Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

northern Ireland assembly

Monday 11 February 2008

Executive Committee Business:
Royal Assent: Pensions Bill

Assembly Business:
Suspension of Standing Orders

Executive Committee Business:
Spring Supplementary Estimates 2007-08 and Vote on Account 2008-09

Oral Answers to Questions:
Employment and Learning
Enterprise, Trade and Investment

Private Notice Question:
Clostridium Difficile

Executive Committee Business:
Spring Supplementary Estimates 2007-08 and Vote on Account 2008-09
Budget Bill: First Stage
Review of Draft Planning Policy Statement 14

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

Members observed two minutes’ silence.

Executive Committee Business

Royal Assent

Pensions Bill

Mr Speaker: I wish to inform the House that the Pensions Bill has received Royal Assent. The Pensions Act (Northern Ireland) 2008 became law on 11 February 2008.

Assembly Business

Suspension of Standing Orders

The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr P Robinson): I beg to move

That Standing Orders 10(2) to 10(4) be suspended for 11 February 2008.

Mr Speaker: Before I put the Question, I remind Members that this motion requires cross-community support.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved (with cross-community support):

That Standing Orders 10(2) to 10(4) be suspended for 11 February 2008.

Mr Speaker: As the motion has been agreed, today’s sitting may go beyond 7.00 pm, if required.

Executive Committee Business

Spring Supplementary Estimates 2007-08 and Vote on Account 2008-09

Mr Speaker: As these two motions relate to the Supply resolutions, I propose to conduct only one debate, as follows. I shall call the Minister of Finance and Personnel to move the first motion. Debate will then take place on both motions. When all who wish to speak have done so, I shall put the Question on the first motion. I shall then ask the Minister to move the second motion, before putting the Question without further debate.

The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to four hours and 30 minutes for this debate. The proposer of the motion will have up to 60 minutes to propose and up to 60 minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have 10 minutes. If that is clear, we shall proceed.

The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr P Robinson): I beg to move

That this Assembly approves that a total sum, not exceeding £11,851,642,000, be granted out of the Consolidated Fund for or towards defraying the charges for Northern Ireland Departments, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints, the Food Standards Agency, the Northern Ireland Audit Office and the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation for the year ending 31 March 2008 and that total resources, not exceeding £14,429,839,000, be authorised for use by Northern Ireland Departments, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints, the Food Standards Agency, the Northern Ireland Audit Office and the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation for the year ending 31 March 2008 as summarised for each Department or other public body in Columns 2(c) and 3(c) of Table 1 in the volume of the Northern Ireland Spring Supplementary Estimates 2007-08 that was laid before the Assembly on 31 January 2008.

The following motion stood in the Order Paper:

That this Assembly approves that a sum, not exceeding £5,335,212,000, be granted out of the Consolidated Fund on account for or towards defraying the charges for Northern Ireland Departments, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints, the Food Standards Agency, the Northern Ireland Audit Office and the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation for the year ending 31 March 2009 and that resources, not exceeding £6,493,908,000, be authorised, on account, for use by Northern Ireland Departments, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints, the Food Standards Agency, the Northern Ireland Audit Office and the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation for the year ending 31 March 2009 as summarised for each Department or other public body in Columns 4 and 6 of Table 1 in the Vote on Account 2008-09 document that was laid before the Assembly on 31 January 2008. — [The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr P Robinson).]

Mr P Robinson: The motion has been very ably read by the Clerk.

Two weeks ago, on 29 January 2008, the Assembly debated and approved the forward spending plans for the financial years 2008-09 to 2010-11. Today, our main focus is on the final spending proposals for the current financial year, and I am providing Depart­ments and other public bodies with the legislative authority to finalise spend in 2007-08. These motions, although vital, are necessarily technical in nature, and I trust that Members will appreciate the need to set out the position in some detail.

Assembly Members will know that the Budget, which sets spending plans for future years, does not in itself convey cash or resources to Departments or, indeed, give Departments the legal authority to spend cash or use resources. That is done through the Assembly’s approval of the Supply resolutions, the Estimates and the associated Budget Bill. I, therefore, move two important Supply resolutions in order to seek the Assembly’s approval for the final spending plans for 2007-08 and to provide interim resources and funding for the first few months of 2008-09 in the form of a Vote on Account. To do so, I seek the levels of Supply that are detailed in the resolutions. I do that pursuant to section 63 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which provides for the Minister of Finance and Personnel to make recommendations to the Assembly, leading to cash appropriations from the Northern Ireland Consolidated Fund.

The first resolution seeks the approval of the Assembly on the issue of a total cash sum not exceeding £11,851,642,000 from the Northern Ireland Consolidated Fund and the use of total resources not exceeding £14,429,839,000 for 2007-08, as detailed in the spring Supplementary Estimates volume, which was laid before the Assembly on 31 January 2008. The amounts of cash and resources for 2007-08 covered by the first resolution supersede the provision in the Budget Act (Northern Ireland) 2007, passed by the Assembly in June 2007.

The second resolution seeks the Assembly’s approval on the issue of a cash sum of £5,335,212,000 and resources of £6,493,908,000 on account for the 2008-09 financial year, in advance of the consideration and approval of the 2008-09 Main Estimates and Budget Bill by the Assembly in June 2008.

The resolutions, if approved by the Assembly, will be the precursor to the Budget Bill (Northern Ireland) 2008, which I plan to introduce to the Assembly later today. Subject to Assembly approval and Royal Assent enabling the Bill to become an Act, that will provide the formal legal authority for Departments to incur expenditure for this financial year and the start of 2008-09. In considering this issue, I want to highlight the significance of the Supply resolutions for which approval is being sought today.

Those resolutions, supported by the Estimates, are the cornerstone on which the Assembly not only sets limits on expenditure and use of resources but holds Departments to account for managing and controlling that spending and use of resources within the limits authorised for that particular year.

Details of departmental spending plans are set out in the spring Supplementary Estimates, which are before the Assembly. Members should be familiar with the structure of the document as it reflects the structure of the Main Estimates, which the Assembly considered and approved in June 2007.

Mr Speaker, you will be relieved to hear that I do not propose to go through the document in detail. However, at the end of the debate, I will endeavour to answer questions. Members will appreciate that I may not be able to respond to specific departmental queries in detail. I will ask the relevant Minister to issue a response in such cases.

As this is the first time that this Assembly has dealt with the spring Supplementary Estimates, it may be helpful to take a few minutes to mention some important aspects of the Estimates that differ from the Budget and in-year monitoring rounds. The Supply resolution is the means by which the 2007-08 spring Supplementary Estimates are examined and approved by the Assembly. Members will recall that the Assembly inherited an opening position from direct rule Ministers, which Departments had already used for planning and for the allocation of budgets to health trusts, education and library boards and other public bodies. To maintain financial stability, as was explained to the Assembly in June 2007, the Executive agreed to adopt that opening position.

Through the in-year monitoring rounds — in June, October and December — the Executive were able to bring before the Assembly some adjustments to the position to meet emerging demands. Public expenditure in Northern Ireland is subject to two controls; departmental expenditure limits and annually managed expenditure (AME). The in-year revisions focused on the departmental expenditure limits. Unlike departmental expenditure limits, AME is not subject to firm multi-year limits: it is generally demand-led and includes major areas of expenditure such as social security benefits and public-sector pension payments.

Departmental expenditure limit totals are largely fixed in Treasury spending reviews for a three-year period, whereas AME is revised with the Treasury annually. Forecasts on the amount of AME needed are updated twice-yearly. As we receive an adjustment of estimated requirements for AME from the Treasury, and must return resources that are not required to the Treasury, those items are not included in the scope of the monitoring rounds.

Therefore, although the Executive have not had the ability to directly influence the spring Supplementary Estimates that are before the Assembly today, those Estimates contain revised figures not only for the departmental expenditure limits, which are the main focus of the Assembly, but for AME.

During the in-year monitoring rounds, agreed transfers of resources between Northern Ireland Departments, between Northern Ireland Departments and the Northern Ireland Office, or between Northern Ireland Departments and Whitehall Departments may take place. Due to their routine nature, those technical adjustments are not highlighted to the Assembly during monitoring statements.

The final area worth noting is the difference between the boundaries of Budgets and Estimates. Budgets are at the wider public-sector level, including full resource consumption of non-departmental public bodies (NDPBs), while Estimates are at a departmental level. An Estimate is a summary of a Department’s spending proposals, including cash grants to NDPBs, while Budgets include the totality of public-sector expenditure, including NDPBs, health trusts, education and library boards, etc.

I appreciate that all those issues may make it very difficult for Members to readily identify in the spring Supplementary Estimates the reduced requirements surrendered or the additional allocations made during monitoring rounds. However, I assure Members that although Estimates and Budgets have different boundaries, they are both based on the same data source of public expenditure and are reconcilable, and I refer Members to the resource and capital reconciliation tables that are contained in the supplementary tables for each Estimate.

12.15 pm

At this juncture, I will outline briefly the logistical need for the Budget Bill, which is associated with the spring Supplementary Estimates, to be given accelerated passage. The December monitoring round is the final opportunity to seek approval for expenditure changes and to maximise the efficient use of resources before the end of the financial year. The Budget Bill must receive Royal Assent by March, and there must be time for the Assembly to approve the spring Supplementary Estimates by the same month. That would be impossible without accelerated passage. In that regard, I appreciate the Committee for Finance and Personnel’s assistance and acknowledge its confirmation that it has been consulted appropriately on the spending plans, which are reflected in the motions, as a basis for using accelerated passage for the related Budget Bill. I am aware of the Committee’s keen interest in the issues in question, and I value both its contribution to the budgetary process and the accountability role that it plays at each stage.

I turn now to first, the in-year monitoring exercises that have occurred under devolution, and secondly, to the new, emerging pressures that we have been able to meet. During the past nine months, Departments surrendered a total of £176 million reduced requirements. As well as reducing the aggressive overcommitment that was inherited from direct rule, we were able to meet £105 million of bids from Departments for their emerging pressures. End-year flexibility (EYF) of £42 million was returned to Departments, and almost £90 million of technical adjustments were processed.

With respect to capital investment, Depart­ments declared reduced requirements of £197 million, and £145 million of bids were met, with Departments carrying forward £78 million of EYF. In addition, many Departments identified slippage in planned capital projects. However, that slippage was managed by my Department, and it will be carried forward for the Executive’s use in the future.

That slippage is reflected in the reduction in the net-cash requirement for 2007-08 in the spring Supplementary Estimates. Some of the main allocations during 2007-08 were £4·1 million to the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) for animal health; £1·5 million to the Depart­ment of the Environment (DOE) in response to the severe flooding in June; £53 million for the Department for Regional Development (DRD) for water and sewerage services, while £45·5 was allocated for various road schemes; the Department of Education (DE) received £2·8 to underpin home-to-school transport and £12 million for classroom assistants; the Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP) received £15 million to fund the ongoing Civil Service reform programme; the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) received £14 million to address the costs that are associated for the review of public administration, while £3 million was granted for the provision of pharmaceutical drugs; and over £70 million was allocated to the Department for Social Development (DSD) for a range of social housing initiatives, including the co-ownership scheme, the warm homes scheme, and the social housing development programme.

By proactive management, some Departments have also restricted expenditure on lower-priority services in order to release resources to meet higher-priority pressures in their areas of responsibility. Notably, DHSSPS reallocated funding to the suicide prevention strategy and to the provision of a range of community services, including help to address the problems of assessing respite care, particularly for the carers of children.

As Minister of Finance and Personnel, I am always seeking an improvement in the quality of Departments’ financial management and a reduction in their under­spends. My officials are working actively with Depart­ments to that end. As I said in the Assembly last month, the level of reduced requirements rose dramatically in the December monitoring round. I continue to stress to Depart­ments the need to surrender any slippages or potential underspends early in the new year in order that the Executive can reallocate them at the earliest opportunity and put them to best use.

I am ever mindful that we are dealing with taxpayers’ money and that we have a responsibility, as custodians of the public purse, to ensure that that money is managed efficiently and effectively.

Some degree of underspending will be inevitable, but even when it is entirely unavoidable, it is important that we recognise that situation as early in the year as possible and surrender such amounts, so that the Executive have every opportunity to address early pressures.

Although we do not lose the money, tighter controls on access to end-year flexibility mean that funds unspent at the end of this year will need to be the subject of negotiations with the Treasury to agree the future profiling of such underspends. In short, although we do not lose the money, we do lose control of it.

I cannot overemphasise the importance of that matter, and my Executive colleagues and I should robustly review our in-year financial position early in the financial year and identify any potential under­spends. Failure to do so, leading to ineffective management of the total Budget and high underspends at the end of the financial year, will incur adverse criticism and demonstrate a failure to deliver the maximum level of public services possible. When taxpayers and ratepayers are being expected to give Government their hard-earned money, it is reasonable for them to expect that their money is not being wasted.

We have just completed a long Budget consultation period, with many bids for additional resources. Getting financial management right in the public sector can make a huge contribution to meeting emerging pressures; getting it wrong is simply squandering money. To assist in that area, my officials are working actively with Departments to improve financial manage­ment and accountability. There has been an overall review of the financial training provided across the Northern Ireland Civil Service. I am pleased to say that that is already producing tangible benefits, with a suite of new training courses being developed and a dialogue opening up with non-finance specialists to ensure that decisions are taken with due regard to the financial consequences. More detailed training is being developed for those who set and manage budgets, day to day. Finance training for departmental staff responsible for other parts of the public sector, beyond pure finance, is due to be rolled out over the coming months, along with newly invigorated courses on fraud prevention and governance.

I am conscious too of the role that the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has to play in supporting us all in improving standards of financial management and good governance. Recommendations arising from the PAC will be actively pursued, and in many respects my Department, in conjunction with audit colleagues, is central in driving forward that agenda. Departmental boards and audit committees will also provide an important and independent accountability tier that, ultimately, supports us all as Ministers.

At this point, I want to make some comments about the role of Assembly Members in holding Departments and the Executive to account in authorising and regularising expenditure. This is a vital day for the Assembly. However, in reality, as Members will be aware, there is a limited opportunity to hold Departments to account through this process. If devolution is to maximise its benefits for the people of Northern Ireland, Assembly Members, and not just members of the Executive, must have a meaningful role in decision-making and in holding Departments to account.

The value of devolution lies in the capacity of local Members, who are close to the problems that affect their constituents, being able to hold Government to account. Devolution is not just about a local Executive, it is about a local Assembly. I do not see the role of Assembly Members and Assembly Committees as that of opposition, but as that of challenge and assistance. Done properly, that means better policy and better outcomes for the people of Northern Ireland, which is in all our interests.

As other Ministers will be aware, the Department of Finance and Personnel has considerable power and influence across all Departments. Without its approval, no expenditure can be incurred. Indeed, following the changes to the devolution arrangements provided for in the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006, expenditure without DFP approval would be not only irregular but unlawful. In that regard, I take my responsibilities seriously; however, it is also the responsibility of Assembly Committees to hold their Departments to account. During the Budget period, most of the Committees, perhaps understandably, lobbied for greater resources for their Departments. It is vital that those Committees now ensure that the Departments deliver on their commitments.

Again, I say that this does not mean opposition for its own sake; however, it does mean asking probing questions and ensuring that Departments deliver on what they promise. Departments should not fear questions and challenges from their Assembly Committees; rather, they should welcome the additional perspective and scrutiny. Our system of democracy is made stronger by a Committee system that can ensure that value for money is delivered for the public.

If Departments do not deliver on the targets set for them in the Programme for Government, we should not have to wait for three years to find out. Apart from the monitoring that is conducted by the Executive, the Committees should have identified where greater attention is required. Such an approach gives Assembly Members a meaningful and important role, and is in the long-term interests of the Executive. I urge Assembly Committees to challenge Departments constructively to deliver and to hold Ministers to account for what has been promised — and I say that as much to the Committee for Finance and Personnel as to any other Committee.

Looking ahead to 2008-09, the second resolution seeks the Assembly’s approval of a cash resource — a Vote on Account — to continue existing services in the early months of the next financial year, until the Main Estimates and corresponding Budget Bill are approved by the Assembly. That amount is approximately 45% of the 2007-08 provision for cash and resource.

As we look forward to the next financial years and the implementation of our Programme for Government, underpinned by the recent Budget and investment strategy endorsed by the Assembly, we have the opportunity to ensure that, in future years, the local economy will be strengthened, our infrastructure will be upgraded, and public service delivery will be improved.

The people of Northern Ireland expect delivery of the targets and outcomes published in the Programme for Government. The public service agreements, shortly to be published, will set out in detail how Departments will work together to achieve those targets and outcomes. The delivery agreements will set out roles and responsibilities, lines of accountability, performance-measurement methods and risk-management strategies. Alongside that, the performance and efficiency delivery unit (PEDU) will play its role in identifying scope for improved delivery of efficiencies and performance.

In commending these resolutions to the Assembly, I urge delivery of better-quality public services in future years, with greater efficiency and effective manage­ment of public resources. Today is the end of one phase of the Budget, and the beginning of another. Getting the money is one thing, ensuring the proper spend is another.

The most fundamental scrutiny role for the Assembly is to ensure that money is spent in accordance with its wishes. If Assembly Members were to believe that scrutinising the expenditure of over £10 billion a year was confined to a vote on one day a year, we would never be in a position to hold Departments or the Executive to account. Instead, today must be seen as the start of a process by which Committees ask difficult questions, challenge fundamental assumptions, hold Ministers to account, and ensure that every pound of public money is spent appropriately.

As Minister of Finance and Personnel, I ask not only for more support for the resolutions from Assembly Members, but for a commitment to hold Departments to account for the next three years.

The Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel (Mr McLaughlin): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his opening remarks and his explanation of the spring Supplementary Estimates and the Vote on Account.

At its meeting on 30 January 2008, the Committee for Finance and Personnel took evidence from officials of the Department on both the spring Supplementary Estimates for 2007-08 and the Vote on Account for 2008-09. I thank the officials for helping the Committee to navigate its way through what are, by necessity, detailed and complicated documents. Indeed, some Committee members used other words to describe the process outside today’s discussion.

The Budget approved by the Assembly in January set out spending plans for 2008-11, and the spring Supplementary Estimates, the Vote on Account and the associated Budget Bill gave Departments authority to spend and set out control limits, through which the Assembly can hold Departments to account.

12.30 pm

The Committee discussed and approved accelerated passage for the Budget Bill that is to be introduced later today, and I have written to the Speaker to confirm that.

The spring Supplementary Estimates for 2007-08 seek the Assembly’s approval for additional resources — and/or cash — that is needed over and above that detailed in the Main Estimates for the year and which were approved by the Assembly in June 2007.

During evidence gathered from Department of Finance and Personnel officials, the Committee was updated on a range of adjustments affecting spending profiles as the year progressed. As a result of the monitoring rounds there will be in-year changes, both in and between Departments; and Departments may also change their levels of spend to reflect refinements in the original Estimates. Changes may also occur because of technical reclassifications, rescheduling of contracts, or for a number of valid reasons. It will be obvious to Members that it would be impossible to project with absolute certainty the outcomes across the full range of Government spending programmes, and that is why processes such as in-year monitoring exist.

However, we can demand the highest standards from bidding processes during Budget negotiations and best practice in financial management. The Minister dealt with that in his presentation this morning.

The spring Supplementary Estimates also include other changes that are not subject to the normal monitoring round discussions, including changes in demand-led services, such as social security benefits, that are annually managed expenditure and outside departmental expenditure limits. The Minister addressed that too in his opening remarks. All those changes are picked up in the spring Supplementary Estimates, which bring everything into line in order that Departments can draw up their end-year accounts.

The Committee for Finance and Personnel took an active scrutiny role throughout the 2007-08 budgetary changes that emanated from the quarterly monitoring rounds. The Department of Finance and Personnel briefed the Committee on its own position prior to each round and provided in-depth written responses to queries raised. I thank the Minister and the relevant officials for that, because there has been a good working arrangement and relationship.

Following the Minister’s statement to the Assembly on the outcomes of each monitoring round, the departmental officials responsible for central finance subsequently briefed the Committee on the more strategic issues relating to public expenditure; and that has been a very useful learning process for all of us.

There is evidence that Departments are identifying unused resources at an earlier stage in the financial year and are releasing them to the centre for reallocation. That is welcome, but more can be done, especially as Treasury appears to restricting future access to unspent resources.

The Committee for Finance and Personnel will continue to prioritise the scrutiny of DFP’s bids and easements for each monitoring round and urges other statutory Committees to do the same for their respective Departments. The Committee echoes the Minister’s comments on that point very strongly and is currently working with DFP officials to develop a standardised format for monitoring-round information to facilitate the Committee’s scrutiny of departmental submissions.

The Minister outlined three possible reasons for the return of funds by Departments in his statement on the outcome of the December monitoring round: greater-than-planned efficiencies; initial overstating of resource bids; and failure to deliver the planned level of public services. Therefore, Statutory Committees should be examining resources returned by the respective Depart­ments, questioning why they have been released and determining whether they have been returned at the earliest possible opportunity.

The Department of Finance and Personnel also has a strategic challenge function, especially in examining whether Departments are overstating resource bids when bidding for particular programmes. The Minister made it clear on a number of occasions that that is a function that he will deploy to achieve the goals set out in the agreed Programme for Government.

On an earlier occasion the Minister indicated that his officials will be examining previous patterns of capital slippage more closely, and the Committee looks forward to the outcome of that.

I will turn briefly, go raibh maith agat, to the motion on the Vote on Account for 2008-09, which provides the figures needed to enable public services to continue during the early part of a financial year until the Main Estimates and associated Budget Bill are debated before the summer. The Assembly has already approved Budget plans for 2008-2011, and the Vote on Account for 2008-09 is the first outworking of that.

The Committee for Finance and Personnel produced an extensive report on the Executive’s budget for 2008, and awaits a formal response from the Department of Finance and Personnel to the recommendations contained in that report.

I am sure that the House will be pleased to hear that I do not intend to reopen the Budget debate today. I support both motions on behalf of my Committee.

Mr Storey: I wish to speak as a Member of the Assembly and not as a member of the Committee for Finance and Personnel, of which I am the Deputy Chairperson. The reasons for that will be made obvious in a few moments.

I thank the Minister for giving us the detail behind these lengthy and wordy motions, and especially in light of the volumes that are set out in the Supplementary Estimates for 2007-08. I want to focus particularly on the issue of departmental expenditure limits, and the control and scrutiny powers that the Assembly and its Committees have in relation to their respective Departments. I raise that issue because of the disgraceful comments that were made by the Minister of Education when she appeared before the Committee for Education in the Senate Chamber last Thursday. On that occasion, she made it abundantly clear that she would not be subjected to scrutiny.

The Members opposite may live in denial or dismiss that episode as something that is in the past — as Mr O’Dowd tried to do the other evening — and tell us that we must move on. We have heard all that before from Sinn Féin, who would like to revise the past. However, these are the facts: a Minister of the Executive, who is subject to a ministerial code and who has responsibilities to discharge, made it abundantly clear that she would not be subject to scrutiny.

Bearing in mind that the Minister of Finance and Personnel has today illustrated that, post-St Andrews, there is a legal requirement upon Ministers and the Executive to discharge their duties in an appropriate fashion, I suggest that the Minister of Education is failing, and is seeking to make a solo run. She wants to do that because she is well aware that she cannot achieve consensus in the Executive. All sorts of financial issues emanate from that situation, and I want to keep my remarks in a financial context.

The Minister of Education has a responsibility to discharge a departmental budget. How has she discharged that budget to date? I know that there is a plan to build a bridge at Carlingford, which may assist the Minister to get from her home in the Irish Republic to Northern Ireland quicker, but it will not help her to address the issues.

The money that she was given to disburse to the education and library boards was intended to be spent at a local level. One would assume that those education and library boards would be able to make proposals that were in keeping with good financial management, and that they could make recommendations that were within the terms and remit of their responsibility. How­ever, during the summer, in my constituency, the Minister of Education decided to ignore the decisions and the advice of the North Eastern Education and Library Board about the viability of two schools — for financial reasons. That decision has been reviewed, but the Minister has ignored reality. The financial consequences of her decision have cost more than £500,000.

I will illustrate the stupidity of the decision that the Minister has made. A principal has been appointed as of 31 March as opposed to 1 April. Of course, we all know the reason why the principal could not have been appointed on 1 April — it is April Fool’s Day. The foolish decision to move the date from the next financial year back into this financial year has cost the North Eastern Education and Library Board over £8,000.

The delegated responsibility of this particular Minister must be scrutinised, challenged and questioned. We are all guilty of coming to the Chamber and using words such as “accountability” and “scrutiny” and of saying that we must be all-encompassing in how we move forward and that everything must be squeaky clean. However, when this particular Minister is brought into the light, and when we challenge her financial controls when she makes a decision, it becomes abundantly clear that she has failed to operate in a way that gains consensus and support. Therefore, I ask the Minister of Finance and Personnel to take look at how the Department of Education operates.

Of course, the classroom assistants’ pay dispute is another example that must be mentioned. Remember, the Minister of Education was able to tell us that, financially, the matter is not her responsibility and that it is the responsibility of somebody else. Thus, she shifts the blame and ensures that whatever costs are incurred are incurred by somebody else.

Mr O’Dowd: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I know that the DUP missed an education debate last week because its Members slept in, but is this debate about the spring Supplementary Estimates or about education? Not for the first time, I am slightly confused by Mr Storey’s remarks.

Mr Speaker: I assure the Member that I have listened closely to Mr Storey’s remarks, and he has been very careful to keep them related to finance. Sometimes Members — from all sides of the House — are inclined to stray from the motion, but, on this occasion, Mr Storey has been very careful not to do so.

Mr Storey: Thank you, Mr Speaker. Of course, I must mention the fact that the Education Minister arrived late to the Assembly and to the Education Committee meeting.

I want to mention the finance that the Education Minister requires for her visionary proposals — albeit that we are still in the dark as to what those proposals are. The Minister said that she would require no further finance as she would be able to fund her proposals from current allocations. This House and its Committees must scrutinise the proposals to ensure that that will be the case. I have no doubt that when we work out the costings for her proposals — whatever they may be — there will be severe financial implications. We must be made aware of any such implications at an early stage. The Dickson plan was mentioned; it took four years to plan and three years to implement. Thus the Minister’s proposals will surely have huge financial implications. I am sure that the Minister of Finance and Personnel would like to know how those implications will affect future Budget management and how he can oversee future Budget planning when the Education Minister does not know how much her proposals will cost.

Therefore, I support the Minister of Finance and Personnel’s motion, but I ask him to examine the issues that I have raised, particularly departmental expenditure limits and financial controls. The Minister of Finance and Personnel’s track record with his Committee has been such that he has ensured that all relevant information has been made available to the Committee in an open and transparent way and without any particular ideology attached. Given that, I ask him to ensure that, in all financial matters — whether they involve the Department of Education or any other Department —Ministers are held to account and Committees are not sidelined.

