional money has funded Government inefficiency rather than front-line services.

The cushion of above-inflation regional rate increases encouraged the Government to avoid tackling bureau­cracy and waste. Now is the time to remove that comfort blanket and demand that the Government share the strain that ratepayers have borne for years.

Our approach must reflect the decisions on water that were outlined in the statement to the Assembly by the Minister for Regional Development last Monday. We have given the commitment that households will see the benefit of the contribution that they already make to the cost of water through their regional rates payments, which is an average of £160 per rates bill. I believe that we need to go further. We must ensure that each household sees the full benefits of that in their rates bills as we introduce new arrangements for increased contributions from households towards the cost of water over the next three years.

If we were to introduce parallel increases to regional rates bills, no matter how small, at the same time as we are phasing in the new water arrangements, we would be seen as giving with one hand and taking away with the other.

Therefore, in addition to the reduction of an average of £160 per rates bill from 2009-10 I propose that we should freeze the domestic regional rate for the next three years. This represents a cut in real terms in the regional rate and offers much needed relief to every ratepayer.

Devolution is about making a difference. In the area of local taxation, during the coming four-year Assembly term the average householder in Northern Ireland will be more than £1,000 better off than would have been the case if direct rule had continued and direct rule proposals had been implemented.

The position is different for the business regional rate as there have been more modest increases in their bills, averaging about 3·3% over the past five years. However, over the next few years, businesses will also face increased water costs, therefore, I propose that we commit to reduce the average increase in their rates to 2·7% a year for the next three years. That is the level of inflation forecast for the next three years, and will maintain their contribution at present levels in real terms.

The first draft Budget for the new Administration sets a new direction for Northern Ireland. It is the first step in a new journey that we are all embarking upon together. The challenges and opportunities facing Northern Ireland have never been greater and will increase in the years ahead. The old answer of ever-increasing public spending is no longer available. Yesterday’s solutions will not solve tomorrow’s challenges. Only a relentless commitment to delivery, innovation and efficiency will allow public spending to deliver the kind of outcomes that we all wish to see.

This draft Budget not only seeks to move Northern Ireland in the right direction for the next three years, but seeks to set its trajectory for decades to come.

Even though, as a result of the comprehensive spending review, growth in public spending in Northern Ireland is lower than has been the case in recent years, the draft Budget announces the highest-ever level of public spending in Northern Ireland. However, the real success or failure of the draft Budget will not turn on what is spent, but on what is delivered. It is not the input, but the output, that will count with the public.

I have announced the highest-ever spending plans for Northern Ireland; made the economy the number-one priority; and delivered a freeze in the regional rate. The draft Budget offers some much-needed relief to householders and a platform on which to grow the economy. Ultimately, devolution will be judged on its ability to make a difference to people’s lives.

The draft Budget will allow the Executive and the Assembly to deliver for the people of Northern Ireland during the next three years. It will allow Northern Ireland to build a stable, fair and prosperous future. I commend the draft Budget to the Assembly.

The Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel (Mr McLaughlin): I congratulate the Minister on the presentation of the new Executive’s first draft Budget. I welcome the draft Budget and the Minister’s statement, which together are an important step forward for the Assembly, setting out the clear intention to map out a social and economic step change for everyone in the community. That is why people have such hope for this Executive.

The Committee for Finance and Personnel, in concert with all the scrutiny Committees, will examine the minute detail of the draft Budget. My Committee will also take the views of the other statutory Committees on the draft budgets of their respective Departments and will produce a co-ordinated report on the draft Budget before the Christmas recess. Clearly, all of that is predicated on the timeline laid down by the Minister for final decision being met.

The Committee will also table a motion for full debate on the draft Budget and hopes that the outcome of its report will inform and influence the Executive when they produce a revised Budget statement in January. One key issue among many that have exercised my Committee is the culture of underspend, which has persisted for years in Government Departments. The Minister has addressed that issue, both in the Budget and in his statement. What steps does he envisage can be taken to improve financial forecasting, monitoring and spend in Departments in order to eradicate the culture of underspend and to ensure that there is delivery on the strategic spending priorities?

Mr P Robinson: I thank the Chairman of the Committee for Finance and Personnel for his comments. I hope that, in the coming weeks and months, my officials and I can work with the Committee to examine the documentation with which it has been provided and to answer the searching questions that I have no doubt it will ask. Of course, the Executive will be happy to participate in any debate that the Committee may seek to bring to the Assembly.

In relation to underspending, the Chairman has put his finger on a key issue that will affect the Executive’s ability to do the job that they have outlined in the draft Programme for Government and, indeed, in the draft Budget. As I said in my statement, it is absolutely essential that, when Ministers come to me to make a strong case for spending programmes and projects — and convince me to the extent that they are provided with money — they actually spend that money within the timeframes that have been set. The backcloth against which that issue must be considered is the fact that there is no automatic access to end-year flexibility. Money that is not spent during the course of the financial year is tightly controlled by the Treasury. That brings the Executive to a position where we must bid for that money and argue for it, and we will not always get it when we want it or in the quantity that it is needed.

Therefore, it is absolutely essential that each Department can meet the type of spending proposals that it has indicated that it wishes to take forward. It will be impossible for every Department to be able to meet exactly — on a pound basis — the allocation that has been made to it. Nevertheless, Departments must substantially work towards that. That is a matter on which I want to recruit the Chairman and members of the Committee for Finance and Personnel, who will play a powerful role in that exercise.

Unlike the situation under direct rule, the Assembly’s Committees have a scrutiny role. That means that the Committee for Finance and Personnel will be able to monitor departmental spending throughout the year, thereby ensuring that Departments meet their targets. I hope that the Committee will be tough on Ministers — including me — if they do not meet those targets. Together, we can ensure much better performance than has been the case heretofore.

1.15 pm

Mr Hamilton: I congratulate the Minister of Finance and Personnel on his Budget. He will know that people in constituencies such as Strangford were hammered hard by direct rule’s double-digit regional rate increases. I am sure that those people will warmly welcome the Minister’s announcement that he intends to freeze the regional rate over the next three years, effectively providing a cut in the regional rate.

I am also sure that Northern Ireland’s manufacturers will particularly welcome the Minister’s announcement that industrial rates will be held at their present level. Will the Minister explain to the House how the average householder in Northern Ireland will be better off by £1,000 a year over the Assembly’s current mandate, compared to direct rule?

Mr P Robinson: Already, householders in Northern Ireland are considerably financially advantaged by the existing devolved Administration. The first step that the direct rule Administration would have taken — if there had not been devolution — would have been to introduce the first phase of water charging in the current financial year. That would have constituted one third of the overall expected bill. That charge would have increased to two thirds in the following year, and would have increased to the full charge in the year after that. Under the proposal announced by the Minister for Regional Development, there will not be a charge for water in the current financial year, or in the next. Already, for water alone, there is a significant saving, and a consequent reduction thereafter.

As for rates, the pattern is — as indicated in my statement — that rates had increased in Northern Ireland by over 60% in a five-year period. There has been an increase of 37% in the regional rate in the past three years. That is why the ratepayer in Northern Ireland deserves some relief. However, I would not like to see local government taking advantage of the regional rate being frozen by increasing the district rate. I hope that, rather than take advantage of that, local government will attempt to mirror what has been done by the Executive, and that we can keep down the burden on ratepayers in Northern Ireland.

Mr Beggs: The Budget is one of the tightest that we have experienced in Northern Ireland in recent years, with only a 1·2% increase in real-terms spending. Will the Minister agree that, although the regional rate will be frozen over the next three years, in the long term signi­ficantly more money will be raised from householders when regional rates and water rates are combined?

Will he also give some indication on how the Varney Review can have a significant impact in achieving his primary focus in the Budget — economic growth? Are there any indications yet of significant changes that will help businesses and job creation in Northern Ireland?

Mr P Robinson: The Minister for Regional Develop­ment set out the agreed position of each of the four parties in the Executive on phasing in water charges. Rightly, he indicated that — in line with all our commit­ments during the election campaign — we will not allow people to be forced to pay twice for their water.

We have therefore reduced the rates bills by £160 for the year in which payment will begin; the Consumer Council for Northern Ireland, my Department and the review panel have all agreed that that is an appropriate figure. The very reason why I want to freeze rates over the period is to take account of the phasing-in of the water charge and allow it to be assimilated, rather than applying further pressures through the regional rate.

The Member asked about Sir David Varney’s review. I have not yet seen the report. Bits and pieces of information have started to vibrate around the system, and, as I understand it, the report is likely to take the form of an economic analysis that indicates the strengths and weaknesses of our economy, rather than providing a set of recommendations. It will therefore be left to the Chancellor to determine what action will be taken on that matter.

My best guess is that, in responding, the Chancellor is likely to deal with the kind of instruments that would help our economy, rather than simply consider financial inputs. We are likely to be talking about schemes and projects to encourage investment in our economy and to improve skills and training. I hope that the Chancellor will consider those types of issues. The First Minister indicated earlier that no stone will be left unturned as regards the pressure that the entire Executive will apply to get the best deal possible from the Chancellor, and from the United Kingdom Government as a whole.

Mr O’Loan: I thank the Minister for his statement on the draft Budget. It is very important that we not talk down our potential. I want to say clearly at the outset that I believe that this is a real Budget that involves real decisions.

As the Minister has said, rises in public spending have been very substantial in recent years, although they are now much less so. Nonetheless, there has been a real rise in public expenditure. I am sorry to hear that the increase is 1·2% per annum in real terms rather than the previously publicised figure of 1·7%. Nevertheless, it is an increase.

I congratulate the Minister on his welcome emphasis on efficiency in Government. Inefficiency has been a perennial problem that has not been easy to crack. We must all play a part in addressing that issue through our different roles in the Assembly. It has been too easy to simply raise more revenue. I welcome the Minister’s freezing of the domestic regional rate to cushion the imposition of water charges and the similar restriction on the rise in the business regional rate.

I have three brief questions. First, can the Minister assure me that the end-year flexibility (EYF) figure of £295 million is not included in the 1·2% increase in real terms in depart­mental spending?

Secondly, I note that the Minister said that the Department will:

“make some progress towards the achievement of the target of delivering 10,000 new social housing completions”.

That language strikes me as being somewhat more cautious than that which was used in the earlier statement on the draft Programme for Government. Can he give me a clear assurance of his commitment to providing those much-needed social houses?

Thirdly, the Minister referred to the report on the cost of division, and then immediately went on to say that:

“we can make savings with different arrangements to educate our children”.

Can he assure me that he is not planning an onslaught against the Catholic education system?

Mr P Robinson: I thank the Member for his generous comments about the draft Budget, particularly the proposals on the regional rate and industrial derating.

The Member’s first question was about EYF, and I can give him an assurance that the additional amount that we managed to secure from the Chancellor is not included in the 1·2%. The collective figures are provided in the draft Budget, although I accept that Members must trawl through 120 pages to find them. However, in my view, the figure of 1·2% reflects the real-term growth — the Chancellor might say 1·7%, but he adjusted the baselines. In my view, the honest figure for the Assembly to work from is 1·2%, which does not include the EYF figure.

The Member commented on my more cautious use of language when talking about social housing. He will know that I am always very cautious in my use of language. However, that says nothing about my determination to address the need for social housing.

I am at one with the Minister for Social Development in seeking to secure every pound possible to meet our targets. I have indicated to her that putting the targets in the Programme for Government places responsibility on the whole Executive to provide the funding necessary to ensure that they are met. The targets will not be met just by supplying cash to build houses; there are other important aspects, not least the use of article 40 of the Planning (Northern Ireland) Order 1991 to ensure that a proportion of each large development is set aside for social and affordable housing. Releasing additional land by all Departments — not just the Minister for Social Development’s — will give us the flexibility to move towards those targets, which are undoubtedly challenging. A target is of no value unless it requires us to stretch.

Dr Farry: I am not sure that Mr O’Loan should have been so welcoming of the Budget, given that the SDLP’s Minister’s Department is one of the few that will have its budget cut in real terms over the three-year period. Nonetheless, I welcome the economic thrust of the Budget while stressing that delivery is critical.

What are the projections for the public share of GDP over the lifespan of the Budget, given that we are starting from a baseline of 71%? This morning, the First Minister said that gross value added (GVA) conversions were a target for OFMDFM and the Executive. However, the goalposts are being moved towards us because the south-east of England is being excluded from GVA calculations. Will the Minister confirm that we are lowering our sights?

The Budget was also supposed to contain the regional economic strategy: has that been included in the Minister’s statement? I note that we are still focusing on essentially the same four drivers that were in the draft regional economic strategy and that attracted so much criticism by the business sector. How does the Minister anticipate making a step change in our economy if we do not have the tools to do so?

There is no provision in the Budget for a differential rate of corporation tax in the event of that being granted by the Varney Review. Under the terms of the Azores ruling, that provision must be made. Does the Minister’s statement do what it says on the tin?

Mr P Robinson: The Member’s questions would have been better if he had been given more time to think of them and some assistance in their compilation. The Executive, in their Programme for Government, quite rightly felt that the proper GVA comparison that we should make is with that of the UK after the south-east of England has been removed. That is the level that we hope to achieve. We have already moved ahead of Wales, in GVA per capita, and Scotland is in our sights, but the average UK level is our target. It will not be achieved in one year or three; the target set by the direct rule Administration was a 0·5% increase in GVA over a 10-year period, so we are being considerably more ambitious.

I thought that the Member was someone who wanted to encourage the additional productivity that is needed to increase GVA; encourage exports from Northern Ireland, and encourage foreign direct investment (FDI). If bad-mouthing every document produced is all that the Alliance Party has to offer, then that is a fairly poor contribution to make to a very serious debate. The Member is usually much more positive on matters — perhaps he got out of the wrong side of bed this morning.

Regardless of whether that is a party line that the Alliance Party feels it must take, Northern Ireland has an excellent opportunity over the next number of years to grow its economy considerably. It gets that opportunity on foot of the stability and progress that is being made. The fact that our business community is indicating its enthusiasm and confidence in the economy to DFP shows that we have that opportunity. I say to the Member for North Down: do not talk Northern Ireland down.

1.30 pm

Mr Deputy Speaker: I remind Members that the Speaker has asked that the questions be brief and to the point so that the Minister can answer as many questions as possible. We must move in that direction.

Mr Weir: I am sure that the Minister will be delighted to hear that I will ask him only one question, rather than five or six. I welcome the Budget — it is clear that it is a Budget for economic growth, which will be welcomed by ratepayers and manufacturers.

The Budget will also be welcomed by prudent local councils. Over the last several years, councils that have sought to be efficient and prudent, such as my own council in North Down, have been overwhelmed by massive regional rates rises and found that all their good work was somewhat undone. The Budget will be welcomed not simply because of the freezing of the regional rate, but for the support that has been given to help meet EU targets. In his statement, the Minister rightly highlighted that the link between the level of council tax in England, and our ability to borrow under the RRI initiative —

Mr B McCrea: This is a short question?

Mr Weir: I will obviously aspire to —

Mr Deputy Speaker: Will the Member ask a question?

Mr Weir: I always aspire to the level of brevity of the Member for Lagan Valley, although I do not always succeed.

The Minister said that the link between the level of council tax in England and our ability to borrow under the RRI initiative was successfully removed during the negotiations with the Chancellor in May and earlier this year. Can the Minister indicate what the implication of that change is for the Budget, compared to what was negotiated by the last Executive?

Mr P Robinson: I thank the Member for North Down; I am glad that there are some optimistic people living in that constituency. I have announced a business-friendly Budget; the business community will welcome it, as it has long wanted to see an Executive that are prepared to put the economy at the centre of their priorities, to seek growth in the economy and to encourage the business community by reducing some the pressures on it.

The reinvestment and reform initiative was introduced by the previous Executive, and it is a good initiative. It provides additional borrowing capacity, which is welcome to the Executive. The constraint that the Chancellor applied to the previous Executive was that they could not have access to the reinvestment and reform initiative unless they narrowed the gap between local taxation here and in Great Britain. Therefore, Northern Ireland’s rates rises were governed by the level of rises in Great Britain. That is what caused our rates to go up by 19%. That was not because we needed a 19% rise here, or because people could afford it, but because people in Great Britain had that rise and it had to be mirrored in order for the Executive to have access to RRI.

If that link had not been broken in our negotiations with the Chancellor, there would not have been a freeze on the regional rate. Over the next three years, under direct rule, the rates were set to increase by more than 10% per annum. Anyone who wants to consider that, on top of the additional water charges that people would already be paying, will know the real benefit that devolution is bringing to the pocket of Mr, Mrs and Ms Average.

Ms Anderson: Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Minister for his statement. I also thank him for his answer to the last question because I welcome the fact that the Executive have been able to abolish what became known as the “Durkan tax”.

The draft Programme for Government clearly states that the resources from public expenditure and economic growth should be used to tackle existing patterns of disadvantage and target those in greatest objective need. Will the Minister detail how the draft Budget meets that objective?

Mr P Robinson: From my earliest days at the Dispatch Box, I have made it clear that a massive imperative has, unquestionably, been placed on the Executive to work towards economic growth in Northern Ireland, particularly at a time when there is a window of opportunity. However, we should not be unmindful of the vulnerable in society who need the most help, whether they are young people, older people or other sections of the community. Unless the Assembly makes a difference to the lives of everyone in society, it is not making the best use of devolution.

I cannot micromanage the Departments that are responsible for dealing with issues at the coalface, but the increase in departmental allocations enables the Ministers to put in place the necessary funds that will make the biggest possible difference.

The draft Budget is based on the current available funding. However, there are, potentially, two additional sources of income. The first arises from the work of the PEDU, which will examine the resources of every Department to establish what additional efficiencies can be made to allow money to go to the front line, where it is of greatest value. The second potential source of further income comes from the consideration of whether there is more of an asset base that can be used to fund new projects.

Potentially, they have a critical role in providing the cherry on top of the cake, by enabling Ministers to do what they urgently want to do, but are constrained from doing by the size of the current cake that the Assembly has been given.

Mr S Wilson: I too congratulate the Minister on bringing forth a draft Budget, the prudence of which will help to alleviate the pressure on hard-pressed taxpayers. At the same time, it introduces innovative spending programmes that will help to improve infrastructure and, I hope, the economic structures.

I have three questions for the Minister. Funding from the Irish Republic will be available for several road projects. However, one such project, the upgrading of the A8, is not included in the draft Budget. Has that project now been ruled out of receiving funding for the next three years of the comprehensive spending review?

The Minister made much of the fact that Departments have underspent. Often, it was capital underspending, which is partly due to difficulties with public finance initiatives. What steps is his Department taking to ensure that the delays in PFI schemes are not due to the procurement method that is used, which subsequently leads to an underspend?

Finally, given that the draft Budget is based on the Barnett formula, which included an increase, in real terms, of 2·5% in spending on education in GB, why is that not reflected in the spending on education in today’s proposal?

Mr P Robinson: I will deal with the questions in reverse order. None of the spending plans that the Chancellor provided for GB are reflected here because of devolution. We decide our priorities; we slice up our cake to reflect local interests and our knowledge of where the need lies. The Assembly does not mirror the percentages that are attributed in GB.

Were it to do so, the Health Minister would be extremely upset today at the significant reduction in baseline spending on health in Great Britain. However, that reduction has not been passed on to the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety here. That is just one example of how essential it is that we take decisions, as a devolved Government, based on the priorities in Northern Ireland.

I recognise that the Member has not had a great opportunity to look at the documents in detail. However, if he looks at the draft investment strategy, he will see reference to the A8 there. Happily, therefore, he will be able to get into the ‘East Antrim Times’ to tell people that progress is going to be made.

Mr S Wilson: And I will give the Minister the appropriate praise.

Mr P Robinson: I welcome that; coming from the honourable gentleman, it is praise indeed.

As regards PFI schemes, the Member is well aware — as he worked very closely with me in east Belfast before going to greener pastures — of my misgivings about PFI. It is not a concept that I am ideologically connected to. I look at PFIs and PPPs to see whether they are the right solution for a particular set of circumstances, or whether other procurement methods would be better.

The Member has put his finger on one of the issues that has caused massive problems. In my own constit­uency, there have been massive delays because of PFI schemes. That is something that the Ministers who are pushing those forward — and particularly, in OFMDFM, the SIB — need to tackle. We must oil those wheels to ensure that we do not have inordinate delays in the rolling-out of those schemes. The Member has, rightly, identified an issue that has to be tackled. It has not been tackled in the past, and it is a challenge for this Executive to do it effectively.

