Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

northern Ireland assembly

Monday 4 February 2008

Assembly Business

Ministerial Statements:
Proposals for the Reorganisation of the Health and Social Care System in Northern Ireland
The Re-establishment of the Ministerial Subcommittee on Children and Young People

Committee Business:
Draft Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2007: Report of the Ad Hoc Committee

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

Assembly Business

Committee Business:
Report of the Ad Hoc Committee on the draft Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2007

Private Members’ Business:
Private Armies

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

Members observed two minutes’ silence.

Assembly Business

Mr Ross: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. On 16 November 2007, I tabled a question for written answer to the Minister of Education. I still have not received an answer. Given that questions for written answer are supposed to be answered within 10 working days, can you use your office to investigate why, after 49 days, I am still waiting for an answer from the Education Minister?

Mr Speaker: Let me say to the Member, and to the whole House, that I have had a number of complaints from all sides of the House about Departments not answering written questions within the appropriate time. I can assure you that my office is being very active about dealing with those complaints.

Mr S Wilson: Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. The Minister in question not only disregards questions asked by individual Members, but disregards questions raised by the Assembly’s Education Committee, which has a statutory role in the work of the House. We have written to you saying that, on a number of occasions, it has taken from September until January for the Minister to respond to the Committee’s questions. I trust that, when you are considering the issue, you will pay particular attention to the Minister of Education and the Department of Education, one of whom seems to be out of control, while the other seems to be falling apart.

Mr Speaker: Once again, I say to all sides of the House that this issue is common to a number of Departments. It is not just one Department that my office is receiving complaints about. I assure Members on all sides of the House that the issue will be dealt with.

Mr Campbell: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. My point of order relates to today’s questions for oral answer. I understand that you do not take points of order during that part of business, and I also understand the difficulty that the Business Office has when accepting questions that are tabled. However, today’s question 9 to the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure asks the Minister:

“to detail his plans to restore confidence in him and his Department among Irish language speakers following his failure to support an Irish language Act.”

Mr Speaker, I ask you to consider that question’s pejorative use of “failure”, rather than asking about the Minister’s “decision” not to introduce an Irish language Act. Although I am sure that a debate could have followed through supple­mentary questions, I would have thought that it was the Minister’s “decision” not to proceed with an Irish language Act, rather than his “failure”. I contend, therefore, as do many others, that that question ought not to have been selected.

Mr Speaker: I appreciate the point of order.

Mr F McCann: Regarding the point of order raised by Sammy Wilson, it would be more appropriate if he were to look into the way in which he conducts his chairmanship of meetings, and his treatment of people who come before —

Mr Speaker: Order. I ask the Member to take his seat. Order. That is not an appropriate point of order. In answer to Mr Campbell, I will look at that issue and come back to him.

Mr F McCann: On a further point of order, do the concerns raised about Ministers not responding to written questions apply across the board to all Ministers, or are they confined to one Minister?

Mr Speaker: My office is gathering figures on exactly where the problem lies; however, I assure the Member that more than one Department is causing the problem.

Mr Storey: Further to the points of order raised by my colleagues Mr Ross and Mr Wilson, Mr Speaker, will you, in your deliberations, take into account that, following its submission, when a question appears on the Assembly website, AssISt, as having fallen, no information comes back to the Member who asked the question as to why it fell? In this case, the problem again concerns the Education Minister, and it may be yet another opportunity for her to be evasive. Will you look at that matter?

Mr Speaker: That is another issue that we shall examine. Let me remind Members on all sides of the House that the issue causes big concern to some Members, who, when they write to a Department, wait for a very long time for a written answer. I assure Members that the Office of the Speaker and the Business Office are looking into the matter.

Mr Ford: On a point of order, Mr Speaker, Standing Order 42(1) requires Ministers to take the Pledge of Office, usually in this House or before you, as its repre­sentative. That pledge refers to the ministerial code, which requires that Ministers support Executive decisions.

Last week, in this House, several Ministers failed to support either the Programme for Government or the Budget. To the best of my knowledge, no apology was given by those Ministers for not doing so.

I ask you to take time to consider whether those Ministers were in breach of the Pledge of Office that they took before this House.

Mr Speaker: I thank the Member for his point of order, but must remind him that that is an issue for the Executive and not for this House.

Mr Ford: With respect, Mr Speaker, I point out that the Pledge of Office is taken before this House, and I ask you, as representative of this House, to examine whether the Speaker has a role. I accept that the matter lies with the Executive; however, the fact that Standing Order 42(1) refers to the Pledge of Office surely gives you a role.

Mr Speaker: I will take the matter on board and look into it. However, I must again tell the Member that it is more for the Executive than for this House to deal with the matter.

Ms S Ramsey: Go raibh maith agat. On the back of previous points of order, can you confirm, or can your office clarify, whether the Assembly has signed up to an anti-bullying policy?

Mr Speaker: I must tell the Member that that is not an appropriate point of order for the business of this House today.

Ms S Ramsey: Further to that point of order, I want to know whether the people employed by this Assembly are protected by an anti-bullying policy.

Mr Speaker: Once again, I can refer the matter to the Commission.

Mr S Wilson: Further to that point of order, I notice leaflets around the building to indicate that there are five harassment contact officers in the Assembly. Do those officers deal with complaints about Ministers who try to bully Committees?

Mr Speaker: Order. Order. I ask the Member to take his seat. We will now move on.

Ministerial Statement

Proposals for the Reorganisation  of the Health and
Social Care System  in Northern Ireland

Mr Speaker: I have received notice from the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety that he wishes to make a statement regarding proposals for the reorganisation of the health and social care system in Northern Ireland.

The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Mr McGimpsey): I am making an announcement today on proposals to transform health and social care services in Northern Ireland. I shall put those proposals to the Executive next month for approval for public consultation.

Since my appointment as Minister in May 2007, a major challenge facing me has been the need to reform and modernise our health and social care system. Structures that had remained largely unchanged for 30 years had already started to alter dramatically as the radical reforms proposed under the review of public administration got under way. Health has been leading the way in that reform process. Only last year, the first significant step in reforming the health and social care system was taken when 19 trusts were reduced to five health and social care trusts and one ambulance trust. Those new organisations will be at the forefront of improving and protecting health, and delivering better-quality services to the population. They will work closely together, be more effective and efficient, and promote stronger links between hospital and community services.

Perhaps the greatest change that faces our health and social services, however, comprises the demands and expectations of members of a changing population who rightly expect access to services delivered in their own communities and homes, and to new life-changing drugs and modern technologies that will transform their lives for the better. I want a modern, responsive and forward-looking Health Service that tackles health inequalities and puts patients at the heart of its thinking.

When I took up office in May 2007, I inherited a raft of proposals for reform, which had been drawn up by direct rule Ministers for a direct rule Administration. The return of devolution, with local Ministers and a local Assembly scrutinising their work, presents a real opportunity to deliver a local solution that meets our local needs. I have said it before, and I shall say it again: I make no apology for having taken the time to consider the organisational changes that are required to put in place arrangements that are fit for purpose, both now and in the future, and that will deliver the best possible outcome for patients and clients. To do other­wise would be to fail the people of Northern Ireland.

In recent months, I have spoken to a wide range of people, including patients, clients, carers and health and social care staff. There is a real desire for change in order to improve our system. I have reflected long and hard on what has been said to me over the past months. I have considered other models — not only in England, Scotland and Wales but in the Republic of Ireland — which have faced similar reform issues. Therefore, I am clear about what I want from our health and social care system. We must have a patient-centred service. Value for money is crucial, and the way in which services are delivered must focus on maximising benefits to everyone who uses the service. Our services must be efficient, high quality, capable of meeting challenging targets and without unnecessary duplication.

In addition to that, I want to develop forward-looking, innovative health and social care organisations that deliver on targets and are constantly striving to improve their performance for the benefit of patients. Quality and standards will continue to be driven up without compromise. Patients, clients and carers must be given the opportunity to voice their concerns and be sure that they are being listened to; dignity, respect, equality and fairness for patients, relatives and staff are at the core of everything that we do. Those are the guiding principles that I have used in determining the future shape of our health and social care system.

Some of the reforms proposed by the direct rule Administration have already been implemented. I am satisfied that the current trust structures should remain largely as they are, and I have already informed staff of that conclusion. The previous direct rule Administration’s proposals also included the establishment of a large regional health authority to replace the four boards and to take on some departmental and agency functions, with almost 2,000 staff. In reviewing that proposal, my starting point has been that the structures must improve health and social care services and, thereby, the health and well-being of the people of Northern Ireland.

I, therefore, propose to establish a new regional health and social care board, which will be answerable to me. That body will focus on prevention and on making services more efficient, accessible and patient-centred. The organisation will be smaller and leaner than that in the previous proposal, and it will employ no more than 400 members of staff by April 2011.

12.15 pm

The new board has been designed to focus on three central functions. First, commissioning, by which I mean the process of planning and resourcing services that best meet the needs of the local population from the five trusts and other organisations. I have already announced the development of a comprehensive range of service frameworks, which will set out the standards by which we will transform services.

Secondly, financial management of the health and social care system will ensure that we live within our means and get the maximum return on our investment.

Thirdly, strong performance management and improvement will ensure the achievement of targets, objectives, standards, improved safety and will create and promote a culture of continuous development. There will be renewed emphasis on disease prevention and earlier intervention for individuals and communities to create a healthier population.

My proposals will give the new organisation the authority to act on my behalf in pushing for significant improvements in efficiency and performance that will improve services for patients. In contrast to the previous proposals, I will be looking for clear accountability and governance arrangements between the regional organisation and my Department and the best use of available resources.

Although the regional board will have a strong local presence, decisions on its location will be determined in line with policy guidance and statutory requirements. Therefore, it may prove necessary to make temporary arrangements from April 2009, pending completion of the necessary processes.

Effective commissioning is the link between policy development and its delivery at ground level. I support active engagement of front-line professionals, such as GPs, nurses, social services staff, allied health professionals, public health practitioners and others, in the commissioning process. They will bring their innovation and expertise, which will help to secure better services for the communities that they serve.

There are benefits in tying commissioning arrange­ments to defined population areas; in particular, having coterminosity with local government.

Direct rule commissioning arrangements, which I inherited, suggested that there should be seven local commissioning groups: that was based on Peter Hain’s proposals for seven district councils under the review of public administration. However, in the absence of firm proposals for local government reorganisation, I propose that we have five local commissioning groups, covering the same geographical area as the five trusts. Those local commissioning groups will operate as committees of the new regional board. However, this proposal will remain subject to review, pending the outcome of deliberations on local government reform.

Direct rule proposals for seven local commissioning groups did not include any input from elected repre­sentatives — that was a missed opportunity. Therefore, I propose to seek views on the composition and membership of the five commissioning groups. I want to examine ways of ensuring that local people and councillors are given strong voices in the system. That will ensure that we have a more democratic and accountable process while retaining the strong benefits of having primary-care-led commissioning.

I want the commissioning system in Northern Ireland to take advantage of the unique opportunity to com­mission social care alongside health services. I also propose that the process will have very strong links with local communities and voluntary and community sector groups, so that they are involved in tackling health inequalities and in the design and delivery of health services in their areas.

On 3 December 2007, I told the Assembly that I remained to be convinced that the excellent work being carried out by the health and social services councils would be improved by establishing one large organisation, which was suggested by the direct rule Administration.

I am, therefore, seeking views on new arrangements that would ensure a strong local focus while giving patients, clients, and carer representatives a powerful regional voice. I also believe that, contrary to earlier direct rule proposals, there is a need for locally elected representatives to have an active role in the work of the proposed organisations.

Previous direct rule proposals included the abolition of several agencies and the transfer of their functions to a single multi-purpose authority. Aside from those who work in the Department, trusts and boards, a significant number of staff work in a range of agencies and organisations. Careful consideration has been given to all those bodies, and it is, therefore, proposed that the elements that make a substantial contribution to the three core functions of commissioning, financial management, and performance management and improvement, transfer to the new regional board. For the present, I propose to retain several of the existing agencies, but I wish to explore any opportunities to increase current efficiency and productivity levels.

The agencies that will be retained include the Northern Ireland Practice and Educational Council for Nursing and Midwifery, the Northern Ireland Medical and Dental Training Agency, the Northern Ireland Blood Transfusion Service, the Northern Ireland Guardian Ad Litem Agency, and the Northern Ireland Social Care Council. The Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA) would also be retained, but its role would include adopting the current functions of the Mental Health Commission for Northern Ireland.

The functions of the Health Promotion Agency for Northern Ireland would also remain separate from the regional board and would be included in a new organ­isation that would have a wider role in providing expertise and supporting local government agencies on health inequalities and health promotion for their communities. To facilitate that, I propose that locally elected representatives be appointed to the board of the new health promotion and improvement organisation. Following consultation, I will make a further announce­ment as to the further shape of that public-health body.

I also confirm that the Northern Ireland Regional Medical Physics Agency will be part of the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust. I am already considering the establishment of a shared-services organisation, on which I consulted last year. The aim of that body would be to bring together services that are common to health and social care organisations; for example, finance and staff recruitment. My proposal is that shared services would, for governance purposes, be part of a common-services organisation. That body would provide a range of support functions for the health and social care services, including some that are provided by the Department and the current boards and agencies. The current functions of the Central Services Agency would also be included.

Each year, we spend some £4 billion on our health and social care system. I am determined that we spend every penny of that wisely and to the benefit of the population of Northern Ireland. I have agreed already the plans that will see a reduction of nearly 1,700 staff and savings of more than £53 million being made by April 2011. The proposals that I have outlined today would deliver on those savings.

I will also set the new regional board the task of generating new levels of efficiency and better productivity. I anticipate that, over time, that will create significant additional savings that we can reinvest in front-line services.

I also propose that the Department be much smaller, with a staff of around 600 by the end of the comprehensive spending review (CSR) period. That reduction would be achieved through existing initiatives such as the Fit for Purpose strategy, the CSR, and the Northern Ireland Civil Service reforms. Several staff will also transfer to the common-services organisation and the new regional board.

While ensuring clear lines of accountability for the commissioning of health and social care throughout Northern Ireland, the new arrangements would allow the Department to be more sharply focused on its responsibilities for delivering the aims of the devolved Administration. They would also concentrate on introducing legislation and determining and reviewing policy standards, priorities and targets for health and social care. I also propose that the regional research and development office, which is in the Central Services Agency, would be best placed in the Department.

I believe strongly that those proposals would provide a streamlined and democratically accountable way of managing our Health Service. However, their success depends on the continuing dedication and commitment of our health and social care staff against ever-rising levels of demand and expectation.

I want to convey my thanks and appreciation to all the staff for the care that they provide to patients and clients each and every day. The staff are our biggest asset, and no one can doubt their commitment and their willingness to rise to new challenges. We need to ensure, therefore, that we make the best possible use of knowledge and skills in transforming the health system.

I realise that this is an anxious time for many staff, who are concerned about what the new structures will mean for them. I will ensure that the decisions on future structures are supported by an effective human resources strategy in order to address the concerns of staff and those who represent them. Key elements of that strategy are already in place, and the implementation process will be undertaken in close partnership with relevant professional bodies and trade unions. Until the outcome of the proposed consultation is known, we will not have the detailed information to inform discussions with individual members of staff. In the interim, I have asked that, as we work through the process, every effort is made to ensure that they and their representatives are kept fully informed.

I believe that, although extremely ambitious, these proposals can be completed in time for the new arrangements to be set up from 1 April 2009. That will, of course, depend also on the co-operation and goodwill of all those concerned. Unlike my direct rule predecessors, I propose a full public consultation on my proposals, which will provide a unique opportunity for the public, their representatives, health and social care staff, service users and all other key stakeholders to have their say. I plan to issue a more detailed consultation paper next month.

My statement gives only a first outline of the proposals, and it is intended to lead into, and not to pre-empt, discussion with my Executive colleagues. I welcome, too, early engagement with the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety and am eager to meet as soon as possible. We are building the foundation for a vibrant and successful future for the health and well-being of the people of Northern Ireland. None of that, however, will be possible without the approval of the Executive and the Assembly. I look forward to the help and support of colleagues in taking forward these important reforms.

I have already made it clear that the public and patients come first, and that key principle is embodied in the proposals. We have now a unique opportunity to truly transform our health system into one that is world class and fit for the twenty-first century. I commend the proposals to the Assembly.

The Chairperson of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Mrs I Robinson): I welcome the statement from the Minister and thank him for providing an advance copy of it.

The Committee has for some time had serious concerns about the ongoing delay in reaching a decision about the structures to replace the existing four health and social services boards. The Committee believes that that has been the cause of great uncertainty, frustration and loss of morale among existing health and social care staff. More importantly, the continuation of the existing structures beyond April 2008, when the new structures should have come into place, will continue to absorb vital resources that could be better directed to other key service developments. The announcement today is, therefore, very welcome. I hope that it will end the uncertainty and provide some reassurance for those working in the health and social care field that the new structures will be in place in the near future.

The Health Committee will want to examine the proposals in detail, both during the consultation period and during the passage of the subsequent legislation, and will ask the Minister to attend the Committee as soon as possible. The Minister said that the new regional health and social care board will have fewer than 400 staff, whereas the proposed regional health authority would have had about 2,000 employees. I recognise that a number of bodies that were due to be subsumed into the authority will continue to exist. I welcome, particularly, the continuation of the Health Promotion Agency, which has a vital role in the area of prevention.

What assurance can the Minister give that the full efficiency savings envisaged will actually be achieved? What are the differences in start-up costs between the original proposal and the new board? Finally, what are the planned savings over the first three years?

12.30 pm

Mr McGimpsey: I welcome Mrs Robinson’s approach to structures. I know that the original structures were due to be in place by April 2008. However, as I explained, it was necessary to carefully examine what we were getting ourselves into, and the direct rule model and proposals were not suitable in many respects — not least because, as Mrs Robinson said, under the direct rule model, the Health Promotion Agency was to be subsumed into the new body. Members will agree that health promotion — engaging the local population in their own health needs — is a key strategic step that the Department must take.

As I indicated, the original efficiency plan was to make 1,700 redundancies, which would have saved £53 million a year. The new proposal will meet that target. There are also ongoing efficiencies, which will be achieved through a concentration on performance management, commissioning — local groups commissioning for the health needs of their areas — and strict financial management and financial regimes to ensure that everyone lives within their budgets. Those are future savings. As I said, all of that is dependent on a full consultation. There is no difference in start-up costs: in fact, although we are now planning for April 2009, we are already ahead of the original savings plan for the body that was to start in April 2008.

Mrs O’Neill: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I welcome the statement and hope that it will go some way towards addressing the concerns that Health Service staff have had in recent years. I look forward to the consultation process and the discussions between the Minister and the Committee as we get more beef on the bones of the proposals.

The Minister said that the function of the Health Promotion Agency would remain separate from the proposed regional board and that it would develop a wider role and provide support to local government on health inequality and promotion. Does he agree that the Investing for Health strategy should be a key tool in addressing health inequality, and will he ensure that that strategy feeds into the new enhanced role of the Health Promotion Agency? Go raibh maith agat.

Mr McGimpsey: The Health Promotion Agency was to be one of the casualties of the direct rule reorganisation, which was a mistake, because health promotion is a key objective.

A report commissioned by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in the early days of their Government asked whether the country could afford the Health Service that Nye Bevan originally envisaged — cradle-to-the-grave healthcare that is free for all citizens. That report found that that was affordable and sustainable, but that a key element would be the engaging of the local population with their own health, which could be achieved through, not least, a concent­ration on health inequalities — someone who lives in a disadvantaged area is more likely to develop a chronic disease, will not live as long, and so on. A key way to reduce the need for healthcare is to engage the local population, and the Health Promotion Agency plays a vital role in that.

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

I have sat on Belfast City Council for many years and listened to policies being promulgated from on high by civil servants — the policies may have been brilliant, but they fell down when it came to implementation and delivery. There is an important role for local government in implementation and delivery in a number of areas, not least through health inequalities. The Health Promotion Agency is vital to drive that agenda forward.

I appreciate the concerns of staff and the uncertainty that there has been. I have written to them and kept them fully informed, and I will continue to do so. I have had meetings with the trade unions, and I have written to all staff on the foot of my statement today to keep them informed so that they know where they stand. The support of staff is the most vital asset in delivering what we all want, which is the best possible Health Service for patients.

Mr McCallister: I welcome the Minister’s statement, and I congratulate him on introducing proposals for much-reduced bureaucracy in the Health Service. I am grateful for his remarks about further including the community and voluntary sector by giving them a more active role, and for his comments about the Health Promotion Agency for Northern Ireland. We are on our way to delivering a quality patient-centred service.

Will the Minister confirm that GPs will continue to play an important role in the local commissioning groups and that he will continue to work with the BMA (British Medical Association) as the consultation period commences?

Mr McGimpsey: I thank Mr McCallister for his remarks about developing Health Service structures and about trying to cut through some of the bureaucratic layers.

It is important to note that a fourth tier is not being introduced; the previous model had a fourth tier, which had the effect of adding a further layer of bureaucracy to the decision-making process. That will definitely not happen. The board should be seen to be working in parallel with policy development in the Department and should not be considered a fourth tier. That was one of my main requirements when I met with David Sissling to work my way through the process.

GPs play a vital role in determining health needs, and they receive support and information both from other professionals and those who are involved in several disciplines. They will also be supported by local councillors, who I see playing an important role on local commissioning groups by representing the needs of the people in their areas. As we meet rising needs and expectations — not least the challenges that changing demographics will bring — there will be a strategic change of direction for health services. That will involve early intervention, given that prevention is better than cure. We will try to keep people out of hospital by dealing with them at primary-care level, and that will be a GP-led strategy.

I have had several meetings with GPs and members of the local commissioning groups, and they are very enthusiastic and keen to move ahead. I am keen that they do so meaningfully and with support. They must be allowed to do their work without being encumbered with too many layers. GPs will play a vital role, and I will be meeting with the BMA in the near future to discuss how we progress matters.

Mrs Hanna: I welcome the Minister’s focus on prevention and early intervention. I also welcome that he has defined the functions of the organisations that he proposes to establish. I hope that we will see, and be able to measure, better outcomes for patients.

The Minister has proposed the establishment of five local commissioning groups, which would cover the same geographic areas as the five trusts. When we have a definite decision on the number of local councils that we will have — and the Minister referred to the involvement of councillors and local government — will he assure me that there will be coterminosity with councils to ensure better delivery of services on the ground and to ensure that people and patients do not fall between the cracks, as has happened in the past?

Will he also assure me that there will be much clearer signposting to services, which could include anything from phone numbers, screenings, and community-support services to appointments with consultants? The Minister is aware of the complexity of those services and the absolute confusion that the public have about accessing some of them.

Mr McGimpsey: I welcome Mrs Hanna’s remarks. The five commissioning groups had to be fastened to, and coterminous with, something; their areas could not be marked out simply by drawing lines on a map. They had to be relevant, as Mrs Hanna, rightly, said. Under the Hain model, there were to be seven local commissioning groups, because Peter Hain had decided that there would be seven councils. We would be hard pushed to get agreement on seven local councils as things stand, and I want to move on.

I will ensure that the health system adapts to any number of councils that may be agreed. We can adapt to seven councils, to 11, to 15, or to any other number. However, I need to move forward, and I have decided that there will be five groups, because there are five trusts. The point is that a local commissioning group will not have to commission services from the trust with which it is coterminous; it can go to any trust in the region.

The Member made a vital point about signposting services. Providing information is absolutely crucial, because there is confusion. For example, I am frequently confused about how to access out-of-hours services. It is important to get that sort of information out to the public. There is a big job of work to be done to engage the local population and to give people meaningful information on the services that they may require, so that we do not end up with the confusion that exists in some areas at present.

Mr McCarthy: I welcome, for the most part, today’s announcement by the Minister. However, I am concerned about the possible reduction in staff numbers. The Minister referred to:

“members of a changing population who rightly expect access to services delivered in their own communities and homes”.

That certainly contradicts the plans for the Ards Hospital site, which include the proposed closure of the successful and convenient minor-injuries unit. Will the Minister give the Assembly a commitment that that closure will not occur?

I welcome the retention of the Health Promotion Agency and the fact that the health councils will have more local input. What discussions has the Minister had with his Executive colleagues to ensure matching approaches, for example, to education, libraries and policing? Will he clarify whether the new local authorities will play a lead role in holding local health services to account?

Mr McGimpsey: On the Member’s last point, accountability is one of the key elements, and I envisage the new board having a vital role to play in that, along with others. For example, locally elected representatives will be firmly embedded in the commissioning groups of the new board.

I inherited the staff numbers, and I ensured that they would not change as we looked at a different type of reorganisation. Those figures are out there, and negotiations are still going on. However, the target is to reduce the number of staff by 1,700, which will save £53 million a year. Substantial moneys have already been invested in that programme. I intend to ensure that that figure is reached without compulsory redundancies. I consider voluntary retirements, and so on, to be the way forward.

With regard to the Ards Hospital site, I have asked each trust to produce plans for 3% comprehensive spending review (CSR) efficiencies. I have not seen the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust’s plan yet. I will examine it in due course. However, I know the Ards Hospital site just as well as Mr McCarthy does. I live within a few hundred yards of it, and I am well aware of the hospital’s history in the Newtownards area and the assistance that it has been to my family over the years. Therefore, I will examine any question about Ards Hospital with particular care.

12.45 pm

Mr Buchanan: I, too, welcome the progress that has been made on the rationalisation of the health boards. Indeed, some of my party colleagues and I tabled a motion on 3 December 2007 demanding progress on Health Service reform.

Commissioning of services is crucial if cost-effectiveness is to be ensured. Does the Minister support contestability between different service providers?

The Minister has identified where savings of £53 million could be made. That includes reducing staff numbers by almost 1,700 by 2011. Will he confirm that that is not an accurate reflection of the current situation, given that it will cost the Health Service some £70 million to bring those plans to fruition by facilitating huge managerial pay-offs?

Mr McGimpsey: I ask the Member to write to me about the huge managerial pay-offs that he described; I am unaware of those, so I am interested to hear about them. However, I am aware that investment has been made to facilitate the reduction of 1,700 staff.

I will give the Member the same answer that I gave to Mr McCarthy and others: we will reach that target. My view is that that can — and will — be done without compulsory redundancies. That is the way forward. If the system loses 1,700 staff but continues to increase its activity, it is, by definition, getting more efficient. That is the right direction in which to travel.

Mr Buchanan is one of those who demanded that I make tough decisions. I look forward to his support — and that of the other Members who demanded it — in doing so.

We are making progress. Our Health Service has a first-class staff that makes the service work: it is its prime asset. Therefore, I will do whatever I can to look after those workers.

Ms Ní Chuilín: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I, too, am a member of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety, and I am not afraid to ask tough questions and support the Minister in making difficult decisions.

I welcome the involvement of locally elected representatives in local commissioning groups: that is a positive move.

The Minister mentioned community involvement, but will he clarify whether he is referring to the involvement of the community and voluntary sector? Often, health professionals who work in the community are seen as representatives of the whole community. The community and voluntary sector provides after-hours services for suicide prevention and for those who have mental-health difficulties. Those who provide those front-line services are often underpaid and ignored, and the local commissioning groups must recognise them and their work. They work in the most deprived communities, and they, above all, know where health needs are most acute. Will the Minister clarify the role of the community and voluntary sector?

Mr McGimpsey: I agree very much with the Member. In areas such as mental health and suicide prevention, bereaved families and local community groups play a vital role. It is indisputable that such groups have saved lives. I see that network of local community groups, councils and councillors engaging fully with the Health Service as a whole, and using exactly that type of mechanism is the best way in which to engage a local population.