I support the motion.

12.45 pm

Mr O’Loan: The spring Supplementary Estimates — voluminous and detailed as they are — are essentially the outworking of processes that have already been brought to the Assembly and agreed. Therefore, I will make no further comment on those.

Regarding the Vote on Account, the SDLP made its stance on the Budget clear during the debate on Tuesday 22 January 2008. [Interruption.]

Thank you, Mr Storey.

We made it clear that what we were saying was based on our principles and values as a social democratic party. We are committed to an inclusive society; where there is disadvantage and exclusion, our instinct is to identify and tackle it. We also want a society that binds together well, that displays real harmony and in which problems are tackled together. Furthermore, we want balanced regional development.

We expressed real concerns about the Budget, as did members of all parties. By this stage, everyone will recognise that. I welcome the Minister’s remarks today about the role of Assembly Members in providing a challenge to proposals that come before us.

There will be a further opportunity tomorrow to say more during the debate on the Second Stage of the Budget Bill. The Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel, Mitchel McLaughlin, has rightly said that we have already had opportunities to comment in general on budgetary matters.

The issue of secondary-education reform has not diminished in its importance since the debate on the Budget. Indeed, it has come considerably more to the fore. I am pleased that the Committee for Education has now expressed clearly its concerns — as the SDLP did at that time — about the lack of clarity in the proposals for secondary education. Such concerns are now widely shared among all political parties, including the Minister’s.

We have all listened to the speech from the Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel, Mr Mervyn Storey, which contained trenchant criticisms and concerns — very much the same concerns that the SDLP has expressed. If there is no clarity about the proposals, there can be no clarity about the budgetary implications, and certainly no provision for potentially massive changes. Those changes will occur within the three-year Budget period and they require budgetary provision, which is not there.

The SDLP will be constructive in how it presents opposition to proposals with which it has concerns. We will not attempt to hold up the implementation of the necessary resources that are required to keep the wheels of Government in motion. Procurement has to continue and salaries have to be paid. For that reason, we support the spring Supplementary Estimates and the Vote on Account.

Dr Farry: Through the spring Supplementary Estimates, we are essentially implementing the Executive’s tinkering with the last direct rule Budget, and the first implementation of the Budget for the incoming year — the first of the devolved Budgets.

The Alliance Party has already made clear our concerns about the flawed devolved Budget. However, we recognise that the spring Supplementary Estimates and the Vote on Account are about good financial housekeeping and ensuring the continuity of services, both as regards the current financial year and the start of next year.

Although we have major concerns, at this stage we are not minded to force votes and to have the repetitive unnecessary process of Divisions. However, we will no doubt come to that when the main Budget Bill is debated during June 2008.

We have an opportunity today to reflect on a number of the structural flaws of the inherited situation that has been progressed by the Executive, and also, more importantly, the future path that has been chosen by the four-party mandatory coalition Executive.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Dr Farry: I imagine that that may well be the last “hear, hear” I get from the DUP Benches during the next few minutes.

I echo the comments made by the Minister about the importance of accurate financial projections. I recognise the efforts that have been made regarding addressing underspends by Departments. There were concerns that underspends were originally quite high compared to other devolved Parliaments in the United Kingdom. They have since reduced, but clearly there is a lot more room for improvement.

To a layman, the sums that are involved can be staggering and, in simplistic terms, would make a major difference to several of the services that are falling behind because of a lack of resources.

The Assembly is starting from a position that is unsustainable for Northern Ireland. My party and I are ambitious for Northern Ireland and want radical change. However, we fear that the decisions that have been taken so far sell us short. As a society, we have an unhealthy dependency on the public sector: depending on the measuring method that is used, we are between 65% and 70% dependent on the public sector. We rely on a large fiscal subvention from HM Treasury, which meets almost 50% of our public expenditure requirements.

Even with such a huge public sector, we struggle to deliver the same standard of public services as that enjoyed elsewhere in these islands. The amount of money that we invest in transport means that, for example, transportation infrastructure is well behind that of all our competitors. That is compounded by our over­emphasis on roads at the expense of investment in public transport. That situation will get worse over the next 10 years. We are not addressing properly environmental protection or projecting the creation of an environmental protection agency.

There are major inefficiencies in our schools estate, and I appreciate that there has been a lot of discussion on education in the debate so far. However, looking at the underspend of various Departments — particularly in areas of capital — it is hard not to notice that education is falling behind and that many projects that were promised have been shelved. I understand that those projects must be kept within the parameters of a policy on sustainable schools. Where is that policy? Those projects are waiting for decisions to be made. Some schools are already looking ahead to the next round of capital investment in the schools estate, and they wonder what type of vacuum that they are dealing with. Therefore, some clarity is required.

We are also behind all other parts of these islands in our per capita funding of the arts sector. Although more money has been made available for that in the new Budget, it comes nowhere near to closing the gap.

Our health budget is about £200 million behind that of the rest of the UK. In preparation for today’s debate, I looked at the equivalent discussions that took place in 2000, and it is interesting that the points that I am making today on the gap between our health investments and those in the rest of the UK were being made then. Eight years on, we are still talking about that subject, and the issue has not been properly addressed.

Mental health is a critical area; on average, 12% of the health budget in the rest of the UK is directed to mental health, but in Northern Ireland, it is stuck at about 8%. That presents a challenge for us to readdress our priorities to accommodate what is a growing sector and priority area for many.

Due to the distortions that are caused by trying to manage a divided society, public expenditure in Northern Ireland is already heavily skewed. The unnecessary duplication of services means that the possibility of creating quality public services for the whole community is hampered. Sadly, the Executive are not prepared to address the challenge of creating a shared future despite the clear human, social, economic and financial imperatives to do so.

Therefore, Northern Ireland is starting from a very difficult base, which last year’s UK comprehensive spending review (CSR) has worsened. However, we have made that situation worse still through our populist approach to taxation at the expense of investment in public services and the rebalancing of the economy. I do not want the tax burden to be any more arduous than is necessary, but serious questions must be asked about an approach to local taxation that is based on populism instead of on hard evidence. That approach comes at the expense of investment in, and modernisation of, our local services.

The Alliance Party wants to end Northern Ireland’s dependence on financial subvention from London. The rapid turnaround in the Republic of Ireland from being one of the poorest countries in the European Union 20 years ago to being one of the richest today is an example of what can happen if we are ambitious. Unless we wrestle with the costs of segregation, which act as a straitjacket, we will remain trapped fiscally. For the foreseeable future, Northern Ireland will, sadly, continue to rely on financial assistance from London. Therefore, it is critical to use that money wisely. How will HM Treasury react to the populist approach to taxation that has been adopted? How can this or future Executives argue credibly for favourable funding when the resources are used to fund a populist approach to taxation instead of being invested in sustainable public services, as happens in the rest of the UK?

Two weeks ago, I made the point that organisations as diverse as the Economic Research Institute of Northern Ireland (ERINI), the CBI and the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action (NICVA) had challenged the approach being taken to household taxation. In his answer, the Minister shifted the goalposts and argued that those organisations supported him on business taxation, which in itself is debatable, but the fundamental point was ducked. For different reasons, those organisations argue that additional resources are better invested either in rebalancing the economy or in addressing social problems, or in a balance of both.

On business taxation, the key issue should be the rate of corporation tax. The Alliance Party has been enthusiastic about tax-varying powers. The party is also clear that, in the event that those powers are achieved — even though that is unlikely given the outcome of Varney I — under the terms of the Azores ruling, revenue lost would have to be made up from elsewhere within the Northern Ireland block grant, either from reductions in service delivery or from other taxes in the system. I am not sure that that point has been considered or how such a situation could be managed were a different rate of corporation tax to be achieved in the next three years.

Ultimately, corporation tax is only a means to an end, and that end is making Northern Ireland sustainable — a sustainable economy and society with high growth and low dependency.

There is a fundamental challenge to rebalance our economy and address the regional disparities that exist in the UK. The Alliance Party welcomes the emphasis that has been placed on the economy by the Executive, but has some scepticism about the delivery. Generally speaking, there are lofty aspirations, but no clear road map as to how to get there. Many measures being pursued by the Executive are more about maintaining the status quo and holding back the tide of globalisation than genuinely trying to integrate Northern Ireland into the global economy. I am disappointed that the Executive seem to be giving up the fight on corporation tax. The Assembly has not yet had a statement on the outcome of Varney I, never mind any comprehensive rebuttal of its flawed analysis — something that many businessmen and economists are already doing.

The Executive has shifted the goalposts on convergence targets. No longer are they talking about trying to rebalance Northern Ireland against the UK average for productivity; rather, they are trying to rebalance it against the UK average, minus the south-east of England and London. Although I recognise the desire to remove the distortions that come from including the south-east of England, it now appears that we are fighting over the scraps from the table rather than challenging the overall regional balance of the UK economy as a whole — something that we must return to.

In conclusion, the Assembly must do more than simply take a large chunk of public expenditure from Whitehall and determine how to reprioritise it; it must seek radical and ambitious change in this society. A major political challenge is looming. There are expectations of what devolution should be doing to rebalance and reform Northern Ireland, and the means to do so will be a matter for debate.

Today, my party is happy to support the spring Supplementary Estimates as they stand — recognising that that they are inherited — and support starting off the next financial year in a wise and prudent manner.

Mr Hamilton: I support the two motions. The Minister of Finance and Personnel said that the subject matter was the cornerstone of departmental expenditure limits: the use of resources and holding Departments to account. Given that point, this is a timely opportunity to discuss the important issue of financial management.

One of my first contributions in the Chamber was during the debate on the Main Estimates last year, when I called for sound and strong financial stewardship of the public’s money. At that time, I had cause for concern. First, there was the attitude — which still pervades in some Members in the Chamber although, thankfully, they are not in power — that we could simply call for absolutely everything under the sun and need not worry where the money came from. However, the Alliance Party has now told us where it would get the money from, which is by taxing everybody and everything that moves — and if it does not move, taxing it twice.

I will need to catch myself on: I agreed with one thing that Dr Farry said.

Mrs I Robinson: Oh dear.

Mr Hamilton: I know; someone will have to take my temperature as there is something wrong. I have had a cold recently, and clearly it has gone to my head.

1.00 pm

The Alliance Party talked about the size of the public sector and how overinflated it is in a Northern Ireland context. I agree. However, that party supports, for example, the creation of an environmental protection agency, which would have carte blanche to take action. No consideration has been given to what such a body might cost, its size, or the impact that it would have on the public sector.

The Alliance Party called again for massive additional investment to be made in a variety of public services, yet it made no mention of any efficiencies that would match that investment. We cannot simply churn that sort of money into the public sector and not expect it to grow. That, therefore, runs contrary to any of the Alliance Party’s comments about the size of the public sector.

We are becoming tired of that sort of repetitive speech. However, I am not at all tired of hearing about the Alliance Party’s taxation plans. In fact, I encourage its members to talk more about how they would tax individuals, households and businesses more. I get the sense that, if they kept talking in that way, we would not have to hear too many more of their speeches, because their Benches would be empty after the next election. I therefore encourage that party to talk about its taxation plans at every opportunity.

The other cause for concern that has been raised is the poor financial management record that, in conjunction with a culture of underspend and overcommitment, the Executive have inherited from direct rule Administrations. Several Members have spoken already about that culture of underspend. It is important, because during 2004-05 and 2006-07, there was an underspend of nearly £400 million of current expenditure and nearly £500 million of capital underspend. Underspend on that scale renders insignificant any arguments or squabbles between the Department of Finance and Personnel and the other Departments over Budget allocations. If Departments cannot spend the allocations that their Ministers have cried for, the allocation process is seriously called into question.

The figures that I quoted compare very unfavourably with those from Westminster, Wales and Scotland. Sometimes there are valid reasons for underspend, particularly capital underspend, if, for example, a project encounters a delay in obtaining planning permission or there is an unforeseen technical problem. However, there is an onus on Departments to identify underspend quickly so that it can be reallocated and spent on projects that are needed here and now. The Committee for Finance and Personnel, of which I am a member, has called for ever-lower targets for underspend in order to reduce it to an acceptable level. Some underspend is inevitable, but we should aspire to achieve the goal of 1%, which would bring us into line with our devolved counterparts in the rest of the UK.

Overcommitment is allied to underspend. In the past, it was called “planned overcommitment”, although it rose at such a rate that it seemed more out of control than planned. Departments seemed to have a hit-it-and-hope attitude to underspend. We were all shocked when, during the June monitoring round, the Minister of Finance and Personnel told the House that he had inherited £153 million of overcommitment from the direct rule Administration. That is a staggering figure. Although some underspend is inevitable and is required to accommodate overcommitment of that scale, under direct rule, the figures had risen year on year at such a rate that they were becoming dangerously excessive, and a culture of underspend and overcommit­ment was becoming endemic.

As the Finance Minister said recently, improved financial management by Departments shows that it is justifiable to reduce that amount of overcommitment at a manageable and cautious pace. A tentative downward trajectory is required. I welcome very much the Budget’s targets to reduce gradually overcommitment from its present level to around £60 million in 2010-11.

Sensible budget setting is essential; as much as anything, underspend results from poor planning. When Ministers make bids for Budget allocations, they must ensure that they can be realised in the years for which they have been requested. However, as I said, there is encouraging evidence of an improving financial picture. The December monitoring round released £107 million of current expenditure and £132 million of capital — far higher reduced requirements than in previous years — and the reduced requirements this year are, to date, 12% higher than in the whole of the previous year.

I welcome the assurances of the Finance Minister that he and his Executive colleagues are working to improve the level and quality of financial management in Departments. I do not doubt that devolution is responsible for the change. Local Ministers have more consideration for the funds at their disposal, have more focus, identify reduced requirements earlier and free up funds for allocation elsewhere, because they care about what goes on, unlike the fly-in, fly-out direct rule Ministers whom we had to endure for many years.

As the Finance Minister said, it is essential to embed higher standards of financial management within the public sector. That is particularly pertinent now because of the tight CSR period that applies right across the board and the end-year flexibility situation. The Minister said that there is no certainty with regard to the level of access to underspend from the current year onwards. In some respects, that generates a worrying degree of uncertainty and risk.

In its draft Budget report, the Committee for Finance and Personnel stated that:

“there is now an even greater onus on departments to manage public finances in a way which achieves the highest possible level of spend within authorised limits and maximises the impact from available resources.”

That is a maxim by which all Ministers and all Departments should live. It is absolutely essential that we have good financial management. If we achieve that, it will be a marked improvement on direct rule. Perhaps, on first impressions, it does not have as big an impact on people’s lives as a new hospital, or an improved schools or roads network; but in the long term, it is more important than anything else in the delivery of real change.

That is right and proper in any set of circumstances. After all, the money we manage is the people’s money. We inhabit a tighter financial framework than in recent times, and rigorous financial management is a must.

I support both motions.

Ms J McCann: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I, too, support both motions.

The Budget allocations have been a source of debate inside and outside the Chamber. Many issues and concerns around those allocations are still outstanding. However, no programmes or services will be delivered by any Department unless Members support the motions in order to process the allocations and resources to ensure the continuity and delivery of much-needed services.

There are a number of major obstacles to the progressive development and delivery by the Executive of the new social, economic and political reality. Central to that is the fact that taxation and public expenditure policy are still set in London. As republicans, we believe that the only context that will truly deliver sustainable economic and social progress is that of an island economy. However, we are faced with the challenges of achieving the best possible outcomes within the economic, social and political realities of the here and now.

Sinn Féin will continue to press for a full range of fiscal powers to be made available to the Executive and Assembly. Those powers are required to facilitate the delivery of high-quality public services, the develop­ment of the economy, the building of prosperity and the redressing of the inequalities and disadvantage that afflict substantial portions of society. In the short term, and towards the same ends, we seek to ensure the best use and allocation of resources.

The Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister and the Department of Finance and Personnel should put in place immediately a transparent mechanism for future equality scrutiny of all public spending plans, in strict and full compliance with section 75 and schedule 9 of the “North of Ireland” Act 1998. That may include the use of external expertise, given the findings of the report on public-sector capacity and the fact that section 75 has not been properly implemented to date.

Sinn Féin still has some concerns about the overall resources available for the various stated priorities, including the anti-poverty strategy and the lack of clarity regarding how that money will be utilised across the various Departments in order to meet the stated aims. We hope to see further investment in the Health Service targeted at front-line services, including community and primary care services.

Dr Farry: The Member has listed a number of criticisms of the Programme for Government and the Budget, with which many of my colleagues and I agree. Why, therefore, is Sinn Féin supporting both documents, and why did it sign up to them in the Executive?

It seems rather bizarre that Sinn Féin Ministers have signed up to the documents, given that the Member, and other Back-Bench Members from her party, have criticised them and identified their flaws.

Ms J McCann: As I said at the outset, Sinn Féin still has a number of concerns but, overall, we support the Programme for Government, Budget and investment strategy. I have listed some of our concerns, and we will continue to try to address those.

Sinn Féin will continue to campaign for funding to meet the needs of social housing, the arts and community-based services, including youth services. We will lobby Departments to ensure that the priorities in the Programme for Government are reflected in the delivery of services. The upcoming investment conference provides an opportunity to deliver on the important issues of fairness, inclusion and equality by actively and effectively challenging the existing patterns of social and economic disadvantage and using increased prosperity to tackle ongoing poverty.

The outcomes of challenging and tackling that poverty and disadvantage and supporting balanced regional development must be central to any future foreign direct investment. We should not compete with the South of Ireland for investment; rather, we should work closely in partnership to attract investment in an all-island context. No one inside or outside the Chamber should be concerned by that, as it can only complement and strengthen the economy as a whole.

Much mention has been made of the scrutiny that Departments are subject to, and of their accountability. Departments are not only accountable to Ministers and MLAs; they are also accountable to local people, whose money they spend. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Weir: Given the number of occasions on which we have debated budgetary issues, I have a creeping sense of déjà vu. The same arguments come up time and time again. I hope not to disappoint by reiterating the same arguments from this side of the House.

Whatever criticism may be made, that of lack of consultation on the budgetary process cannot hold any degree of substance. Anyone who flicks through that thin volume, ‘Northern Ireland Spring Supplementary Estimates 2007-08’, will see the high level of detail that is provided. One wonders whether my colleague Mr Sammy Wilson, who seems to be a new convert to the environmental cause, will be going apoplectic at the sheer number of pages that are in the document. Nevertheless, the level of detail that is provided allows the fullest possible debate.

The spring Supplementary Estimates 2007-08 and the Estimates for next year show record levels of invest­ment, which will act as a key driver to our economy. Perhaps I should not make any more references to drivers, because I suspect that at least one party will be touchy on that subject.

The Supplementary Estimates will be judged not principally on the figures that are provided, but, as was said during the Budget debate, on the level of delivery. People will look at how money can best be diverted from administration into front-line services. I echo one of the key points that has been mentioned by a number of my colleagues: the drift into underspend and overcommitment under direct rule. They are the two ends of the spectrum; a budgetary process that operates in a bizarre see-saw fashion is not acceptable. I welcome the commitment that the Minister has made to start tackling the issue. When the public see large amounts of underspend and overcommitment, it undermines the credibility of the budgetary process.

Delivery, particularly of capital projects, must also be timely. Here I concur, at least for once, with my colleague from North Down Mr Farry that there has been a major problem with capital projects on the education front.

1.15 pm

Promises made by direct rule Ministers for capital projects in North Down and other constituencies were simply not delivered; and that key issue must be tackled. However, given the constraints and the inherited position of underspend in the resources available, I welcome the fact that money has been spent wisely. Some £53 million has been allocated to NI Water and £45 million has been allocated to the Roads Service. Some £70 million has been committed to the Department for Social Development for the warm homes scheme, social housing, etc.

I am also pleased that money has been allocated to help review and reform public expenditure by the Health Service and the Department of Finance and Personnel, because that can act as a driver for invest-to-save in the future. It is important to ensure that front-line delivery is as good as possible.

However, I said that there was a strong feeling of déjà vu about the situation, because, yet again, there was criticism from the SDLP and the Alliance Party, although more restrained than on previous occasions. To be fair to both parties, they seemed to be backing the Supplementary Estimates. However, the SDLP seems to be constantly doing the hokey-cokey — not quite sure whether it is either in or out of the four-party coalition. The Alliance Party appears to agree to a particular budgetary position but takes a different position when it comes to discussions in the Chamber. However, at least the SDLP is willing to support today’s position, so we should be thankful for small mercies.

Northern Ireland is spending more money on health than any other part of the United Kingdom. However, although investment has increased, it has not been directed properly to front-line services. Indeed, the increase in the amount of money being spent on administration has massively outstripped any that has gone into front-line services. We need a better Health Service; not simply one that has more money pumped into it.

Again, the Alliance Party seems to be taking a schizophrenic attitude towards the Budget. Dr Farry told us that the objective should be to rebalance the economy — presumably by strengthening the private sector. Indeed, there was a concern that too much money is being put into the public sector. However, Dr Farry’s solution to rebalancing the economy is to increase the size of the public sector. The Alliance Party is seeking to increase taxation, and it is berating the Executive for fixing the regional and business rates.

One wonders how the economy would be rebalanced by increasing taxation and spending more money. It is essentially the old Soviet command economy. The solution being offered by comrade Farry strikes of tractor farms in the Urals. Indeed, the Alliance Party is adopting the same policies adopted years ago by Mr Brezhnev. One wonders whether such a far-left agenda will cause choking on the Alliance wine-and-cheese circuit or indeed at the parties of its allies — the Green Party — on the nutmeg-and-Perrier circuit.

It is the case that public services must be protected if the economy is to be rebalanced and if favourable economic circumstances are to be created to help to grow the private sector. This Budget has a record level of support for public services, but the circumstances must be created to help the private sector to grow.

Dr Farry: How does the Member respond to criticism from the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and the Economic Research Institute of Northern Ireland of the Executive’s approach to the regional rate where they argued that the revenue lost would be better invested in supporting the four drivers that have been identified by the Department of Finance and Personnel and the rest of the Executive?

Mr Weir: The regional rate has gone up by 60% over five years. If we are going to create the conditions whereby private enterprise can flourish, we need to have an economy that does not overly tax people.

Mr Hamilton: Is the Member aware that the domestic regional rate will have to be trebled if the high levels of investment in the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety alone that the Alliance Party is suggesting are to be achieved? Given that a 60% increase in the domestic regional rate was imposed during the last five years of direct rule, does the Member agree that the public purse cannot endure any more rates increases?

Mr Weir: The level of taxation that the Alliance Party has proposed will mean that, because so little money will be left, people will be given pocket money each week instead of wages. The correct economic circumstances must be created. Historically, economic circumstances that have been created to benefit private investment have also served to grow the economy. The South is an example of that, given that it increased massively its level of private investment.

There is much to commend in the Budget. When one gets away from the Alliance Party’s socialist-like doctrines, one will see that the Budget will deliver to the front line of public services. The Budget focuses on efficiency and investment and concentrates on delivery for front-line services. Unlike other Members whose support for the proposals appears to be reluctant, I enthusiastically support the motion.

Mr Beggs: A technical process, which is associated with the final departmental Estimates for 2007-08, is involved in achieving the spring Supplementary Estimates. I do not know how many members of the public will read the estimates, but it would benefit people to examine them in detail. In particular, I urge Committee members to look at the sections that deal with their relevant Departments, because lessons are to be learned for the long term and some areas deserve additional scrutiny.

The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment has surrendered £81 million in cash out of a total resource budget of £296 million — that is almost one quarter of its budget. Significant increases are planned for subsequent years for that Department and for the Department for Employment and Learning. Any additional money that is given to a Department must be managed carefully; I see it as a warning sign when Departments do not spend the money that they have been allocated.

Under the Department of Finance and Personnel’s reform agenda, approximately £150 million was allocated in resource funding, but that has increased by almost one sixth to £178 million. Why is the reform costing so much more than the allocated budget? The Committee for Finance and Personnel, of which I am a member, will have to look closely at that.

There are significant variations in the allocations to the Civil Service pension schemes. The summary of Estimates shows a present net provision of £273 million and a proposed change of an additional £160 million. That gives a new net provision of £433 million. However, in cash terms, there is presently a requirement for £245 million, but there is a proposed reduction of £200 million. That gives a new requirement of an additional £45 million. There are, therefore, significant movements, and it would be helpful if the Minister were to give further information on what is happening with that. In any budgetary process, it is better if Departments can plan accurately where money will be spent so that significant funds will not have to be altered in that fashion.

The Department for Regional Development’s resources have also changed significantly in the Budget period. They have altered by almost one seventh, from £1·65 billion to £1·88 billion. Members are aware of significant changes relating to issues that are connected to water, but it is also worth mentioning roads. Following the December monitoring rounds, there is a traditional tarmacking spree in Northern Ireland. Large amounts of money are spent on tarmacking, filling in potholes or resurfacing roads. Are we getting the best value from the contractors when money is spent in that fashion? Perhaps those in the Committee are best placed to take action on that.

The report also contains some proposals that will cost relatively little, but which, nevertheless, expose highly significant U-turns. On page 293 of ‘Spring Supplementary Estimates 2007-08’, it is revealed that the North/South Ministerial Council will receive an additional £212,000 to cover “increased costs for plenary meetings” and:

“professional fees associated with the new accommodation project”.

It is not a significantly large sum, but that is the first time that I have heard of new accommodation project expenditure. For many years, the Democratic Unionist Party vigorously opposed North/South expenditure, yet now its members plan to invest significant sums upgrading North/South Ministerial Council premises. I leave it to them to explain that.

What is being proposed, and what scrutiny have those proposals undergone? The Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister is best placed to pursue those matters. A colleague who sits on that Committee told me that he is not aware of those proposals. The various Committees must investigate such issues in order to ensure that we get the best value for money and that that money is wisely spent.

Concerning the Vote on Account, as I said earlier, several Departments have been awarded significant above-Budget increases — in particular, the Department for Employment and Learning and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment.

Over the next three years, there will be reduced end-year flexibility, so it will become increasingly important for each Department to carefully manage its expenditure in order to ensure that money is wisely spent within the designated time. We do not want money to be returned to the Treasury; we want it to be well spent in Northern Ireland. Devolution, under the guidance of local Ministers and scrutiny Committees, is the best mechanism for ensuring that. English or Scottish direct rule Ministers would not suffer any major political fallout by returning funds to the Treasury, whereas local politicians will obviously suffer if they fail to manage our money well. Devolution offers the prospect of better-managed funds.

The Member from the Alliance Party appeared keen to increase business rates and introduce a local income tax. I oppose such ideas. We have a fragile business community, and we wish to encourage entrepreneurial activity and get more people back into work. There are already too many people who do not contribute to the economy, and any such proposals would create disincentives to achieving those goals. We must encourage more people to be entrepreneurial and to return to work in order to contribute to the economy.

I am content to support both the Vote on Account 2008-09 and the spring Supplementary Estimates 2007-08.