Mr McCallister: I welcome the Minister’s announce­ment on the regional rate and industrial derating.

Turning to health, the Minister will know that there has been a 4% increase in spending in GB, yet Northern Ireland’s spend is only increasing by 1·2%. Does he feel that that divergence is sustainable? Does he accept that the Barnett formula may now be working against us in the area of health spending?

Also, if children and young people are to be a priority, can the Minister guarantee that he will address the 30% underfunding of Northern Ireland’s children’s services?

Mr P Robinson: I think it might be worthwhile to put the health debate into a proper context. I have to provide allocations for 11 Departments, three minor Departments and this Assembly. The funding total for all of those together is such that almost 48% of the total amount goes to one Department: the Department of Health. It is very clear that health is a very significant priority for this Executive. Not only that, but the Minister of Health will have more money at his disposal in the next three years than any of his predecessors have ever had.

Mr Poots: Where is he?

Mr P Robinson: I hope that he is using the allocations to good effect and opening new health provisions around the Province. I recognise that we cannot have all the Ministers here at all times; however, it would show some solidarity with the Executive as a whole if each Minister could be here at some point.

As far as health is concerned, I also want to point out that not only does the Minister of Health have the highest health budget ever in Northern Ireland, he also has the largest-ever percentage of the Northern Ireland block for his Department. That indicates the priority that we have given to health.

There is no question that, with Health as with every other Department, the ambition of the Minister outstrips the resources available. During the course of the next three years, at in-year monitoring rounds and whenever any other money may be freed up through the work of the two new units that we have established, we will obviously look at the pressures that every Department faces.

As far as children and young people are concerned, the previous Administration had the Secretary of State set up a fund that particularly identified children and young people and allocated money to them.

This Executive’s decision — and I believe it was the right one — was that along with the establishment of funds from the centre goes a duplication of bureaucracy. That simply wastes money; therefore, it was felt that the best people to deal with those issues were the Ministers in the appropriate Departments. OFMDFM has a particular function in relation to children and young people, and it will exercise that function in a co-ordinating way in putting forward policies that can be pursued. However, delivery of those policies will come from the various Departments.

The money previously set by the direct rule admin­istration and identified particularly for children and young people was allocated as part of the overall Budget to all of the Departments; as a result, therefore, the water rose for everyone. It was then up to each Minister, particularly those who had responsibility for that matter, to determine its priority in his or her funding. Having looked at some of those rankings, I decided, in the allocation of additional money received from EYF and as a result of the Barnett consequentials, to recommend to the Executive that I put in a further £21 million pounds, specifically identified to help the Ministers in relation to children and young people. Therefore, I take the matter very seriously, and I hope that, throughout the year, I can be of even further assistance to the various Ministers in that regard.

1.45 pm

The Chairperson of the Commmittee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Mr Durkan): I congratulate the Minister on his statement and on a very good Budget plan, in the context of what has been a very tight CSR round, not only with regard to this year’s allocations but over the three-year period. I commend the Minister for what he has set out today and, through him, his Executive colleagues. It involved decisions that were not always easy, and implementing them will not be easy. All of us who are tasked on Committees must, therefore, bear that in mind over the next few years.

A week is a long time in politics. Last week, the Minister of Finance seemed to want to “club” the Minister for Social Development. Today, he joins her club, and I welcome that.

As Chairperson of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment, I particularly welcome the indications of the budget increases in that area over the coming years; however, again, I agree with him that we must make sure that that money is used to get real productive impact in the economy and not just extra activity at Government level.

With regard to cash releasing, in his statement, the Minister identified £790 million that will be delivered by 2010-11. Is that in addition to the £800 million that the Chancellor indicated in his package, or is it that the same £800 million? Similarly, with regard to the capital realisation task force that was announced in an earlier statement, will that be aimed at making sure that we actually get the £800 million in asset sales that was identified in the Chancellor’s package, or was that about identifying extra asset sales?

Mr P Robinson: I thank the Member for Foyle for his kind comments about the Budget statement. He is right to identify that setting a programme out is one thing, and implementing it is another. It will, I hope, be the task of all Ministers and all parties to ensure that we can make good the commitments that were made in this House today.

I assure the Member that I am quite happy to be in the same club as the Minister for Social Development. In no circumstances would I want to “club” the Minister; I simply want her to operate by the same club rules as everyone else. I may return to that theme in future — to do so now would be to break the harmony of this occasion.

I assume that the Member refers to the £790 million from efficiencies. Those efficiencies have been identified by our Ministers, and not by the direct rule administration.

People will read the publication, and they will consider the fact that there will be a real terms increase of approximately 1·2%. However, if the Departments make the efficiency savings that are required, the outcome over three years will be significant. All the Ministers have proposed efficiency savings, therefore the percentage for each of the Departments, including those savings, will increase to the high teens and the low twenties, as those efficiencies will be released within the system.

There was a comment, snide or otherwise, from the Alliance Benches, that Mr O’Loan should not have thanked me for the draft Budget, considering the allocation that has been given to the Department for Social Development. Nevertheless, three Departments will receive allocations beyond the figures that are provided here. The Department for Employment and Learning and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment will receive innovation funding, which is not included in our global figures. We also hope that the Department for Social Development will receive benefits that will accrue through the Pathways to Work scheme, from the Department for Work and Pensions in the UK to our block in Northern Ireland. I hope that I am not leaking one of the great Executive secrets — if there are any left — but they made it clear that they would look favourably on directly passing those benefits to the Department for Social Development. That would have a substantial impact on its budget.

Mr O’Dowd: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I congratulate the Executive and the Minister of Finance and Personnel for bringing forward the draft Budget. I doubt whether this time last year anyone would have believed that we would be debating a draft Budget and a future Programme for Government today, but it is good to be in this position.

The draft Budget will now go out for public scrutiny and for scrutiny by Assembly Committees. Earlier in the week, I touched base with the Minister on the proposed performance and efficiency delivery unit. When will he be in a position to give us the full remit and scope of that unit? How will those “respected individuals” will be selected? What reporting mechanisms will the unit have to the Assembly?

Mr P Robinson: This morning, I met with the Chairperson and the Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel. I told them that it would be worthwhile if the Committee, or its Chairperson or Deputy Chairperson, were to meet those who will be involved in the performance and efficiency delivery unit and those who will be involved in the capital realisation taskforce. Their representatives will be happy to talk to the Committee about the task ahead and about how they intend to undertake it. Ultimately, I am responsible for such issues, so I can be brought before the House or the Committee at any time.

I hope that I am wrong, but I get the impression that the Member fears the existence of a performance and efficiency delivery unit. I believe that it is overwhelm­ingly in the interests of everyone in the Assembly that such a unit is encouraged, that it goes about its job, and that it finds cash-releasing savings that can be pumped into front-line services. There is nothing for anyone in the Assembly to fear. Within days, we will provide the Committee for Finance and Personnel and the Executive with the remit for the performance and efficiency delivery unit. The Office of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister has issued letters to Committee members regarding the establishment of the capital realisation taskforce.

The Member has a particular interest from an audit point of view, and my Department will be happy to copy him into that correspondence. However, Members must encourage those two units to do their jobs, because they can release funds that can be used on top of the draft Budget that has been announced today.

Mr Storey: I welcome the Minister’s statement and the challenge that he has issued to local government to play its part in ensuring prudence in the financial management of Northern Ireland plc. I also welcome the establishment of the capital realisation task force and the performance and efficiency delivery unit, and look forward to engaging with those units to identify further resources that can be released.

The Minister said in his statement that some progress had been made in the negotiations with the Treasury in recent months. Will the Minister tell the House how this Budget announcement compares with the Chancellor’s package earlier this year?

Mr P Robinson: Comparisons with the Chancellor’s package can be made in several ways. We can compare it with where we are now, and the additions that have been made to that package; or we can compare it with the past. We can compare it to packages that were brought to the table by others when they entered negotiations. If those are the criteria for comparison, then the Assembly will see that the package obtained from the Chancellor on the two occasions that we met him in Downing Street and the additions that we have now received, considerably improve our position.

None of our negotiations with the Chancellor would have resulted in a package that would have met all of our requirements, but Members will be aware that £100 million was immediately made available, £70 million of which was used to forestall the payment of water charges in this financial year. The remaining £30 million will be allocated in this year and over the next three years to innovation funding, all of which will help to stimulate Northern Ireland’s economy. We were able to secure a significant change in the operation of the reinvestment and reform initiative. That has allowed me to hold rates rather than increase them by probably more than 10%, which would have been the outcome if we had not negotiated that change in the Chancellor’s package.

Furthermore, we have been able to secure a significantly higher level of block grant than was offered by the Chancellor. I have already outlined those figures in my statement and do not want to go through them again. The Chancellor allowed us to use resources obtained from asset disposal, which we have taken full use of, and which amounts to about £1·1 billion of disposal already identified in the investment strategy. As the Member knows, we are not satisfied with that, and will look for more.

Several other issues arose from the overall package. The Government of the Irish Republic advanced proposals amounting to about £400 million to assist us with two particular road programmes. Those proposals are progressing, although one of them is unlikely to fall within the period of the current comprehensive spending review. However, it will begin as soon as the legal and other processes have been completed.

The Government of the Irish Republic provided funding that we will be able to use as part of our innovation initiative, and will add to that provided by the UK Government. Along with European funding, it will create an overall package that will be meaningful for the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and the Department for Employment and Learning.

Ms J McCann: A LeasCheann Comhairle, I thank the Minister for his statement on the draft Budget. It is a big document, which I have only glanced through, but there appears to be a significant focus on the promotion of the role of the private sector in building the economy.

Does the Minister agree that the public sector also has a vital role to play in building the economy? Can he assure the House that the much-needed front-line services that the public sector delivers — particularly to the most vulnerable and disadvantaged — will not be affected by any cuts to that sector?

2.00 pm

Mr P Robinson: The debate about the balance between the public and private sectors has been long. There will be no greater defender of the public sector than the Minister of Finance and Personnel. I have the highest regard for our Civil Service. Its officials act impartially and provide us with the best of information. Civil servants’ ideas help Ministers to form their policies. I will defend our Civil Service against attacks, no matter whence they come. Civil servants are objective and thorough in their work; however, the Civil Service is at the forefront of a campaign to reform the way in which it works. The essential element of reform in this modern day is to ensure that we interface meaningfully with the public and provide information on services in the responsive manner that that public deserves.

The reform package that is coming through my Department will suggest better ways of providing information. Technology, particularly information technology, will be better utilised for storing and accessing information on accounts and other data in Northern Ireland; however, I will not go into that today in any great detail. The Department has also dealt with Workplace 2010, which is concerned with improving the conditions of the Civil Service. The implementation of a New York-style “311” system has been proposed. That would mean that anybody in Northern Ireland who wants to contact the public services will not have to go through 12 pages of the telephone directory to find out who they need to contact; they will merely need to remember and dial three digits. Staff at a centre who have been tasked and trained to deal with such queries will put the customer through to whatever public service they wish to contact. That will make communicating with the Government much simpler for people.

The reform package goes to the heart of the Executive’s draft Programme for Government, which aims to achieve better interaction and communication between the Government and the public. The proposed system will further provide us with data that will inform the decisions that Ministers will take, for example, on issues such as potholes that must be filled or roads that need to be resurfaced. It will provide us with the necessary information on a series of areas of Government life. That data will come through the system so that we can better serve the public. A bigger public sector does not necessarily mean a better public sector, and it is a better public sector towards which we are working.

Mrs I Robinson: As one would expect, I welcome the statement on the draft Budget. Since the Health Committee’s establishment last May, the implementation of the findings of the ‘Bamford Review of Mental Health and Learning Disability (Northern Ireland)’ has been identified as our top priority. There is universal agreement — not only in the Committee, but among other Assembly Members and the community — that services for people who have mental-health and learning disabilities have been seriously and gravely neglected over many years, and it is only now that the needs of those people are getting the attention that they deserve. I, therefore, wholeheartedly welcome the identification of specific resources in the Budget that will begin to address those issues over the next three years. Will the Minister assure the House that the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety will be able to retain any efficiency savings that it identifies to further robustly tackle this issue over the coming years?

Mr P Robinson: I have already described the significant portion of the Budget that will be allocated to the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and, therefore, will not repeat it. However, one must recognise that people are living longer, their expectations are rising, and new drugs are coming on to the market. Those developments open up possibilities that previously were not considered.

There is continuing pressure on the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to do more and to do it better, and I recognise the need for funding. I must hold the position that if efficiencies are made in Departments, they come back to the centre, and that relates to efficiencies beyond those that have already been identified by 3% of the Budget or 5% of administration costs.

However, I believe in incentives for Ministers — as for others. I would have thought that if a Minister were to come to the Executive after identifying further effi­ciencies, he or she would be in a strong position to argue with colleagues that, having made those efficiencies from the existing Budget, at least part of those efficiency savings could be used to fund new programmes. That would be significant, but the Executive must allocate whatever resources are available. The Minister of Finance and Personnel cannot give an overall guarantee that a Minister could do that.

However, the Health Minister knows my mind on efficiencies. If he examines the Appleby Report, he will find that there is a significant fall in productivity among healthcare staff in Northern Ireland, as opposed to that in England, Scotland and Wales. If we could get ourselves up to the same level of productivity as that in GB, that, in itself, would generate substantial savings in the region of £150 million to £200 million.

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)

Mr B McCrea: There are several measures that I welcome. I welcome the attention on the economy as the number one driver for the Executive. Further — and I have already notified my interest on industrial derating — I welcome the fact that the Executive and the Assembly have listened to the plight of the manufact­uring industry, and that more will be done.

I turn to the fundamental point — and I am interested in what the Minister will have to say: if we are exper­iencing lower levels of employment along with lower productivity, in essence, we are working harder for less. If, as the draft Budget states, the problem is not really the size of the public sector, but the comparatively smaller size of the private sector, where will we find the people to create that step change in our economy?

Given that the Minister is the champion for the public sector — as he has just said — and that the premium of 18% for pay rates is the highest in the United Kingdom, how will he convince people to leave the security of the public sector to go to work in the private sector? That must happen in order to generate the wealth that we require to provide for all the people of Northern Ireland.

Mr P Robinson: I thank the Member for his remarks, particularly those about growing the economy, his agreement with that as the prime objective, and his remarks about industrial derating. I have asked my officials to examine a series of options on industrial derating.

The Assembly, in its pre-devolution mode, sought to have industrial rates for manufacturing pegged at 25%. I asked for several options, including whether industrial rates could be reduced to 25%, or whether they could be reduced to zero. Neither of those options was legally allowable because of EU state-aid rules. Industrial derating is rather a blunt instrument to give some assistance to the private sector. However, as I have said to colleagues on several occasions, it is the only instrument that we have. Therefore, it is right for us to use it, and to use it to the best extent that we can, within the law.

The Member’s remarks about the public and private sectors allow for only one logical conclusion — and I hope that he will take note of the danger — which is that public-sector pay must be reduced. The Government have no control over private-sector wage levels. However, the public sector is tied up by wage agreements that are largely dictated by the Treasury, which identifies pay policy as a macroeconomic variable that it wants to control. Therefore, public-sector pay policy is outside the remit of the Assembly. We could take such decisions, but we would be punished if those decisions caused any repercussive effects.

To address the disparity highlighted by the Member, if the public sector is the only sector that we can control, we must encourage the private sector as best we can. The conditions that the Member described, in which there are fewer people to do the jobs, will result in increased wages. Where are those people to be found? It is a step process.

People with university degrees, who currently have low-value-added jobs, could be doing much more productive work that would repay society for its investment in their education. However, those people are stuck in low-value jobs, such as those found in call centres. A healthy private-sector economy would enable such people to move into higher-value jobs.

We must also help those who could be working to get out of economic inactivity. DEL and DETI are considering schemes to help such people. Those are the areas in which the private sector will find the people that it requires.

Other people will come into our society from outside Northern Ireland. They should be considered as adding to the overall wealth, productivity and prosperity of Northern Ireland rather than being seen as coming to take our jobs. The current generation is experiencing the highest ever levels of employment in Northern Ireland, which has the lowest level of unemployment of any part of the United Kingdom. That is a good base from which to move forward to the next stage.

Mr Speaker: That ends questions to the Minister of Finance and Personnel on his Budget statement.

Mr Durkan: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. When you were absent, I consulted with the Chair about making this point of order.

During the Minister’s statement, and in several questions, pointed references were made to me and to the supposed role of the previous Executive. People have a right of reply if they are criticised or challenged and in my question to the Minister of Finance and Personnel, I did not seek to use that right of reply.

Ms Anderson spoke about the “Durkan tax” and suggested that rate increases came from the borrowing power negotiated under the reinvestment and reform initiative. First, the reinvestment and reform initiative was agreed by the entire Executive. Secondly, at no point did that Executive agree, impose or even propose a rates increase —

Mr Speaker: I have given the Member some latitude. That is not an appropriate point of order. The Member may be about to raise a point of order about a right of reply. He does not have a right of reply on that issue.

Mr Durkan: When can I exercise my right of reply? The Deputy Speaker told me to do so at the end of the debate on the Minister’s statement.

Mr Speaker: The Member’s comments have been noted. However, he does not have a right of reply on that issue.

Mr Durkan: Do I not have a right of reply?

Mr Speaker: That is exactly what I am saying.

Mr Durkan: Does no one have a right of reply any more?

Mr Speaker: The Member has been around this House for a long time — and for a longer time around another House. He knows that the issue that was raised is not serious enough to warrant a point of order and a reply.

Mr Durkan: In another House, if a Member is named, or where it is clear that a Member is being personally identified, he or she has a right of reply.

Mr Speaker: The Member should read page 32 of the Northern Ireland Assembly Companion, because the answer is there.

2.15 pm

Ministerial Statement

Rural Planning Policy and PPS 14

Mr Speaker: I have received notice from the Minister of the Environment that she wishes to make a statement on the judicial review of Planning Policy Statement 14.

The Minister of the Environment (Mrs Foster): I am making this statement, with the agreement of the Minister for Regional Development, to advise the Assembly that, from today, my Department is assuming responsibility for rural planning policy, as set out in draft Planning Policy Statement 14 entitled ‘Sustainable Development in the Countryside’ and commonly known as draft PPS 14. I will lead cross-departmental work to review draft PPS 14 and develop new policies.

The review will be focused and short in timescale. Until then, the Planning Service cannot operate in a policy vacuum, and speculative development is still a real threat to our countryside.

The extent of that threat is demonstrated by the fact that approximately 4,500 applications under draft PPS 14 were received between 16 March 2006 and early September 2007. Following the initial judgement given by Mr Justice Gillen on 7 September 2007, a further 1,900 applications for single dwellings in the countryside were received. Most of those were in the Omagh planning division, which covers Fermanagh, where almost 1,200 applications were received by the end of September. Therefore, I consider it prudent to reissue the policy provisions of draft PPS 14 today and to continue to apply them to planning applications received after 16 March 2006 until a review has been completed and new policies have been developed. I will publish a new draft PPS 14 within six months, and that will be followed by a period of consultation.

My statement today is an expression of my Department’s policy made under the powers conferred by article 3 of the Planning (Northern Ireland) Order 1991. It is the duty of planning decision-makers to regard relevant statements of planning policy as legally material considerations, and this is such a statement.

Draft PPS 14 was published on 16 March 2006 by the Department for Regional Development. It was accompanied by a ministerial statement by the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland with responsibility for the Department for Regional Development, Sean Woodward, which advised that the provisions of draft PPS 14 took immediate precedence over existing rural planning policies and should, therefore, be accorded substantial weight in the determination of planning applications received after 16 March 2006.

The planning policies contained in draft PPS 14 were introduced to address the significant development pressure affecting rural Northern Ireland. Sean Woodward concluded that, in the public interest, action designed to minimise irreversible environmental damage could not be delayed, and, through his statement, he sought to address substantial concerns that the policy direction of draft PPS 14 could be seriously frustrated by a large influx of planning applications.

The introduction of draft PPS 14 provoked a widespread debate about rural planning and more than 8,500 responses were received in the public consultation. A judicial review challenging draft PPS 14 was subse­quently lodged. In his judgement of 7 September 2007, Mr Justice Gillen concluded that the Department for Regional Development did not have the statutory power to prepare and issue draft PPS 14.

In light of the court judgement, which was finalised today, I am issuing this statement to advise that, from today, my Department is assuming responsibility for PPS 14 and its ongoing review.