In Belfast, the Belfast Healthy Cities initiative and health action zones carry out work for the local population. One of the key questions is how we proceed with community planning. It is important that we work with local councils, communities, community and volunteer groups, not least where health promotion is concerned. Not only will local councillors sit on the commissioning groups, but I expect that they will be firmly established on the board of the Health Promotion Agency for Northern Ireland. They will help to drive forward the agenda of health promotion.

Mr Easton: I, too, welcome the reforms that the Minister has announced. It is widely believed that performance management has been sadly lacking across the Health Service. What makes the Minister think that his proposals will lead to better performance management? When the 19 trusts merged into five, many managers retained their positions, although they probably should have left them. Can the Minister assure the House that there will not be a repeat performance?

Mr McGimpsey: Every organisation needs managers. For example, there are 1,300 staff in the Mater Hospital. Those 1,300 staff cannot simply be milling around the hospital; management must be there to organise them and to provide leadership all the way down. That is an essential requirement. Of course, the type of manage­ment that staff end up with is important. The Depart­ment wants the best management it can get for the Health Service. That is why I want to see performance improvement as well as performance management.

In March 2006, before any of us arrived on the scene, 76,000 people had been waiting more that six months for outpatient appointments: by March 2007, no one was waiting. That is the result of employing creative and inventive management techniques and of tackling problems by thinking outside the box. At the same time, in March 2006, 6,500 people had been waiting more than six months for surgery: by March 2007, no one was waiting. I encourage that kind of good, clever management. I am not suggesting that those reductions were achieved by 100%-perfect means; however, they show the kind of performance management and improvement that is needed. That is why performance management and improvement, as well as commissioning and financial controls, will be at the very heart of the new board. Its focus will be on how they work in the Health Service.

Mr Savage: I thank my colleague the Health Minister for his far-reaching statement to the House, and I congratulate him on it. I also welcome the fact that the Minister intends to appoint locally elected representatives to the new health promotion and improvement organisation. Does he agree that his decision shows that locally elected representatives and local people will be well placed in the new organisation and that the personal experiences, local knowledge and professional expertise that they can bring to the table will be an added advantage?

Mr McGimpsey: I thank Mr Savage for his remarks. I agree with him wholeheartedly. In particular, I believe strongly that locally elected representatives have a vital role to play in representing their communities. Therefore, I expect that the organisation will be permeated with local representatives. I look forward to the consultation during the next 12 weeks, when that matter will be discussed and examined in more detail.

I will have a model ready for the consultation, which will begin in two weeks’ time. I regret that during my statement, I said that the consultation will begin next month: I should have said that it will start this month. I have not lost a month. I have an Executive Committee meeting on 13 February. Provided that the Executive approve — and without pre-empting what they will say — I am ready to launch that intensive 12-week consultation on 15 February. The Assembly has made constructive points that will be helpful to the Department as it works towards a conclusion to the matter.

Mr Gallagher: I, also, welcome the Minister’s statement: it is an important first step in removing what patients see as some of the most unsatisfactory aspects of the Health Service; for example, waiting lists for those in serious difficulty. Many health professionals are unhappy because they have been unable to engage satisfactorily with the trusts at management level. The establishment of local commissioning groups should help to overcome the problem to some extent. Will the Minister tell us how the commissioning groups will be involved at management level, because their involvement at that level would help reduce some of the waiting lists?

We know about the shortage of NHS dentists. The Minister has made money available for the appointment of NHS dentists; however, those appointments have not happened. Indeed, the recruitment process seems to be very slow. Where will the recruitment process for NHS dentists be located in the new arrangements? Will it be included, for example, in the new shared services unit?

Duplication of functions has also been a big problem. Therefore, I welcome the Minister’s reference to the Health Promotion Agency. Unfortunately, in the past, trusts have duplicated health promotion functions, which was unhelpful because we need a clear message on health promotion. Will the Minister assure us that such duplication will be eliminated in the new structures?

Mr McGimpsey: The Member made a number of comments to which I will try to respond. First, we are recruiting dentists who will be directly employed — and, incidentally, one organisation that was to disappear under the direct rule model was the Northern Ireland Medical and Dental Training Agency. There has been a problem with junior doctors and their training, and it seemed to me that scrapping that agency, which plays a vital role in training doctors and dentists, would be a mistake.

Dentists can make more money outside the Health Service than they can in it, and I am trying to address that problem. We have employed dentists directly, and one thing that a local commissioning group will be looking at will be the dental needs in their area. The group will then seek to commission dental services to meet those needs. I am hopeful that an effective commissioning process will help in the problem areas that the Member has mentioned.

Commissioning health services in local areas is part of the Department’s strategy, which is to move towards primary care and away from secondary care. The objective is that people will avoid having to go into hospital because they will be receiving proper preventative care — early intervention, early treatment and, therefore, early prevention. That is the direction in which we intend to travel, and doctors will be driving forward that strategy. They will be playing the key role, and I am grateful to them for that. They are prepared to do it, and I subscribe to the old adage: never look a gift horse in the mouth. I am excited about the role that doctors will play.

It would be wrong for me to prescribe how the system will be managed. All that I can say is that management will be involved, and that there will be a constant quest for high performance and improvement in the management of the entire system.

Mr Ross: I welcome the Minister’s statement. He said that approximately seven agencies would be preserved rather than be subsumed into the new regional board. Is he not concerned that that will reduce potential efficiency savings? Moreover, how will the Mental Health Commission’s work be delivered within the regulation, quality and improvement authority?

Mr McGimpsey: I missed the first part of the Member’s question, which was about trusts: the thrust appeared to be about efficiencies. We will seek to make efficiency gains. That is reflected, for example, in waiting-list targets. Next month, I will be in a position to announce a new range of targets. For example, the current target for a patient’s pathway is 47 weeks, comprising 13 weeks, 13 weeks and 21 weeks, which runs from first appointment with a doctor through to completion of surgery.

I will be in a position to reduce that, and I will make that announcement next month. That is an example of the ongoing efficiencies that are being found in the Health Service. The Department will warm to that task and get better at it. There is much more to be achieved, and all of that will be to the benefit of patients.

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The RQIA is an important body, which seeks to ensure high standards of health and social care services. As it was set up only two or three years ago, it is simply getting into business and it is one of the areas on which I will concentrate. The Mental Health Commission will be subsumed into the RQIA to ensure standards across the Health Service, not least because the patients whose treatment is supervised by that body are often the most vulnerable members of society. The RQIA will move forward with the Mental Health Commission. The Mental Health Commission can carry out unannounced inspections, and that will be a feature of future inspections.

Mr S Wilson: Having served in local government for a long time during direct rule, I share with the Minister a great scepticism about quangos. The more super the quango, the greater the scepticism. In the setting up of the regional board, which is a super-quango, how will the Minister ensure that the local commissioning groups, which are only committees of that quango, will have a real say in the decisions that are made centrally? How does the Minister intend to hold the regional board to account, and how will the Assembly be able to hold it to account?

The Minister concentrated on the 1,700 redundancies, but he also outlined a number of other ways in which efficiencies will take place. Apart from the 1,700 staff savings, new levels of efficiency, better productivity and a smaller Department will be introduced. What total saving does the Minister envisage from all those measures, and over what period will that be achieved?

The Minister talked about the concerns of staff. One of the biggest issues of concern for staff is the job evaluation process that is under way. Some staff who have been doing their jobs for some time have been moved down two or three levels, and that has affected morale. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that staff have a fair appeal against those evaluations if they disagree with them?

Mr McGimpsey: Although Agenda for Change is not, strictly speaking, part of the proposals, it plays a vital role. A number of staff are appealing their grades — several thousand, actually. The trade unions that represent the staff are negotiating with the Department and the trusts on the grading issue. It has been a long, slow and, at times, tortuous process, but we appear finally to be coming out of it. It is important that the appeals are carried out properly and that people get a fair hearing. I take the Member’s point, but I cannot tell him what I am doing specifically, other than overseeing the process to ensure that it is being done properly.

Staff will move out of the Department into other areas, leaving a smaller Department. I also intend that the Department will become more focused. Currently, 1,100 people work there — after nine months, there are still members of staff to whom I have not had a chance to talk. It is a large organisation that plays an important role, and the people who work there play an important and vital role at times. However, they do not all need to work in the Department; they should be out in other areas.

Commissioning will be one of the keys, and I will ensure that the local groups will commission for the health needs of their populations.

That constitutes the principle of the group. Rather than drafting people in, local GPs will be involved in the group, as will local allied health professional services and mental-health and learning-disability services. A range of disciplines and professions will be involved to ensure that the commissioning is done properly. The people whom I have mentioned represent the deliverers, and they will know whether the providers are not delivering properly. Therefore, they will play an important role.

The commissioning will be done properly, which will be a big step forward. It has always been in the back of my mind that it has been 35 years since the reorganisation of the Health Service. Within a few years, people realised that it was not quite right, so several attempts were made to tinker with it. I want to have a system that can evolve, and that is what we are moving towards. Therefore, when we see problems and a need for change, we will not have to break the system and start again. I am approaching the process in that way so that it will stand the test of time. If the commissioning groups are not quite right, we will evolve the organisation to ensure that they are right. We will continue to do that not only in the commissioning groups but in other areas.

Mr Durkan: I also welcome the Minister’s statement and congratulate him for the work that has gone into it and the work that lies ahead. The Minister has said that decisions must be made on the location of the regional board. Does he accept that decisions on its location should extend to the reduced Department and to some of the other retained or reorganised agencies?

The Minister emphasised the involvement of locally elected representatives in local commissioning groups and the active role that they will play in the work of the retained area health and social services councils. He also said that local representatives will be appointed to the new health promotion and improvement organisation. Although I welcome the commitment to involve local representatives, how does the Minister plan to ensure that their involvement on different bodies will not add to the confusion and possible duplication that he is trying to eradicate? Will he tell us more about the composition of the regional health and social care board? He has told us about its functions, but he has not coloured in its composition.

Finally, will the Minister assure us that the transfer of the Mental Health Commission’s functions to the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority will not lead to any loss of focus on mental health, especially when there is such concern about suicide and when welcome additional money is available for the Bamford Review? People will want an assurance that there will be no reduction in management focus by the Mental Health Commission being subsumed into another body.

Mr McGimpsey: The Mental Health Commission will ensure that the appropriate standards are in place. That is why working with the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority — and being part of it — is a positive step forward. Mental health and learning disability are not inescapables in the Budget, but they are my number one priority, and I will ensure that nothing is lost as far as mental health and learning disability is concerned. Professor Roy McClelland is the chairperson of the mental health and learning disability board, which has been charged to act as champion for people with mental-health and learning disabilities. Its challenge is to ensure that I do not stray from the agenda.

The regional health and social care board will have a functional role. I assure the Member that we will have discussions and suggest proposals for its composition, among other things. Locally elected representatives must be permeated through the board, because they represent the local taxpayers who will fund and use the body. It will belong to local populations, which is why their representation is important.

Dr W McCrea: I welcome the Minister’s statement. He has proposed that five local commissioning groups be established. How will that fit into the current local government review, which is led by the Minister of the Environment?

Mr McGimpsey: I am a member of the subgroup that is chaired by the Minister of the Environment. All members were asked for ideas on what powers relating to such areas as the Health Promotion Agency and health equalities, for instance, can be passed to local govern­ment. I see an important role for local government in the delivery and implementation of services. That is my main contribution. The Health Service, the health needs of, and health delivery for, local people will be the winner if that process were changed.

It is fair to say that there is no agreement on how many local councils are required. There are 26 now, and agreement has not been reached on how many there will be beyond that. Peter Hain suggested that there be seven, but I do not hear anyone arguing for seven now. However, I had to proceed, and that is why I fastened on the trusts. I had to anchor the com­missioning groups to something; I could not anchor on the basis of 26 councils. As Members are aware, the boundaries will be moving. For better or for worse, that is how I am going forward, but it can evolve. If necessary, I can evolve and adapt to whatever number comes out of the review of public administration when its deliberations conclude.

Finding a way forward for the Health Promotion Agency is more difficult, because it has to engage with the councils. If it is to engage with the councils now, it will have to engage with 26 local councils. Therefore, it will be beneficial to have the number of councils settled sooner rather than later. However, we are where we are. I assure Members that work on improving health provision will continue to the best of our ability, and the Health Service will adapt easily to whatever number of councils comes out of the review of public administration.

Mr G Robinson: Will the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety elaborate on what functions are to be retained in the Department that were not envisaged in the original proposals prior to devolution?

Mr McGimpsey: The main issues that I am looking at relate to policy and legislation, and I am keeping human resources close to me. The new regional health and social care board will report directly to me. It is important that the Assembly, through the Executive and the Minister, is the responsible body, and that we do not have to work our way through lots of tiers. My line of sight is a key criterion, and it is important that I, as the Minister, can see directly to every layer or section of the Health Service. I do not want to have to meander through different tiers. Access to matters relating to legislation, policy, human resources and budget-setting plays an important part in allowing me to fulfil my function.

Mr I McCrea: I welcome the Minister’s announce­ment. Does the Minister feel that the five local commissioning groups will be local enough? The Minister did not answer my colleague Tom Buchanan’s question, so will he confirm whether he does support contestability between the trusts?

Mr McGimpsey: I missed the bit about contestability between the trusts in Tom Buchanan’s question. I do not want to over labour that, because we are all part of the one team and seeking to deliver on the same agenda. Although the local commissioning groups might be coterminous with a trust — as I said in response to an earlier question — they will not have to go to that trust for a service. The group could go to any of the trusts in the area, and that is important.

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Ian McCrea asked whether five groups are enough.Each group will determine how low it must — or wants — to go.

Many community-commissioning associations were proposed. However, I will leave the decisions about how those matters are to be determined to each commissioning group. For example, every GP in any particular area will have an opinion about what should be commissioned, and, therefore, decisions will depend on how each group deals with those opinons and allows them to be articulated. As I said, given that there are five trusts, five is the number of commissioning groups because I must have something to which I can anchor them, and that cannot be local government because of the fluid situation that we are in.

The other point that I made is that we are attempting to design a system that can evolve as needs change.

The Re-establishment of the Ministerial Subcommittee on
Children and Young People

Mr Speaker: I have received notice from the junior Ministers that they wish to make a statement regarding the re-establishment of the ministerial subcommittee on children and young people.

The junior Minister (Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister) (Mr Paisley Jnr): This morning, Members received an advance copy of our statement. I ask that they check against delivery because, since this morning, that statement has been changed.

Junior Minister Kelly and I are announcing the re-establishment of the ministerial subcommittee on children and young people. In August 2005, in the wake of the appointment of a Minister for Children and Young People, a ministerial subcommittee for children and young people was established under the previous Administration. Given my and junior Minister Kelly’s specific responsibility for the co-ordination of children and young people’s policy issues, we felt that, at the appropriate time, it would be important to re-establish that group, and a decision to do so has now received the Executive’s unanimous support; hence this morning’s statement. This is a pivotal step, which will ensure that children’s issues remain at the forefront of policy and that Government’s responses will be cross-departmental and co-ordinated.

Children and young people constitute more than a quarter of the population and, therefore, are the responsibility of all Departments. In addition to representatives from the Northern Ireland Office and the Northern Ireland Court Service, all Ministers have been invited to join the ministerial subcommittee, and I encourage them all to attend the first meeting. Subsequently, only those with responsibilities relating to each agenda item will need to attend. That will help to focus the subcommittee’s attention and avoid the replication of Executive meetings.

The establishment of the ministerial subcommittee is an important development because it will provide a platform that will encourage a joined-up approach to addressing children and young people’s issues. The junior Ministers have an oversight role in the 10-year strategy for children and young people, and the subcommittee will drive forward its implementation and help us in that task.

For the incoming budgetary year, the ministerial subcommittee will provide a good opportunity for Ministers to identify one or more key priorities, which will supplement existing departmental and cross-departmental work. Incidentally, the Budget has been good for children and young people. In the first year, excluding baseline provision, we have identified more than £30 million for children and young people. Further to the identification of baseline provision, we are confident that the amount of money in the Budget for children and young people will exceed that of the previous children’s fund.

Unlike the children’s fund, the new funding arrangements will ensure that children and young people’s issues will be imbedded and mainstreamed in each Department’s policies. That is a positive and important move. All Departments must now step up to the mark and ensure that children and young people are a priority. We are confident that the available funding should mean that no child or youth programme will be reduced or cut. Ministers must make that a priority, and the ministerial subcommittee will be one way to ensure that action is taken.

We also wish the subcommittee to help to achieve the greater integration of children and young people’s policy, funding and service delivery, and that will be done without compromising or blurring the roles and responsibilities of individual Ministers.

The re-establishment of the ministerial subcommittee is only one of a large number of public service agreement targets associated with children and young people that we have set. Those targets are ambitious; however, we are ready and willing to rise to a high standard and to work tirelessly to ensure their full and swift delivery.

The subcommittee will strive to achieve transparency through the timely sharing of information that is relevant to children and young people, and which will help to facilitate joined-up working. The first meeting of the ministerial subcommittee on children and young people is being arranged with other Ministers.

The Chairperson of the Committee of the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (Mr Kennedy): I thank the junior Minister for his statement and offer the support of my Committee for the re-establishment of the ministerial subcommittee on children and young people. The junior Ministers gave notice of their intentions when they attended a meeting of the Committee last week, in which they outlined their proposals for ensuring cross-departmental delivery of children’s and young people’s priorities.

What role will the subcommittee play in ensuring that the direct resources provided to Departments in the Budget for those priorities will address the long-term needs of young people, and will not simply be used to tackle short-term funding pressures? When, in what form, and to whom, will the progress of the subcommittee be reported? How will the junior Ministers ensure that the views of key stakeholders will inform the work of the subcommittee?

The junior Minister (Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister) (Mr G Kelly): I presume that the scrutiny Committee will continue its working partnership. All of this is about partnership. We want to involve the scrutiny Committee, as we have already done, and we welcome its input. We also intend to ensure that all stakeholders are a part of this exercise. The whole Assembly is on board, because this is our future. The scrutiny Committee will be kept up to date on all issues that arise.

Miss McIlveen: I welcome today’s announcement. Will the junior Ministers set out the current agenda and confirm the range of cross-cutting issues that will be addressed? Furthermore, will the junior Minister give the Assembly a working definition of severe child poverty and explain how he plans to eradicate it?

Mr G Kelly: Go raibh maith agat. I will answer the Member’s second question first, as it is slightly more complicated. There are different ways of defining severe child poverty. The Government’s published statistics on relative income poverty are arranged in order of depth of poverty: that is, children of households whose income is less than 70%, 60%, and 50% of median income. We have asked the NISRA (Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency) statisticians to consider the best ways of defining different levels or depths of poverty. That work is under way.

The Executive are committed to tackling poverty in general, and specific emphasis has been given to child poverty and severe child poverty. The Executive recognise that poor children live in poor households. A number of common traits can be readily identified as indicators of poverty; for example, workless households, or those living in private-rented accommodation. In effect, that means that we can identify those most at risk, including children in severe child poverty. Through the Programme for Government, we must strive to implement the most effective policies that can be applied as a means of targeting those individuals.

The Executive are in the process of agreeing an overall anti-poverty strategy, based broadly on the Lifetime Opportunities programme, which was launched by direct rule Ministers in 2006. We will seek the views of the Assembly on those proposals in the near future.

Ms S Ramsey: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Like other Members, I welcome the re-establishment of the ministerial subcommittee on children and young people. I also welcome the involvement of officials from the NIO and the Court Service, given that kids in the juvenile justice system are outside the remit of the Assembly.

In the statement, it was indicated that, in year one, an additional figure of over £30 million, excluding baseline provision, will be available for children and young people. Will the junior Minister state where that money will come from and how it was secured?

Mr G Kelly: In the past few months, we have undertaken a series of meetings as part of pre-Budget discussions to make the case for significant funding for children’s services. Indeed, long before the draft Budget was issued, we went to see the Minister of Finance and Personnel to argue for money for services for children and young people. We will continue to liaise with ministerial colleagues to urge them to mainstream and protect funding for children and young people within their departmental budgets.

All our allocations in respect of the priority funding packages that were initiated by direct rule Ministers, and other ring-fenced items, have been removed from departmental baselines. I will give the Member a breakdown of the £30 million that she mentioned. The £26 million allocated to the Department of Education (DE), the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) and the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL) is broken down as follows: DE has been allocated £10 million for 2008-09 and £5 million for 2009-10; DHSSPS has been allocated £10 million in 2008-09; and DCAL has been allocated £1 million for 2008-09.

The additional £13 million allocated to DE is broken down as follows: £3 million in 2008-09, £5 million in 2009-10, and £5 million in 2010-11. The additional £30 million allocated to DHSSPS is broken down as follows: £10 million for 2008-09, £10 million for 2009-10, and £10 million for 2010-11.

I now turn to funding for OFMDFM for the implementation of the play policy and support of exemplar area-based projects. The 2008-09 period does not count, but in 2009-10, the allocation is £0·729 million, and in 2010-11, it is £1·614 million. That means a total of £69 million over three years for DHSSPS, DE and DCAL, and £2 million for OFMDFM. Added to the £26 million allocated to facilitate the continuation of projects previously funded by the children and young people’s funding package announced earlier is the £2 million that I mentioned.

Junior Minister Paisley said that we have arguably more money than we had under the previous package; altogether, over £71 million has been allocated to children’s services in addition to baseline funding.

Mr Durkan: I welcome the statement by the junior Ministers this morning, and, in particular, the re-establish­ment of the subcommittee. In the statement, junior Minister Paisley said that the new budgetary figures, combined with the baseline figures, are more than the amount for the previous children’s fund. Of course, if one is to make a comparison, one has to combine the children’s fund with the figures for all the departmental budget lines. At that time, considerable amounts were being put into departmental budget lines for child-health services, Sure Start and the free nursery year. If comparisons are to be made, Members must also take account of the fact that the other Executive programme also gave particular priority to children, young people and family support services.

Will the junior Ministers ensure that, in the subcommittee’s work, efforts will be made to encourage Depart­ments to do what they can, where they can, to support families and parents? That is one of the most important ways of supporting children, where they are and where they need to be.

Mr G Kelly: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I very much take on board the Member’s comments. It is the job of Ministers to encourage the mainstreaming of that money. The Programme for Government and its related public service agreement targets outline the Departments’ commitments to addressing children and young people’s issues. The subcommittee, as a whole, can hold Ministers accountable as regards those commitments. As the Member knows, there is cross-party support for this matter, and an enthusiasm on the part of the all the Ministers to participate. The ministerial subcommittee will have enthusiasm.

1.30 pm

The subcommittee will establish its priorities and cross-cutting targets at the outset to ensure that tackling children’s issues remains paramount and that the Government’s response is cross-departmental and co-ordinated.

OFMDFM wants the subcommittee to achieve greater integration of policy, funding and delivery for those services that are relevant to children and young people. The subcommittee will strive to achieve transparency through the timely sharing of information on children and young people. That will help to facilitate joined-up working. Everything centres on that, and each Depart­ment must ensure that money is added to the funding that was available to them previously. Now that there is a final Budget, Ministers are committed to ensuring that that happens.

Mrs Long: I thank the junior Ministers for bringing their news to the Chamber.

During last week’s meeting of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, the end of special funding was discussed. I want to explore that issue further. Most people accept that mainstreamed and continuous funding is preferable to special funding. However, if money is not ring-fenced for services for children and young people, is there not a danger that internal departmental pressures may lead to its being diverted to other areas? What actions will the junior Ministers take to counteract that considerable risk?

The Programme for Government identifies some cross-cutting targets and priorities that relate to children and young people. However, other departmental issues, such as transport and planning, also have a major impact on children and young people. Has any consideration been given as to how those services will be co-ordinated to ensure that their priorities are taken on board? Has the proofing of decisions for the impact that they will have on children and young people been considered?

Mr G Kelly: We have written to ministerial colleagues to request information on those elements of the children and young people’s funding package that have been mainstreamed and retained. It was difficult to know which had been retained or otherwise before the Budget was agreed. Soon, we hope to be able to clarify that Departments have allocated their funding for the delivery of their strategy commitments to children.

As junior Minister Paisley said, the Budget was good for children. We are pleased that the final negotiations on the Budget led to an additional allocation of £13 million over three years to the Department of Education for services for children and young people as well as for youth services. An additional £30 million over the same period was also secured for the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to implement the recommendations of the Bamford Review.

The granting of additional in-year flexibility, coupled with allowing the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to retain efficiency savings of over 3·5%, presents an opportunity for that Department to increase its resources further. In addition, £26 million was allocated to that Department and to the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure to facilitate the continuation of projects that were previously funded by the children and young people’s funding package.

The Member raised the broader issue of whether OFMDFM will assess the impact that any new measures will have on children. It will, and the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, of which she is Deputy Chairperson, will ensure that that happens. Every Department has a responsibility for many important issues, including child poverty, fuel poverty, poor housing, and educational disadvantage. That is why the subcommittee is being re-established, and, given that its remit covers many issues, it will be able to influence actively every Department. I understand that, due to diary commitments, early March is probably the earliest date on which all Ministers will be able to attend a meeting of the subcommittee. However, we are keen to move forward with the project.

Mr Shannon: I thank the junior Ministers for the contributions that they have made to an important subject. I am a member of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, which, as the junior Minister said, is united in its intention to ensure that issues that relate to children and young people are addressed fully.

Will the junior Minister outline the work programme for the subcommittee on children and young people and tell the Assembly who its members will be? How will the junior Ministers ensure that it compels every Department and Committee — whether the Department of Education, the Health Committee, the Department for Employment and Learning or the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure — to ring-fence money to ensure that the issues that affect children and young people will be addressed?

Mr G Kelly: The work plan will include the re-establishment of the subcommittee, actions for actively engaging children and young people in the political process, and actions to ensure that children and young people are made fully aware of their rights and responsibilities. Specific actions will be taken to find poverty measures that most effectively identify those children most in need, and specific targets will be determined to ensure progress in achieving our anti-poverty targets. Furthermore, the work plan will include anti-bullying measures; campaigns to promote the health, safety and well-being of children; details of a campaign of raising awareness on specific priorities; plans for engagement with the sector; and much more.

With regard to ring-fencing, I refer to my earlier answer. Our intention, and the intention of other Ministers, as stated in meetings of the Executive, is to ensure that the issue is progressed. Extra money has been allocated, including £30 million to the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, £13 million to the Department of Education and £2 million to the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure.

Rather than use the term “ring-fenced”, the job of the subcommittee will be to ensure that that money is spent well. However, despite the fact that Ministers have made a clear commitment to address this issue, they have the right to run their own Departments.

Ms Anderson: Go raibh maith agat. I thank the junior Ministers for this most welcome statement. Sinn Féin is totally committed to consolidating and advancing the equality agenda. The agreement of the Executive parties to measure the Programme for Government, Budget and investment strategy against the statutory guidelines is a major advancement and a welcome development.

In that context, will the junior Minister state whether the outcomes of the equality impact assessment 12-week consultation process will be taken into account when resources are allocated? Furthermore, on that basis, does the junior Minister agree that groups and organisations that work hard for the needs of children and young people should be encouraged to take part in that consultation process?

Members may wish to ensure that consultation meetings are held in each of their areas to ensure that the particular needs of children and young people across the North are taken into account when resources are allocated.

Mr G Kelly: Go raibh maith agat. We encourage everyone, especially stakeholders, to get involved in that consultation process. The Programme for Government clearly highlights that equality, fairness, inclusion and the promotion of good relations will be watchwords for the Executive’s policies and programmes across Government Departments. That places an overarching responsibility on all of us to proactively change the existing patterns of social disadvantage by using increased prosperity and economic growth to tackle ongoing poverty and to develop innovative measures that will address existing patterns of socio-economic disadvantage and target resources and efforts towards those in greatest need.

