Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

northern ireland assembly

Tuesday 5 February 2008

Assembly Business

Executive Committee Business:
Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill: Final Stage

Assembly Business

Private Members’ Business:
Exploitation of Migrant Labour and Human Trafficking

Post-primary Education in County Fermanagh

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

Members observed two minutes’ silence.

Assembly Business

Ms Ní Chuilín: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I am wondering about the competency of the motion on the Youth Service’s budget, given that one of its main components refers to cuts that were proposed in the draft Budget. Now that the Budget has been finalised, I would like to know whether the motion remains competent.

Mr Speaker: It remains very much a competent motion, and consideration of competency is the only concern that I have when motions come before the House.

Executive Committee Business

Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill

Final Stage

The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Mr McGimpsey): I beg to move

That the Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill [NIA 2/07] do now pass.

This new legislation reflects our desire to improve primary-care services for people in Northern Ireland. It introduces several measures that will enhance patient safety, and it provides for a new dental contract that will allow local commissioning of a high-quality dental service that is responsive to the needs and wishes of patients.

Mr Speaker, as you are aware, the clause in the Bill that would have enabled smoking by a performer during a performance has been removed. That clause was inserted into the Bill at the behest of the previous Administration. Members will recall that I advised the Assembly during the Consideration Stage of the Bill that, after considering carefully the arguments for and against a smoking exemption, I was not convinced that it was necessary for actors to actually smoke in order to portray an act realistically. I tabled an amendment to the Bill, which Members endorsed. I should point out that the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety was also opposed to the inclusion in the Bill of a smoking exemption.

I thank those Members who contributed to the Bill’s passage through the Assembly. In particular, I thank members of the Health Committee for painstakingly considering each of the Bill’s clauses and for their comprehensive report, which was published last October.

As it now stands, the draft Bill introduces provisions that are broadly in line with those that are already in force in the rest of the UK. Those provisions were subject to a wide-ranging consultation exercise in Northern Ireland, and I am pleased to say that respondents to that were generally in favour of the new policies.

The Chairperson of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Mrs I Robinson): When the Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill was laid before the Assembly in June 2007, it contained three main provisions: the first related to the regulation of the four family practitioner services — general practitioners, opticians, pharmacists and dentists; the second dealt with proposals to set out a legislative base for a new contract for dentists; and the third was the proposal to permit smoking by those taking part in performances.

I am pleased that the proposal for a smoking exemption was dropped at Consideration Stage; and, as the Minister said, the Committee can justifiably claim some of the credit for having that clause removed from the Bill. The Committee listened to both sides of the argument on the smoking exemption, and all members agreed to oppose the clause.

During the Committee Stage of the Bill, 24 organ­isations responded to the Committee’s request for written submissions. Although many views expressed related to the smoking exemption, there was also a number of concerns about the other provisions.

In addition to the written evidence obtained, the Committee heard oral evidence on the regulation of family practitioner services and on the future of dental services from the British Medical Association, the British Dental Association, the Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland and the Health and Social Services Council.

The Committee noted that the Bill will give the Department powers to make regulations in a number of areas, such as the conditions under which the suspension of an individual practitioner can take place; the details of rights and obligations under the new dental services contract; and the criteria under which persons not ordinarily resident in Northern Ireland will not be charged for services.

I ask the Minister to ensure that concerns expressed during the passage of the Bill, particularly those voiced during the Committee Stage and recorded in the Committee’s report, are taken into consideration when the Department uses those powers to make regulations.

The Committee is content to support the Bill and looks forward to receiving policy proposals for the detailed regulations in due course. The Committee will wish to scrutinise those regulations carefully.

Mr Buchanan: I know that the Committee will be scrutinising regulations relating to the Bill. However, I wish to raise a few points with the Minister today. As regards suspensions, will the Minister agree that the Department should seek to facilitate discussions at local level before a suspension is considered? Will he also agree that suspension should never be a knee-jerk reaction? What recourse will there be for primary-care practitioners who are found to have been wrongly suspended, and what will happen in a case in which an individual is suspended locally but not by the General Medical Council? Does the Minister accept that those issues must be resolved before any legislation can be finalised, and will he do what he can to convey that message as the legislation is developed?

Mr Easton: I, too, support the Bill. My question is in the same vein as those of my colleague. Will the Minister reassure us that suspension of health professionals will not be based on reasonable doubt or possibilities; that there will have to be hard facts; and that it will be taken as a last resort? I also support the removal of the smoking exemption from the Bill.

Mr McGimpsey: I thank the Members who have contributed to the debate for their remarks. Subject to the Bill being passed, further consultation will take place during the development of subordinate legislation that will be required to introduce provisions such as those relating to suspension. I am happy to endorse the points made by Mr Buchanan.

Question put and agreed to.


That the Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill [NIA Bill 2/07] do now pass.

Mr Speaker: I propose that the House takes its ease before we move on to the next item of business on the Order Paper.


Mr Speaker: Order, Members. We are unable to move on to the next two items of business on the Order Paper because the proposers of the motions are not in the House. Therefore, I propose, by leave of the House, to suspend the sitting for 20 minutes.

Mr Gallagher: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Can you indicate whether, when business is resumed in 20 minutes, the two proposers who are named on the Order Paper will be in the House?

Mr Speaker: In 20 minutes’ time, we will move to item 3 on the Order Paper, which is the motion in the name of Dolores Kelly. I hope that, by that time, the Member will be in the House.

Mr B McCrea: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Can you clarify that, after 20 minutes, we will move on to Dolores Kelly’s motion — Exploitation of Migrant Labour and Human Trafficking — or are we giving the proposers of both motions a chance to turn up?

Mr Speaker: I have suspended the sitting for 20 minutes, after which time we will move on to Dolores Kelly’s motion.

Mr Gallagher: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. That being the case —

Mr Speaker: I am not taking any further points of order on the issue. I am trying to help Members, which is why I have decided to suspend the sitting for 20 minutes.

The sitting was suspended at 10.42 am.

11.02 am

On resuming —


Exploitation of Migrant Labour  and Human Trafficking

Mr 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.

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

Mr Speaker: I will take your point of order after the motion is read.

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.

Mrs D Kelly: I beg to move

That this Assembly expresses concern at the exploitation of migrant labour and the growth of human trafficking; and calls for the ratification of the 1990 United Nations Migrant Rights Convention and the 2005 Council of Europe Convention on Action against the Trafficking in Human Beings.

Mr Durkan: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I realise that unusual circumstances were created this morning because of the absence of Mr Wilson at the time when his motion was due to be taken. However, in circumstances in which an amendment appears, suspicion will be around, unless some further explanation is given, that that creates a precedent whereby a Member can deliberately collapse their own motion, having recognised the serious flaws and contradictions in their position that a debate would expose. In circumstances in which motions and amendments can only be withdrawn by leave of the House, a dangerous precedent is being created. That should not simply pass as being one of those things.

On a further point of order, Mr Speaker. A difficult situation could have arisen in which Mrs Kelly would not have been here to address her motion, perhaps because of another meeting. Where would that have left Assembly business? That matter needs further and serious reflection.

Mr Speaker: If, for whatever reason, the second motion had fallen, I would have dealt with that appropriately, as I have dealt with the first motion. I am happy to come back to the Member on his first point of order.

Mr S Wilson: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I know that the leader of the SDLP leads a difficult party, so perhaps he has become paranoid. He has displayed that this morning. Can I make it quite clear that there was — [Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order. That is not an appropriate point of order.

Mr S Wilson: On a further point of order, Mr Speaker. Is it in order for the paranoid leader of the SDLP to make allegations that are not true? I was held up by traffic. I am here; I am happy to debate the motion, I have no intention of having it collapsed, and it will be presented again.

Mr Speaker: Order. I ask the Member to take his seat. We spoke to the Chief Whip of the Democratic Unionist Party, Lord Morrow, and he confirmed that Mr Wilson was held up in traffic.

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

Mr Speaker: Is it the same point of order or a new one?

Mr McElduff: It is the same point of order. Perhaps it would be better practice for two Members to table a motion of this character, so that at least one would be present to move it. The motion related to funding for youth services, which is a crucial issue, and we needed to debate it this morning.

Mr Speaker: Order. On several occasions, the Business Committee has encouraged Members to put at least two names to a motion. Unfortunately, that did not happen with this motion.

Mr S Wilson: Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Given that 11.00 am was given as the indicative time for the motion to be moved — and I was in the House at 10.45 am — it should have been moved at that time. Members were in their places, and we could have remained within the indicative time that was laid down by the Business Committee.

Mr Speaker: I have raised this issue before: only indicative timings are provided. It is Members’ responsibility to be here in the morning. They should not adhere to the indicative timings; we all know that we sometimes get through business quicker than anticipated.

Mr McElduff: Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Members who have come from rural constituencies —

Mr Speaker: Order. I am not prepared to take any further points of order on the issue; we have dealt with it well.

Mrs D Kelly: The inspirational civil rights leader Martin Luther King declared “I have a dream”, as he articulated the hopes of African-Americans in the early 1960s — hopes of equality, tolerance and opportunity. Those were also the words on the lips of the people who boarded the emigrant ships — or who now board the Boeings and Airbuses that have replaced the ships — to seek their fortune in some foreign land of opportunity.

Ireland is increasingly becoming the land that emigrants choose to seek their fortune. However, like many Irish people before them who emigrated to England, they are sometimes welcome only for the jobs that they take on — jobs that are too dirty and low paid for our own people. They are welcome only as workers. The Germans discovered that when they encouraged many poor Italian and Turkish immigrants to work in the booming industries of the Ruhr in the 1960s and 1970s. As Max Frisch said:

“We recruited workers, but got people.”

If we think about the people who have come to our part of the world, we can bring to mind the Portuguese man who works the night shift for low wages, shivering in a processing plant in mid Ulster, the Lithuanian family who pay an exorbitant rent for slum accommodation in Dungannon, the Nigerian couple who were burned out of their home in Donegall Pass, and the Chinese girl who was murdered while working as a prostitute in north Belfast.

A report that the Irish Congress of Trade Unions commissioned last year not surprisingly confirmed much of what people knew or suspected: a growing number of migrant workers in Northern Ireland are being exploited and experience widespread racism and sectarianism. What land of opportunity, what fortune to be sought? Martin Luther King’s dream has turned into a nightmare for some. Yet, the actions of Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement in the States have led to what is happening today, which is that African-Americans may decide who will be the next President of the USA. Indeed, the SDLP was born out of the civil rights movement.

That example proves that we do not know what the future holds, because the pace of change moves so quickly. Enoch Powell, who was another famous politician of the 1960s, predicted — unpopularly at the time — in his “rivers of blood” speech of April 1968 that much of what was happening in Britain related to the arrival of unforeseen numbers of immigrants.

Although Powell was motivated by a racist perspective on who should and who should not constitute the British people, he predicted that immigration — if not properly managed and catered for with regard to employment, conditions, health and education, for instance — would lead to racial conflict between communities and, ultimately, to bloodshed.

Members are aware of the reasons behind the growing popularity of the British National Party (BNP) among poor white people in Britain. No one was prepared for the situations in many English towns and cities today. Where are the school places, hospital beds, adequate social housing, language services and community and social workers to cope with the unforeseen population influx and growth? What problems are being stored up for the future?

Is Northern Ireland to suffer the same fate? Will we close our eyes to the low wages, poor conditions, racism and sexual exploitation that are visited upon our immigrant population? How long will it be until we also reap the whirlwind? We must prepare for the future and begin to make proper planned provision for the growing trend of inward migration, and build that into our projected plans and budgets for all Departments for the coming years. That must be achieved and implemented through horizontal measures based upon legislation — especially our equality and human rights legislation.

We, as a responsible Assembly, must recognise and appreciate the difficulties and challenges that have been — and which will continue to be — presented to us in welcoming so many people from diverse cultures and backgrounds into our midst. The Assembly will set the tone for our future relationships with those who come to share this island with us.

We must not only plan for the future but ensure that the present is not a basis for storing up problems for the future through the actions of unscrupulous and cruel employers, landlords, pimps, gangmasters and traffickers in inhumanity. The Assembly must send out the message that such exploitation will not be tolerated and that where it is found and uncovered, the perpetrators will be brought to book and made to face the full rigour of the law.

In order that the authorities have sufficient power and support to address such maltreatment, exploitation and trafficking, we must seek to press the Government at Westminster to face up to the challenge and adopt the United Nations Convention on the Protection of the Rights of all Migrants and Members of their Families, which the motion calls for. The convention exists to protect migrant workers, and it sets the moral standard to which its signatory countries should adhere. Ratification of the convention will mean that lawmakers adopt the terms of the convention and undertake to incorporate them into our national laws.