Before the restoration of devolution, all parties on the Preparation for Government Committee agreed that draft PPS 14 should be subjected to a fundamental review and new policies developed. The Minister for Regional Development’s proposal to establish an Executive subcommittee to review rural planning was agreed by the Executive in July. The Minister started the review process by meeting a range of stakeholders and, with his agreement, I have taken over as Chairperson of the subcommittee.

Conor Murphy will continue to be involved in that Committee, along with other Ministers who have a policy interest in rural planning.

In taking forward this review, my Executive colleagues and I wish to develop a policy based on the principles of sustainability that strikes a balance between the need to protect the countryside from unnecessary development and supporting rural communities so that they can flourish both socially and economically.

It is my intention, prior to publishing the final rural planning policy document, that there will be an opportunity for all those with an interest in this matter to make their views known through a further public consultation exercise.

In assuming responsibility for PPS 14, I am conscious of the large numbers of people who responded to the public consultation last year, and of the variety of views that were expressed. However, the policy review process remains incomplete, and, in the meantime, there continues to be evidence of a significant threat to the rural environment from development. Therefore, there is still good reason to proceed as previously with a precautionary approach, pending the completion of the review process.

Taking all those matters into consideration, I have decided — in the public interest, and as a short-term interim measure — to today reissue the policy provisions of draft PPS 14 under the powers conferred by article 3 of the Planning (Northern Ireland) Order 1991. Furthermore, I consider that those policy provisions should continue to take precedence over the existing policies of ‘A Planning Strategy for Rural Northern Ireland’ — which are listed in an annex to my statement, copies of which have been posted in Members’ pigeonholes — and should be accorded substantial weight in the determination of any planning application received after 16 March 2006.

In taking this course of action, my officials have carefully reviewed and considered all the steps and procedures followed by DRD in the preparation and publication of draft PPS 14. In addition, I am aware that in the judicial review, there was no challenge of any kind to the substance or the merits of draft PPS 14. I am also conscious that the due process and procedural challenges that were made were all dismissed by the court.

Finally, I note that Mr Justice Gillen, in his judgement of 7 September 2007, observed that:

“had PPS 14 been issued by the DOE the contents might well have been unobjectionable.”

The Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment (Mr McGlone): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for her statement, a copy of which I have received.

Draft PPS 14 has been judged to have been unlawful. A number of cases that fell specifically under the remit of draft PPS 14’s farm viability, farm retirement, replacement, and/or infill categories were subsequently refused. As we have found out today, that refusal was based on an illegality. The Minister stated that she considered it:

“prudent to reissue the policy provisions of draft PPS 14 today and to continue to apply them to planning applications received after 16 March 2006”.

What advice has the Minister sought regarding the retrospective application of a policy in the context of today’s decision? There are numerous people who, having had applications refused under a policy now deemed to be illegal, have justifiable and fair grounds to seek to have those cases reviewed.

I realise that the Minister’s first meeting as Chairperson of the Executive subcommittee will in fact be the first meeting of that subcommittee. Will the Minister give an assurance that diligence and some refreshing new enthusiasm will be given to the application and the pursuit of developing a rural planning policy for a rural society? Will the Minister also give some indication as to the timescales that she has in mind for that?

Mrs Foster: I thank the Chairman for his comments. He knows that I approach everything with enthusiasm, and we will be doing so in the subcommittee as well. I pay tribute to the work of the subcommittee to date. There has been a lot of work carried out with stakeholders, and I know that that will continue.

I have already said that I want the review to be focused and time limited. I take the view that we should have a draft policy ready in six months’ time. Therefore, what I have announced today is an interim short-term measure which — from a Planning Service and an environmental point of view — is a necessary measure. I am sure that the Chairman will agree with that.

I have taken legal advice in respect of the Member’s first point about the legality of decisions that were taken between 16 March and 7 September. The judicial review litigation included no challenge of any kind to the substance or merits of draft PPS 14. All due processes and procedural challenges that were raised on behalf of the applicant for judicial review were dismissed by the court. Bearing that in mind, cases decided during that time under draft PPS 14 will stand.

The judgement that was handed down today by Mr Justice Gillen was a continuation of his judgement of 7 September. He has added a number of paragraphs and, in those, he seeks to distinguish between declaratory relief, which is what he has granted today, and an order quashing draft PPS 14. He explained why, in the public interest, he decided not to make an order quashing draft PPS 14. Much work had been carried out by the Department for Regional Development. Mr Justice Gillen considered all the work that went into drafting PPS 14 and its four-year gestation period. He stated very clearly that that still stands.

Mr Weir: I thank the Minister for her statement, and for the speed with which it has been brought to the House, given that the final judgement on draft PPS 14 was delivered only this morning. In view of the planning and legal mess in which we have been left by direct rule Ministers, people will realise that the interim measure that was announced today is the only feasible option that was open to the Minister, and that that measure will help in getting things right in the long term.

My question follows on from that asked by the Chairperson of the Environment Committee. How will the Planning Service deal with fresh applications in cases where the Planning Appeals Commission has turned down an application on the grounds of draft PPS 14?

Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for his comments. Final judgement was made today, but the Department had a clear view as to where the matter was going because we received 74 paragraphs of the judgement in September.

As for the Planning Appeals Commission, the Planning Service can decline to consider a repeat application if the original one was refused and, within the previous two years, was also turned down by the Planning Appeals Commission. However, that is a discretionary power, and I will be directing the Planning Service to exercise discretion and accept fresh appli­cations. Therefore, if an application has been turned down by the Planning Appeals Commission in the past two years, I will direct Planning Service to reconsider any new application for that site.

Mr Boylan: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for her statement. She is aware that, before the restoration of devolution, parties now represented on the Committee for the Environment reached a consensus on rural planning and rejected draft PPS 14. I hope that Members’ remarks reflect that.

Sinn Féin has completely rejected draft PPS 14, and responded to it in a document of June 2006. As a matter of priority, will the Minister outline her immediate plans for dealing with this issue, not only in the forthcoming review, but in the development of a new policy? When will the Executive subcommittee meet? Are resources in place to ensure that a proper planning policy for sustainable rural communities is developed?

Mrs Foster: I am well aware of the difficulties of all the political parties with draft PPS 14; the Member’s party is no exception to that.

2.30 pm

It may be helpful to set out the list of policies that the Executive have asked the subcommittee to consider during its review. Those include whether we should have a localised policy; farm viability, which was mentioned by the Chairperson of the Environment Committee; the role that replacement dwellings should have in a new policy; the role that social and affordable housing will have in a new policy; farm clusters; whether environmentally friendly housing should be addressed by a new policy; health and personal circumstances; and economic development. Moreover, the issue of kinship has been raised several times. We are considering that and whether we should continue with the language of presumption in favour of, or against, a development.

The subcommittee is examining those issues, and much good work has been done. It is not the case that the subcommittee has not been working, and we will continue in partnership to make a policy of which everyone in the Chamber may have ownership. Part of the difficulty with draft PPS 14 was that no one felt any ownership of it, and people, therefore, felt that they could attack it.

We must take into consideration the environmental impact and those who live in the countryside, bearing in mind what we can do for them on a social and economic basis. Furthermore, we must be aware of our environment and, this morning, that was referred to as one of the key strategic aims of the draft Programme for Government. We would do well to recognise the importance of the environment from the perspective of both the natural and built heritages, and I will give cognisance to that in any new draft PPS 14.

Mr Gardiner: I thank the Minister for bringing her long-awaited statement to the House. There has been great confusion in the Planning Service, particularly in relation to applicants. Will the Minister ensure that a revised rural-planning policy takes account of the needs of the rural economy, the social cohesion of rural communities, and a sustainable rural environment? Following the court ruling, will the Minister also consider refunding those people who were turned down by PPS 14, or will the Department of the Environment write to all the refused applicants and ask them to resubmit their applications for further consideration?

Mrs Foster: I addressed the first issue in my last question when I said that I will look at economic development in the countryside and environmentally friendly housing. Sustainability must be at the heart of a new planning policy to be endorsed by the Assembly. Undoubtedly, any such policy will cause great debate in the Assembly in the near future.

The honourable gentleman has raised the issue of fees before. I have no provision in law to waive the fees of those who made applications between 16 March 2006 and 7 September 2007. The cost of processing their applications is unrecoverable and has already been used. Those people may reapply in relation to their site; however, they may wish to reapply after the new draft PPS 14 is in place, rather than under the current draft.

Those people who have submitted applications since 7 September, of which there are a considerable number, will have the option to withdraw their applications, and will be offered refunds. The Department is taking that exceptional measure in unusual circumstances. There was a hiatus between the first and final judgements, during which many people rushed to submit applications as they thought that PPS 14 had ended. In such except­ional circumstances, it is fair that they should be given the opportunity to withdraw their applications and wait. The measure is exceptional, and planning officers will write to all those concerned to ask them whether they want to withdraw their application.

Mr Ford: On behalf of my party, I thank the Minister for the content of her statement, particularly the recog­nition of the necessity of the precautionary approach at this stage, and her recognition of the courts’ decision that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with PPS 14.

I want to correct a minor mistake that the Minister made when she said that prior to the restoration of devolution, parties on the Preparation for Government Committee agreed on the need for fundamental review. She will find that it was the four parties that were on the Programme for Government Committee that agreed on that; the fifth party, which was excluded from that Committee, most certainly did not agree.

First, given the current pressures on the Planning Service, particularly with regard to staffing, can the Minister tell the House what implications the decision will have on other planning policy statements that are currently the responsibility of the Department for Regional Development rather than the Department of the Environment? Secondly, what resources will be transferred as a result of today’s statement? Lastly, what further resources may be needed in order to ensure that those other planning policy statements can also be dealt with properly?

Mrs Foster: The Member is absolutely right: that was, of course, a mistake — I should have said “the Programme for Government Committee”. I recognise his party’s view on the matter. I hope that my statement reflects all the views of all parties in the Chamber.

My Department is currently in discussion with DRD about which of the other planning policy statements that remain with it at present should be transferred and which resource allocations should follow them. Obviously, the regional development strategy will remain with DRD. However, the Departments are actively discussing what should happen to the other planning policy statements.

Mr I McCrea: I thank the Minister for her statement. It is about time that the policy found its way home to the Department of the Environment, which is where it should have been in the first place.

I am concerned at the number of applications that have been lodged since 7 September 2007, and I welcome the Minister’s announcement that those applicants will have the right to withdraw them and that refunds will be given. Given the Minister’s legal background, can she outline for the House exactly what the judgement means for planning, particularly with regard to PPS 14?

Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for his question — I think. [Laughter.]

As the Member will be aware, and as Mr Ford has already mentioned, there was no challenge during the judicial review litigation to the substance and merits of draft PPS 14. The court dismissed all due process and procedural challenges that were raised. The judge has in effect concluded that the Department for Regional Development did not have the statutory authority to promote draft PPS 14, and that only the Department of the Environment has that power under article 3 of the Planning (Northern Ireland) Order 1991. In fact, the judge said that had DOE issued draft PPS 14, it may have been unobjectionable. Essentially, the judge is saying that the DOE should have issued draft PPS 14 in the first place, if that was what it was minded to do.

I do not wish to pass the buck to Mr Justice Gillen. However, it would be helpful to tell the House what he said in court, because it makes a distinction between the effect of declaratory and certiorari relief. He said that the former is:

“a formal statement by the court pronouncing upon the existence or non-existence of a legal state of affairs. It is not capable of being coercively enforced. It states the existing legal position and opens the way to the use of other remedies for giving effect to it, if that should be necessary. It is particularly appropriate where it is undesirable for a decision to be rendered a nullity for all purposes.”

In other words, the judge said that draft PPS 14 was not null and void but that it is now being declared illegal.

In contrast, certiorari is a quashing order in the sense that it destroys the legal validity of the action that is quashed by the order. The remedy given by Mr Justice Gillen was a declaratory order that states that draft PPS 14 is illegal for the reason — and for no other reason — that it was made by the wrong Department.

Mr McKay: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for her statement. Given the fact that draft PPS 14 lacked public input and was so contentious, what format will the public consultation on the new PPS 14 take? How comprehensive will that exercise be?

Mrs Foster: Part of the difficulty was that there was no devolved Government at that time, and no input from locally elected Members who knew Northern Ireland’s countryside and how it works. In that respect, the situation has been remedied, and the subcommittee has already spoken to stakeholders. We will take that work forward and I hope that in six months’ time, we will be able to publish our new draft PPS 14 for consultation. I have no doubt that it will reflect the views of the Chamber given that the Ministers involved are broadly reflective of the Chamber.

Lord Morrow: I, too, welcome the statement because it brings closure to an unsatisfactory situation that has been ongoing for some time. I also note in the Minister’s statement that she felt it worthwhile to bring to our attention that 1,900 planning applications for single dwellings in the countryside have been received. Furthermore, she said that most were for dwellings in the Omagh planning division, and that almost 1,200 had been received for dwellings in Fermanagh by the end of September. What significance does the Minister draw from those figures? In addition, will she tell the House that she will be assuming responsibility for all planning policy statements as of now? Will she also tell the House whether that is a tidying-up exercise? Will she tell us that her Department will deliver on all planning policy statements — something that the direct rule Minister with responsibility for planning, but who seldom got anything right, could not do?

Mrs Foster: The Member has highlighted one of the reasons why it is important to stop the confusion that the general public feels about the status of draft PPS 14. I am sure that many Members will agree that there have been wild rumours circulating about there being an opportunity to submit planning applications that would not be judged under any rural planning policy — that it would be, basically, a free-for-all. I was determined that that would not be the case.

The judgement was given on 7 September 2007. As the action was brought by a council in the west of the Province, it is no coincidence that many planning applications are sitting in the planning office in that division. The applicants will be written to and will be given the opportunity to withdraw their applications at no cost to themselves. They will be able to get a full refund, and each of them should consider the matter carefully.

I have indicated that there is ongoing discussion about my Department taking responsibility for all planning policy statements, and we will have to come to a decision quickly. My Department will also have to be given the resources to undertake that function. The regional development strategy will remain with the Department for Regional Development. However, there is a need to bring clarity as regards the other planning policy statements.

Mr Kennedy: I thank the Minister for making her statement to the House. What is the position regarding those planning applications that were refused under, what might be described as the original PPS 14? Potentially, those applications were subject to appeal. Will the Minister and her Department consider allowing people who were refused planning permission under the original PPS 14 a concessionary fee when re-submitting an application when a new planning policy has been established?

Mrs Foster: The planning applications that were determined during the period 16 March 2006 to 7 September 2007 were determined under the policy that pertained at that time. The application fee has been expended as far as the Planning Service is concerned.

If the Member is asking me whether people will be able to lodge fresh planning applications and whether they will be dealt with as if the site were blighted, the answer is that the site will not be blighted under the old policy. We will look at the prevailing policy at the time of the determination — that is the new policy that will be in effect when the new applications are lodged.

2.45 pm

The Member mentioned the possibility of a reduction in fees. Some Members believe that I do not charge enough for planning applications and that the fees should be increased. I have no facility to ask for a lesser fee if a decision has already been determined under draft PPS 14.

Mr Gallagher: I welcome the fact that the Minister has made a statement on PPS 14, but I have some criticisms of the content of the statement. Most Members will know that, for people in rural areas, one day of PPS 14 is one day too many. Although I have some sympathy for the Minister’s position, she has told us that PPS 14 will, in effect, be extended for another six months, after which there will be a consultation period — that could mean an extension of nine months, in total. Moreover, the legislative stage will follow the consultation period, and that could take a further nine months. Thus, the time frame will be longer than has been portrayed in the statement.

I ask the Minister to reconsider this matter. How long will the consultation period be? It does not have to be three months. Reference has been made to the report of the Committee on the Preparation for Government, which will help to shorten that process and ease the waiting period for so many.

The Minister also mentioned the earlier consultation period and the variety of views that were expressed. Can the Minister clarify some of those views? As I understand it, the majority of views expressed were very clearly opposed to draft PPS 14, and I would like some confirmation of that.

Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for his comments — I think. I thank him for his initial comments, at any rate.

I want to explain the matter to the Member. I have already said that the review of draft PPS 14 will be focused and time-limited. The new policy will go out for consultation in six months’ time, and, at that stage, the new policy will become draft PPS 14. The current PPS 14 will then fall. The Member is right; the new draft PPS 14 will go out to consultation, and it will be confirmed. I hope that the Member appreciates that I am trying to make the timescale as short as possible. I think that he will agree that we have to get the policy right this time.

Some of the issues involved are very complex, and it is important that we take on board the views that will be expressed by the Executive subcommittee and other stakeholders. The decisions that we hope to put before the people in six months’ time will have far-reaching consequences for the environment, rural people and anyone with an interest in the future of the countryside. Although I want the review to be focused and time-limited, I am aware that we must get on with the job and ensure that the policy that goes out to consultation is the right one.

Like myself, Mr Gallagher is from a rural background, so I know exactly where he is coming from. However, a variety of views have been expressed, many of which have been aired in the Chamber today. Concerns have been raised about environmental issues and, as Minister of the Environment, I must take all those views into account. Each view will be given its due weight and will be considered by the Executive subcommittee. Indeed, I am sure that many Members will also put their views to me.

Mr Buchanan: I am glad that PPS 14 now falls within the remit of the Department of the Environment — the Department that should have responsibility for it. I am glad that the matter has been cleared up. I thank the Minister for bringing this statement to the House so swiftly.

I ask the Minister to clarify whether the new policy will allow for any flexibility in respect of vernacular buildings. That issue is currently causing a conflict between the Housing Executive and the Planning Service.

Also, will any clear guidance be given to Planning Service divisions regarding applications of that nature that are already in the system?

Mrs Foster: I will answer the Member’s last point first. If there are applications in the system that come before councils prior to the new policy’s being imple­mented, I will allow councils to defer them until it is implemented. That includes vernacular buildings, which are part of the subcommittee’s discussions and have been mentioned to me by a wide range of councillors and MLAs from rural areas. That will form part of our deliberations. At present, the role of vernacular buildings in the countryside is — as the Member rightly said — covered by draft PPS 14 and is within the ambit of the review. The Department will continue to discuss the matter with stakeholders and interested Members.

Mr McElduff: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Given her rural background, the Minister will be well aware that she carries the rural community’s hope that the unlawful draft PPS 14 will be succeeded by a policy that is more sympathetic to them. Draft PPS 14 has had a hugely negative impact on rural communities. Will the Minister take full account of the rural stake­holder consultation events that have already taken place in the Ballinascreen and Draperstown area and in county Armagh? Those events were hosted by the Minister for Regional Development, Conor Murphy, and I hope that the Minister takes full account of what was said at them.

Will the Minister begin to look at a policy that gives some advantage to family members — the “kinship clause” that has been referred to? Personal circumstances are also a big issue. I am thinking about specific families where one family member has a major health require­ment; they are very worried and want the Planning Service to adopt a more sympathetic attitude.

Finally, there are many applications that were submitted to the Planning Service before March 2006 but returned to the applicant because of minor errors in the application — for example, the misspelling of a townland name. When those applications re-entered the system after 16 March 2006, they were subject to the rules of draft PPS 14. Will the Minister consider revisiting those applications, which were submitted before 16 March 2006 but validated after that date?

Mrs Foster: The Department will take all the rural stakeholder events, and the issues that emerged from them, into account. As I said, Conor Murphy will continue to sit on the subcommittee, as will the Members who have been sitting on his subcommittee. I have already met the GAA — a body close to the Member’s heart — to discuss draft PPS 14.

The Member also mentions health, personal circum­stances and kinship, which are matters that are being addressed, and will continue to be addressed, by the subcommittee. The Member made a specific point about applications validated after 16 March 2006 — there were a number of such applications in the Omagh area, and in other areas. Any planning application that was not validated before that date was treated under draft PPS 14. There is nothing that I can do about that because the date was set by the previous Administration.

Mr Shannon: I thank the Minister for her response; she has taken the policy out of no-man’s-land and into her Department. With no disrespect to anyone else in the Chamber, she has made sure that draft PPS 14 will be reviewed and new policies developed by her Department, which is good news. Does the Minister agree that PPS 14 has been draconian and discriminatory, and the quicker that it is replaced the better?

Out of the 8,500 responses that the Minister said that the Department received to the public consultation, can she tell the Assembly how many were opposed to draft PPS 14? I understand that a vast number of people were against it. Is the Minister carrying out a review of all draft PPS 14 regulations as part of the review, or just the operation of draft PPS 14 in the first six months?