Mr Attwood: The Minister said that the role of Committees — and, presumably, Members — should be to challenge what is going on in Government Departments in order to achieve better outcomes. I agree with that, and the tone of my speech will reflect that; however, I do not agree with his assertion that the role of Committees should not be one of opposition. That would put a straightjacket on Committees. Given the debate about the 11-plus, even the DUP would not want to be in such a straightjacket when dealing with possible education reforms. I wonder whether the DUP members of the Education Committee were surprised when the Minister of Finance indicated that they should not adopt an opposition role concerning the 11-plus.

1.30 pm

That said, I want to address two or three themes. The Minister said, quite rightly in my view, that we should not wait three years to find out what might potentially be errors in the overall Budget. I want to raise two issues around this Budget, in a very genuine way.

The first concerns research, development and innova­tion. In the Irish Government’s ‘National Development Plan 2007-2013’, the Taoiseach stated that:

“We will ensure that our enterprise sector stays at the leading edge globally, by continuing to attract key inward investment, by further stimulating the indigenous sector, by renewed emphasis on”

— and this is the critical part —

“worker training and skills and … by expansion of our science, technology and innovation capacity”.

I have said in the House before that although people inside the Irish Government affirm the reduction in corporation tax as a catalyst for economic development, they also assert that skills, research, technology and innovation sustain inward and indigenous investment. I continue to be concerned that although there has been some adjustment to the Budget, with respect to R&D and innovation, it is not adequate.

During the six years of the national development plan in the South, £25·8 billion will be invested in training, skills, schools and higher education. Yet the draft Budget that came before the House some months ago had no Budget line for dedicated innovation and research. Quite properly, the Minister responded to that situation by agreeing that an innovation fund would be created. However, as I understand it, that fund is worth £90 million in total, of which £38 million is to be contributed by the Irish Government. That means that our contribution to innovation at this phase of our history is going to be a little over £50 million. Contrast that figure with the six-year investment in the South. Are we going to be able to position ourselves in the global economy around the critical issue of R&D and innovation when our contribution to the innovation fund is £50 million?

When the figures in the innovation fund are analysed, further questions arise. Part of the fund is actually filling in gaps left by changes in science research investment funds. Are we in a position to leapfrog in the way that we must in order to have the successful and sustainable economy that I, the Minister and everybody else wishes to see?

The second issue that I want to mention is training. This may be premature, because the final figures are not in, but it is only fair that I flag it up to the Assembly and the Minister. Unless we have the necessary skills base to grow our economy and ensure that the 6,500 jobs promised in the Programme for Government come and can be serviced, we are going to be in trouble. Figures given to the Committee for Employment and Learning on 18 January — and they may have been adjusted in the past 12 days — suggest that the number of level 2 and level 3 apprentices in the North has fallen by nearly 20% compared with last year, from over 7,500 to a little under 5,500 — a drop of 2,000.

If one bores down into those figures, one discovers that, as of 18 January, 5,492 people were in training, 116 of whom were at level 3 — skilled apprenticeships — and 2,435 were at level 2; the figures may have been adjusted more favourably since then. I do not wish to prejudge, but where level 3 skills are concerned, the situation may become critical, resulting in a black hole for our skills base. That black hole will not serve our economy well for indigenous and inward investment economic opportunities.

However, the situation may be even more critical if comparisons are made with figures in the South. There are targets in the South, over the next six years, to have 48% of young people training at skills levels 6 to 10 — higher and further education — and 45% at skills levels 4 and 5. Only 7% come in under performance targets at skills levels 2 and 3. If the North is to compete in the global market and leapfrog over all those years of lost hope and lost opportunity, how will our skills base service indigenous and inward investment opportunities?

I want to be positive and constructive. If the Minister is correct that we should not have to wait three years to discover the real situation, I am putting it on all Members’ radar screens that, in this phase, we may not be in as good a place as we would have hoped.

In the Minister’s response to the Budget debate on 29 January, he said of the ending of the 11-plus:

“I accept that the proposal in question is of great significance and is, potentially, hugely expensive … If new pressures arise, clearly there will be decisions for the Executive to take.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 27, p151, col 2].

Two weeks after the Minister made that statement, is he any the wiser about the potentially “hugely expensive” consequences of the decision on the 11-plus? Are we still facing a black hole?

Mr McQuillan: History is being made today, and it is an honour to be able to take part in the debate and support the motions. Those motions enable Departments to get on with doing their job of running, for example, health, social security, roads and the education programmes that have been approved by the Assembly. If the Assembly does not agree to the motion, there is, in the most extreme circumstances, the possibility of Departments’ grinding to a halt because of a lack of funding. Today’s motions will ensure that funding continues uninterrupted, and I am sure that all Members can realise the need for the Assembly to support the Minister of Finance and Personnel.

Although the mechanisms required may appear boring to some Members, it must be remembered that that is the means by which Departments receive the funding that they require for their programmes. Therefore, the debate is important, and I sincerely hope that all Members will support the motions. Lest any of us forget, governance is not only about the exciting debates but day-to-day basic housekeeping tasks, such as today’s motions.

Some Members have moaned and groaned about the Budget provisions. I hope that today they will realise the importance of the motion and support it; although, undoubtedly, they will have another moan in the process. It is a privilege for us to be part of the process of developing schemes for new water and sewerage infrastructure; supporting rural transport; investing in new trains and buses; funding the Food Standards Agency; and continually upgrading the road network. We are talking about all that work today; not just about the motion from the Minister of Finance and Personnel.

The Programme for Government depends on wise and prudent spending on its priorities through the Budget. First, the money must be given to the Departments to spend. Let us do that today with a unanimous voice, and let us continue to work for the people of Northern Ireland now and in the future.

I seek assurance from the Minister of Finance and Personnel that the £12 million that has been set aside for the Minister of Education for the classroom assistants’ dispute will be spent on that issue.

Mr Elliott: I thank the Minister for today’s announce­ment. The first issue that I want to mention has been discussed by the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development at length over the past few months and relates to the proposed development of the former Forkhill army base.

Although some proposals for the site have great merit — I and other members of the Committee support them — I am concerned that the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development is proposing to take the lead. The proposals contain plans for social housing, childcare facilities and enterprise units, none of which requires the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development to take the lead. They are very worthy causes, and I suggest that the Department for Social Development and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment take the lead.

I have asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel how he proposes to deal with the matter, and I look forward to the proposal being led by another Department. The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development can provide an input to the proposals but the finances talked about would be better spent in another area of the Department rather than be used by it in a leading role. That is especially the case given that this week we learnt that the Department is going to axe a very important course at Loughrey College. The commun­ications course accounts for one third of students at the college, and I am concerned that the Department is planning to take something very successful out of circulation while it spends money on something else that is not in its remit.

I am also concerned about the amount of money that is being transferred to the Department for Regional Development for road maintenance. Over the past few years, I have noticed that road maintenance gets quite a bit of surplus money at the end of each year. The constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone falls badly behind as regards the road maintenance budget. County Fermanagh has around 9% of the road network but receives only 6% of the road maintenance budget. I would like to see more diversion of end-year funding into road maintenance and especially into a constituency in which there is poor public transport and no rail system.

If money is being directed into the railway system in other parts of the Province, my constituency should get its fair share of the road maintenance budget. Indeed, any additional money should be diverted to that budget.

1.45 pm

Mr Gallagher: I, too, thank the Minister for bringing the Supplementary Estimates to the Assembly, thus providing an opportunity for further debate.

The Minister mentioned Civil Service reform programmes, and I want to ask about the childcare voucher scheme in particular. As Members know, that scheme, which helps to offset the cost of childcare, is used by almost all major employers. Many employees opt into the scheme in lieu of some of their wages. Given that childcare costs can range between £800 and £900 a month, there is growing annoyance and dissatisfaction among many civil servants that they are not yet entitled to participate in the salary-sacrifice scheme. On a previous occasion, the Minister gave a commitment that the scheme would be introduced for civil servants in 2008. Can the Minister assure the House that the necessary funds are included in the Supplementary Estimates to introduce a new payroll scheme for the Civil Service? Will the salary-sacrifice scheme be introduced in conjunction with that? In confirming that, will he give a date as to when the scheme is likely to be introduced?

As Members know, one reason that we in the SDLP opposed the Budget was because of our serious concerns about the implications that it would have for educational reforms. Those implications will affect both primary and post-primary schools. Towards the end of this year, for the last time, children will sit the 11-plus. We can see, therefore, that educational reform will move ahead quickly. I restate the SDLP’s concerns and remind Members about parents’ and children’s uncertainties. Those uncertainties will have an impact on schools; in particular, many post-primary schools will have to make adjustments to accommodate the broad curriculum that they will have to deliver. Many will require more facilities, and some will require additional or even new premises, the cost of which will have to be taken into consideration. Some may need a completely new building. Therefore, there are grave concerns about whether funding will be available to support all those educational reforms.

As the SDLP spokesperson on the environment, I will mention again the report ‘Foundations for the Future’, which was published nearly 12 months ago. That recommended the establishment of an independent environmental protection agency. I am sure that you recall, Mr Speaker, that after a debate on the matter, the majority of Members voted for the establishment of such a body. There is dissatisfaction at the performance of the Environment and Heritage Service that goes further than just to elected representatives. Indeed, the Waste Management Advisory Board has documented that criticism in a report, as has a Westminster Select Committee. In October, another scathing report on the matter was published as part of the criminal justice review. Having examined all those points and taken into consideration the public’s growing concern about ensuring that the environment is adequately protected in the future, it is clear that once the Assembly makes its decision on the matter, the money needs to be available to act quickly to establish the independent environmental protection agency.

The SDLP welcomed, in the Minister’s Budget statement, the opportunities for economic investment that would, it was hoped, impact on all areas. However, we now have some concerns. Last week, Invest Northern Ireland announced its new strategy, which made it very clear that, in future, its efforts to attract foreign inward investment will focus on Belfast and Derry. That is a worrying statement, which sends out a message that Invest Northern Ireland, in spite of the comments about it and the criticism of it on the Floor of this House, is still not taking seriously the need to address those areas that, historically, have been economically disadvantaged.

Side by side with that is investment in tourism, which, again, the Minister highlighted in his Budget statement. There is a concern that the five signature projects established by the Tourist Board will attract the greatest share of the tourism budget. Two counties in Northern Ireland do not have signature projects — Fermanagh and Tyrone. As a representative for the constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone, I want to draw attention to the concern that the money available for the tourism sector will be swallowed up by the areas with signature projects and that the other areas will be further disadvantaged.

Dr Deeny: I thank the Minister for his statement. I want to make some comments and voice some concerns about health matters, which is my area of interest.

Of course, there can never be enough money for the Health Service. However, I am well aware, having seen inefficiencies in the Health Service down the years — administrative duplication and sometimes triplication, for example — that a balance must be struck between input and efficiency savings. Having said that, I am disappointed that the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety settled for an uplift of only £17 million in the final Budget, which is less than half of 1% of his entire budget.

My concern is whether there will be sufficient funds to address the points raised in the report by Professor Appleby and deliver the health services that the public need and deserve. Will there be adequate funding to deliver the mental-health services needed and implement the important recommendations of the Bamford Review? Mental health is an important issue for the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety, and, as a GP, I know that a properly funded service benefits everyone.

As Members know, Northern Ireland has the highest rate of economic inactivity in the UK, and 40% of people who are economically inactive have mental-health problems. I feel that it is, therefore, important to say, both as a doctor and as a member of the Health Committee, that every area must have sufficient finance, and not just for treatment. Healthcare providers have wised up to the fact that modern healthcare is not just about waiting until the illness occurs; it is about preventing ill health. That is vital.

Furthermore, there is — rightly — a shift towards the community. Communities can play their part in preventing ill health and mental ill health. To ensure that that happens, it is necessary to direct funding into the community. Community care in tackling mental-health issues is, again, vital. Having worked as a doctor for well over 20 years, I have no doubt that good emotional and mental health leads to good physical health. With that comes a more economically active and productive population, and that benefits all of us, as well as the Northern Ireland economy.

I was delighted to hear the Minster say that every MLA must hold Departments to account in whatever way possible. That is important, and it is our duty as elected representatives. What has been said time and time again must be borne through, and we must see to it that money is spent wisely, and nowhere more so than in the area of health.

On the subject of front-line services, I refer to my own area. Just two hours ago, I heard of another baby in County Tyrone — I do not yet know whether it is a boy or a girl — born on the floor, and delivered by the father. That makes roughly one a month, which is a shocking situation in a developed country. That is where front-line services are; there is a deficiency, and that must be addressed.

For years, I have said that, although good managers and administrators are necessary in the Health Service, we do not need an over-abundance of them. Efficiency savings can be made there.

With regard to healthcare and spending money wisely, people are sometimes short-sighted. For example, drugs called statins reduce cholesterol and prevent heart attacks and strokes. There is the view that they are too expensive and that they should not be prescribed. That is short-sighted. Take, as an example, a patient who is not treated and ends up having a stroke. If the patient survives but is left disabled or paralysed, there will be the cost of occupational therapy, physiotherapy, long stays in hospital wards, then, potentially, years of long-term community care. We must think sensibly and futuristically as regards healthcare. Money spent sensibly on prevention will mean a decrease in waiting lists and in the occupancy of hospital beds.

There must be high investment in health, together with major efficiency savings. We may then have a Health Service to compare with those in the rest of the developed world. With that, I guarantee that we will have a happier, healthier population that is more economically active and productive.

The Minister can take my word for it that the Health Committee will hold the Department to account, particularly on financial matters.

Mr B Wilson: The Executive’s five-point strategy includes the objective of protecting and enhancing our environment and natural resources. The Budget statement proposed to improve the quality of Northern Ireland’s natural and built environment and heritage, and to reduce our carbon footprint.

2.00 pm

Sustainability was the key theme. Building a sustainable future is a crucial requirement if the Executive’s economic, social and environmental policies are to be realised. To achieve those worthy objectives, additional resources are necessary. However, nothing in the supply figures suggests that those resources will be provided. There has been a long-standing underfunding of environmental issues in Northern Ireland, and it looks as though the Supple­mentary Estimates will allow that to continue.

Northern Ireland workers make significantly less use of public transport than their UK counterparts. In 2004-06, 6% of the population in Northern Ireland used public transport, compared to 12% in the UK. However, the proportion of the DRD budget that will be invested in public transport is due to fall over the next 10 years. If we hope to increase the use of public transport, we must provide additional funding.

The commitment to introduce a rapid transit system is welcome. However, consideration has been given to that project for at least a decade, and work on it will not start until 2011. That proposal was contained in the regional transportation strategy for Northern Ireland for 2002-12, and it formed part of the 2002 Programme for Government. Again, funding for it should have been provided. The supply figures should have mentioned that funding in order that the project, which will greatly reduce pollution in the city, might be expedited.

The Green Party is disappointed at the imbalance that exists between capital expenditure on roads and on public transport. By 2010-11, when that imbalance has been somewhat dissipated, we will still be spending 160% more on roads than on the rest of the transportation infrastructure put together.

The Executive’s aim is to reduce the carbon footprint by at least 25% by 2025, but there is no suggestion either of how that can be achieved or of the provision of additional funding. I welcome that objective, but I am concerned that no interim target has been set and that there is no evidence that there has been any change in policy to meet the 2025 target. Such long-term targets are ineffective and will achieve nothing unless they are accompanied both by changes in policy and by adequate funding. To achieve the target, we must get commuters out of cars and on to public transport. However, an examination of the DRD capital investment programme for the next 10 years shows a 4:1 ratio in favour of roads. That differential is increasing. If we are ever to decrease our carbon emissions, we must do more to encourage the use of public transport.

I am also concerned that the budget for the Environment and Heritage Service is being reduced over the next three years, despite our having been assured that that body will be able to carry out the role of the proposed environmental protection agency.

Figures show that Northern Ireland also has the lowest share of electricity that is produced from renewable energy sources — 1·9 % compared to the EU average of 13·7 %. However, there is no obvious additional funding to meet the objective of increasing the use of renewable energy sources.

The Executive state that climate change and rising fossil-fuel prices have focused attention on finding renewable energy sources. Again, the supply figures give no evidence of that.

The most disappointing aspect of the figures is that nothing was included for the renewal of the Reconnect grants. The decision to abolish them and the change in building regulations sound the death knell for many small businesses in Northern Ireland. Over the past two years, DETI has encouraged firms to develop skills in the installation of renewable energy systems. Its staff were encouraged to take courses, which were funded by the Department, at the Renewable Energy Installer Academy. More than 800 installers completed those courses. That meant that an industry that was based in new technology was evolving and students were developing skills that were increasingly in demand, North and South.

However, that developing industry depended on a demand for microgeneration systems. The end of the Reconnect grants and the Minister of Finance and Personnel’s decision to amend building regulations have destroyed that demand. The installers rightly feel betrayed. They argued that they had been let down by the Government and that they wasted time and money in acquiring those skills, only to find no demand for them. Some of the installers even said that they would be forced out of business if the Reconnect grants, or similar support, were not made available immediately.

The decision runs counter to the Executive’s claim that they intend to encourage growth in our indigenous private sector. Northern Ireland is losing small businesses that could develop into much larger ones. That is a betrayal of everyone that is involved in the renewable energy scheme, and I appeal to the Minister of Finance and Personnel to find a way to support the installers. We cannot afford to lose a large number of small businesses that are at the cutting edge of technology.

The Executive claim to be concerned about climate change, but the policies that they intend to implement will have a detrimental effect on the environment. The Executive claim to be green, and to support sustainability, but there is nothing in the Budget to substantiate those claims. In fact, all the evidence is to the contrary. The abolition of Reconnect grants to small renewable energy systems and the reduction in the percentage of the Department for Regional Development’s budget for public transport, together with the Minister of Finance and Personnel’s recent decision to change building regulations so that the inclusion of renewables in new buildings is no longer mandatory have totally negated the Executive’s claim to support sustainability.

Mr Speaker: Question Time begins at 2.30 pm, so I propose, by leave, to suspend the sitting until that time. We will take a private notice question at 4.00 pm, after which the Minister of Finance and Personnel will make his winding-up speech on the Supply resolutions.

The debate stood suspended.

The sitting was suspended at 2.06 pm.

On resuming (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Molloy] in the Chair) —

2.30 pm

Oral Answers to Questions


Repair of School Buildings:  East Derry/Londonderry

1. Mr G Robinson asked the Minister of Education to outline the Department’s budgetary provision for the repair of school buildings in the East Derry/Londonderry constituency in (i) 2008; and (ii) 2009.         (AQO 1802/08)

The Minister of Education (Ms Ruane): Tá mé tiomanta d’fhoirgnimh scoile a fheabhsú. Tá i bhfad níos mó i gceist ná deis a chur ar na foirgnimh atá ann cheana féin. Beidh ról tábhachtach ag an infheistíocht chapitil, ar tháinig méadú uirithi le blianta deireannacha, ag feabhsú na timpeallachta foghlama.

I am committed to improving the condition of school buildings. That involves much more than repairs to existing buildings. Capital investment, which has increased in recent years, will play a significant part in the creation of an improved learning environment. My aim is for a sustainable schools estate that is planned on an area basis to meet local needs. It will comprise modern schools that are managed — individually and through collaboration — on a sound financial footing and that provide high-quality education for all children.

In recent years, capital investment has been starting to have an impact, and that will continue in the years to come. Over the next three years, allocations to my Department from the budget for schools capital are: £205 million in 2008-09; £244 million in 2009-2010; and £195 million in 2010-11. That funding will help to ensure that we continue to progress a significant programme of projects for renewal, upgrading and refurbishment.

In addition to capital funding, my Department includes an additional maintenance budget in funding that is allocated to education and library boards each year. That funding is allocated specifically to help boards to address high-priority maintenance needs in schools. In the next three years, planned additional maintenance allocations for all boards are: £18 million in 2008-09; £19 million in 2009-2010; and £19 million in 2010-11.

The amount of funding that has been allocated to maintenance by the Western Education and Library Board and the North Eastern Education and Library Board, which are responsible for education services in East Derry, is decided each year as a portion of the block grant. The boards will not be in a position to establish their planned maintenance funding for 2008-09 and 2009-2010 until after the block grants for those years have been allocated.

I assure Members of my commitment to provide a modern schools estate that is fit for the twenty-first century. Capital investment together with a sustainable approach to the management of the schools estate will achieve that and will lead to a more efficient use of resources.

Mr G Robinson: I have received complaints from parents and school staff in my East Londonderry constituency. Will the Minister agree that the money that she is wasting on daft ideas about changes to a perfectly good world-class education system would be more wisely invested in the essential maintenance of existing school buildings that are decaying by the day?

Ms Ruane: I do not agree with the Member. It is important to have a world-class education system. People are aware of the academic excellence that is part of our education system. However, people are also aware of the tail of underachievement. Perhaps the Member is OK with the fact that 12,000 young people leave our schools each year without GCSE English and mathematics; it is certainly not OK for me. We must provide a world-class education system for all our children and young people. It worries me that some Members do not understand the importance of that.

Capital funding is also important in making our school buildings fit for the twenty-first century. The Member will be glad to know that, in the past two years, £4·3 million capital funding has been spent in his East Derry constituency, of which £2·6 million was spent in 2005-06 and £1·7 million in 2006-07.

Three major capital projects are being progressed in East Derry. They have a total estimated cost of £10·1 million. The sum of £1·1 million has been allocated to the amalgamation of Largy, Dungiven and Burnfoot primary schools, and work started on that project in August 2007. A new building for Ballykelly Primary School has been allocated £3·3 million, and the estimated start date for that project is November 2008. The amalgamation of Lime Grove and Glasvey special schools has been allocated the sum of £5·7 million, and the estimated start date for that project is May 2009. Since 2003, funding of £865 million has been announced for 132 major capital projects across the North of Ireland.

Mr Dallat: I welcome the news from the Minister that money is being spent in East Derry, and I look forward to further announcements of that kind.

I also agree that too many children leave school without basic skills.

I ask the Minister for an assurance that capital projects that have been approved but held up have not been held up because of doubts about the future of post-primary education or sustainable schools.

Ms Ruane: Go raibh maith agat as an cheist sin. Thank you for that question.

Five other planned maintenance works were postponed or cancelled for reasons other than budget pressures. The installation of double glazing at Kilrea Primary School was held up because of high contract price. That work will be re-tendered in 2008-09 to achieve better value for money, pending availability of finance. Work at Garvagh High School on external redecoration and replacement windows was cancelled due to concerns about long-term enrolment.

Resurfacing work at Ballytober Primary School was cancelled due to the installation of new mobile classrooms, and repairs were carried out to bitmac surfaces only. Re-roofing of Culcrow Primary School was held up because of problems with asbestos removal, and work on a replacement roof is planned for 2008-09. Work on external redecoration and replacement windows for Coleraine College has been cancelled due to a proposed new-build scheme.

The Western Education and Library Board postponed two planned maintenance works in East Derry because of in-year budget pressures: window replacement at Limavady Grammar School and external redecoration at Ballykelly Primary School. The board hopes to carry out both works in 2008-09. Tenders for the window replacement work at Limavady Grammar School are currently being accepted.

The North Eastern Education and Library Board has postponed one maintenance works in East Derry because of in-year budget pressures — external redecoration at Cullycapple Primary School. The board hopes to carry out that work in 2008-09.

Mr McCartney: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Tugaim mo bhuíochas don Aire as an fhreagra sin. I thank the Minister for her answer. Will she further outline her existing plans and tell me whether she feels they are on course to be delivered in time?

Ms Ruane: The Department of Education has a programme of investment that will update the schools estate to meet future education needs. That programme includes major building projects to improve the schools estate — including new schools, extensions and refur­bishments. The programme also includes a range of minor works, including provision of specialist accommodation, health-and-safety works and improved access for people with disabilities. The Department of Education and the Strategic Investment Board are working collaboratively to introduce new procurement and delivery arrangements that will handle the increased level of investment effectively.

Classroom Assistants’ Dispute

2. Mr Newton asked the Minister of Education to detail the progress she had made in resolving the classroom assistants’ dispute.      (AQO 1796/08)

Ms Ruane: Is conspóid chasta fhada í seo idir na boird oideachais agus leabharlainne mar fhostaitheoirí agus na ceardchumainn. Tá socruithe ann trína ndéantar caidreamh tionsclaíoch, agus ní bheadh sé oiriúnach domsa páirt dhíreach a bheith agam sna cainteanna.

This has been a long-standing and complex dispute between the education and library boards, as employers, and the trade unions. There are established arrangements through which industrial relations are conducted, and it is simply not appropriate for me to become directly involved in that negotiation machinery.

However, having accepted that the matter had gone on for far too long, I undertook to do everything in my power to encourage and assist both sides to reach a resolution that would prevent any further disruption to children, parents and schools, and which would enable classroom assistants to receive the money that they are due. Consequently, during the course of the dispute, I met and corresponded with representatives from management side, a wide range of officials from the four unions involved, classroom assistants, political representatives and school principals.

A collective agreement on the management side offer was reached at a meeting of the joint negotiating council on 30 November 2007, through unanimous vote on the management side and a majority vote on the trade union side. I will outline the main elements of that agreement, the first of which is a buyout of historic terms and conditions. All classroom assistants will receive a one-off payment of £2,478 or £1,603, depending on their length of service.

The outcomes of the job evaluation will be imple­mented based on three new grades: classroom assistant general, classroom assistant special needs, and classroom assistant additional special needs. Revised salaries and arrears will be paid on that basis.

The boards have agreed to implement substantial pay-protection arrangements and have agreed that no current classroom assistant will lose out on their pension as a result of the implementation of job evaluations.

I have instituted a ministerial review of the planning and management of the education workforce in schools. The boards and trade unions have agreed to work together to address other issues such as classroom assistants’ qualifications, pay structures, terms and conditions and career development.

Although NIPSA voted against the proposed offer, the agreement is binding on the boards under the constitution of the joint negotiating committee. I have been advised that the rules and constitution of the joint negotiation committee have been agreed by all parties, including NIPSA.

Letters were sent to all classroom assistants by the respective boards in December 2007 explaining the terms of the agreement and inviting their acceptance by 31 March 2008. I welcome that agreement, which represents significant progress for pupils, parents, schools and classroom assistants.

Mr Newton: I thank the Minister for her answer. Does she accept that job evaluations are underpinned by the principle that an individual employee, whose job is being evaluated, will not lose out financially after the outcome of the process? Furthermore, will she comment on the current claims that special-needs classroom assistants will have their hourly rate reduced by as much as 95p an hour?

Ms Ruane: I have answered the question, and I will repeat my answers. The outcome of the job evaluations has been agreed by the joint negotiating committee, and will be implemented based on three new grades: the classroom assistant general, classroom assistant special needs and classroom assistant additional special needs. As I said, revised salaries and arrears will be paid on that basis. [Interruption.]

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

Ms Ruane: I am answering the question.

The boards have agreed to implement substantial pay-protection arrangements, and have agreed that no current classroom assistant will lose out on their pension as a result of the implementation of job evaluations.