The convention on migrants’ rights is one of the core international human rights treaties. It is the first international instrument to provide specific recognition of the fundamental human rights of all migrant workers and their families. It aims at unifying the international legal standards of protection for migrant workers and protects the rights of all migrants. The convention does not create any new rights for migrant workers; it simply ensures that migrant workers and their families enjoy the same human rights, equality of treatment, and working and life conditions as we do as nationals.

The rights that will be accorded to migrant workers and their families in Northern Ireland are: the right to life, liberty and the right to private family life; the right not to be subjected to cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment; the right not to be required to perform forced labour; the right to freedom of religion and thought and the right to hold opinions freely; the right to medical care; and the right to education for their children.

Northern Ireland has a Human Rights Commission and legislation on equality that is overseen by the Equality Commission. We of all people have no reason not to support the terms of the convention. Surely we do not wish to be exposed as hypocrites for demanding the most progressive equality legislation under the Good Friday Agreement to ensure equal treatment across our two communities, only to deny it to other communities who have since the time of the agreement established themselves on the island.

We are unique in western Europe in that we are emerging from 30 years of conflict in which people were subject not only to inequalities but to ongoing breaches of basic human rights, including the most basic of human rights — the right to life. From such an experience, we should have lessons for others and the opportunity to be an example to others. No European country has adopted the convention. It is easy to find and fabricate all manner of reasons for procrastination in doing what is, by any standards, the right thing. What is our excuse?

We know better than others the true cost of inequality and disharmony between communities. Therefore, we must call on Parliament to adopt and ratify the convention without delay. The Assembly should support the convention in principle and send a clear message to Westminster from this unique part of these islands. Our message should be that the Assembly wishes to be on record as supporting the convention because Members believe that it is our moral duty to do so.

11.15 am

In the conclusion to its report, ‘Migrant Workers and their Families in Northern Ireland’, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) suggests that the Assembly has autonomy on employment rights and has a unique opportunity to create a model of best practice. In addition, ICTU suggests that there should be a formal investigation into the activities of recruitment agencies that recruit migrant workers to Northern Ireland. Therefore, the relevant Minister should take on board the issues raised in that report and, indeed, set about creating a model of best practice. That would be the most concrete demonstration of the Assembly’s support for migrant workers’ rights as set out in the UN convention and would show our earnestness when pressing the Westminster Parliament to ratify it.

I recall that a report, ‘Migrant Workers in Northern Ireland’, was produced in 2004 by Bell, Jarman and Lefebvre from the Institute for Conflict Research in the University of Ulster, Jordanstown. That report was commissioned by OFMDFM’s equality directorate. What happened as a result of that report? Would it be appropriate for the report to be updated in order to ensure that our knowledge on those issues is comprehensive, up to date, and can inform policy in the relevant areas?

I will conclude by addressing the closely associated issue of human trafficking. The European Commission stated that:

“Trafficking in human beings as defined by EU law is not only a crime aiming at the sexual or labour exploitation of persons, mainly at the sexual exploitation of women and children. It is also a fundamental violation of human rights.”

The Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings stated that:

“Trafficking in human beings is a major problem in Europe today. Annually, thousands of people, largely women and children, fall victim to trafficking for sexual exploitation or other purposes.”

Given that my time is running out, I will finish by saying that, although the SDLP supports the motion, it will accept the Alliance Party’s amendment because it adds to the motion. Regrettably, however, the SDLP does not accept the Ulster Unionist Party’s amendment tabled by Mr McFarland because it dilutes the aims of the motion.

Ms Lo: I beg to move amendment No 1: Insert after “Assembly”:

“recognises that immigration is good for Northern Ireland and positive for the vast majority of immigrants;”

and insert in line 2 after “trafficking;”:

“calls on the Minister for Employment and Learning to introduce a proactive programme of protecting the workplace rights of migrant workers in Northern Ireland;”

I commend the Member for tabling the motion to debate two issues that are of growing concern to the public. I would have preferred to discuss the exploitation of migrant workers and human trafficking as two separate motions, because they are different issues, each deserving the attention it would generate in a full debate. However, given the constraints of the motion, I will begin with the issue of migrant workers.

It is estimated that, since 2003, 40,000 to 50,000 migrant workers have come to take up jobs that could not be filled locally. Various research findings — including the Concordia paper, ‘Migrant Workers in Northern Ireland’ — indicate that the overall impact of migration into Northern Ireland has, in addition to the benefits derived by having a more inter-cultural society, been positive to both the local and regional economies.

Migrant workers have not only met our labour shortages in healthcare and local industries such as construction, agriculture, food processing and hospitality, but have prevented hospital wards from being closed and meat plants from being relocated elsewhere, which would have resulted in job losses for local people. Migrants do not come here to diminish our prosperity, but to enhance it. The Institute for Public Policy Research confirmed that, far from being a drain on the public purse, immigrants contribute more than their fair share fiscally.

Having more people means more tax revenue and service users. In addition, migrant workers regenerate local economies by paying for food, housing and services. For example, we can reliably state that several schools would have closed had it not been for the children of migrant workers.

The argument that demographic change has led to pressures on public services is fundamentally a matter of inadequate planning by public authorities. That is what the Alliance Party meant by highlighting sustainable public services in its response to the Programme for Government.

A large proportion of migrant workers have had good experiences in finding employment and housing and in gaining access to services. Unfortunately, many Members have had to deal with instances of abuse of employment and housing rights, difficulties in accessing public services, and racism — both direct and institutional. A raft of literature produced by trade unions, organisations such as Action Now to Integrate Minority Access to Equality (Animate) and others documents the issue of migrant labour exploitation.

I support the call for the ratification of the UN International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of all Migrant Workers and Members of their Families. It is shameful that the UK and Irish Govern­ments have not yet signed up to it. In fact, most of the countries that have ratified it are countries of origin of migrant workers. Apart from the United Nations convention, a range of international instruments to which the UK is a contracting party apply to migrant workers, as well as existing domestic law on employment and equality. It is clear that existing legislation has not been rigorously enforced.

Although immigration is an excepted matter, the Assembly should express its concern about the many new immigration policies that focus on the economic benefit that can be obtained from migrants rather than protecting their entitlement to human rights and dignity. There is much that we can do. The Executive must urgently approve the draft migrant workers’ strategy and action plan produced by the Northern Ireland racial equality forum’s thematic subgroup on migrant workers, which is led by the Department for Employ­ment and Learning. The key strands of the draft strategy presented to the forum in 2006 include the development of information; effective inspection and enforcement of employment rights; research and data gathering; and promotion of best practice. Furthermore, the Executive must gather pace on producing the second departmental action plan of the racial equality strategy, which is almost a year overdue. Both action plans can address the problems experienced by migrant workers on a daily basis and improve their quality of life.

It is such an irony that although we have just celebrated the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade, the global problem of human trafficking — modern-day slavery — continues. It is estimated that some 4,000 individuals are trafficked into the UK each year for the purpose of enforced prostitution. The victims are predominantly women and children from poor countries, or countries experiencing unrest. After bringing them into the country illegally, the traffickers use violence, threats and coercion to force their victims to work against their will. In a submission to the UK Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights, which examined human trafficking, Women’s Aid stated that through its research, it had discovered between 50 and 100 women and minors who might have been trafficked into Northern Ireland.

I am very pleased that the PSNI now has a special team working on human trafficking as part of a UK-wide programme. The team recently charged two men in connection with trafficking. The police are aware of 60 to 70 brothels in the Province, up to 10 or 12 of which are operating in south Belfast. Police sources have also determined that Northern Ireland is a transit route from Dublin to other parts of the UK and vice versa. It is believed that paramilitary groups with links to overseas gangs, such as the so-called snakeheads, may also be involved in human trafficking here.

I support the call for the UK to ratify the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings as early as possible, now that it has signed up to it.

It is important that the British Government set a target date for ratification and publish an action plan. The protection of victims should be incorporated into the legislative framework, and trafficked persons should be treated as victims in need of protection, not as illegal immigrants who will face immediate deportation.

In its report on human trafficking, the UK Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights made a compre­hensive list of recommendations, including: prevention in source countries; measures to reduce demand in the sex trade within the UK; proper investigation, prosecution and punishment of traffickers; and protection of victims. It is also important to raise awareness of the problem and to provide training for immigration and law-enforce­ment officers. Statutory agencies should work with the voluntary sector to provide support and shelter for victims. I call on the Assembly to support amendment No 1.

Mr McFarland: I beg to move amendment No 2: Leave out all after “Assembly” and insert:

“urges the Executive to take all necessary measures to address both the exploitation of migrant labour and human trafficking; and welcomes the commitment by the United Kingdom Government to ratify the 2005 Council of Europe Convention on Action against the Trafficking in Human Beings.”

I thank Mrs Kelly for securing today’s debate. Exploitation of migrant labour and the growth of human trafficking are two of the most serious problems facing our increasingly globalised world. Northern Ireland is, of course, not immune to those issues. However, the motion is flawed, as it unhelpfully conflates the 1990 United Nations migrants’ rights convention with taking action against human trafficking.

Migrant labour is a reality in our globalised economy. Indeed, one person in 35 is an international migrant. The United Kingdom — and Northern Ireland, which is within it — has benefited from such migration, and it is likely that it will continue to do so in the future. However, while the majority of migrant labour is legitimate and beneficial to all parties, exploitation cannot be ignored. Exploitation destroys the dignity and rights of those who suffer from it, but the dignity and morality of our society is also jeopardised.

Unfortunately, the Ulster Unionist Party cannot support the motion, as the UK Government has stated that the 1990 United Nations convention is not com­patible with UK immigration law. The main difficulty is that, under the convention, the UK Government would not be able to control the conditions under which migrant workers can stay in the country. To quote the official response of the UK Government to the House of Commons International Development Select Committee’s report on migration and development:

“The UN Convention would therefore allow migrant workers to circumvent current immigration controls and remain in the UK even when they are not fulfilling the conditions on which they were granted entry into the UK (pursuing the specified employment).”

The ramifications of the UN convention would put extra stress on already strained public services. The flaws in the convention are highlighted by a UNESCO study showing that only 37 countries have ratified the convention — the fewest of any of the instruments viewed by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. More significantly, not one of the major migrant-receiving states, including the Republic of Ireland, is among the parties to the convention. It appears senseless for us to call on the UK Government to do something that would put further stresses on public services and place us out of line with the international community.

However, the Ulster Unionist Party urges the Minister to do all in his power to ensure that the exploitation of migrant labour is stamped out in Northern Ireland. We have been encouraged by the Minister’s commitment, in the recent debate on agency workers, to crack down on rogue employers and to increase powers of inspection and enforcement.

Human trafficking is such a serious problem that we must now consider it to be a new form of human slavery that is too frequently focused on the sexual exploitation and abuse of women and children. Trafficking from eastern Europe, Asia and Africa into western Europe is becoming an increasingly alarming problem. UNICEF has estimated that 1·2 million children are trafficked each year. Criminal gangs are making millions of pounds by peddling misery and destruction.

11.30 am

People are often lulled into being trafficked by promises of a better life, only to end up with a lifetime of desolation. That is an indictment of both the trafficking gangs and society. Human trafficking will be tackled successfully only when the demand from the West is in decline. Although it is not considered to be a major problem in Northern Ireland, that could be largely due to ignorance. I welcome the fact that the PSNI will take part in Operation Pentameter 2, which seeks to assess the level of human trafficking in Northern Ireland.

Human trafficking is a prime example of why all sections of society should co-operate fully with the PSNI and of how the failure to do so can lead to the continued suffering of others. Therefore the Ulster Unionist Party welcomes the UK Government’s recent commitment to ratifying the 2005 Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings. That substantial convention will help to prevent human trafficking and to protect the rights of its victims.

I urge the Minister and the Executive to work with their counterparts in London and with the Northern Ireland Office to do everything that they can to implement effectively the measures contained in the UK legislation when it comes into force.

Mr Spratt: I too thank Mrs Kelly for securing today’s debate, and I support Mr McFarland’s amendment. Human trafficking may not strike many people as a particularly serious issue in Northern Ireland, but it is a major problem. If we do not take remedial action now, it could become a huge problem that we will struggle to address.

It is 200 years since the great British parliamentarian William Wilberforce finally secured a majority in Parliament to make slave-trading illegal in the British Empire. However, that was not the end of his political struggle, as it took a further 27 years to achieve a ban on the ownership of slaves. In the intervening period, Wilberforce brought to the attention of the wider public the broader issues of slavery: the terrible conditions in which slaves were transported; the abuses that they had to suffer; and the mental and physical anguish that they endured.