The consultation that the Minister is establishing will include local councils. Sometimes, local councils need to be reassured. Can the Minister assure us that, when the consultation documents are sent to the local councils, and they reply, their viewpoints will be taken on board and that the consultation process will not be the subject of mere lip service?

Mrs Foster: The Member probably asked about 10 questions, but that is no surprise. First, DRD would not like to be characterised as no-man’s-land, but I am sure that the Minister for Regional Development will take that up himself on some occasion.

The Member is right to state that a higher number of consultees complained about draft PPS 14 from the point of view of not being able to develop in the countryside, than from an environmental perspective. However, I want to get away from the divisive argument that if someone is pro-development, they are anti-environment, and vice versa. The Department wants a policy that everyone in the countryside can buy into. It is divisive to get stuck on terms such as “pro-environ­ment” and “anti-developer”. I do not want to engage in the use of those types of terms when introducing any new policy.

The Member is a councillor, and he knows that I have been working closely with local government in another area — the review of public administration — and we have been working well in partnership. Any time local government brings me an issue, I seek to address it, and I will do the same in respect of consultation on planning policy.

Mr Wells: I welcome the Minister’s statement. Did the Minister see the pain on the face of the Minister for Regional Development at having responsibility for rural planning policy torn from his bosom and brought to the Department of the Environment? Can she see his angst at the prospect of other contentious planning policy statements being torn from his Department and taken to the DOE? Perhaps that is not as evident as some Members might suspect.

On a more serious note, I welcome that development, and I refer to three written answers that the Minister has given me in recent weeks, which graphically illustrate the difficulties that her Department faces in dealing with that policy. First, in the year leading up to the introduction of draft PPS 14, 15,000 applications for single dwellings were lodged at divisional planning offices in Northern Ireland. No one will convince me that all 15,000 of those were deserving cases; there must have been a large element of speculation among those.

Secondly, since 7 September, when Mr Justice Gillen made his initial judgement, there have been 1,900 applications for single dwellings on the mere hint that draft PPS 14 may collapse.

Thirdly, in a written answer to me, the Minister stated that the Planning Service is short of 72 members of staff. Does she agree that any decision other than the one that she made today would have opened the floodgates and put the Planning Service under the most enormous pressure, which, given those statistics, would have been impossible to sustain.

Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for his comments. I will not make any comment on the state of mind of the Minister for Regional Development about the policy passing to DOE; I will let him do that himself during his next ministerial statement or at Question Time.

The Member well knows, along with the rest of the House, that there are considerable pressures on the Planning Service. That is something that the Programme for Government seeks to address, and, hopefully, those pressures can be relieved soon. However, that is not the main reason for my statement; rather it is to protect the environment in Northern Ireland and to ensure that the speculative development to which the Member referred does not take place, and that there is no window of opportunity for people to do whatever they like.

3.00 pm

It is vital to have a balance, and that will be achieved in six months’ time. The difficulties of the Planning Service were secondary to what I was charged to do in my ministerial role.

Private Members’ Business

IVF Fertility Waiting Lists

Mr Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one and a half hours for the next debate. The proposer of the motion has 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes for the winding-up speech. All other Members are allowed five minutes to speak. One amendment has been received and published on the Marshalled List. The proposer of the amendment will have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes for the winding-up speech.

Mr Attwood: I beg to move

That this Assembly calls for a review of the policy on IVF fertility waiting lists, including urgent consideration of the introduction of age-weighting criteria.

I thank those who agreed to the motion’s being debated in the House. I give particular thanks to the British Medical Association (BMA), the researchers in this Building and the Infertility Network UK for their briefings.

I must walk gently when talking about IVF, because I walk on the hopes and disappointments of many families in this part of the world. At the start of the debate, it is important to record that, prior to 2001, there was no publicly funded fertility treatment in Britain or Northern Ireland. Therefore, the situation is much better now than in the latter years of the twentieth century. In the past year, changes to the criteria governing treatment mean that women up to the age of 40 can now receive treatment.

When the policy was changed a year ago, the Department stated that it would request that:

“Boards monitor referrals and waiting times for treatments over the next 12 months. This will facilitate assessment of the demand for services and the capacity of the RFC to meet that demand.”

I met the Minister in September to urge that his Department conduct that review. Earlier this month, he replied that he would ask the boards to review the impact of the new criteria for access to publicly funded fertility services and specifically report on referrals, patient activity and waiting times. Although I welcome that commitment, I urge the Minister to instruct his Department to conduct a fully fledged review into all matters arising from access to fertility services in the North, rather than leaving it to the boards. Whether the review is conducted by the Department or the boards, several matters must be addressed, and I ask the Minister to comment on them during the course of the debate.

The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) recommends that couples receive three cycles of IVF treatment. However, in September 2007, the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety in Northern Ireland issued guidance that offered only one cycle. Therefore, I ask the Minister to confirm whether he and his Department will work to achieve the NICE recommendation of three cycles. In July 2007, the Department of Health in England sent a note to primary care trusts advising that they work to a three-cycle treatment programme. Has the Minister’s Department issued any similar advice here? The clinical evidence is that one cycle of treatment is often a trial run and that the second and subsequent treatment cycles are those that may deliver success.

I ask the Minister to explain what is meant by a cycle of treatment. When a woman’s eggs are being harvested, additional valid eggs are often stored for potential use.

There is a view that, in addition to a first implantation of an egg or eggs, a cycle of treatment should enable subsequent implantation of a further egg or eggs, given that they are in a valid state, where there is as a conse­quence limited cost to the Department’s budget as the subsequent treatments have reduced drug requirements. I ask the Minister to confirm whether the review, however it is constructed, will address that matter.

I also ask the Minister to confirm whether the review will deal with the issue of waiting lists generally. As of May, there were 27 patients in Northern Ireland who had been waiting for more than 24 months; 48 patients who had been waiting for between 18 and 24 months; and 63 patients who had been waiting for between 12 and 18 months. There is some guidance in England that there should be an 18-week waiting time for all medical interventions. Can the Minister confirm whether the review will address the length of waiting lists? Will it address the issue of an 18-week limit on waiting lists and, if not, will resources and capacity be built up to enable women who have been waiting for many more than 18 weeks for treatment to have it in much less than 18 or 24 months?

In September 2006, the Department confirmed that an additional £50,000 per annum would be allocated towards the enhancement of existing counselling services, with the requirement that access to the services be equitable across Northern Ireland. Some people who have knowledge of these matters advise me that that money may not have been spent. In any case, the intention behind building up money for counselling services to provide better services across Northern Ireland, and in particular in the north-west, has not been fulfilled, and is not fulfilled by having a counselling outreach facility in Cookstown.

My interest in this issue was prompted by a couple who came to me anxious that the woman in the relation­ship was approaching the age of 40 and would, therefore, be “discharged”, as hospital people say, from the medical regional waiting list. It so happens that, in the past two weeks, she has passed 40 and been discharged, when she was around tenth on a waiting list of 500. I have the authority to refer to those people’s circumstances in this debate. I have to say to the Minister, to the Department and to the House that that situation should not have arisen.

It seems to me that, during the stewardship of the current Minister and that of the previous, direct rule Minister, Paul Goggins, this issue was not properly addressed. Why do I say that? If the criteria were changed in September 2006 to enable women to get treatment up to the age of 40, when the previous limit was 38, it should have been anticipated that there would be a spike of people going on the waiting list who may have been over the age of 38, in advance of their turning 40. In those circumstances, it seems to me that the Department should have legislated to legally and properly accommodate those couples and those women. However, in correspondence to me, the Department maintains that:

“a process that awarded priority to any particular group of women would have a negative impact on others awaiting treatment and would seriously compromise the ability to ensure that the population have equitable access to specialised fertility services.”

I agree with that. Of course, if you treat older women approaching the age of 40 before they fall off the list and ahead of any other age category, it has a negative impact on younger women, because they have to wait longer. However, the test is not about what the negative impact on younger women is; the test should be whether that impact is disproportionate compared with the impact on the older women who get treatment.

I have said to the Minister that earlier treatment of a woman because of her age, and who is, therefore, disadvantaged, does not have a disproportionate impact upon the treatment of a younger woman. If the older woman does not receive treatment, she will never receive it. Over recent months, I have put that issue to the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, but there has been no concurrence.

I urged the Department to run a computer programme whereby all details and profiles of the women on the waiting list could be compared to determine whether there was indeed a disproportionate impact upon younger women. As far as I know, that simple exercise has not been conducted.

Moreover, I outlined a series of measures by which, legally and properly, women who approach the age of 40 could have treatment without significant disadvantage to women of any other age group. None of those proposals was accepted by the Department.

I urge Members to support the motion and encourage the Minister to introduce legal and proper mechanisms to ensure that the example of a couple who, two weeks ago, lost out on IVF treatment, is not duplicated in other parts of the North.

Mrs M O’Neill: I beg to move the following amendment: Leave out all after “calls” and insert

“on the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to commence a comprehensive review into the current criteria used to assess eligibility, including the age weighting criteria, the ongoing problem with waiting lists, and the number of IVF treatments available on the NHS, with a view to establishing a more equitable and accessible policy.”

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Member for bringing this very important topic to the House. The amendment has been put forward with a view to establishing a more equitable and accessible policy. It enhances the motion, and calls for a comprehensive review of the criteria currently used to assess eligibility, including age-weighting, the ongoing problems with waiting lists, and the number of IVF treatments available on the NHS. I recognise, however, that there have been recent improvements in criteria and availability.

I immediately took an interest in the motion, because friends and members of my family have been in that situation. They have made numerous hospital visits and undergone test after test. They have described the experience as an emotional rollercoaster — a journey that was, from start to finish, painful.

It took six years for one couple that I know to find the courage to visit their GP. Surely that is not acceptable. We must ensure that that is not allowed to continue. The overall impact of a couple’s inability to conceive cannot be underestimated. We must be concerned about the effect on the couple’s mental health and the knock-on effect on their family circle. As elected representatives, we have a duty to ensure that an adequate support service is in place to meet their needs.

3.15 pm

In 2001, my party colleague Bairbre de Brún announced her intention to consult on the future of fertility services and, thankfully, she introduced interim criteria to carry us through until the outcome of the consultation process. For the first time in the North, IVF became available as a publicly funded service.

Although those measures were not ideal, they were an improvement on the previous situation and were carried forward on the recommendation of the Regional Medical Services Consortium. They continued until 2006, when the British direct rule Minister Paul Goggins introduced revised criteria as the outcome of the process that had begun five years earlier.

The changes impacted on several areas; for example, the upper age limit for women who use their own eggs was changed from 37 years old to 39. That was a welcome improvement. Couples with dependent children who live with them are now able to access publicly funded services. That, too, must be a welcome develop­ment, because the previous criteria led to an inequitable situation that discriminated against a partner in a new relationship who had no children from a previous relationship.

Another welcome development is that couples who have been diagnosed as infertile will no longer be subject to a qualifying period before being eligible for publicly funded treatment. However, those with unexplained infertility still have to complete the three-year waiting period, and that must be disappointing for them.

As Alex mentioned, one of the main downsides of the revised measures is that couples will be offered only one cycle of publicly funded IVF treatment.

The flexibility to provide more than one cycle of treatment will depend on the demand for the service and on the funding available. We should all share that concern, as it may mean a return to the postcode lottery for those who need to access the service. If there is a high demand in a trust area, couples may suffer. We should not stand by and allow that to happen: we must nip it in the bud now. The issue must be addressed through a review.

The Infertility Alliance has broadly welcomed the new changes. However, it is deeply disappointed that the NHS will now only guarantee one cycle in contrast to the two-cycle minimum under the interim arrangements. We call on those boards that provide two cycles to resist the temptation to cut their service levels. Two or three cycles of IVF are normally regarded as the optimal treatment approach, and the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence advises providing three cycles of treatment. A senior lecturer in reproductive medicine at the University of Bristol has said that three attempts would be acceptable, as that would offer couples a 50% chance of conceiving. Surely, we must take those comments on board, and the Department must take them into account in taking forward a review.

The other area that must be addressed is support and counselling for couples who are going through the IVF process. There are many pressures on couples as they go through the process. We must ensure that sufficient resources are in place to support groups such as the Stork infertility support group, the Tiny Feet infertility support group, and the Craigavon patient support group. I am sure that those groups offer wonderful support, but we must ensure that we further develop that and identify whether new groups are required.

In conclusion, I ask the House to support the motion and amendment. In doing so, we will send a clear message to the Minister that we want a consistent, equitable and accessible service for those who need it. I have outlined some of the concerns. There is a common thread in what I have said and in what the proposer of the motion has said.

Mr Speaker: The Member’s time is up.

Mrs O’Neill: I am nearly finished anyway. I hope that the Minister takes on board what has been said in the debate. We have an opportunity in this new Assembly to carry out a comprehensive review that reflects the needs of those who are going through this difficult process.

The Chairperson of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Mrs I Robinson): I support the amendment because it includes more detail. The matter before us is, undoubtedly, very emotive. Some complex issues must be considered. There are difficult questions about how and where precious resources ought to be directed. Fertility services occupy a particular category in the health care sector, as they do not deal with life threatening illnesses and the patients are not in pain — physically anyway. Some would question the degree to which such treatments should be freely available through public money. Undoubtedly, however, fertility services are incredibly important, and denial of such treatments can prove traumatic to the couples affected. Furthermore, we must consider how we should manage access to treatments that are considered to be expensive. We must also predict the expected level of demand in the future, and the services that we will need to deal with that.

I am always saddened when I hear about young couples who have difficulty in conceiving a baby, especially when they are unable to avail of fertilisation services due to the great expense. Raising the money to pay for IVF treatment presents a terrible dilemma for individuals, as success can never be guaranteed. Indeed, success in the first attempt at anything is always unlikely. Recent statistics indicate that the success rate for IVF is as low as 15%, with only 19% of women who embark on such treatment ever having a baby. Couples who have experienced unsuccessful attempts have the added fear that they will be deemed unsuitable for further attempts.

It is absurd that, for a long time, access to IVF treatment has been variable across the United Kingdom. Depending on where someone lived, they may have been entitled to free IVF treatment on the National Health Service, while their neighbour a few hundred yards away may have had to fund the treatment themselves. The total cost of providing IVF treatment often extends to many thousands of pounds, which puts it beyond the reach of many couples.

Recent improvements in the success rates of fertility treatments are encouraging, but a wide disparity in results remains between different clinics. The UK public ought to be able to expect more standardised fertility service outcomes. Many young couples in Northern Ireland are unable to avail of IVF treatment because of the cost. I have sympathy with the suggestion that special consideration should be given to how women at the upper end of the permissible age spectrum can be accommodated. Couples are frustrated that waiting lists and waiting times have been so long.

Reaching the stage at which treatment is eventually obtained tends to follow a number of appointments to assess suitability and carry out further investigations. Patients can feel as if they have been dragged from pillar to post, and all the while, time is moving on, and the cut-off age at which certain treatments are allowed is coming closer. A couple who contacted my constituency office described a sad catalogue of experiences. When they were referred by their general practitioner, they were comfortably within the appropriate age range for all treatments. However, long waits and cancelled appointments meant that when they were finally deemed ready to be treated, the upper age limit for the only treatment that would make a difference had been exceeded. Appointments had to be cancelled because the consultant was ill, or on holiday, and the couple missed the age deadline to receive treatment.

Imagine the resources that had been used to get that couple to that point, all to no avail. If we are to place a special emphasis on those women who reach the upper age limit for treatments, we must consider other possibly relevant criteria. For example, some might make a distinction between couples who have no children and those who seek fertility treatment having already had children. One partner in some couples may have had children in a previous relationship. I hope that the Minister will investigate the procurement practices and use of particular drugs and treatments at the regional fertility centre as part of any review that may occur. In previous years, there would appear to have been a preoccupation with particular drugs when less expensive versions were available and proven to deliver equally successful outcomes.

It is crucial that the resources directed towards fertility services are used wisely. Excessive spending for no gain only reduces the number of couples who can be treated over any given time frame. I support the amendment.

Mr McCarthy: I thank the Member for West Belfast Mr Attwood for securing a debate on such an important subject. It is recognised that once people get access to IVF treatment, the vast majority of recipients are delighted with the quality of care that they receive. In 2006, Northern Ireland’s fertility clinics obtained extremely high satisfaction scores, with more than 80% of recipients having had satisfactory experiences and outcomes. However, despite the excellent quality of care in fertility clinics and the sterling work of their staff, access to such a clinic is a very different matter.

Waiting lists have already been mentioned. They are far too long, and remedies must be found to ensure that all those women who require this provision can receive it. As I understand it, there seems to be a postcode lottery for IVF treatment across the UK, with wide variations in waiting times for that treatment. I use the word “treatment” deliberately, because infertility is an abnormality that can, for many, be addressed success­fully. Everyone, regardless of postcode, should be entitled to receive fertility care. However, the UK is the poor relation of Europe for fertility treatment. That is why many Spanish clinics, for example, are making a good profit from treating couples from the UK, including people from Northern Ireland, who cannot get treatment at home.

Infertility is not a rare problem. As many as one Northern Irish couple in six are affected by fertility issues. What can be done to change the situation? Some people say that donors are put off by the lack of anonymity, while others point to the lack of investment in NHS clinics and the insufficient numbers of embryologists. Those are good points: supply cannot meet the current demand for treatment. Neither is it acceptable to continue the current situation, where many people are told to opt for private healthcare — a course of action that many cannot afford to pursue.

I understand that the cost of private IVF treatment in the United Kingdom can be as much as £100,000, and that is certainly beyond the reach of a lot of people. One relatively low-cost step that might be taken is a public awareness campaign to highlight the length of IVF waiting lists and to challenge the social stigma surrounding donation and infertility. With such a poor donation rate in Northern Ireland, we must look at what steps other European countries have taken to encourage donation.

I thank the Member for West Belfast Mr Attwood for raising the issue of age-related criteria. Ageism in all its forms is unacceptable and should be a thing of the past. We must ensure that our waiting lists are managed properly. As long as we are short of capacity, we must ensure that the couples who are in most need — particularly those who are in the upper age range for eligibility for the treatment — are given some sort of priority access.

The best long-term solution is to encourage more donors and train more embryologists, as has proved possible in other European countries. To do that, we must challenge the stigma surrounding donations; raise public awareness of the need for donations; and learn from our European neighbours how to encourage people to become donors or train as embryologists. I support the motion and the amendment.

Mr McCallister: This is an emotive topic to bring to the Floor. It might well be useful for the Health Committee to discuss it in greater detail and hear from the Minister, the Department and the relevant experts — the clinicians.

The subject of IVF waiting lists is, as I said, emotive, particularly for couples affected by fertility problems. However, in a world of health budgets, it is unfair to raise false hope among infertile couples and lead them to believe that an Assembly motion, proposed by a Member with no Executive responsibility for health matters, will somehow change things. Is that even the best way forward?

Today, we heard some of the figures for the Depart­ment of Health, Social Services and Public Safety’s budget, and they will hit these types of services hard. I am sure that the Health Minister will say more about that in his speech.

IVF treatment has been available on the National Health Service in Northern Ireland since December 2001. Its associated costs are a major reason for not expanding the service. The NHS estimates that the average cost of one cycle of IVF treatment is £2,771. Since 2001, the interim service has been provided with a cost envelope of expenditure of £1·4 million per annum. It has, therefore, been necessary to restrict access to the service. This lack of resources is the main reason why IVF treatment is not more freely available.

The upper age limit at which female partners using their own eggs can access publicly funded IVF treatment was raised from 37 to 38 in October 2006 and from 38 to 39 in April 2007, and an additional £50,000 was made available for counselling services in 2006.

That is, of course, an important measure.

3.30 pm

Health and social services boards do not always have detailed figures for fertility service waiting times. The Department has proved to be responsive, with a tranche of reforms and measures over the past few years. However, the Committee could look at the subject in much more detail than the Assembly would be allowed to do. The Member has raised an important issue.

Mr McCarthy: Not that long ago — possibly in August — I proposed that the Department for Regional Development should provide free transport to the over-60s. Thankfully, the announcement on that matter was agreed today. Does the Member not think that by bringing this important subject to the Floor of the Assembly that the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety might be minded to do something similar in the not too distant future?

Mr McCallister: First, it probably was not in August —

Mr McCarthy: It was in August — 19 August — that I brought the matter to the Floor of the Assembly.

Mr McCallister: In here?

Mr McCarthy: Yes.