Mr Newton: Answer the question.

Ms Ruane: I would be able to answer the question if I was not being so rudely interrupted.

I have instituted a ministerial review of the planning and management of the education workforce in schools. Go raibh míle maith agat.

Mr Butler: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a freagra.

I thank the Minister for outlining the measures she has taken to try to resolve the classroom assistants’ dispute and to bring about an improvement in that situation. Will the Minister give an assessment of the important role that classroom assistants play in helping children — particularly children with special needs — to develop both educationally and socially? Go raibh maith agat.

Ms Ruane: Go raibh maith agat as an cheist sin. Classroom assistants play an essential role in the day-to-day education of children with special-education needs. I have witnessed their work in special schools and in mainstream settings. They provide invaluable support — under the close guidance of teachers — for children with special-educational needs, which includes personal care, medical needs and progress in the classroom.

Education and library boards take into account a number of factors when making recommendations for classroom assistant support. Boards consider the severity and nature of a child’s disability, the number of children in a given class or school with similar special needs, the need to provide appropriate levels of support for the pupil for his, or her, education and social development, and the need to encourage the long-term independence of the pupil.

In recent years, the Education and Training Inspectorate has considered the use of classroom assistants in a number of surveys, and has advised that classroom assistant resources can be most effectively utilised when teachers and classroom assistants have a shared understanding of their respective roles.

The current review of special education and inclusion, which will be going out for public consultation in the coming months, has considered a number of issues, including the totality of in-school provision for children with special-education needs.

Mr McGlone: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for the detail that she has provided so far.

A so-called collective agreement to resolve the classroom assistants’ dispute was arrived at on 30 November 2007. Given that NIPSA represents 2,679 classroom assistants, whereas the other trade unions represent a combined total of 1,185 classroom assistants, how representative were the trade unions that arrived at that agreement?

2.45 pm

Ms Ruane: I hope that the Member is not trying to undermine the machinery of trade union and employer negotiations. He should do more research; NIPSA has provided figures from the education and library boards showing that it represents the clear majority of classroom assistants across the five boards. The Member is adhering to propaganda, which states that the views of the majority of classroom assistants are being ignored because NIPSA did not accept the offer. The membership figures that NIPSA quotes for each union are misleading, because they count only those classroom assistants who pay deductions to trade unions through the payroll. The boards pointed that out to NIPSA when they provided the information on deductions through the payroll. Although payroll deduction is the preferred method for the collection of NIPSA subscriptions, the other trade unions recommend that members pay their membership subscriptions by direct debit from their bank accounts. The only way to find out the complete number of classroom assistants in each trade union is to contact each union directly. I respectfully suggest that the Member do that, rather than selectively quoting incorrect statistics.

Corpus Christi College, Belfast

3. Ms S Ramsey asked the Minister of Education to detail progress on the development of a full service network school at Corpus Christi College, Belfast.        (AQO 1921/08)

Ms Ruane: Thug mé ceadú i bprionsabal do bhunú Líonra Pobail Lán-Seirbhíse a bheas láraithe ar Choláiste Corpus Christi ar 21 Samhain.

I gave my approval in principle to the establishment of a full service community network centred on Corpus Christi College on 21 November 2007. Since then, departmental officials have worked closely with the Belfast Education and Library Board (BELB) and the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) on the operational arrangements. I attended the launch of the new full-service school.

A project manager has been appointed and a project board established. The first meeting of the project board was on 29 January, chaired by the Belfast Education and Library Board, and it was agreed that the immediate prioritiy was the finalisation of a project initiation document detailing the operational arrangements, aims and objectives of the project, and the completion of an action plan which draws on feedback already received from the local community and sets out in detail work already completed and priorities and actions for 2008-09, with further years in outline. The second priority is the development of a communication strategy that will ensure open and effective dialogue between the project manager and the local community. It is hoped that those objectives will be completed by 31 March 2008.

I have seen at first hand the benefits that accrue when schools work in close partnership with the local comm­unity. That was particularly evident when I visited the Belfast Model School for Girls, which has been working to create a full service school in partnership with the Belfast Boys’ Model School. Specific interventions have been introduced to promote the value of education, to tackle some of the barriers that young people in that area face and to help raise levels of aspiration and self-esteem. Working holistically and in a joined-up way like that gives young people the best opportunity to succeed in education.

We want the full service community network for the Ballymurphy area to learn from the experience of the model schools and develop its own approach to meet the requirements of the community that it serves. The challenge is to raise the attainment of pupils, realise their true potential and support lifelong learning, in keeping with my Department’s draft policy, ‘Every School a Good School’, which is currently out for consultation.

Ms S Ramsey: Go raibh maith agat. I know that the Minister is aware of the problems in the Ballymurphy area. Will she outline the benefits that the network will bring to Ballymurphy?

Ms Ruane: Go raibh maith agat. Is ceist an-tábhachtach í sin.

That is a very important question. The creation of a full service school network will help to provide the Ballymurphy area with a model to draw together the different strands of support that are available, and will lead to an improvement in educational achievement and social cohesion.

As the Member knows, that is one of the most disadvantaged areas and it is one of the top areas as regards the Noble indices. The full service network will establish and maintain strong links between schools; local communities, including statutory agencies; the business community; organisations in the voluntary and community sector; and parents — one of the key groups. The priority is to raise pupils’ attainment and achievement and support lifelong learning. Therefore, the Department expects to see a strong focus in the network on better integration and partnering of services while providing opportunities for family learning.

Alongside conventional school programmes, we expect to see provision for preschool activities, health and well-being programmes and the base for other local services such as libraries, leisure facilities and healthcare providers.

Mr Attwood: A full service network school is an appropriate intervention in disadvantaged areas, not least in Ballymurphy, where there was the awful situation in which schoolchildren were in conflict with each other as a result of a wider situation. I acknowledge the work of CCMS, the school and the many individuals and families in Ballymurphy who, working independently or with others, have stabilised the situation greatly. However, given the scale of the full service network, does the Minister believe that that scheme could be rolled out in other schools and in other disadvantaged areas? As a result of the Budget negotiations, does she have a dedicated budget to do in other parts of Northern Ireland what she has outlined that this will do in Ballymurphy?

Ms Ruane: Go raibh maith agat. I agree with the Member about the importance of a full service network school in Ballymurphy and in the Girls’ Model School and the Boys’ Model School. The work under way in Ballymurphy and the existing demonstration pilot in north Belfast presents real opportunities to test new ideas on how best to link schools more closely with their communities. We want to learn from those projects and look for ways to apply that learning in other locations.

I am considering my Budget allocations, and I will be making an announcement shortly. I will be looking at school improvement and literacy and numeracy, and I will be dealing with the tail of underachievement in our education system while continuing with our academic excellence. Those two schools are important projects and we will be studying the results carefully.

Mr McClarty: Given that the Minister’s aim is equality, why are some schools in some areas selected and others are not?

Ms Ruane: I take equality very seriously. I have referred to the two schools that are full service network schools, the Girls’ Model School and the Boys’ Model School, and to Corpus Christi College in Ballymurphy. Obviously, the Member will know that I have launched my revised school-improvement policy, ‘Every School a Good School’. I have been out and about in different parts of the North of Ireland visiting schools in disadvantaged areas and areas that are not disadvantaged, and I look forward to continuing with those visits. I wish that I had money for a full service school in every part of the North. The Department will look carefully at the results of the projects and how they can be improved. Go raibh maith agat.

Links Between Schools and  the Business Community

4. Mr Moutray asked the Minister of Education to detail her plans to strengthen links between schools and the business community.   (AQO 1819/08)

Ms Ruane: Tá naisc láidre ag cuid mhór scoileanna le lucht gnó cheana féin, agus ba mhaith liom cur leo sin ar dhóigheanna éagsúla.

Many schools already have strong links with the business community, and I want to build on those links in several ways. Indeed, at the North/South Ministerial Council meeting in Dundalk last week, we looked at developing the economy in Ireland and the important role that education will play in providing the necessary skills.

I will start with the revised curriculum. As a result of feedback from businesses, I had useful discussions with the CBI, the Institute of Directors and Business in the Community. We have introduced a much clearer focus on the skills needed to support the transition from education to the world of work; not just literacy, numeracy and ICT, but also the ability to make informed decisions, to work as part of a team and communicate effectively with others. We will continue to support employability initiatives to help schools and young people make connections between the curriculum and business.

A few examples are: the Foyle School and Employer Connections (FOSEC) scheme in the north-west, with its adopt-a-class and work-experience programmes; Sentinus on the science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) agenda; Business in the Community, which organises work-experience placements for year 12 pupils; and the Aisling Bursary initiative in west Belfast, which is a very dynamic programme. I had the privilege of speaking at one of its events before I became a Minister.

My Department is working with the Department for Employment and Learning to improve the quality of careers education, information, advice and guidance and to explore ways of attracting more young people to careers in STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — subjects; and I recently met the STEM review team. That work will provide more opportunities for business to work more closely with schools to ensure that young people are made aware of the career pathways that are on offer in their areas.

Finally, many local businesspeople are already directly involved in running schools as governors, and I pay tribute to them for undertaking that voluntary role and for their readiness to share important skills with school leaders. There is scope for many more people, not only from business but from all sectors of our community, to serve in that capacity, and I will examine the best ways in which to encourage them to do so.

Mr Moutray: Will the Minister tell the House how high up her list of priorities is the need to ensure that the education system in Northern Ireland produces a workforce that is more competitive, more effective, better skilled and more attractive to business investors than that of our closest competitor, the Irish Republic?

Ms Ruane: We do not need to be in competition with the South of Ireland; we must work collaboratively with it. That is one reason why that matter was high on the agenda of last week’s meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council. We can learn from the South and the South can learn from us; we are not in competition with each other.

I agree with the Member that education is very important. I mentioned that 12,000 young people leave school without GCSEs in English and maths. That is a serious problem for our society, and I intend to deal with it. I look forward to working collaboratively with all Members in order to do that. The system must not continue to fail a huge percentage of our young people; we must build a flexible, dynamic and creative education system. There are some very interesting models of further-education colleges and post-primary schools working together, and we must continue with those initiatives. We must also develop creative ways of thinking, because many businessmen and women and entrepreneurs think very creatively.

Mr Neeson: Would the Minister consider introducing lessons in citizenship or civics into the curriculum, because they would give students a greater understanding of business life and broader everyday issues, such as consumer affairs?

Ms Ruane: Citizenship is included in the curriculum; it is very important that that is included, and I share the Member’s interest in it. Being a good citizen is important, especially given the times in which we live. Consumer affairs are increasingly important, given the wide array of foodstuffs and clothes that are available, and the effect that that has on our lives. It is important that we take a proactive approach in challenging discrimination. I cannot find the right word, but the Member will know what I mean. It is important that we have active, strong citizens who are prepared to stand up for their rights.

Mr Beggs: Does the Minister agree that co-operation between business and education can be mutually beneficial, with the curriculum becoming more relevant to students and students having a better understanding of future job prospects? Does she have any specific, costed plans that would assist that aim; and how will she ensure that local chambers of commerce, trade bodies and individual businesses will create better connections with local schools?

Ms Ruane: First, I have had discussions with the CBI, the Institute of Directors and with Business in the Community. As I said, there were discussions at the North/South Ministerial Council, and it is important that we continue with initiatives to build co-operation. I am also working with Reg Empey, the Minister for Employment and Learning, on careers-development education and strategy, because that is a crucial area in post-primary education.

3.00 pm

Employment and Learning

Careers Education

1. Mr K Robinson asked the Minister for Employment and Learning what discussions he has had with the Minister of Education on the enhancement of careers education.        (AQO 1850/08)

The Minister for Employment and Learning (Sir Reg Empey): I held discussions with the Minister of Education on two occasions, 5 June 2007 and 13 August 2007, in relation to the development of an all-age careers education, information, advice and guidance strategy for Northern Ireland. That work is being taken forward by officials from both Departments. The aim is to develop effective career decision-makers, leading to increased participation in education, training and employment. The joint strategy was issued for consultation in October 2007 and responses are being analysed.

Mr K Robinson: Does the Minister agree that, given the current weakness identified in the career structure of the school system, it is essential that businesses become more involved in careers guidance?

Sir Reg Empey: I agree. Developing employability skills and opportunities for work-related learning are key parts of careers education. Activities may include work-based assignments, industrial visits, mock interviews and industry days. Employers can play a key part by providing expert input to those activities and meaningful work-placement opportunities.

Enhanced careers education depends on full particip­ation by the business community to ensure meaningful provision for all students. In Assembly debates in the past few weeks, particularly those relating to apprentice­ships, I emphasised to Members the absolute importance of employer involvement. The Assembly cannot create apprenticeships: businesses must be part of the process. Ultimately, their future labour supply depends on it. Therefore, it is in their short- and long-term interests to assist us.

Mr Spratt: In recent weeks, it has been brought to my attention by students that many careers advisers place all the emphasis on third-level education. Although that must be encouraged, does the Minister agree that careers advice for people seeking vocational paths should run in parallel?

Sir Reg Empey: I thank Mr Spratt for his question; it raises a fundamental issue. As he knows, the Depart­ment is reviewing the careers strategy. Some proposals are designed to make it more accessible. It is free, and it has to be impartial and accessible.

There is a widespread problem in the community: the way the academic and non-academic routes are valued causes difficulties for pupils making choices at the ages of 13 and 14. The influences on them at that stage include those of parents, family and peers. What we have at the moment is not right. We undervalue non-academic courses and professional qualifications to the detriment of the successful operation of the economy.

Members have a role to play in making it clear that the choice of a non-academic route should not be devalued. Other nations in Europe manage this very successfully: the Germans are a shining example. Members will have seen the television advertisements, running currently, that illustrate how some parents may be forcing children to take the wrong decisions.

Mr Spratt’s point is fundamental: we must attend to it if we want to build and sustain a successful and competitive economy.

Mrs D Kelly: As a result of the Budget allocation to adult apprenticeships, which is 70% of the original bid, there will be insufficient moneys and opportunities for people to change career or acquire skills after graduating to university, particularly in areas where there is employer and business demand. Is the Minister concerned about that?

Sir Reg Empey: That is always a risk; however, money is not the only issue. The Department can only do so much with funds. Many bids were met with insufficient funds. However, as I have said repeatedly, apprenticeships are not provided by Government but by employers, who must understand the link between their future bottom line, and training people today. Sadly, in many cases, that is not the case.

The vast majority of employers do not provide apprenticeships. As a community, we have some way to go to get that message across. In the coming months, I hope that we will re-examine all aspects of our Training for Success programme to ensure that we are getting the balance right.

Publicly Funded Projects

Mr Adams: Ceist uimhir a dó.

Sir Reg Empey: At the risk of being flippant, I assume that that was question 2.

2. Mr Adams asked the Minister for Employment and Learning to outline the measures that he intends to put in place to ensure that publicly funded projects, involving Government partnerships with outside organisations, only take place with full, open and constructive co-operation between project partners, in order to reduce the risk of partners withdrawing, such as happened in the Springvale project.      (AQO 1859/08)

Sir Reg Empey: I will ensure that when my Depart­ment is considering projects that are being promoted by organisations working in partnership, structures will be in place to provide transparency and co-operation between the respective parties. The lessons learned from the Springvale project will be applied to all future projects of a similar nature.

Mr Adams: Go raibh maith agat. I can see why you are the Minister for Employment and Learning.

Mr McNarry: He does not speak Irish, yet.

Mr Adams: Ná bí ag caint mar sin.

I have two questions for the Minister, and I thank him for his answer. I acknowledge that the mishandling of the Springvale project predates his tenure as a Minister. Will the Minister outline how he intends to respond to the enquiries of the Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee, which have exposed an appalling failure at the highest level of the Department for Employment and Learning in the collapse of the Springvale university campus proposals? Will he agree with the recommendations that substantial investment in new educational facilities in West Belfast is still required, not least to deal with the needs of the people of that constituency, which includes the Shankill. Those people were made a promise that has been reneged upon. Go raibh maith agat.

Sir Reg Empey: The Member will be aware that the Department of Finance and Personnel made a full response, as is the procedure, in that case. The Depart­ment for Employment and Learning accepted that it should have been more proactive in advising the community of the position regarding the university. However, it was the university that made the decision.

The Member asked about the educational attainment potential of the site, and he will be aware that a workforce and economic development centre and a community outreach centre will be built at Springvale. The question is whether that will be adequate for the needs of the community in that area. A substantial amount of capital resource, around £13·5 million, is being put into it. If anyone has any other ideas about further developments that they feel would be viable, they are welcome to put those to me.

Belfast Metropolitan College is enthusiastic about its current proposals, and it should be encouraged to get started. I hope that work will start shortly and that the centre can be open by 2010. That will be in the interests of the people of north and west Belfast.

Mrs Hanna: I regret that the University of Ulster, which had autonomy, withdrew from that site. Does the Minister agree that the strategy to develop the Springvale site, and to ensure that the people in that area have the opportunity to realise their potential, must involve not only the Department for Employment and Learning and the community, but the Department of Education, to ensure excellence at primary and secondary level, before excellence at third level is realised.

Sir Reg Empey: It is obvious that there is a relationship, because educational attainment does not start at university or at further education college — it starts at school. Clearly, there are problems in that area and, sadly, in others of a similar character. That is why groups such as the West Belfast and Greater Shankill Task Force were created. Special attention must be paid to that area.

Part of the Springvale site is owned by the Department for Social Development, which adds another dimension to the issue. The Member is correct that the problem cannot be chopped into individual segments. There must be a relationship from preschool through to further and higher education and work. It is a multidisciplinary issue. I regret that the Springvale project did not work out as anticipated, although a number of people at local government level raised warnings at an early stage of the process. It was most unfortunate that the University of Ulster’s decision came at such a late stage.

Rev Dr Robert Coulter: Will the Minister confirm that the workforce and economic development centre is the only initiative that passed the test of potential viability?

Sir Reg Empey: A community outreach centre and the workforce and economic development centre have passed the necessary tests, and work has commenced on them. We look forward to the creation and development of the centres, because they will support business innovation and incubation, opportunities for individuals, the local community and small and medium-sized enterprises. They will provide pre-employment training and in-company training to enhance workforce skills, support product development, software engineering and other technologies. That area requires such training and, so far, those are the only matters that have passed through our processes. However, as I said to the Member for West Belfast Mr Adams, if other people come forward with ideas, we will be happy to consider them.

Review of the  Apprenticeships Scheme

3. Mr Shannon asked the Minister for Employment and Learning to give a time frame within which the consultation process will begin on the review of the apprenticeships scheme.        (AQO 1828/08)

Sir Reg Empey: The Department met with the training suppliers in December 2007 and in January 2008 to assess the progress of the Training for Success programme and to discuss possible revisions. Officials are collating the responses into a proposal document, which will be issued at the end of February. The Department has also agreed to establish working groups, comprising training suppliers and departmental officials, through which any revisions to the provision will be finalised and issued by early May 2008.

Mr Shannon: Will the Minister accept that appren­ticeship training is vital to underpin the success of the economy? Will he further confirm his intention to create career pathways for the vocational qualifications from levels 2 and 3, to include levels 4 and 5?

Sir Reg Empey: The honourable Member has raised this issue in the Chamber and through correspondence with me on a number of occasions; therefore, I understand fully his commitment to it. I reiterate what I said in answering a previous question: we can do everything possible to make schemes efficient and effective, but the employers are crucial in making them work. I do not wish to be overcritical, but there has been a reluctance — to put it mildly — to accept the need to provide apprenticeships.

When the Training for Success programme was introduced, we were moving from a point where employers took on apprentices for one year, to a point where employers are obliged to give apprentices a contract and employ them. That was to prevent the exploitation of trainees and apprentices who worked for one year only to have the involvement with their employer ceased after that year.

3.15 pm

I have taken a long route in answering Mr Shannon’s question, but I want to make the point that there is a problem in employers recognising the need to employ apprentices and provide that training. The Department for Employment and Learning can, and will, do everything in its power to place finished apprentices who cannot get jobs into the Job Ready strand of the Training for Success programme where they can prepare for future jobs and enter work placements. However, the fundamental point is that we need employers to engage and to provide the apprenticeship.

The apprenticeships scheme is being reviewed. That review is deliberate, because a number of Members have raised questions and issues about it. Training for Success only started in September, but if something is not right with it, what is the point of continuing with it as it is? We should be able to review it without having to apologise for doing so, and that is why the review is taking place. If it turns out that we have not got the balance right or that people tell us where we have gone wrong, we will do something about it. There is no point in having this place if we cannot react — and do so quickly.

I look to Mr Shannon, and others who have consistently made these points, for support. Now — during the review — is the time to give me your ideas. I will be happy to report to the Assembly on the outcomes of the review, which I hope will be available shortly.

Ms Anderson: Go raibh maith agat. I agree with the Minister. Employers must be encouraged to take on apprentices. However, there are added difficulties in constituencies such as Foyle, which I represent, where there is a shortage of employers. Subsequent to the meeting that I had with the Minister — which I appreciated — has he met with the North West Regional College to discuss its concerns regarding the review of modern apprenticeships in the north-west.

Sir Reg Empey: I understand the Member’s concern about employers. However, we are where we are. There are a number of employers in that area; we must make the best of them and get the best from them. At our meeting, I told the honourable Member that some of her attention should be directed at employers, because they are the people who can provide the apprenticeships. The Department cannot manufacture apprenticeships, and we cannot force employers to take on apprentices.

If Members look at the national agenda, they will see that the treatment of apprentices is a big issue. Gordon Brown has focused on this widespread issue in recent weeks. I am aware of the issues in the north-west. If there are aspects of Training for Success that do not meet the local requirements, and if, by amending the initiative, the Department can help to meet the local requirements, we will be foolish not to look at suggestions. However, I cannot prejudge the outcomes of the internal reviews, but the Member must relate with and talk to the local employers. They may be fewer in number than we would like, but they are the critical asset in that locality as far as apprentices are concerned.

Mr Neeson: Has the Minister identified specific industries where apprentices can be targeted?

Sir Reg Empey: Apprenticeships can be easily offered in some industries, such as construction. However, we are running into some difficulties in that area, because demand in the housing market has decreased in recent months. Migrant labour has also been available to us in recent years, but that was not available previously. I do not have the statistical proof, but the increase in migrant labour means that employers can ring an agent and request labour instead of having to train up apprentices for the future supply of labour. The risk with that is that a group of our local communities will be left behind. That is the danger of which we must be aware.

Regarding specific industries, there are many trades to which we are struggling to attract people. However, there are others in which we have achieved high rates of success — the Electrical Training Trust is achieving a success rate of about 85%. Therefore, there are good and bad results; however, in construction, we are experiencing problems.

Springvale Education  Village Project

4. Mr P Maskey asked the Minister for Employment and Learning to detail the alternative measures that he is taking to help project promoters to fund the Springvale education village project, after the withdrawal of the University of Ulster from the partnership.     (AQO 1910/08)

Sir Reg Empey: Following the University of Ulster’s withdrawal, Belfast Metropolitan College has taken over the Springvale education village project. It is now responsible for the community outreach centre and is working to deliver the workforce and economic develop­ment centre, which is a £13·5 million project that will be funded by my Department, the International Fund for Ireland and Belfast City Council.

I would be happy to consider any proposals for a potentially viable and sustainable development to provide additional educational facilities on the Springvale site.

Mr P Maskey: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle agus a Aire. You mentioned partnership approaches, and a partnership approach with DSD is the basis of my question. Has the Minister’s Department collaborated with the Minister for Social Development in order to advance the development of the Springvale campus? You said that the project has been badly handled, and as a representative for West Belfast, I must engage with you to ensure that that project succeeds. Have you met the Minister for Social Development to discuss that matter? Go raibh maith agat.

Sir Reg Empey: I cannot recall meeting with the Minister for Social Development to specifically discuss that subject. As the Member is aware, the site is divided into north and south sides, and, this afternoon, I have been referring to developments on the south side. The north side is owned by the Department for Social Development and, at this stage, I am not clear about its plans for that site. However, the International Fund for Ireland, my Department and Belfast Metropolitan College are proceeding to erect those centres, which I believe will be successful. I do not know of specific plans for the north side of the site, and we have not received any proposals other than those that I have outlined. I will refer the points raised by the Member to the Minister for Social Development.

Mr Beggs: Does the Minister agree that, in order that community expectations are not built up only to be dashed, as happened in the past, any future proposals must be sustainable in the long term, and will he outline any development proposals for both sides of the Springfield Road?

Sir Reg Empey: I accept entirely the Member’s comments about not wishing to repeat mistakes by unnecessarily raising expectations. As I said in my previous answer, no other proposals are on the table. The current proposal — which should be receiving more attention — is an exciting series of projects. I will also refer the Member’s comments to the Minister for Social Development.

We are focused on delivering the projects in working order, hopefully, by 2010, and I believe that they will be a big boost for, and warmly welcomed by, people in that area. Considering the long time that it has taken — from 2000-01 to the present day and, indeed, for that site, long before — people want to see something happening and succeeding on that site, rather than just talking.

Independent Body for Student Complaints

5. Ms Lo asked the Minister for Employment and Learning what plans he has to establish an independent body for student complaints.      (AQO 1941/08)

Sir Reg Empey: Although my Department has no plans to establish an independent body for student complaints, the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister has agreed, as part of its review of the Northern Ireland Ombudsman’s Office, to consider extending the remits of the Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints to include adjudicating on student complaints.

Ms Lo: Does the Minister agree that it is important to establish such an independent body, in order to achieve parity with the rest of the UK and so that students can have full confidence in their complaints being dealt with fairly, without undue influence from the university?

Sir Reg Empey: Clearly, that is the intention. There are a number of options. As Members know, there is a system of visitors at the two universities at the moment. I have looked at the number of complaints referred to the visitors at both universities; Members might be inter­ested to know that, over the past five years, a total of 17 complaints have been so referred. There have been nine at the University of Ulster, and eight at Queen’s, in the absence of a proposal such as the one that we are about to make. I do not know whether there might be more people prepared to make complaints under the revised arrange­ments, but the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister is keen to proceed, and we will just have to see how it plays out.

I do not want Members to feel that there is no mech­anism by which genuine issues can be dealt with; there is such a mechanism. OFMDFM’s proposal to widen the remit of an existing structure is probably better than trying to invent a whole new free-standing system. The infra­structure is there, and I believe that it will meet any reasonable person’s view of whether people have a proper mechanism for complaining.

Mr A Maginness: I welcome what the Minister has indicated that the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister intends to do. However, would it not be more appropriate for the universities to establish, with help from outside, an independent body and mechanism beyond that of the ombudsman? My friend Mr Attwood has raised this with the Minister before. Perhaps that could be looked at by the universities.