The Executive are fully committed to ensuring that equality is properly taken into account. In line with that, a draft equality impact assessment, carried out at a strategic level on the Programme for Government, Budget and investment strategy, was launched last week for the 12-week consultation that the Member mentioned.

The focus of that assessment is at the strategic level, and aims to consider the overall impact that will be associated with the Executive’s priorities and allocations of resources as set out in the Budget and investment strategy. The Executive will take account of the final equality impact assessment carried out at a strategic level when implementing the Programme for Government and the investment strategy.

In the case of the Budget, the final equality impact assessment (EQIA) will be taken into account in the future allocation of resources, including during the monitoring rounds. The consultation on the draft EQIA will be an important exercise. The Executive are determined that the consultation on the draft assessment will offer everyone the opportunity to have their say and influence decisions.

Mr Beggs: I also welcome the reappointment of the ministerial subcommittee. However, the junior Ministers were given responsibility for children’s issues in June 2007. Why has it taken some eight months for the subcommittee to meet? How regularly do they intend the subcommittee to meet? Will they ensure that in future it meets to scrutinise budgetary issues and deal with cross-cutting issues that affect children and young people?

Mr G Kelly: The institutions were set up in May 2007, and it has taken us until now to reach this point; I do not want to make any excuses about that. We intend to move forward with some haste. The first meeting of the subcommittee is being prepared, and we hope that it will take place early in March.

As for regular meetings, we will go through those processes when we get together. I hope that “regular meetings” says it all; we will meet regularly, and more often when it is necessary. I take the Member’s point about the Budget and in-year monitoring. We want to ensure that what we have promised for children in the Programme for Government — if I remember correctly, three public service agreements deal directly with, and five others touch on, this wide-ranging issue — is part of our departmental work.

Mrs M Bradley: I welcome the setting up of the ministerial subcommittee. Perhaps we should have had it a bit earlier.

Has an assessment been made of the level of funding that is required by the programmes resourced through the children and young people’s fund that OFMDFM considers a priority and with which it wants to continue? Where is the funding for children’s play, which is an important part of children’s lives? Would it not have been better for the subcommittee to have had its own budget?

Mr G Kelly: I will first deal with the children’s play policy.

The analysis of the consultation responses has been published on the children and young people’s unit website. Work has begun on revising the policy statement to take account of those responses, and it is intended that the revised policy statement will be published by the end of March. Play policy contributes to all six of the high-level outcomes in the strategy and has been proven to have beneficial effects on children’s physical and mental health, to aid development, to encourage social skills and to improve knowledge and skills. By the spring of 2009, action plans will have been developed to implement the play policy. We are delighted to have secured funding of over £2 million in years 2 and 3 of the Budget to take these plans forward and support exemplar area-based projects.

The Member also asked where money is used in each Department. We know where that money has been used, because there was an earlier funding package. We have extracted some helpful information from those couple of years when it was operational. The reason that we are doing away with the funding package and pursuing mainstreaming is because we now know which programmes are sustainable and effective. We are eager for all Departments involved in those policies and projects to mainstream them. That is the whole idea.

Mr McLaughlin: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the re-establishment of the subcommittee. Can the Minister share some of the details of the implementation groups that will be established to carry out, or deliver on, the decisions taken by the subcommittee?

Mr G Kelly: A number of implementation structures have been, or are in the process of being, established to oversee the implementation of the strategy over the next 10 years. Those include a strategy planning and review group, which we will chair.

It will include the chairpersons of the other implement­ation groups, together with senior representatives of statutory, voluntary, and community-sector organisations. An interdepartmental group on children and young people will be established, as will a network of practitioners, comprising representatives of agencies that deliver services for children and young people, to provide commentary on the implementation of the strategy on the ground. A research and information group, and a parents’ advisory group to seek the views of parents, will be set up.

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All groups will be required to meet at least twice a year, and the terms of reference and membership of each group will be approved by the strategic planning and review group. Each group will be chaired by a member of the strategic planning and review group who will report routinely at meetings. Terms of reference and membership lists will be published, and memberships will be refreshed every two years.

Ms Purvis: I, too, welcome the junior Ministers’ statement and, in particular, their guarantee that issues relating to children and young people will remain to the fore.

Will the junior Ministers provide me with assurance on several matters? They said that the funding available should mean that no programmes for children or youths will be reduced or cut. Given that, will they assure me that those providing such programmes in the community and voluntary sectors will not have their funding reduced or cut?

I welcome the fact that the NIO and the Court Service have been invited to attend the subcommittee. Can the junior Minister assure me that non-devolved matters relating to children and young people will be given the same priority as devolved matters?

Finally, when do the junior Ministers expect to publish the action plan on their Department’s 10-year strategy for children and young people?

Mr G Kelly: The reserved matters concern the NIO and the Court Service, both of which were deliberately involved in the original subgroup. They will continue to be involved. A close eye will be kept on all issues that affect children, and that applies equally to reserved matters.

It may be repetitive to say that, with regard to funding, the movement is towards mainstreaming. We have written to Ministers, urging them to determine what each individual Department will be doing about previous projects and those that continue, as well as those that they believe should not continue, and why. We will follow that up on an ongoing basis.

The current one-year action plan was published in March 2007. Future plans will follow a three-year cycle, in line with Government finance policy. Work has begun on engaging with Departments, the voluntary sector and young people. Implementation groups are being set up to review the current action plan and strategy. A workshop with young people will be held in the next few weeks, and, as I indicated earlier, we will seek the views of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister and involve it in the consideration of a draft three-year plan. Furthermore, the Commissioner for Children and Young People has agreed to bring together a group of representatives from the community and voluntary sectors to review the action plan.

Mrs D Kelly: I, too, welcome the junior Ministers’ statement and the establishment of the ministerial subcommittee on children and young people. We in the SDLP are concerned about equality issues. Will the Minister give us more detail about the EQIA that is under way? It is my understanding that the EQIA relates to the Programme for Government; if that is so, consultees and respondents will have an opportunity to impact on the action and implementation. Is that the case?

Moreover, what was the thinking behind establishing children’s moneys in that way? At Westminster, a specific children’s fund has been established, and agencies other than Departments can apply to that fund. That enables innovative thinking, not just more of the same.

In the Republic of Ireland, the Minister for Finance, Brian Cowen, has specifically set aside some €800 million for children and families; non-governmental organisations can also bid for that money. From what source in Northern Ireland can NGOs bid for funding? What is the potential for innovative thinking on children’s issues? What are OFMDFM’s priorities for children and young people over the next six months?

Mr G Kelly: I thank the Member for the question, which came at the end of her speech.

The Executive examined how children and young people’s issues are dealt with at Westminster, in the South and elsewhere. They concluded that the best way to deal with children and young people’s issues is through funding being mainstreamed in Departments.

The Executive will take account of the final strategic equality impact assessment in the implementation of the Programme for Government and the investment strategy. The final EQIA will also be taken into account in future Budget allocations, including monitoring rounds. During the important consultation on the draft EQIA, the Executive are determined that all people, including the voluntary sector, will have the opportunity to influence final decisions. Departmental budgets will also take the EQIA into consideration. Therefore, all those issues are involved.

OFMDFM is no longer the funding Department; instead, the moneys will be mainstreamed into Depart­ments. The children and young people’s funding package has not disappeared but has been replaced, we would argue, with an effective method to ensure that money is available to all Departments to deal with this issue.

Ministers will attend this high-powered subcommittee, which means that there will be direct access to their Departments. The Executive have made their decision about the way in which to progress this issue, and we think that it will be seen to work.

Mr F McCann: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Will the junior Minister tell us what OFMDFM is doing to combat bullying?

Mr G Kelly: As Members know, bullying is a huge issue for children and young people. Any efforts to raise awareness of this issue and develop mechanisms to tackle the problem will, I am sure, be widely welcomed by everyone in the Assembly.

The anti-bullying forum, with participation by key stakeholder representatives, has developed a range of initiatives, one of which is the production of an information advice leaflet for parents and carers regarding bullying because of race, faith and culture. Over the next three months, we plan to produce and implement a dissemination strategy for the leaflet; that will involve the leaflet being translated into key languages and ensuring that parents are aware of its existence, either by flagging up web-based access or by distribution of hard copies through a variety of outlets, a LeasCheann Comhairle.

In the longer term, we intend to develop a one-day training course for schools, which will include prevent­ative and responsive strategies on bullying because of race, faith and culture. It is also intended to help schools to review the usefulness of the website material.

Mr O’Loan: I welcome the setting up of the ministerial subcommittee, with the proviso that I hope that it will lead to a more strategic focus on the important issue of children and young people. The junior Ministers’ statement said:

“no child or youth programme will be reduced or cut”.

In response to the draft Budget, the education and library boards were greatly concerned that funding for the Youth Service had been cut substantially. Extra funding was provided in the revised Budget, but I understand that the Youth Service still regards its funding as being cut. Will the junior Minister give a definitive statement on that matter?

Will he confirm that the line in his statement, which states that the budget for the Youth Service is not being cut from last year, means what it says? If he cannot give a definitive statement today, will he undertake to write to me on that point?

Mr G Kelly: Go raibh maith agat. I have said repeatedly that it is for individual Ministers to determine spending priorities now that the Budget allocations have been finalised. Part of the Executive’s role has been to improve budgetary allocations for youth services but not through a dedicated funding package. I will write to the Member and give him more details. However, the position has been stated several times today. The Executive are advancing youth services, not through a funding package but through mainstream funding supported by a ministerial subcommittee.

Ms J McCann: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I also welcome the re-establishment of the ministerial subcommittee on children and young people. Will the junior Minister state what actions are being taken to ensure the protection of children and young people?

Mr G Kelly: Protecting and safeguarding children is a key priority for us all. A Staying Safe policy statement is being developed as part of the 10-year strategy for children and young people. It will bind together and integrate current developments and measures on safeguarding children as well as consider what additional policies and actions are required.

The document will seek to place the Staying Safe policy in east-west and North/South contexts because the subject is one that does not stop either at the border or within the island as a whole.

Legislation to safeguard vulnerable groups is being taken forward in line with developments in England and Wales and in parallel with those in Scotland. We have also established the Bichard co-ordination group to oversee developments here. We are liaising with the NIO on co-ordination and on the development of a communications strategy for the new arrangements that will be implemented in 2009. We have arranged for cross-jurisdiction safeguarding to be put on the agendas of the North/South Ministerial Council and the BIC (British-Irish Council).

Committee Business

Draft Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2007:
Report of the Ad Hoc Committee

Mr Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to two hours for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose, and 10 minutes for a winding-up speech. All other Members will have five minutes to speak.

The Chairperson of the Ad Hoc Committee on the draft Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2007 (Dr Farry): I beg to move

That the Report of the Ad Hoc Committee set up to consider the draft Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2007, should be submitted to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland as a Report of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

The Secretary of State referred the draft Order to the Assembly for consideration under section 85 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. The Committee’s report, if adopted by the Assembly, will, together with the Official Report of this debate, constitute the Assembly’s response to the Secretary of State on the draft Order.

The Committee worked on this legislation in a challenging time frame. I pay tribute to the Deputy Chairperson and Committee members, who showed great commitment and dedication to the task in hand. I also pay tribute to the Committee Clerk, Committee staff and researchers without whose professionalism and efforts the Committee could not have succeeded.

On behalf of the Committee, I thank the officials and representatives of the organisations who provided information and evidence.

Minister of State, Paul Goggins MP, came to the Assembly on two occasions: the first was on 26 November 2007, when he briefed Members before the Committee was formed; the second was on 14 January 2008, when he appeared before the Committee.

The proposed Order is the outcome of a fundamental review of the law on sexual offences in Northern Ireland. Its aim is to achieve a strengthened, modernised and harmonised body of law, based on the Sexual Offences Act 2003, which was also informed by extensive and fundamental research.

The draft Order deals with 19 offences that are already covered in Northern Ireland through the Sexual Offences Act 2003.

Therefore, 40% of the provisions are already in place. However, more importantly, the draft Order would cover 36 new offences.

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The draft Order comprises seven parts. Part 1 sets out key definitions for words such as “sexual”, “consent” and “touching”. Part 2 covers non-consensual offences such as rape, assault by penetration, sexual assault and causing a person to engage in sexual activity without consent. It redefines rape, creates new offences and addresses evidential presumptions about consent.

Part 3 deals with sexual offences against children under the age of 16 and makes such offences easier to prosecute. The offences of rape and assault can now be used in cases involving children under the age of 13 without the issue of consent arising. There are also proposals relating to offences in which adults are in positions of trust, which also deal with sexual offences committed by members of the family or the extended family. There are provisions for offences that deal with exploitation through prostitution and pornography, which aim to protect children up to the age of 18.

Part 4 deals with sexual offences against persons with a mental disorder, and Part 5 deals with prostitution. There are new offences of loitering, persistent soliciting and kerb crawling.

Part 6 deals with miscellaneous sexual offences including preparatory offences that apply regardless of whether an intended sexual act occurs.

The key effects of the draft Order include, as summarised by the Minister: all offences becoming gender neutral; all non-consensual activity and sexual activity involving children and other vulnerable adults being criminalised; clearly defined offences; children and young people being placed at the centre of proposals; new offences designed to protect children from abusive behaviour in the home; the equalisation of the age of consent in Northern Ireland with the rest of the UK; ensuring that other vulnerable groups will benefit from added protection; and strengthened law on commercial sexual exploitation.

The Committee broadly welcomed the legislation — the only exception being the age of consent. We welcome the codification of the law on sexual offences into a single statute, the creation of gender-neutral offences and the stiffer sentencing regime. We also welcome the removal of consent as a defence for sexual activity with a child under the age of 13, and that such activity will now be regarded as rape. However, we were averse to the proposed defence of “reasonable belief” where a child is between the ages of 13 and 18. At last, some clarity has been brought to the law on rape, and there is now an in-built presumption of rape if violence is used or where an over-powering drug is administered.

The Committee heard evidence that the guidance for prosecution, social services and education is not clear or robust enough, and that the resources are not sufficient, for children who engage in sexually harmful behaviour. Therefore, the Committee welcomed the Minister’s commitment that effective guidance will be provided to the Public Prosecution Service and that he wants to ensure that he develops the guidance in consultation with voluntary organisations and statutory agencies. There is undoubted merit in the development of prosecution protocols. In the interests of consistency, justice and — particularly — the victims, that work should commence without delay.

The Committee was persuaded by the arguments for equalising the penalties for causing or inciting abuse of a child through prostitution and for paying for the sexual services of a child. We strongly recommend that the draft Order is amended to reflect that. It is anomalous that a perpetrator of the latter offence could receive life imprisonment whereas a person who controls the child might receive only 14 years. The Committee also feels that section 5 of the Criminal Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1967 should be amended to ensure that young people are not penalised inappropriately for consensual and non-abusing sexual activity. We also strongly recommend that the NIO, DHSSPS, key professionals and non-governmental organisations establish a forum to develop and advance policies and practices in that area. The Committee was grateful for the Minister’s commitment to a round table discussion to pull voluntary- and community-sector representatives and his officials together. We also welcome the Minister’s commitment to ensure that those parties continue to be involved in the development and implementation of the legislation.

The Committee noted that the positions of trust referred to in the draft Order do not include sports coaches, and while acknowledging the difficulties involved in definition, strongly urged the Minister to give further serious consideration to the inclusion of sports coaches in the legislation.

The Committee was united in its views, save for the proposed change to the age of consent in Northern Ireland. Members may be interested to know that a formal age of consent is not defined in legislation; rather, it is the age at which activities are not formally proscribed. The majority of the Committee is strongly opposed to any change to the age of consent here. We heard evidence from the Christian Institute against any change; it felt that the proposed change was ill-conceived and that parity with the rest of the UK was not important. It was further argued that lowering the age of consent would not result in the reduction of teenage-pregnancy rates. Members might like to know that the age of consent in the Republic of Ireland is also 17 years of age. The Minister argued that the legislation was about defining when sexual activity was a crime, not about defining when young people should engage in sexual activity.

The teenage-parenting strategy was effective in reducing teenage pregnancies, and its success has underlined its importance. The Minister said that even if the Committee were unanimous in recommending the status quo, he would still need to be convinced of the arguments for Northern Ireland being out of line with the rest of the United Kingdom.

The main concern of the NSPCC and Barnardo’s was that the current age of consent tends to prevent young people from coming forward for advice if they are engaged in sexual activity. The Committee also noted the potential anomaly of people in certain circumstances being able to marry when they are 16 years of age.

In coming to its decision, the Committee felt that there was no public lobby in Northern Ireland for change. It felt that it was for the Minister to prove his case and that the burden of proof should not rest with those who wish to defend the status quo.

Finally, I want to comment in a personal capacity as a member of the Committee. I agree with all the Committee’s recommendations. However, I find myself in the slightly unusual position of being its Chairperson, but reflecting the minority view in the Committee on the issue of the age of consent. My view is that the age of consent in Northern Ireland should be set at 16 years of age and be in line with the rest of the United Kingdom. I do not believe that there is a compelling reason for Northern Ireland to be out of line with the rest of the UK. The issue is not about encouraging or legitimising sexual activity at an early age; rather, we should recognise that it is a reality in our society — as it is in others — and we should ensure that we have a practical response to a genuine problem. In practice, young people are rarely prosecuted for engaging in sexual relations when they are below the age of consent; the authorities rarely view it to be in the public interest to pursue prosecutions for such activity.

There is a strong argument for ensuring that no barriers are erected that would prevent people from receiving proper advice from qualified professionals who could inform them of the risks that are connected to their activities. Anything that prevents people coming forward for advice is counterproductive. We can, in a responsible way, support lowering the age of consent to 16 years of age. I believe that that is the more responsible line to take, although I respect fully the views of those Committee members who argued otherwise.

Mr Ross: I support the report, and the bulk of the proposed legislation is welcome. Although much of the debate — both in the Committee and in the media — has centred on the age of consent, it does a disservice to the overall legislation, which, in many ways, toughens the existing law.

Many of the main proposals have been welcomed by all the parties. The Chairperson mentioned some of those proposals, including criminalisation of non-consensual sexual activity between and involving children, and a recommendation for more robust sanctions. He also noted that the defence of consent has been removed for those who engage in sexual activity with a child who is under 13 years of age, although some members would have preferred to have seen that apply to children who are 14.

The NIO argued that children are at the heart of the proposals. We welcome the fact that new offences have been created. The reason for that is that children should be protected in their homes, which is where most abuse occurs. The Committee heard disturbing and horrific evidence, particularly from children’s groups, about how some public toilets in Northern Ireland have been used to advertise sex with children who are as young as 12 years old.

I am pleased that the report recommends that the law for those who incite the abuse of a child through prostitution should be equal to that for those who pay for the service. Indeed, the Chairperson has already referred to that.

The age of consent was the main issue in, and out, of the Committee. The proposals to lower the age of consent were strongly resisted by the Committee. Sinn Féin, in particular, seemed to argue against lowering it, expressing the fear that sexual predators from the Irish Republic would come across the border to prey on younger people. However, that party’s representatives seemed to change their mind in the last meeting. Sinn Féin Member Mickey Brady made comments in the media, which were carried by UTV and ‘The Irish News’, stating his concerns about lowering the age of consent. He said:

“Sexual predators may be encouraged to take advantage. There are people out there who may well take advantage of that situation and that is a real fear”.

However, one week later, after Pat Doherty expressed an opposing view on the BBC’s ‘Let’s Talk’, the Sinn Féin Committee members changed their opinions. Jennifer McCann said that Sinn Féin does not want to criminalise children, despite the fact that, as the Chairman said, the Committee agreed that section 5 of the Criminal Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1967 should be amended so that two young people who were consensually engaged in sexual activity would not be inappropriately charged.

Sinn Féin’s rationale is dangerously close to the view that, because young people under the age of 17 are having sex, we should legislate for that. Many young people smoke and drink before they are legally allowed to do so. If we were to follow the Sinn Féin rationale, we would abolish all the laws in relation to that, despite the health implications.

It is somewhat bizarre that, at a time when the Government are raising the age at which one can buy tobacco products and are seeking to reclassify cannabis in order to protect children, they propose to lower the age of consent in Northern Ireland, despite the fact that there is no public outcry to do so. The argument that children are already engaging in sexual activity and that the age of consent should reflect that holds no water. Laws are put in place to protect us. Young people should be protected, and that is what the legislation aims to do.

Maintaining the age of consent at 17 is not about criminalising children, as Sinn Féin has attempted to argue; it is about protecting children from those who would try to exploit them. Let us remember that we are not talking primarily about two 16-year-olds who are engaged in consensual sexual activity, but, perhaps, about a 40-year-old man aiming to take advantage of a 16-year-old girl.

We must also consider the message that lowering the age of consent would send out. Having sex requires emotional and physical maturity, and lowering the age to 16 would send out the message that the Government expect young people to be engaged in sexual activity and were legislating for that fact. No arguments have been advanced that provide a good reason to align our law with that on the mainland. Northern Ireland has different laws relating to many issues, such as abortion and alcohol. Therefore, there is no reason that we should not maintain the age of consent at 17.

We have heard evidence from various groups that wish to see a lower teenage pregnancy rate and a halt to the spread of STIs, and we all agree with that. However, lowering the age of consent will achieve neither of those aims. There is no evidence to support that view. Neither is there a link between the age of consent and the number of young people who seek advice on sexual issues. The burden of proof lies with those who wish to change the law, not with those who wish to maintain the current position. Evidence given to the Committee shows that nearly 28% of 16- to 24-year-olds in GB had sex before the age of 16, whereas in Northern Ireland the figure is only 15%. We do not want to see any reversal of that.

In my closing remarks, I wish to touch on a few issues. We mentioned that sports coaches are not included in the provision about a position of trust. That is important, and we have encouraged the Minister to examine it. In England, in October 2007, tennis coach Clare Lyte was sentenced after a trial that heard evidence of how she abused her position as a tennis coach to engage in a sexual relationship with a child of 13. That hammers the point home.

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

Mr Ross: I commend the report and hope that Members will support it.

Ms S Ramsey: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Like the last two Members who spoke, I welcome the debate. I also welcome the report from the Ad Hoc Committee on the Draft Sexual Offences Order.

For the record, the previous Member’s speech described my party’s views incorrectly on several issues. The minutes of evidence will prove that my two colleagues and I probed many of those issues so that we could put information in the public domain before coming to our conclusion. I hope that the Member is not saying that comments and statements made by other Committee members indicate their personal points of view. We can do that. The Member has been somewhat childish to say that, because we were teasing out issues, we changed our minds. I raised the issue of sexual predators. The Member must recognise that. I told the Minister that my concern was not about two 16-year-olds, or two 15-year-olds, but about sexual predators who might use the law to their own advantage. There are two issues there, and the Member must be honest about them.

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However, it is a pity that the age of consent is the dominant issue in the debate. Many of the proposed provisions are positive and will go some way to protecting children, young people and the vulnerable. They will modernise the statute book.

The Chairman has, rightly, pointed out that the provisions ensure that offences will be gender neutral. Until the Order becomes law, an offence could take place between a 14- or 15-year-old male and a 15- or 16-year-old female. That created difficulties, because it was not gender neutral.

All non-consensual sexual activity, and sexual activity involving children and other vulnerable groups, will be criminalised. The Order must therefore be welcomed. It introduces new offences designed to prevent children from abusive behaviour in the home. Given that sexual abuse is prevalent in the home and extended family, that is to be welcomed. During Committee meetings on the proposed Order, several groups submitted papers to the Committee. Presentations were made, most notably, by the Christian Institute, the NSPCC and Barnardo’s. Specific issues were aired from opposite ends of the room. I encourage that, and I welcome the fact that the Committee had the opportunity to listen to a number of organisations.

The NSPCC and Barnardo’s were broadly content with most of the Order. Sinn Féin pushed several small, minor issues, as the Chairperson has mentioned. We pressed the Minister to ensure that there is a commitment to a round table discussion that will involve both the community and voluntary sector, and NIO officials. It is on record that I welcome that commitment, because we pushed for that for long time.

I take this opportunity to mention that NIO officials are at present in the Public Gallery.

We must keep an eye on that commitment. The Committee has reported, and it should not take its eye off the ball after this debate.

The Committee is concerned at the position of trust held by sports coaches. I do not claim to speak for all the members, but all showed concern on that issue, and it must be taken on board.

Again, I want to put on record that I, and other Committee members, raised the issue of victims and survivors. The Order deals with sexual offences; however, those cannot be seen in isolation from the issues of victims and survivors. We must consider them — they will be a key component. Recent media reports indicate that, whatever happens, victims and survivors are left to one side. Whatever criminal or sexual offences legislation is in place, concern for victims and survivors must be at its centre.

The age of consent is the main issue on which the Committee did not agree. However, members agreed to write into the report that what prevailed was a majority view. That is common sense.

Some organisations were concerned that certain provisions would prevent young people from seeking advice. They argued that, if marriage can take place at 16, on the grounds of equality, the age of consent must be 16. That view must be taken on board.

I am conscious that the Speaker will soon stop me from talking, which is a pity; however, I am sure Mickey Brady will make those points. Go raibh maith agat.

Mrs D Kelly: I, too, welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate, and I acknowledge that in the Committee there was general agreement on a wide range of issues, the exception being that of the lowering of the age of consent. It is my view that the age of consent should not be lowered.

The proposals contain much that is to be recommended, most especially, the clarification of the law on rape. The Chairperson, Dr Farry, has already accurately summarised the Committee’s findings. It is unfortunate that this is not a devolved matter, since we would then take control of our destiny, without having to plead with a Secretary of State to promote the legislation.

With respect to most matters involving the protection of children and young people, the required actions involve close co-operation between agencies.

Therefore, there is a requirement on Ministers to study the report’s recommendations carefully. The report references gaps in the provision of guidelines and protocols for professionals who work in the area.

I want to highlight in particular a policy area that needs urgent review: that of children who sexually harm other children and, in some cases, adults. It is disappointing that neither the consultation nor the draft Order has considered any aspect of sexually harmful behaviour by children and how it should be dealt with. Such consideration is particularly important because research clearly shows that a large number of sex offenders begin offending when they are children. It also shows that intervention at that age is important and effective. It must be remembered that a large number of children who engage in sexually harmful behaviour are already victims. A host of treatments can be considered for those children, focusing on their own victim experiences and effectively preventing them from continuing to offend into adulthood.

The draft Order’s arrangements contrast sharply with the multi-agency sex-offender risk assessment and management (MASRAM) arrangements, under which there is much clearer guidance and more money available. The Health Minister, Michael McGimpsey, and his colleagues must reflect carefully on that if the Assembly is to have any impact whatsoever in preventing the cycle of sexual violence and abuse.

Like other Members, I welcome the establishment of the rape crisis assessment and referral centre, which will be the first of its kind in Northern Ireland. It is certainly long overdue. The Committee Chairman said that although there is a lot in the report, legislation must be much clearer about the protection of children, young people, and particularly, women, who are most likely to be the victims of sexual offences. I am concerned about the lack of protocols and guidance.

I hope that the Minister considers carefully the views of the agencies that made representations to the Committee, especially the NSPCC and Barnardo’s, both of which are widely recognised and established experts in the field. There is a clear call for the pertinent issue of young sex offenders and prevention of the cycle of abuse and victimhood to be dealt with urgently.

Mr McCallister: I broadly welcome the Committee’s report and the general direction of the draft Order, which takes steps to further protect the most vulnerable in society from the unfortunate reality of sexual predators. This process has brought about the first major review of this body of law in Northern Ireland, and that is also welcome.

I strongly welcome the draft Order’s main goals; it seeks to clarify the law, create new offences, bolster sentences and tariffs, and, of course, as other Members have mentioned, establish a rape crisis referral centre. In particular, I strongly welcome the removal of consent as a defence for sex with a child who is under 13 years of age, which will now always be considered as rape. I welcome, too, the corresponding increased tariffs for that offence and others.