Today, the Assembly is debating human trafficking, which is, in essence, the twenty-first century equivalent of slavery in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Members have a responsibility to make the public aware of the problems faced by those trapped by such terrible crimes and to do everything that we can to ensure that, as Wilberforce brought an end to slavery, an end is brought to human trafficking.

My South Belfast constituency has one of the worst records in Northern Ireland for human trafficking and prostitution. It is a shameful statistic that the bulk of brothels that operate using immigrants are based there. New apartment developments provide a perfect location, short-term leases are available and there are shortfalls in the rental agreements. The organised gangs who run the brothels create scores of victims, who are pre­dominantly vulnerable women and children. The Assembly must send out a strong message to the organisers of the vice trade in Northern Ireland that there will be a starting point of zero tolerance of their activities.

In the years ahead, Belfast could become a target for massive levels of human trafficking, particularly for the purposes of prostitution. With that in mind, steps must be taken to prevent its further development.

The economy is becoming increasingly dependent on migrant workers, who make up an invaluable section of the labour market. They play a massive part in developing the Northern Ireland economy in sectors such as agriculture, catering and construction. As such, they deserve to be afforded the rights that will protect them from exploitation. I am sure that all Members have been contacted by migrant workers from their constituencies who were in great distress due to their exploitation in the workplace.

Many migrants who have work permits receive well below the wage that is stated in their contracts. They fear that if they voice their concerns, their work permits will be rescinded; that fear prevents many from coming forward. It is vital that we protect those workers.

It is a poor reflection on the Government at Westminster that the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings has still not been ratified one year after they signed it. That massive step forward has yet to be taken. I urge the Government to press ahead with a timetable for ratification, and, indeed, to consider ways to address this issue further.

Measures such as a UK border police force should be examined. Stronger punishments for those caught engaging in human trafficking should be enforced. We must get to grips with this problem and protect those who are vulnerable to exploitation.

I support the motion as amended by Mr McFarland, and I urge the Minister to do all that he can with the Government at Westminster to ensure that the convention is ratified as soon as possible.

Mr Molloy: Go raibh maith agat. I congratulate Dolores Kelly on tabling the motion, and I welcome the opportunity to speak about this matter. Protecting the rights of migrant workers and objecting to human trafficking are important and should be dealt with by the Assembly.

Sinn Féin believes that the amendments are unnecessary; the motion itself contains what is required. However, we recognise the Alliance Party’s amendment as it is recognised that migrant workers are an important aspect of the economy here and that they add to the social fabric by increasing cultural diversity. The Ulster Unionist Party’s amendment is an opt-out that tries to get away from protecting the rights of migrant workers.

Migrant workers have been good for the economy. It could be argued that many businesses in areas such as Dungannon and Cookstown would not have located there had it not been for migrant workers. Other businesses may have relocated when they were expanding because they would not have had the necessary workforce. Therefore, migrant workers are important to the local economy, the structure of society and the developments of those areas, provided that development is monitored correctly.

Dungannon and Cookstown have benefited from attracting many migrant workers. Dungannon and South Tyrone Borough Council took early action to ensure that those workers were protected, particularly with reference to the agencies that were employing them. It was important to ensure that workers were being properly looked after, particularly with regard to housing. There were instances of too many workers sharing houses, the doubling up of houses, and the multi-use of houses without any protection for the workers. It is important that legislation is in place to ensure that councils and this Assembly can take immediate action when they become aware of such problems.

Dungannon and South Tyrone Borough Council faced resistance — some of the agencies did not want any protections for workers and did not want the council controlling how many people should be able to stay in one house. There were situations in which two groups of workers shared the same house — those working night shifts and those working day shifts. That was total exploitation of those workers, as they were not provided with proper facilities.

Planning is important in order to deal with this matter. Until now, no plans have been in place to deal with new situations, such as the number of apartments required, the rise in population, and waste-management structures and their delivery. Such issues need to be addressed to provide for the extra workers who arrive, and to ensure that different ideas and cultures are embraced.

It is important that the Assembly sends out the message that migrant workers are welcome, that they have been beneficial to the economy and to society, and that we oppose all forms of exploitation.

In some instances, agencies could be accused of human trafficking because of their failure to look after people whom they brought here to work and contribute to the economy. It is important to monitor the situation continuously and to bring our legislation into line with European and international legislation on human rights. Sinn Féin calls on the British and Irish Governments to sign up to such legislation in order to ensure maximum protection for migrant workers. Too often, the British Government, on security grounds, have derogated from European and international human rights legislation, which exists to protect the rights of migrant workers.

We are part of the European Union and recognise the European Convention on Human Rights, so we must adopt all aspects of human rights legislation to ensure that workers in future generations are protected, that this is a friendly and welcoming place for migrant workers and that we build a multicultural society. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Newton: I will take a slightly different approach to other Members. I want to speak about exploitation, at home and abroad, and the responsibilities of businesses and individuals, before paying tribute to police forces throughout the United Kingdom. I support the amend­ment tabled by Mr McFarland.

I am hugely concerned about the growth of human trafficking, particularly that involving young children and women, which, like the exploitation of migrant labour in general, is an evil trade. I am a member of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment, and I encourage those who want to manufacture abroad — a growing trend in Northern Ireland — to consider the circumstances under which their profits are made. That is not to say that profit is a dirty word, but profit that is made at the cost of human misery should be rejected.

I support the Organised Crime Task Force and other UK police forces in their work to address the worldwide crime empires that control the counterfeiting of branded merchandise. That nefarious activity — often likened to Del Boy-type behaviour — is a multi-billion-pound, sinister trade. The heavy trade losses that regional businesses continue to suffer because of the illegal activities of counterfeiters are not the only price of such activity: child slavery, people smuggling, gang warfare and terrorism are integral parts of that unlawful activity. That is a large price to pay to facilitate bargain hunters in Northern Ireland. Everyone likes a bargain, but if shoppers do business with those who sell phoney goods such as garments, CDs, sports goods and handbags, they contribute to the exploitation of children and migrants.

Mr Shannon: Does the Member agree that the Home Office figure of 1,420 for the number of people trafficked into the UK for prostitution last year is unacceptable? Does he also agree that the 2005 Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings is a step in the right direction but that it will work only if the public help the PSNI to address the issue?

Mr Newton: I thank the Member for that intervention and wholeheartedly concur with those statements.

Innocent shoppers who turn a blind eye contribute to the global crime wave that is often directed from sweatshops in the Far East.

11.45 am

Not only do local businesses suffer the loss of trade, but purchasing fake goods contributes to the suffering of the children and adults who live in poverty or who are exploited by unscrupulous gangs. Those gangs will go to any lengths for limitless profits. All the evils of the counterfeiting industry are well documented and evidence of extreme cruelty is commonplace. In support of local retailers and manufacturers, more emphasis must be placed on stamping out the fake-goods industry. Profits from illegal trade fund at-home criminals, and para­military groups also gain from that nefarious business.

The justifiable outcry when it became known that the retailing group Gap — and I pay tribute to the company and the action that it took — had goods made by children in slave-like conditions should be even more vocal against the counterfeit trade that takes place off the back of a lorry or on the shifty market stalls that operate in our Province and throughout the UK. For a shopper’s bargain in Belfast, many children will pay a heavy price in Far Eastern sweatshops.

My time is almost gone, Mr Speaker. Sorry, I had forgotten that I had an extra 60 seconds.

My colleague has already referred to figures. The Government estimate that there are 500,000 illegal immigrants throughout the United Kingdom, and other estimates put that figure as high as 870,000. Once migrant workers, both legal and illegal, have arrived on our shores, many of them are recruited by criminal gangs and end up in dreadful conditions. We are all aware of the snakehead gangs that operated in Morecambe Bay and of the dreadful incident and the loss of life that happened there.

The exploitation of migrant workers and illegal human trafficking is a serious issue in today’s society. As more countries join the EU and our borders become increasingly more open to migrant workers, greater attention must be paid to that dreadful problem.

Mr Speaker: The Member’s time is up.

Ms Anderson: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I apologise to Dolores Kelly for not being in the Chamber at the beginning of the debate. I had other matters to attend to and did not realise that the business had moved on.

Tá mé ag labhairt i bhfabhar an rúin. I support the motion and everything that Francie Molloy said about the amendment. Therefore, I do not intend to rehearse that.

The issue of migrant workers and the exploitation that they endure is nothing new, particularly in this society. Women and men have been leaving their homelands in search of work ever since payment in return for labour was introduced. Nowhere is that more true than in Ireland. For generations, oppression, starvation and poverty forced our people to distant lands in order to survive. That Irish diaspora faced the onslaught of prejudice, racism, exploitation and discrimination that many migrant workers continue to face the world over. Indeed, to this day, the Irish community in Britain still faces an enduring legacy of hardship because of that discrimination.

A British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body report last year revealed that the suicide rate in Britain is highest among the Irish community, life expectancy is lowest and the community also faces high levels of mental-health problems and drug and alcohol abuse. Never­theless, despite the hardships that they faced, the global Irish diaspora is perhaps the best example of how migrants can assimilate into the host community and make a positive contribution to their new homes.

Irish migrants became nation builders, statesmen and stateswomen, military heroes, renowned artists and celebrated inventors. The foundation stones of many of the world’s great nations were laid through the labour of Irish migrants, and their contribution is still celebrated across the globe today. If any country should be welcoming migrants with open arms, therefore, it is Ireland. We know better than most the hardships that force people to leave their native land, and we know the contributions that they can make to their new home.

Is this really the land of 100,000 welcomes? How can it be, when a Ukrainian woman loses her legs after almost freezing to death on a Coleraine street? What a scandal for the North, and what a reputation to be afflicted with. How can we be considered welcoming, when migrant workers are being attacked in their homes in Derry’s Waterside by sectarian thugs, and when human traffickers smuggle vulnerable women and children into this country and force them into lives of prostitution?

How can we be considered welcoming, when unscrupulous employers exploit migrant workers and refuse to give them the same entitlements as indigenous employees? Migrant workers should be afforded the same rights and entitlements as anyone else. Everything possible must be done to oppose the evil of human trafficking, and every Member has a duty to ensure that everything is done. Therefore, I support the motion. I hope that the international legislation that it lists will be ratified and that that will help end the misery that is being caused by the exploitation of migrants and the trafficking of human beings.

However, I am saddened that it is necessary to bring motions to this Assembly, or to the European Parliament, in order that migrants to this land are treated with human dignity. I appeal to everyone to remember our painful history when we are thinking of migrant labourers. We should reflect on our forefathers’ experiences and on the suffering and exploitation they endured in faraway lands. We should remember their suffering, and our actions should ensure that no one who comes to this country should have to endure a similar experience. I support the motion. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Simpson: I support Mr Alan McFarland’s amendment. As a representative of the Upper Bann constituency, not only in this House, but as MP, I am well aware of the need for migrant workers in Northern Ireland. The proposer of the motion, Mrs Kelly, like others, will be aware that the Upper Bann constituency has the largest number of employees in the manufacturing industry — 9,500 people — more than East Belfast, which has around 7,300 or 7,500 employees. I am sure that the Member on the next Bench will know the figure.

Sir Reg Empey: You are talking about legal ones.

Mr Simpson: Yes, legal ones. Therefore, we are well aware of the need for migrant workers in the constituency to keep industry moving, whether in manufacturing, hospitals, or other sectors.

The general public get confused sometimes. On the one hand, they read in the press that Northern Ireland needs more people to come to work in the manufacturing sector — which is a good thing because it means that business is going well. I also agree that migrant workers have rights — and I declare an interest as an employer in the manufacturing sector. I have employed people from that background, and they are very good workers.

On the other hand, members of the public who walk down the streets in my, or any other, constituency see migrant people begging, and they get very confused about what those people are contributing to society. We must be careful about that as well. I agree that they must have rights and —

Ms Lo: The people who are begging on the streets are not, generally, migrant workers, but asylum seekers or illegal immigrants.

Mr Simpson: That may be the case in the Member’s constituency; however, it is not so in mine. I could take the Member to places and people in my constituency which would clarify the position. I take her point, however; in some cases, that may be so.

We need to expose employers who treat migrant workers abysmally. They should be brought to book for using and abusing people who come to this country to contribute and help. As Members know, there is a shortage of trades here, especially in the medical profession.

I turn to the issue of people-smuggling. In January 2006, I put down a question for written answer in the House of Commons. I asked the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland:

“what estimate the police has made of the number of (a) people smuggled illegally into Northern Ireland and (b) females brought into Northern Ireland to work as prostitutes in each of the last five years.”