Sir Reg Empey: I am aware of the issue. The way that OFMDFM is thinking at the moment is that this will be a totally free-standing, well-established, acknowledged and respected service, provided by the ombudsman’s office, which is generally regarded as being free, indepen­dent and fair. It depends on what the workload might be. Seventeen complaints in five years is not exactly a heavy workload. I do not know how an independent body could be sustained on that basis. However, it is one of those things on which we will have to keep an open mind. I believe that there would be greater independence if this were dealt with through the ombudsman’s office, which is widely accepted to be a fair and reasonable body to deal with complaints.

University of Ulster/ Queen’s University: Research

6. Dr McDonnell asked the Minister for Employment and Learning what assessment he has made of the benefits of the University of Ulster and Queen’s University concentrating on a limited number of research areas in order to (i) develop specialisms; and (ii) attract funding to develop research and development opportunities.     (AQO 1935/08)

Sir Reg Empey: My Department has not carried out any specific assessment. However, given that there are only two universities, there is a need for them to provide a high-quality, internationally competitive research base to enhance the contribution that they make to economic, social and cultural well-being in Northern Ireland. This quality-related research enables the universities to lever funds from a variety of other sources, which allows them to develop specialities. The recently announced funding for additional PhDs will be targeted at STEM subjects, which I am sure the Member will support.

Dr McDonnell: Does the Minister believe that the moneys released for PhD students, all-island research and innovation are sufficient for our innovation, research and development needs? I understand that 40% of the innovation fund will take the form of a welcome and important contribution from the Irish Government. Does the Minister believe that the good research and development work undertaken by the universities could be better targeted and more effectively worked out? Is there a case for some sort of assessment of the productivity and outcomes of what we get in the end? I am asking for more money and more accountability.

Sir Reg Empey: I agree with the Member about the fundamental issue. My Department received the lion’s share of the innovation funds; we would have liked to have received more moneys, but we have to make the most of it. Compared with our competitors, research and development is weak in Northern Ireland. Much of it is led by the universities and by Government, and private-sector research and development is at a low ebb. We have had some success from university spin-outs, but that must improve. Universities are about to undergo another five-year research vetting exercise, and I hope that they do well. However, we have a long way to travel if our research and development capability is to reach the necessary levels for a competitive economy.

3.30 pm


Mr Deputy Speaker: Question 1 has been withdrawn.

Job Location and  Unemployment Levels

2. Mr Butler asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to confirm that findings presented to his Department in relation to a previous audit of targeting social need indicate that job location is a factor in unemployment levels in areas of high deprivation such as West Belfast.        (AQO 1876/08)

The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Mr Dodds): I am aware of the 2003 interim evaluation of new targeting social need (TSN) policy, which made reference to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment’s focus on reducing unemployment through job promotion. As the Department’s key contribution to new TSN, I am fully committed to seeking to stimulate economic growth in deprived areas and to help to narrow the gap on key indicators such as unemployment and economic inactivity between those areas and the rest of Northern Ireland.

Under the new public service agreement (PSA) commitments for 2008-11, Invest Northern Ireland will encourage 70% of new foreign direct investment projects to locate within 10 miles of an area of economic disadvantage.

However, in seeking to close the gap on key indicators, it is important for the House to acknowledge that there are many deep-rooted social and economic issues to be addressed, which will require co-ordinated efforts from all parts of Government, with support from the private sector.

Mr Butler: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a thabhairt don Aire as an fhreagra sin.

I thank the Minister for his answer. This issue has been raised previously, particularly in relation to investment projects in West Belfast. The Minister has confirmed that Invest NI has not sought any inward investment in that constituency in the past 12 months. Does the Minister agree that the Deloitte targeting social need audit, which was commissioned by his Department, concluded that the location of investment had a significant effect on employment in an area?

Will he also confirm that the report found that airlifting investment and employment to areas of greatest social need — to constituencies such as West Belfast, including the Shankill Road district — had the potential to reduce long-term unemployment in those communities? Given Invest NI’s shameful failure to bring about investment in West Belfast, can the Minister explain why the findings of this TSN audit report have been blindly ignored?

Mr Dodds: I listened carefully to the Member’s comments. In areas of economic disadvantage — West Belfast, parts of my constituency of North Belfast and other parts of the Province — Invest Northern Ireland can offer enhanced capital grants of up to 50% compared with the usual capped rate of 30%. Under the new PSA commitments, 70% of new foreign direct investment projects must locate within 10 miles of an area of economic disadvantage. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment has allocated £3·4 million of Peace II moneys to workspace development, which will create some 350 jobs in areas of economic disadvantage. There is also a public service agreement (PSA) target to acquire and develop 200 acres of land for industrial use, with 75% of that being in areas of economic disadvantage.

West Belfast contains almost all Invest Northern Ireland’s industrial land bank in the city of Belfast — 35 acres of available land, which gives the area a significant opportunity. In 2006-07 — despite what the Member says and contrary to his pejorative remarks — Invest Northern Ireland offered almost £1 million in grant aid to existing clients in West Belfast in support of follow-on development projects.

Eighty per cent of the projects that go into South Belfast are earmarked for the city centre, which benefits all the Belfast constituencies and further afield. Council areas and parliamentary constituencies are not self-contained labour or employment areas, a point that I have made on several occasions.

Forty-four per cent of people of working age in West Belfast work in that constituency; the remainder work outside the constituency. That proves the point that creating jobs in travel-to-work areas does not simply involve what is located inside a parliamentary constituency, but the reasonable distance that people can travel.

Mr Beggs: Some areas with lower levels of unemploy­ment also have the lowest job densities in Northern Ireland. For instance, people who live in Carrickfergus have to travel to Belfast to work.

Does the Minister agree that skills, training, good transport to allow people to get to their places of work and mobility for those who seek work are important?

Mr Dodds: The Member has made an important and useful point, and he is right to do so. I work closely with my colleague the Minister for Employment and Learning on developing skills. Moreover, I am the spokesperson and champion of the economy in the Executive, not only for my own Department. I want further investment in employment, learning and skills. I want investment in infrastructure in the Department for Regional Development and in telecommunications and energy. All those cross-cutting issues can help to improve economic productivity and prosperity.

The Member’s point about travelling to work relates to my previous answer about people who live in one constituency and travel to work in another. An example of that is Seagate Technology Ltd, about which we recently had terrible news; I hope that future news will be good. Of the 766 people employed at Seagate, 261 lived in the Limavady area, 327 in the Londonderry area and 50 in the Coleraine area. I reiterate my point that council areas or parliamentary constituencies are not self-contained labour markets, and people must bear that in mind when they raise such issues.

However, it is important that investment reaches all areas of the Province, including areas of high economic disadvantage.

Mr Gallagher: The Minister’s Department gave a commitment in the Budget to wealth creation and job opportunities for all. Last week, before the ink was dry, Invest Northern Ireland announced that all future foreign inward investment would be directed towards Belfast and Derry. Can the Minister explain that? Does he understand that neither Belfast nor Derry is in the travel-to-work area for disadvantaged areas of Fermanagh and Tyrone?

Mr Dodds: I assure the Member and the Assembly that the targets set out for Invest Northern Ireland and for my Department were agreed in the Programme for Government and the public service agreements. The revised foreign direct investment key goal in the Programme for Government is to:

“Secure … inward investment commitments, creating a minimum of 6,500 jobs, 85% of which will be above the NI private sector median wage.”

That is important in cutting the productivity gap between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. Seventy per cent of new foreign direct investment projects will be located within 10 miles of an area of economic disadvantage.

I am sure that many Members are aware that much of Invest Northern Ireland’s assistance is demand-led. Ultimately, investors will decide whether to invest and where. To a large extent, where they invest will depend on a range of issues and on the nature of the service, trade or product of the investor. There may be a need for university graduates, good road infrastructure, large labour pools or other factors — all of which are relevant when an investor comes to deciding where to invest. The targets are clearly set out and do not discriminate against any part of the Province.

Next-Generation Broadband Coverage

3. Mr Buchanan asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to detail the steps being taken to ensure next-generation broadband coverage.            (AQO 1807/08)

Mr Dodds: The delivery of next-generation broadband coverage is the subject of a debate in Northern Ireland, across the United Kingdom and in Europe among regul­ators, telecommunications companies and consumers.

My Department is taking part in the debate through discussion with the industry, the regulator and the major telecommunications companies that operate in Northern Ireland, all of which are in the early stages of developing their approaches to next-generation services. It is important that we continue to engage with the private sector in taking that work forward, and we have made a commitment in the Programme for Government to deliver widespread access to a next-generation broadband network by 2011.

Mr Buchanan: Does the Minister foresee any obstacles to meeting the Programme for Government targets or to delivering a next-generation broadband network by 2011 that will be available to all homes and businesses in Northern Ireland no matter where they are located?

Mr Dodds: Northern Ireland can be rightly proud of being the first region in Europe, not just in these islands, to have 100% broadband availability, whether by telephone line, cable or satellite; that commitment was delivered as a result of co-operation between British Telecom (BT) and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI).

The Member talked about ensuring that the next-generation of broadband is made as widely available as possible, and he is right to stress that. There are many complex issues that will be the subject of much discussion between the private sector, Government and others. In November 2007, officials from my Department attended a summit hosted by the then Minister of State for Competitiveness, Stephen Timms, along with industry stakeholders, to consider how next-generation broadband coverage would be delivered.

However, there are many problems, such as the digital divide, which must be reduced as much as possible. A steering group is to be formed to provide a shared vision for next-generation broadband coverage for the Minister on the mainland by summer 2008, and he can be assured that my Department will be fully engaged in all the discussions on next-generation broadband.

Dr McDonnell: I thank the Minister for his comments; I am absolutely delighted that we are moving on second-generation broadband.

However, I am given to understand by some people, particularly in the far rural west, that although we claim 100% broadband access, there are still pockets that do not have functional access to first-generation coverage. I know that 100% may mean technically that there is broad coverage, but what can we do to ensure that people in the far end of Fermanagh or Tyrone get access to first-generation coverage before we worry too much about the second generation?

Mr Dodds: I appreciate the Member’s question, which is an issue that has arisen before in the House. Perhaps I can explain, because it is an important, complex technical matter.

As a direct result of the contract between my Depart­ment and BT, every household and business across all of Northern Ireland that wishes to avail of a broadband service can now do so at an equitable price. The problem is that 99% of broadband services in Northern Ireland are available over telephone lines, and 1% is delivered through wireless systems, specifically satellite. We have 320,000 customers whose service is delivered over telephone lines; 40,000 receive their broadband from cable television services; and some 680 have their services delivered by satellite.

As a result of the contract that was entered into between DETI and BT, the maximum cost, no matter how the service is provided, satellite or otherwise, is £27 a month with a £70 installation charge. In contrast, the cost of satellite broadband elsewhere in the United Kingdom is £72 a month with £1,400 for installation. The problem is the means by which the broadband service is delivered. Ninety-nine per cent receive broadband by telephone line, but there is a small group of people who, because of geographical remoteness, have to receive it by satellite.

As a result of the Government’s contract with BT, however, broadband is still delivered at an extremely reasonable price, compared to the cost for its availability in other parts of the country. I hope that that goes some way towards explaining the issues.

3.45 pm

Mrs McGill: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. To some extent, the Minister has answered my question. Nevertheless, I will ask it again: does he still stand over his Department’s claim that there is 100% access to broadband and equality of access? Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Dodds: The answer that I gave just a moment ago dealt with that point. Nevertheless, I understand the Member’s concern.

Compared to other regions of Europe, Northern Ireland’s broadband coverage, right across the Province, is probably the best. When it comes to marketing the Province in pursuit of inward investment, that advantage is one of our unique selling points, which I am keen to see maintained. Several Members have raised specific issues on the matter, and I want my officials to tackle and try to resolve those issues. Individual cases should be drawn to the attention of officials, and we will look into those and clarify matters.

I hope that the House will be reassured that enormous efforts have been made, at expense to the public purse, to provide the type of coverage that people want. We do not want to create the digital divide that would otherwise have occurred.

Williamite Trail

4. Mr McQuillan asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to detail the progress that is being made on the setting up of a Williamite trail to encourage tourists to visit Northern Ireland.   (AQO 1855/08)

Mr Dodds: The Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland is leading on the development of the Williamite trail in Northern Ireland and in the Irish Republic. Tourism Ireland is examining the scope for the production of promotional material for a Williamite trail and is discussing those matters with the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland.

I know that the Orange Order is keen to make the 12 July demonstrations and other associated events as accessible and positive as possible to both local people and visitors alike. As part of their efforts to build positive working relationships with the Orange Order, the Northern Ireland Tourist Board facilitated Welcome Host training with the marshals from last year’s Enniskillen parade, which was one of two flagship events for the 12 July celebrations in 2007. Furthermore, I have accepted an invitation to a meeting with representatives of Belfast Orangefest Ltd later this month to discuss those matters further.

Mr McQuillan: What more can be done to maximise the tourism potential of events such as the shutting of the gates during the Relief of Derry celebrations, the Royal Black Preceptory parades, and the sham fight at Scarva?

Mr Dodds: Those events are well-known locally. Some may not be as well-known internationally, but they excite attention from people who are interested in cultural matters. The Scarva sham fight is mentioned in the accommodation guide that is produced by the Armagh Down Tourism Partnership. The annual Relief of Londonderry celebrations are promoted on the Tourist Board’s website. I encourage any of the organisations that the Member mentioned to promote their events, if suitable, on that website. Some organisations have not been forthcoming and should therefore make full use of any promotional opportunities that are available.


5. Mr Adams asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to detail the assistance that Invest NI provided to InBev to relocate from the Glen Road to another site in West Belfast.        (AQO 1860/08)

Mr Dodds: As the InBev facility located on the Glen Road was no longer engaged in manufacturing, it ceased to be eligible for assistance. Therefore, no Invest Northern Ireland (INI) support was provided to assist with the relocation. I understand that InBev intends to relocate the remaining distribution and warehousing aspects of the business to a site on the nearby Boucher Road in south Belfast. Approximately 60 staff will be involved in that move. I welcome the fact that the site remains within reasonable travelling distance from the Glen Road location.

Mr Adams: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his answer. However, it is very disappointing. I am aware of all the details of this matter, and I have spoken to InBev.

The company was keen to remain in west Belfast. However, it did not receive any help from Invest NI, despite the agency’s having extensive vacant sites available. I want to register that fact.

Does the Minister accept that Invest NI’s appalling record in retaining employment, such as that of InBev in west Belfast, is surpassed only by its chronic failure to attract new employment to the area? What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that Invest NI’s policy and strategy are subject to equality impact assessment before the inward investment conference in May? Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Dodds: I hope that the Member, and the whole House, listened carefully to the remarks that I made in response to a previous question. A common theme is emerging on the part of Mr Adams and some of his colleagues: attack Invest NI at every opportunity. In politics — and when one is seeking to take a political stance — perhaps everything is fair game. However, let us introduce some facts to the matter; let us have a little bit of objective analysis and sweep away some of the propaganda and PR. The fact of the matter is — as I have outlined already — that there is assistance. In 2006-07, £1 million was used to support existing clients. There have been successes there.

Of course, all of us who represent areas of great economic need want to see that more is done and that is it done more quickly. I am determined that all of Northern Ireland should benefit from the opportunities that now exist. Let us face the fact that we would have been a lot further down the road, and there would have been a lot less deprivation, if we had not had to endure the past 35 years of murder, madness and mayhem. Therefore, when people speak loudly in criticism of Invest NI and other agencies that are working hard to do what is necessary to bring in employment opportunities and wealth creation, let those people look occasionally at their contribution to society over the years.

I am determined, given the PSA targets and the Programme for Government commitments, that all of Belfast — north, west and other parts — will benefit from economic uplift and upturn. I am determined that Invest NI will deliver on the targets for the greater Shankill, and elsewhere, that I have set.

Mr Attwood: It is unfortunate that InBev is leaving the constituency, because it has been there for 100 years. Will the Minister consult INI to see what measures were taken to assist InBev to remain, given that — as the Minister indicated earlier — there is a 35-acre single parcel of INI land in West Belfast?

The Minister visited West Belfast before Christmas and met Delta Print and Packaging Ltd. It is one of our most successful indigenous employers, with factories in India and China. It was not a matter of propaganda when that company told him that it had had to jump enormous hurdles with INI to get grant aid. Will the Minister see whether INI — in that and other cases — will assist companies with marketing, capital, and training assistance?

Given that, as the Minister said earlier, businesses go where they want to go — which appears to be south Belfast, east Belfast and the city centre — is there a danger that the 35 acres of INI land in west Belfast will simply remain undeveloped and not be used for economic renewal?

Mr Dodds: I am sure that the Member will be the first to welcome any future investment. As far as the latter point is concerned, Invest NI holds about 190 acres of land in west Belfast, of which approximately 157 acres are occupied by client companies. That leaves 33 acres for industrial use. It is available for any eligible Invest Northern Ireland client.

In the past 12 months, Invest NI has sold three service sites that cover an area of 3·5 acres, 50,000 sq ft of factory sales, and 95,000 sq ft of building leases from its property portfolio in the west Belfast and greater Shankill area to client companies in support of development projects. There have been many expressions of interest in the land available, and I am confident that that will continue to be the case.

I want to point out the facts about InBev — facts are awkward things that sometimes get in the way of propaganda, but they are stubborn things that do not go away. In 2005, Invest Northern Ireland’s selective financial assistance was available to companies operating in manufacturing and tradable services.

Before InBev’s decision to close the site, the Glen Road brewery manufactured products, which it sold and distributed to Northern Ireland, the rest of the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic. When the company decided to cease manufacturing there, the brewing and soft drinks manufacturing lines were closed and the facility became a warehousing, sales and distribution operation only, with all products handled by the company being manufactured outside Northern Ireland. The consequent reduction in added-value activity meant that the company was no longer eligible for selective financial assistance, as was the case with Cantrell and Cochrane on the Castlereagh Road in 2001. Those are the facts.

The Member mentioned Delta Print and Packaging Ltd. I was delighted to visit the company recently to congratulate it on the tremendous strides that it has made in its joint-venture successes in India and China. The company has received significant assistance, and I commend those involved in the company for the way in which they have taken the business forward. I had a very useful meeting with the company’s management, and I will continue to ensure that that relationship between the company and Invest Northern Ireland continues to grow and consolidate.

Mr McCausland: Will the Minister comment further on the position of Delta Print and Packaging Ltd in West Belfast and on Invest NI’s support for the company?

Mr Dodds: It would not be terribly productive to go into the recent torturous history between Delta Print and Packaging Ltd and Invest Northern Ireland in detail. Suffice it to say that I am delighted that some issues have now been resolved. Both the company and Invest Northern Ireland are to be commended on their progress, and Invest Northern Ireland officials must be commended on the work that they put in to ensure that matters moved forward.

Delta Print and Packaging Ltd is a significant and valued employer in west Belfast, and it is truly internationally focused. It has done so well because it is innovative and sees its future as being export-oriented and internationally driven, and because of the skills and energy of the workforce. We need to grow our local indigenous companies’ interest in, and commitment to, innovation, productivity and export growth.

Renewable Energy Target

6. Mr P Ramsey asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to detail the steps that he is taking to ensure that the renewable energy target of 12% by 2012 is met.        (AQO 1870/08)

Mr Dodds: The Northern Ireland Renewables Obligation (NIRO) is our main support mechanism for encouraging generation from renewable sources. It continues to be very successful in stimulating renewable energy developments, especially wind farms. The Department expects that the support available to developers under NIRO will ensure that Northern Ireland meets, by 2012, its 12% target for the proportion of electricity consumption that will come from indigenous renewable sources.

Mr P Ramsey: Does the Minister agree that merging the fragmented energy bodies in Northern Ireland into one body, similar to Sustainable Energy Ireland, would better promote renewable energy and focus efforts to meet renewable energy targets. Has the Minister had any discussions with the Energy Saving Trust advice centre in Northern Ireland?

Mr Dodds: I am grateful for the question. The Member raises an important issue. My Department is interested in exploring the proposition that there should be a more co-ordinated and strategic approach to renewable energy. As the Member knows, my Department is the lead Department in this area. I would like to closely examine whether there is room for a more united and cohesive approach towards the number of bodies in this area. My officials are in contact with a wide range of groups, and I look forward to having more meetings with them in the weeks and months ahead.

Mr Elliott: I thank the Minister for his answer. The renewable energy target of 12% by 2012 is quite aggressive, and I welcome it.

What percentage of those renewables will be met by wind generation? The Minister may not have the infor­mation available today, but I would appreciate it if he could provide a breakdown of the make-up of the different types of renewables that are included in that 12% target.

4.00 pm

Mr Dodds: I will certainly provide more detail for the Member on that issue. The 12% target will be met primarily from large-scale wind generation. Micro-generation does contribute but will not be a critical factor in achieving the 12% target. Therefore, the vast majority of that target will be met through wind production and wind farms. As I said, I will write to the Member in more detail regarding that matter.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Question Time is now at an end.

Mr O’Loan: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I refer to the Standing Orders dealing with questions for oral answer. Twenty questions are listed for each Minister during Question Time. Today, the respective Ministers answered four, six and five of the listed questions. Therefore, one Minister answered only one in five of the listed questions. That creates a lot of frustration and annoyance among Members whose questions have been listed and who wait to pose those questions. It also frustrates Members who have submitted their names to be considered to ask supplementary questions. I know that this issue has already been brought to the attention of the Speaker, but I want to highlight the annoyance that a lot of Members feel.

Mr Deputy Speaker: I will certainly note the Member’s point, which was not a point of order. A rotation system is in place and the questions and supplementary questions are part of that. The Speaker or Deputy Speakers have no control over the length of the questions or the length of the answers.

Mr McCarthy: Further to that point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. If the Speaker and Deputy Speakers have no control over the length of time that Ministers take to answer questions, surely Members should. Members are entitled to have some sort of regulation as to the length of time that Ministers can take when answering questions. Often Ministers are simply waffling.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Mr McCarthy, you are a member of the Business Committee. I am certain that the Business Committee will be able to deal with that issue.

Mr McElduff: On a point of order, a LeasCheann Comhairle. The allegation of filibustering has been made against Ministers who speak in both Irish and English. What is the excuse for those Ministers who speak in English alone?

Mr Deputy Speaker: That point was not raised today. As I said, the Business Committee will address all of the issues about Question Time and the answers given by Ministers.

Private Notice Question

Clostridium Difficile

Mr McLaughlin asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to detail the number of deaths in relation to which clostridium difficile has been a contributing factor, across each health and social care trust; and, in view of the widespread public concern about the issue, to indicate what plans he has to authorise a full public inquiry.

The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Mr McGimpsey): Interim figures show that clostridium difficile was mentioned on the death certificates of 77 people during 2007. Fourteen of those deaths were in the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust area, 32 were in the Northern Trust area, 14 were in the South Eastern Trust area, seven were in the Sout­hern Trust area and four were in the Western Trust area.

I have asked the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA) to conduct a detailed independent review of all of the circumstances surrounding that incident and to make recommendations. That is a proportionate response, and I have no plans to authorise a public inquiry.

Mr McLaughlin: I am disappointed with the Minister’s answer. When this issue first emerged in late January 2008, there were justifiable complaints about the drip-feeding of information. Various trusts said that statistics were unavailable and that they had different systems for recording such instances. To be fair, one trust was forthright about the circumstances with which it was dealing.

My understanding of the Minister’s initial position is that he is requesting the investigation in the Northern Trust area only. Circumstances have demonstrated that a much wider investigation is required. The Minister appears complacent. To continue in that vein reflects an unnecessary level of denial and an alarming dimension of complacency. There is widespread public concern.

Thirty of the 77 deaths recorded in 2007 were reported in the last quarter — that is a 250% increase, and it raises concerns and questions. The public are entitled to have their concerns addressed by the Minister. Families who have lost loved ones are entitled to answers. Families with loved ones in hospital — particularly those who are old and frail — and people who have an upcoming stay in hospital, need to be assured that hospitals are safe places.

The Minister’s statement is totally unsatisfactory. I know that there is widespread concern in the House, and I ask Members to make it clear to the Minister that the current situation is not acceptable. A full public inquiry is required: we need to know the reason for such a dramatic increase in what has been a long-standing problem that has never been properly resolved.

Some medical professionals have said that it may not be possible to eradicate the problem, and have then gone on to say that the people who died were suffering from other illnesses and difficulties. The public deserve better than that; and they are entitled to better than that. It is up to the Assembly to ensure that they get it. Go raibh míle maith agat.

Mr McGimpsey: Although Mr McLaughlin is disappointed with what I have said; he did ask me for a statement of fact about how many people had died, which I have provided.

He then asked me to consider a full public inquiry. Although there are circumstances in which a public enquiry would be appropriate, in this case an independent review under the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA) is the appropriate response, not least because it is much quicker than a public enquiry. The investigation team will be drawn from outside health and social care organisations, and the RQIA has robust powers to make enquiries and call people to account.

The key elements in any enquiry or review are the terms of reference. In this case, the terms of reference are: the circumstances contributing to the rates of clostridium difficile in the Northern Health and Social Care Trust in 2007 and 2008 including the recent outbreak; the trust management and clinical response to the clostridium difficile rates and outbreak, which includes the actions to inform patients, their relatives and the public; the trust’s arrangements to identify and notify cases, outbreaks and deaths associated with the infection; the trust’s governance arrangements; the actions of the Northern board and the Department in the management of the outbreak in the Northern Health and Social Care Trust area; to examine any other relevant matters that emerge in the course of the review; and to identify learning from the management of the incident. That is a comprehensive set of terms of reference by anyone’s criteria.

The review is the most appropriate option because it will be completed quickly, whereas public enquiries are inclined to run. Without pointing fingers at anyone, a public inquiry into the incident would take too long to get answers to the questions I have asked. I have not been complacent about this matter, and my Department has made a series of responses: the action plan ‘Changing the Culture’, which was already in place; the response from the Northern Health and Social Care Trust, which the review will show, on the key steps of containment — antibiotic policy, infection control and environmental cleaning, and the actions of the Northern Health and Social Care Trust replicated by other trusts through the prudent use of antibiotics, hand hygiene, environmental cleaning, isolation-cohort nursing and use of personal protective equipment by staff. I met the chairpersons of the trusts last week, and I will meet the chief executives of all the trusts this week. I have been briefed on the issue daily. I went to Antrim Area Hospital and visited the isolation ward and met the staff there; I was very encouraged by the staff and the steps that are being taken. As of Friday, there are seven active cases with four in recovery.

The Member said that we “may” not be able to eradicate the infection. I correct him: we will not be able to eradicate it. Around 30% of those who are aged over 65 carry clostridium difficile. When antibiotics are used, for good reason, to combat infections in the elderly and the frail, there is the possibility that those patients may develop the clostridium difficile infection and that it may not immediately —

Dr Deeny: Will the Member give way?

Mr McGimpsey: No; I am making an important point.

The difficulty lies in finding the infection quickly and isolating it. It is not always possible to be absolutely certain immediately about whether patients have the infection. Antibiotics are used to deal with any outbreak, and most patients recover. However, the infection reoccurs in around 30% of patients.