However, I share the Committee’s opposition to the proposed defence of reasonable belief when the child is between 13 and 18 years of age. More must be done to ensure the protection of young people in that age bracket and remove the defence of reasonable belief, which can often be used as a preconceived defence.

I welcome the Minister’s commitment to producing effective guidance for the Public Prosecution Service. There are several issues with regard to that. First, we must ensure that relevant protocols are in place to deal more effectively with young people who engage in sexually harmful activities.

Secondly, we must ensure that young people are not prosecuted unnecessarily for consensual sexual activity, and the Committee’s desire to amend section 5 of the Criminal Law (Northern Ireland) Act 1967, which relates to that issue, is welcome. However, we must also ensure that children — especially those under 14 years old — are protected, and that their best interests are not compromised by the non-reporting of potential offences. That is a delicate matter and we must move forward on those issues in direct consultation with children’s groups, the social services, the police and the Assembly.

I share the Committee’s disappointment that the age of consent will be reduced to 16 years of age. The Committee’s view is that the burden of proof rests with those who seek change rather than those who, as has been suggested, oppose it. Regardless of the outcome of the debate, more needs to be done to improve education on relationships and sexual health. There is a high rate of teenage pregnancies in Northern Ireland, and it is extremely important that a cross-departmental strategy is put in place to reduce that rate.

Finally, depending on the completion of the draft Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2007, work must begin to ensure its smooth implementation. Stakeholders must work together to ensure that policy, legislation and guidance combine to give the maximum protection and support to our children and young people.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Question time will begin at 2.30 pm. Members may take their ease until then. The debate will resume after Question Time, when the first Member to be called will be Mrs Iris Robinson.

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)

2.30 pm

Oral Answers to Questions


Mr Ford: On a point of order, Mr Speaker.

Mr Speaker: I think that the Member knows the procedures. Points of order cannot be taken during Question Time.

Mr Ford: I am sorry, Mr Speaker: I did not realise that Question Time had begun.

Mr Speaker: Question Time takes place between 2.30 pm and 4.00 pm, and it has certainly started. I am happy to take the Member’s point of order after Question Time.

Before we proceed, I welcome to the Assembly, this afternoon, representatives from the Basque Parliament, who are visiting Northern Ireland.

Question 1, in the name of Mr Easton, has been withdrawn.

Freedom of Information

2. Mr Lunn asked the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister what plans it had to introduce freedom of information legislation that is specific to Northern Ireland.       (AQO 1688/08)

18. Mr G Robinson asked the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister what plans it had to amend the current freedom of information legislation to ensure that public bodies are required to keep records of, and publish details on, (i) the source of requests under the existing freedom of information legislation; (ii) the number of requests; and (iii) the cost to public bodies in dealing with these requests.        (AQO 1656/08)

The First Minister (Rev Dr Ian Paisley): With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will take questions 2 and 18 together.

Freedom of information (FOI) is a transferred matter. However, in 2000, the then Executive Committee decided not to introduce separate FOI legislation. Therefore, Northern Ireland was covered by legislation that was passed by the United Kingdom Government. The Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister has no current plans to introduce freedom of information legislation that is specific to Northern Ireland. There are no plans to amend the existing legislation to ensure that public bodies are required to keep records of, and publish details on, the source and number of requests and the cost to public bodies in dealing with those requests.

Details about the number of requests received and the source of requests are compiled in all Departments and are published annually. However, information about the cost of processing requests is generally not held because requests are dealt with on a case-by-case basis. No satisfactory formula that facilitates the calculation of accurate figures exists. However, a considerable number of staff and resources are tied up with processing freedom of information requests.

Mr Lunn: Does the First Minister retain the view that the freedom of information legislation remains an excuse for lazy journalism? Does he agree that, as inconvenient as it may be, it is a vital component of an open democracy?

The First Minister: I know that there are people in the House who believe in the infallibility of the Pope, but I did not think that as many people believed in the infallibility of the press. There are good journalists and bad journalists, just as there are good politicians and rotten politicians. I take my hat off to the journalists who have kept faith, both with the people whom they interview and the people whom they serve. However, I have no time for a journalist who is out to crack down on someone at whom he has taken umbrage; he has to take the heat as the rest of us do. I know that the honourable gentleman is quite capable of taking any heat that I would dare to put against him.

Mr G Robinson: Are codes of practice available on how Departments should discharge their responsibilities under freedom of information legislation?

The First Minister: Sections 45 and 46 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 require the Ministry of Justice to produce codes of practice, which provide guidance to public authorities on desirable practice in discharging their functions under Part I of the Act, and in relation to records management.

The codes do not have statutory force, but they provide essential guidance to public bodies on how best to meet their obligations under the 2000 Act. Failure to comply with the provisions of the codes may lead to a breach of the 2000 Act and, ultimately, to enforcement action being taken by the Information Commissioner. A revision of the records management code of practice is being undertaken by the National Archives of the United Kingdom. It is taking account of rapid techno­logical advances in the management of electronic data, such as emails. Our Departments recognise that they will not be well placed to deliver on their statutory obligations under the 2000 Act unless they possess robust information and records management systems.

Mr D Bradley: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Leaving aside all the First Minister’s bluster about the press, does he agree that freedom of information policy contributes to open and transparent Government and helps to hold decision-makers to account? Does he fully support the principle of freedom of information?

The First Minister: The foreword of the 2006 annual report on the operation of freedom of information in Northern Ireland, which was published in July 2007, notes — although I suppose that the honourable Member never read it — that the 2000 Act continues to contribute significantly to the development of an open and trans­parent culture within Departments. We also stated that we will aim to disclose, wherever possible, information about the progress of our policies, with a view to informing everyone who engages with us — even him.

Mr Gardiner: Will the First Minister undertake to ensure that any regulatory burdens placed on small voluntary organisations, including the freedom of information regulations, are not imposed without a financial impact assessment?

The First Minister: The honourable gentleman makes a point that should be observed.

Child Protection and Welfare

3. Mr Simpson asked the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to outline the work that it has carried out on child protection and welfare.     (AQO 1668/08)

The First Minister: We are developing a cross-departmental safeguarding policy statement that will bind together and integrate current developments and existing measures around safeguarding children, as well as examining what additional actions and policies are required. The document will also seek to place our safeguarding arrangements in an east-west and North-South context. Although the issue of child protection is not in the existing work programmes for the British-Irish Council or the North/South Ministerial Council, we will raise the matter at the next summit meeting, subject to an agreement from the other participating Administrations.

As announced by the junior Ministers this morning, we have re-established the ministerial subcommittee on children and young people to ensure co-ordination in the delivery of their priorities. The subcommittee will seek to place children and young people at the heart of the Government’s agenda and improve the integration of policy and service delivery on cross-cutting issues. We have also established the Northern Ireland Bichard co-ordination group, which is overseeing the implementation of the recommendations on child protection and vetting procedures resulting from Sir Michael Bichard’s inquiry into the tragic deaths of Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells.

Mr Simpson: Does the First Minister agree that the case for child protection will not be advanced one iota if loving, caring parents are criminalised, or if children are snatched from loving, caring homes by force, over the issue of smacking?

The First Minister: I agree with my honourable friend. The law here provides protection for parents who choose to chastise their child reasonably through smacking. A recent judicial review by the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People failed in its attempt to challenge that law. Therefore, there are no grounds for social services to remove children from their parents because of reasonable chastisement. I am sure that my honourable friend will agree with that.

Ms S Ramsey: I welcome the First Minister’s answer to the initial question. Will he state what work is being done with the Irish Government to tackle child poverty and social exclusion across the island of Ireland? I know that he has touched on that. Has any work been done to build on the work that was done with the Irish Government on child protection?

The First Minister: The honourable lady will know that we have set a priority to deal with that matter and to eliminate it, eventually. We are dedicated to that task, and we will continue to work on it.

Mrs M Bradley: Will the First Minister state how the Programme for Government and the Budget will specifically improve the life chances of children — especially those with special needs — in the absence of the children’s fund?

The First Minister: Now that the Budget allocations have been finalised, we have asked ministerial colleagues to provide us with details of those elements of the children and young people’s funding package that have been carried forward. We are pleased that final Budget negotiations gave additional funding to the Department of Education of £13 million over three years for children, young people and youth services, and £30 million over the same period to the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety for the implementation of the Bamford Review of Mental Health and Learning Disability (Northern Ireland).

The granting to the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety of additional funding through the in-year monitoring process and the ability to retain efficiency savings over 3·5% also presents an opportunity for additional resources. Added to the £26 million allocated, we have facilitated the continuation of projects previously funded by the children and young people’s funding package announced earlier. That will provide a substantial allocation to children’s services. With those additional resources, on top of mainstream funding, the Executive can focus on the important work of delivering on the vision contained in the 10-year strategy for children and young people, namely that all children and young people living in Northern Ireland will thrive and look forward with confidence to their futures.

International Relations

4. Mr Ross asked the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to outline its proposals to improve international relations. (AQO 1723/08)

The First Minister: The Programme for Govern­ment includes plans to build on our recent successes in developing good international relations. Our objective is to enhance the positive image of Northern Ireland, generate practical benefits of attracting investment, exchange knowledge, encourage people to visit us and create business and cultural opportunities internationally.

Our recent visits to the United States and Brussels were successful and generated enormous goodwill and positive endorsement by senior politicians and business leaders.

2.45 pm

We will continue to work with the US Administration and US businesses on several important economic issues. In particular, the US/NI investment conference in May will be a significant milestone in our attempt to position ourselves as an internationally competitive and attractive business location.

As I said in a previous answer, we are also working with the European Union to build on existing partnerships and to enhance collaboration across key policies and programmes. Our recent discussions with President Barroso reinforced the commitment and support for the European Commission’s Northern Ireland task force, which is responsible for identifying how our region can participate more effectively in EU initiatives.

We will also enhance our international role through the Executive’s offices in Washington DC and Brussels, and we will build productive relations and networks in other regions. In addition, we will work with other partner organisations that are already committed to helping us achieve our objectives.

We are ambitious to extend the Northern Ireland operation in India, where one of our colleagues is visiting. Indeed, before coming to the House, I spoke to him on the telephone. We look forward to getting a good response in India and in parts of China.

Given those links, our country should benefit and opportunities should flow to it.

Mr Ross: I thank the First Minister for his answer. Over recent weeks — and the First Minister referred to this in his reply — we have heard Members from all sides of the House welcoming the upcoming invest­ment conference. Will the First Minister elaborate specifically on how that conference will contribute to international relations?

The First Minister: The event is planned for May 2008 and will take place in greater Belfast. It will be an opportunity to showcase a new Northern Ireland and a stable, new devolved Administration that is pro-business and proactive in meeting international business needs.

The Prime Minister and representatives of the US Administration have been supportive and will play an important part in that conference alongside represent­atives from the internal business community.

President Barroso announced a European Commission task force. When we were in Europe recently, we formed a deputation to meet him, and he and other European Union representatives have greatly encouraged the investment conference. Of course, we trust that representatives of many other countries — including Canada — will take part in the conference.

Mr Kennedy: Does the First Minister agree that the establishment of an Assembly Committee for external affairs would be a good way to allow Northern Ireland to interact more closely with regional and national Governments in the European Union?

The First Minister: I would be interested in discussing that matter at any time. Anything that helps us to reach out across the world and interest people in coming to Northern Ireland in order to establish businesses should be examined. If any method offers hope of that — no matter who proposes it — we would be glad to consider it and, if it is worthwhile, proceed with it.

Mrs Hanna: I am sure that the First Minister is aware that the Department for International Development and Ireland Aid are looking forward to working with the Assembly on international development. Although that is a reserved matter, does the First Minister agree that our Departments have an opportunity to complement and support work in areas such as fair trade, ethical procurement, volunteering and exchanges?

The First Minister: The Assembly plays a part in those activities, and I hope that along the way we can get agreement and walk together so that progress can be made.

Ministerial Code

5. Mr O’Loan asked the Office of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister to detail the processes in place to ensure that any alleged breach of the ministerial code is examined independently.    (AQO 1687/08)

The First Minister: As you are aware, Mr Speaker, the ongoing judicial review of an alleged breach of the ministerial code by the Minister for Social Development, Ms Ritchie, prevents us from making any specific comment at this stage. I am surprised that the Member even asked the question. There are no specific provisions in the Northern Ireland Act 1998 that relate to the independent examination of alleged breaches of the ministerial code. However, section 28A of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 requires Ministers to act in accordance with the provisions of the ministerial code. A breach of that code by a Minister could be subject to legal action.

Mr O’Loan: I thank the First Minister for his courtesy, but his answer is no answer at all. I wrote to him on 7 December 2007, bringing the matter of a possible breach of the ministerial code to his attention and asking for an investigation. He knows that I did not even get an acknowledgement of that letter until seven weeks later, and that after prompting. The acknowledgement merely said that the correspondence was still under consideration. Does the First Minister not agree that that does not encourage confidence in the system?

Mr Speaker: The Member must ask his supple­mentary question.

Mr O’Loan: This is an extremely important issue. Will the First Minister agree with me that there cannot be confidence in ministerial conduct if there is not a clear mechanism for the enforcement of the ministerial code and that his answer confirms that no such system or process exists?

The First Minister: The Member talks energetically to the media about complaints that he has lodged with my Department and others. Let me be clear: there is nothing to investigate, and he knows that. He could not even lodge a credible paper or proper complaint with the Assembly Ombudsman on the same matter. He was knocked down. The fact is that no such complaint of substance exists, and the Member has failed to make even half a case.

Mr McFarland: Will the First Minister give some guidance to the House? If, for example, a junior Minister is found to be in breach of the ministerial code, what punishment would he recommend should be meted out?

The First Minister: I am not like the Member: I do not judge people before their time. The law must take its course, and it must be obeyed. That the Member asks such a question — about what I would do in circum­stances that have not even come to pass — shows that he does not realise the responsibility that he has as a Member of the House.

Mr Moutray: Will the First Minister tell the House how collective Executive responsibility has been enhanced since the first Administration and how it prevents Ministers, such as the Minister of Education, going off on a solo run?

The First Minister: It was agreed at St Andrews to put the ministerial code on a statutory footing and to place a duty on Ministers, notwithstanding their Executive authority in their areas of responsibility, to act in accordance with the provision on ministerial account­ability in the code. That code now contains safeguards to ensure that all sections of the community can participate and work together successfully in the operation of the institutions.

In addition to the matters that had to be brought to the Executive under the first Administration, it was agreed at St Andrews that the Executive would also consider any issues that were significant or controversial and which were clearly outside the scope of the Programme for Government or which the deputy First Minister and I agreed should be brought to the Executive.

It was also agreed that the Assembly would have the power to refer important ministerial decisions to the Executive, and the Pledge of Office was amended to require Ministers to participate fully in the Executive as well as in the NSMC and the BIC. All those provisions were designed significantly to enhance collective Executive responsibility in a way that was not possible in earlier Administrations. One cannot be a Member of an Administration if one does not take the weight and join with one’s friends — or enemies, as the case may be — to do the job that one has told the public that one will do. There is no escape; we are all under the same yoke, whether we like it or not.

Eames/Bradley Consultative  Group on the Past

6. Mr Burnside asked the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister what discussions it has had with the Eames/Bradley Consultative Group on the Past.         (AQO 1674/08)

The First Minister: Officials met members of the Consultative Group on the Past in October 2007. The group also met the deputy First Minister and me separately. Those meetings took place last month and were largely a listening exercise. We understand that the consultative group is to continue to consult on a wide basis, and we await the outcome of that process.

Mr Burnside: There is no doubt that there is already a line of thinking on the Eames/Bradley Consultative Group on the Past that is at least considering making victims equivalent to the IRA/Sinn Féín perpetrators of an armed insurrection in this Province over the past 40 years. Does the First Minister — although over the past 12 months he has gone back on many of the things that he has believed in as a Protestant and unionist leader over the past 40 years —

Mr Speaker: Order.

Mr Burnside: Will he at least —

Mr Speaker: Order.

Mr Burnside: Will he at least —

Mr Speaker: Order. Will the Member take his seat and come to his question.

Mr Burnside: Will the First Minister at least stand firm by saying to the House that there is no equivalence between the victims of the terrorist insurrection and those who perpetrated it over the past 40 years?

The First Minister: Looking at the man who asked the question and looking into his past, I think that he would be better keeping his mouth closed on that issue.

As a unionist, I have no doubt that the terror campaign that was waged against the people of Northern Ireland was terrorism and not a war. However, it would be inappropriate for my Department to comment on the findings of a report that is not even published. The level and nature of the recent controversy highlights the contentious and emotive issues to which discussions regarding our shared past can lead. It underlines the need for this society to establish a mechanism that will facilitate that discussion. The establishment of a forum for victims and survivors may possibly provide that, but I am not sure.

However, I was glad to meet the two co-chairmen of the body and to hear what they had to say, and I will pay close attention to the outcomes of that body’s work, as I suppose will everyone who really wants peace in this Province.

Notwithstanding, one thing is clear: although the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister was blamed for certain statements that appeared in the press, they were not true. We had nothing to do with a biographical note written by one of the commissioners and printed as she directed it should be printed. We have no responsibility for that. I regret that it happened, because this is a time when we should tread carefully.

It is the innocent victims who will suffer from any further delay by the victims’ commissioners.

Mrs Long: Does the First Minister agree that when, in his last answer, he confused the Eames/Bradley Consultative Group on the Past with the recently appointed victims’ commission, he simply added to the public confusion about the issue? It is important that victims be given consideration in the context of the past. However, does he agree that if the thorny issues that will be raised are to be resolved to the satisfaction of those within and outside the House, the wider implications for society must also be dealt with in the context of a shared future?


Mr Speaker: The time for questions is up, but I will ask the First Minister to give a quick answer.

The First Minister: If the lady has a message for those responsible, she should meet the victims’ commissioners and bring it to their attention. The victims’ commission was established to facilitate such an exchange of views.

I want to make it perfectly clear that there is a difference between the perpetrators of violence and people who suffer from violence. That difference will cause some weary nights and sore crying for the House and for this land of ours. Members must face up to that: I have done so in my pastoral ministry. I know what it means to stand in someone’s home and see people wailing their hearts out as a result of the murders that were committed. May God give us the grace to be soft enough to forgive, but wise enough not to be taken in.

Agriculture and rural development

Local Procurement

1. Mr Molloy asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to detail the progress made on (i) the issue of local procurement by Government; and (ii) ensuring this procurement is fair and equitable.          (AQO 1690/08)

Local Produce

3. Mr P Ramsey asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development what plans she has to establish the amount of local produce being served in the canteens of all buildings under her Department’s control.         (AQO 1672/08)

The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development (Ms Gildernew): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I will take questions 1 and 3 together.

I am grateful for the opportunity to update Assembly colleagues on an issue that I have prioritised since taking up office. Through the sustainable procurement action plan, my officials are working with the Central Procurement Directorate to develop advice and guidance on the public procurement of food.

I am keen to explore every opportunity to use local produce as much as possible, while adhering to EU law, which requires that all public procurement be fair and transparent. My officials are also working with the Health and Education Departments, which carry out the most food procurement, to develop awareness sessions on those contracts that are due for renewal in the near future. The main objectives will be to raise aware of upcoming contracts, to explain the procurement process and to encourage more local companies to tender. The events will be targeted at small and medium-sized producers and processors, and they will be organised in a manner that, wherever possible, provides equal access to all.

In response to question 3, under direct arrangements the Central Procurement Directorate (CPD), rather than my Department, is responsible for managing the three Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) private-sector catering contracts. Some of those contracts, many of which run for up to three years, were agreed prior to my taking up office, and they state that the use of local produce should be considered where possible. Specific information on the source of the supply for the Department’s premises is not held, but I have asked the catering managers of each to provide a breakdown of the amount of local produce currently used.

To encourage more local sourcing of produce, we must raise awareness of the next tranche of contracts. In order to encourage more local agrifood companies to tender, we must explain the process. That issue extends beyond DARD’s catering contracts: it is Government-wide. Therefore, I have asked for a meeting with the Minister responsible for procurement.

Mr Molloy: What assistance on the public procurement of locally produced food can be given to producers and processors?

Ms Gildernew: DARD staff provide technical support and advice to individual farmers or processors, large and small producer groups and co-operatives to help them engage in public-sector contracts. Under the rural development programme for 2007-2013, the processing and marketing scheme provides assistance to help the agrifood sector improve its competitiveness and enable it to compete for such contracts.

Staff from the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) at the Loughry campus have supported the Central Procurement Directorate by providing advice on the specifications for public food contracts. In addition, they have contributed to the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety’s Fit Futures initiative, which aims to improve the nutritional quality of food in hospitals.

CAFRE also provides a comprehensive range of education and training programmes for producers and processors that develop technical and business manage­ment skills. College staff can assist with product specification, product development and the adoption of new technologies. In addition, the college benchmarking programmes can be used to monitor and identify opportunities for improved efficiency and competitiveness in production systems.

I have also met Michael McGimpsey and Caitríona Ruane to discuss the success of the renaissance of Atlantic food authenticity and economic links (RAFAEL) project in the north-west, which encourages local food producers to develop and successfully compete for business in the public sector, specifically in hospitals and schools. We are trying to encourage the roll-out of that initiative to other areas.

Mr McCallister: Will the Minister state what criteria she uses when sourcing local produce for her own Department’s canteens?

Ms Gildernew: That issue was addressed in my answer to the main question. Procurement is the responsibility of the Department of Finance and Personnel through the Central Procurement Directorate. They set the criteria. Obviously, that issue will be considered during the next round of contract allocations, and I have asked for a meeting with the Minister of Finance and Personnel to discuss it.

Mr Speaker: I call Mr Pat Ramsey. I apologise; Mr Ramsey should have been called before Mr McCallister.

Mr P Ramsey: Will the Minister meet local companies and producers, who are trying to take part in procurement policies? As some of them are new consortiums, will the Minister confirm that past records would not be held against them? Finally, given the importance of local produce, will she assist other Departments in promoting and carrying through what she has said her own Department will do?

Ms Gildernew: I am happy to meet with such people. As I have pointed out, my officials are already engaging with producers and processors to try to help them to bid for public-sector contracts and to improve their competitive edge. That work is ongoing and has worked well in the north-west region under RAFAEL.

We are trying to expand that to all Government contracts. That is why we dealt specifically with the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and the Minister of Education, who run the two biggest Departments as regards public-sector procurement. Therefore, all of that work is ongoing. I am happy to meet anyone, and my officials are already doing that on a daily basis.

Mr T Clarke: Will the Minister state whether the term “local procurement” refers to Northern Ireland produce?

Ms Gildernew: That is obvious. I have recently launched the new round of the Northern Ireland Regional Food Programme, which aims to promote quality regional food and to increase its consumption in Ireland and Britain. Under that programme, assistance is available to develop and expand profitable and sustainable markets by encouraging better co-operation and communications between all sectors in the food industry.

In the past 12 months, that programme has provided financial support to a range of successful events such as the Food Pavilion at the Balmoral Show, which showcased the wide range of available quality local produce and brought the industry together in a common cause.

Red Meat Industry

2. Dr W McCrea asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to detail what priority action she is taking to safeguard the red meat industry.     (AQO 1725/08)

Ms Gildernew: The Chairman of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development is aware of the work that my Department has been involved in with the Red Meat Industry Task Force in developing a strategic plan to guide the industry’s development over the next number of years. Implementing the strategy will have major implications for the industry as a whole, and will require the main players to take on increasingly important roles for the industry.

This is not simply a matter for Government to progress; all stakeholders, including Government, need to work in partnership. The report identified actions for each of the main players, and the Department is actively playing its part in implementing the recommendations of the report. I would also welcome the Committee’s suggestions on how we can move forward collectively, and I await its views.

I met Commissioner Fischer Boel on 10 January 2008, and took the opportunity to bring the findings of the Red Meat Industry Task Force report to her attention. The difficulties facing the North’s red meat industry make it all the more important that we have a level playing field when it comes to competition by ensuring full decoupling of support across the EU, and by ensuring that imports meet the same high standards as domestic production, as well as providing stability in the Common Agricultural Policy until 2013.

The task force recently established two working groups, both of which are led by DARD officials. One group is tasked with targeting efforts to develop commercially viable models of beef production, and the other to scope practical options, linked to broader social and environmental considerations, which might support suckler-beef and hill-sheep farmers.

Furthermore, I met three of the major retailers — and plan to meet another very soon — and wrote to them about the issue of rising costs for producers. Although I have no direct influence over retail prices, lower prices for consumers should not mean lower prices for local produce.

Dr W McCrea: How can the Minister claim that the red-meat sector is a priority when the additional money for her Department in the Budget was not used to help it? Why do many believe that her inaction in response to the task force report indicates her intent to close down the red-meat sector instead of building it up? Given all that the Minister claims that she and her Department do for the red-meat sector, why do farmers at the farm gate feel that she has abandoned them?

Ms Gildernew: My Department is working on a plan, and it is very hard to ask for money without knowing what the plan is. We await what comes from the working groups in the red meat task force report.

I cannot interfere with competitive issues such as retail price. The red meat task force report clearly states that the market is unlikely to deliver the 60p to 70p per kilo increase required for even our most efficient producers to break even. However, I will do all that I can to encourage constructive relationships and dialogue across the supply chain, including with retailers, to ensure joint efforts to help address the challenges that are faced by beef and sheep producers.

As I said, I met three of the major retailers and, although I have no direct influence over retail prices, we can help to influence them. The task force has also been involved in bilateral meetings with retailers, which is a practical step that will help to cement relationships throughout the supply chain. The Department will look carefully at what comes from the working group, before sourcing the necessary money to fit the requirements.

Mr O’Loan: Will the Minister confirm that she made a case for the recovery of the red-meat industry during discussions on the Budget in the Executive, and will she detail the outcome?

Ms Gildernew: Yes; as part of an ongoing engagement with the Minister of Finance and Personnel, not just in the Executive but in correspondence, I stated clearly that challenges and difficulties in the red-meat sector must be tackled. As I already said, I made the same points to Commissioner Fischer Boel. Moreover, I seek help for our red-meat industry where it can be found. That work is ongoing and targets anyone who can help find a way to alleviate the problems in the red-meat sector.

Mr Elliott: I thank the Minister for that answer. Does the Minister accept that there has been a significant decrease in the total-value output from the Northern Ireland lamb sector this year? What is she doing to stop that decline, which amounted to 20% in 2007? Will the Minister also investigate the possibility of providing direct financial support to suckler-cow enterprises and farmers in Northern Ireland or, as some people now call it, the North of Ireland? [Laughter.]

Ms Gildernew: It is good to see a significant change in Tom’s attitude and approach.

First, significant funding is already available to the red-meat sector; for example, the single farm payment, as Tom knows, provides direct funding to farmers — including our lamb producers — which is available until 2013 at least.

With regard to a suckler welfare scheme, my Department, as a member of the task force and the working group mentioned in the previous question, scopes practical options linked to broader social and environmental considerations that might support suckler-beef and hill-sheep farmers. The red meat task force stated that there was no economic case for long-term Government financial support and that additional funding would only mask the issues. However, my Department is focused on providing meaningful support to help the industry become more sustainable and on helping those farmers who wish to remain in the industry get a fair return for their hard work.

However, I do not rule out the need for further assistance. As I said, a marker bid was submitted in the Budget for funding aimed at the red-meat sector, and that will be used to implement any schemes arising from the recommendations of the Red Meat Industry Task Force. No funding has yet been allocated but, if necessary, the bid will be repeated in future.