Mr McCallister: Was the Assembly not in recess? I doubt that it was in August. However, if the Member says that it was — [Interruption.]

Mr McCarthy: It was on the Floor of this Assembly anyway.

Mr McCallister: That is probably why the Member got it passed. [Laughter.]

I take the Member’s point. We were all very supportive of that measure — particularly my colleague for North Belfast Fred Cobain, and I am sure that he will welcome it.

We are looking at a fairly meagre increase. Taking inflation into context, there may almost be a cut in health spending. Set against a backdrop of delivering the other measures that the Assembly has made it clear that it wants, such as free personal care, and given that the Minister and the Department may not have the resources to deliver, we do not want to be raising false hopes.

Mr Buchanan: I support the amendment, as it is fuller and gives more detail on the way forward. The motion will generate interest in many couples across Northern Ireland. In 2006, a leading Belfast doctor estimated that 40,000 couples in Northern Ireland suffered from infertility. For many couples seeking to start a family and who are faced with the difficulty of infertility, few Members, if any in the House, can begin to identify with them or understand the frustration, anxiety and pressure that that can bring to bear on a relationship or on a married couple.

Many couples see IVF treatment as the lifeline to resolving their problems. However, it must be noted that IVF is successful in only a percentage of cases. Although 30,000 women in the UK undergo IVF treatment each year, statistics show that it results in approximately 8,300 births, which is less than a 30% success rate.

However, it must be acknowledged that there is a growing demand for IVF treatment. Although demand for treatment among women in their forties has soared, statistics show clearly that older women have a lower overall success rate. For example, in 2004, women who underwent fertility treatment at 28 years of age had a success rate of 25·7%, while women of 40 years of age had a success rate of only 11·8%. Therefore, in light of that, it is important that the waiting lists should be addressed urgently.

It is a dangerous scenario for couples to think that simply because IVF treatment is available, they should delay their attempts to start a family until later in life when they have finished a career or feel more ready to settle down.

The matter of IVF treatment is complex. It presents difficulties for some Members because it is so expensive and is not always successful. During IVF treatment, many embryos are created in the laboratory. They are then graded, and at least two or three are transferred into the womb. The remainder are frozen or, if they do not look healthy, they are discarded.

Some of us believe that life begins at the point of conception. Therefore, life has begun before the embryo is implanted in the womb in order for it to complete its development. As soon as an embryo exists, it has the full status of any other person. To disregard the embryo in that way is to kill it, which, in reality, is abortion. Nevertheless, some fertility clinics in Northern Ireland have enrolled infertile couples in IVF programmes on the proviso that only two or three embryos would be produced for implantation. None would be frozen, meaning that there would be no question of any fatal reduction in numbers.

With that in mind, it is important not only to address the issue of waiting lists and age-weighting criteria but to consider the wider aspects of such treatment. The NHS was founded on the principle of fair and equal access to healthcare services for all, yet, clearly, current IVF-treatment policies are neither equal nor fair and are failing many people in Northern Ireland. I support the amendment.

Mr Easton: It is ironic that earlier this week the Assembly dealt with the subject of abortion and that today, Members are discussing the availability of IVF treatment. It was interesting to hear how those who campaign to make abortion more widely available reacted to the Assembly’s call to protect the lives of unborn children. Today, we are speaking in support of those who are anxious to have a child and who can offer the love, happiness and security of a caring family.

For many people, the inability to have a child is a colossal blow that causes great sorrow and unhappiness. That often goes unnoticed because other people are concentrating on their own concerns. It is difficult to imagine how couples who cannot conceive feel when they realise how many abortions occur every day.

Members may not be surprised to hear that the United Kingdom is a world leader in the scientific research and technology that is involved in IVF treatment. In spite of that, however, the United Kingdom is at the bottom of the European league on the availability of treatment. In Denmark, the chances of receiving treatment are three times higher than in the UK, and they are twice as likely in France and the Netherlands. In addition, there is a postcode lottery in the United Kingdom for the provision of a service that will materially change people’s lives.

It is an interesting exercise to go on the Internet and find that all over Europe, IVF treatment is privately available at a moment’s notice at a fraction of the UK cost from highly skilled and qualified physicians. Therefore, it is vital that we here in Northern Ireland do all that is in our power to emulate our European neighbours.

In the Province, the numbers seeking IVF treatment are relatively small; therefore, I appeal for sufficient resources to be made available to the Health Service in order to help those people.

The Assembly is committed to developing a society that puts the needs of people to the forefront of its thinking, to supporting the family and family values and to creating a future in which children grow up in a loving and caring family relationship. It is of paramount importance that Members unequivocally support those who require IVF treatment in order to have children. I support the call for resources to be made available to bring the Province in line with countries such as France, Denmark, and the Netherlands. It is vital that special consideration is given to that relatively small percentage of people who require treatment in order that they can know the joy of having a child of their own.

With 48% of Northern Ireland’s overall Budget being spent on health, and considering that so much of the health budget is spent on art — a policy that I know that the Minister is reviewing — perhaps some of that money could be redirected and made available for IVF treatment. I hope that the Minister will perhaps consider that today. I support the amendment; it is a much better proposition than the motion.

Mrs Hanna: I support the motion in the name of my colleague Alex Attwood, and I thank him for bringing it to the House. The Floor of the House is the first port of call for such a debate, not to give false hope, but to raise awareness of the issue, which can then be matched against need and availability of resources.

In vitro fertilization via the National Health Service is characterised by long waiting lists and a restricted number of treatment cycles. Important issues that have been raised by patients include the lack of understanding of what it means to be on a waiting list. Initial predicted waiting times can be greatly underestimated. When patients eventually receive treatment, they consider it worthwhile, but they have legitimate concerns about the time that they had to spend waiting for it. For many, the wait is too long and too uncertain.

Concerns have also been raised about the fact that IVF waiting lists involve hidden costs for patients and for the National Health Service. IVF creates a human dilemma. Although the Assembly talks up the idea of supporting families, it must give them more practical support.

Dozens of couples are struck off the waiting list every year, and they either give up trying to get treatment or pay for it privately. Fertility experts have concluded that conception rates for women who use their own eggs decline after the age of 39, and that was the reason for raising the bar to 40. However, most women turn to IVF treatment only after trying to become pregnant for several years. Naturally, they may be approaching the age of 40 by the time they apply for IVF.

For women using donated eggs, IVF is permissible up to the age of 49. However, access to the treatment is patchy, and, as a result of delays and inconsistencies, many couples, despite meeting the age qualification, miss out.

Some experts recommend that the current rules for those on NHS waiting lists should be relaxed. Infertility can have devastating effects, and, after years of trying unsuccessfully to have a family, many couples face very long waits. For many, as I said, the treatment comes too late.

Although I appreciate that a cut-off point is necessary, it is important to take all factors into account and to consider that couples who want to conceive children go through an emotional and anxious time, particularly those who are growing older and facing their last chance to have a baby.

Medical science is moving on, and many women in their 40s have children. Doctors can do much more these days, and I hope that medical advances will continue in that area. Infertile couples need better services. Reducing waiting lists and extending the age limit for IVF might not be the whole answer, but cutting the waiting time is extremely important. If people are fortunate enough to join a short waiting list, they will have a greater opportunity to avail of IVF treatment.

As has been said, our fertility treatments are falling behind those of our European counterparts, as has the number of babies born as a result of IVF. I know women who have gone abroad to receive treatment, but that option is not open to everyone because of the cost.

The NICE guidelines, ‘Fertility: assessment and treatment for people with fertility problems’, which have been mentioned, recommend three cycles of treatment. However, despite that recommendation, only one cycle of treatment is currently available.

In September 2006, the then Minister with respons­ibility for health, Paul Goggins, announced new criteria for assessing Health Service IVF treatment under the headings of waiting lists, counselling services, and intra uterine insemination (IUI) treatment, but, at present, there is a lack of guidance from the Department on how to prioritise treatment for patients, and the social criteria vary.

I call on the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to consult interested parties with a view to renewing the criteria in order to overcome the current inequalities, which can restrict some couples from receiving the same treatment as others.

Access has to be fair and equal. During what is an already stressful and traumatic time for those involved, couples are still being forced to wait for up to three years — that is unacceptable.

3.45 pm

Motherhood, and preparing for motherhood — whether through pregnancy, adoption, surrogacy, or IVF — has many challenges, which are often unsatisfactorily dealt with by contradictory plans and treatments that are in place. I have contacted the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety regarding some of those issues.

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

Mrs Hanna: Finally, we need to have a comprehensive review to get better and fairer access.

Mr Shannon: Thers naethin laek tha feilin that ye git whun ye furst haud yer sinn’ er dochter in yer erms. It jist canny be explained an tha experience is a real ee’ apener. An as a’ prood fether o’ three strappin sinns’ aa’ cann sae this tae ye: the feelin disnae gaun awa wi’ mare wanes er tha passin o’ tiem. It is fer this raison that whun aa’ think o’ tha yins that his nae hed this apertunity. It is my desire tae help them in tha yin wae aa’ caun – an that is tae be ahint ther claim fer IVF in tha Provance.

There is nothing like the feeling that you get when you first hold your son or daughter in your arms; it cannot be expressed or explained. It is an experience that cannot be equalled and as the proud father of three strapping boys, I can tell you that the strength of feeling does not diminish with subsequent children or, indeed, with the passing of time. For that reason, when I think of people who do not have such opportunities, it is my desire to support them in the only way that I can — and that is to support their claim for IVF in the Province.

The proposer of the motion made a good case, but I am supporting the amendment, because it is more detailed and gives the issue the focus and attention that it needs.

The figures are clear. It is estimated that over 40,000 couples in Northern Ireland have problems conceiving a child, and one in seven couples have problems with fertility. As elected representatives, we are aware of the stress, trauma and heartbreak that results from those cases. People go to their GP, only to learn that in order to qualify for IVF treatment, they must have been infertile for up to three years. That is an issue that I have a problem with. The modern age must be considered. People are no longer necessarily getting married at 18. These days, women have careers that they want to pursue. Therefore, they put off having children until well into their 30s, instead of their mid-20s. That can mean that when it comes to having children, their opportunity — without their knowing — may have passed.

It is important to realise that the prerequisite of having three years’ infertility recognised by GPs will carry some women over the desired age range. The age limit for IVF treatment of 38, which was previously in place, should rightly be upped to 40. That would mean that women who have chosen a career without realising that they have a problem would be able to take advantage of the treatment.

Couples are currently offered the opportunity of three cycles of treatment. That gives a 50% chance of success. Some ladies that come to my office have had successful IVF treatment, which resulted in wonderful experiences, but others have been unsuccessful, and it has cost them a small fortune. I know of ladies who — rather than buy a house, as some of them could have done, and perhaps should have done — spent all of their money on IVF treatment that was unsuccessful. Real trauma and disappointment can be seen in those people’s faces. I know of one lady who spent £13,000 on unsuccessful fertility treatment.

It may seem that three cycles is more than generous. However, it is hard to tell that to a couple whose third pregnancy has failed and who are heartbroken. I know people who have gone to Bulgaria and Istanbul for treatment — again, at great personal cost. Some of them have been successful, and some have not. Those are issues that must be focused on.

In Denmark, more cycles per million couples are offered — these are technical issues, but Great Britain is far behind, having only 600 cycles per million couples. Those figures need to be considered.

The Scottish Executive have suggested that five cycles should be offered, in order to boost the success of IVF treatment. That is something that the Assembly should ask the Minister to consider. The waiting lists are too long, the opportunities are too restricted, and the medical professionals are too far stretched.

There are, of course, couples who cannot carry a child, which is heart-rending. However, we have got to try to help those who want to find out whether fertility treatment can help them.

Northern Ireland must have more NHS facilities with the capacity to carry out fertilisation programmes. I urge the Minister of Health to recognise the lack of facilities suffered by this field of medicine, in the UK as a whole, and in Northern Ireland in particular. He must put in place the makings of change.

I support the amendment and ask Members to do likewise. It is important for a woman to experience the unparalleled joy of having a child.

Mr Durkan: I commend my colleague Alex Attwood for bringing this important issue to the Assembly. Like other Members, I acknowledge that the amendment is a positive contribution. This is not a contest between the original motion and the amendment; it is such an important issue, and Members should reinforce what they hear each other say, to amplify our concern for the people who need those services.

As politicians, we often say that we are doing something for our children and our children’s children. We heard it said today. It is natural for people to presume that every adult or married couple has children, or, if it is their choice, that they will have them. Often, in a glib and natural way, when we use such phrases, we unintentionally remind people who go to all sorts of lengths, and cope with infertility and stress in the absence of children, of the pain that they suffer. Because we make that assumption, people who wait, hope and make all sorts of endeavours to have a child find the way in which we talk about these things painful and — literally — thoughtless.

Yet again, the Minister is present to hear Members’ concerns on important issues. As well as addressing our remarks to him and his Department, it is important that we all look at the way we talk about families, at the assumptions we make and, sometimes, at the jokes we make about infertility and its treatment. All of us could be more sensitive in that regard. I speak as one with experience. It was nearly 12 years before my wife and I were blessed with a child. At times, the way in which things are said can hurt. For that reason, I am always open to people who raise these issues.

That is also why I pay tribute to the former Minister of Health in the previous phase of devolution, Bairbre de Brún, who took an important step back in 2001 in commissioning a consultation about fertility treatment. Because it involved financial implications, I, as Minister of Finance and Personnel, had to agree that with her. In 2006 we finally obtained an outcome from the document ‘From People to Parents: A Public Consultation Document on the Future of Fertility Services in Northern Ireland’. I was pleased with some of the changes that emerged. It was realised that the limit on the number of cycles that people could have was a grave disappoint­ment. Many people had campaigned for a good outcome from that consultation; many had spent years waiting for its outcome; and many others had spent years waiting for treatment or working with people waiting for treatment. As so often the case in this situation, the success that they saw was tinged with other sadness and frustrations.

I felt, in late 2006, that the Minister responsible, Paul Goggins, did not go as far as his predecessor had seemed to promise me in the House of Commons. That predecessor was Shaun Woodward, the current Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who talked up a much bigger and more sensitive outcome to the ‘From People to Parents’ consultation.

It is right, therefore, for the Assembly to ask the Department to look at this again. In supporting the amendment, I do not direct this to the Minister alone, or suggest that the Committee should have no role in this.

As we have heard today, both the Health Minister and the Health Committee can make a serious, sensitive and purposeful contribution to ensure that we make progress and achieve good outcomes.

We must create a situation in which people can access the services that they have been told are available, and can understand the criteria. Neither the couple nor the professionals who are dealing with them should find that they must cope with gobbledegook, as though they are a problem or an unwarranted demand on a system that has better things to do and better people to look after. This issue is fundamental to people’s ambitions for themselves, not only as private couples and individuals but as people who want to be part of a wholesome, healthy society — the type of society that Members have talked about aspiring to today. Families are at the centre of that.

Those people who are struggling to become a family need every bit of support that we can give them. Those for whom treatment does not succeed also need support, so there must be more emphasis on counselling services for those who are awaiting treatment, and for those who have had treatment and have been disappointed.

The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Mr McGimpsey): For those affected, infertility can be a shattering problem that affects every area of their lives. It is important that their concerns in relation to its treatment are addressed openly and fairly, and that everyone is clear about who may have publicly funded fertility treatment. It is also important that people know why there are conditions on access to services. Therefore, I shall briefly outline how those conditions were decided.

In April 2001, there was no publicly funded IVF service in Northern Ireland. As Mr Durkan has said, in response to increasing demand, the then Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, Bairbre de Brún, initiated a public debate on the future of publicly funded fertility services and, specifically, which services should be funded by the Health Service.

While proposals were prepared for consultation, interim arrangements were put in place in order to allow access — albeit limited access — to publicly funded services. In the light of other competing priorities in healthcare services, limited funding was allocated to the provision of IVF. In 2001, that funding was £1·2 million, which was to allow for two cycles of treatment for women up to 37 years old. The consultation document ‘From People to Parents’ was issued for public consultation, and that document sought views on a wide range of matters in relation to IVF treatment. Opinions were sought on the specific conditions for access to the service, and those included, among other issues, the upper age limit at which the female partner could be provided with publicly funded treatment.

An analysis of the responses to the consultation was used, along with NICE guidance, where applicable, to develop revised access criteria. Those criteria were introduced in October 2006, and all the proposed changes were subject to a full equality impact assessment to ensure that they did not unfairly disadvantage any patients who wished to access the service. Many of the changes that were introduced were designed to make IVF treatment accessible to a larger number of women. The upper age limit for women using their own eggs was raised from 37 to 38 on 1 October 2006, and from 38 to 39 on 1 April 2007. That was in line with the NICE guidelines, and with the latest advice from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, the body that regulates such services. Restrictive criteria on couples with dependent children, who until then had not been eligible, were also removed. In addition, a previous policy was removed that had forced women to wait for three years before they could join the waiting list if they had an appropriately diagnosed cause for infertility.

Members will have heard me say many times that funding for health services remains very tight, and will become tighter. We have not been able to allocate additional funding for fertility services, and could do so only at the expense of other high-priority services.

Before my time as Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, in order to allow a greater number of women to avail of treatment, the decision was made to reduce the number of fertility treatments from two to one per woman.

NICE guidelines recommend that three treatments should be provided. However, at the time, the number of treatments was two, which was then reduced to one. Although that is not ideal, the argument was that priority be given to making the opportunity for publicly funded treatment available to the largest number of women possible. During transition to the new policy, qualifying couples who were already on the waiting list and who had had one unsuccessful cycle of treatment were offered a further cycle in order to honour assurances that they had been given.

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

4.00 pm

I recognise that NICE guidance recommends the provision of three cycles. Approximately 420 cycles are provided each year. However, 590 patients are waiting for IVF treatment. Therefore, even though one cycle per person is provided, there is still a shortage. That is why there is a waiting list. The waiting list depends purely on resources, rather than on capacity, the number of doctors, and so on. To provide three cycles on the current resource level would reduce the number of women who can avail of treatment by two thirds.

The policy is also based on age considerations. It is, however, not an ageist policy; it has had an equality impact assessment and equality assurance. The chance of a live birth for each IVF treatment cycle drops as women get older; from 20% to 15% after the age of 35, to 10% aged 39 and to 6% aged 40. Therefore, the argument is that to skew resources towards women who are at the upper end of the age limit would be less likely to achieve a successful result.

That is the current context in which the waiting list operates. Patients are dealt with chronologically from the date on which they go on the list. Waiting times are determined by the date of the consultant’s referral to the fertility clinic. Waiting times for appointments with the consultant are determined by the date of the application. In order to ensure equity, patients are added to the waiting list from the date on which their consultant at the regional fertility centre decides that they are suitable for treatment. They are then treated strictly in chronological order, in line with the systems that are in place for all other health services.

It has been suggested that women who are likely to reach the upper age limit for treatment before they reach the top of the list should be prioritised so that they are treated before their fortieth birthday. That is difficult to justify. Moving women up the waiting list can only be done at the expense of other couples who may have been waiting considerably longer for treatment. It is also recognised that the likelihood of fertility treatment being successful decreases with age, as I have explained. Therefore, skewing resources accordingly would cause a delay that could affect the chances of others who have effectively been leapfrogged on the waiting list. As I have said, those chances reduce to 6% by the age of 40. Those are the proven outcomes of fertility treatment.

It is also important to point out that when annual resources have been allocated to individual patients, no further publicly funded treatments can be provided during the financial year. In other words, when resources are used up determines when treatment is no longer offered; not other reasons, such as doctors’ time, and so on. The issue is purely one of resources. In those circumstances, it would almost always be the youngest patient on the list who would be disadvantaged.

Therefore, it is recognised practice that when the date for treatment is set, the revised policy is not applied retrospectively, nor should exceptions normally be made. I must ensure that service provision is equitable and accessible to as many women as possible and that it provides the best possible chances of successful pregnancy.

As regards a postcode lottery, and the issue of differential treatment in different parts of Northern Ireland, funding is provided by the four area boards on a capitation basis — in the same way that all other Health Service funding is provided — in order to ensure equity of access and spend. The current policy — and all of this went through the review — encourages early access to treatment. Therefore, it is possible that the access criteria that we currently have on offer provide a fair and equitable chance for all women who need publicly funded services.

Moreover, at the time when the new criteria were introduced, boards were asked to monitor referrals and waiting times over the first year in order to assess demand for services and the capacity of the regional fertility centre. The first year in which the boards have been operating under the new criteria is now complete, and the boards have been asked to report on the situation. That report will be made available at the end of November. I must emphasise that, in reviewing the policy, we are always going to return to the issue of available resources and the resources to be devoted to that service. That, of course, in times of limited resources means that there must be prioritisation of services.