We are battling with those situations. I believe that an independent review conducted by RQIA is the appropriate response. That is because that body has clear terms of reference, it can carry out the inquiry quickly, and the matter would not hang around. A public inquiry is liable to go on for months; indeed, we have seen some public inquiries run for years. We need a faster and more focused investigation, and we need the answers quickly.

Executive Committee Business

Spring Supplementary Estimates 2007-08 and Vote on Account 2008-09

Debate resumed on motion:

That this Assembly approves that a total sum, not exceeding £11,851,642,000, be granted out of the Consolidated Fund for or towards defraying the charges for Northern Ireland Departments, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints, the Food Standards Agency, the Northern Ireland Audit Office and the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation for the year ending 31 March 2008 and that total resources, not exceeding £14,429,839,000, be authorised for use by Northern Ireland Departments, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints, the Food Standards Agency, the Northern Ireland Audit Office and the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation for the year ending 31 March 2008 as summarised for each Department or other public body in Columns 2(c) and 3(c) of Table 1 in the volume of the Northern Ireland Spring Supplementary Estimates 2007-08 that was laid before the Assembly on 31 January 2008. — [The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr P Robinson).]

The following motion stood in the Order Paper:

That this Assembly approves that a sum, not exceeding £5,335,212,000, be granted out of the Consolidated Fund on account for or towards defraying the charges for Northern Ireland Departments, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints, the Food Standards Agency, the Northern Ireland Audit Office and the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation for the year ending 31 March 2009 and that resources, not exceeding £6,493,908,000, be authorised, on account, for use by Northern Ireland Departments, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints, the Food Standards Agency, the Northern Ireland Audit Office and the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation for the year ending 31 March 2009 as summarised for each Department or other public body in Columns 4 and 6 of Table 1 in the Vote on Account 2008-09 document that was laid before the Assembly on 31 January 2008. — [The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr P Robinson).]

The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr P Robinson): We had a very useful and wide-ranging debate this morning, and many important points were raised. Although some may not have been pertinent to the Supply resolutions or the Budget Bill, which I will introduce later, they touched on the wider Budget considerations that Members felt were important and wanted to debate. With your latitude, Mr Deputy Speaker, and given the spirit in which Members have raised those points, I will do my best to respond as fully as possible.

The Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel made several points about the necessary roles that spring Supplementary Estimates play in the overall financial management process. I welcome his recognition of that, and I thank him and his Committee for the valuable contribution that they have made to the process.

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

I welcome the Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel and other Members’ endorsement of my call for Departments to improve their financial management. In that context, it is essential that Departments spend the money that they have been allocated within the specified time and with due regard to proper value for money and accountability.

My good friend the Member for North Antrim Mr Mervyn Storey, along with Mr Declan O’Loan and Mr Alex Attwood, raised issues that relate to education. A more sensible approach might be for me to take a more circuitous route on that issue, but in dealing head-on with post-primary education, I must state my strong view that people outside the Chamber will not think well of us if we cannot reach agreement and resolve the issue. I want to avoid as much as possible the flexing of muscles that I have noticed taking place on the issue over the past few weeks. In my view, post-primary education is a vital matter and one for the Executive to address in the coming period.

At St Andrews clear guidelines were laid down on how to deal with such matters. If matters are cross-cutting, and if there is a financial requirement, they are automatically cross-cutting: or if they are novel, and no one would argue that the Minister’s proposals do not come under that heading; or if they are contentious, and some people would argue that the vision statement was contentious; the agreement of Executive colleagues must be sought on them. That is the place in which to work out an agreement. The proposals will then become the responsibility and come under the ownership of the Executive as a whole. The Education Minister would not stand on her own in arguing her case, because her Executive colleagues would have to stand with her, having agreed an approach for dealing with the matter.

4.15 pm

I noted with interest the comments of the Member for Upper Bann John O’Dowd on ‘Hearts and Minds’ last week. I do not know whether he was speaking tongue-in-cheek or whether he was being mischievous when he said:

“St Andrews did protect academic selection; it did not state that the Department had to fund academic selection. So if a school wishes to bring in academic selection, that is up to the school. What we are saying is,”

—I am not sure to whom the “we” refers —

“the Department should not be funding this system”.

Although I am sure that it was a small part of his intention to stir up debate on the programme, I am equally sure that the Minister of Education could not possibly be thinking along the same lines, because both the Member and the Minister will know the circumstances of any Department’s spending. If there was a suggestion that any Department in Northern Ireland was discriminating against children, as in that case, or against any others, I would be forced to remove its delegation to spend money. Under the legislation, approval from DFP is required. As a matter of good working practice, a delegation is given to each Department to allow it to spend money. If there was an issue about how money was being spent or not spent, my Department would have to go back to it.

I am pretty sure that the Member was simply using a wooden spoon to stir the argument on television and was not seriously committing himself, his Minister or his party to that approach. I am sure that he does not want to play hardball on an issue that is vital to the future of so many people in Northern Ireland. I state again that the education issue can be resolved only by agreement, and the processes for obtaining agreement exist. That matter must be dealt with urgently.

The Member for North Antrim Mr Declan O’Loan raised the issue of how we might fill the additional requirement if we were to adopt a new policy that had a significant cost attached to it. One of the key decisions that the Executive must take in examining any proposal from any Department is whether they can fund the policy; if there is insufficient money to fund a policy, it cannot go forward in that shape and form. That is why Executive approval and agreement are required on all such issues.

If I might turn to comments made by the tax-and-spend party — the party that wishes to get its hands into the pockets of the people of Northern Ireland — the Alliance Party gave its views on several issues, particularly taxation.

Departments and public bodies in general must not overspend or breach control limits set by the Assembly. Hence, there will always be a degree of underspend. The balance is that all permanent secretaries — the accounting officers for each Department — know how difficult their lives will be if they overspend. They are careful not to commit that unpardonable financial sin. Therefore, of necessity, there will always be some level of underspend. However, that is already mitigated — to some extent — by the level of overcommitment in our financial plans for each year.

Under the Treasury’s end-year flexibility (EYF) mechanism, underspend and slippage — both in resource expenditure and capital projects — are carried forward for the Executive’s future use in Northern Ireland, so the money is not lost. How­ever, as I indicated earlier, we have to fight for it to be made available to us in each financial year. We succeeded to a great extent in getting it front-loaded in the three-year Budget period that we are soon to be entering.

The Alliance Member for North Down argued that the public sector takes too large a share of GDP, and I agree with him entirely. That is a sound argument, and no one will quarrel with it. However, having recognised the cumbersome and burdensome size of the public sector, it is contradictory of the Member to go on to suggest more and more public expenditure and an increase in the public sector. I expected more suggestions as to how the private sector might be invigorated, the proper controls applied and the best value for money obtained. I agree with him that there is a need for more funding for key services, and that has been reflected in the Budget; however, it will not be delivered in the short or medium term from what the Member describes as “the shared future”.

I am still waiting and hoping for the request from the Alliance Party for a meeting on that issue. It may have come in but not been brought to my attention. I urge that party again to come and see me; the party talks plenty about its proposals in the Chamber, but it has not met me to talk about them, how we might advance them or what room exists in public services for a more efficient use of resources.

I turn to the issue of rates. Members will note that, in its response to the Executive’s draft Budget, the Confederation of British Industry welcomed the commitment to limit non-domestic regional rate increases to 2·7%. The reason that it gave for so doing was the significant cost faced by the business sector over the Budget period. The CBI will not want to speak out of two sides of its mouth at the one time; if it has recognised that it was proper for the Executive to ensure that there would be no real increase in business rates because of the burden carried by the business sector, then — given the even greater burden being carried by the domestic sector, where rates have increased much more than in the business sector — the CBI will also agree that the Executive did the right thing in freezing domestic rates. The same logic should apply to both domestic and non-domestic rates.

The CBI assumed 2·7% as the rate of inflation, and was prepared to accept that kind of increase in the domestic rate. However, if it looks at the figures, it will find that such an increase would not remotely cover what it wanted the Executive to fund from that form of taxation.

I hope that that answers the questions that the Member posed from a sedentary position about whether we agreed with the CBI. On many issues, we do. More accurately, the CBI agrees with us on many issues. On this issue, logic is on our side.

The approach adopted by the Executive balanced the need to provide appropriate levels of funding for public services against the significant pressures faced by local households in the context of the increases in domestic regional rates that were experienced in recent years. In one year, there was an increase of 90%, and an increase of over 60% has taken place in the past five years. The need to reduce the taxation burden has been recognised more generally by the United Kingdom Government in the overall outcome from the compreh­ensive spending review. That has also been recognised by the Scottish Executive in its commitment not to increase council taxes in the coming years.

The Alliance Party has also highlighted the negative impact of regional rate increases. In September 2006, the Alliance Party’s chief whip said:

“rates hikes punish those on low incomes and must be scrapped immediately.”

The Alliance party’s manifesto in 2005 said that Alliance councillors would work to achieve better value for money by:

“Keeping local rates down, while providing quality, cost-effective services”.

It seems that the Alliance Party, rather than wanting to keep rates down, wants to put them up. That is contrary to its own electoral commitment. More recently, the Alliance Party’s manifesto for the 2007 Assembly election warned that:

“It is likely that any future devolved Executive will seek to abuse the regional to raise additional sums of money, without facing up to the need for reform.”

It is the Alliance Party that seeks to abuse the rate by increasing it, and, sensibly, it is the Executive that want to hold it down.

Dr Farry: Will the Minister give way?

Mr P Robinson: I will be glad to. Is the Member absolutely sure?

Dr Farry: Yes, I am sure. Will the Minister accept that there is some sense in trying to keep a balanced approach to the regional rate, and to keep increases in line with the rate of inflation, rather than going from one extreme to the other? The previous Administration went for hikes of between 8% and 19%, and the current Administration is going for a freeze, which, in real terms, is in fact a cut at the expense of public services. The appropriate approach is to keep the regional rate in line with inflation.

Mr P Robinson: The Member would do well to consider the list of items of expenditure that he has sought to get from the increase in rates. As my friend from Strangford said, funding of the expenditure list that the Member produced would require the doubling of the regional rate. I do not consider that to be a reasonable increase, and I am sure that the electors and ratepayers of North Down would not consider that to be a reasonable increase. Of course, if the Member wants to argue for the doubling of the rate, we will meet him on the hustings. I have no doubt what the verdict of the electorate will be on that issue.

Almost 10,000 submissions were received in response to the public consultation process on the draft Budget, and the associated Programme for Government and investment strategy for Northern Ireland. Although a broad range of issues were identified, the main themes were around the need for additional funding for specific areas. I am still waiting for someone who has gone through those 10,000 responses at close quarter to find one that has asked me to reduce expenditure in any area. Whatever we do in Northern Ireland must be within the affordability limits. Although there were 10,000 requests for more funding in various areas, it is up to the Executive and the Assembly to determine where the balance should lie. The revised Budget document, which was agreed unanimously by all four of the parties in the mandatory coalition on 22 January 2008 and passed in the Assembly a week later, included increased support for mental health, the arts, libraries, victims and children and young people. That represented a positive response to the main issues raised in the public consultation.

Far too often, Ministers in Northern Ireland ignored consultation processes. I would have thought that the Member for North Down Dr Farry would have applauded the Executive, as they have been prepared not only to listen to the consultation exercise but to respond positively to it. The Member thought that he had the clincher when he said that there was a need to increase expenditure on health but that some of my colleagues — presumably including me — said the very same thing eight years ago during the Assembly’s first mandate. I have no doubt that we probably made those remarks.

4.30 pm

Dr Farry: The Minister did not make those remarks. They were made by Members of the SDLP.

Mr P Robinson: I congratulate them, because eight years ago, the SDLP’s Minister of Finance and Personnel may not have allocated sufficient resources to health. Since then, expenditure on health has doubled from around £2 billion a year to over £4 billion a year. Therefore, significant additional funds have gone into health. I believe that the community will welcome the additional priority given by the Executive to health issues, even if the Member for North Down does not welcome it.

Although an increase in regional rates could provide additional resources for Departments, more can be achieved through improved efficiencies in the public sector rather than further increasing the burden on households. Additional taxation would also increase inflationary wage pressures, as workers attempt to maintain living standards so that at least part of the cost would be borne by business impacting on the competitiveness of the local economy, one of the knock-on impacts of the policy being advocated by the Alliance Party.

The Member for North Down Dr Farry — and I hope that he appreciates my spending so much time on his comments — raised the issue of the Varney Review. He wondered why the Executive had not stated their case on the matter. We have published a strong case on the issue, and it is in the public arena. If the Member does not have a copy of that, I will have one forwarded to him. He will know that we were disappointed, but not surprised, at the outcome of the Varney Review; it was not unexpected. However, I welcome the Varney Review II. It can deliver an objective analysis of the policies that the United Kingdom Government and the Northern Ireland Executive — either separately or collectively — need to pursue to bring about greater economic growth in Northern Ireland.

I have insisted that the Varney Review II will have direct ongoing input from Northern Ireland Executive officials, and, indeed, that is already happening. That will ensure that the review is aware of the full range of evidence on policies in Northern Ireland. The Varney Review II will conclude before the United States investment conference, which will take place in Northern Ireland in May 2008. I hope that its outcome will be helpful and will be an incentive to those attending the conference.

The regional economic strategy will be revised in the light of the Varney Review II and in the light of the priorities set out in the Programme for Government and the final Budget.

The Member for West Belfast Jennifer McCann raised equality issues. I share her view that there is a need to assess the impact of all spending proposals fully. However, I urge caution that we must focus on ensuring the maximum benefit for all the people rather than artificially imposing the same benefit on all. That smacks of Marxism, which has failed throughout the world, and we should not try to introduce that dogma into Northern Ireland. She also suggested that the Executive might want to consider the transfer of taxation powers.

I urge caution there also. Northern Ireland benefits significantly from being part of the United Kingdom. Members will see from the motion that the Estimates being brought forward are for expenditure on resources and capital to the tune of more than £14 billion. We also receive about £8 billion under annually managed expenditure for various benefits and pension payments. That means that we receive £22 billion from the Exchequer. The Exchequer receives funds from Northern Ireland by way of taxation, but there is still a deficit of £7 billion or £8 billion per annum, which has to be funded by the Treasury. That amounts to about £9,400 per member of population in Northern Ireland.

Therefore, before anyone considers the approach advocated by the Member for West Belfast Jennifer McCann, and looks at the Sinn Féin/Alliance Party proposals for greater flexibility on tax matters, they must ensure that the deficit is sufficiently reduced.

Rather than take the approach advocated by Ms McCann — which amounts to telling business where it should go — I prefer the approach that was summed up by a former President of the Irish Republic Seán Lemass and popularised by President Kennedy. They said that:

“a rising tide will lift all boats”.

I recommend and advocate that approach.

I agree with all the comments made by my colleague Peter Weir, who is not in the Chamber. He made his points well, and he was right to say that the focus must turn to delivery and away from spend. I have said it twice in the Chamber, and I say it again today: in three years time, the people of Northern Ireland will not be asking how much money was allocated to each Department; they will be asking what each Department delivered.

There is a clear need to drive forward the performance and efficiency of public services in Northern Ireland. To maximise gains, we must become more radical in our approach to identifying ways of improving services. In that context — and as I have previously advised the Assembly — I have established a performance and efficiency delivery unit to take that important work forward.

The Member for East Antrim Mr Roy Beggs commented on the Main Estimates and raised a number of issues about the figures in the spring Supplementary Estimates for the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, the Department of Finance and Personnel and the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, among others. The major issue for the Depart­ment of Finance and Personnel is the increase in the superannuation scheme. There is a net increase in the provision of £160 million in relation to the annually managed expenditure component which covers pensions, lump sums and gratuities associated with the Principal Civil Service Pension Scheme Northern Ireland. As that is annually managed expenditure, it does not detract from the amounts of departmental expenditure limits available for local services. The decrease in the net cash requirement of £200 million from the 2007-08 Main Estimates to the 2007-08 spring Supplementary Estimates reflects a delay in the need to provide for a potential transfer-out payment in respect of staff employed in Northern Ireland Water.

The Member for West Belfast Mr Alex Attwood raised issues regarding innovation and skills funding. Anyone who listened to his speech might have assumed that the only money available for innovation and skills was £90 million, but that was the additional amount that we got from resources. He is right to identify that part of the amount came from the Irish Republic, but £25 million came from the package that the Chancellor of the Exchequer provided at the start of devolution, and the remainder came from the block grant.

Of course, in addition to that there will be approx­imately £140 million from the EU competitiveness and employment programmes 2007-13. However, the Member should note that other policies and programmes will feed into that area of activity and that most of DEL’s budget will be directed towards skills and training. Therefore, even if the figure of £90 million is upgraded by European funding, we should not treat it in isolation.

Although that investment will not address all our economy’s problems, it still represents a good first step towards reducing the productivity gap. Furthermore, there would be little point in pumping massive investment into innovation activity if there is insufficient capacity to absorb such funding.

The Department for Employment and Learning is responsible for skills policy and between 2006-07 and the end of the Budget period its overall funding level will increase by more than a third.

The Member for West Belfast mentioned the role of opposition in Committees. When he reads the Official Report tomorrow, he will find that I did not suggest that there should not be opposition; I suggested — and I hope that he will agree — that there should not be opposition for opposition’s sake. In fact, I am pretty sure that he will agree with that because both he and his party were signatories to the Anglo-Irish Agreement, which set out the functions of those Committees. The function of opposition — and certainly not the function of opposition for opposition’s sake — appears nowhere in the functions set out and endorsed by the SDLP.

Our circumstances are unique because none of us would choose a mandatory four-party coalition with a requirement to have parties in Government irrespective of whether there is an ideological glue to hold them together. Given the divisions in our society and the fact that we are working our way out of a long period of instability, we must work in those circumstances until we can establish more stable and permanent structures. In doing so, I hope — I am sure — that we will have the Alliance Party’s support. However, while this system lasts and in order to ensure that the right policies emerge for the benefit of all the people of Northern Ireland, there is a role for the Committees to probe and assist their relevant Minister — not just to oppose everything that he or she happens to say.

Mr Attwood: The Minister is anxious to ensure that Hansard accurately reflects his comments about opposition for opposition’s sake; in order to do that he may wish to correct two points in his speech. First, Mr Seán Lemass was never President of Ireland; secondly, it was not the Anglo-Irish Agreement that brought about the establishment of the Assembly’s Committee system; it was the Good Friday Agreement. My recollection is that the Minister did not use the phrase “opposition for opposition’s sake”, although, if he did, I will be happy to correct my version.

Nevertheless, the more substantial point is that the Minister indicated that it would be inappropriate to allocate money that might not be spent. Although the universities might have exaggerated their capacity to spend £100 million, they have stated that they would require such money in order to participate in Science Foundation Ireland — an all-Ireland research and development and innovation strategy that would position the North in the island economy and in the global economy. Could such money not have been spent for that purpose and been healthy for our society?

4.45 pm

Mr P Robinson: In the House of Commons, when a speech is made by way of an intervention, the Speaker usually reminds Members that interventions are, by their nature, supposed to be brief.

Foreign affairs were never my strong suit, and I accept that Seán Lemass was Prime Minister, not President. I also accept — as, I hope, will the Member — that we were both wrong about the agreement. I do not recognise any “Good Friday Agreement”.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Mr P Robinson: There is a Belfast Agreement, and it is that to which I referred.

I turn to an issue that was raised by the Member’s colleague Tommy Gallagher, namely the Northern Ireland Civil Service childcare-voucher scheme. The Civil Service is committed to the introduction of a salary-sacrifice childcare-voucher scheme, and work has been under way for some time to ensure that that can be delivered as part of the new payroll system.

That scheme should become operational later this year, and I shall attempt to define that timescale more clearly for the Member. When we have such an indication, I will write to him and to other Members who have written to me on that matter.

The new system is in its final stage of development, is being tested, and is likely to be introduced, we hope — although I do not want to commit myself to any particular date — before the summer.

The Member for West Tyrone Kieran Deeny raised health issues. I welcome the Member’s recognition of the scope for further efficiency savings in the Health Service. Those matters were robustly laid out in the Appleby Report. I have made the same points on many occasions and, as part of the final Budget, the Executive agreed that the Health Minister could retain the proceeds of additional efficiency savings above the 3% that applies to other Departments. Each percentage point equates to £40 million.

I entirely accept that the Health Minister will need some time to roll out the efficiencies before he can take full advantage of them. However, there is an incentive for greater efficiency if the Health Minister can ensure that he uses those funds directly on front-line services that are provided by his Department.

Mr Deputy Speaker: The Minister has a further five minutes.

Mr P Robinson: I wish to again thank Members for their contributions to the debate. As I indicated earlier, it is important in a democracy to hear the views of Assembly Members and to debate the issues fully. It is also important to reiterate the point that the responsibility of Assembly Members to hold Departments to account for what they spend does not end today. I consider that the Assembly and the Executive carry a heavy weight of responsibility to prudently manage public expenditure in Northern Ireland on behalf of the taxpayer.

In an ever-tightening fiscal environment, the delivery of real efficiencies by Departments to fund improved front-line services is one of the greatest priorities for Ministers, along with delivering a sustainable twenty-first century infrastructure. At the same time, the Executive’s top priority of growing a dynamic innovative economy over the lifetime of the Programme for Government is crucial if Northern Ireland is to have the wealth and resources that are required to build a peaceful, prosperous, fair and healthy society, which the people of Northern Ireland now expect. I ask all Members to support the motions.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Before the Questions are put, I remind the House that the votes on the motions require cross-community support.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved (with cross-community support):

That this Assembly approves that a total sum, not exceeding £11,851,642,000, be granted out of the Consolidated Fund for or towards defraying the charges for Northern Ireland Departments, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints, the Food Standards Agency, the Northern Ireland Audit Office and the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation for the year ending 31 March 2008 and that total resources, not exceeding £14,429,839,000, be authorised for use by Northern Ireland Departments, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints, the Food Standards Agency, the Northern Ireland Audit Office and the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation for the year ending 31 March 2008 as summarised for each Department or other public body in Columns 2(c) and 3(c) of Table 1 in the volume of the Northern Ireland Spring Supplementary Estimates 2007-08 that was laid before the Assembly on 31 January 2008.

Resolved (with cross-community support):

That this Assembly approves that a sum, not exceeding £5,335,212,000, be granted out of the Consolidated Fund on account for or towards defraying the charges for Northern Ireland Departments, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints, the Food Standards Agency, the Northern Ireland Audit Office and the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation for the year ending 31 March 2009 and that resources, not exceeding £6,493,908,000, be authorised, on account, for use by Northern Ireland Departments, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints, the Food Standards Agency, the Northern Ireland Audit Office and the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation for the year ending 31 March 2009 as summarised for each Department or other public body in Columns 4 and 6 of Table 1 in the Vote on Account 2008-09 document that was laid before the Assembly on 31 January 2008. — [The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr P Robinson).]

Budget Bill: First Stage

The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr P Robinson): I beg to introduce the Budget Bill [NIA 10/07], which is a Bill to authorise the issue out of the Consolidated Fund of certain sums for the service of the years ending 31st March 2008 and 2009; to appropriate those sums for specified purposes; to authorise the Department of Finance and Personnel to borrow on the credit of the appropriated sums; to authorise the use for the public service of certain resources for the years ending 31st March 2008 and 2009; and to revise the limits on the use of certain accruing resources in the year ending 31st March 2008.

Bill passed First Stage and ordered to be printed.

Mr Deputy Speaker: I inform Members that the Speaker has received written notification from the Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel to confirm that the Committee is satisfied that, in accordance with Standing Order 40(2), appropriate consultation has taken place with the Committee on the Bill’s public expenditure proposals. The Committee is therefore content that the Bill can proceed by accelerated passage. The Bill will receive its Second Stage tomorrow, Tuesday 12 February.

Review of Draft Planning Policy  Statement 14

Mr Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to two hours for this debate. The proposer of the motion will have up to 30 minutes in which to propose and to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes.

The Minister of the Environment (Mrs Foster): I beg to move

That this Assembly notes the emerging findings of the review of draft Planning Policy Statement 14 ‘Sustainable Development in the Countryside’.

I said in the Assembly on 25 October that I would chair the Executive subcommittee to oversee the review of draft Planning Policy Statement 14. I am delighted to have this opportunity to talk about the subcommittee’s work, and to hear Members’ views on the emerging findings.

My colleagues on the subcommittee are the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, the Minister for Social Development, the Minister for Regional Development, the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, and both junior Ministers. That is the group that will progress the review’s work, with both departmental perspectives and direct experience being brought to bear. I appreciate the contribution that all members of the subcommittee are making.

We have made substantial progress, with consensus emerging. That progress is on track, and, subject to the agreement of the Executive, my aim remains that a revised draft PPS 14 should be published at the end of April 2008, at which time draft PPS 14 will inform and be taken into account in planning decisions. After April, there will then be four months of full public consultation before it is finalised.

To help me develop my proposals, I have decided to engage with stakeholders on the findings emerging from the subcommittee’s work. I have prepared a paper as a basis for discussion, and I have organised eight stakeholder meetings in different locations from 15 to 22 February 2008. The independent report of those events will help inform the rest of the subcommittee’s work.

Of course, it is too early to say what my final proposals to the Executive will be. However, I can give Members a flavour of the thinking so far, and that is why I wanted to come before the House this afternoon.

On 25 October 2007, I said:

“my Executive colleagues and I wish to develop a policy based on the principles of sustainability that strikes a balance between the need to protect the countryside from unnecessary development and supporting rural communities so that they can flourish both socially and economically.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 24, p508, col 1].

One of the greatest challenges when undertaking that work is the matter of knowing exactly where to strike the balance between restricting development in order to protect our landscape and habitats, and relaxing restrictions in order to allow development where it is needed. I see scope for greater relaxation of some policies outside the green belt, but I will detail that as I go through the emerging findings.

Many rural dwellers are farmers, but non-farming rural dwellers also make a vital contribution to the sustainability and vibrancy of communities. Therefore, PPS 14 is relevant to the whole community, and in reviewing it, the subcommittee seeks to address the needs of all rural dwellers — both farming and non-farming.

The subcommittee has taken the view that, outside green belts and countryside policy areas, it may be appropriate to allow for the development of appropriately sited small groups of houses. We are therefore considering the reintroduction of dispersed rural communities, which existed prior to draft PPS 14 and which allowed for appropriate development to meet local need, including small groups of houses.

Draft PPS 14 already allows for groups of up to eight social housing units in the countryside. I would like to broaden that policy to cover affordable housing, with the possibility that the maximum number of houses in a group increases to 14, outside green belts and countryside policy areas.

Previously, there was a policy that provided for a dwelling to be built when people’s personal or domestic circumstances meant that they would suffer genuine hardship if they could not live on a specific site. An example might be a person with a severe, long-term health problem or a disability who needed ongoing family support. PPS 14 did away with that policy; however, I know the difference that it could make to some people’s lives, and I would like to see it reinstated.