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Dangerous Dogs Legislation

4. Ms Anderson asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to provide an update on the review of dangerous dogs legislation; and to confirm whether she has held meetings with the Police Service of Northern Ireland to discuss this matter.  (AQO 1710/08)

Ms Gildernew: In my statement to the Assembly on 20 November, I announced a review of dangerous dogs and dog fighting legislation. Since that announcement, my officials have been carrying out a scoping exercise on existing legislation with regard to all aspects of dog control, including dangerous dogs. That has included an examination of the wide range of comments made during the recent Assembly debate. It has also involved consideration of comments made by district councils and others on the efficacy of current legislation.

My officials also raised the issue with their counterparts in the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in Dublin at a recent meeting of the all-island animal health and welfare strategy steering group. That review is ongoing, and once the scoping exercise is complete, I will consider several options, including what new legislation might be required and what it might cover.

Before my announcement in the Assembly, there were few calls for new legislation on the issue of dangerous dogs. Many of the issues raised centred on the enforce­ment of existing dog control legislation rather than calling for new legislation. Enforcement of the legislation is crucial to my review, as many of the issues raised are about public safety. As there have been calls for the PSNI to have a greater role in the enforcement of dog control legislation, I wrote to the Chief Constable on 31 October 2007 requesting a meeting to discuss the role of the PSNI in the enforcement of dog control and dangerous dogs legislation. As a result, I met senior PSNI representatives on Tuesday 22 January, and we had a constructive and positive meeting at which several proposals were discussed that will form part of my considerations.

The meeting with the PSNI is the first of several that I hope to have with interested parties. The next step will be to meet district councils, and arrangements for those meetings are in hand. My officials have also briefed the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development on the review, and I welcome the helpful comments received from the Committee.

Ms Anderson: Go raibh maith agat. The Minister said that her officials had discussions with officials in the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in Dublin, and that she will be considering the harmonisation of legislation North and South, and I welcome that. Has the Minister any plans to discuss the matter with Mary Coughlan, the Minister in the Twenty-six Counties, soon?

Ms Gildernew: As I said, my officials raised dog control issues with their counterparts. As a result, the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in Dublin has written to the Department of the Environment, which is responsible for the legislation on dog control in the South, seeking information on its plans for legislation on dangerous breeds. I raised control of dogs issues with Minister Coughlan during a North/South Ministerial Council meeting in November and will do so when I meet her again. My officials continue to liaise with Dublin officials on that matter and on its new animal welfare legislation, particularly in relation to powers on dog fighting.

During my meeting with the PSNI, I was given assurances that officers already liaise closely with An Garda Síochána in relation to dog-fighting rings, which, as I said in my statement to the Assembly in November, operate on both sides of the border, and I welcome those assurances.

Mr Storey: I am somewhat confused as to the supplementary question asked by the original questioner, given the fact that she was asking the Minister about meetings that she has had with the PSNI. Questions were then asked about North/Southery. The House should not be confused about what the Minister said about the meetings that she has had with the PSNI. It would suit the party opposite if it met the PSNI in relation to the Quinn murder and the McCartney murder to give information on them.

Mr Speaker: Order.

Mr Storey: Will the Minister’s discussions with local councils centre on the dog wardens and practitioners who can give her an assessment of the real issues and identify problem breeds? That would inform the Minister about the decisions that she has to make on this important issue.

Ms Gildernew: My answer will be shorter than the question. Yes, I will meet the dog wardens, but one of the difficulties is finding a venue. We want management from the district councils and the dog wardens to be present.

The dog wardens really must be part of that engagement to ensure that we get the right answers. As part of our review, we will consider all the issues that they might raise. Therefore, I will meet with them.

Mr Burns: Will the Minister tell the House what criteria identify a dog as dangerous?

Ms Gildernew: I do not have that information with me, but I am happy to provide it in writing to the Member.

Mr Speaker: Question 5 has been withdrawn.

Single Farm Payments Scheme

6. Mr McQuillan asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to outline her plans to allow farmers to join the single farm payments scheme in years 2 to 9.            (AQO 1711/08)

Ms Gildernew: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. In order to claim single farm payment, the applicant must hold single farm payment entitlements. Those were established in 2005, and uplift was awarded to dairy producers in 2006. Except in a very few instances, I have no plans to scope or allocate new entitlements to farmers in future years. Therefore, if farmers who currently have no entitlements wish to claim single farm payment, they must obtain entitlements by means of transfer from other farmers. One of the circumstances in which it is possible to allocate new entitlements is as a result of reforms to the common agricultural policy fruit and vegetable regime. I am considering the responses to the consultation on that subject — which closed on 31 January — and I will then make a decision.

Mr McQuillan: Does the Minister agree that excluding entry after year 1 disadvantages those farmers who are affected, and will she make urgent and strenuous efforts to rectify that state of affairs?

Ms Gildernew: Will the Member repeat the question?

Mr Speaker: I ask the Member to please repeat the supplementary question.

Mr McQuillan: Does the Minister agree that excluding entry after year 1 disadvantages those farmers who are affected, and will she make urgent and strenuous efforts to rectify that state of affairs?

Ms Gildernew: My Department engaged with farmers’ unions and others on that subject. They felt that reallocating entitlements would mean that the pot would be divided further. I think that that is the answer to the Member’s question. We examined the matter, and the farmers’ unions said that they were not keen on going down that route, given that farmers who had farmed during the period of the entitlement would receive a reduced amount.

Mr W Clarke: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Will the Minister outline how long it takes, on average, to process an application for single farm payments? Does DARD provide technical assistance to farmers in filling out such applications?

Ms Gildernew: The window for the acceptance of applications without penalty closes on 15 May. Following initial validation checks to ensure that each claim is valid, an acknowledgement is issued to each applicant, usually within two weeks. Between the closing date and the end of June, the claim and land information that the farmers entered on their application forms will be keyed into the Department’s database. A variety of administrative checks, as required by European Council regulations, are carried out to verify eligibility. Those checks can identify discrepancies or queries, which can then be followed up with the applicant where necessary. However, many queries, such as mapping issues, can be resolved by reference to information that is already held on departmental databases and without reference to the farmer.

Alongside the administrative checks, a minimum of 5% of claims are selected for on-farm visits to confirm claim details, land and cross-compliance requirements. When all the information that is required to confirm eligibility is available, a payment is authorised. EU rules permit payments to commence from 1 December onwards and require 96·15% of the budget to be paid by 30 June of the following year. All possible steps are taken to complete verification checks and make payments at the earliest possible date within the payment window that is provided for in the EU regulation.

DARD issues all single farm payment applicants with a guidance booklet, which sets out details on how to complete the application form and provides key pieces of scheme information. Every year the Department runs comprehensive training sessions for around 140 form fillers. In addition, if an applicant requires clarification on either the form or the scheme rules, he or she can contact staff in either Orchard House or the county offices. Contact information is clearly stated in the guidance booklet.

Mr Savage: How much money from the single farm payments has been withheld from farmers since the scheme’s inception? Could that money be used for new entrants to the scheme in years 2 to 9?

Ms Gildernew: I do not have that figure before me, but I am happy to write to the Member. If we do not claim the money or are unable to use it, Europe will withhold it. We do not have a pot of money that has not been claimed or that farmers have not received.

My response with respect to new entrants is similar to that which I gave to the earlier question. The new entrants’ allocation was discussed as part of the consultation, and it was decided — with stakeholder support, including that of the UFU and the Young Farmers’ Clubs — that new entrants commencing farming in a direct-subsidy supported sector, on or before 2 November 2004, should be allocated entitle­ments. However, it was felt that the case for allocating entitlements to new entrants to farming after that date was weak, given that they would have been aware of the existence of decoupled support arrangements and that agricultural production was no longer linked to subsidy payments. Furthermore, any new entitlements allocated will have to be funded out of the national reserve, which will mean additional scale-back of entitlements held by existing farmers.

New entrants can claim entitlements by transferring cases of retirement or inheritance as well. My Department supports new entrants through it new entrants’ scheme, under which participants are encouraged to come forward with innovative agricultural projects that will add value and make a positive impact on the farming industry in the rural community. During its first 18 months, the scheme has encouraged and supported over £6·5 million in capital investment in agriculture.

Drainage Improvement Scheme,  Blackstaff River

7. Mr F McCann asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to detail the proposed drainage improvement scheme for the Blackstaff river.  (AQO 1763/08)

11. Ms S Ramsey asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to detail the proposed drainage improvement scheme for Whiterock stream.    (AQO 1762/08)

Ms Gildernew: With your permission, a Cheann Comhairle. I will take questions 7 and 11 together.

The Whiterock stream is a tributary of the Blackstaff River, and therefore the proposed works will improve drainage in the Blackstaff catchment area. The proposed scheme on the Blackstaff River relates to the repair and refurbishment of a 20 m masonry arch culvert, which passes under the Glen Road, close to St Theresa’s Primary School. In November 2005, emergency works were carried out after the collapse of the roof of the culvert, which resulted in the collapse of the road surface and caused severe traffic disruption.

The works now proposed will provide a permanent repair, to prevent further collapse along a particularly busy thoroughfare. It is proposed to reline the culvert, without excavating in the roadway or footpaths, thereby avoiding the difficulties presented by underground services and traffic management. That will effect cost savings and reduce disruption. Some excavation will be necessary for access purposes in the grounds of the nearby primary school, but that is not expected to be extensive.

The works on the Whiterock Road stream will consist of the replacement of the structurally defective 450 mm culvert with heavy-duty, reinforced concrete pipes, 600 mm in diameter. The works involve the excavation of roads and footpaths on both the Whiterock Road and the Springfield Road, and are required to reduce the risk of flooding and liabilities due to the possible collapse of structurally defective pipelines.

Mr F McCann: Does the Minister agree that the river ways of Belfast offer great potential for tourism in the city, not least because the city takes its name from a river which flows through the West Belfast constituency? Will the Minister say when the drainage improvement scheme is scheduled to commence?

Ms Gildernew: Well done, and I agree with the Member.

The schemes will represent an estimated £300,000 capital investment on drainage improvement works in the west Belfast area — a tourism Mecca. The works are at design stage and are planned to commence in spring 2008. It is anticipated that both schemes can be completed in the 2008-09 financial year.

Ms S Ramsey: Will the Minister state what measures will be taken to minimise disruption to local residents and schoolchildren? Have local residents or community groups been informed or consulted about the scheme?

Ms Gildernew: Rivers Agency displayed proposals and consulted with interested parties, as required under drainage legislation. The scheme was displayed locally at the Whiterock leisure centre. Works are planned to commence in spring 2008 and are mostly below ground. The Glen Road will be kept open so that there will be minimal disruption to traffic, as access to the culvert is via school grounds.

Alpha-Nortestosterone Virus

8. Mr Ford asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to detail what action she proposes to take to implement the Assembly resolution on compensation for farmers who were incorrectly penalised in relation to the alpha-nortestosterone virus.    (AQO 1766/08)

Ms Gildernew: When the issue was last debated in the Assembly, I outlined the actions that I had taken and explained why my Department would not pay compensation to the farmers affected.

Although many of those events occurred long before I became Minister, I made it a priority to deal with the issues quickly and proactively. I met the farmers who were involved, face to face, and apologised for the distress and trauma that the on-farm searches had caused. The Department also apologised for that trauma. I went beyond my statutory obligations and authorised a goodwill payment to farmers to cover the cost of condemned animals, paying out over £87,000 to 139 farmers. I initiated a review of DARD’s handling of the matter in order to establish what lessons could be learned, and I accepted the report’s recommendations in full. Those recommendations are being implemented by the Department in order to improve future arrangements.

3.30 pm

Legal advice confirmed that, under EU law, DARD must remove from the food chain male cattle that test positive for alpha-nortestosterone, regardless of whether evidence of illegal administration has been found, and carry out appropriate follow-up investigations on the herd of origin. Legal advice was clear that DARD can discharge that responsibility without incurring liability to pay any compensation. I reiterate that important point: although I understand the farmers’ anger at having their homes searched, and I have apologised for that, my Department has no statutory power to pay compensation in those circumstances. The fact is that DARD acted in accordance with EU legislation and on the best scientific advice that was available at the time. DARD has a statutory obligation to protect public health and maintain the reputation of the local livestock industry.

I have considered carefully the Assembly’s resolution. I respect the strength of feeling among Members who supported it, but I believe that some of the media misrepresented my position during that debate. Members are aware that I opposed the raids when they happened. I still believe that they should not have happened. However, I am focused on ensuring that such a situation does not come about again. The Ruddock report concluded that DARD’s actions were reasonable and complied with legislation. However, the report also made several recommendations on how DARD could improve its handling of similar situations in the future. I have accepted those recommendations in full. They are being implemented by the Department.

culture, arts and leisure

Mr Speaker: Before questions to the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, I wish to respond to a point of order that was raised earlier by Mr Campbell in respect of a question to the Minister. I have considered the manner in which the question was expressed and I have concluded that it could have been put in a more measured fashion, without diminishing its effect. Although that does not rule the question out for answer by the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure this afternoon, it certainly comes close to it.

50-Metre Swimming Pool:  Northern Ireland

1. Mr McCausland asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure to provide an update on the develop­ment of a 50-metre swimming pool for Northern Ireland and a timescale for completion of the project.   (AQO 1752/08)

The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure (Mr Poots): In June 2006, North Down Borough Council was notified that it had been selected as the preferred developer for Northern Ireland’s first 50-metre swimming pool as a result of the first elite-facilities capital programme competition. As part of that process, North Down Borough Council was asked to produce an outline business case, which is going through the normal approval process. On 23 January 2008, I met representatives of North Down Borough Council to discuss the project’s progress. It is hoped that the pool will be built and in operation by spring 2011.

Mr McCausland: Does the Minister agree that swimming is a particularly popular activity in Northern Ireland at club, recreational and competitive levels and at mini galas? Does he agree that a coherent strategy for swimming in Northern Ireland would be beneficial? Will he undertake to meet Sport NI, other interested bodies and key stakeholders in order to determine whether such a policy or strategy could be advanced?

Mr Poots: At present, swimming’s governing organisation is Swim Ireland. Its structure in Northern Ireland is called Swim Ulster. I am happy to work with Sport NI to develop strategies for swimming, particularly in view of the fact that the Department intends to develop a 50-metre facility, which is currently unavailable in Northern Ireland, and maximise the benefits of that facility right across the country.

Ms Ní Chuilín: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Can the Minister tell the House how many 50-metre swimming pools there are in the Twenty-six Counties? Can local athletes access those facilities in the South?

Mr Poots: My responsibility is for Northern Ireland. At present, there is no 50-metre swimming pool in Northern Ireland. The new pool will be the only facility of its type that will be available for the people of Northern Ireland.

Mr Burnside: I am sure that the Minister will agree that a 50-metre pool is exactly the sort of facility that will attract training and competition prior to large international events. Obviously, the new pool cannot be squeezed in before the 2010 Olympic Games. However, what discussions has the Minister had with the managers of our existing facilities about possible training and competition in the Province prior to the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games?

Mr Poots: I take it that the Members is referring to the 2012 Olympic Games. We are not having discussions with managers of existing facilities because those facilities do not reach the standards required. Fifty-metre pools are required for training facilities. Therefore, we would not benefit, as regards swimming competitions, by having discussions at this early point.

Community Sports Facilities

2. Mr Attwood asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure to outline how much money is available in the Budget for investment in community sports facilities.   (AQO 1699/08)

Mr Poots: The Budget for 2008-11 provides £145 million for sport. That money will be used to implement the draft strategy for sport and physical recreation 2007-17, which seeks to increase participation in sport and in the provision of sporting facilities at community level. The amount of money to be allocated to community sports facilities thereafter will be a matter, in the first instance, for Sport Northern Ireland to consider.

Mr Attwood: I thank the Minister for his response. How much of the extra £2 million, which the Department for Culture, Arts and Leisure won in the final Budget round, will be allocated to sport? The Minister said that subsequent allocations will fall to Sport Northern Ireland. Will he confirm that the Department has no specific budget headings for allocations to, for example, Gaelic athletics, rugby or hockey?

Mr Poots: Most of the £2 million will be allocated to arts and libraries. The baseline figure for sports for 2007-08, which excludes the soccer strategy, was £7·4 million. That figure will increase in the coming year to £8·9 million, and it will increase in the following year to £10·3 million. In 2010-11, the figure will increase to £14·5 million.

Doubling the baseline figure in a three-year period should be regarded as good news for sport. I am satisfied that we can move ahead with the development of sport and with the sports strategy for Northern Ireland with those baseline figures and seek to build on them in the next spending round.

Lord Browne: Two of the main objectives of Sport Northern Ireland’s pilot community sports programme, which was funded by the Department, were: first, to remove barriers, including access to facilities, to participation in sport in the community; and, secondly, to establish links between schools, sports clubs and the wider community. Will the Minister inform the House whether those important objectives were achieved?

Mr Poots: The objectives can be achieved. A start can be made on the basis of this Budget in association with the draft sports strategy. Obviously, the strategy has not been finalised. However, the Department has received all the submissions, which are being assessed. The Department will be able to produce a final draft sports strategy for Northern Ireland and work to achieve its objectives on the basis of what was stated by the Member.

Mr P Maskey: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle agus a Aire.

Will the Minister confirm that the budget for the building sport programme, which supports capital investment in community sports facilities, was frozen last year because of insufficient funds? Will he assure organisations, including GAA clubs in west Belfast and the South Antrim Camogie Board, which applied to that fund but were stalled, that they will now be eligible for any new investment for community sports facilities, and that those facilities will not have to be named after the Minister’s favourite cultural or political icons to secure funds?

Mr Poots: Those applications came in from the Big Lottery Fund and the funding was provided by that fund. Therefore, if that funding were to be identified, it would have to come from my Department in the absence of lottery funding. A substantial amount of money has been allocated as part of the capital development budget, and it is yet to be finalised how that will be spent. The development of a sports stadium or upgrading of sports stadiums will be taken into account, along with the safe stadiums and elite facilities programmes. Those should not be funded wholly and exclusively to the detriment of community facilities. In the absence of lottery funding, we must consider other ways of developing those facilities.

Northern Ireland Events Company

3. Mr McNarry asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure to provide a timescale for reporting on the review findings of his Department in relation to the deficit accumulated by the Northern Ireland Events Company.   (AQO 1659/08)

Mr Poots: In my statement to the Assembly on 26 November 2007, I said that I was commissioning an independent review of all the circumstances surrounding the deficit accumulated by the Northern Ireland Events Company, and that I would report back to the House on the findings of that review at the earliest opportunity. The current expectations are that the review will be completed by the end of February 2008. I will make a statement to the House as soon as possible after I have received the review report and considered it carefully.

Mr McNarry: I thank the Minister for his response. I am glad to hear him say that it is an:

“independent review of all the circumstances”.

I assume that that means going beyond considering only the figures. Will the Minister agree that there are grounds for looking behind the figures in case there was any element of favouritism in the awarding of a contract or contracts and the allowance of spending, which resulted in spending of up to seven times the agreed budget amount on one event in particular?

Mr Poots: I fully agree with the Member’s sentiments. I wish to go down that route.

Mr Adams: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. The Minister is aware that, when the Events Company was accruing the deficit, it approved substantial funding to Féile an Phobail. As a director of Féile an Phobail, I declare an interest. Will the Minister give a clear undertaking that his Department will ensure that Féile an Phobail gets the moneys that are owed to it? Will he accept that there has been a massive reduction in the funding that has been made available to Belfast community festivals this year? That shortfall is unlikely to be met by the private sector, and it will have an adverse impact on those festivals. Finally, will the Minister join me in congratulating the Antrim footballers and hurlers on their weekend victories?

Mr Poots: Féile an Phobail, and all other organisations that are owed money, will be paid after that is verified and checked. I have given that assurance to the House and that assurance continues to stand. I offer my congratulations to all sporting organisations, including Linfield Football Club, which had a great success in the CIS Cup last Saturday.

Mr Dallat: The independent inquiry that the Minister has ordered is extremely welcome. I understand that it will report at the end of February 2008. Will the Minister assure the House that that inquiry will consider all the people who had a role to play in the Events Company, and that it will not make scapegoats of one or two people?

Mr Poots: I understand the underlying sentiment of the Member’s question. It would certainly not satisfy me to identify a couple of scapegoats from the Events Company. If people in my Department, for example, have not been doing their jobs correctly, I want to know about it and I want to know why that has been the case. We should not come down on individuals in one organisation if others have not been doing their jobs correctly. It is not a case of looking for individuals who have not done their jobs correctly and omitting others; I want to identify anyone who has not carried out his or her procedures correctly and ask him or her the relevant questions. If I do not ask the relevant questions, I am sure that the Public Accounts Committee will, along with the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure and the press. Let us get to the bottom of what went wrong; there must be no hiding place for those who allowed it to happen.

Creative Industries Market

4. Mr O’Loan asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure to outline the implications of the Budget in relation to the ability of Northern Ireland to compete in the creative industries market.    (AQO 1782/08)

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Mr Poots: The increase in arts revenue funding of almost £10 million over the next three years will help to support and nurture creative individuals and businesses. I have also secured £5 million over the next three years from the innovation fund to establish a creative industries seed fund to support business enterprise in the creative industries sector. That will help creative entrepreneurs in business planning, marketing, advice on access to venture capital and intellectual properties use, as well as start-up finance.

I have also secured continuity funding for the three creative learning centres — the Nerve Centre in Londonderry, the AmmA Centre in Armagh and Studio ON in Crossnacreevy — to equip young people with the skills to move into the growing digital technologies industry. Invest Northern Ireland will also continue its support of the creative industries, specifically in the areas of software, digital content, film and television, and music.

Mr O’Loan: I thank the Minister, and I welcome those initiatives. Does he agree that we have a talented arts sector but that it needs support to realise its business potential? Given the lower level of funding per head here, compared with Britain and Ireland, how can we compete with those better-funded regions?

Mr Poots: I have inherited the current situation. However, the increases that I have identified and secured, with the assistance of the Minister of Finance and Personnel, will allow us to commence to close the gap, but it will not happen overnight. This year, England has been allocated around £8·51 per head of population, as opposed to £8·14 last year, and Northern Ireland has been allocated £7·09 per head of population this year, as opposed to £6·04 last year. Therefore, although the gap has not closed, inroads are being made to address it, and we will continue to work on that.

Ms Lo: Will the Minister clarify the Minister of Finance and Personnel’s comment about the Arts Council’s figures on funding being misleading?

Mr Poots: When a Member talks about finances and figures, he or she should address their questions to the Minister of Finance and Personnel.

Mr K Robinson: Will the Minister outline what microbusinesses have been developed in the past three years as a result of the unlocking creativity initiative?

Mr Poots: I suspect that Ken Robinson is trying to get an answer to a question that he has tabled for a later point — question 17 or 18. I cannot inform him of every microbusiness that has been established: unfortunately, my depth of knowledge does not stretch to that extent. However, microbusinesses have been established to the extent that, in Northern Ireland, 34,500 people are involved in the creative industries. The innovation package that we have secured — £5 million over the next three years — will assist in developing further microbusinesses in the creative industries.

Cricket Clubs in the  North-West: Funding

5. Mr Bresland asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure to detail the amount of funding granted to cricket clubs in the north-west by Sport Northern Ireland in the past three years.      (AQO 1658/08)

Mr Poots: Sport Northern Ireland is responsible for the development of sport and the distribution of funding. Over the past three years, it has received two applications for funding from cricket clubs in the north-west, under the building sport programme. In May 2007, Bready Cricket Club in the north-west received capital of £1,570,694 towards a centre of excellence and revenue of £125,000 towards the employment of a multi-sports cricket development officer for five years. In addition to that, an application from Limavady Cricket and Rugby Football Club is under consideration, but no award has yet been made.

Mr Bresland: I thank the Minister for his response, and I welcome the level of funding awarded to the cricket clubs in the north-west. Will he assure me that cricket will be valued by his Department and that sufficient funding will be made available so that cricket in Northern Ireland can reach its full potential?

Mr Poots: I recognise the rich cricketing tradition that exists in west Tyrone. Bready Cricket Club received the award in recognition of its work over the years. I look forward to visiting the area to see what is happening at first-hand. The Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure will continue to look at cricket, in association with the other applications that come in, fairly and equitably to allow the sport not only to survive but to thrive.

Mr McElduff: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I join with the Minister in wishing Bready Cricket Club all the best in the forthcoming sporting year. Will the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure make capital funding available in the next three years for sporting clubs in the north-west — whether cricket, boxing, football or Gaelic sports — that may have projects ready to go?

Mr Poots: The Department will have to make a full assessment of all applications. One hundred and eleven million pounds has been set aside for capital, but, as I said earlier, we have to look at stadium development and refurbishment and elite facilities. Beyond that, we want to further develop capital infrastructure in communities. If those developments are ready to go — as the Member suggested some might be — and if they have been granted planning permission and have in place a business plan, the Department will consider them and be inventive in its response.

Mr Gardiner: Are there any indications of the success of the two cricket development officers appointed by the Northern Ireland Cricket Association in 2006? Has the Minister been asked to fund any initiatives developed by them?

Mr Poots: Their success was demonstrated in last year’s world cricket finals when Ireland beat Pakistan; several players from Northern Ireland participated in that team. Members should, therefore, recognise the success enjoyed by the cricket team on the world stage in the past year, and the work that has been done in the development of the sport since 2006 contributed to that.

Sporting Clubs: Financial Support

6. Mr McKay asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure to detail the financial support, including capital funding, that is available from his Department, in relation to development proposals brought forward by sporting clubs.            (AQO 1795/08)

Mr Poots: Under the recently announced Budget settlement, the sporting allocation for the next three years is approximately £145 million. That includes £111·6 million for capital funding, and the sum also includes provision for the proposed multi-sports stadium and the elite facilities programme. We are in discussions with Sport Northern Ireland on the allocation of the available capital. Meanwhile, any sporting club that requires financial support, including capital funding for development proposals, should approach Sport Northern Ireland in the first instance.

Mr McKay: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his answer. What benefits will the 2012 London Olympics bring to the North of Ireland? Furthermore, will money be diverted to the Olympics and away from much-needed community sports facilities?

Mr Poots: There are benefits as well as detrimental effects from the Olympic Games being held in our national capital. One negative effect is that our National Lottery funding has been reduced, and as a consequence, events that might have happened in Northern Ireland will be delayed. However, we will benefit from elite athletes coming to train in Northern Ireland, and we hope to develop the elite facilities in association with that. People here will also benefit from the chance to volunteer to become involved in the Olympic Games, and they will be able to go to London to participate in the world’s biggest sporting event. It is hoped that more young people will participate in sport as a result of the elite athletes coming here to train. Furthermore, they will have the opportunity to visit London during the Olympic Games to watch athletes perform at the highest level.

There are also benefits to local business. Many of our companies are getting substantial work through the London Olympics. There is a £21 billion spend, and I encourage companies from across Northern Ireland — regardless of whether they are involved in sport, building or computer software — to take advantage of the opportunities to benefit from the Olympic Games.

Mr Moutray: Following the Minister’s recent meeting with Waringstown Cricket Club representatives, my colleague David Simpson and me, has there been any progress with funding for an AstroTurf training pitch and bowling nets? I am sure that the Minister is aware of the rich cricketing history in Waringstown, Lurgan and throughout the Upper Bann constituency.

Mr Poots: I thank the Member for his question and for his lobbying on behalf of Waringstown Cricket Club. We can now award the £40,000 that that club requested in order to proceed with the project that he mentioned, which ties in nicely with what I said about my Department’s support for cricket.

Mr P Ramsey: Although I welcome the Minister’s response, is there any other ring-fenced money — [Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order.

Mr P Ramsey: The Minister referred to £111 million that is available for capital expenditure — £80 million of which is for the Maze project and £35 million of which is for elite facilities. Is there any other ring-fenced money, or will the Minister confirm what the Department told the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure that the only chance for community facilities funding would be if the Maze stadium plans were ditched?