There has been a review and a consultation. Criteria have been set, and they have been widespread. They do not follow NICE guidelines as regards three-cycle funding. Rather, they follow NICE guidelines on one-cycle funding. The risks were taken into account during that review. It has only been in operation for a year. The Department is about to undertake monitoring and referral of the scheme.

Having said all that, I hear the views of the House, and I understand the points that have been made. Mr Attwood has spoken to me about the issue on a number of occasions, as have Mrs O’Neill and Mrs Hanna. If it is the will of the House, I will be happy to revisit the review. In due course, I would return to the House and report on the matter. However, I would need to wait until November, by which time the referrals will have come through — that is only another four weeks. I would then be in a position to consider undertaking a review, specifically, of the issues of waiting lists, skewing for age and — the key factor — funding limitations. With regard to funding limitations, whatever the UK Government says, the trusts throughout the UK operate a funded single cycle of treatment for each patient. That is the situation. If Members request a review, I will be happy to accede to that request.

Mr O’Dowd: Go raibh maith agat. I apologise for being late in joining the debate. I had been chairing the Public Accounts Committee meeting. I came to the Chamber as soon as possible.

I declare an interest in the motion. I am one of the lucky people; I have a two-year-old daughter as a result of IVF treatment. I am doubly lucky, because my wife is expecting a second child as a result of IVF treatment. So, we are doubly blessed in that matter. We have been through the mill over the past six to eight years. It is an experience that is not unique to us as a couple — or, perhaps, to others in the Chamber — and it is definitely not unknown to those in wider society.

Anyone who has experienced infertility, and the treatment for it, has been through hell. That is the only way in which I can describe it. At one level, I would not wish IVF treatment on anyone, because of the physical and emotional demands that it places on the woman, firstly, and the tremendous emotional demands that it places on the couple and their relationship. The treatment is very difficult for the woman. In this debate I have heard terms such as “ICSI”, “donor eggs”, “donor sperm”, “harvesting of eggs”, “hyperstimulation injections” and “frozen embryos”.

Many a time, my wife and I have said that we could write a stage play based on the humorous side of IVF treatment. Humour was what got us through the darkest days of the treatment. The many situations in which people who are receiving IVF treatment find themselves are often a source of humour, and that humour gets people through the dark days.

We underwent a number of treatments under the original system, and those treatments were free. However, we ended up having to opt for private treatment. The average cost of treatment is £2,700, but that cost can rise to as much as £3,500. The costs of individual treatment and the specific drugs, and so on, all add up. If Members consider the physical and emotional pressures that people who are going through the treatment are under, and then add to those the worry that is experienced about bank loans, credit-card repayments and overdrafts, it becomes clear that the pressure on couples is great.

Moreover, that tension and pressure does not help the woman when she is receiving treatment. When the eggs are put back in at the start of the process, the woman is told that she must relax. However, she cannot do so because of the worry about whether the treatment will work and whether the couple can afford it. My wife and I were lucky because we were in reasonably paid jobs at the time of our treatment, so we could meet the bills. However, many couples cannot do so. Many find it impossible to afford the repayments on a £3,500 extension to a loan or mortgage, and that means that they cannot have children. That is not fair.

I know that the Minister’s budget is very tight and that he has to apportion funds where they are needed and in response to high-profile demands. However, the fact that Mr Attwood has brought this motion to the House shows that there are wider concerns in society about infertility and that further action is required to address the issue. I welcome the motion, and I clearly support the amendment, which adds to the motion. The views that have been expressed in the Chamber show that wider society wants a more concentrated approach to be taken to infertility and for couples who cannot have children to be given more support.

I particularly noted Mr Durkan’s remarks on the comments that are sometimes made to couples who do not have children. I have heard them all — both the well-meaning ones and the smart-alec ones. People should take a step back and think about what they are saying. Such comments are like a stab through the heart. People sometimes intend their remarks as a joke, but they are not funny. I appeal to anyone who is listening to this debate to think twice before making comments to couples without children, as there may be a deep-seated reason for why they do not have any.

I welcome the Minister’s saying that he is prepared to take on board Members’ views and report back to us in mid-November. I applaud the Minister for that.

I have one criticism of counselling services. I appeal to counsellors to remember that a man is involved in the process, too. I have the greatest respect for those who work in the regional fertility centre at the Royal Maternity Hospital in Belfast. From the moment that we walked in the door, we were struck by how brilliant the staff were — from the first person we met to the highest-level medic in the building. They are all brilliant people. However, when accessing and receiving counselling services, men sometimes feel that they are an add-on. They must be fully included in the counselling process.

Mr Attwood: I say at the outset that the SDLP will, of course, support the Sinn Féin amendment. The amendment is welcome, as is any amendment that enhances a motion and that adds detail and direction.

I shall focus on some themes that have run through the debate. Mrs O’Neill was the first Member to mention the three cycles of treatment, which other Members, including Mr Durkan and Mrs Hanna, also mentioned later. The provision of three cycles of IVF treatment is a touchstone of fertility services in Northern Ireland, and it must be dealt with if progress is to be made. I welcome the Minister’s remarks, but, given the flavour of the debate and the fact that so many Members spoke in favour of a three-cycle outcome, I believe that the Assembly will ultimately be judged, and must judge itself, on whether it works to achieve that outcome. This issue, as much as any other, will be a touchstone as to whether there are benefits to devolution.

I welcome the comments of Iris Robinson. After reading the House of Commons Hansard reports, I know that she has been diligent on this issue over a long period, and has asked many useful and probing questions — as has my colleague Mark Durkan — in trying to advance this issue. I agree with her that there have been problems in the administration of regional fertility waiting lists.

Although I acknowledge Mr O’Dowd’s comment about the good work that is carried out in the regional fertility clinic, there are problems of management and bureaucracy, which I have experienced. I wrote a letter to the regional fertility clinic in November 2006, asking about the number of people on waiting lists in the North, and whether there could be any indicative time frame for those people to receive treatment — I did not receive a reply until 1 June 2007. I suggest to the Minister that any forthcoming review looks at how to enhance the capacity and management of the regional fertility clinic so that couples know when they might anticipate treatment.

I welcome the comments of Kieran McCarthy and John McCallister. I suspect — although it is not for me to say — that there is a role for the Health Committee in all of these matters. We can also learn from the European experience. If — as Mr McCarthy says — we are the poor relation in Europe in respect of the provision of fertility treatment, is it beyond the wit of the Assembly, the Minister and the Committee to become a shining example, rather than remain behind the game?

I concur with Mrs Hanna’s response to Mr McCallister; I do not attempt to build up the hopes of couples who come to see me. The advice that I gave to women to whom I spoke on the phone yesterday afternoon was based on a premise of “expect little and hope for much”. I know from the experience of the couple that I mentioned earlier that couples can have their hopes completely dashed. Therefore, there is a need for a high level of caution when Members speak to constituents about this matter.

4.15 pm

The Department, the Minister and the Assembly must be challenged to turn this issue around. Mr Durkan and Mr O’Dowd were quite right to remind the Assembly that, for the all the joy that people experience from having children — I have a young child — we cannot forget that that same joy is not enjoyed by many people. On my behalf, and that of the Assembly, I wish Mr O’Dowd and his wife well in the time until their second child is born. The content of Mr O’Dowd’s speech was a personal, intimate and compelling narrative that should be a guide for Members, the Minister, and the Department in how to advance the issue.

I welcome the fact that the Minister is present and I welcome much of what he said. I particularly welcome his statement that, if it were the will of the Assembly, he might be minded to look again at how a review is carried out. I very much welcome that, and I hope that the Minister acts accordingly.

The Minister noted that, ultimately, these matters — and all such matters — are subject to constraints on funding. I was reminded that the Minister of Finance and Personnel mentioned greater end-year flexibility in today’s statement on the draft Budget.

There would be greater end-year flexibility when it came to financial opportunities during and at the end of the financial year. I suggest that, given that that now appears to be the case, it might be opportune to consider, as soon as possible, how to front-load some of that funding to provide additional flexibility for fertility services in order to try and achieve the target of three cycles of treatment.

I ask the Minister, when he is considering how to take forward the review, to take into account the questions that I and other Members have asked, and that he has the opportunity to respond to, because those questions will inform how the review is constructed. There is a range of issues to be considered, some of which might be dealt with if they were in the review’s terms of reference. I do not believe that the Department has proven the case that a woman who is about to attain the age of 40 is leapfrogging, as the Minister described it, a younger woman. I do not think that it has been proven that the older person gets an advantage that is disproportionate to the disadvantage of the younger woman.

Hard cases do not make good law, but in recent days I have been speaking to women, one of whom attained the age of 40 and was unable to get treatment. I spoke to another woman, aged 27, who last month completed her first cycle of treatment and is now looking for a second cycle. I suggest that treating women who are approaching 40 does not materially disadvantage those who are 27, 26 or 25. The clinical and medical judge­ments are difficult, because every case is different. However, it has not been proven to me, or to the couple who spoke to me about the matter, that they would have been disadvantaged in a way that was disproportionate to other categories of people. Given that nothing can be done about the couple that I have spoken about, I ask the Minister to reconsider the matter and find another way for women who are about to attain the age of 40 in the next few months to be accommodated properly and legally.

I thank everyone for their contributions to the debate; the tone and character was proper. I urge Members to support the motion, as amended.

Question, That the amendment be made, put and agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.


That this Assembly calls on the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to commence a comprehensive review into the current criteria used to assess eligibility, including the age weighting criteria, the ongoing problem with waiting lists, and the number of IVF treatments available on the NHS, with a view to establishing a more equitable and accessible policy.


Mr Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one and a half hours for this debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes for the winding-up speech. All other Members will have five minutes. Two amendments have been received and have been published on the Marshalled List. Members who move the amendments will have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes for their winding-up speeches.

Mr McKay: I beg to move:

That this Assembly expresses concern at the findings of the report on the impact of the Windscale Piles accident at the Sellafield nuclear plant and the implications that this has for the health and well-being of people living on these islands and in Europe; and calls upon the Government to discontinue all operations at the Sellafield nuclear plant.

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Sinn Féin has brought the motion to the Assembly, not only out of concern for the public health of people who live on the east coast in places such as Antrim, Down and Louth but also because it is concerned at the threat that Sellafield poses to the well-being of people who live throughout Ireland, as well as in Britain and western Europe. Sinn Féin will not be supporting either amendment.

The DUP amendment supports nuclear power, which directly contradicts the motion, and the SDLP amendment adds nothing substantive to Sinn Féin’s motion. A motion to the same effect has been passed in the Dáil. Today, the Assembly has an opportunity to send a clear message to the British Government that all the major political institutions on this island want the nuclear plant at Sellafield to be shut down.

Fifty years ago, there was radioactive fallout from a major accident at the Windscale nuclear reactor. New research shows that the incident generated twice as much radioactive material and caused dozens more cancers than was previously thought. At the time, the Windscale fire was the world’s biggest nuclear disaster. The methods used to extinguish the fire could have caused an explosion, but, fortunately, they did not.

Tom Tuohy, who was the deputy general manager on the site, led the team that had to contend with a nightmare that no one at that time had thought possible. He said:

“Mankind had never faced a situation like this”.

However, the Windscale accident was not a one-off. Just two years ago at Sellafield, there was a leakage of highly radioactive nuclear fuel. Approximately 20 tons of uranium and plutonium — enough to make 20 nuclear weapons — dissolved and escaped through a cracked pipe. Nordic parliamentarians recently met the owners of Sellafield and told them that safety procedures at the nuclear plant needed to be tightened up. The British authorities have granted permission to resume reprocessing of nuclear waste at the THORP, which was closed several years ago because of a radioactive leak. The controversial THORP has aroused strong feelings in Nordic and Irish politicians. Ministers with responsibility for the environment from Norway, the Twenty-six Counties, Iceland and Austria have demanded that it not be reopened.

A devastating official inquiry recently found that safety alarms had been routinely ignored, operating instructions flouted and safety equipment left broken at the controversial plant. The inquiry report, one of the most damming ever of a British nuclear installation, condemned the Cumbrian complex for its “alarm-tolerant culture”. It also identified:

“long-standing failings in some key safety arrangements”

and a

“failure to learn from previous events”.

The accident at the THORP was disclosed by ‘The Independent on Sunday’ in 2005 and was the focus of the investigation. Some 83,000 litres of highly radioactive liquid leaked at the plant for at least eight months before the spill was detected.

The daughter of a man who died at the Sellafield reprocessing plant in the 1960s condemned the secretive nature of the British nuclear industry. In 1962, Jean McSorley’s father died from a heart attack at the nuclear plant at the age of 39, and his body was taken for an autopsy without his family’s consent. The body parts of 65 other workers who died at the plant between 1962 and 1991 appear to have been secretly examined for evidence of radiation. Ms McSorley said:

“Openness and transparency and the nuclear industry are mutually exclusive. They are always looking for reasons not to be fully open with the public.”

Indeed, the nuclear industry has never been open with the public.

Sellafield remains a significant threat to people on this island, particularly to those who live in the north-east. Ministers as well as private Members should press the British Government on the issue at every opportunity. Irish people have been living with the consequences of the fire at Sellafield for many years, and there are particularly high rates of cancer and birth defects in County Louth and south Down. Sinn Féin has called on the Irish Government to convene round-table talks on Sellafield. Those invited should include non-govern­mental organisations, environmentalists, campaign groups and northern European states, particularly Norway, whose representatives have been highly vocal on the issue. Assembly representatives should also be involved in such a process.

An independent group has taken meter readings in the Twenty-six Counties. Recent readings show that the highest levels of nuclear contamination are to be found in areas of County Louth, County Meath and along the north Dublin coast — all are a stone’s throw away from Sellafield. A similar exercise should be carried out in the Six Counties to establish how much nuclear contamination has affected the entire east coast.

Sinn Féin has consistently called for the closure of Sellafield. Reprocessing there must end immediately. It is a discredited plant and remains the most dangerous and unstable nuclear facility in western Europe. Sinn Féin will continue to fight for its immediate closure and calls on the Assembly to back the motion. Go raibh maith agat.

4.30 pm

Mr Hamilton: I beg to move amendment No 1: Leave out all after first ‘plant’ and insert

‘; notes the improving safety standards within the nuclear power industry; believes that the United Kingdom should have a safe, secure and diverse energy supply that takes account of the need to address the issue of increasing carbon emissions and the need to end dependency on fossil fuels; recognises that nuclear power plays an increasing role in power generation in several EU states; and calls upon the Government to consider carefully a well-regulated nuclear sector, operating to the highest safety standards, as one element of the United Kingdom’s energy supply.’

The general opinion of nuclear power is sometimes clouded by our thoughts or media images of disasters such as Windscale Piles, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, and, although they are unrelated, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There is undoubtedly concern about what has happened in the nuclear industry in the past, not least in the Windscale Piles accident, which forms part of the original motion. There is warranted concern, especially in the underestimation of the fallout, and in some of the insinuation of cover-up at that time. However, we cannot judge the nuclear industry of the twenty-first century by 1957 standards. Even Chernobyl, which is regularly used as an example in debates of this nature, collapsed when the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse and people were barely able to get a loaf of bread in the shops, never mind properly run nuclear power plants.

We should recognise the marked improvement in safety standards in the nuclear industry. Windscale Piles happened when there was little knowledge of reactor physics, and there was a rush to build the facility at that stage. Simon Taylor, a noted academic at Cambridge University, said that if there was any benefit in that accident, it was that it focused minds on safety issues. A safe, secure and varied energy supply will surely be our common objective, and nuclear power can help to achieve those aims.

Great strides have been made in other countries, such as South Africa and China, who are pioneering the development of well-recognised, safer, smaller, pebble-bed reactors.

The security of supply is an important aspect, as it is essential. We are sourcing our oil from volatile regions around the world, such as Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. Europe gets its natural gas from countries such as Russia. We all remember the recent example where Russia literally turned off the taps to the supply in the Ukraine and left the country with nowhere to go. We must avoid that sort of situation. Nuclear energy can perhaps play a part in solving that problem.

A varied energy supply is also important. We need less fossil fuel and more renewable energy, whether that be wind, wave or biomass. Nuclear energy must also play a part.

Another benefit of exploring the possibility of expanding nuclear power is that it creates lower carbon emissions and contains almost no carbon dioxide. Such an expansion would assist the United Kingdom in reaching its targets and in combating climate change. Reducing our dependence on fossil fuels is an essential element of any energy strategy. We are currently sourcing fossil fuels from volatile regions round the world, but that is a dangerous policy in the longer term. Fossil fuels are a finite resource, and they will run out at some point. Various targets suggest that, even in this century, some of those sources may dry up and disappear. There is the spin off that if we were to reduce fossil fuels, we would reduce pollution. No notable sulphur dioxides, nitrogen dioxides or other particulates are present in nuclear fuel.

It would be unwise in a debate on nuclear power not to pay attention to what other EU states are doing. We have heard mention of attitudes in other countries, but I do not think that that typifies what is going on among our near neighbours in Europe. France generates 78% of its electricity from nuclear sources, and that figure is set to rise. Finland started a nuclear power renaissance in 2002, and other countries in Europe, such as Lithuania, are also exploring that option. There are 300 nuclear reactors in over 30 countries across the world. The amendment in my name and in the name of David Simpson accepts the reality of the situation.

Nuclear power is already being used to produce 20% of the UK’s energy. I imagine that the proposers of the motion and the SDLP amendment want to do away with nuclear energy altogether. If we got rid of Sellafield, what would we replace it with? To get rid of one fifth of the UK’s energy overnight has consequences, not least in the cost of, and dependence on, other sources of energy, some of which are finite or dangerous to the environment.

Although there are alternatives, some of which I have already mentioned, the Northern Ireland grid is currently unable to cope with any further input from renewable sources. Expansion into that sphere is not without its problems. Furthermore, the fact that there is considerable opposition in Northern Ireland and elsewhere to some forms of renewable energy, such as wind or wave power, is sometimes ignored when nuclear power is discussed. Whether it is because someone’s view is obscured, or because birds or seals are affected, some people are opposed to the introduction of those sources of energy. That is a problem that we have to face.

Nuclear power is already used in our energy system, through the Moyle interconnector, and will also be used in the proposed interconnector from the Republic of Ireland to Wales. Both interconnectors will be attached to the mainland UK national grid. The lights in this House could conceivably come from a nuclear power station in the future; the reality is that nuclear power is already part of the system: it cannot be ignored or easily done away with.

Public opinion on the issue is beginning to turn because of those realities. The most recent edition of ‘The Economist’ published an Ipsos MORI poll, which showed that public support for nuclear energy has risen over the past six years to a point at which more Britons are in favour of nuclear power than oppose it. That poll is backed up by other support, sometimes from strange sources. The Royal Society has gone on the record in support of nuclear power, as well as some leading environmentalists. Patrick Moore, a co-founder of the Greenpeace movement, is now on record as saying that he regrets his opposition to nuclear power 20 years ago. James Lovelock, a supporter of an organisation named Environmentalists for Nuclear Energy, said that:

“We have no time to experiment with visionary energy sources; civilisation is in imminent danger and has to use nuclear - the one safe, available, energy source - now or suffer the pain soon to be inflicted by our outraged planet.”

We must ask some questions in this debate. Is it desirable to have an energy source that is cost-effective, efficient, low in pollution, produces little or no carbon emissions, is not dependent on overseas imports, and is, possibly, infinite? Surely the answer is yes. We must consider the development of a safe, well-regulated nuclear sector and overcome issues of safety, disposal of waste and health.

The proposer of the motion concentrated on health issues in his speech, but, inevitably, there is a counter-argument. In 1991, the National Cancer Institute in the United States announced that a large-scale study that it had carried out of nearly one million cancer deaths in American counties close to nuclear facilities —

Mr McKay: I thank the Member for giving way. Given the fact that the Member is more comfortable with the security of nuclear plants than I am, would he have any problem supporting the establishment of a nuclear facility in his constituency?

Mr Hamilton: Given that it is a reserved matter, there is little point in having any position, which, perhaps, shows the flaws in having a debate at all. It is not a matter that we can give any opinion on. There are no plans to have a nuclear power plant anywhere in Northern Ireland at this stage. We must recognise that there are counter-arguments to the propaganda that has been put about over the years that nuclear energy is all bad, and there is no other argument to be had. Studies, not only in the United States, but in Britain and Ireland, have shown that there are no particular problems related to health in areas in the vicinity of nuclear power plants. Those studies have been ignored, but I accept that concerns exist that must be overcome in an educated debate about the issues, not least the issue of safety, which has been highlighted already.