In response, Mr Tony McNulty MP, Minister of State for the Home Office, stated that:

“The Police Service of Northern Ireland has conducted a number of inquiries into suggestions of people-trafficking to Northern Ireland for the purposes of prostitution. There is presently no evidence to suggest that this is taking place in Northern Ireland. The Police Service of Northern Ireland is acutely aware of the problems experienced in other jurisdictions and they continue to monitor the situation”.

What a big difference 18 months has made. The situation has changed significantly. Mr McFarland mentioned Pentameter 2, a national, multi-agency campaign to tackle the trafficking of human beings for sexual exploitation and forced labour. Launching it, Paul Goggins said:

“Human trafficking is a modern form of slavery where individuals and criminal networks seek to profit from the brutality, misery and suffering they cause to others.”

I support amendment No 2. We will do everything we can in Westminster to push forward the legislation.

Mr Ross: I, too, support amendment No 2.

I also welcome the original motion. Mrs Kelly has raised an important issue, which has been touched on in several debates over the last couple of weeks. The Assembly held a debate on agency workers, during which the case of a 23-year-old Polish man in my East Antrim constituency was raised by Mr Sammy Wilson — who was on time for the debate that day. The young man worked for an employment agency — People Resource — which has offices in Poland and England, and it was taking £1,000 each week from the young man for rental of a house in Larne which local estate agents have said is worth only £400 a month. That is a key issue. I voiced my concerns during that debate, and warned against unscrupulous agencies which flout the laws intended to protect agency workers.

Mr Simpson, the MP for Upper Bann, made reference to families in his constituency who, on arrival in Northern Ireland, were greeted by mafia-type figures who demanded money from them for protection. That is a sad reminder of Northern Ireland’s past. Paramilitary groups used to have a grip on communities here; now, eastern European gangs are trying to exercise the same control over migrant families which come to work in Northern Ireland. My colleague in Upper Bann has been made aware of the situation and will take it up with police in the area.

With the increase in the numbers of migrant workers in recent years, the opportunity for exploitation has arisen. As a proportion of the UK workforce, the number of migrant workers has increased by nearly one third since 1995. We do not want a situation where they are overworked and underpaid.

I turn to the issue of human trafficking, which has been described by several Members as slavery. It is an increasing problem, not only in Northern Ireland, but throughout the United Kingdom.

12.00 noon

Yesterday, the Assembly endorsed the report by the Ad Hoc Committee on the draft Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2007 — of which Mrs Kelly is a member. The report examines the draft legislation on sexual offences, which aims to strengthen the law on commercial sexual exploitation, including offences related to prostitution. Sex trafficking is an obscene activity. Many young women and children are brought to Northern Ireland and elsewhere, more often than not against their will, and are sold for sex.

The Joint Com­mittee on Human Rights’ report on human trafficking, published in October 2006, highlighted the extent of the problem. It quoted Home Office research that states that around 4,000 women in the UK have been trafficked for sexual exploitation. It is important that women in those circumstances are given all the help available to get out of that situation and to escape a life of exploitation. The Northern Ireland Women’s Aid Federation gave evidence to the Joint Committee at Westminster and expressed its concerns that smuggling expertise exists in Northern Ireland because paramilitary groups have operated here for so long. That expertise makes Northern Ireland ripe for human trafficking, and that is, obviously, a concern.

Not only have there have been well-highlighted cases in south Belfast, to which my colleague referred, there have been cases in Londonderry, where several brothels have been uncovered. PSNI figures suggest that more than 70 brothels could be operating in Northern Ireland, many of which have imported eastern European girls who have been forced to sell themselves for sex. People who operate those places have been able to exploit the law in many ways. It is important that the steps that the House has taken to strengthen sexual-offences legislation will tackle the problem. Unfortunately, for many years, the focus has been on prosecuting the women who have been forced to sell themselves, rather than the men who pay for prostitution. It is important that the law reflects that and targets the people who use prostitutes.

Although scenes of women being bundled into vans and smuggled into the country happen more often in the mainland UK than in Northern Ireland, there is no doubt that measures must be taken to prevent that happening in future. I hope that the Executive will take those measures and do all that they can to tackle the problem. I am happy to support the amendment that has been tabled in the name of Mr McFarland.

The Minister for Employment and Learning (Sir Reg Empey): I thank Mrs Kelly for bringing the motion to the House and Members for their participation in the debate. The fact that the Assembly has discussed these issues twice in a relatively short time illustrates Members’ concerns.

I condemn any exploitation of migrant workers, who are one of the most vulnerable groups in society, and the vile trade of human trafficking. The issues that arise with regard to migrant workers are wide-ranging; some of those are devolved to the Executive, while others, such as ratification of conventions, remain in the competence of the United Kingdom Government.

For many reasons, it is difficult to obtain information on human trafficking; the main one being the clandestine nature of the crime. Home Office research on organised crime suggests that at any one time in 2003, for example, there were approximately 4,000 victims of trafficking for prostitution in the UK. The UK Government became a signatory of the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings in March 2007. The Home Secretary announced on 15 January 2008 that the UK Government intend to ratify the convention by the end of the year.

At the Home Office’s request, the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister is engaged in a cross-departmental exercise to gauge the scope of existing compliance with the convention and to identify the areas that Departments must address, including through legislation, to achieve full compliance. Actions to prevent human trafficking have the potential to cut across the responsibilities of several devolved Departments. The First Minister and the deputy First Minister are committed to playing their part in ensuring that the convention can be ratified as soon as possible. I fully support all measures to deal with human trafficking and to provide assistance for its victims.

The United Nations Convention on Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families dates back to 1990. I have been informed that the UK Government’s position on that convention is that the Human Rights Act 1998 provides sufficiently for the rights of all migrants and sets in national law the key human rights that were established in the six core international human rights treaties.

In the view of the United Kingdom Government, ratifying that convention would undermine the UK’s immigration policy and would allow migrants fuller, immediate access to public funds. That would constitute an excessive pull factor. It is important to distinguish between the two issues that we have been discussing this morning — human trafficking and the protection of the rights of migrant workers. I stress that I am committed to tackling any exploitation of migrant workers. They play an important part in shaping our communities and in contributing to a more robust Northern Ireland economy by helping to overcome labour shortages. It is in all our interests to ensure that they are not exploited and to tackle exploitation when it occurs. Member after Member brought that to our attention this morning.

Substantial inward migration of workers is a relatively new phenomenon. Since the accession of the A8 countries in May 2004, there has been a marked increase in inward migration, specifically of workers to Northern Ireland. That activity resulted from EU citizens exercising their entitlement to free movement and work, allowing them broadly the same rights as local citizens.

As I said, the issues that relate to migrant workers are, by their nature, wide-ranging and do not fall under the remit of a single Department. Matters that relate to, for example, immigration, work permits and the national minimum wage are not devolved, while others, such as employment rights, health and safety and education issues, are the responsibility of Northern Ireland Departments. My Department is the lead Department for migrant-worker issues, and it chairs the migrant workers thematic subgroup, which was set up by the Racial Equality Forum. My Department has attempted to be as inclusive as possible in chairing that subgroup, which comprises almost 50 members. They include representatives from most Northern Ireland Departments, relevant UK Departments and statutory and non-governmental organisations that seek to represent the interests of migrant workers. In that subgroup, the non-state sector has been given a clear voice. The forum tasked the subgroup with producing a strategy and action plan, which it subsequently endorsed.

The draft migrant workers strategy for Northern Ireland and its associated draft action plan aim to ensure that the employment-related needs of migrant workers — and those who employ and advise them — are met effectively through the provision of appropriate information and advice. They also aim to ensure that the relevant state and non-state systems are effective, complementary and fit for purpose. Both documents are designed to be flexible in order that they may take account of evolving situations, and both are subject to annual review.

The thematic subgroup has identified four key strands of required action, and it has established complementary working groups to address the identified needs in each strand. The four strands are employment inspection and enforcement; information; developing best practice; and research and data gathering. I will presently bring to the Committee for Employment and Learning — and subsequently to the Executive — the draft strategy and action plan that details the progress that is to be made.

The enforcement and inspection working group brings together bodies that are responsible for enforcing specific areas of employment law. A range of Departments and their agencies are carrying out consid­erable employment-related inspection and enforcement activity in Northern Ireland. However, it is recognised that more co-ordination and better co-operation are necessary to focus that work properly. Bilateral meetings relating to breaches of employment rights have taken place with various regulatory bodies. It is important that Members realise the extent of the discussions. The regulatory bodies that have been involved include the Border and Immigration Agency, HM Revenue and Customs, Citizens Advice, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, the Health and Safety Executive for Northern Ireland, and the National Employment Rights Authority in the Republic of Ireland.

All those organisations have shown great willingness to co-operate and share information, within the constraints of existing legislation.

It remains a priority for my Department to ensure that there is a modern and effective employment-rights infrastructure that protects all those working in Northern Ireland legally, not least those who may be more vulnerable, such as migrant workers. Migrant workers in Northern Ireland have the same employment rights as all other workers, including the right to be paid the national minimum wage. Those rights are enforced through the tribunal service. All legal migrant workers are entitled to avail themselves of the services of the Industrial Tribunals and Fair Employment Tribunal Northern Ireland, and translation services will be provided when required.

Many, but not all, migrant workers use the services of, or are employed by, employment agencies. In the next few months, I will be bringing a package of legislative measures before the Assembly to increase protection for vulnerable agency workers, including providing them with the right to withdraw from services provided by an agency — such as transport or accommodation, which has been referred to by Mr Ross — without any detriment to their position. Agencies will be obliged to give workers a written statement of their rights to withdraw from such services. In the meantime, anyone who wishes to make a complaint about an employment agency should contact my Department.

The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development sponsors the Agricultural Wages Board and funds gangmaster enforcement in Northern Ireland. Those responsibilities offer protection to workers — including migrant workers — in agriculture, including horticulture and forestry, shellfish gathering, and the processing and packing of produce deriving from those sectors.

Members have already had a debate in the House on the national minimum wage. In Northern Ireland, the national minimum wage is enforced by HM Revenue and Customs through a dedicated team based in Belfast. I am informed that criminal prosecutions have taken, and are taking, place. Those prosecutions send a clear message to employers that HM Revenue and Customs will actively pursue those it suspects of flouting national minimum wage law.

In Northern Ireland, HM Revenue and Customs recovered £186,560 of arrears for 868 workers in 2006-07. In total, £2·5 million of arrears has been recovered for workers in Northern Ireland since the legislation was introduced in 1999. HM Revenue and Customs is committed to simple, effective enforcement of the national minimum wage that supports workers and businesses by deterring non-compliant employers from underpaying their employees — a point that Mr Simpson referred to — and removing the unfair competitive advantage that such underpayment can bring.

The Employment Bill [HL], which was introduced in Parliament in December 2007, will introduce a new enforcement framework, a new penalty for all employers who are found to be paying less than the national minimum wage, and a fairer method of calculating arrears. The Bill will also make it a triable offence in the Crown Court and the Magistrate’s Court, under the National Minimum Wage Act 1998, and will strengthen the powers of HM Revenue and Customs to investigate criminal offences. It is clear that major steps are being taken across the board to deal with these matters.

Citizens Advice runs the Northern Ireland national minimum wage helpline, which can handle calls in more than 100 languages. There is a network of translators throughout the citizens advice bureaux network to facilitate such translations.

Health and safety is another area of concern; the Health and Safety Executive is increasingly encountering migrant workers in sectors such as construction, food processing and farming. There is no evidence that migrant workers are more accident-prone. Nevertheless, the Health and Safety Executive is working very hard to ensure that all its assistance and help is understandable and that employees are made aware of their rights in such matters.

There are issues regarding communication and the provision of information. My Department has a strategy of providing courses in English for speakers of other languages as part of mainstream further-education provision. That work is ongoing, and the money being invested is rising dramatically. In the past four years, the sum has risen from £300,000 to approximately £1·5 million.

12.15 pm

I turn now to issues that Members raised during the debate. The House is unanimous that workers — indigenous and migrant — should not be exploited, and the Department for Employment and Learning, under employment rights, must ensure that all workers enjoy those rights. However, Members are confusing two issues, a point that Anna Lo raised in her amendment. Migrant labour is a national issue, and human trafficking is an international one.