Mr Poots: Some £70 million has been set aside for stadium development, and the rest is for other develop­ment projects. We have agreed with the Department of Finance and Personnel that if we proceed with the full business cases for elite facilities, we have planning permissions, and there is slippage money, that slippage money will be made available to us. Given the inevitable slippage in an annual capital spend of £2 billion, we believe that a shortfall of perhaps £10 million or £20 million can found.

Audience Development Agency

7. Mr McFarland asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure what is his assessment of the success of the audience development agency in the past eight years; and to outline what plans he has in relation to future developments in this area.       (AQO 1727/08)

Mr Poots: Audiences NI — the audience development agency for the arts — was established in 2004, and its role is to improve the capacity of member organisations in the arts and culture sector to increase and diversify audiences. Audiences NI’s membership has increased from 15 in 2005, to 37 in 2008. A recently completed, independent evaluation found that Audiences NI has offered value for money in the delivery of professional services and has had a major impact on the audience-development capabilities of its members.

Audiences NI is preparing a new business plan that will target smaller community and voluntary organisations as well as galleries and publishing houses in order to broaden its membership base.

Mr McFarland: I thank the Minister for his answer. Has he considered the Not for the Likes of You initiative for developing audiences and participation in the performing arts that has been employed by the Scottish Arts Council?

Mr Poots: The Scottish Arts Council is mirrored by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and, therefore, the responsibility for considering that initiative rests with the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. However, I am happy to refer the Member’s query to the Arts Council of Northern Ireland so that it might follow up that matter.

Mr Speaker: Mr P J Bradley is not present in the Chamber to ask question 8. Therefore, I call Mr Brolly.

Irish Language Act

9. Mr Brolly asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure to detail his plans to restore confidence in him and his Department among Irish language speakers following his failure to support an Irish language Act.    (AQO 1750/08)

Mr Brolly: Ceist uimhir a naoi.

Mr Poots: I am not sure what was said there, but I do have a response to a question from a Mr Francie Brolly MLA.

As stated in the House on 16 October 2007, my assessment was that the political sensitivities surrounding an Irish language Bill would be divisive throughout the community and would be incapable of securing a sufficient consensus in the House.

Since then, my focus has been on developing a strategy for indigenous languages that will meet the obligations placed on the Executive by the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006 and the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.

4.00 pm

Mr Brolly: Do the Minister’s plans to restore confi­dence among Irish speakers have a time frame, and do they include the allocation of some portion of the £4 million increase in his departmental budget to the funding of the Irish language, and, in particular, to restoring funding for Irish language broadcasting next year?

Mr Poots: I can only do that on the basis of accepting that I have, in some way, damaged confidence in the Irish language community. I have not done anything to prevent people who enjoy speaking the Irish language, and who cherish that right, from doing so, nor have I diminished the opportunity for those people to continue to speak the Irish language. I do not accept the premise of the question in the first instance. Therefore, I cannot respond to the question in the manner in which the Member might wish me to.

Mr D Bradley: Go raibh míle maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Ar an ábhar nár éirigh leis an Aire Acht na Gaeilge a thabhairt chun cinn, an féidir leis insint dúinn inniu cad é a dhéanfaidh sé le cearta Gaeilgeoirí a chosaint agus a chur chun cinn i dTuaisceart na hÉireann, go háirithe sna rannóga Rialtais?

Mr Speaker: Will the Member translate his question into English?

Mr D Bradley: Cinnte, a Cheann Comhairle. I beg your pardon, Mr Speaker. I will provide a translation free of charge to the House.

Bearing in mind that the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure has not advanced Irish language legislation, will he tell the House what action he intends to take to protect and advance the rights of Irish speakers? Furthermore, what steps will he take to ensure that those rights are respected across all Departments? Go raibh míle maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.

Mr Speaker: I will allow the Minister to answer.

Mr Poots: Had the Member attended last week’s meeting of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure he would have heard what I had to say. I refer him to the Hansard record of that meeting, in which I encouraged the Committee to work with me in developing a strategy for indigenous languages.

Mr Speaker: That ends today’s Question Time.


Mr Speaker: Mr Ford, did you want to raise a point of order?

Mr Ford: At the weekend I received in my mail the minutes of proceedings of the Assembly meeting on 10 December. Those minutes recorded the questions that were put to, and answered by, three Ministers. Bearing in mind the display that we have had yet again today of Ministers who may respond to, but rarely answer questions, could you perhaps determine whether an alternative form of words might be more appropriate?

Mr Speaker: I must inform the Member that the records of the proceedings of the House are accurate. I do not know how much more we can do about the issue. I am not responsible for the way in which Ministers answer questions. There are times when Members ask multiple questions of Ministers, and the Minister may answer one, two, three questions or none.

Mr Ford: Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. We know that you are seeking to make better use of Question Time by changing the way in which supple­mentary questions are taken, and my group fully supports that. Is there not also a case for ensuring that Ministers respond to the questions that are asked, and not just give pre-prepared answers to questions that come from their own Back Benches?

Mr Speaker: I keep repeating to all sides of the House that I am not and could not be responsible for the way in which Ministers answer questions or supplementary questions. It would be impossible for any Speaker to rule on that issue. Nevertheless, I have watched today’s proceedings very closely. I have already warned the House that, on occasion, some Members ask supplementary questions that do not relate in any way to the original question. When I asked a Member on three occasions to take his seat today, he challenged the Speaker. Should that happen in future, that Member will neither be called for a question nor for a supplementary.

Mr Storey: Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Rather than giving a warning on this occasion, can the Speaker actually deal with the particular Member who clearly indicated that he was not prepared to take his seat when he had been ordered to do so?

Mr Speaker: It is really up to the Speaker to decide how to deal with the issue. I must say to all sides of the House that, on at least three occasions, I have said individually to Members who, for whatever reason, have refused to take their seats that I will deal with the matter appropriately.

Committee Business

Report of the Ad Hoc Committee on the draft Sexual Offences
(Northern Ireland) Order 2007

Debate resumed on motion:

That the Report of the Ad Hoc Committee set up to consider the draft Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2007, should be submitted to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland as a Report of the Northern Ireland Assembly. — [Chairperson, Ad Hoc Committee on the draft Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2007].

Mrs I Robinson: I too welcome the opportunity to speak on this important matter. Much of the content of the draft Order is sensible and uncontentious. However, other specific measures could have been included. Some are referred to in the report and have also been mentioned by Members who spoke earlier in the debate.

Harmonisation of our position with that of the rest of the United Kingdom is, in the main, to be welcomed, although devolution affords us the opportunity to take a slightly different approach to some matters. Some societal differences are particular to Northern Ireland. Our value system remains based on a Judaeo-Christian framework that guides our thinking on many matters, including some that are contained in the proposed legislation.

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

Perhaps the most notable aspect of the Committee report is that it opposes a reduction in the age of consent. Research that was published a couple of years ago showed that almost 80% of young people in Northern Ireland were delaying having sex for the first time until they were beyond the age of consent. The age of consent protects children from abuse or exploitation by adults. As far back as 1950, child protection was the motivation for having the age of consent increased by the Children and Young Persons Act (Northern Ireland) 1950. In Christian terms, our Saviour, in several parables and utterances, showed very clearly the importance of protecting the innocence and well-being of children and young people. That remains the same for those of us who believe in that Word.

All parties in the Assembly will no doubt support the changes that will ensure that all non-consensual sexual activity is criminalised and sufficiently heavily penalised, with appropriate sentencing to reflect the seriousness of the crime. The same must be the case for sexual activity that involves children and vulnerable individuals. For instance, it is important that those who have mental-health problems and learning disabilities are fully protected. The draft legislation also revises terminology to encompass a broader series of offences. Furthermore, preparatory offences, such as administering drugs or alcohol with the intention to commit a sexual offence, are also included in the draft Order.

It has been proposed that if someone has sexual intercourse with a child who is under the age of 13, the offence will automatically be defined as rape. The logic behind that is that a child who is under the age of 13 does not, under any circumstances, have any capacity to consent to any form of sexual activity. I greatly welcome the acknowledgement of that particular principle, but I still wonder whether the age that is required for capacity to give consent should not be higher than the age of 13.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child recognises a child as a person who is under the age of 18, due to their evolving capacity. It is important that “capacity” is clearly defined. Capacity evolves in each child. Society has a role to play in protecting immature children from decisions that they lack the competence and experience to make themselves.

Regional child protection policy and procedures pertaining to underage sexual activity in Northern Ireland already exist. Section 9.47 of the Area Child Protection Committees’ Regional Policy and Procedures states:

“In all cases where the sexually active young person is under the age of 14, there must be a discussion with Social Services who will make the necessary enquiries and will consult with partner agencies, including the Police, as appropriate.”

That has not always happened. Some argue that confident­iality for the young person should be paramount, and that if the child felt that others — apart from that one health professional — might be informed, they may be discouraged from being open about their sexual behaviour. Health professionals are certainly entitled to make that case if they wish. However, we cannot have the laws and procedures being ignored. If that were the case, we would be better off without those laws and procedures rather than pretending that they are being enforced when they are not.

It is my contention that the child’s best interests should supersede his or her desire for confidentiality. Failure to disclose such knowledge to the social services also places the health workers involved in a potentially perilous position: in the event, for instance, that the young person has been involved in a relationship with a much older adult.

Pursuant to the legislation, the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety must strengthen existing child protection guidelines to ensure that in all cases of a young person under the age of 13 being sexually active, multi-disciplinary child protection guidelines will be implemented by all those working with young people and that a full risk assessment is carried out. Practice across the Province should be audited to ensure that child protection procedures are being adhered to. I support the motion.

Mr Brady: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I too support the report of the Ad Hoc Committee on the draft Sexual Offences (NI) Order 2007. The proposals in the Order are the result of the first comprehensive review of sexual offences here, and they are to be welcomed. First and foremost, the Order puts children and young people at the centre of its proposals, and it defines new offences that are designed to protect the most vulnerable.

New offences protect children from abusive behaviour in the home, where child sexual abuse is most prevalent. The Order also ensures that other vulnerable groups will benefit from the added protection. Consent is removed as a defence for engaging in sexual activity with a child under the age of 13, and I welcome that such activity will now be regarded as rape.

The Order’s removal of the defence of reasonable belief, when a child is between the ages of 13 and 18, offers greater protection to children and young people and must be implemented. Some proposals relate to situations in which adults are in a position of trust, such as in residential homes, detention centres or educational establishments. As sports coaches are not included in the legislation, constant monitoring is required.

The Minister has committed to holding a round-table discussion to bring together organisations from the voluntary and community sector, and they will continue to be involved in the development and outworking of the legislation.

It is most regrettable that Mr Ross used such an important issue to be disingenuous. The Committee reached consensus on everything apart from the age of consent. It is interesting that Mr Ross and his DUP colleagues do not want parity with the UK on this issue: their desire for parity is selective.

Sinn Féin voted to lower the age of consent to 16 to ensure that young people are not inappropriately penalised for consensual and non-abusing sexual activity. If 17 were to remain the age of consent, 16-year-olds could, theoretically, be criminalised.

Mr Wells: Many of the Member’s comments seem to be diametrically opposed to what he said to UTV and other media during the deliberations on the Order, when he pointed out that the age of consent in the Irish Republic is 17. He said that if the law were to be changed here, people would come into Northern Ireland to avail of the less strict legislation to commit offences. Has he changed his mind or has he been told to change his mind?

Mr Brady: With respect to the Member, I have not been told to do anything other than to air my views on the subject.

Mr Ross: The Member said that he did not want 16-year-olds to be “criminalised”. Does he not acknow­ledge that the list of recommendations in the report that he helped to compile includes:

“The Committee is of the view that Section 5 of the Criminal Law (Northern Ireland Act) 1967 should be amended to ensure that young people are not inappropriately penalised for consensual and non-abusing sexual activity.”?

Did he read that part of the report?

Mr Brady: I certainly did, a LeasCheann Comhairle.

I am not sure whether the Member was listening to what I said. I said that 16-year-olds could, “theoretically”, be criminalised; there is a difference between being criminalised and theoretically being criminalised. Perhaps the Member and I should call it a one-all draw. [Laughter.] I will move on.

Overall, the codification of the law on sexual offences in a single statute, the increased tariffs for offences and the move to gender-neutral offences are to be welcomed. The Order clarifies the law on rape, which was, hitherto, difficult to define. In general terms, the sweep of the legislation is sound, and any laws that protect the weakest and most vulnerable are welcome. I commend the report to the House. Go raibh maith agat.

4.15 pm

Mr Simpson: I rise to speak in the hope that others who, until now, have felt that they would speak and vote differently are prepared to think again. The age of consent was not set at the current threshold by way of a liberalising approach or by way of reduction; rather, it was set at the current level in order to afford greater protection for young people. Any Member minded to vote today to lower the age of consent needs to be sure that there is no longer any need for that kind of protection and that the circumstances in society are such as would make such a change desirable and beneficial.

Does such a set of circumstances exist? In England and Wales the age of consent is 16. Many more young people engage in sexual activity below the age of 16 there than in Northern Ireland. The rate of conceptions among 15- and 16-year-olds is much higher than in Northern Ireland, as is the rate of sexually transmitted infections (STI) among under-16s.

Some people have argued that setting the age of consent at 17 contributes to high teenage pregnancy and STI rates. They claim that it stops young people from seeking advice and treatment. However, all of those arguments fall down when we consider mainland GB, where the age of consent is 16, and all of the supposed adverse affects of Northern Ireland’s age of consent being 17 do not apply. They have far higher rates of conception and STIs among teenagers.

Mr Moutray: I thank my honourable friend for giving way. Does he agree that rather than reducing the age of consent, we should be promoting more education in schools about respect and abstinence, as advocated by organisations such as Love for Life?

Mr Simpson: I agree. Love for Life, which is based in the Upper Bann constituency, does a remarkable job. It also does a lot of work across the Province.

Setting the age of consent at 16 clearly does not work in the way that people suggest. Setting the age of consent at 17, far from having an adverse effect, has clearly been beneficial. If we are dealing with what is beneficial, we have to conclude that to vote against this report, and to advocate a reduction in the age of consent, is beneficial neither to young people nor to society as a whole. Rather, it is more liable to have the opposite effect.

What about the original thought that resulted in the raising of the age of consent in the first place? I refer, of course, to the desire to protect young people. Do young people no longer need the kind of protection that they previously required? In part, the age of consent was originally raised to combat the misery of human trafficking in the late 1800s. That applied particularly to young girls being trafficked for the sex trade.

I suggest that there is not a single MLA in this House who does not have, buried away in the marrow of their bones, the nagging thought that amid the explosion of prostitution in Northern Ireland — especially involving eastern European girls — that very kind of vile trafficking is probably being practised. Maybe it is happening rarely, and in only a small number of cases. However, I challenge any Member, of whatever background, to stand up in this debate and say that they are confident that it is not happening. There will not be a single taker, and everyone knows that that is so.

Why would we remove any protection that was identified by previous generations, especially at the very time that that same trade — and the need to protect young people from it — is acknowledged in the pit of every MLA’s stomach, and is likely to be more necessary with the passing of time?

I urge Members of this House, including those who have views on this issue different from mine, to vote in favour of maintaining 17 as the age of consent in Northern Ireland.

Mr O’Loan: The focus of comment on the Order is on the age of consent, but there is more to it than that. The overall purpose of the Order is sound: its main principle is to give added protection to children and young people, vulnerable people, and all who may be subject to unwanted sexual activity. The Order consolidates existing legislation, introduces a considerable number of new offences and generally increases the punishments attached to offences. All of that should be welcomed.

Members should welcome the absolute protection for children under 13 years of age in the Order, which means that they cannot give legal consent to sexual activity. We should also welcome the much-strengthened definition of abuse of trust in families, schools and other institutional settings, and the recognition that abuse of trust in a sexual context is a very serious offence.

The Order deals with commercial sexual activity, including trafficking and offence given to the public, which must be welcomed.

I agree with the statement in the report that the onus of proof for the argument for changing the age of consent from 17 to 16 years of age rests with those who want to make the change. That proof has not been provided. Much social damage comes from sexual activity that occurs too early. The connection between the legal age of consent and sexual activity can be overstated, but there is some connection. I advocate a cautious approach and support the conclusion of the report to retain the age of consent at 17 years of age to protect some children.

Ms J McCann: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate, and I broadly welcome the draft Sexual Offences Order 2007.

The Order is long overdue, and any law that offers greater protection to children and young people must be welcomed. Sexual abuse is the most traumatic form of abuse that any child can face. When a child or young person is pressurised, forced or tricked into taking part in any type of sexual activity with an adult or young person, there can be a long-term impact on that child’s life. The impact and effects of rape and sexual assault are far reaching, and may include a loss of self-esteem and self-worth, the onset of mental-health problems, nightmares, panic attacks and anxiety, and disengagement from family, social and community life. It is important to remember that during the debate.

Child-sex abusers can come from any profession, gender, race or religious background. Abusers are not always adults — children and young people can also behave in a sexually abusive way. Usually, the abuser is a family member or someone who is known to the child, such as a family friend. Abusers may act alone or as part of an organised group, and, after the abuse, will put much pressure on the child not to talk about it. They will go to great lengths to get close to children and win their trust. Children and vulnerable adults must be protected from that form of sexual abuse.

It is a positive step that all sexual offences legislation is provided for under one statute, through the Order. Other positive elements include the removal of consent as a defence for sexual activity with a child under 13 years of age, clarity on the definition of rape — particularly in instances in which violence or drugs are used — and an increase in the tariffs for sexual offences. However, there are some aspects of the Order that could go further, such as the inclusion of sports coaches, who are in positions of trust. Sinn Féin wants such provisions included in the Order.

The reporting of rape must be encouraged, and support mechanisms for victims must be implemented. Much has been said about lowering the age of consent, but that is only one element of the Order. The age of consent was discussed by the Committee, which heard evidence from a number of well-respected and well-informed organisations on the issue. The protection of children and young people is crucial. The preferred option is for young people not to engage in any type of sexual activity until they are mature enough.

However, a significant number of 16-year-olds do engage in sexual activity. They should not be criminalised or prevented from seeking advice on sexual health matters; rather, older sexual predators who exploit young girls and boys should face criminal prosecution and the full rigour of the law. There must be consultation with the relevant children’s sector groups and organi­sations to ensure effective policy and practice in that field.

Sinn Féin also supports the proposal for round-table talks to provide guidance to the Public Prosecution Service. A raft of work outside the draft Sexual Offences Order that must be put in place to help victims and survivors of rape and sexual assault, and any develop­ment to that end, working alongside voluntary and community organisations, must be welcomed. Sinn Féin hopes that that will be taken forward without delay. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Shannon:

“My faith is my life, it defines me; my faith does not influence my decisions, it drives them. Real faith makes me humble and mindful, not of the faults of others, but of my own.”

Every so often in Stormont an issue comes to the fore that captures the eye and the attention of the public and shows that people will go to great lengths to highlight their views and express their opinions. This is one such issue. I have received a high volume of calls to my office, emails, telephone calls and letters from people saying that they do not want the age of consent to be lowered through the draft Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order. Their reasons are wide-ranging, and I will relay some of them to the Assembly.

The normal, everyday people of the Province looked at the situation and want to see the age of consent retained. People are opposed to the age of consent being lowered from 17 to 16 years of age. I do not understand Mr Brolly’s comments: I suspect that he has a theoretical opposition, although I do not know what that means.

The reasons for retaining the age of consent are numerous and are based on common sense and fact. Not so long ago the House debated a motion to raise the minimum legal age for smoking to 17, the main reason being that at 16 years of age a person is still a child and too young to process the negative effects that smoking would have on his or her life. The Assembly agreed to the motion and decided that the age limit for smoking should be raised to 17. That being the case, it seems absurd that the age of consent to have sex should, according to some people, be lowered to 16.

As with starting to smoke, one of the deciding factors is peer pressure and the feeling of youngsters that if everyone else it doing it, then so should they. My view, and the opinion of many of my constituents, is that peer pressure to have sex at a young age is even more intense. I have been contacted by numerous teachers and youth workers who tell me that, in their reasoned opinion, and based on their work with young people, lowering the age of consent will have a negative effect and will mean that more young people will have sexual intercourse before they are mature enough to do so.

Many people will say that if young people are enthused and in love, the age of consent will not make any difference, and that they will go ahead anyhow. Never­theless, I am reliably assured by those who work with young people that it will make a difference to the mindset of the child who feels that he or she has not yet experienced something that he or she is allowed to do. Not only will young people experience peer pressure, they will experience the pressure of knowing that the Government has told them that they are old enough to make that decision, but that they are too young to decide whether to smoke. That is far too confusing, and not the signal the Assembly wishes to send.

The issue of child protection has been raised by the Christian Institute. It says that the age-of-consent law is a child protection measure. In cases of abuse it spares children the horror of cross-examination over whether they consented to sexual activity. Reducing the age of consent to 16 will remove that protection from 26,000 youngsters in Northern Ireland and, for those reasons, the Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Centre in Belfast has strongly criticised the plans.

The current law also sends out a clear message that sex under the age of 17 is not a good idea. Surveys show that the majority of girls who have underage sex later regret it. In our increasingly over-sexualised society, we should give our youngsters some moral guidance and empower them to say no to premature sexual activity.

The Northern Ireland Office said that lowering the age of consent will help 16-year-olds to seek contraception and sexual-health advice. That approach has been an utter disaster in the rest of the UK — and I am sure that the Member who speaks at the end of the debate will comment on that. In England, Wales and Scotland, twice as many youngsters have sex before their sixteenth birthday compared to those in Northern Ireland. Rates of sexually transmitted infections are more than double, and teenage conceptions are significantly higher. Do we want to see that happening in Northern Ireland? No, we do not.

4.30 pm

Although other provisions in the draft Order are beneficial, such as the introduction of a prison sentence for running a brothel, it is clear that lowering the age of consent cannot be acceptable in the Province. That provision must be omitted from the final draft in order to leave in place the protection for our children.

The Christian Institute, which is well versed in the law, has stated that lowering the age of consent will not be of legal benefit to anybody except the perpetrators of sexual crimes against children and young people. How can we even consider allowing this law to be passed, when one year can make all the difference in such cases?

What message do we want to send to our children? I am sure about the message that I wish to send, and I hope that the Assembly will send it as well. Let the Assembly state that it wants to protect children, secure their future and ensure that there is no further corrosion of the moral standards that people adhere to in all sections of our community. We must send the right message that the care of our children and youth is our most important concern. If we do that, we will know that we will have done the right thing and the best that we could for all of our children. I support the motion.

Mr Ford: I welcome the fact that — three or four years after it should have happened — we have finally got around to codifying the law on sexual offences in Northern Ireland, largely in line with that in GB, because a huge backlog needed to be addressed. I also welcome the fact that there is near unanimity in this Chamber on all issues but one. If I may quote from a letter from Love for Life:

“While much of the discussion around the Draft Sexual Offences Order has focussed on the proposed lowering of the age of consent, we believe that there has not been enough focus on broader child protection issues with regards to underage sexual activity.”

That is the nub of the argument between the two sides on the one issue that has been debated today. Most of the representations that have been made, such as that from Love for Life, detail concerns for the protection of children and vulnerable adults, and, surely, we all agree on that.

Strengthening the law with regard to children under the age of 13, in particular, is to be welcomed. The doubt expressed from all corners of the House about the so-called reasonable-belief defence — the belief that somebody might be over 18 when they are patently not — must be carried forward to the Northern Ireland Office, as must the point about those who are in a position of trust. Although it may be easy for Governments to define positions of trust with regard to certain statutory occupations: that is clearly inadequate. People such as sports coaches have been mentioned in the debate; and similar occupations must also be taken on board.

However, the question of whether the age of consent should be 16 or 17 remains. It divides opinion in society, in the Assembly and, indeed, in my party. Members may have heard Mr McCarthy heckling Dr Farry earlier today. That shows the diversity of views that exist and, to some extent, the strength with which they are held. I will give my opinions on a purely personal basis, while acknowledging that there are a range of opinions, even among my colleagues. My opinion is shaped by my experiences as a social worker over the years. I find, on balance, that the arguments put forward by organisations such as the NSPCC and Barnardo’s have the right approach.

There are no prosecutions of young people who are just under the age of consent and who engage in sexual activity with other young people. Therefore, the issue is not what we might seek to promote as an example of the best kind of lifestyle, it is whether we should look to criminal law to address social problems.

It seems to me that the proponents for keeping the age of consent at 17 assume that somehow that will make all the difference. They produce, not unreasonably from their position, the example of what happens in England and Wales. Yet, by the same token, people could give the example of what happens in the Netherlands, where the age of consent is 16, and the teenage pregnancy rate is significantly lower than that in any part of the United Kingdom. We can welcome the fact that our teenage pregnancy rate is decreasing —

Mr Ross: Will the Member give way?

Mr Ford: Certainly, if the Member is brief.

Mr Ross: I thank the Member for giving way. He mentioned the Netherlands. However, the evidence suggests that the major difference in the Netherlands is the family set-up, or some sort of moral code in that country. Does he recognise also that Northern Ireland is different to the rest of United Kingdom in that there is a stronger family base here? Maybe there are moral differences in this country compared to the rest of the United Kingdom.

Mr Ford: That is a fair point, because it seems to be not only a matter of family structures, but of the active promotion of proper educational mores and ensuring that those sorts of values are carried through, as opposed to the relatively lax regime that one finds in the rest of the United Kingdom, where people attempt to pick up such values only when problems arise.

There are serious issues about the resources that must be put into health and social services, and education, in this field. That will be a challenge for those parties that have Ministers in Government and who control the Budget.

Recently, we have seen positive developments in the reduction of teenage pregnancies in Northern Ireland. However, that is not related to the issue of the age of consent but to the success of an active programme to reduce the rates of teenage pregnancies.

I am confused by remarks made from the DUP Benches by Mr Simpson. Members are asked to approve a report that states that there is a breadth of opinion on the issue, although the majority is of one opinion. As somebody who has just taken the minority view on that, I have no difficulty in accepting the report. Mr Simpson seemed to think that Members are being asked to vote on the age of consent.

The issue is protection of the vulnerable. The key parts of the draft Order and the report deal with that issue, whether with regard to underage children or vulnerable adults. We should concentrate on that issue and reach unanimity across the House.

The Deputy Chairperson of the Ad Hoc Committee on the Draft Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2007 (Mr Wells): This has been a good debate on a complex and diverse piece of legislation that, I hope, will form the law on sexual offences in Northern Ireland. We had many varied contributions, and interesting points were made. I particularly appreciated the contribution of Mr Ross, who succinctly summed up the argument in favour of retaining 17 as the age of consent. He set the tone for many speeches.

Ms Sue Ramsey broadly welcomed the draft Order and made the valid point that there is much more to it than the age of consent. She highlighted a series of issues, including that of sports coaches. The Ad Hoc Committee did not get a satisfactory answer from Minister Goggins or the Northern Ireland Office on that matter. The NIO should reconsider the issue. It is not beyond its capability to define the status of a sports coach, and, as we have all seen, there have been many examples of people in such positions abusing that status with tragic consequences.

I welcome the strong support of Declan O’Loan and Dolores Kelly of the SDLP. That party has considered the issue in detail, and it has agreed to throw its weight behind the report — as did John McCallister of the Ulster Unionist Party.

Iris Robinson and David Simpson gave robust support for the work and comments of Love for Life. I will return to that later, because Love for Life made an interesting contribution to the debate.