Anyone who is an avid fan of the American political TV drama ‘The West Wing’ will remember that a politician who ran for president completely ruined his chances by saying that nuclear power was completely safe. I would not say that it is completely safe, but a well-regulated and safe nuclear sector would bring immense benefits for us all.

Mrs Hanna: I beg to move amendment No 2: Leave out all after “Europe” and insert

“, calls upon the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to make public any data, which it may have available in relation to this matter; and further calls upon the Government to discontinue all operations at the Sellafield nuclear plant within an agreed timescale, acceptable to the Government of the Republic of Ireland and the Northern Ireland Assembly.”

I thank Mr McKay for proposing the motion. I am disappointed that he does not accept my amendment, which makes the motion much more specific.

The amendment comprises two parts. First, it calls on the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to make available any information that it may have in relation to the Windscale disaster in 1957. Secondly, it seeks an agreed timescale for the closure of the Sellafield nuclear plant in Cumbria — formerly Windscale — which has bedevilled relationships between two sovereign Governments — the Irish and the British — for decades. Moreover, the amendment foresees a role for the Assembly in agreeing such a timescale.

Today’s debate is on health-and-safety matters, not on nuclear power — that debate is for another day. In that case, I do not believe that amendment No 1 is relevant to the debate.

It is said that sunlight is the best disinfectant. The political fallout from Windscale has continued for more than 50 years, thanks mainly to good investigative journalism over those years. The recently published academic research by Professors Garland and Wakefield suggests that the radioactive debris spread by the Sellafield fire in October 1957 may have been twice as widespread as was reported at the time. It may also have caused 240 more cancers across Britain and northern Europe than originally estimated.

Of particular concern at the time was the release of the radioactive isotope of iodine, which is taken up and stored in the thyroid gland and often leads to cancer of that organ. I note that there is no specific health data in the Garland and Wakefield research for Ireland, but that there is considerable information for England and Wales.

It has become increasingly clear that for over 50 years, there has been a cover-up at many levels concerning Windscale, and that has been admitted. It was the worst nuclear disaster in the world up to that point, and was at least as bad as the Three Mile Island incident in 1979, although not as catastrophic as Chernobyl. The international nuclear event scale has eight levels, ranging in seriousness from 0 — the least — to 7; Chernobyl was rated at 7 and Windscale was rated at 5.

In 1957, the world was in the grip of the Cold War and Macmillan was Prime Minister. The United States did not trust the British, and Macmillan gave orders to cover up the disaster. I was 10 years old and living in Warrenpoint at the time of Windscale. Belfast is directly across the Irish Sea and about 60 miles from Windscale. Towns such as Warrenpoint, Newry, Dundalk and, of course, Dublin are within a 100-mile radius of Sellafield across the Irish Sea. People remember a very high level of sickness that autumn. That was ascribed to the Asian flu, but some people still wonder if that was really the cause.

Cancers have had a devastating effect in my family in the decades since 1957. Six of my siblings and I have had cancer, and four of them are dead. However, I accept that there may be genetic or other reasons for those cancers.

Sellafield is owned by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority in the UK and it was previously owned by British Nuclear Fuels Limited. It provides reprocessing facilities, not only for the UK but for other countries. It is no exaggeration to say that Sellafield is the nuclear bin for much of the world. It separates the uranium, plutonium and fission products from spent nuclear fuels. The uranium can then be used in the manufacture of new nuclear fuel, and the plutonium can be used in the manufacture of mixed-oxide fuel.

4.45 pm

In 1957, at Windscale, a fire in pile 1 destroyed its graphite core and radioactive material was released into the atmosphere. It beggars belief that the UK Atomic Energy Authority only commenced plans in the 1990s to clean up pile 1. Even now, that job is unfinished and there is no timetable for its completion.

Since 1957, Sellafield has had well-documented appalling safety record. There have been hundreds of safety breaches, including the falsification of data, the release of radioactive substances into the environment, and the contamination of workers and equipment. Consequently, it has been necessary to classify 60% of the buildings on the site as nuclear waste. Every day, the Sellafield reprocessing plants discharge 8 million litres of nuclear waste into the sea — the Irish Sea is the most radioactive in the world. Nuclear waste remains radioactive for tens of thousands of years.

Ireland has been contaminated by radioactive material from Sellafield. On the east coast, measurable amounts of plutonium can be found in seaweed. Most of that is from discharges over the years from Sellafield. Given that THORP and the MOX plant are operational, discharges will increase, not only into the sea, but in gases that are discharged into the air as a result of the burning of radioactive materials. Among other radioactive isotopes, there is more than half a tonne of plutonium in the silt of the Irish Sea. Traces turn up in fish catches and in seaweed off the Irish coast.

Following the events of 9/11, there is also a risk that terrorists could target somewhere such as Sellafield for bombing, releasing energy and toxins. The vulnerability of Sellafield and other nuclear plants is increased by the transportation of radioactive materials on land, air and sea. An attack or a hijacking could net enough material to make a crude nuclear bomb.

After 50 years, I appreciate that medical statistics that might be relevant to the situation may not be available; however, I ask the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to search his Department’s archives and to place in the public domain any relevant information — particularly data on leukaemia, lymphoma and stillbirths.

Amendment No 2 calls for the United Kingdom Government:

“to discontinue all operations at the Sellafield nuclear plant within an agreed timescale, acceptable to the Government of the Republic of Ireland and the Northern Ireland Assembly.”

I pay tribute to the constancy and consistency of my SDLP colleagues in South Down — Eddie McGrady, Margaret Ritchie and P J Bradley — who have camp­aigned against Sellafield for decades, as well as the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body, with whose members I have visited Sellafield.

All shades of political opinion in the Republic, and many in Northern Ireland, are opposed to the continued operation of Sellafield. The majority of the population on the island of Ireland is concentrated on the east coast, with the two major conurbations — Belfast and Dublin — accounting for approximately half that population. Any big disaster would have a catastrophic impact on the island of Ireland, and, indeed, on a large part of Britain, which would lead to death and material destruction. Sellafield is a risk with which we should not have to live.

The Irish Government have repeatedly complained to the United Kingdom Government, and it is the policy of all parties in the Dáil that Sellafield should close. Recently, the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland and, significantly, an Garda Síochána have been permitted access to the Sellafield site. One could ask why the police should be allowed access.

The Norwegian Government have also demanded that the United Kingdom Government close Sellafield, even though Norway is many hundreds more miles than Ireland away from it. They are particularly concerned about the potential effect on their fish stocks. Thanks to the institutions that were set up as a result of the Good Friday Agreement, there has never been greater democratic accountability for all the people of Ireland. We now have representative institutions, although we await the meeting of the British-Irish Council, at which Assembly parties will be represented. I hope that Members can build the widest possible cross-party consensus, and use our democratic clout, the EU institutions and the British and Irish Governments in order to secure a firm timetable for the closure of the disaster that has been Sellafield.

Mr Gardiner: As Ulster Unionist environment spokesperson, I have a natural disposition to support environmentally friendly suggestions. As a resolute human being and a public representative, I also have a duty to react sensibly to certain situations of public concern. I am a committed environmentalist, but, like many environmentalists, I am aware that some people spoil our credibility by citing dubious evidence and making outlandish claims. That does not help the environmental cause; rather it brings it into disrepute.

The incident referred to in the motion occurred in 1957 — that was 50 years ago. Surely no one in the Assembly is seriously suggesting that nuclear safety is of the same standard as it was in those days, when Anthony Eden was Prime Minister, our Queen had been on the throne for only five years, Charles de Gaulle had yet to become president of France, and Eisenhower was still president of the United States.

The nuclear option for our future energy needs is now regarded by many environmentalists as a safe option, when burning fossil fuels is out of date, and power stations, which are belching carbon emissions and greenhouse gases, are contributing to global warming.

New nuclear plants could use generation III+ reactors, which would create less than one tenth of the waste produced by current nuclear generators. Many environ­mentalists now regard the nuclear option as safer, cheaper, cleaner, and — it must be said — inevitable, given that the United Kingdom is unlikely to be able to put any other viable option in place before our present power stations must be replaced. In fact, if we do not take that option, we are a great deal more likely to face an economic meltdown than a nuclear meltdown.

Of course, we must express concern at the nuclear accident in 1957, but that must be done in the same way as we might express regret at the Holocaust of 1939-45, the Vietnam war or the First World War of 1914-18. It is a fact of history, of times past, not of the present.

Although many environmental groups, such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, have rejected the use of nuclear power as a solution to global warning, former leaders of such organisations have come out in support of nuclear power. Patrick Moore, the co-founder of Greenpeace and chairman and chief scientist of Greenspirit, commented in 2005 that nuclear energy — combined with the use of other alternative energy sources, such as wind and hydro — remains the only practical, safe and environmentally friendly means of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and addressing energy security, saying also that:

“The time for common sense and scientifically-sound leadership on the nuclear energy issue is now.”

The point to note is that nuclear power is combined with other renewable energy sources.

In truth, a detailed discussion of those options in the relevant Committee would be a far more rational way for the Assembly to proceed rather than debating a motion in the House. The language used by many will, in such circumstances, be erroneous, when what is really needed is cool, rational debate in an atmosphere where scientific evidence is evaluated sensibly and reputable expert opinion is sought.

I can share the hurts and feelings of the past, as Mrs Hanna did. I also lost a mother and two sisters through cancer. Both of my sisters died, one of whom was 50 and the other 53. However, thanks to their Christian faith they are in the Glory today. I support amendment No 1.

Mr B Wilson: I welcome the motion. I have no problem in supporting it, given that opposition to nuclear power and the risks that it poses to human life and our environment is one reason that the Green Party came into power — I am sorry; I mean existence. [Laughter.] We are in power.

We have always been concerned about the activities of Windscale at the Sellafield nuclear plant, owing to its proximity to the Irish coast and to the secrecy with which those activities have been carried out. We are particularly concerned about the activities of the BNFL ship the Atlantic Osprey and the reason that it spends a great deal of time around Beaufort’s Dyke. That raises serious safety issues: a ship that is carrying nuclear fuel is spending so much time in an area in which large quantities of munitions have been dumped.

The Green Party was not surprised to learn that the initial estimates of the radioactive contamination that spewed into the atmosphere from Windscale were grossly underestimated. The Windscale/Sellafield site has been shrouded in a mist of lies, misinformation and outright fraud from the day of its inception. For example, after the Windscale fire in 1957, the men who risked their lives to prevent that fire spreading were made scapegoats by the Government’s inquiry into the cause of the accident.

The name of the site may have been changed to Sellafield, but the Windscale legacy of deception has persisted. In 2000, a damning Nuclear Installations Inspectorate report painted an alarming picture of management incompetence and a culture of complacency at the Sellafield site. The scandal concerned safety procedures in a factory that produced batches of uranium and plutonium. One batch that was bound for Japan was found to have had false records, and that prompted the investigation. Indeed, British Nuclear Fuels later admitted that the records had been deliberately falsified.

We are particularly concerned that earlier this year the nuclear safety authorities in Britain decided to reopen the facility for reprocessing at THORP in Sellafield. That plant is considered to be a nuclear dustbin, taking in nuclear waste from all parts of the world. Even if one supports nuclear power, the waste from the rest of the world should certainly not be taken in at that plant, which is what currently happens.

THORP has been out of operation since April 2005, when a major leak of radioactive material was discovered. My Green Party colleagues and I have spoken to representatives of the Nordic Council, and they share our grave concerns about the prospect of THORP reopening.

I ask the Assembly to support the Nordic Council’s call to the Government to permit a full, independent and international investigation into the safety culture at THORP at Sellafield.

Despite years of campaigning for the closure of the nuclear facilities at Sellafield, the prospect of its closure is distant. Indeed, a new master plan that was drawn up by the west Cumbrian authorities sets out proposals for the further development of nuclear power. Those proposals include the construction of two third-generation, 1·6 gigawatt nuclear reactors and the development of fourth-generation reactors at Sellafield. Discussions have also taken place between Cumbria County Council and the Government about the future storage of highly active radioactive waste, even though, at present, Sellafield already holds 70% of the country’s most dangerous nuclear waste.

The Green Party is opposed to any expansion of nuclear activity. When the joint agreement between the Scottish Green Party and the SNP was drawn up, the first point that was agreed with the new Scottish Administration was that there would be no support for new nuclear power in Scotland.

Nuclear power is not the answer to the energy crisis. It will restrict investment in alternative technologies, and it does not make economic sense. It produces radioactive waste that will create problems for generations for thousands of years to come. Despite improvements in technology, it is not totally safe.

Accidents can happen, and if one does, it will be a disaster.

5.00 pm

As many terrorist groups try to obtain nuclear weapons, Sellafield’s security has become an issue. We must look to alternative energy sources. Sellafield serves no useful purpose — it should be shut down.

Mr Simpson: Were I to go around every MLA and ask each about his or her knowledge of nuclear physics, I would probably be met with a few blank faces.

Mr Hamilton: You speak for yourself.

Mr Simpson: I include myself in that. Yes, my face, too, would be blank, if asked my knowledge of nuclear physics. If a Member were to tell me that he or she had a degree in that subject, I would ask what the heck he or she was doing in the Assembly. [Laughter.]

I welcome the debate. I understand the concerns that have been raised in the motion. Other Members have spoken about timescale, referring to events of 50 years ago. Whatever view we take on this issue, or on that of climate change — and there are a variety of sincerely held views — there is universal agreement that the world is at a crossroads when it comes to the whole issue of energy supply. We need viable and safe alternatives to fossil fuels. That is the bottom line, whether we like it or not.

I am encouraged that we have set a target, under the Northern Ireland renewables obligation (NIRO), to obtain 12% of electricity from renewables by 2012. We must do all that we can to encourage use of renewable energy sources such as wind, water and the sun, and that must be a priority. However, we must be realistic. In February 2003, the Royal Society warned:

“in the short to medium term, it is difficult to see how we can reduce our dependence on fossil fuels without the help of nuclear power.”

The previous Secretary of State, Mr Peter Hain, expressed the view that he did not see nuclear energy as being a feasible option for Northern Ireland. That was also the view of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment in its 2002 report into its energy inquiry. However, whether we like it or not, we have a duty to take a serious look at the potential that nuclear power offers.

Nuclear power is a frightfully powerful phenomenon. The very use of the word nuclear, given its association with the horrors of nuclear war, is enough to send shivers up anyone’s spine. However, it can be channelled and used in a way in which mankind will benefit. Amend­ment No 1, which stands in my name and that of my colleague Simon Hamilton, states that we need to:

“consider carefully a well-regulated nuclear sector, operating to the highest safety standards, as one element of the United Kingdom’s energy supply.”

My colleague also mentioned that the grid is nearly at maximum in my constituency. Members who represent that constituency — those who sit opposite, as well as alongside me — will know that, in part of that constit­uency, we have the third-largest manufacturing base in Northern Ireland. We are running out of electricity; there is not enough electricity to feed the factories. Eventually, some other source will have to be looked at — something that is well regulated and conforms to the highest safety standards — in order that that we can generate electricity for our companies and create employment in future. It is vital that we also consider price.

Following publication of the UK White Paper on energy, ‘Meeting the Energy Challenge’, a consultation paper on nuclear power was issued on 23 May 2007 by the Rt Hon Alistair Darling MP, in his former role as Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. That Depart­ment is now known as the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR).

That UK-wide consultation concluded on 10 October 2007, and its purpose was to seek views on nuclear power from industry, non-Governmental bodies and any other organisation or public body in the United Kingdom, including the general public. I am glad that Northern Ireland was included in that consultation, which asked whether the private sector should be allowed to build new nuclear power stations, and I await its outcome with interest.

Mr P J Bradley: I support the amendment proposed by Carmel Hanna. I ask Sinn Féin to consider the fact that the amendment does not take away from the motion in any way; rather, Carmel’s speech added to it. As Alex Attwood said earlier, amendments of value are often helpful, and Carmel’s amendment was helpful.

The UK Government’s consultation process on the disposal of radioactive waste closes on 2 November 2007. It is important that the Assembly, the Executive, or, at least, the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety, or the Committee for the Environment should make a submission on the matter. Such a submission should remind the British Government in no uncertain terms of the nuclear catastrophe of 8 October 1957, which was not made public until 10 October 1957 and was brought under control only on 12 October. Fifty years later, many believe that the contaminated material is still piled up at Windscale — or Sellafield, as the Government renamed it in an effort to make us forget the disaster that has been with us since 1957.

The volume of contaminated material is also a subject of concern. Only the British Government knows how large that pile is, and, given the secrecy that surrounds Windscale, it is unlikely that we will ever be told.

For centuries, the British have intruded in the affairs of countries around the world by putting down what they term as insurgents and by becoming involved in arms issues and decommissioning processes, as we know. Back in the heart of Britain, the biggest decommiss­ioning problem remains in Windscale/Sellafield, right on our doorstep. Since October 1957, that major weapon of mass destruction has remained piled up in Cumbria and successive Governments have failed to address the problem. All we know is that, in 1957, the British Government carried out a massive “Widgery” in relation to the catastrophe and covered up its own records on the wind direction in the area at the time of the incident. At the time, reports that were backed up by the Meteor­ological Office stated that the wind was blowing seawards towards the Isle of Man and beyond to the Dublin area. However in 1974, 17 years after the disaster, a Government agency claimed that the winds at the time came from the northwest, thus blowing the radiation inland. The prime purpose of that announce­ment was to create the belief that no significant radiation made its way to the Isle of Man or Ireland.

When members of the Low Level Radiation Campaign (LLRC) went to the Meteorological Office in Windscale to find the truth, they found that the original reports detailing the westerly direction of the wind, and its speed, had been tampered with. Record sheets for 1957 had been removed and replaced with new sheets that were slightly different in colour from the sheets of previous and subsequent years. The new pages for 1957 read: “No Record – Mast Dismantled”.

According to the records, the mast reappeared in November 1957, which perhaps says something.

It may be wrong to despair, but I fear that we will never learn the true facts about the catastrophe, or be able to prevent a reoccurrence of the event at Windscale. As individuals we have no chance of discovering the truth, and, as much as we might try, I doubt that the Assembly as a body would fare any better. However, we must continue to try. I pay tribute to my colleague Eddie McGrady MP, as did Carmel Hanna, for his endless efforts to keep the Sellafield debate alive. I am sure that successive British Governments have wished that Eddie McGrady would ease up on the issue, when they should have been admitting failure and warning their people of the constant threat that exists.

As we have heard, the people of Dundalk, many people on the east coast of Ireland and the people of the Isle of Man do not need a Government admission to confirm the facts. The death rate on the Isle of Man soared in the decade following the incident at Windscale, and many mothers in County Louth believe that they know only too well of the consequences of the radiation clouds that descended on their area in 1957 — conse­quences that they live with to this day.

The motion and the amendment correctly refer to the threat to Europe. I would like to be slightly more parochial and remind Members that the County Down coastline, as Mrs Hanna has said, is only 60 or 70 miles from Cumbria. That is around the same distance as from Stormont to Limavady or Derry, and should another catastrophe occur at Sellafield, that short distance would place us at the heart of the danger zone.

In supporting my colleague Carmel Hanna’s amendment, I believe that everyone present would agree that all information about Sellafield should be made public. It is important that the Assembly and the Governments in the Republic of Ireland and the Isle of Man agree on a timescale for the closure of Sellafield. The only acceptable action that the Assembly can demand is that the ticking time bomb that is Sellafield is defused and that there is immediate clearance of the contaminated material that is still stored at the plant in Cumbria.

Mr Shannon: I support the DUP amendment. There is little doubt that the production of fuel and energy is a risky business. That is a fact. There are massive oil rig fires; coal-mining explosions; the effect of renewable energy sources on the surrounding countryside; and the dangers that are linked to the production of nuclear energy. There are hazards with each and every method of production, and there comes a time when each method must be evaluated to ensure that the benefits do not outweigh the costs of the venture. Perhaps, now is the time for the Assembly to decide on that matter.

At the outset, I want to stress that I am not living in a bubble; nor do I have my head in the sand. I am aware of the dangers of nuclear-energy production. I have read the newspapers and I have listened to those with more scientific understanding. However, that cannot be the only determining factor. My colleague, David Simpson, mentioned nuclear physicists. I suspect that there is probably no one in the Chamber with that particular knowledge.