However, we must be careful. I understand Mrs Kelly’s points and her quoting Martin Luther King. Many Members expressed their views on the type of society that they would wish for Northern Ireland, and I share those views. However, it is telling that virtually no receiving states have signed the 1990 United Nations Migrant Rights Convention. The Republic of Ireland has not signed the convention, and it, like the United Kingdom, opened its doors to the A8 accession states in 2004. All those Governments across the European Union are not racist; they are democratic Governments that have not signed the convention because they see the danger of creating additional problems. Members reacted strongly when there was a shortage of money for social housing in Northern Ireland, and that was a big issue in the Budget. If further uncontrolled and unplanned immigration started to bear down on local services — including housing — I wonder whether Members would be able to speak in the Chamber with the same level of enthusiasm as was expressed today. We must be careful.

I undertake that my Department will do everything in its power to ensure that employment rights are enforced. I will introduce measures in the near future to tighten up regulations.

Mr K Robinson: I am grateful to Dolores Kelly for tabling this important motion, but, unfortunately, the motion is flawed because of the linking together of exploitation of migrant labour and human trafficking. Both issues are abhorrent, but they cannot be dealt with in one motion. Immigration law is a contentious issue, which the Ulster Unionist Party does not deny. However, if the UK Government were to accept the 1990 United Nations Migrant Rights Convention, it would a place serious strain on public services and facilities, because migrant workers would be able to circumvent current immigration controls and remain in the UK, potentially on benefits, without fulfilling the conditions under which they were granted entry.

The UK Government are, therefore, not in a position to accept this convention, and it would be irresponsible for the Assembly to propose a contrary position. However, we urge the Minister to continue to do all that he can to stop the exploitation of migrant workers and to protect those who are so vulnerable in our society. Members have outlined a variety of approaches to the problem.

I supported the expansion of Europe and frequently travelled to Poland to encourage residents from Newtown­abbey’s twin town of Rybnik to become involved in the positive features of the European Union. Therefore, I am particularly saddened to witness the adverse and negative aspects, to which Members have referred, experienced by those who are seeking only to improve their quality of life and that of their families.

The Ulster Unionist Party thinks that human trafficking is one of the most pressing problems in western Europe. Recent shocking figures published by the Home Office show that over 4,000 females are victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation; it is impossible to get exact numbers, as Mr Ross said.

Members referred to sweatshops, where children are forced into labour, often for little or no recompense. Criminal gangs are causing misery and distress for thousands of vulnerable women and children in the UK and overseas. We also saw — and it has been referred to — the tragic outcome when the Chinese cockle-pickers in Morecambe Bay were overwhelmed by the tide. That was surely an object lesson in the misery that the exploitation of workers can cause.

The Ulster Unionist Party, therefore, welcomes the UK Government’s commitment to ratify the Council of Europe’s Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings. It is crucial that we send a united message to those who perpetrate such crimes and those who benefit from trafficking, especially with regard to prostitution and child labour. It is not acceptable and will no longer be tolerated by society, and it is good to hear cross-party support for that.

I was, however, somewhat disappointed that the motion did not take on board the issues highlighted in our amendment. There was an opportunity to show a united front against both the exploitation of migrant workers and human trafficking. I, therefore, hope that all Assembly Members will support our amendment.

This issue goes right to the heart of the reason for this Assembly. We are trying to improve life, not only for members of our own indigenous society, but for those who have chosen to come here, whether for economic, educational or social reasons. Many Members will have travelled in eastern Europe and seen the gap between those who, realising that without communism there is no safety net, have struck out and tried to better their situation, and those who remain in those countries, still trapped in abject poverty. Perhaps they can understand the demands of folk from the emerging EU countries to try to get into western Europe, the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.

One of the saddest things that I witnessed in the early days of the communist demise was in East Germany, shortly after the Berlin Wall came down. High-flying Mercedes and BMWs could be seen in the town square in Dresden, but people were running around with hardly enough to eat and with difficulty in finding employment once the safety net had been removed. The warnings were almost visible.

Look at Czechoslovakia. Prague, a jewel in the European crown, has been turned over completely to tourism of the lowest kind. That city and its people looked forward to the benefits of Europe, but we did not deliver them. As I said earlier, the same situation exists in Poland. Are we going to see that process repeated here in Northern Ireland, where folk come for the very best of reasons, then find that they are exploited — sometimes by their own countrymen?

The Member opposite referred to the Irish diaspora —

Mr Speaker: Time is almost up.

Mr K Robinson: Remember who exploited the Irish when they went abroad and during the famine? It was their own people.

Mrs Long: I thank Dolores Kelly for bringing two very important issues to the Assembly. They are separate issues, but they have a common thread. In both the exploitation of migrant labour and the growth of human trafficking, we are dealing with the abuse of human rights and dignity.

I also thank her for accepting the Alliance Party’s amendment, which seeks only to stress the positive aspects of migration and the role of this Assembly in tackling the abuse of people. Several Members, including Martina Anderson, highlighted the positive impact of migration and the benefits sought for our own community as people have migrated to other places — whether to America, Australia or any other country — settled and made a well-recognised, valuable contribution. It would be a shame if we felt that there were no benefits to be sought here from inward migration.

Mrs Kelly, Ms Lo, Mr Molloy and Ms Anderson all identified a key fact: it is the lack of proper planning and enforcement of decent standards of treatment that leads to overstressed services, community tension, and the inhumane treatment of those who come to our shores seeking work. Migration itself does not cause problems, but not planning properly for it does, and that must be addressed.

Both Ms Lo and Alastair Ross recognised that many women and children are trafficked into our society for sexual exploitation. The focus must be on criminalising the traffickers and the abusers from the local community, not the victims of the abuse who have been trafficked. Although I recognise Mr Spratt’s point on the importance of criminalising those people, it is difficult for women who have been trafficked to feel confident in approaching the authorities if they know that immediate deportation is all that will happen. As a society, we must recognise that when women are trafficked to Northern Ireland and are abused by Northern Ireland people, we have created victims for whom we have a moral obligation.

We must take seriously our roles and responsibilities for dealing with those victims and with the consequences of their being abused.

Alan McFarland said, rightly, that issues of dignity and morality are involved, both for the individual and for society. However, he expressed concerns about the 1990 United Nations Migrant Rights Convention and people being able to stay in Northern Ireland when no longer working. One cannot have it both ways. We do not bring workers to Northern Ireland; we bring people. We bring families. We bring people who have emotions, relationships, and connections to a local community. They may work here for a period, marry into the local community and build a new life for themselves. It is not as simple as saying that when the job goes, the person goes with it. That would be a huge abuse of human dignity.

We need to look at long-term planning. I accept entirely what the Minister said: the UK and the Republic of Ireland have been good at opening their doors. However, the message that they are sending out is that they want not simply to close the doors when migration is no longer necessary, but to force back out through the doors people whom they previously welcomed. When times get tough, we have to be responsible in how we treat those whom we have invited into our society. If they contribute to the boom, surely they should be looked after in the hard times. We need to be realistic about that.

We also need to look at how that affects those, for example, whose employment rights are being abused. If they feel that raising objections with their employer will simply get them sacked and put them in breach of their conditions of entry, where is their motivation to blow the whistle on their exploiters? They have to know that if they lose their jobs for speaking out and standing up to abuse, they will not be repatriated without recompense from the society into which they have been trafficked.

Robin Newton, rightly, said that we must look not only at the exploitation of people in our community, but at how we exploit those in their home countries. The Assembly has to be conscious of that. I hope that the Assembly will support our amendment and that it will recognise that when we benefit from inviting people to come and work in Northern Ireland, we take on a responsibility. We should be planning for that and committing ourselves to it, not shirking it.

Mr Dallat: Some of the best films end where they began. In order to clear up confusion, I will repeat what my colleague Dolores Kelly said about migrants’ rights:

“The convention on migrants’ rights is one of the core international human rights treaties. It is the first international instrument to provide specific recognition of the fundamental human rights of all migrant workers and their families. It aims at unifying the international legal standards of protection for migrant workers and protects the rights of all migrants. The convention does not create any new rights for migrant workers; it simply ensures that migrant workers and their families enjoy the same human rights, equality of treatment, and working and life conditions as we do as nationals.”

How could anyone possibly disagree with that? I do not think that it is possible, yet it is purely because some migrant workers did not have those rights that they have ended up in desperate conditions. One young girl in my town, who was injured in an industrial accident last July, is being supported by another Polish family with no rights or money. We do not have to look too far into the past to know what could have happened if there had been no support.

I am pleased that the Minister is here, and I understand that he may have been speaking for the First Minister and the deputy First Minister. I would have been much happier had they been here. We would, perhaps, have accepted a junior Minister, and I acknowledge that Ian Junior was here for 10 minutes.

Dolores Kelly referred to Martin Luther King. For those of us who are following the primary elections in America and remember the days of John F Kennedy, the first time a white person reached out to a black person was deeply emotional. It is etched on the minds of older people to this day.

Dolores Kelly mentioned the dangers of extremism, referring to the British National Party, which tried hard to put down roots here and, indeed, attacked members of the migrant community in my constituency.

12.30 pm

We must send out a clear message about the problem of exploitation and abuse. We must also be clear about the importance of the rights of individuals and families, and about ending human trafficking. Anna Lo, who has established herself as a champion of the human rights of immigrants, spoke eloquently of the problem. I accept that she is an authority on the need for Members to support the motion as amended by the Alliance Party’s amendment.

It is shameful that Britain and Ireland have not signed the United Nations convention, which they should have done. Trafficking is vio­lence of the worst kind against human beings — [Laughter.] I assure Mr Weir that trafficking is a serious matter — I am pleased that the PSNI has a team that is working to establish the extent of the problem.

Alan McFarland explained why the Ulster Unionist Party could not support the Alliance Party’s amendment. The SDLP regrets that, but it welcomes his support for the Council of Europe Convention on Action against the Trafficking in Human Beings. Jimmy Spratt referred to the slave trade. Indeed, there is evidence that the slave trade featured prominently at one stage in Belfast. We would certainly not wish to see that repeated. I agree with a zero-tolerance approach to the vice trade.

Francie Molloy also spoke from a position of strength, given the many migrant workers who are based in his constituency. He talked, in particular, about welfare, housing and houses in multiple occupation, and the need for legislation. Robin Newton made a forceful point about the need for people to be mindful that, when they move their labour abroad, they do not, in fact, stop contributing to the problem. He also had a go at bargain hunters, who I hope are listening. I also hope that when we next go in search of a bargain, we remember that it may be the product of human suffering.

Martina Anderson focused on Irish people. We must accept that, sometimes, Irish people who chose to live abroad were not good to their own people. That is also true of some of the migrant workers who have established positions of power. We must not forget that. The old adage, put a beggar on horseback and he will trot to hell, was quoted to me when I spoke to older people from the Irish community who were living in America. Therefore, we must be mindful of that history.

David Simpson represents a constituency that has 9,500 migrant workers, which he claimed is the greatest number in any constituency. I was disappointed to hear him focusing on begging. That is not associated purely with migrant workers. It would be better to find out why people are begging, rather than stigmatise and label them. More positively, he mentioned the need to end the smuggling of young girls for prostitution.

Alastair Ross spoke about agency workers, protection rackets and exploitation. He called for strengthening the law on prostitution. I was pleased that he also mentioned the role of Women’s Aid, an organisation that is an authority on the abuse of migrant women and women here at home.

Sir Reg Empey, in his official position as the Minister for Employment and Learning, covered a lot of positive issues, but I am sorry that he feels unable to support the motion as amended.

It has been a good debate, and the Assembly has acknowledged the need to ensure that migrant workers and agency workers are protected. It is a pity that we will divide on the issue, but I hope that, at some time in the future, the House will be united and speak with one voice and see everyone in Northern Ireland as entirely equal in all respects. There should be no need to shy away from a piece of law simply to deprive someone of resources that they may need.

I return to the point that Martina Anderson made: the New World often forgets that the Irish built it. Irish people built the tunnels in Britain and the skyscrapers in America. However, even today, they cannot get the right to come and go as they should. The Irish people have enough history behind them to know not to do the same thing to the people who are building this economy. We must stop using the term “migrant workers”; we must start calling those people the “new Irish”. They have done everything possible to blend into our community, so we must ask ourselves what we are doing. I did my little bit when I went to Poland over Christmas, and I did not see any deterioration in the city of Krakow. I saw a vibrant, youthful city that was not spoiled by the sort of cheap tourism that was referred to earlier. We are all part of a large European Union: let us live in it as brothers; let us treat one another as equals.

Mr Speaker: The Business Committee has arranged to meet immediately upon the lunchtime suspension. I propose, therefore, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm. The Questions on the amendments and the motion will be put then.

The sitting was suspended at 12.37 pm.

On resuming (Mr Speaker in the Chair) —

2.00 pm

Question put, That amendment No 1 be made.