It is wasteful that vacant houses are left to decay, while new houses are being built from scratch on fresh greenfield sites. More could be done to reuse or replace existing buildings. We would be keen to encourage sympathetic conversion of suitable buildings — such as traditional barns, churches or schools — as individual dwellings. That fits in well with the Executive’s policies on sustainability.

In relation to replacement, the so-called abandonment test — which I am sure all Members are familiar with — is much maligned. We believe that it is over-restrictive. I have therefore asked officials to do some work on an alternative test, which would be based on the condition of the remaining structure. We have also discussed whether extra flexibility might be allowed outside green belts.

There are policies in draft PPS 14 that deal with farm dwellings, farming and forestry development, and farm diversification. Of course, one of the bugbears for farmers is the farm viability test, which requires that a farm should be capable of supporting a farmer more or less full time. That test does not sit comfortably with modern farming conditions. Technological change and economic pressures mean that many farmers run their farm enterprises in conjunction with other businesses, and they derive substantial proportions of their incomes from contracting, off-farm or non-agricultural activities. Department of the Environment officials are working to try to find a more appropriate and acceptable approach.

We want to look again at retirement dwellings on farms. Draft PPS 14 permits a new dwelling for a retiring farmer or a surviving spouse.

The idea of a nice, cosy retirement cottage is very attractive. However, such a policy means that the retired person would have to move out of his or her home — perhaps the only home that they have ever had. That seems unnecessary. The policy could be made more flexible so that either the retiring person or the incoming farmer could apply for planning permission for a new dwelling.

5.00 pm

As regards diversification, farmers sometimes experience a mismatch between planning policy, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development’s diversification policies, and the statutory requirements they need to meet in relation to a specific proposal. That situation could be improved by amending draft PPS 14 to: recognise that diversification businesses are run in conjunction with farms and do not necessarily complement the farm business; include forestry as well as farm diversification, and recognise that new buildings may sometimes be needed in order to meet food hygiene or other statutory requirements.

Farming is not the only rural business present in the countryside. Draft PPS 14 also contains policy on non-agriculture businesses, including provision for a dwelling beside a business where a need can be demonstrated.

Finally, there has been a lot of discussion about the need to protect the rural character of an area by main­taining vernacular buildings and ensuring that appropriate designs and sites are used. There are already policies in draft PPS 14 covering those issues. However, ‘A Design Guide for Rural Northern Ireland’ could be updated to take account of contemporary designs and materials; drawing on local building traditions and styles, while clearly indicating what styles of developments are not acceptable.

As the policy is important to many people, I am opening the debate out beyond the subcommittee. I look forward to this afternoon’s debate and, with the stake­holders, I will look at the views expressed today. The final version of draft PPS14 will be issued in April 2008.

The Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment (Mr McGlone): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for her co-operation on the matter. Although, I will be speaking in the debate as the Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment, I will first make a comment as an MLA for Mid Ulster. The retention of countryside policy areas, 50% of which cover the swathe of the Magherafelt District Council area, has profound and serious implications for available and affordable housing for rural dwellers in that area.

As Chairperson of the Environment Committee, I will comment on several issues that arose following the briefing last Thursday. Draft PPS 14 introduced the concept of presumption against planning approval. In order to be eligible, individual applicants have to tick a number of boxes. Some clarity from the Minister would be helpful regarding that issue.

Although welcoming the theme areas that the Minister announced today — farm viability, farm diversification, replacement and some issues around affordable and social housing — I note that the Executive subcommittee is seeking to address the needs of farming and non-farming rural dwellers. My chief concern arising from that is that although it is important to focus on replace­ment, farm viability, affordable housing, clustering and similar issues, potentially 75% of rural dwellers do not have access to an old house that could be replaced; do not live on a viable or working farm, or do not have an old barn, school or church that could be converted. There needs to be much more concentration on developing a policy that will meet their needs, within the usual constraints of location, site and proper design.

There is an issue with respect to the reintroduction of dispersed rural communities. Although that will have some effect — certainly in Mid Ulster, where there are two — the effect will be minimal in the North overall.

As regards affordable and social housing, I note that the number of groups of clustered houses is being increased from eight to, potentially, 14.

I would welcome information from the Minister about the determinant for affordable rent. Will she also tell us how housing associations can introduce co-ownership when their houses are for rent?

Mr T Clarke: Is the Member speaking on behalf of the SDLP or as Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment?

Mr McGlone: I am speaking as Chairperson of the Committee.

Draft PPS 14 was deficient in complying with equality legislation over health and personal circumstances, and I am glad to see some movement there because that issue has come up several times at the Committee and elsewhere, as Members are aware.

The reuse of non-residential buildings for residential purposes is a good idea. The policy on replacement came up again during the Committee’s discourse with depart­mental officials on Thursday, and the unanimous view was that the test of abandonment was much too stringent. I welcome the Minister’s advocating measures on that front.

There are problems around the expansion of businesses in the countryside. Although we are dealing with PPS 14, perhaps the Minister could tell the House something about PPS 4, which has had consequences for those who have established businesses — some of them in my constituency of Mid Ulster — in small industrial units and who want to expand but cannot, and therefore jobs are not being created.

It is good to hear acknowledgement that the farm viability test was much too stringent, out of kilter with twenty-first century farming conditions and did not recognise that people need to live on the farm where they were brought up. It has been suggested that exceptional permission may be granted for a farmer’s son or daughter working on the farm even when it is not strictly necessary for him or her to live there.

Mr Weir: I welcome the debate on PPS 14, because the Assembly is the right place to start it, and we should remember that we are at the start of a debate.

Although the focus has been on the effect of PPS 14 on rural areas, any planning issue of such magnitude has an effect throughout the country, even putting pressure on urban areas.

We should remember that we are having a debate because PPS 14 was like taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut, and many mistakes were made; I hope that those mistakes will be redressed in the final policy. There was a problem in the rural community; we cannot go back to the free-for-all that existed before PPS 14: a Monopoly board with houses and single dwellings scattered around the countryside. That would be a regressive step. The Minister made the point about striking an appropriate balance, and many of the proposals that have been put forward today, albeit in draft form, are to be welcomed.

Cluster settlements need to be looked at closely, because the previous arrangements were unduly restrictive. The increase in the numbers of affordable and social houses is a positive step in addressing the needs of the rural community.

The restrictions on the reuse of non-residential buildings that have fallen into decay are also too strict. Where a disused school or hall has fallen into disrepair in a rural community it makes sense to use the space rather than constantly put up new buildings.

Against that, we must ensure that there is some degree of protection against the fraudulent abuse of planning regulations by people who throw a few stones together and pretend that a building existed in the past. Planning applications must be made in the proper way.

I welcome the relaxation of the rules in relation to health and personal circumstances. In my constituency, which is not particularly affected by PPS 14, there have been circumstances in which the Planning Service has taken an unduly restrictive attitude towards attempts to re-establish a farm on the grounds of health and personal circumstances, which seems to defy logic.

The changes in the farm viability test are to be welcomed. The present arrangements are overly restrictive, and, as has been said, do not reflect the reality of farm life today. Although it is an area that may well fall outside the remit of PPS 14, we must also consider whether the development limits around many towns and villages in Northern Ireland are appropriate. We must create a situation in which there is sustainable development in the countryside that meets the proper needs of the rural community, but does not open the floodgates to the ruination of the countryside. Consequently, the proposals that have been put forward today form the basis of an opportunity to move forward on this difficult issue, and provide a balanced approach.

I look forward to the stakeholder meetings that will be held across the country, which will allow a degree of input. I welcome the idea that proposals, subject to further consultation, will be immediately effective. We cannot have a situation in which people take advantage of a closing window of opportunity to flood the Planning Service with inappropriate applications. It is important that everyone is on a level playing field.

The proposals that have been put forward today by the Executive subcommittee and the Minister provide a positive way forward. They provide a sensible balance that will protect the countryside while removing some of the unwanted excesses of PPS 14. I welcome today’s debate.

Mr Deputy Speaker: I call the Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment, Mr Boylan.

Mr Boylan: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom cúpla focal a rá ar an ábhar seo. I welcome the opportunity to scrutinise PPS 14 in my role as Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment. I will make most of my comments today, however, as an MLA for Newry and Armagh.

I welcome the Minister’s briefing on the emerging findings of the Executive subcommittee as regards a way forward on the matter. I am pleased that she has given serious consideration, along with her ministerial colleagues, to the introduction of a policy that will reflect the need for the social, economic and environmental sustainability of rural communities.

It has been said many times in these debates that rural dwellers deserve the right to build a home in the countryside rather than allowing developers to build large and unnecessary houses. However, that right does not just apply to rural farming people. Non-agricultural rural dwellers also need our support.

Fellow Members often mention the west of the Bann. May I suggest to the Minister and her Department that there is a need to carry out an appraisal of all rural areas that will identify high, medium and low-pressure development areas, and which will be reviewed at regular specified intervals? The situation west of the Bann must be addressed.

I hope that the Assembly will adopt a balanced policy that will allow extended families to remain settled in communities that their forebears inhabited for generations. There are many young couples in rural communities who cannot get houses, while their neighbours are granted planning permission as a result of bad or inconsistent policy decisions that were made in the past.

5.15 pm

Among the various findings that have been expressed by the Minister, the most welcome is the option to reinstate the designation of “dispersed rural communities”, with the emphasis on clachans and groups of dwellings. I hope that she will also consider the idea of clusters. A review of a possible relaxation of cases in ribbon development with regard to infill and gap sites — I should like the Minister to elaborate on that, because it should incorporate the issue of build-up. I should hope that, within a cluster of three or four buildings, one might be able to incorporate another one or two dwellings.

I welcome the reuse of non-residential buildings, such as barns and barn conversions. The current criteria for abandonment are far too restrictive, and should be addressed. I hope that the Minister will clarify exactly what the criteria will be. Will they include four walls, or a roof, or whatever? I also support the idea of building a modern dwelling where there is an existing footprint. It is also important to consider rural dwellers who are not, necessarily, from a farming background and to recognise and meet their concerns. Those people make a serious contribution to the rural economy. I hope that weight is given to that fact.

All in all, I welcome these emerging findings. I thank the Minister, and her colleagues on the subcommittee, for their initial work on the matter. Needless to say, there is a lot of work to be done. From my perspective as Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for the Environ­ment, I hope that we get the opportunity to scrutinise that work. I hope that the Minister will bring forward further findings that may emerge from her discussions with my colleague and the other Ministers on the subcommittee to ensure that Members are kept fully informed.

The findings are a basis on which to build final proposals. We must finally eradicate the nightmare that was imposed on the rural community by Mr Rooker, who never understood life in rural communities. We have the opportunity to put that right, and I hope that as many stakeholders as possible will take part in any future consultation. However, the timings need to be reviewed. It is unacceptable to allow only seven days for all of those consultations to take place. We need to look at that. Go raibh míle maith agat.

Mr Gardiner: I thank the Minister for bringing the emerging findings of the review of draft Planning Policy Statement 14 before the House today. Any relaxation of that punitive and restrictive planning policy statement is welcome, since it placed large parts of the countryside in what amounts to a planning freeze and put unnecessary strains on many rural dwellers and rural communities.

As an environmentalist, I have always opposed bungalow blight and I understand that PPS 14 was drafted in the first place as a reaction to that problem. However, it was an overreaction and, I believe, politically motivated. It was one of many means that were used to bring pressure on the political parties to make a settlement. Whatever the motivation, changes in that appalling document are to be welcomed.

I lend my support to several of the findings that have emerged from the review. According to paragraph 12:

“some rural communities are under social and economic pressure and could benefit from appropriate development in the countryside.”

That is an understatement.

The decision to retain a restrictive approach in green belt and CPA areas and to relax it elsewhere seems, at first sight, sensible. However, I would counsel a closer look at the extent of the Belfast metropolitan area green belt as shown in the regional development strategy. It is an enormous stretch of land that extends as far as Lurgan and Waringstown, in my Upper Bann constituency; as far as Killyleagh and Strangford to the east; and to Larne, and beyond, in the north. Designating such a large area may inhibit proper development and have a negative impact on social housing and affordable housing policies, especially when it is so close to the main urban heartland of greater Belfast and Lisburn.

We may find that that is a real barrier to finding solutions to housing problems. A more regular review process may need to be considered, especially if vast areas of the Province will be segregated, with areas that are close to existing major urban areas being subject to a more restrictive planning regime, while the more remote rural areas that lie far outside the Belfast urban area are subject to a less rigorous and restrictive planning regime. What does that say about preserving the countryside? Must we be harder on those developments that are close to Belfast and softer on those that are further away from Belfast? Could there be a rush to develop in areas that are outside the more restricted greater Belfast zone?

As I have said before, the countryside must be a living thing and not a dead national park. I welcome the concept of a clachan development; I am a firm believer in a living, working countryside with people living in real communities. Some 150 years ago, far more people lived in the countryside than do today. I counsel the Minister that it is a little restrictive to set 14 as the maximum number of dwellings that can be in a group. We must consider the creation of sustainable communities, which means communities that can sustain a school, a post office, a rural shop and other amenities. I advise further relaxation of the number of houses and urge that special consideration be given to allowing larger, more diverse schemes that satisfy a pre-agreed set of sustainable criteria.

I welcome the recognition in this consultation that many people live and work in the countryside, and I welcome the measures that have been suggested to relax draft PPS 14 in that regard. More flexible criteria for the reuse and adaptation of existing rural buildings for non-residential purposes, including appropriate industrial, tourism and recreational development, are to be welcomed.

Rural development and tourism need to be energised in this Province, and the sooner that that happens, the better. I particularly welcome the reorganisation of —

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

Mr Ford: I thank the Minister for bringing this motion to the Assembly today. I also thank her for supplying an advance copy of her paper, which enabled some of us to do our homework over the weekend. It will come as no surprise to some of my colleagues on the Committee for the Environment that I am speaking only in a personal capacity and on behalf of my party colleagues.

The paper seems to set out a broad outline of some key themes. It may be an old cliché that the devil is in the detail, but, unfortunately, in this case, the detail is not there, and much of the devil is loitering between the paragraphs.

Nonetheless, clear signs are emerging as to where we may be going with this particularly difficult rural planning-policy issue. Nobody in the Assembly wishes to see the destruction of rural communities, but our approach must be clear and realistic. The notion of a rural community does not equate solely to single houses in the countryside. As Peter Weir acknowledged, rural communities are centred around villages and hamlets. In order for a shop or a school to be viable in a rural area, any settlement would have to be significantly larger than the suggested small group of affordable housing units.

I welcome the fact that draft PPS 14 allows groups of up to eight social houses, and the Minister’s consideration, following the publication of the Semple Report, would allow perhaps a slight increase on that figure. That is an example of where the devil may be running away with the detail. Where Sir John Semple talked about 12 houses, there is now talk of 14, and already in the Chamber this afternoon, there has been pressure to go beyond that figure. If we are to make meaningful plans to protect the countryside, we must be realistic about what constitutes a small settlement. Similarly, the word “clachan”, as I understand it, applies to a very small number of upland farms, where farm buildings have been integrated for use by several families at once. It is not a housing pattern that spreads across the whole of lowland Northern Ireland, and to present it as such is unrealistic.

A key issue that has caused concern is that of personal circumstances and health. That is one area in which there was a need to relax what went forward in draft PPS 14. However, the fact that someone in the family may need to live beside the elderly parents does not mean that everyone needs to live beside them, especially if there are three, four or five children.

I welcome the references in the review to the idea that any such housing must be part of the farm cluster and does not have to occupy the available site at the top of the drumlin. That is a way in which the personal needs of those who genuinely want to live beside their farms can be met. The alternative is that personal circumstances are allowed to become a Trojan Horse that undermines any coherent planning policy.

There are clearly benefits in the suggestions to reuse existing buildings that were not previously dwellings and may be of reasonably sound character, and to have greater relaxation of the rules regarding replacements. However, we also need to be careful that we are not simply creating another measure by which people may build more houses than can be justified in a particular area.

One of the most difficult problems that the Minister and her colleagues must tackle is the issue of farm viability and diversification. There is no doubt that relatively few farms are currently viable purely on the basis of their agricultural activities. Many people run successful businesses —contracting work, for example — that easily complement their farms.

The Minister talked about activities carried out “in conjunction” with farming. If that policy is to proceed, she will need to make it clear exactly what the term “in conjunction” means. Does it refer to something that is entirely unrelated to the main farm business but that happens to be situated there? Does it refer to a business that may or may not employ two or three other people? Involvement in such areas goes beyond maintaining the viability of a farm and is an entirely different enterprise that would need to be treated in some other way. Such issues must also be addressed. However, I welcome some of the points that the Minister made about issues such as updating the design guide, which is clearly totally inadequate for this day and age.

When I was reading the review, I hoped that I would be able to welcome the findings and congratulate the Minister on resisting the demands for the wholesale scrapping of draft PPS 14. After listening to her comments, I am not sure how much of those congratu­lations I want to deliver at this point. However, it is clear that there is greater recognition that we have to stick to something close to draft PPS 14. I welcome that, and I look forward to the publication of her plans, which I hope will ensure that we genuinely protect the countryside in the future.

Mr I McCrea: Unfortunately, I am not sure whether Mr Ford wants changes to draft PPS 14, or whether he wants even more bans imposed. I am not sure what the people of South Antrim will think, but I am sure that other Members from that constituency will address that issue later.

I welcome the Minister’s statement on the emerging findings of the ministerial subcommittee’s work on draft PPS 14. I congratulate the Minister on her efficient handling of draft PPS 14 since the outcome of the judicial review in October 2007. That proves that we have a DUP Minister who takes seriously the needs of rural Northern Ireland.

The Minister made a statement to this House on 25 October 2007. At that time, I stated that it was about time that this policy found its way back home to the Department of the Environment. The proof that that was the right move has been demonstrated by the fact that the emerging findings report has been published just three months later. That is a testament to the commitment of the Minister and her subcommittee to proceed with much-needed changes to draft PPS 14. It also proves that this Assembly and, indeed, the DUP are committed to providing the much-needed good government that this country deserves.

The Minister talked about a balanced policy. I agree that that must be the basis of any new policy, as we cannot return to the days of building anywhere throughout the countryside. Since the introduction of draft PPS 14 in March 2006, I, like other elected representatives, have been contacted by many constituents who have been affected by that policy. Farmers, joiners, builders and many other individuals who play a part in the farming scene have been affected by it.

It is widely known that very few farms throughout Northern Ireland can meet the terms of the rigid farm viability test. The subcommittee’s report recognises that the implementation of that policy will most likely lead to failure when the main source of income is from another job. I welcome the fact that the subcommittee is examining that.

5.30 pm

The Minister will agree that, when draft PPS 14 was first introduced, genuine concerns were expressed because many people in the rural community felt that it challenged the right of families that had lived in the countryside for generations to build on their own land. Many of those people were forced to move into towns and villages and pay exorbitant prices for houses, while environmentally friendly sites were refused planning permission. No one with an interest in protecting our countryside would suggest a return to the situation before draft PPS 14. However, we must ensure that our country schools and churches are equally protected. For generations, rural Northern Ireland has been protected by true countryside dwellers who were worthy custodians of the natural beauty of Ulster. It is important that those families continue their work for generations to come. We owe those families a debt of gratitude for their stewardship, and to them I say — well done.

However, the effects of draft PPS 14 were felt throughout the construction industry. In addition to joiners and bricklayers — who were self-employed and built houses in rural areas — welders and steel workers who made gates, and so forth, depended on work in rural areas. Those people now find it difficult to survive. I trust that they will find some comfort in the Minister’s paper and will await with interest the final policy that the Minister hopes to publish in draft form by the end of April 2008.

Mr Paisley Jnr: As well as identifying the pressures that draft PPS 14 has put on builders and joiners, as the Member has rightly done, does he accept that it has put immense pressures on our towns and villages? Developers have been forced to buy up large town houses and overdevelop those sites, which has changed, and destroyed, the character of many of our towns and villages. The Minister’s new policy is also a way to resolve that problem.

Mr I McCrea: I certainly agree. Overdevelopment has had a major impact on our towns and villages as well as on our water and sewerage infrastructure.

It is important to remove the abandonment test on the reuse and replacement of dwellings, which has been far too restrictive. Throughout the country, there are many derelict houses that merit being replaced or reused but are eyesores and could never prove, as is required in policy CTY 5 of PPS 14, that they are — or were last lawfully used as — dwelling houses and have not been abandoned. I welcome the Minister’s announce­ment that the subcommittee will readdress that important issue.

The debate will raise many issues, but I will speak about retirement dwellings on farms. Like everyone else, farmers retire. However, until now they have had to move out of their family homes when they do so. I welcome the emerging findings report —

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

Mr McKay: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for her statement and the Ministers on the subcommittee for all their work to date. I welcome the progress that has been made on draft PPS 14. There are many aspects of the emerging findings paper that are progressive and will benefit our rural communities.

Draft PPS 14 was far too restrictive and, if fully implemented, would have fractured many rural communities, businesses, schools and services. A common-sense approach that takes account of the requirements of rural communities, as well as the need to protect the countryside and the environment, is required. It is important to get that balance right. I welcome the subcommittee’s intention to put sustainable development at the heart of a revised PPS 14 and that it will be based on the principles of sustainability. Although I recognise the need for countryside policy areas (CPAs) to protect our most scenic areas, we must not forget that there are many rural communities in those CPAs that also require protection.

As in many rural areas, planning is a major issue in my constituency. People living in the glens of Antrim, which is an area of outstanding natural beauty, are beginning to see the fragmentation of their community because of the pressure of planning restrictions. Therefore, as the Minister advances this process, some consideration must be given as to how to help such communities and develop locally based solutions, which ensure that they, and the rural services of which they avail themselves, are sustained.

We must take account of cases where there are compelling personal-health or domestic circumstances that require someone to live on a specific site. Compassion should be shown and the policy relaxed. Changes must also be made to the farm viability test.

In relation to replacement dwellings, the Minister should liaise with other Departments and look at the possibility of providing some kind of rate relief as an incentive for people undertaking to renovate and reuse abandoned buildings rather than knocking them down.

The Assembly has responsibility for planning policy, but the implementation of that policy will be the key to success. As Members have said, there are many obvious inconsistencies in planning that need to be addressed. Planning policy must be enforced effectively, especially with regard to the integration of buildings with the landscape and ensuring that the size, design and materials are appropriate for the environment.

I welcome the start that has been made by the Minister and the subcommittee, and I hope to see a more balanced draft PPS 14 before the House in April that will take account of the needs of rural communities. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr T Clarke: Draft PPS 14 must be one of the most contentious issues affecting the Northern Ireland countryside, and deservedly so. The imposition of draft PPS 14 has done damage to rural communities and it has not taken into account the needs and requirements of rural dwellers. I am fully aware of the need to protect our countryside, but that must be balanced with the genuine need and desire of the rural population to continue its lifestyle. The difficulty is reaching a consensus that we can all support.

Small local developments of housing to meet local need must be an integral part of the review, along with returning to the situation where people with long-term health and disability requirements were taken into account in planning applications. Living in the country is a way of life for many. Why should they be forced to give up that lifestyle because of poor health or disability?

I support fully the Minister’s decision to revisit the abandonment test. Dilapidated properties litter the rural landscape, and the abandonment test would help to have those properties redeveloped, which would avoid the need to develop new sites. Abandoned barns or disused schools could also be redeveloped and that would also reduce the need for new sites to be identified and developed.

The viability test is the most important aspect for farmers, and several Members mentioned that. The viability test requires a farm to be capable of supporting full-time employment, which is not a sensible approach in 2008. I urge the Minister to see how that matter can be adapted to assist either farmers or their families in building a new dwelling if and when the need arises.

Increasingly, farmers are having to diversify to survive financially. Draft PPS 14 made it difficult for the construction of the additional buildings needed to diversify. A common-sense approach is vital in such situations so that diversifications can be supported and encouraged; that, in turn, would aid the development of Northern Ireland’s rural economy.

Mr I McCrea: Does the Member agree that it is important that the Department takes note of all the views of those who attend the stakeholder meetings that will be held throughout Northern Ireland to ensure that policy reflects the needs of the people of Northern Ireland? It is also important that people attend those meetings.

Mr T Clarke: I agree wholeheartedly.

The Minister should ensure that the continued development of new materials for construction should be introduced easily via the planning system. Northern Ireland needs a flexible and continuously evolving planning system that is proactive rather than reactive and will benefit rural communities. I congratulate the Minister on her efforts thus far. I am confident that she is taking the correct and positive approach in addressing the review of draft PPS 14.

Mr Armstrong: There is no doubt that something must be done to protect the Northern Ireland countryside. However, draft PPS 14 is not the answer; it is too restrictive and amounts to a blanket ban on development.

There is an old saying that states that a developer is someone who wants to build a house in the woods, whereas a conservationist is someone who already owns a house in the woods. That might be a touch cynical, but there is a grain of truth in it.

More must be done to enable rural dwellers to remain in the countryside in order to promote sustainable rural communities. The rural economy and rural society have faced many difficult times. High house prices, falling school enrolments, the closure of rural post offices, falling farm incomes, increasing farm costs, and foot-and-mouth disease — I could go on — all combine to make life more difficult for those who live in rural areas, particularly those who are engaged in the rural economy.

There are sound public-policy reasons for ensuring that rural life is supported. A lack of housing stock in rural areas will not only push up house prices even further, it will make it impossible for young people, in particular, to remain there. In turn, that will affect rural schools, which are experiencing falling enrolments, and the fabric of rural life.

It is in no one’s interest to see the countryside depopulated. A way must be found to measure genuine need, so that those who live and work in the countryside can continue to do so. Members who represent rural constituencies will be familiar with families who have tried unsuccessfully to build an additional dwelling, either as a retirement home for a farmer who wishes to pass the family farm on to his son or daughter or as a residence for a son or daughter who helps on the farm. More understanding is required when dealing with such cases.

However, I wish to sound a familiar note of caution. In the past, there has been some tension between those who were born and bred in rural areas and those who might be termed, somewhat unkindly, “blow-ins” or “townies”. Such tension could be limited if a policy included a presumption against the development of housing clusters near working farms, so as to limit complaints about the inevitable noise, smells, etc, which are part and parcel of working farm life.

In summary, it is vital that the Assembly and the Minister find a way forward, keeping common sense to the fore, in order to arrive at a sensible planning policy that will protect the countryside from inappropriate development while ensuring that the viability of the rural way of life and the rural economy are maintained and enhanced by supporting the development of sustainable rural economies.

Mr Gallagher: I welcome the Minister’s statement, and I commend her endeavours to introduce new planning regulations. The blanket ban on development under draft PPS 14 is unacceptable. Although the system that existed before draft PPS 14 was a little bit better, it had some flaws, such as the farm viability test that has already been mentioned. The previous planning regulations also had some serious shortcomings, such as inconsistency and unfairness. Members will be familiar with examples of holdings in respect of which four or five planning applications were approved, while others had none. Such circumstances are completely unfair, and we want to ensure that we do not go back to that system.