Mr Shannon gave an impassioned speech based on his own moral stance. For many of us, this is a moral issue. I pay tribute to the work of the Christian Institute; I declare an interest, because I was one of those people who wrote a letter, at the behest of the Christian Institute, when the issue initially arose. I did not know at that time that I would become Deputy Chairperson of this Ad Hoc Committee. I have been impressed with the briefing material received from the Christian Institute. Like many other MLAs who check their emails or BlackBerries, I find that I receive a plethora of comments from constituents urging us to take a stand on this issue. We welcome all the comments made by the various organisations to the Committee; however, those from the Christian Institute have been particularly welcome.

I must correct Mr Shannon on one point; Mr Brolly is a man of many talents but —

A Member: It was Mr Brady.

Mr Wells: It was indeed Mr Brady: Mr Brolly does not have the capacity to make a salient point when he is not in the Chamber. I mean Mr Brady, who was a bit of chameleon on the Committee. He made a solid point that the age of consent in the Irish Republic is 17 and that, for Northern Ireland to lower its age of consent to 16, would encourage those with such predispositions to cross the border and carry out depraved acts in Northern Ireland. There was a logic in his argument that, if the age of consent is the same on either side of the border, that is less likely to happen. Somewhere along the line, the thought police had him out for the afternoon, and we turned on our televisions to see Mr Doherty, the MP for West Tyrone, proclaiming that Sinn Féin was in favour of lowering the age of consent. At some point along the line, Mr Brady’s position was amended, and, as a result, he is still showing the bruises. There was a dichotomy, but obviously —

Mr Ford: Will Mr Wells make it clear when he is speaking as Deputy Chairperson of the Ad Hoc Committee rather than as a member of the DUP?

Mr Wells: I can speak as both, because, as a DUP MLA, I was able to win the argument on the day. I proposed the motion that the age of consent remain at 17 years of age. I am glad to say that the majority of Committee members supported me. Therefore, the report is in line with my views.

Mr Brady: The Member has known me for approx­imately 25 years. I believe that he would accept that, in my previous role, the thought police never influenced my mentality nor, indeed, have the bruises ever shown.

Ms S Ramsey: That is why he is sitting on the Back Benches. [Laughter.]

Mr Wells: At some stage, Mr Brady might tell the House why he has experienced such a Damascene conversion.

A great deal of emphasis has been placed on the age of consent. As I have said, several Members have already made many salient points as to why the Committee must stand firm on the issue, and it is to be hoped that the House will join it in standing firm. I shall bring a couple of extra points to the argument. First, to lower the age of consent is to give a further 26,000 children the green light to become involved in sexual activity. Those 26,000 children deserve to be protected. I cannot see any demand whatsoever to force that situation.

Secondly, people often say that the Assembly sets standards; that it sets rules. Sometimes, people break those rules, and that is true. There are rules on speeding, drink-driving, dropping litter, and so on, and many people disobey them. However, if those standards are lowered, further activity that is not in keeping with what society wants is only encouraged. The Assembly sets young people targets. It urges them to try to meet those targets. If they do not succeed, the Assembly should give them the support that they deserve. We do not, however, give them the green light to get involved in quite dangerous activities.

Northern Ireland has legislation that stops people who are under 18 years of age from drinking, from gambling and from driving vehicles at certain speeds. Those who are under 16 years of age are prevented in law from smoking. All those rules restrict what young people can do — for their own safety, as well as for that of society. Sexual activity is perhaps one of the most potent issues, yet some people want the age of consent to be lowered to 16 years of age. The arguments, which have been well made in the debate, demonstrate that there is no demand in society for the age of consent to be lowered to 16 years of age. That argument has been well and truly won.

When he appeared before the Committee, Minister Goggins made it clear there were no practical difficulties with Northern Ireland’s being out of line with the rest of the United Kingdom on the matter. He did not envisage that any technical issues would arise. Therefore, the argument to retain the age of consent at 17 has been well made on all sides.

Mr McCarthy: Does the Member agree that were Minister Goggins to cast aside the report, he would be going against the will of the House, and that he should, therefore, accept it?

Mr Wells: I noticed that, during the Chairman’s contribution, Mr McCarthy clearly disagreed with every word that Dr Farry said. I could see it in his body language. I admire the stand that he has taken on the issue. I am aware that he takes that stand on other moral issues as well.

The Member is absolutely right. When I asked Minister Goggins about that matter, he made two points: first, he said that the Assembly is purely consultative and that it does not have the power to change the age of consent, because it is a reserved matter; and, secondly, he said that not only did the majority of opinion in the Assembly need to be in favour of retention of the age of consent at 17 but it had to provide a logical and pressing argument for supporting its retention. If the Minister reads the record of the debate in Hansard and examines the contributions that organisations such as Love for Life and the Christian Institute made to the report, he will see that there is a comprehensive, coherent and strong argument in favour of retaining the age of consent at 17.

He must also consider the fact that Northern Ireland has a different moral standing to that of the rest of the United Kingdom. That is reflected in the fact that, for example, the Abortion Act 1967 does not apply here. It is also reflected in the fact that licensing laws for the sale and consumption of alcohol are different in Northern Ireland. Therefore, it is perfectly logical that, although Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom — I am sure that every Member in the Chamber would support that — it also has the right to diverge slightly from England, Scotland and Wales on moral issues.

One other issue arose. Love for Life provided the Committee with an excellent briefing, which has been forwarded to the Department. Unfortunately, however, due to an oversight, it was unable to give evidence to the Committee. We did not, therefore, have the benefit of its advice. Love for Life has raised important issues. In particular, it is concerned that there is no recognition of existing child-protection policy and procedures in Northern Ireland as they pertain to underage sexual activity.

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The procedure — according to the area child protection committees’ regional child protection policy and procedures — is that:

“In all cases where the sexually active young person is under the age of 14, there must be a discussion with the Social Services who will make the necessary enquiries and consult with partner agencies including, the Police, as appropriate.”

I urge the Northern Ireland Office to read carefully Love for Life’s submission. Many Members read it and included comments, in their contributions to the debate, from that submission. It is important that the strong evidence that Love for Life provided — in particular, with regard to 13- to 14-year-olds — is taken into account.

The legislation will benefit considerably from the Ad Hoc Committee’s scrutiny. I thank all of those who gave evidence. I thank the Chairperson, Dr Farry, for the excellent way in which he smoothed troubled waters, in what could have been a quite difficult situation. I thank the NSPCC, Barnardo’s, the Department and all of the other organisations that gave evidence. I commend the Committee’s report to the House.

We all wish that the Northern Ireland Office will take the fullest account of our report and its recommendations and that it will move to implement the provisions that carry with them the rubber-stamping of the Assembly on an important issue. I hope that the country will benefit from the work of the Assembly on this important legislation.

Mr Deputy Speaker: I remind Members that they are voting on the overall report and not simply on one aspect of it.

Question put and agreed to.


That the Report of the Ad Hoc Committee set up to consider the draft Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2007, should be submitted to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland as a Report of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Private Members’ Business

Private Armies

Mr Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes for the winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes. Two amendments have been received and are published on the Marshalled List. The proposer of each amendment will have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes for the winding-up speech.

Mr McNarry: I beg to move

That this Assembly calls for an immediate end to the existence of private armies.

The operation of democracy requires the elimination of all alternative power sources in a free and democratic society. There can be no place for private armies in any civil society. Only the people’s voice, expressed in their legislative institutions and through their freely elected representatives, can govern Northern Ireland. There can be no valid reason for any private army to be maintained. The existence of private armies offers the implied threat of coercion and subversion of the lawful authority of the legally elected democratic Government.

Time has moved on. The political representatives of republicanism now hold high political and ministerial office in this institution. We are about to enter another political debate on whether the additional powers of policing and justice should be devolved to the Assembly. In those circumstances, how can we even contemplate such a thing if the private army of republicanism, the IRA, still exists in any potentially operational form, with its command and control structures intact?

It is, frankly, unthinkable that devolution of policing and justice should even be considered while that situation prevails. How on earth can the healing process, which is admitted by all parties to be necessary, take place against the backdrop of the continued existence of the IRA army council? How can Sinn Féin afford to take that risk? How can it afford to see its political project unravelled by the IRA’s continued existence as an organisation?

Before further progress can be made in the peace process, in further devolution and in political advances, I believe that the next step must be the standing down of the IRA as a military force. My demands for the end of the existence of all private armies are not confined to the IRA. I include all private armies, all paramilitary organisations. If hostilities are genuinely at an end, then there is no need for any private, non-state-controlled paramilitary force.

The need now is for political action, which has been made possible by the design of the structures of the Assembly.

Some people entered the Assembly in 1998, unashamed of their involvement in a private army. They were hostile to any criticism of their strategy. They were prepared to negotiate on weapons, but the disbandment of their army was not on the agenda.

Mr Burnside: Will the Member give way?

Mr McNarry: No; sorry.

The process that the Ulster Unionist Party began successfully removed weapons. Now, it must also succeed in the removal of private armies. We first brought republicans into Government with their weapons and their private army intact; through the process, we greatly reduced their weaponry. Later on, the DUP, using the same process, claimed to have secured complete decommissioning. In May 2007, the DUP brought the same republicans, with their army intact, into the new Government.

Lord Morrow: Will the Member give way?

Mr McNarry: As yet, the process has not delivered disbandment, nor has there been much talk about it. I trust that my motion will rectify that, because not only do we need to talk about it, but I sincerely hope that in recognising the immediacy that is implicit in my motion, something urgent will be done about private armies. The aim could not be more straightforward: an immediate end to the existence of private armies. That is directed as much to those outside the Assembly as to those who sit in the House and who hold ministerial positions. It is fair to ask whether any MLAs belong to a private army —

Mr Burnside: Will the Member give way?

Mr McNarry: I am not convinced, nor are a large number of the general public, that some MLAs no longer belong to a private army.

Lord Morrow: Will the Member give way?

Mr McNarry: I contend that membership of a private army is a criminal offence, incompatible with being an MLA or holding ministerial office.

Lord Morrow: Will the Member give way?

Mr Burnside: On that very point, will the Member give way?

Lord Morrow: Will the Member give way?

Mr McNarry: Therefore, I question — [Interruption.]

Mr McNarry: Mr Deputy Speaker, can I have order in the House while I am on my feet?

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. The Member has the Floor.

Mr McNarry: I contend that membership of a private army is a criminal offence, incompatible with being an MLA or holding ministerial office. Therefore, I question how unionists can be expected to move on when the burning questions of illegal allegiances remains unfinished work. I am sorry that the deputy First Minister is not in the House, but I question whether he is capable of doing what he urges others to do — to move on — when the private army to which he belonged, or still belongs, remains in existence. Therefore, there is good reason for the House to be informed by the deputy First Minister whether he believes that any conflict arises between honouring the ministerial code in Government and obeying a code of honour to the Provos. I want the truth and transparency to come out, because that is a key part of the process that I am willing to see work.

In last week’s BBC ‘Hearts and Minds’ interview, the deputy First Minister said that he deals with the Ian Paisley that he has known since 8 May 2007, and that Ian Paisley deals with the Martin McGuinness that he has known since 8 May 2007. How they deal with each other and how they have — according to the deputy First Minister — managed to put the past behind them and have us believe that they have known each other only since 8 May 2007, is a matter for themselves, and for others to judge. It sounds as though Martin McGuinness is saying that Ian Paisley only knew of him after 8 May. It is important for the House to be informed by the First Minister whether he believes that his deputy First Minister has, since 8 May 2008, remained a member of a private army.

We who work here may be called many things, but none of us are stupid enough to believe that the public will tolerate a situation — which has endured since 8 May 2007 — that gives free rein for serving Ministers to continue as serving members of a private army. Nine months after that date, Ulster Unionists require the process that we began to be concluded on the issue of private armies. That applies not only to the army to which I suspect some Members sitting here belong, but, emphatically, the immediate end of all private armies.

Mr Burnside: On that point, will the Member give way?

Mr McNarry: Ending private armies draws closure on another chapter.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. It is clear that Mr McNarry does not wish to give way; therefore, Members should not persist.

Mr Burnside: He might change his mind.

Lord Morrow: He has done that often enough.

Mr McNarry: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am amazed at the flippancy that Members sometimes indulge in when such serious issues are being discussed. It says nothing for their contribution so far.

Ending private armies draws closure on another chapter, marking the transition from violence to peace. Ending private armies removes the cover of flags of convenience used by those who will not renounce violence. However, let me caution Members: for closure to have integrity, there should be no barter factor, no concessions to be wrung out of anyone, no stage-managed theatrical going-away party — private armies should just disappear.

Passing the motion will send a magnificent message from which the people of our country can draw strength and from which our young people can take relief. The immediate end of private armies would give them an alternative and, therefore, an opportunity to break out of the stranglehold that private army membership puts on them, thus giving our young people and the rest of society time and space to enjoy a greater prospect of certainty for their future. I trust that we will endorse that message. I will now give way to the honourable Member for South Antrim.

Mr Burnside: I thank the Chief Whip of my party for giving way, proving that he is a Chief Whip who does not instil total discipline on our group.

In proposing the motion, the Member has understand­ably concentrated on the position of the deputy First Minister. Does he agree that the major problem with membership of private armies arises when a Member of the Assembly, such as the president of Sinn Féin, says that he was never a member of the IRA? Does that not pose a greater problem than that of the position of the deputy First Minister?

Mr McNarry: I take the Member’s point; it is regrettable. Perhaps those Members will come to the Chamber to answer our questions. With the Deputy Speaker’s permission, I will give way to the Chief Whip of the Democratic Unionist Party, the Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone Lord Morrow.

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

Mr D Bradley: I beg to move amendment No 1: Leave out all after “Assembly” and insert

“notes the most recent report by the Independent Monitoring Commission on the activities of illegal organisations; calls for their disbandment; and further calls for full co-operation on all crimes by all in the community.”

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom leasú 1 a mholadh.

The fifteenth report of the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC), which was published in April 2007, listed seven private armies operating in Northern Ireland. Since then, an eighth army has emerged in north Belfast. Most of them are formally on ceasefire; all of them are involved in crime and violence; and none of them has gone away. They will not go away until we, the democrats, make them go away.

The republican and loyalist private armies are deeply dug into our society at many levels, and some have protectors at the highest level. They continue to have a major impact on our society. Some of that impact is obvious and much of it is secret, but it is all negative and severely damaging to our communities and to our political system. From experience in my constituency of Newry and Armagh, the biggest and most organised army is the Provisional IRA. We have been told that it has been stood down; that volunteers have been ordered not to break the law; that its army council is a force for stability, which is solidly behind the power-sharing arrangements, accountable policing; and so on. The active paramilitary side that planned, organised and carried out offensive guerilla activities has been stood down. However, there is no reason to believe that any structures have been dismantled, and there is every reason to believe that those structures are still being used for community control.

5.00 pm

Since those structures are still being engaged to commit murder and violence, it is unacceptable that we should be grateful that they are no longer engaging in large-scale killing and destruction. People know all too well the damaging effects of continued community control. We saw it at its crudest recently on the Shankill Road, but there are more subtle forms of control going on — even in middle-class communities. In my constituency of Newry and Armagh, local Provisionals have taken it upon themselves to police our young people; we have developed a sort of warrior class. They are issuing bans of various kinds and their own versions of ASBOs. It does not usually require violence — when one has a reputation for violence, one does not need to hit people all the time.

Such activity goes unreported; it will not appear in police statistics or in the IMC reports. The young people on the receiving end keep quiet, but, increasingly, people are prepared to talk. In the past few weeks, a number of young men were told to come to the mart yard in Crossmaglen for a chat with some masked men. After the interview, they were told to return another night for administration of the so-called ASBO, and they went.

These events are happening while Sinn Féin is formally — if somewhat ritualistically — telling people to co-operate with the police and chairing the local DPP in Newry and Mourne. However, a number of community alert or community safety groups set up in south Armagh by the Provisional movement are not co-operating with the police as they should be. There are good people involved in those groups — often, people who believed that they were a way of stopping punishment beatings — but it is time for them to move on. They must not operate as a referral agency for the masked men in the mart yard.

It is difficult to believe that none of those groups has ever heard of the punishment beatings, and warnings of beatings, that are still going on. None of those groups has ever highlighted or spoken out about the beatings or paramilitary community control. I have no record of their calling for co-operation with the police.

What should we do about private armies? Some people might say that, as politicians, we have to live in the real world, and that during a peace process, we are sometimes required to engage with people with whom we would prefer not to deal. However, we must draw a line somewhere. Minister Margaret Ritchie drew her line as clearly as possible when she said that she would not fund schemes that were connected to the UDA. Although there was contention on some of the detail, there was great support in the House — and beyond — for her courageous stand for decency and a lawful society.

At the other end of the scale, a Member of the House has consulted with leaders of a private army. He is a Minister of the Executive, no less, who intervened politically in a murder investigation to exonerate members of a private army; a Minister of the Executive who got what he called “very solid assurances” from the Provisionals that they did not murder Paul Quinn.

It is not the job of any Member to assess the value of “solid assurances” from the leaders of private armies who may well be suspects in a murder investigation. That is the job of the police. It is not the proper role of a Member or a Minister in the Executive to slander the victim of a murder and call him a criminal. If we want to rid our society of private armies, we must show that we can put our own house in order. We should condemn the Member who consulted with the leaders of a private army in the middle of a murder investigation.

Conor Murphy says that the Provos must continue to exist because we are in a state of transition from conflict to peace. How much longer will this transition take? How many more young men will have to die? The time for transition has long since passed.

We can no longer give private armies, no matter which flag they hide behind, the freedom to control our communities. Peace must not be just the absence of organised, large-scale violence; freedom must come with peace — saoirse. There must be freedom from violence, the fear of violence and from overt and covert intimidation.

We must now complete the transition to a completely lawful society. Mere lip service in support of the police and the institutions of law is not enough. There must be full co-operation to solve all crimes by all in the community. The only solid assurances that we should seek — or receive — from private armies is proof that they have disbanded once and for all. Go raibh míle maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.

Mr Lunn: I beg to move amendment No 2: Leave out all after ‘of’ and insert:

“the structures and activities of all paramilitary organisations.”

The Alliance Party welcomes the motion tabled by Mr McNarry, because it is important that the House sends a clear message to those who still claim membership of, or give any kind of legitimacy to, what the motion describes as “private armies”.

The purpose of our amendment is to clarify the description of the organisations to which the motion refers, because the use of the word “armies” is not appropriate in that context. The organisations referred to style themselves in various ways: forces, in some cases, armies, or, bizarrely, associations. However, it is inappropriate for Members to use the word “armies”. The Assembly should not pass a motion that might give even a semblance of credibility or legitimacy to the idea that any of the organisations involved had the support of the people to conduct any type of war. Plain and simply, they were terrorists.

The issue is not just about the existence of paramilitary groups; we must focus on their activities and structures. Any legitimate army would be ashamed of the type of activity carried out by the paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland. Legitimate armies do not deal in drugs; they do not operate fuel-smuggling rackets; they do not operate protection schemes in the areas that they dominate; and, most importantly, they are required to observe the rules of the Geneva Convention and, therefore, should not be involved in torture, intimidation, the taking of hostages or the targeting of civilians — all of which are examples of the actions of our paramilitaries — to say nothing of bank robberies, the ultimate obscenity of the use of proxy bombers, and the gruesome beating to death of civilians who have offended against their rules. I will not mention any organisation by name, because the only difference between them is the level and scale of their criminality — the activities are common to all of them.

The question is what the Assembly can do to end such activities. The simple answer is nothing, unless we have the necessary powers of policing and justice. The police and the courts must be able to deal with criminal gangs, which are what they are — there is nothing political about them; they are just a mafia indulging in gangsterism for personal gain.

There are also children’s rights to be considered. Is there a more obvious or contemptible abuse of children’s rights than their recruitment at an early age by paramilitaries? Does anyone really believe that such children are volunteers?

As Mr Dominic Bradley said, the Executive have been ambiguous in their support of Margaret Ritchie’s decision to end the funding of paramilitary groups, which is one of the few measures available to the Assembly to tackle the problem. I wonder why there is a continuing lack of agreement. The Alliance Party looks forward to the day when this type of debate is no longer required, but I doubt whether any of those organisations will go away of their own volition. Therefore, the sooner effective powers become available — and are used — the better.

The intention behind our amendment is to correct an ambiguity in the motion caused by the term “private armies”. Given the Ulster Unionist Party’s refusal to acknowledge that there was a war rather than a terrorist campaign here, I am surprised that the motion was so worded. One might fasten on the perception that it was a war. The Alliance Party agrees with the thrust of the motion and offers the amendment as a sensible correction, which I hope the motion’s proposers will, on reflection, accept.

Mr G Robinson: I take it as read that when the Member who proposed the motion refers to private armies, he means terrorist structures that have the capability to support political objectives by violent means and that fund their activities by criminality. On that basis, I have no hesitation in supporting the motion. Private armies or terrorists have no place in a law-abiding, peace-loving society. They can only be seen as a throwback to past dark days — which I had hoped were consigned to history — and as a tool to keep individuals and communities subjected to the law, as those private armies saw it.

How did they achieve that? The answer is simple: fear. No one in Northern Ireland, or anywhere in the world, should be subjected to that type of fear, but as a realist, I accept that not everywhere in the world can have that luxury. However, I no longer see Northern Ireland in that category. Northern Ireland had, I thought, left the days of the private army behind. Sadly, I have been proved wrong.

The questions that must be asked are simple. Why is there a need for private armies? There is no need or place whatsoever in today’s Northern Ireland for that type of organisation. Why are so-called command structures still in place? That question has an equally simple answer: the hawks in some organisations cannot see the future in anything other than the context of the past. They are so blinkered that they refuse to decommission their command structures and are thereby jeopardising the future by creating mistrust — one thing that this Assembly is trying to overcome.

How do those private armies impact on society? Every one of us is paying for the policing of all areas of Northern Ireland. Private armies have an impact on the youth of society through their criminal links to drugs and racketeering. I have a message for the private armies: the vast majority of people do not want them around. They want them to become a part of history. I bet that the party opposite will not want to hide that history.

I call on the private armies and their command structures to disband, to go away, and to leave the people of Northern Ireland to build the peaceful and prosperous future that we all want. I support the motion, and I do not necessarily oppose the two amendments.

Ms J McCann: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Sinn Féin’s position on private armies is clear. Our objective is to create the conditions in which private armies are a thing of the past. My party has been steadfast in its efforts to take all guns out of Irish politics.

Since the inception of the Six County state, a series of private armies have sought to legitimise Unionist majority rule. The B-Specials, the RUC and the UDR were all private armies of a State that was built on injustice and discrimination, and which systematically engaged in human-rights abuses against nationalists and republicans. During more than three decades of conflict, successive British Governments employed shoot-to-kill operations. They used rubber and plastic bullets. They used various unionist paramilitary organisations to wage a war of terror against the nationalist and republican people. The decision to pursue that approach was taken at the highest levels of the British state. In some instances, the orders to kill came directly from Downing Street and were subsequently publicly defended by British Ministers.

In recent years, a series of reports by the Police Ombudsman’s office and by international jurists into scores of killings have exposed the extent to which British intelligence, MI5, the UDR and the RUC Special Branch managed private armies through a policy of collusion. Collusion could work only with the knowledge of all its participants, which included MI5, British military intelligence and the British Cabinet. The Joint Intelligence Committee is directly responsible to the British Prime Minister, and has overall control of all security issues. Therefore, the British Cabinet, including the Prime Minister, is aware of everything that is happening in intelligence circles.

The Cory Report, the Barron Report, all three reports of the Stevens Inquiry, the Stalker Inquiry and a number of other reports and inquiries have found that collusion went to the heart of the British establishment.

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An inquiry by a team of international lawyers into dozens of murders in the 1970s showed that Government officials were aware of collusion between members of the UDR and loyalists killer gangs. Up to 15% of UDR members were directly linked to loyalist paramilitary organisations, and UDR weapons were used in the murder, and attempted murder, of many Catholics.

It has now been established firmly in the public domain that the British Government armed loyalists and that British intelligence directed them to kill people. It was part of the British Government’s military offensive against the nationalist people. The use of private armies by the British Government gave their armed forces cover to operate secretly in an illegal arena in which the Crown forces could not be seen or risk being caught. It is obvious to most reasonable people what the British Government were at.

We must all look forward to building a society based on equality, justice and peace — a society in which no private armies exist. Our party has no problem with saying that it is looking forward to living in such a society. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr McCausland: There can be no place in our society for paramilitary organisations or terrorist armies. That is true for all such organisations, whether they be loyalist or republican, mainstream or dissident.

We have come a very long way, but there is still more to do, and there is still a way to go. The issue stretches across political divisions and community boundaries, but it has a particular relevance for the party opposite, Sinn Féin. One has only to consider how many Sinn Féin Members have been convicted of the most atrocious terrorist crimes to see that relevance.

Down through the years, paramilitarism has polluted politics in Northern Ireland. The bargaining power of Sinn Féin, as the party itself admitted, came from the firepower of the IRA. It was the old policy of the Armalite and the ballot box, as Danny Morrison summed it up. However, I think the other expression makes it clearer; on the one hand, political bargaining power, and, on the other, military firepower.

Paramilitarism has not only polluted politics, it has ruined communities through criminality, gangsterism and drug-dealing, and has deprived families of loved ones. It has deprived children of fathers and mothers, and it has deprived mothers and fathers of their children. It has left us a legacy of denial. There are those who denied that they ever were IRA members, including the Sinn Féin president, who has a considerable capacity for remembering speeches but who somehow cannot remember whether he was ever involved in the IRA. There are those who will admit that they were members of the IRA, including, of course, the deputy First Minister, but who refuse to admit what terrorist crimes they committed. That legacy of denial must be highlighted.

The problem of paramilitarism spans all communities, but the particular significance with regard to Sinn Féin is that it is the largest nationalist party. It is represented strongly in the Assembly; it has come here with the votes of nationalists, but it has a special relationship with the IRA.

Dominic Bradley mentioned punishment beatings.

Dr Farry: Does the Member agree that the term “punishment beating” is totally inappropriate because the word “punishment” implies that there is some legitimacy in the actions of those who act as judge, jury and executioner, when, in fact, only the courts can dole out punishments?

Mr McCausland: I agree entirely with the Member, and I am about to reinforce his point.

Some years ago, when the Minister of Education, Caitríona Ruane, was the director of the West Belfast Festival, she encountered a problem. Sinead O’Connor had been due to appear at the festival, but refused to take part because of punishment beatings in west Belfast. When questioned on the radio, Caitríona Ruane said that punishment beatings were not a black-and-white issue. That has stuck in my mind as an interesting statement — the current Minister of Education said that punishment beatings were not a black-and-white issue.

Mr Kennedy: It is more of a black-and-blue issue.

Mr McCausland: Mr Kennedy is correct. That is a more accurate description to the people who have been beaten black and blue with a baseball bat, or whatever.

Private armies have been winding down their activity, but they must be completely dismantled. There must be an end to the eulogising of those who committed terrorist crimes as members of those terrorist armies.

The legacy remains of the killing of Robert McCartney in Belfast and the more recent intimidation by republicans of members of a cancer screening unit in the Markets area because a sister of Robert McCartney was one of the nurses. Alex Maskey will be aware of that incident because it happened in his constituency.

Most recently, Paul Quinn was murdered near the border. The Programme —

Mr A Maskey: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I advise the Member that before he continues in that vein, he should speak to the Health Minister and hear his report of what happened in the Markets.

Mr Deputy Speaker: That is not a point of order.

Mr McCausland: That was not a point of order. However, it is significant that Mr Maskey became rather nervous when I highlighted that incident.

There must be a future without paramilitary organisations, including those in the Markets area who intimidate people working in cancer screening units. The Programme for Government speaks of a shared and better future —

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

Mr O’Dowd: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. David McNarry’s motion has more to do with the battle between the Ulster Unionist Party and the DUP for the hearts and minds of the unionist community than with private armies. It is yet another waste of time to come from that source. What will be achieved by today’s debate, other than that there will be handbags at dawn between the two unionist parties opposite?