The Assembly divided: Ayes 40; Noes 46.


Mr Adams, Ms Anderson, Mr Attwood, Mr Boylan, Mr D Bradley, Mrs M Bradley, Mr P J Bradley, Mr Brady, Mr Burns, Mr W Clarke, Mr Dallat, Mr Doherty, Mr Durkan, Dr Farry, Mr Gallagher, Mrs Hanna, Mrs D Kelly, Mr G Kelly, Ms Lo, Mrs Long, Mr A Maskey, Mr P Maskey, Ms J McCann, Mr McCarthy, Mr McCartney, Dr McDonnell, Mr McElduff, Mrs McGill, Mr McGlone, Mr M McGuinness, Mr McKay, Mr McLaughlin, Mr Molloy, Mr Murphy, Mr Neeson, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O’Dowd, Mr O’Loan, Mr P Ramsey, Ms Ruane.

Tellers for the Ayes: Ms Lo and Mrs Long.


Mr Armstrong, Mr Beggs, Mr Bresland, Lord Browne, Mr Buchanan, Mr Campbell, Mr T Clarke, Mr Cobain, Mr Cree, Mr Donaldson, Mr Easton, Mr Elliott, Sir Reg Empey, Mrs Foster, Mr Gardiner, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Irwin, Mr McCallister, Mr McCausland, Mr McClarty, Mr B McCrea, Mr I McCrea, Dr W McCrea, Mr McFarland, Mr McGimpsey, Miss McIlveen, Mr McQuillan, Lord Morrow, Mr Moutray, Mr Newton, Mr Paisley Jnr, Rev Dr Ian Paisley, Mr G Robinson, Mrs I Robinson, Mr K Robinson, Mr P Robinson, Mr Ross, Mr Savage, Mr Shannon, Mr Simpson, Mr Spratt, Mr Storey, Mr Weir, Mr Wells, Mr S Wilson.

Tellers for the Noes: Mr McCallister and Miss McIlveen.

Question accordingly negatived.

Question put, That amendment No 2 be made.

The Assembly divided: Ayes 46; Noes 42.


Mr Armstrong, Mr Beggs, Mr Bresland, Lord Browne, Mr Buchanan, Mr Campbell, Mr T Clarke, Mr Cobain, Mr Cree, Mr Donaldson, Mr Easton, Mr Elliott, Sir Reg Empey, Mrs Foster, Mr Gardiner, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Irwin, Mr McCallister, Mr McCausland, Mr McClarty, Mr B McCrea, Mr I McCrea, Dr W McCrea, Mr McFarland, Mr McGimpsey, Miss McIlveen, Mr McQuillan, Lord Morrow, Mr Moutray, Mr Newton, Mr Paisley Jnr, Rev Dr Ian Paisley, Mr G Robinson, Mrs I Robinson, Mr K Robinson, Mr P Robinson, Mr Ross, Mr Savage, Mr Shannon, Mr Simpson, Mr Spratt, Mr Storey, Mr Weir, Mr Wells, Mr S Wilson.

Tellers for the Ayes: Mr McCallister and Miss McIlveen.


Mr Adams, Ms Anderson, Mr Attwood, Mr Boylan, Mr D Bradley, Mrs M Bradley, Mr P J Bradley, Mr Brady, Mr Brolly, Mr Burns, Mr W Clarke, Mr Dallat, Mr Doherty, Mr Durkan, Dr Farry, Mr Gallagher, Mrs Hanna, Mrs D Kelly, Mr G Kelly, Ms Lo, Mrs Long, Mr A Maskey, Mr P Maskey, Ms J McCann, Mr McCarthy, Mr McCartney, Dr McDonnell, Mr McElduff, Mrs McGill, Mr McGlone, Mr M McGuinness, Mr McKay, Mr McLaughlin, Mr Molloy, Mr Murphy, Mr Neeson, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O’Dowd, Mr O’Loan, Mr P Ramsey, Ms Ruane, Mr B Wilson.

Tellers for the Noes: Mr D Bradley and Mrs D Kelly.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.


That this Assembly urges the Executive to take all necessary measures to address both the exploitation of migrant labour and human trafficking; and welcomes the commitment by the United Kingdom Government to ratify the 2005 Council of Europe Convention on Action against the Trafficking in Human Beings.

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

Motion made:

That the Assembly do now adjourn.[Mr Deputy Speaker.]


Post-primary Education in  County Fermanagh

Mr Deputy Speaker: I remind Members that the Member who tabled the Adjournment debate will have 15 minutes in which to speak, and that all other Members will have nine minutes in which to speak.

Lord Morrow: Education in County Fermanagh is a very vexed subject, and it is important that it be debated in this House.

As an Assembly Member for the constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone, I would like the House to acknowledge that the education of our children is vital. I suspect that many, if not all, Members will acknowledge that fact. After all, when we talk about our children, we talk about the future generation who will inherit our new Northern Ireland. It is our duty to ensure that they are adequately prepared for that task. If proper preparation is not made for that journey and the responsibility that it entails, it will ultimately reflect on those who make the decisions today.

There must be a framework for education that is fit for purpose and facilitates an effective transition from primary, through post-primary, to third-level education and prospective employment. I place on record my thanks to the Business Committee for agreeing to this debate, because it could not be more timely.

Tony Blair declared that his foundation cornerstones were “education, education, education”, which became his mantra when he was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Alas, County Fermanagh is not on the receiving end of such a mantra. Instead, it is handed obfuscation, obfuscation and more obfuscation.

Under direct rule, much in Northern Ireland was allowed to drift. Sadly, under devolution, it seems that education is also drifting, particularly education in County Fermanagh. The restoration of devolution promised the people of Northern Ireland a better future. I have not given up hope of that, but some Members must take cognisance of their responsibilities.

I am glad that the Minister is in her place today, and I take some comfort from that. However, before the debate goes much further, I say to the Minister, and to anyone else who wants to listen, that every parent, politician and teacher wants only the best for our children. We want them to develop their academic and vocational life, and their social and communication skills. That, undoubtedly is, or should be, everyone’s aim.

Matters may become contentious at this point. From reading the Hansard report of the Education Committee’s meeting on Thursday 31 January — and if I have correctly interpreted media reports — relations between the Minister and the majority of the Committee are, to say the least, disharmonious. In fact, relations seem to be disintegrating daily. The only casualty of that will be the education of our children.

While it was being reported in some quarters that the Minister was neglecting her Committee and the opinions and challenges that it brings to her, she was neatly sidestepping her duties in the Fermanagh area, particularly in relation to a pre-consultation document. That almost leads me to say that Fermanagh has been forgotten, but, in fact, it has been completely ignored. Concerns raised some time ago have been left to stagnate, resulting in a crisis, or near crisis. I realise that “crisis” is a particularly strong word to use, but it is the only word that adequately describes the state of play of education in County Fermanagh.

I asked the Minister for her comments on a Western Education and Library Board document that was produced in County Fermanagh. It is entitled, ‘Post-Primary Education in Co Fermanagh’, and is described as a pre-consultation document on the future of controlled/voluntary education in County Fermanagh. With a brush of her hand, the Minister nonchalantly said that it was nothing to do with her and that she was not interested. That is powerful — the Minister of Education is not interested in a document on education.

I thought that education was her remit and that she would be involved in all aspects of education and take her role seriously — but that is not the case. According to the Minister, it is not her document, has nothing to do with her Department, and she could not care a less about it. That is regrettable.

This piece of paper or booklet — whatever terminology one wants to use — has proved controversial. Indeed, it is so controversial that it has angered one school to the point of publicly shredding it in order to send a stern message to its authors — the Western Education and Library Board.

2.30 pm

It is becoming something of an unwanted document as it appears that no one wants to take ownership of it, even though the foreword was signed by the chairman and the chief executive of the Western Education and Library Board. However, at several discussion evenings the chief executive emphatically denied responsibility for the document.

If it does not belong to the Western Education and Library Board, and, as the Minister of Education has disowned it and does not want to hear about it, who is responsible for taking ownership and acting upon it?

The document had to be drafted, printed and paid for. After several attempts, and after requesting information under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, we ascertained where it originated. Costs were authorised and by 2007 stood at the princely sum of £6,703. That includes £4,790 for the printing of 9,300 copies of the document, £1,176 for working meetings and seminars at various venues, £527 in travel costs for those attending the meetings and £210 for the delivery of the document. That is a great deal of money, and it is time that responsibility was assumed for it.

Oddly enough, it appears that the Western Education and Library Board is in fact the author. Therefore, I assume that it will take responsibility, although that has not come out loud and clear in any meetings that have taken place.

The Western Education and Library Board held public meetings to hard-sell the document, and the chief executive claimed he would answer questions and take criticisms. However, sadly, just like the Minister of Education today, that proved difficult.

One of the most significant matters raised at the meetings concerned the shambolic situation at Devenish College. Boards of governors at several schools — and I am thinking specifically of the Duke of Westminster High School, now the Kesh campus — were given an undertaking that a new state-of-the-art facility would be built.

The governors reluctantly took the decision to close the school on the strength of the board’s assurance guaranteeing a new school. They accepted that until the new school was built, children would be taught in what was described as good-quality, temporary accommodation. However, children are still in that temporary accommodation five years later. That cannot be a long-term solution. How long is temporary? How long can this go on for?

Such conditions are unacceptable, in spite of the high levels of teaching and professionalism. Were it not for the professionalism of staff and those around them, the situation would be much worse. The staff have been put in an impossible position.

The chief executive of the Western Education and Library Board recently said that although he is sympat­hetic, the Minister of Education had not released the funds to build the new Devenish College, even though funds were allocated and cleared some years ago by the direct rule Minister of Education, Maria Eagle.

The present Minister of Education should tell us why that has been delayed. Will she tell the House, at the foot of this debate, why she refuses to release the funds to build that much-needed school?

I have no doubt that Members will wait for an answer with baited breath. However, rather than prejudge the answer, we will listen intently to what the Minister has to say. Does she appreciate the scale of the crisis in Fermanagh? We want her to address that crisis directly, instead of putting it off, as has happened in the past.

Will the Minister explain why the chief executive of the Western Education and Library Board does not appear to be taking public opinion on board? Is he acting on her direction or his own? What is going on? Parents in Fermanagh are confused and concerned about what is happening to the future of their children’s education. Who is really in charge? If the Minister answers that question, and no other, she will have done us all a service.

The general feeling among parents in Fermanagh is that the Western Education and Library Board document should be shelved. One parent has drawn attention to the blatant plagiarism in the options set out in the document, which were copied verbatim from a consult­ation exercise by the Catholic-maintained sector. That sector had seven years to get to grips with the issues involved, whereas the controlled and voluntary sectors had just seven months, which is entirely inappropriate.

Parents in Fermanagh are not unwilling to engage — they want to be, and must be allowed to be, involved in the education of their children. They are not afraid of change. However, change must be introduced in a constructive, cohesive and proper manner. The process behind the document is flawed, not least because willingness to take ownership of its inception is causing much confusion. I look forward to hearing what other Members say on this important issue and I thank the House for listening to me.

Mr Deputy Speaker: All other Members who speak will have seven minutes, not nine as was previously advised.

Mr Elliott: I congratulate and thank Lord Morrow for securing an Adjournment debate on a very important topic for the people of Fermanagh. I am pleased that there has been reference to education in general in County Fermanagh rather than just post-primary education, because one of my main concerns is the primary school estate in County Fermanagh.

Over the years, there has been an erosion of the primary-school estate in Fermanagh; some small rural schools have been closed, and others have been, almost purposely, run down with a view to closure.

Primary schools, particularly those in small rural areas, are vital to the communities they serve. Some Members will not recognise place names such as Drumskinny, Teemore and Stragowna, in which there were small schools at the heart of the community which provided a service, as well as an education, for local young people. All of those schools have closed, which leaves a big void in those areas. A number of years ago, the primary schools in Stragowna and Teemore had the option to amalgamate. Unfortunately, agreement could not be reached, and now both schools are closed, which has left a huge void in the area on the west side of Lough Erne that will probably never be filled again by a controlled-primary school.

I am pleased that the Minister is here to listen to the concerns. I want an assurance from the Minister that maintenance of controlled primary schools will be secured in County Fermanagh. A further erosion of those primary schools would mean that pupils as young as four years of age would have to travel up to 22 miles to their nearest primary school.

An option given in ‘Post-Primary Education in Co Fermanagh’ is a proposal to close five primary schools in one area to facilitate a school for four- to 14-year-old pupils in the Lisnaskea area. I am not aware of any other area in County Fermanagh, or in Northern Ireland, that has a four- to 14-year-old school system — although the Minister may tell me differently. How would that system work in an area that would be singled out in the county? How would a four- to 14-year-old school system work in one part of the county when a similar system did not operate in the rest of the county?