Mr McElduff: Will the Member give way?

Mr Shannon: Barry, I will give you a chance, boy — that is all you are getting. [Laughter.]

Mr McElduff: A LeasCheann Comhairle, I have visited Sellafield. Is the Member surprised to learn that inside the plant there is a poster stating that it has been 21 days since the last minor accident? It is as though the poster is exhorting the workers to persevere towards the magic figure of 40 days. Is the Member surprised that such a poster exists inside the Sellafield plant?

Mr Shannon: I have visited the Sellafield plant and I have seen the poster. Every business in the country has a book in which it must record accidents that have taken place. That happens everywhere, and it is no different from what staff must do in factories in West Tyrone or South Down. I thank the Member for his intervention. I was a bit worried when I gave him a chance, but it was not that bad.

The benefits of nuclear energy must be taken on board. They far outweigh the risks, which is contrary to what my colleague across the Chamber is saying. The fact is that as much as every Member would prefer all energy to come from green sources — and I mean “green” in the best sense of the word — that would neither harm people or the environment, provision is nowhere near that stage.

Provision of energy from water turbines is being tested in Strangford Lough. That is an example of what can be done. However, the turbines can produce only enough energy for 1,000 homes. There are 20,000 homes in Newtownards and 40,000 in the whole of Strangford. Undoubtedly, the time will come when renewable energy sources can and will provide the necessary energy for the future. However, that is not in the foreseeable future, so other sources, including nuclear power, must be considered.

If nuclear power is dismissed, that leaves us with fossil fuels, which will create a dilemma for us in the near future. The first environmental problem is obvious, and the UK Government have pledged to lessen carbon dioxide emissions. However, were Northern Ireland were to be completely reliant on fossil fuels, that would significantly increase rather than decrease our carbon dioxide emissions. Therefore, that is not a viable option.

Another problem is that if Northern Ireland were dependent on fossil fuels, it would be more dependent on other nations. That could be used against us, and the stronger the hold that oil-rich countries would have on us, the more we would be held to ransom.

We cannot always rely on the Middle East if we are to do without nuclear energy. If we rely only on fossil fuels and renewable energy we will undoubtedly pay the price on the world stage. That is something that we should not even contemplate. I am conscious of the time, Mr Deputy Speaker.

There are problems associated with nuclear energy production; however, those, and safety issues, must be taken in context. For example, when someone goes to the dentist, his or her teeth might be X-rayed. In hospital, there is a probability that he or she will be X-rayed. The microwave in a kitchen is another example. All of those factors contribute. Nuclear facilities account for only 0.4% of total exposure. We must consider all the issues involved in nuclear energy production. We must not ignore the safety issues, but we must learn from them. Windscale and Chernobyl were awful disasters. However, the lessons on safety have been learned, and safety is paramount.

In a perfect world we could do without nuclear energy and use only renewable energy. However, we are not yet in that perfect world — far from it. For that reason, the benefits far outweigh the risks. I support the DUP’s amendment. I urge the Members on the Benches opposite to me to do the same.

Mr Deputy Speaker: That intervention generated a lot of energy.

5.15 pm

Mr W Clarke: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. It is foolish to dismiss the relentless quest for nuclear power that seems to drive current British Government policy. It is presented as a panacea that will address future energy shortages and — somewhat perversely — is marketed as a clean, green alternative to the burning of fossil fuels, and as a way of meeting EU directives on pollution. Therefore, it is ironic that support for nuclear-generated energy is gaining momentum in Britain and the EU on the 50th anniver­sary of the serious fire that occurred at Windscale nuclear power plant, now better known as Sellafield.

A recent report into that incident found that at least twice as much radioactive material was released into our atmosphere than was initially thought. People living in south Down and on the east coast of Ireland have had to live with the consequences ever since. Nuclear power can never be a viable option. The devastation caused 21 years ago at Chernobyl, and its after-effects which will be felt for many more years, should be enough to make us all stop in our tracks and think again. Sinn Féin is favour of a nuclear-free Ireland. We should seek to decommission existing nuclear facilities, not build more of them.

Mr Kennedy: Is the Member aware that the local government district area of Newry and Mourne is a nuclear-free zone?

Mr W Clarke: Thank you for that contribution. Sinn Féin favours a shift towards efficient and cost-effective renewable energy, with particular emphasis on solar and wind power. Major investment should be directed towards hydrogen technology. There are growing concerns that there is, currently, an attempt to repackage nuclear energy and to present it as a safe, green alternative. It is anything but that. Anyone who has examined the safety record of the Cumbria-based Sellafield nuclear processing plant will be horrified by what the British Government proposes. Communities up and down the eastern Irish seaboard will be concerned about the re-opening of that debate, considering that the majority of Britain’s current nuclear facilities are sited a few short miles from the Irish coastline — a few short miles from my home in south Down.

Sellafield remains the most unsafe nuclear site in western Europe. Its history has been characterised by a catalogue of errors, safety lapses and failure to comply with EU inspections. Sinn Féin will continue to build alliances to force the closure of the Sellafield facility and to promote a clean, green alternative to nuclear power. Public opinion is the key to closing Sellafield and ensuring the entire shutdown of the British nuclear industry. By adopting the motion we will send a clear message to the British Government that there are viable and safe alternatives to nuclear energy.

However, British public opinion must be brought to a point at which it demands such measures from its Government. The time for ignoring the dangers of Sellafield and other installations must be brought to an end. In whatever we do, it is important that we are mindful of the fact that influencing British public opinion is essential to undermining the efforts of British Nuclear Fuels plc to present nuclear energy as an acceptable alternative to renewable energy. Nuclear power stations are expensive, difficult to build and maintain and are a threat to public health, as well as being considered key legitimate targets for extremists.

Nuclear energy has been used in England, Scotland and Wales for more than 50 years, and there is still no agreed plan for the disposal of highly dangerous nuclear waste that poses a massive health risk.

Energy policy, North and South, must focus on developing efficient and renewable energy sources. Shifting policy from the inefficient use of fossil and nuclear fuels towards energy efficiency and renewable energy sources is imperative if runaway climate change is to be addressed. The nuclear industry spin machine has put a lot of effort into promoting nuclear energy. However, regardless of how effective their lobbying has been, the fact remains that nuclear energy production is not safe, secure, financially viable or reliable. We must get that message to the public loud and clear. People are rightly fearful of the dangers posed by nuclear power; I urge Members from every political party to support the motion. Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.

Mr G Robinson: Once again, the Assembly is debating a topic in which it may have a genuine interest but over which it has no jurisdiction — it is a reserved matter. Therefore, while the topic is extremely important, I wonder whether our time would not have been better spent debating an area of policy for which we do have direct responsibility. Having read the motion and considered its implications, I suspect that it is nothing more than an attempt to provide a big stick with which to beat the British Government.

There is much disagreement about whether, 50 years ago, Northern Ireland and the South were touched by the cloud from the fire in pile 1. As recently as this month, reports in the South’s press mentioned that disagreement. Indeed, they went further and stated that a cloud of pollutants may just have touched the east coast, and that if it had been affected, it would have been affected very slightly. A 2005 study went further by stating that no radioactive materials reached the east or the north-east coast. Most Members will take from those statements that the accident 50 years ago is unlikely to have had the health effects implied in the motion.

There has been mention of raised levels of cancer in isolated pockets, but if the levels are as high as has been implied, the statistical evidence would be much greater. However, that is not to take away from the distress that has been experienced by the families who have suffered.

The press have also quoted John Garland, formerly of the UK Atomic Energy Authority, as saying that any radiation has now decayed and poses no ongoing risk. That is a welcome assurance.

There is a further concern, no doubt regarding water pollution, especially the effect of pollution on the Irish Sea. A UK Marine SACs (special area of conservation) Project report on radioactive substances stated that seaborne pollutant levels around Sellafield were below the level that would be expected, and that there was no conclusive proof that any pollutants had damaged the environment. However, that does not mean that there should be any relaxation in the monit­oring and testing of seawater to ensure continued safety. Only by requesting constant independent monitoring and research can we be sure that pollution levels are kept to an absolute minimum. It is worth noting that in June a significant milestone in the decommissioning progress of the Windscale site was reached, with the removal of the 42 isotope cartridges from pile 2. That, along with other moves, will help reduce the levels of pollutants in the sea, which are already at a lower level than expected. That is very welcome progress. I support the amendment.

Mrs Hanna: I will briefly outline some of the comments that were made in the debate. Simon Hamilton moved the amendment and made a good argument for nuclear power. That is fine, but I did not come to the Chamber today to debate nuclear power — I came to debate Sellafield and Windscale. I would be quite happy to discuss nuclear power on another occasion, if Mr George Robinson would not consider it too much of a waste of our time. The issue should be discussed. However, I came to discuss Windscale and Sellafield because of the new report, and because of the scientific data that has continuously been coming on stream for the last 50 years.

Sam Gardiner questioned the facts that I presented. I cannot remember the exact words that he used, but anything that I said is based on scientific fact. I know that it happened 50 years ago, but Members should talk to experts about contamination in the Irish Sea from radioactivity because that is still happening. I hope that I did not go on too much about hurt and pain — I was talking about the fallout from cancer and leukaemia.

Unsurprisingly, Brian Wilson of the Green Party said that he supports the closure of Sellafield and is against nuclear power. David Simpson made a good argument for nuclear power, and there may be a debate on that in the future. My colleague from South Down P J Bradley obviously feels strongly that there is evidence that Sellafield should close. Jim Shannon always makes interesting comments, hedging his bets both ways. He said that the production of fuel and energy is a risky business, which impacts on wildlife — before comparing it to my microwave oven. If it is so risky, perhaps it should be taken really seriously. It is a serious issue, which I take very seriously.

Willie Clarke, one of the proposers of the motion, was obviously strong in his support of the closure of Sellafield. George Robinson suggested that we should not waste our time on debates such as this. I hope that the Assembly continues to debate serious health-and-safety issues, otherwise there is no point in our being here.

Even if Members cannot support the motion or amendment No 2, they should at least think about Sellafield and what happened there. Go and visit the site and ask about the contamination of the Irish Sea. It is important to keep an open mind on this matter. I am happy to have a debate on nuclear power, but today’s debate was on the closure of Sellafield, which I want to happen in the near future. There must be an agreed timescale between the British Government and Irish Government for the closure of Sellafield, as well as a serious investigation of the health implications that still exist for those who live within a radius of 100 miles.

Mr Newton: The comments of my colleague David Simpson in the early part of the debate were very telling: who in this Chamber actually understands nuclear physics? I regret the implications of Carmel Hanna’s comments because the motion represents an old and backward-looking argument. If we are debating Sellafield and Windscale, why are we not looking forward to the future of energy production? David Simpson pointed out that, in his constituency — never mind the whole of the United Kingdom —an energy crisis is approaching, which must be addressed.

Mrs Hanna: Will the Member give way?

Mr Newton: No; I have only five minutes. The Sinn Féin proposer of the motion used glib phrases about the concerns that exist throughout continental Europe about nuclear power, when roughly 70% of energy in France is derived from nuclear fuel. There is no reason why we cannot all express our concerns about nuclear fuel, and we should do. However, concerns should also be expressed about the risks involved in all forms of energy generation. Whether those are risks to the individual or to the environment, there are always risks.

It is also telling that Carmel thought that Simon Hamilton and David Simpson made a good argument. However, that is not an argument that she is willing to take on board, because she did not want to discuss nuclear fuel. Simon Hamilton highlighted the fact that nuclear fuel is inexpensive; that the energy is derived from the most concentrated source; that the waste is more compact; that it is easy to transport; and that it has no greenhouse or acid-rain effects.

5.30 pm

Sam Gardiner, in his contribution, quite rightly pointed out the environmental advantages of nuclear fuel and called for a rational debate on the subject. That would be extremely welcome.

I have sympathy for the point that Carmel Hanna raised about health concerns, as there are concerns from various sources. She referred to her own family, and I am sure that there are no Members whose families have not suffered. Carmel Hanna was willing to admit that other sources may have caused those health problems.

Mrs Hanna: I acknowledged that in my speech.

Mr Newton: I agree with the Member, and I pay tribute to her on that point.

I am not sure what Brian Wilson was saying. He said that an alternative to nuclear power should be considered, but he did not say what that alternative should be.

Barry McElduff said that he went to the Sellafield plant to have a look around. He saw a poster saying that it had been 21 days since there had been a minor accident. I am not sure what point he was making, but it is common in industry to post the health and safety record so that people can see it — the greater the number of days without an accident, the better.

Danny Kennedy said that Newry and Mourne was a nuclear-free zone; I did not realise that, so at least I have learned something from the debate. It is good to know that the councillors in that area have voted to keep the area nuclear free.

Willie Clarke’s contribution was all about bashing the Brits. He had no argument at all, and his comments were quite spurious. A report in ‘The Economist’ says that more Britons support nuclear power than oppose it.

Nuclear energy is here to stay and must continue to be monitored as professionally as possible. Although it is not a devolved matter, the House should consider ways of ensuring that it continues on everyone’s behalf. To call for power station closures is to be like the fantasy character of old Spanish literature, Don Quixote, who attacks windmills because he believes them to be ferocious giants. Such a call is just as much of a waste of time.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Clearly, we have a lot of bright sparks.

Mr Brady: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. The subject that has been discussed is an emotive one. As someone who represents a constituency on the east coast, it has a personal resonance. George Robinson said that, possibly, the accident in 1957 at Windscale touched the east coast slightly. If Mr Robinson had taken the time to read the statistics he might have thought differently. For instance, within two years of that accident, 28 babies in the Dundalk Bay area were born with Down’s syndrome. That was way above the national average.

In the Newry and Mourne area, a study done by the Mayo clinic around 20 years ago indicates that the incidents of multiple sclerosis in our area is one of the highest in the world. As someone whose brother died from MS, I can empathise with that. Congenital health defects, such as Friedreich’s ataxia, Prader-Willi syndrome and Pierre Robin syndrome, which is an extremely rare congenital condition, are all found in our area.

Therefore, although the incidence of such illnesses may be dismissed as insignificant, the people who are directly affected do not consider that to be the case.

The high rates of cancer, which continue to grow, have been mentioned. Twenty years ago breast cancer affected about one in nine woman in my area; it now affects one in four. There seems to be a cavalier attitude towards nuclear power, as was most recently illustrated in America when live nuclear warheads were flown across the USA at the behest of the United States Air Force.

Simon Hamilton said that safety is built in to the nuclear power system. However, that does not necessarily mean that it is safe. On the contrary; there is no proof that it is particularly safe. The health-and-safety rules at Sellafield have been mentioned, and Barry McElduff referred to the poster there that told of the last accident being 21 days before his visit — I wonder whether the poster in Chernobyl stated that disaster was imminent.

The political fallout since 1957, which Mrs Hanna mentioned, has continued. Investigative journalism has targeted the industry. A recurrent theme of Members’ contributions was the shroud of secrecy that surrounds the nuclear industry. If Windscale or Sellafield — or whatever they want to call it — is so safe, why was it not built in the south of England instead of on the Cumbrian coast? I have represented at tribunals people who have particular medical problems. All but one of the approx­imately 40 people suffering from ME who I represented comes from Kilkeel, Rostrevor or Warrenpoint, which are all located along the same stretch of coast. As the crow flies, Sellafield is about 67 miles from Warrenpoint and Carlingford Lough. That is another example of the impact of the Sellafield accident.

Mr Gardiner talked about being a committed environmentalist, and he referred to the “dubious evidence” concerning the 1957 incident. He spoke about the improving standards in nuclear plants. I wonder what “dubious evidence” he has to show that that is the case. He talked about economic, rather than nuclear, meltdown. He referred to the First World War, the Holocaust, and the Vietnam War: those are all man-made disasters, as is nuclear power.

One of my relatives was a prisoner of war in Nagasaki when the second American bomb was dropped. Mr Simpson said that nuclear power is “of benefit to mankind.” If Mr Simpson had spoken to my relative, he would have found that he disagreed. He lived into his eighties and suffered mental-health problems as a direct result of the bomb.

Mr Simpson also talked about nuclear physics. However, one does not need to be a mechanic to know how a car works. Everyone can attest to the dangers of nuclear power and the results of nuclear accidents. It has been portrayed today as a safe form of energy. I totally disagree, and I support the motion. Go raibh maith agaibh.

Question put, That amendment No 1 be made.

The Assembly divided: Ayes 36; Noes 39.


Mr Armstrong, Mr Beggs, Mr Bresland, Lord Browne, Mr Buchanan, Mr T Clarke, Mr Craig, Mr Cree, Mr Dodds, Mr Easton, Mr Elliott, Sir Reg Empey, Mrs Foster, Mr Gardiner, Mr Hamilton, Mr McCausland, Mr I McCrea, Dr W McCrea, Miss McIlveen, Mr McQuillan, Lord Morrow, Mr Moutray, Mr Newton, Mr Paisley Jnr, Rev Dr Ian Paisley, Mr Poots, Mr G Robinson, Mrs I Robinson, Mr P Robinson, Mr Ross, Mr Shannon, Mr Simpson, Mr Spratt, Mr Storey, Mr Weir, Mr S Wilson.

Tellers for the Ayes: Mr McQuillan and Mr G Robinson.


Ms Anderson, Mr Attwood, Mr Boylan, Mrs M Bradley, Mr P J Bradley, Mr Brady, Mr Brolly, Mr Burns, Mr Butler, Mr W Clarke, Mr Durkan, Mr Ford, Mr Gallagher, Ms Gildernew, Mrs Hanna, Mrs D Kelly, Mr A Maginness, Mr P Maskey, Ms J McCann, Mr McCartney, Dr McDonnell, Mr McElduff, Mrs McGill, Mr McGlone, Mr M McGuinness, Mr McHugh, Mr McKay, Mr McLaughlin, Mr Molloy, Mr Murphy, Mr Neeson, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O’Dowd, Mrs O’Neill, Mr P Ramsey, Ms S Ramsey, Ms Ritchie, Ms Ruane, Mr B Wilson.

Tellers for the Noes: Mr Brady and Mr McKay.

Question accordingly negatived.

Question put, That amendment No 2 be made.

The Assembly divided: Ayes 39; Noes 37.


Ms Anderson, Mr Attwood, Mr Boylan, Mrs M Bradley, Mr P J Bradley, Mr Brady, Mr Brolly, Mr Burns, Mr Butler, Mr W Clarke, Mr Durkan, Mr Ford, Mr Gallagher, Ms Gildernew, Mrs Hanna, Mrs D Kelly, Mr A Maginness, Mr P Maskey, Ms J McCann, Mr McCartney, Dr McDonnell, Mr McElduff, Mrs McGill, Mr McGlone, Mr M McGuinness, Mr McHugh, Mr McKay, Mr McLaughlin, Mr Molloy, Mr Murphy, Mr Neeson, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O’Dowd, Mrs O’Neill, Mr P Ramsey, Ms S Ramsey, Ms Ritchie, Ms Ruane, Mr B Wilson.

Tellers for the Ayes: Mr P J Bradley and Mr A Maginness.


Mr Armstrong, Mr Beggs, Mr Bresland, Lord Browne, Mr Buchanan, Mr T Clarke, Mr Craig, Mr Cree, Mr Dodds, Mr Easton, Mr Elliott, Sir Reg Empey, Mrs Foster, Mr Gardiner, Mr Hamilton, Mr McCallister, Mr McCausland, Mr I McCrea, Dr W McCrea, Miss McIlveen, Mr McQuillan, Lord Morrow, Mr Moutray, Mr Newton, Mr Paisley Jnr, Rev Dr Ian Paisley, Mr Poots, Mr G Robinson, Mrs I Robinson, Mr P Robinson, Mr Ross, Mr Shannon, Mr Simpson, Mr Spratt, Mr Storey, Mr Weir, Mr S Wilson.

Tellers for the Noes: Mr McQuillan and Mr G Robinson

Question accordingly agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.


That this Assembly expresses concern at the findings of the report on the impact of the Windscale Piles accident at the Sellafield nuclear plant and the implications that this has for the health and well-being of people living on these islands and in Europe; calls upon the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to make public any data which it may have available in relation to this matter; and further calls upon the Government to discontinue all operations at the Sellafield nuclear plant within an agreed timescale, acceptable to the Government of the Republic of Ireland and the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Adjourned at 6.02 pm.

< previous / next >