The Ulster Unionist Party had a poor record during the peace process. Mr McNarry lectured the Assembly on how he brought the IRA to the point where it got rid of its guns, etc. The Ulster Unionist Party delayed the removal of guns from Irish politics, and it delayed the progress of the entire peace process, because it had neither the moral courage nor the mettle to move forward.

Peace processes are about people having the moral courage and the mettle to move forward — and we have moved forward. It is as difficult for some Members on this side of the Chamber to be involved in the new arrangements as for those opposite. Peace processes are about compromise, and Sinn Féin is 100% behind the process and will make it work. Silly little motions like this one have no role to play. Of course, private armies should be removed. However, some unionist politicians, and indeed some nationalist politicians, do not want to move forward, are incapable of moving forward and cannot handle the new political reality. Politics on this island has changed for ever. Sinn Féin is not going away: the party is here to stay.

Mr Campbell: What about the IRA?

Mr O’Dowd: I will come to that in a moment.

Let us grasp the political reality and use our time in the debating Chamber to deal with those issues that we can. In the Village area, there are members of the unionist community living in the worst housing conditions that I have ever seen. I was about to say that they are sitting in front of the fire or in indoor bathrooms, but they have neither. The houses are damp, prone to flooding, and so forth. I doubt that those people are worrying about an unarmed IRA. Are they worried about an inactive IRA? Of course not.

They are worried that for 80 years their elected representatives failed to provide them with adequate housing. The Ulster Unionist Party — a single party — was in power for 50 years and still could not provide those communities with adequate housing. Now they come up with this rubbish motion.

Dominic Bradley outlined a picture of mass intimidation by republicans in South Armagh. Why, then, when it comes to elections in South Armagh, for every one SDLP vote does Sinn Féin get three? Why do those people — who according to Mr Bradley are intimidated — go into the privacy of a polling booth and vote for Sinn Féin? Why do they return more Sinn Féin councillors, more Sinn Féin MLAs and a Sinn Féin MP? [Interruption.]

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. The Member has the Floor.

Mr O’Dowd: As has been shown in three recent court cases —

Mr D Bradley: Will the Member give way?

Mr O’Dowd: No. It has been shown in three recent court cases that the SDLP makes statements that have absolutely no basis. Today, Dominic Bradley has made another statement that has no basis.

The people of South Armagh have given Dominic Bradley a message; they have told him who they want to represent them. As far as politicising the murder of Paul Quinn is concerned — catch yourself on. No other Member of this Assembly has politicised the murder of Paul Quinn. The murder of Paul Quinn was wrong; it should never have happened, and those responsible should be locked up in jail.

I commend the 400 people who co-operated in the investigation and invited the guards and the PSNI into their homes, and I commend those 1,200 people who gave the guards and the PSNI leads in their investigation. Contrary to what Mr Bradley and others tell us, the people of South Armagh will stand up to any one who intimidates them, and they have done so for over 30 years. Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.

Mr I McCrea: I welcome the motion, which is not petty. There should be an immediate end to all private armies, regardless of their paramilitary persuasion. True democracy demands that any party that wishes to be in Government for the long term cannot hold on to a private army at the same time.

The bone of contention for true democrats in this House is that Sinn Féin is in Government while the IRA army council continues to exist. Not only is the existence of the IRA army council an insult to democracy, but it will ensure that devolution of policing and justice powers to this Assembly is totally out of the question for some time. That will be the case until the Provisional IRA ceases to exist, and, indeed, until the community has full confidence that Sinn Féin is committed to policing — not just by its words, but by its actions.

As a member of the Assembly and Executive Review Committee, I make it abundantly clear that the DUP will not agree to set any date for the devolution of policing and justice, and certainly not any date in the near future.

Mr Burnside: That is a clear message to the House. Does that mean that so long as the army council of the Provisional IRA continues to exist — which the Member and I know is still the case — our side of the House will not agree to the transfer of policing and justice powers?

Mr I McCrea: I have no doubt. I am 100% in my demand that the IRA army council has to be done away with before policing and justice powers can be devolved to this Assembly.

In October 2007, Paul Quinn, a 21-year-old man, was murdered in County Monaghan. His family believes that the Provisional IRA was responsible. However, to date, no one has been arrested. Once again, how can we trust Sinn Féin while the IRA army council remains intact?

In recent months, we have also witnessed the attempted murders of two PSNI officers in Londonderry and Dungannon. Again, I wait to see who will be charged and brought before the courts for those actions.

5.30 pm

Sinn Féin, which everyone knows is the political wing of the Provisional IRA, cannot be trusted in a democratic institution until its members prove to the people of Northern Ireland that the days of IRA terrorism are over once and for all; that they have renounced terrorism; that the days of the Armalite and the ballot box are gone; and that they are committed to democratic and peaceful means alone. They can prove to the people of Northern Ireland that that is now the case only by disbanding the IRA army council and by bringing the Provisional IRA’s threat to the people of this Province to an immediate end.

The ball is now in the hands of Sinn Féin: if it wants to be accepted as a truly democratic political party, then now is the time for its members to stand alone, free from a private army, and stop holding the people of Northern Ireland to ransom through the existence of that army.

Mr Armstrong: I welcome the debate and the opportunity to speak in it. For far too long, Northern Ireland was cursed with private armies. The IRA sought to destroy this country — they bombed towns and cities in an attempt to bring Northern Ireland to its knees economically. The same people would then complain about the lack of employment prospects. They murdered anyone who stood in their way — policemen, soldiers, civilians young and old, anyone whether Protestant or Roman Catholic. Those who dared to take a stand against the IRA were considered fair game.

The so-called dissident republicans picked up where the Provisional IRA left off. They bombed Omagh, murdering 29 people, and in the last few months they have attempted to murder off-duty police officers in London­derry and Dungannon. The arrests in Lithuania were further evidence that they have yet to get the message that their ways are over, with dissident repub­licans attempting to buy explosives. The weekend media reports suggest that they are to step up their campaign of targeting the Police Service of Northern Ireland, as well as undertaking a campaign of fire bombing.

The murder of Paul Quinn in County Monaghan has raised serious questions about whether the Provisional IRA — Sinn Féin’s own private army — has really wound up its operations.

Rather than sit back and watch helplessly as Northern Ireland slid into anarchy, I chose to join the forces of law and order and served part-time with the RUC for 15 years. I made my choice, as did others. My conscience is clear.

The Belfast Agreement ended the deadlock. After a number of false starts such as the Sunningdale Agreement and the Prior Assembly, politics was finally given a chance to work, as the private armies took a back seat. That was too much for some republicans, and as the Provisional IRA came to realise that its armed campaign would not achieve the aim of a British withdrawal, elements drifted away to form the so-called Real IRA and Continuity IRA. Those people have not learnt the lesson that society neither wants nor needs self-appointed private armies.

In the past, republicans variously claimed that they were fighting for a united Ireland and a British withdrawal and that they had a mandate from their community. Some Protestant groups claimed that they were fighting against republican violence, claiming to be the defenders of their communities, while conveniently ignoring the fact that they were oppressing the very people they were claiming to defend.

Since 1998, both factions have been stripped of any possible excuse for violence. Republicans were elected to the Stormont Assembly in sufficient numbers to be able to deal with grievances, real or perceived, and achieve their ends by political means. Loyalists failed to gain much electoral success, but the ending of the IRA’s campaign meant that they could no longer use the excuse that they were only reacting to IRA violence.

The ending of the Troubles meant that those who once had power and status in their communities due to their involvement in private armies had to face a new reality. It has proven too much for some, and the lure of easy money through criminal enterprises, such as fuel smuggling or drug dealing, proved too tempting. Such activities had occurred before the Troubles ended, but then the groups or individuals involved had claimed that it was for “the cause”. It is now clear that it was only for personal gain.

Some Members in the House now speak against private armies from a position of respectability, yet they seem to have forgotten that once upon a time they were a little too close to paramilitaries for comfort. Some now very senior DUP politicians were very closely associated with fairly unsavoury characters. However, like new Labour, the watered-down, power-hungry, new DUP, bears no resemblance to the DUP of old, pre-2007. [Interruption.]

I reject the DUP’s charge that the Ulster Unionist Party somehow failed to address the big issues during the inter-party talks that produced the Belfast Agreement in 1998. I would never claim that that agreement was perfect, but it represented the best chance to bring about an end to a widespread campaign of murder and mayhem on the part of private armies, republican and loyalist. The Belfast Agreement broke the political deadlock and saved lives. I have always believed that, if the DUP had chosen to participate in those talks and strengthen the unionist representation at the talks table, we might have achieved a better deal for the unionist people. There is no place in Northern Ireland for any private armies.

Dr W McCrea: Having listened to the previous speech, I must confess that I did not have a clue what the Member was trying to say — probably, in truth, when he read it, neither had he. I am delighted that the speech was written for him; he certainly could not have made that up on the hoof.

However, I compliment his colleague Mr McNarry on proposing the motion, with which I have no problem associating myself. The House would be wise to support the motion, for which I trust there will be unanimous support.

There are still questions in the minds of the people of Northern Ireland in respect of those Members of the House who retain an association with the army council of the Provisional IRA. Those questions will not go away, and they must be dealt with head-on. There is a clear demand on the part of any democratic institution that presents itself as such that no one should be able to call himself or herself a democrat while being part of — or fronting — a terrorist organisation. That goes for the Provisional IRA.

In many ways, the Provisional IRA was never an army. In my opinion, its members were similar to rats that crawled out of the sewers. They threatened and intimidated the people of Northern Ireland for 30 years until they realised that they could no longer get their way.

Some in Sinn Féin faced the reality that the day of the gun and the bomb was over. The sympathy for republicans in America, Europe, and London — and certainly in Dublin — was finished, particularly in the wake of the 9/11 atrocity, which every one of us condemned. We must equally condemn the Governments that were happy to play along with those who committed one atrocity after another, particularly in the border areas of Northern Ireland, where there was deliberate genocide and a calculated destruction of the families who lived there. The Protestant community was destroyed along the border, and there was a deliberate policy to drive them back and to push back the border. Thankfully, all those efforts failed, and many good, strong unionist people still live in the border areas. I commend them and their families for their courage in standing against all the intimidation and threats that were levelled at them.

My honourable friend the Member for Mid Ulster rightly pointed out the current prominence of policing and justice issues. Without equivocation, I make it abundantly clear that if Sinn Féin or any other group imagine that, somehow, in May or October, policing and justice powers will be devolved, they are up a gum tree. There will be no movement on that issue until all paramilitary organisations — not just those from one side of the community — are dealt with. All paramilitary organisations must be destroyed. [Interruption.]

Sinn Féin Members should not shout too loudly. They know all about terrorism, and they know what it is to blow people asunder. [Interruption.]

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order.

Dr W McCrea: With the greatest respect, Mr Deputy Speaker, I know that you are simply on your feet to tell the Member who is smarting to keep quiet. He knows fine well that, for some of his colleagues, the chickens are coming home to roost. In the past, the IRA may have intimidated people and delighted in trying to make people kowtow to it, but one thing is for sure, and that is that this Member for South Antrim will never kowtow to any IRA scum. [Interruption.] No one in the IRA —

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. Order.

Dr W McCrea: No one in the IRA will ever make me kowtow. [Interruption.]

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order, please, Members. Order.

Members should be very careful about what they say. Their comments could lead to Standing Order 60 being invoked, and we do not want that.

Dr W McCrea: I am clear on what I have said, and it may be read in Hansard. Some other Members, however, may not want some of their words read, because, as far as I am concerned, there — [Interruption.]

Mr Deputy Speaker: I am sorry, Dr McCrea, but your time is up.

Mr Burnside: To lower the emotion that is evident in the debate, I wish to say that we are all using different terms, yet we all know what we are talking about. Whether that term be “private army”, “paramilitary organisation” or “terrorist organisation”, we are talking about an organisation that exists for its own interests and that falls outside the authority of the state, and about whether it continues to exist. It is a mafia, whether that be in loyalist or republican circles.

Much of what Sinn Féin says does not generate confidence. Whether in the case of the McCartney murder, or in the case of other murders in south Armagh, will the political representatives of that one-and-the-same organisation co-operate fully with the police and the justice system, which they said in their Pledge of Office that they would do, in order to bring those responsible to justice? They currently do not.

In questions for oral answer in the House, as well as in questions for written answer that I have submitted, I have asked the deputy First Minister whether he will co-operate with the police in their enquiries into historical crimes. He said on ‘The Stephen Nolan Show’ that he will not. That does not represent adherence to law and order, nor does it signal an end to private armies.

As I said in an intervention earlier, the president of Sinn Féin has said that he was never a member of the IRA. Therefore, what is the point in our having a debate on the subject? We know what private armies are. We know that the republican movement has moved a great way, and we know that there has been movement in elements of loyalism, although that has not happened nearly fast enough.

However, we certainly know what a private army is. We also know what a terrorist organisation is, and, on the republican side, a structure remains. Its members continue to stick together, like the Mafia, after criminal activities have been engaged in, and that is unacceptable in a democratic society.

I am glad that the DUP is making it clear that there will be no transfer of policing and justice powers. As long as the IRA army council exists, those powers should not be anywhere near this place. We do not need them; they should remain a reserved matter.

The private armies still exist and still have potential. They influence young people and intimidate them. I do not need to repeat the publicity on the McCartney murder. Who cleared away the evidence? Who did not give information? Who intimidated the family? It was the movement — the republican movement. It sticks together. The Sinn Féin leadership should look at concluding the process of moving from terrorism, via terrorism and politics, to 100% politics. The leadership should end that process completely. Moreover, the loyalist paramilitaries should get off the loyalist people’s backs.

Mr O’Dowd: What pressure are you putting on them?

Mr Burnside: Does the Member wish to make an intervention through the Chair? [Interruption.]

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order, please.

Mr O’Dowd: What pressure is the Member’s party putting on loyalist paramilitaries to leave the stage? Simply that he says that they should? Let us see the evidence of what his party is doing to ensure that loyalist paramilitaries leave the scene.

Mr Burnside: We are doing a tremendous amount, as we have done throughout the entire peace process. I had no problem with meeting the UDA inner council in north Belfast. I knew that the police were there. I argued with the UDA leadership that it should keep moving in the right direction, and I had no problem with doing that.

I am not ashamed to admit that I have talked to loyalist paramilitaries, whether proscribed or non-proscribed. How could anyone in loyalism, from our party or from the DUP, who said that they had not talked to, or been involved with, people who have been in private armies have been part of the Northern Ireland peace process? I have no shame in admitting my involvement. I hope that the loyalist paramilitaries will get off the loyalist people’s backs, because, regardless of the reasons for the establishment of those groups, it is time for them to go.

5.45 pm

The motion and the amendments are good. Our colleagues from the SDLP and the Alliance Party made good speeches, and some good points were made. However, the dreadful speech on collusion, delivered parrot-like, was to be expected from Sinn Féin.

No party in the Assembly should tolerate any private armies, terrorist organisations or paramilitary organisations in our society. They should be wound up. The vote on the motion should be unanimous, but more than rhetoric or being economical with the truth — if I may use that term to describe what I really mean — is required. If people do not admit from where they came, they cannot really go all the way down the peaceful route away from private armies. I hope, therefore, that the motion will receive unanimous support.

I am extremely pleased that the DUP is to stand firm and not support the transfer of policing and justice powers, and I look forward to standing firm with the DUP on that. The Ulster Unionist Party will be at one on that subject, because now is not the right time for those powers to be devolved. Once again, I say that I hope that all Members in the Chamber will support the motion.

Dr Farry: The Alliance Party is comfortable with the SDLP amendment. It would be churlish not to recognise the progress that has been made over the past number of years, in which we have witnessed the winding-down of the IRA, Sinn Féin’s support for policing, and the decommissioning of weapons. There have been positive reports from the IMC on all those matters.

However, more must be done with republicans. Concerns remain over the continuation of a command and control system, as well as over organised crime and social control. There is a great deal of unease about the murder of Paul Quinn, and that unease must be tackled. Although Mr O’Dowd condemned Paul Quinn’s murder, I was disappointed that he did not go further and make it clear that Paul Quinn was not a criminal, because he is not alive to challenge the allegations that have been made against him. It is very unfair that that allegation still hangs over that individual.

It is right to recognise that loyalists have made some movement in the past year. However, both the UVF and UDA have refused to decommission their weapons. I find that profoundly disappointing. We seem to have slipped back to a situation in which the notion of putting weapons beyond use is satisfactory. The Northern Ireland Office appears to have settled for that, but that is not good enough. The message that the weapons must go must be sent out loud and clear.

The Alliance Party amendment was tabled because we are concerned about the terminology used in the motion. Terminology is important in this society, and the use of the term “armies’ is completely inappropriate, because the paramilitary organisations here are not, and never were, armies in the conventional sense of the word. Every time that I hear them referred to as armies, my colleagues and I cringe.

Every time during the peace process that someone asked the IRA to declare that the war was over, I cringed, because the IRA was never an army, and there was never a war. All were paramilitary organisations engaged in illegal activity, and their members were judged according to the criminal law in our society. Although members of those organisations may be regarded as politically motivated prisoners, they were not. They were never political prisoners, nor were they prisoners of war. They were not part of an army — they never have been and never will be. Members must be perfectly clear on that.

At a time of such controversy and sensitivity in our society over the suggestion, or over the sought recognition, that a war occurred — a suggestion that emanated from the Eames and Bradley reconciliation group — it ill behoves the Assembly to flirt with that suggestion through the motion’s use of the term “armies”. If we are seen to be talking about private armies, we give credence to those who want to talk about the existence of a war, and that may enable them to rewrite history.

I want to stand up for all those people in Northern Ireland — in the security forces and in the rest of society — who tried to maintain some society based around the rule of law, who tried to maintain the norms of democracy, who tried to retain some sense of a normal society, and who achieved that against great odds. When we talk about dealing with “armies” and “fighting wars”, we do them all a great disservice for the activities that they engaged in.

In the same sense, the use of the term “punishment beatings” also sends out a negative message — and I am grateful that Nelson McCausland clarified that. Punishment beatings are paramilitary attacks, pure and simple, and include grievous bodily harm, attempted murder, and, in some cases, murder. In no sense can parliamentary organisations act as judge, jury and executioner. The police investigate crime, the Public Prosecution Service brings forward prosecutions and the courts pass sentences. That is how it should be and we must be absolutely clear on that.

Finally, I will refer to the devolution of policing and justice, which is not relevant to today’s debate, as we are focusing on bringing to an end all illegal paramilitary activity. My party feels that May 2008 is unrealistic. However, it wants to talk about devolution happening sooner rather than later; it should not be put on the long finger. It is something that we should look forward to when seeking to control all aspects of life in Northern Ireland where we feel that we can make a difference.

Today’s issue is not so much about the bona fides of people who may be exercising that power, but about ensuring that the Executive are capable of acting in a collective, coherent and cohesive manner on sensitive issues. The Executive’s handling of the appointment of the victims’ commissioners does not give us much encouragement.

Mr Attwood: I thank Members who contributed to the debate. I agree with the Ulster Unionist proposer of the motion, Mr McNarry, that ending illegal organisations is one measure of the nature of the society that we are trying to create. For that reason, the debate is appropriate. From my point of view, the murder of Robert McCartney or Paul Quinn or the activities of the UDA and UVF against people on the Shankill Road a few weeks ago can never be debated enough. Perhaps some Members think that we are debating a silly little motion or that it is a waste of time.

Mr Campbell: Will the Member give way?

Mr Attwood: No — or that it is a silly waste of time, as Mr O’Dowd said. We should never stop talking about what illegal groups have done in the past and are doing as we speak in parts of this city and beyond. That is why the motion is not silly or a waste of time. In two or three months’ time we could have a debate in the Chamber about the devolution of justice and policing and, therefore, this debate is opportune and timely. Anybody who suggests otherwise is fooling themselves and trying to fool people in the Chamber and outside.

Mr O’Dowd would not take a point of information from my colleague, Mr Bradley, who would have told Mr O’Dowd that the SDLP respects Sinn Féin’s mandate in south Armagh and everywhere else. Every time Mr O’Dowd talks about respect for Sinn Féin’s mandate, he exposes himself to the fact that for 35 years his party unambiguously supported the IRA in its disrespect of national democracy and the mandate of the Irish people who wanted the IRA, the British Army, the RUC and the loyalist groups to stop their violence, which they carried out against the wishes of the people of Ireland.

I will talk about the UDA, because little has been said about it in the debate. Members should read the last IMC report, which stated that the UDA:

“are still involved in a wide range of serious crimes… The pace of real change remains far too slow... In our view it is hard to lay an entirely convincing claim to be irrevocably set on a peaceful path, or expect dispassionate observers to take a wholly benign view of their declared intentions, until it is at least clear that they plan to decommission and are taking active steps to that end.”

That is what the IMC said late last year about the UDA and the UVF.

The IMC subsequently said:

“We concluded that unless the leadership could deliver more significant results in the very near future we would be forced to the view that it was unwilling or unable to bring about real change.”

We should remember all that, because it has been 14 years since the first ceasefires and 10 years since the Good Friday Agreement. We should remember that in the coming months, because, as Mr Lunn said, some of those around the Executive table seem to have an ambiguous attitude to the UDA and its continued existence in the North.

Jennifer McCann — as usual — made a speech about the war of terror that was waged on the nationalist people. Terror was visited on the nationalist people by agencies of the state — there is no doubt about that. However, the fact that, in a five-minute speech, she did not say one word about the war of terror that was waged on the people of this island and elsewhere beggars belief.

More than anything else, one family has helped to create the situation that we are now in and a place that is better now than it has ever been. The Assembly should stand closest to that family, given that we are now in a better place. That is the McCartney family, which helped to bring us to the current situation more than any other single family, which is why we should help them to find the justice that they seek. In a Policing Board meeting on 4 October 2007 — and confirmed in an Assembly Committee evidence session on 8 January 2008 — a senior police officer said:

“I can confirm that the Senior Investigating Officer did have a number of working meetings with representatives of Sinn Fein at their request. At the last meeting, Sinn Fein members agreed to look at encouraging members of their party and witnesses to come forward. I can say that as of this date, no new witnesses have come forward.”

Why was that said?

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order.

Mr Attwood: That is an indictment on anybody —

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order, please.

Mr Attwood: — who does not help that family.

Mr Deputy Speaker: I remind Members to check that their mobile phones are switched off, because they are causing serious problems.

As business will not be concluded by 6.00 pm, in accordance with Standing Order 10(3), I will allow business to continue until 7.00 pm or until it is concluded.

Mr Kennedy: This afternoon’s debate has established certain key messages that the Assembly must send to the people of Northern Ireland, the media and the international community. First, let me say clearly that there can be no place in Northern Ireland, or in any civil society, for paramilitary organisations or private armies. The operation of democracy requires the elimination of all alternative power bases.

Secondly, only the freely elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland have the right to govern Northern Ireland; they are the only legitimate power in the Province. Therefore, there is no valid reason that any paramilitary organisation or private army would be maintained, other than to offer an implied threat of coercion to, or the subversion of, the lawful authority.

We are on the verge of a debate on whether policing and justice powers should be devolved to the Assembly. However, how can we even contemplate such a sensitive subject as the devolution of policing and justice if the private army of republicanism, the IRA, is still in any form of potentially operational existence and with its command and control structures intact? How can the healing process even take root among the people, as opposed to the political class, while private armies and the paramilitary organisations that waged war on the state and on innocent civilians is still there?

6.00 pm

It seems that political republicanism is leaving itself as a hostage to fortune, while the command and control structures of the IRA and the army council continue to exist.

Every deed of violence can potentially be laid at its door, thus undermining Sinn Féin’s political standing in this place and the integrity of the whole peace process.

The whole political project, as Sinn Féin has called it, could be fatally undermined at the whim of every violent hooligan who was, or is, an IRA member and who commits a murderous and illegal deed. If the army council were not there, it would be impossible to ascribe every violent or illegal deed to it. Sinn Féin denials of IRA institutional involvement in crime and murder would have much more credibility if the IRA army council had the sense and wisdom to disband.

As long as the IRA army council exists, it is tantamount to it saying that it will see how well the political project works, and if that is not working, it will rearm and begin the campaign of violence once more. That concerns the unionist population, for unionists are logical people. With some justification, they ask why an army structure is needed if there is a 100% commitment to peace. Before further progress can be made in the peace process, in the devolution of other matters, the next step must be the standing down of the IRA as a military force, including its army council.

If we are to present Northern Ireland credibly, particularly to outside investors, as a post-conflict society, then all paramilitarism must become history. We must have a no-tolerance policy towards it.

The proposer of the motion, Mr McNarry, posed important questions not only to Assembly Members, but also to Ministers in the Executive.

I commend particularly my constituency colleague Dominic Bradley for a brave and powerful contribution to the debate. He said many things at considerable risk to himself, and I commend him warmly for that.

I accept what Mr Lunn and Dr Farry said about the terminology of the motion and their strict interpretation of it; however, given that they have read into the record their concerns, I ask that they support the original motion before the House.

I am happy to confirm to Mr George Robinson DUP Member for East Londonderry that his interpretation is correct: we mean “terrorist structures” as well as private armies.

We had a predictable contribution from Sinn Féin’s Jennifer McCann, who told us about private armies and complained about the B-Specials, the RUC, MI5 and the UDR, and how everyone had given her and her comm­unity a rotten time. It was an old and rather predictable republican rant and record.

I agree with Mr McCausland: there is no place for paramilitary organisations or terrorist structures in Northern Ireland. I agreed particularly with his point about the legacy of denial as regards republicans.

The contributions of Mr O’Dowd and Dr William McCrea, for separate reasons, reintroduced a touch of sulphur into the debate that has been noticeably absent in recent months. It was interesting to hear. However, I take no lectures — nor does the Ulster Unionist Party, nor do unionist representatives — from representatives of Sinn Féin, whose organisation was responsible for an economic war that cost millions upon millions of pounds that should have been invested, more properly, in the houses of working class people, including those in loyalist areas.

We are not in any way grateful to John O’Dowd for reminding us about poverty in certain areas, because of the cost to Northern Ireland, in real economic terms, of the IRA campaign.

I want to join with others and point out that although Mr O’Dowd condemned the murder of Paul Quinn, he did not go further and condemn the character assassination that has been a feature of republican briefing in the aftermath of that despicable deed. He needs to reflect on that, as do others.

I welcome Ian McCrea’s contribution on behalf of his party and his assertion — on which he, presumably, carries the weight of his party and its Front Bench — of the requirement for the IRA army council to be disbanded before unionists can contemplate the devolution of policing and justice. The Ulster Unionist Party will certainly find common cause on that issue with Mr McCrea and his party.

Billy Armstrong rightly reminded the House about the ongoing issues of drugs and fuel smuggling. The black economy, which is helped, assisted, aided and organised by paramilitary organisations, is, frankly, alive and well. Action must also be taken on that. David Burnside rightly described the paramilitary organisations that are involved in that activity as mafia-type organisations.

My party has listened carefully to the amendments from the SDLP and the Alliance Party. We note their comments, which have been put on record. However, my party still believes that, for maximum effect, it is better that the original motion be carried through the House unamended. I urge Members from those parties to reflect on that.

I commend the motion to the House. I hope that both the IRA army council and the Sinn Féin leadership are listening.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Before I put the Question on amendment No 1, I advise Members that if amendment No 1 is made, amendment No 2 will fall, and I will then proceed to put the Question on the motion as amended.

Question, That amendment No 1 be made, put and agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.


That this Assembly notes the most recent report by the Independent Monitoring Commission on the activities of illegal organisations; calls for their disbandment; and further calls for full co-operation on all crimes by all in the community.

Adjourned at 6.12 pm.

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