Those five primary schools were not even consulted or told that their closure was an option until a couple of weeks before the pre-consultation document was due for release. It is a total disgrace that that absolutely ridiculous situation was allowed to happen.

Lord Morrow also referred to the situation of Devenish College. Minister Foster, who was an MLA at the time, and I fought a hard campaign to secure the Duke of Westminster site in Kesh until the new Devenish College was built, and we were given promises and clear assurances on the matter. The board of governors of the then Duke of Westminster High School were fed a pup; they were given inaccurate information. The board has it in writing that Devenish College would have a newbuild in 2008. It is now 2008, and there is no sign of progress on that school.

In the past few months, I requested a meeting with the Minister to discuss progress on Devenish College to try to develop it, and, on two occasions, she has refused. I want work to start on that school without any further delay. I commend the work of the teachers and staff. Pupils and parents say that the teachers and the school’s academic progress are excellent. They are more than happy with the school’s ability. However, the school facilities are antiquated, and there is a desperate need for new facilities. I ask for that to be progressed as soon as possible.

The main four post-primary schools detailed in the pre-consultation document are all fighting for their individual issues, and I see merit in all their points. However, instead of the Western Education and Library Board or the Department of Education trying to steam­roller the process through, there is now an onus on the four schools to work together. They had started that process, but the pre-consultation document was published before they could continue it. However, the onus is now on those schools to continue that process and to find a way forward. That process must be conducted outside the Western Education and Library Board, otherwise they may not find the process easy.

The pre-consultation document was premature and was published before the Assembly and the Minister come to a final decision on post-primary education after the announcement to abolish the 11-plus. It has been said that the document should be taken off the table and scrapped, but perhaps it has gone too far. It may be an option to allow the document to take its course, and let the people have their say, and it may be got rid of in that way.

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

2.45 pm

Mr Gallagher: I, too, thank Lord Morrow for raising this issue, which concerns the future of post-primary education. However, the future of primary education in County Fermanagh is implicit in that, because of the arrangements for feeder schools, if nothing else. The issue is more prominent on the controlled side than on the maintained side, but that is the case only for now. Among the next steps on the way forward, there will be a wider debate on the future of all post-primary schools in County Fermanagh.

I agree entirely with Tom Elliott in relation to the site of the controlled school at Kesh. At least now we can take the matter forward with an Assembly to provide transparency and accountability. I hope that all Members will endeavour to ensure that, no matter what authorities are involved, or whatever side of the divide they come from, the Assembly will see to it that they are held to any commitments that they might make.

The former Devenish College campus at Kesh, which has been closed for a couple of years, is the closest controlled post-primary school to where I live. I go past it every day as I travel to the Assembly. For anyone who does not know that school, its recent history provides a sad commentary on the way in which post-primary education is being handled.

As Members will know, Fermanagh is a predominantly rural area, and it has a much higher proportion of small schools than any other area in Northern Ireland. It is very encouraging to see that Members from other constituencies are attending this debate. This battle is important, because what happens in Fermanagh will filter down to rural communities and affect the future of rural schools everywhere.

An increasing threat hangs over the future of many of Fermanagh’s primary and post-primary schools. Due to curriculum changes, falling enrolments, the rational­isation of schools and other factors that, lately, have been accelerating rapidly, small schools are in serious danger of closure. Schools in Fermanagh are particularly vulnerable. Many people, across the entire community in Fermanagh, think that the Department and others involved in education simply no longer see a place for small schools.

Current economic thinking goes way beyond education, but it is creeping into that area as well. It is considered to be cheaper to bus thousands of children to schools in large towns — in Fermanagh, that means Enniskillen — to educate them. That seems to be the way forward. When fuel prices are rocketing, there is traffic chaos and congestion in Enniskillen and many other towns, and there is growing concern about carbon emissions, surely the argument that small schools are wasteful is flawed.

What about the burden of a 3-hour bus journey for primary-school children? Some 4- or 5-year-old children have to leave home at 7.00 am, or some unearthly hour — as do some post-primary-school children — and they do not return until 5.00 pm or 6.00 pm. What about the costs of that? What about the implications for parents in rural areas, many of whom must travel for hours to work in another direction after leaving their children to school?

The needs of rural communities, especially those in Fermanagh, are not getting a fair hearing.

The present policy on closures will inevitably leave communities in the county more isolated. People will begin to move away, and the rural areas will be denuded even further.

The review of public administration, which recommends one health board, one education board and fewer councils, exemplifies the growing trend towards centralisation. That trend can also be seen in Invest Northern Ireland, which, according to its latest policy, wants to centralise all its operations to Belfast and Derry.

It is time that the issue is taken seriously. Schools can provide support and stability in rural areas. I taught in a post-primary school in Fermanagh, and I know that all the schools there have excellent educational records. That is borne out in the reports of the Education and Training Inspectorate. The records of all those schools are available to anyone who wants to see them. The schools have achieved high standards, maintained excellence, tackled underachievement, raised the self-esteem of pupils, increased pride in local communities, and have given them a strong sense of identity. Despite the rapidly changing environment in which those schools operate, they have an excellent record in preparing pupils for life and work and in building on their personal and social development. They now face an uncertain future, and that is not good enough.

Members may be critical of this debate, but it gives parents an opportunity to get involved and to make known their views. It is important that they do so. I welcome the Minister’s presence in the Chamber.

I do not advocate that all schools remain open. We live in the real world; however, the Department needs to recognise the difficulties of rural communities and make an explicit commitment to children.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. Your time is up, Mr Gallagher.

Dr Farry: I congratulate Lord Morrow on securing the debate. Members may wonder why an Alliance Member for North Down wants to contribute to an Adjournment debate on post-primary education in County Fermanagh. I have two reasons for speaking: first, the topic is of importance across Northern Ireland, though perhaps for reasons that are slightly different to those so far mentioned; and secondly, I claim substantial roots in Fermanagh, given that both my parents were born, bred and educated in rural and urban schools in the county. Indeed, many members of my family still reside there.

I view the topic from a slightly different perspective to that of Members who have spoken so far. I, too, am critical of the document, though for reasons other than those that have been advanced already.

We must recognise that there is a crisis in the education system in Northern Ireland, particularly in County Fermanagh. There are 50,000 empty school places, and that may rise to 80,000 by 2012. Many schools have low enrolment rates. That has implications for the public purse and for the education of children. Where there are many small schools, a disproportionate amount of available funds is inevitably drawn into looking after buildings, heating and other overheads. That means that those funds cannot be spread as evenly as would have been possible if schools were larger. That has financial implications for the ability to invest in the education and welfare of those children who attend small schools.

In County Fermanagh, a huge opportunity has been missed. There is uncertainty in the education system, both with respect to post-primary education and the transfer system and to a lack of policy on sustainable schools. Through the education and library boards, the controlled sector is making decisions in a vacuum, while, in a separate sector, the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) makes decisions in a similar fashion.

The implications of that are obvious. We must have proper area planning and collaboration between sectors and schools to provide a modern, efficient, up-to-date schools estate that will serve the interests of children everywhere.

I fear that that is not what exists at present. There are two parallel processes, each of which does its own thing, and unless those processes are brought together, there will not be a sufficiently robust outcome. If Members consider the report that was commissioned under Sir George Bain —

Mr Elliott: Is the Member happy for there to be collaboration between different sectors? His party advocates that there should be an integrated sector only.

Dr Farry: Mr Elliott will be aware that the Alliance Party’s preferred option is integrated education, because it believes that that sector offers the most efficient and effective way of educating young people. However, my party recognises that the sectors in Northern Ireland will persist for many years, and we must deal with that reality. Integrated education will probably be a viable option for only a small proportion of children during years to come. Therefore there must be much greater emphasis on area planning and on collaboration between sectors and schools.

Mr Storey: With regard to the point that was made by the Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone Mr Elliott, can Dr Farry clarify how he views the controlled sector? Is it integrated or is it on the fringes — the same as the other sectors, each of which has its own ethos? How would he describe the controlled sector?

Dr Farry: I am glad that the Member raised that point. The controlled sector has open enrolment: its schools are open to all sections of the community. However, its ethos does not recognise the diversity that exists in Northern Ireland. Inevitably, therefore, people from different backgrounds may find that the controlled sector does not provide the kind of education that they wish their children to have. I draw a contrast with the integrated education system, which tries to cater for that diversity.

However, controlled schools may be an option for many people. Indeed, several voluntary grammar schools in Northern Ireland have a balanced educational intake. In the same way, schools in the Catholic maintained sector draw students from right across the community, such as St Malachy’s Primary School, St Comgall’s Primary School and St Columbanus’ College in my constituency. Fundamentally, however, they retain a Catholic ethos. That is understood. The Catholic Church wants that to persist.

However, I have taken on board the Member’s remarks. The Alliance Party is wary of comments that have been attributed to the Education Minister with regard to community background’s potentially being a factor in determining admissions criteria for post-primary education. The Alliance Party believes that that would encourage a situation in which controlled schools will be de facto for Protestants and Catholic-maintained schools will be de facto only for Catholics or that people from either religious background will be given preference in the respective sector. That would be a retrospective step away from where progress should be made.

It is important to recognise that Fermanagh is perhaps the most rural part of Northern Ireland and that it is under huge pressures. I fully take on board Mr Gallagher’s comment that a situation in which children must travel on buses for long periods, and the effect that that will have on the environment, must be avoided, as as should the over-centralisation of provision into Enniskillen. Surely the solution is that if sectors work with one another, there is a greater chance of preserving some form of provision in local communities, whether it is at primary or secondary level. Towns such as Irvinestown and Lisnaskea are prime examples of places that can sustain secondary provision. If the Assembly is imaginative, it can work towards those solutions.

A hierarchy of provision is needed. The options that were identified by Professor Bain, such as integrated schools, shared campuses and better collaboration between sectors, must be considered. Until there is clarity from the Minister on post-primary education and a sustainable schools policy, decisions on those matters will be taken in a vacuum. That will be a huge missed opportunity. I appeal to the Minister for clarity on those issues so that crucial decisions can be made in the proper framework.

Mrs Foster: I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate, which was secured by my good friend and colleague Lord Morrow. I want to make it clear that I am speaking as an Assembly Member and not as a Minister. I also want to declare an interest insofar as I have three children, who, I hope, will all progress through post-primary education in Fermanagh; that is, if the schools in the area can be sustained.

As my friend Lord Morrow said, there have been conflicting claims about the genesis of the report. However, whatever the murkiness of its origins, one thing is certain: the entire community in County Fermanagh is opposed to the contents of the pre-consultation document.

That is no surprise to me when one considers the five options that have been proposed in that document.

3.00 pm

The first option is to maintain the status quo, which is a pejorative term. It is the only option that is open to people, because the other four options are so wrong and bad for the people of County Fermanagh. Tom Elliott talked about option B, which envisages the closure of all primary schools in south-east Fermanagh and the transfer of all those pupils to a campus at Lisnaskea High School. That school would then include children from four to 14 years of age. It is something that was unheard of by the community, and by the principals of those primary schools until a week before the document was published. That option is totally and utterly rejected by the community.

The closing of Lisnaskea High School is envisaged in options C, D and E, with the placing of all post-primary education in Enniskillen town. Colleagues have commented on the infrastructure problems that would be associated with such a move. There would also be transport problems. The Western Education and Library Board has the highest transport costs of any board in Northern Ireland, and those costs are likely to be tripled if any of those options are adopted. It also means that children in County Fermanagh will have no choice about where they go to school. The document informs us that the children will go to school in Enniskillen if option C, D or E is chosen. Where is the equality in that for my children, who live in a rural area, if they have to go to Enniskillen for post-primary education?

The proposals are so limited and closed that many people, including myself, believe that the board has a preferred outcome for the pre-consultation. That is what most people in County Fermanagh think. It is a closed and blinkered pre-consultation, based on a premise that the equation is: small school equals bad school. I certainly do not accept that. As far as I am concerned, the premise is flawed. In England, the view is that the working-out of that premise has gone wrong. People there are moving in the opposite direction, and we need to have cognisance of that.

I refer to Stephen Farry’s remarks when I say that the document takes no account of sharing across sectors or looking at area planning. There were three meetings to consider the pre-consultation document. Therefore, he should know that the post-primary integrated sector, the new South West College and the maintained sector were not consulted. I know that the maintained sector is concerned about all of those matters. Its representatives came to see me to discuss the fact that we seem to be moving along two parallel lines. There is no recognition of a shared future in the document. That is something that all Members should be concerned about and have cognisance of.

The document does not take into account twenty-first century facilities such as IT, which would enable pupils to remain in Lisnaskea and share IT facilities with other campuses. The document presents a closed and blinkered view. It is littered with references to closures, which is disappointing. We should think of the future and look for opportunities in County Fermanagh, and we should consider the benefits of the small schools there. The document is constructed on a negative view of demography that suggests that the population in County Fermanagh is getting smaller. In fact, I do not know why they do not simply close all of the schools in County Fermanagh and bus all of the pupils up to Belfast. [Interruption.] Do not say that that is a good idea.

Mr Storey: What about the carbon footprint?

Mrs Foster: Absolutely; the carbon footprint is important.

It is important to remember that small schools are not just about statistics, education and results. They are also about a way of life for a lot of children, a matter to which Tommy Gallagher referred. It is about their countryside identity and about wanting to be at home after school instead of spending hours on buses. It is disgraceful that the Western Education and Library Board has not taken cognisance of what happened in Kesh and the disastrous results of pushing children out of the local school — where they had enjoyed good relations and were well looked after — into a situation in which they are being bullied. That is no reflection on the school because that all happened outside of the grounds. Children from the Kesh area have had behavioural problems since they were pushed into the big school in Enniskillen. They feel that they are inferior because they are not from the town.

It may sound strange to some Members that Enniskillen should be seen as an urban metropolis, but if you live in the far reaches of County Fermanagh it is quite a change to come to Enniskillen for your schooling. It is disappointing that the board has not learned from the Kesh experience.

It is no surprise that Fermanagh District Council, the Fermanagh branch of the Ulster Farmers’ Union, the Chamber of Commerce in Lisnaskea and County Fermanagh Grand Orange Lodge have been among those who have rejected the process in County Fermanagh. Pressure groups, such as FREE and Impact, have been formed. Most significantly, after the Committee for Education heard evidence from the board and the groups involved, it asked for the document to be pulled and started again. I am glad that some members of that Committee are here. There is no difficulty in having a discussion about post-primary education in County Fermanagh, but this document makes the issue blinkered and means that post-primary education will not work for the good of children in County Fermanagh.

The Minister will be coming to the House in the near future with her ideas for area planning. Surely, given all that I have said, the pre-consultation document conflicts with any area planning documents that she might bring forward. I urge the Minister to ask the board to withdraw the process. I ask her to take the lead with the document, rather than doing nothing about it.

Mr Storey: I thank Lord Morrow for securing this debate. Some might ask what interest I have in education in County Fermanagh. I am a member of the Education Committee, but, lest it be used against me, I stress that I am not speaking on behalf of that Committee. I am speaking as a Member of the Assembly with an interest in education.

Mr Weir: Does the Member agree that it is disappointing that, although the Alliance Party managed to provide a spokesperson in this debate from the far-flung constituency of North Down, which is the farthest possible point from Fermanagh and South Tyrone, and one Member called Michelle has appeared for the debate, another Member of the same name — Michelle Gildernew, the MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone — not only has not contributed to, but has not even shown up for, a debate on an issue that vitally affects her constituency?

Mr Storey: That is a reflection on that Member, and it is for that Member to explain that to her constituents.

I welcome the fact that the Minister of Education is in the House. I assure her that I am not here as a bully. Assertions were made the other day that some of us were bullies, but I am not the school bully. Equally, I assure the Minister that we will not be bullied.

The issue of education in County Fermanagh is relevant to us all, because it gives an indication of how the education system has become so divided. As other Members have said, rather than having a coherent strategy and policy, everyone is doing their own thing. It seems that the Minister is allowing that to happen. Therefore, I welcome the fact that the debate has been secured.

Education in Northern Ireland faces a crisis, but people in County Fermanagh are additionally burdened on top of a confusing and distracted system. I am appalled to hear how funds that were secured by a direct rule Minister have still not been released for Devenish College, which is in desperate need of a new building. Prefabs are sturdy and great, but they are no substitute for a new building, and they are not a long-term solution. Parents should not have been guaranteed a new school, because that allowed the board of governors to make the reluctant decision to close schools when a new facility was not built. That remains the case five years later. The Minister has taken her eye off the ball on that issue. When will the funds be released?

She has often reminded us that she is the Minister of Education. In the Minister’s statement to the House on 4 December 2007, she reminded us that she is the Minister for all children. She also informed us that equality is her watchword, but what equality is there for children in County Fermanagh in how the process is being conducted and how she is overseeing it?

I do not want the Minister to shift the blame, as she did in the classroom assistants’ dispute, when she said that it was not she who took the decision but the boards. I do not want the Minister to come to the House today and abdicate her responsibilities. She was keen enough to get the position; therefore, she should be keen enough to accept the responsibility. She would have been keen enough had there been a call for the establishment of another sector in County Fermanagh, which the Minister has declared a preference for — namely, the Irish-medium sector.

The Minister’s view seems to be that my comments are an attack on the Irish-medium sector; they are not. The Irish-medium sector has a right to educate just as I, as a parent, have a right to have my children educated in the medium of my choice. However, with choice comes responsibility. To date, the Minister has released funding for the Irish-medium sector. She has released further funding for the teaching of Irish and Spanish in schools, yet a problem persists in County Fermanagh that requires funding.

With regard to area-based planning, which is in the proposed scope of the review of public administration education legislation, the Department has set out the timetable under which the first and second Bills will be brought forward. If the Minister wants to be all-inclusive and prove that she is for equality and does not want the maintained sector to get one over on the controlled sector or the Irish-medium sector to be ahead of any other sector, those issues should be dealt with in the first draft of the first Bill. That is also the case if she tells us that area-based planning is a vital building block. The Minister will make a statement on those issues some time this month.

However, the consultation document and the outline of the second Bill tell us that area-based planning will not be addressed until the second Bill has been introduced. Therefore, all the other arrangements must be put in place before we get to the nub of the issue, which is area-based planning. Will the Minister give —

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

Mr Storey: Will the Minister assure the House that area-based planning will be addressed in the first Bill?

The Minister of Education (Ms Ruane): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I commend the Western Education and Library Board and the six schools involved in the working group for exploring options that might best meet the educational needs of children in the Fermanagh area. Education is facing significant challenges. In order to meet those challenges, school authorities must examine provision to find out how they could provide good-quality educational experiences for the future.

Tá rollaí i scoileanna san earnáil faoi chothabháil, san earnáil rialaithe agus san earnáil dheonach ag titim i gCondae Fhear Manach; ag an am chéanna caithfidh siad freastal ar riachtanais an churaclaim. Caithfidh roinnt de na scoileanna a gcuid saoráidí a nuachóiriú freisin, agus tugann an réamhchomhairliúchán seans dúinn na ceisteanna seo a phlé.

Schools in the maintained, controlled, Irish-medium, integrated and other sectors in Fermanagh are experi­encing falling rolls, but at the same time they need to meet curricular requirements.

Some schools also need to modernise their facilities, and there is an opportunity to examine those issues together as proposed by the pre-consultation exercise.

3.15 pm

The pre-consultation document suggests a number of possible options for addressing the challenges faced by the schools. It sets out important and worthy guiding principles that have been agreed by the working group: a high-quality pupil-centred educational experience for all; equality of access and parity of esteem for all educational routes; high quality leadership and manage­ment; collaborative working; and the principles under­pinning diverse and shared futures. I am sure that Members and the community support the guiding principles.

I will not comment on the options contained in the pre-consultation document. It is a consultation with local communities and schools on the future shape of controlled and voluntary post-primary education in Fermanagh. As the document states, the options identified are not exhaustive, and other options might be put forward during the exercise. I will be interested to hear what transpires.

The Western Education and Library Board does not have a predetermined outcome regarding the pre-consultation process, and the purpose of the document is to give the community the opportunity to shape the future of post-primary provision. The board intends to collate all responses following the end of the consultation on 26 February. The working group of schools and the board will consider the responses before advising on the next stages. In considering the options, the Western board has considered the curriculum changes, the entitlement framework and the Bain Report conclusions on sustainable schools.

I come from a rural community; I know how important it is that children have access to the widest and broadest curriculum possible. Children in rural schools must get the same as children in urban areas. I will ensure that they do.

George Bain did not say that schools below the recommended thresholds must be rationalised. He said that they should be reviewed to see that they continue to provide a high quality of education for all pupils. Decisions on future provision are not made simply on the basis of enrolments, but through the consideration of a range of factors at local level. The consultation provides an opportunity to discuss those issues.

Lord Morrow mentioned Devenish College. The Department has granted approval for a newbuild for that school, and that is stated in the consultation document. Devenish College is also part of the working group that produced the consultation, and it is identified in the options. We must be clear on the conclusions of the exercise and the way forward in helping to identify the future accommodation needs for the area.

I welcome the debate as part of helping to inform and move forward the modernising of our education system. In my statement to the Assembly on 4 December, I explained that we must develop a more flexible and agile post-primary school system that will take account of the full reform agenda that is already affecting the education system in the North of Ireland.

I also made it clear that I was not advocating a one-size-fits-all system. I am seeking to devise an education system in which all children — and I mean all children — in all sectors will enjoy access to an equal range of high-quality choices at the critical junctures in their educational development, the most significant of which is 14. I make no apology for being the Minister for all children. The way in which young people will access their post-14 pathway will be determined by the planning of education in their local areas.

Following a series of meetings that I held with key education stakeholders before Christmas, my Department is engaged in a further round of meetings with the stakeholders that are aimed at achieving consensus on new post-primary arrangements. I look forward to the Committee for Education reaching consensus and bringing it to me. I have provided the Executive and the Committee for Education with information on developments. I intend to be in a position soon to put to ministerial colleagues an outline of my proposals for transfer after 2010, at which point I will give a further briefing to the Committee for Education and make a statement on progress in the Assembly.

In that context, it is helpful that we are having this debate. There must be more public debate about the transfer arrangements, and I welcome the Commission for Catholic Education’s conference in Armagh today. The commission and other key groups in the education sector recognise that our children deserve the best that we can give them, and we can only do that by building a consensus in which children are at the centre of our policy deliberations.

The commission has also identified the challenges brought by change, and I can reassure everyone that there will be a cohesive approach to the many policy initiatives that are being advanced. The changes will be well managed and not for the sake of change.

I welcome the Commission for Catholic Education’s focus on social justice for all children and young people.

I appreciate the concerns expressed by some Members about consultation on the post-primary transfer options in County Fermanagh. That, of course, is a matter for the Western Education and Library Board. However, Members should remember that its publication is a pre-consultation document, the assessment of options is at an early stage, and there will be ample opportunity for the input of local people. The working group’s approach is to examine how best to meet the post-primary needs in County Fermanagh.

Area-based planning will be at the heart of my post-primary proposals. Planning and collaboration can ensure that an area’s ability to offer a range of pathways is related, and responsive, to individual needs. Some local areas and sectors are already engaged in area-based planning, which is often prompted by demographic change and a desire to provide a wider range of choices. For example, if children in an area are served largely by four schools, two of which select at the age of 11, what are the options? If applicants, parents and schools can agree the best post-14 education route, why could one or two of those four schools not offer mainly academic education for children over the age of 14, alongside two other institutions offering mainly technical and professional post-14 provision? Why could either or both of those mainly academic institutions not be for 14- to 19-year-old pupils? Alternatively, why could such institutions not cater for 11- to 19-year-olds and offer a clear academic pathway for people in the area aged 14 and over? Why should Government make such decisions on their behalf?

The oversubscription of particular institutions by either 11- or 14-year-old children is often raised in the Assembly. However, consider that point on a broader canvas. The North’s over-provision is such that nearly all local areas have too many school places.

The Council for Catholic Maintained Schools is also undertaking an examination of the options for the maintained sector in County Fermanagh. Although the remits of the CCMS and the Western Education and Library Board extend only to their respective sectors, both bodies — as well as the integrated sector and Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta, the Irish-medium sector — have indicated a willingness to explore the potential for collaboration and sharing facilities after they have a clearer picture of the local community’s views on the options for the future. For the benefit of all children’s education in Condae Fhear Manach, I encourage opportunities for greater collaboration and sharing between schools.

Soon, I intend to announce my proposals to explore restructuring requirements in order to deliver my overall vision for post-primary schools. The work in County Fermanagh is in line with that and will feed into wider considerations. I have no doubt that the school authorities will carefully examine all the views expressed by local people.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Minister, your time is up.

Ms Ruane: Go raibh maith agat.

Adjourned at 3.24 pm.

previous / next