I support entirely the inclusion of principles of sustainable development in planning policy, be it urban or rural. At this juncture, it is very important to undertake wide and detailed consultation and to ensure that stakeholders will have the fullest opportunities to contribute. I wish to inform the Minister that the times that have been allocated for stakeholder meetings are most inappropriate.

5.45 pm

I note that the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development is present; she is a member of the Executive subcommittee. I appeal to both Ministers, who are my constituency colleagues: they know what it is like in the countryside. The people whose voices we need to hear will not be at meetings timed for 9.30 am or 3.00 pm. Such were the times arranged for meetings in Enniskillen. At a 3.00 pm meeting, only the usual suspects from Government or community organisations will turn up. Farmers will be out working at such a time, as will others who live in the countryside. Women in the countryside will be collecting children from school or waiting for them to get off the school bus. I appeal to the Ministers, on behalf of Fermanagh and South Tyrone and the other rural constituencies, to arrange meetings for stakeholders at 7.00 pm or 7.30 pm, when everyone has a fair chance of being able to attend the discussions and feed in their views.

In any planning policy for the countryside, a key concept is that of presumption. Under draft PPS 14, there was a presumption against development; prior to that, there was a presumption in favour. It is important, if rural dwellers are to get a fair crack of the whip, that we return to a presumption in favour of development. A presumption in favour is merely a starting position; after that, applications must pass the criteria. If, on grounds of sustainability, there are concerns about returning to that, it may be balanced by the introduction of new, strict criteria against which applications may be measured.

With respect to replacement dwellings, abandonment has been mentioned: how that has been applied under draft PPS 14 is a vexed question. As Members know, it is not a matter of looking solely at abandonment. Four key tests are applied in relation to abandonment, all of which are considered in detail.

The paper also uses the term “exceptionally” in the case of some rural dwellers who, regardless of whether they work on a farm, may be considered for a building on it. Rural dwellers do not see it that way; they do not regard their entitlement to have a site on a farm as something exceptional.

Mr McElduff: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I, too, welcome the interim report and this debate on the emerging findings.

I challenge the notion, myth or misconception that, prior to 16 March 2006, there was a free-for-all rural planning policy. That idea was advanced by Peter Weir during the course of the debate. There never was such a policy. It is an unfortunate term that gives the impression that the countryside is awash with hacienda-style houses. That is definitely not the case in West Tyrone, as you know well, Mr Deputy Speaker. [Laughter.]

Many Members, who are or were councillors, have attended hundreds of site meetings. Even in the days when there was a presumption in favour of development, applications will have been subject to various criteria: whether the house integrates; whether the development amounts to build-up, or even to a tendency towards build-up; whether it amounts to ribbon development; and whether it is an overdevelopment of a restricted site. If any of those boxes were ticked, the planning application was not passed.

There never was a free-for-all in rural planning policy. Everyone knows that solutions may be achieved by use of appropriate materials, or adoption of a different approach to the scale, design or visual impact of a house.

This debate can be emotive, because it is about people, their lives, their hopes and dreams to live where they were reared.

I will not name the family concerned, but I do not apologise for citing the circumstances of a lady from Creggan in mid-Tyrone. In October 2007, I drew attention to her plight. She wanted her son and daughter-in-law, who has a nursing background, to be close at hand in her final years. Unfortunately, any building had to be site-specific; it had to be adjacent to the family dwelling if planning permission were to be granted. Circumstances did not allow for that, and when the uncle of the man in question gave the couple a site two miles away from the man’s mother, they were unable to secure planning permission. The lady died recently, and to her dying day, she very much regretted the fact that she could not have her son and her daughter-in-law at close hand.

That is why the Minister’s paper ‘Findings Emerging from the Review of Draft PPS 14’ contains two paragraphs on compelling personal health and domestic circumstances. Even so, a more flexible approach is required. Why does it need to be site-specific?

This is one of the biggest issues, if not the biggest single issue, that rural dwellers are raising with MLAs. A more flexible approach is required generally. Tommy Gallagher and Cathal Boylan mentioned the stakeholder meetings that are being facilitated by Community Technical Aid. Those meetings are too restrictive — people attending must have a pass and must provide advance notification that they are attending. Even key stakeholders, such as local government authorities, are being told over a seven-day period that they are being allowed only two places and that notification must be received in advance. The process must be opened up. Who are the stakeholders? The rural dwellers are the stakeholders.

I am glad to see Minister Foster and Minister Gildernew in the Chamber. I encourage the subcommittee to further revise farm viability criteria to reflect the reality of modern-day farming in counties such as Tyrone and Fermanagh, where farmers need to have a second job. Some are already involved in plastering, joinery or driving school buses.

I welcome the exploration of creating further categories of dispersed rural communities along the lines of clachans. There are also interesting proposals about how a gap site might be filled. As regards abandoned dwellings, why could the principle of establishing a dwelling not be accepted in situations where there was once a house? Even if a dwelling were in ruins, what would be the problem? A presumption could be made in favour of development, but tests such as integration and personal occupancy would have to be passed. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Having returned from darkest Tyrone, I call the Rt Hon Jeffrey Donaldson.

Mr Donaldson: Mr Deputy Speaker, we were all trying to work out what your connection was with west Tyrone. No doubt that will be revealed in due course. My maternal grandmother came from south Tyrone, and I am afraid that that is my only connection with the county.

I congratulate the Minister on her statement: it is refreshing to see the gradual progress that is being made in reforming planning policy and the planning system in Northern Ireland. The Minister is giving the matter the highest priority, and that is important because planning is a big part of Northern Ireland’s future development as a region in the United Kingdom. Rural planning is no small part of that.

My friend the Member for South Down Mr Wells is not here this afternoon, and whether he would agree with the statement is one thing, but he would certainly want to draw a little place called Hanna’s Close to the Minister’s attention. Hanna’s Close is in the kingdom of Mourne, not far from where I was brought up. Today, it is the only fully functioning clachan that continues to exist in Northern Ireland. I know that the Minister has visited Ballinran, and if she has been to Hanna’s Close that is good. It is well worth a visit. That type of model is well worth considering for addressing rural development in Northern Ireland.

I want appropriate rural development in my constituency of Lagan Valley. I want farmers, their families and those who contribute to the well-being of the rural economy to continue to have the opportunity to live in the countryside and to have their place in those communities. However, as I look around the countryside in my constituency, at times, I wonder how on earth planning permission was ever granted for some dwellings.

Rural County Down is drumlin country, and in many cases — well before the Minister’s time — planning permission was granted for houses that were perched on top of drumlins and spread all over the countryside. We must do something to ensure that development in the countryside is appropriate, that it is in the appropriate place, and that it integrates well with communities. The Minister’s objective is to find a balanced approach between sustaining rural communities and the rural economy and, at the same time, ensuring that development is appropriate and that it is in the appropriate place.

Draft PPS 14 has created controversy, difficulty and hardship for rural dwellers. I have spoken to families — as I am sure have other honourable Members — who are experiencing hardship as a result of draft PPS 14. Indeed, Members opposite also mentioned that. There are people with genuine medical conditions living in the countryside, and they need family support. However, owing to draft PPS 14 and the fact that medical conditions are not treated in a special way at the moment, they are unable to obtain planning approval for dwellings to support and sustain those elderly or ill relatives. I welcome the Minister’s indication that there could be more flexibility on that matter.

It is hoped that a more flexible approach will be adopted to replacement dwellings, and I welcome that. One looks around the countryside and sees dwellings that have been derelict for some time but do not meet the 10-year rule. It would make sense to replace them, as they are well integrated into the countryside, rather than to grant permission to build in the middle of a green field or on top of a drumlin, as has been the case. I hope that there will be a more progressive policy in that respect.

Finally, the position of farmers and their families is particularly important. The Minister and her colleagues must find some way of reflecting the special contribution that they make to rural life, to the rural economy and to sustaining our environment. At times, farmers are much maligned for damaging the environment, but there are none who contribute more to sustaining and protecting the environment in the countryside than farmers, and the planning system must recognise that.

Mrs McGill: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the Minister’s statement on the emerging findings of the review of rural planning policy. I support some of the comments that have been made. Mr Paisley Jnr mentioned that, in the past, some people could have obtained planning permission in a rural area, but are being forced to live in a town or village.

I declare an interest as a member of Strabane District Council. In my council area, a young couple — one of whom came from the nationalist community, and the other from the unionist community — with a child tried five times to obtain planning permission for a site. Eventually, they were told to go to Donemana, as there were plenty of houses there.

That couple was told — in a blasé manner — that they did not have to live with their people or rear their child with their people; they could live five miles down the road. That is one couple’s story, and I hope that the Minister will consider such personal situations — such as that described by Mr McElduff — when she introduces a planning policy. There are human situations to be considered, and I think that the Minister will take those into account.

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Mr T Clarke: Does the Member accept that people will use a family member’s disability or a need to be close to their family as an excuse to build a house in a particular place? People have done that in the past, so a measure must be put in place to ensure that that does not happen. Does the Member accept that the Planning Service has problems in that regard and that something has to be done to prevent people from abusing the system?

Mrs McGill: I accept that, but the couple that I mentioned were not abusing the system. There have been instances of abuse, but the planning policies and measures that the Minister introduces should be robust enough to deal with them: they have to be. Tommy Gallagher mentioned the inconsistencies in planning regulations before PPS 14, which gave rise to problems; perhaps that is what Trevor Clarke was referring to. I hope that the Minister takes my comments into consideration. Go raibh maith agat.

Dr W McCrea: Planning is an important issue, and no issue has exercised the minds of rural Northern Ireland so much as PPS 14. It is disappointing that only three of South Antrim’s Members — representing two parties — have spoken in the debate: my honourable friend Trevor Clarke, myself, and David Ford from the Alliance Party. Mr Burnside has probably gone back to London, and other Members are not interested; Sinn Féin certainly has no interest in this.

Planning is an important constituency issue, because it affects the lives of rural Northern Ireland. Members must be sensitive when demanding that the Minister make changes to PPS 14. I listened with the greatest respect to Patsy McGlone who spoke in his capacity as Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment, but I wondered whether he was looking for a free-for-all. That will not sit well with the Department of the Environment or its Committee, which I chaired in a previous incarnation of the Assembly. We must be careful that planning is not opened up for a free-for-all. We cannot go back to those days.

I commend the Minister for the manner in which she moved the motion and for the measured and balanced way that she presented her case. We must be careful that we continue in that vein, because it is important that equality and uniformity are applied and that everyone works on a level playing field.

I lived west of the Bann, and I hear Members say that the Minister of the Environment must implement measures for Tyrone and Fermanagh. Northern Ireland does not consist only of Tyrone and Fermanagh; there is also Londonderry, Armagh, Antrim and the rest of Northern Ireland to consider.

Some Members: Down.

Dr W McCrea: Down must also be treated equally. The Assembly must be careful that its planning policy covers all the Province. The Minister must be careful in developing PPS 14, because I fear that there could be discrimination. For instance, most of Newtownabbey is in the green belt, so we must be careful that the people who live there are not discriminated against. Discrimination will not be accepted. Members who represent constituencies west of the Bann are demanding a free-for-all.

Mr McElduff: Will the Member give way?

Dr W McCrea: No, I will not give way. The Member had his time to speak, and he did not make use of it. With regard to planning, the Assembly must ensure that areas west of the Bann and areas east of the Bann are treated equally and that there is uniformity and balance under PPS 14.

I thank the Minister for considering the issues, including the farming community’s situation, genuinely. I am disappointed — and I have made this clear in the past — by the manner in which the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development deals with planning issues. If someone’s planning applications do not state what man-hours are required to establish the viability of an additional dwelling, the Department dismisses them as though they do not count. That is an absolute disgrace. Instead of supporting the farming community, that Department often abuses farmers. Therefore, when it comes to deciding the new policy, I ask that the Minister gives genuine consideration to that community.

Throughout Northern Ireland, few farms can offer the man-hours that are required to sustain a farmer and his family. When I was growing up, a small farm could have sustained not only a farmer, but his son’s family. Those days are gone, and that is the reason that we must ensure that rural dwellers get the Assembly’s full support. They have lived in their communities for generations and are, as my honourable friend from Mid Ulster said, the worthy custodians of rural Northern Ireland — a role for which I congratulate them.

I congratulate the Minister and ask her to consider Northern Ireland’s interests in this matter. I am certain that she will do that.

Mr Speaker: The Member’s time is up.

Mr Elliott: As always, speaking after my good friend from South Antrim is difficult. I am pleased to hear him say that there should be equality for all in Northern Ireland and not just in Fermanagh and Tyrone. I hope that he will remind some of his colleagues of that, given that they seem to think that everything gravitates to within a 10-mile radius of Belfast.

Dr W McCrea: There should be equality for all.

Mr Elliott: Thank you very much.

However, I welcome the Minister’s statement on emerging findings. Although I accept that we have just a broad outline of what we will get, as one would expect with such findings, much of the detail is yet to come. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating.

It has been stated clearly today that what we had in the past was inappropriate. Pre-PPS 14 regulations were, to put it mildly, too flexible on certain aspects but not flexible enough on others. Draft PPS 14, on the other hand, ruled out almost anything and did not give members of the rural community a fair chance to set up home in the areas in which they had lived for a lifetime or in which their ancestors had lived for generations.

I am glad to see that the phrase “balanced policies” is used in the emerging findings document. Although I understand the Member for South Antrim Reverend Dr William McCrea’s perspective, one size does not fit all in Northern Ireland. What is good for people in some areas may not be good for others a few miles down the road — even in the same constituency — or indeed, on the other side of the Province. We must be careful not to imagine that a single policy will fit everybody’s requirements. That is not the way it is or how it will happen. Greater emphasis must be placed on area plans, which provide an opportunity to give different areas a certain degree of flexibility.

Although dispersed rural communities have been a big issue in Fermanagh and South Tyrone for some time, the inconsistencies of wider rural communities still exist, and we must catch up.

I am keen to discover how many planning applications were submitted and approved under the affordable and social housing criteria of draft PPS 14.

I suggest that that number is extremely low, if not zero.

Health and personal circumstances were addressed in the planning strategy for rural Northern Ireland, but not in PPS 14. That matter was given hardly any weight in PPS 14, and if that policy is to be really significant, genuine weight must be given to health and personal circumstances. Otherwise, it will be a return to the old, no-good planning strategy. On such matters, there must be clear guidance from professionals. In other words, on a medical issue, there must be clear guidance and recognition on the part of the medical profession. There is no way that a planning officer can adjudicate on a medical condition, but I am afraid that that is what has been done in the past.

The issue of replacement dwellings is one of the most significant issues dealt with by PPS 14, and I welcome the fact that there is going to be another in-depth examination of that matter. The abandonment criteria have been totally inflexible, and there has been no reasonable working of that policy. Many people believe that they have met the four abandonment criteria, only to be told all of a sudden by the planners that they have not. Very few replacement dwellings eventually get through the planning process on abandonment grounds.

That brings me to the policy on vernacular dwellings. When a person meets the criteria for abandonment, the next thing that the planner tells them is that the building is now a vernacular dwelling, so must be retained.

My time is running out, but it would be remiss of me not to mention farm dwellings. I totally support Dr McCrea: the criteria used by the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development are outdated and outmoded, and should be replaced immediately. I know that the Minister of the Environment cannot do that by herself; she needs the help of the Minister of Agriculture.

Mr P J Bradley: I welcome the statement of the Minister of the Environment, and her presence in the Chamber. The Minister of Agriculture has left the Chamber, but I welcome her attendance as well, because the concept of joined-up responsibility will be found in every line of the debate when one reads the Hansard report. This has to do with farmers, as well as the environment and agriculture.

I wish to begin with a quotation from the Hansard report of 18 January 1999:

“Forced migration from rural areas has reached an unacceptable level in many parts and must be urgently addressed. I look forward to the day when planning, and in particular rural planning, becomes the responsibility of those who know the area and understand the needs of the local people.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 1, p388, col 2].

That was not a quotation from any world-renowned figure, but something that I said myself in this Chamber on the subject of areas of outstanding natural beauty and green belt areas, way back when. It is probably more appropriate now than ever.

We have now reached the stage at which an Environment Minister is in situ, and I have no doubt that, as a grass-roots country lady, she is fully au fait with the problems of rural areas. I hope that I will be able to praise her work on a continuous and ongoing basis in the future as she advances the cause of farmers on planning matters.

In previous Assembly debates on this issue, I continually referred to rural brownfield sites — although no such thing exists — in the hope that, one day, they might become a reality. I referred to the benefits that could be brought about by the provision of small, 10- to 12-house settlements, and I called for the restoration of what we in south Down — and Jeffrey Donaldson referred to this earlier — name “closes”. I named some of them in my own constituency, such as Fegan’s Close, Byrne’s Close, Hanna’s Close, and Flanaghan’s Close. There are other areas in places such as Cabra and Ballela that would certainly benefit from the restoration of such settlements.

Reference has been made to stakeholders’ meetings, and I have just learned that Newry and Mourne is not included as a venue for one of those meetings. That area has probably suffered most as a result of PPS 14, areas of outstanding natural beauty and green belts. I ask the Minister to review that situation, and to consider the possibility of holding a 7.30 pm meeting in Newry to suit the farming and rural community.

Mr Shannon: To allow time for milking the cows.

Mr P J Bradley: That is right. Unlike Mr Ford and the other privileged people, I received a copy of the emerging findings only this afternoon, so I have had time only to glance at them. However, I have selected a few points on which I would like to comment on the record. Paragraph 15 refers to looking after:

“the needs of both farming and non-farming rural dwellers.”

I suggest that there is a third category: part-time rural farmers who are no longer working a viable farm, but who still must provide man-hours to a farm in order to maintain it. That matter has already been mentioned by others.

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Paragraph 21 of the review’s emerging findings, under the heading “Affordable and Social Housing (CTY6)”, mentions building:

“near a traditional focal point such as a church.”

If it is not too late, I should like to see “or school” included after “church”.

It became like an auction in here for a while, as Members bid for the maximum number of social houses that should be permitted in a group to be increased to eight, 10, 12 or 14. The eight-house or 10-house models that we had in the 1950s or 1960s made for excellent projects that provided rural areas with a valuable asset. Great families came from those homes, and many of those hamlets that were created were the pride of the countryside.

The emerging findings discuss what is eligible to replace a dwelling. When I became a councillor in 1981, a black dot on an Ordnance Survey map was sufficient evidence that a house was situated there, and planning permission would be granted. However, before long, and before a replacement dwelling could be authorised, planners started looking for existing rubble or stones, before moving on to looking for walls. Having found them, planners began to ask to see panes of glass or a roof before approving the construction of a new dwelling. They were looking for children running around the house by the time they were finished. The reason for that was that planners were looking for a house to be lived in before it might be replaced.

However, it is not the owners of new homes, or even their agents or architects, who are to blame for this blight on the countryside. No one other than the Planning Service is to blame. As I have said in the Chamber before, perfectly good sites could be found up and down lanes and boreens. Those sites were secluded, well protected and often away from view, with mature trees around them, yet planners did not allow houses to be built on them. I have visited a number of sites that planners would not accept, and I could never understand why. However, what did they permit? They permitted people to clear a green field at the edge of a road on which to build a bungalow. No one who thinks along those lines has any right to call himself or herself a planner. They have much to answer for.

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

Mr Ross: Other Members have already mentioned the significance of this particular piece of planning policy and stated that direct rule Ministers made somewhat of a mess of it all. As my colleagues Mr Weir and Mr Paisley Jnr mentioned, it is not only rural communities but urban communities that the policy affects. Now that devolution is up and running, it is to be welcomed that local representatives, many of whom live in rural areas, have a say on draft PPS 14. Indeed, we have heard pitches from all sides of the country today. I also welcome the Minister’s decision to engage with stakeholders on the Executive subcommittee’s emerging findings from the review of draft PPS 14.

When discussing the review of draft PPS 14, it is important not only that we state what we oppose but what we want to see included in rural planning policy. We all wish to see the balance about which the Minister spoke earlier achieved — the balance between protection for the countryside and appropriate development.

Although Mr Wilson, our sole Green Party MLA, is yet to speak in the debate, I am sure that he is concerned that some of us are looking to have a free-for-all. That is not the case. That said, we must recognise that draft PPS 14 went too far and was too restrictive. Rural communities must be allowed a future in which they can prosper, not only economically but socially. We have all heard about the many young people who lived in rural areas all their lives, only to be unable to build a house there when the time came for them to build their own home.

Moreover, in debates on other subjects since May 2007, Members have talked about the importance of rural communities and rural schools. Earlier in this debate, my colleague Ian McCrea talked about the importance of rural churches, too. Such issues must be raised if we are to have a vibrant rural community. The issue of those who wish to live close to sick, elderly or disabled family members in the countryside has also been raised. Indeed, the Minister spoke about the importance of that in her opening comments.

Therefore, there is no doubt that massive challenges lie ahead with this policy. We must remain committed to recognising that the countryside needs a vibrant rural community — one that can prosper, evolve and be sustainable. At the same time, however, we must recognise that no one has a divine right to live in the countryside. My colleague Rev Dr William McCrea said that if we were to go down the route for which some Members have argued, which was that the needs of all rural dwellers must be catered for, we would not so much be relaxing the policy as getting rid of it all together, and that would lead to the free-for-all that Mr Wilson will no doubt refer to later in the debate. We can find a way forward, because —

Mr Boylan: Will the Member give way?

Mr Ross: Yes.

Mr Boylan: Does the Member not agree that the policy should be about all rural dwellers? Most of the comments that have been made in the debate have been done so from a farming perspective. There are many people out there who may have lived in rural areas for three or four generations, so does the Member not agree that they are entitled to remain there and to continue to be part of the community?

Mr Ross: Those who have lived in the countryside for so long are certainly not the sort of people who wish to see it destroyed, and that is an important issue on which all of us can agree. Therefore, I believe that we can find a way forward that will meet the needs of both sides of the argument, and that we can strike a balance between those who want to see more development in the countryside and those who want to see it given more protection.

I welcome the fact that the Minister and her Executive subcommittee have taken the view that, outside of green belts and countryside policy areas, regulations can be relaxed. I also welcome the subcommittee’s recognition that farming is no longer necessarily the primary source of income for many rural dwellers. As the Minister said, the viability test does not sit well with farmers who understand modern farming conditions. Other Members, including the Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment, also made that point. Indeed, that Committee received evidence from the Ulster Farmers’ Union to that effect.

I also welcome the Minister’s assertion that small developments of homes will be permitted in order to meet local need. The Minister mentioned the possibility of allowing the development of up to 14 affordable houses, which would undoubtedly help to combat some of the concerns raised earlier about people who have lived in the countryside for so long and who are trying to find a home there.

Mr Trevor Clarke raised the contentious issue of replacement dwellings, vacant homes and the very restrictive abandonment test. Mr Weir talked about common sense prevailing, and, although common sense may be lacking in some quarters some of the time, the Minister’s suggested review of the abandonment test is a common-sense approach to dealing with the issue.

Although we are taking a more relaxed approach to conversions, it is important that the tests remain so that there is no abuse of that system. Many of the more detailed policy points will be teased out over the coming weeks and months as engagement with the various stakeholders gets under way. Therefore, I urge Mr Ford to be patient, because I too look forward to having the opportunity in Committee to examine some of the more detailed proposals as they emerge.

We must recognise the direction that the Minister and her subcommittee are taking, and welcome its emerging findings.

Mr Brolly: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I am sure that I am not the most sensitive of rural dwellers; however, I am sensitive to some of the comments that I have heard during the debate. Mr Weir spoke about houses scattered around the place, but he should remember that those houses are homes, with people in them, and with children playing in the back garden. That is what we are interested in — getting homes for our people, not impersonal houses.

On the radio this morning, I heard the leader of the Green Party talk about haciendas on the hillsides. All those buzzwords, such as “bungalow blight”, are all anti-rural ideas, and they are used by non-rural people. It is amazing the kind of things that people say. For example, Mr Ford said that he does not see why, if children want to be near their parents, that they all have to be near their parents. He advocated that, in a family with three children, two could live beside their parents and the other one could go to Belfast. However, it would be difficult for the planners to decide who would live beside their parents and who would not. That is the silly kind of stuff that non-rural people say all the time.

We must get rid of the anti-rural bias that exists. Some non-rural people believe that the issue is an environmental one; however, I think that it was Alastair Ross who said that nobody looks after the environment better than the people who live there.

I can tell great stories about such environmentally sensitive city folk. For example, when preparing a site for development, a friend of mine had to seek planning permission. The Environment and Heritage Service notified him that there were two badger setts on his piece of land. My friend was a keen environmentalist, and he knew that there had not been badgers in those setts for 30 years. He proceeded to describe how a young lady arrived on his land to look for the badger holes — he even described the length of her skirt and how she was fresh-faced from university. He showed her where the holes were and asked her whether she had ever seen a badger herself, to which she replied that she had seen them on the television. That is the kind of thing that we are up against. Those are the kind of people who are examining rural people to see whether they are fit to live in the country and to build a house there.

However, I strongly welcome this measure, because like so many others who live in rural areas, I and others have been pestered by people who wonder what will be done. They wonder whether we will wait until the entire countryside has been decimated, with schools being forced to close and local football teams disappearing. Entire communities that have been built up over gener­ations would have been destroyed had no change been proposed.

I am particularly delighted that we may, hopefully, get rid of the farm viability assessment. In the area where I live, which one might describe as the greater Dungiven area, there are only two full-time farmers. Everybody knows who they are: Ian Buchanan and Donal McReynolds. All others in the area are part-time farmers who do their farming because that is what their families have done and how they have lived for gener­ations. I live on the fringe of the Sperrin Mountains, and farming there is not easy, but that is what those people love doing. They have to go wherever they can get work, for example, to a building site or they may even take some contract work on a farm, if possible. After doing their day’s work, they come back to their homes, which should be on their land. There should not be any reason that they do not have such homes.

I told Members the story about the two brothers, one of whom was left the home house and the other was left the home farm. The brother who had been left the farm —

Mr Savage: Will the Member give way?

Mr Brolly: Yes.

Mr Savage: The Member has raised a very good point: farmers want to work. Farm replacement is a very important issue. I urge the Minister to ensure that farms or dwellings are replaced with bungalow-type houses, rather than with mansions. People will then support the proposals. Those mansion-type homes have blighted our countryside for the past number of years.

Mr Brolly: I agree with the Member. We are all very sensitive to what is built in rural areas. In the area where I am from, the neighbours would complain if somebody in the community got above their station. In fairness to the Planning Service, it has been very particular in our area in deciding what can be built. We have bungalows, and it is easy to see how nicely the houses integrate into the surrounding area.

Finally, I welcome the ending of the use of the term “abandonment” —

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

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

Mr B Wilson: I welcome the opportunity to debate the review of draft PPS 14. I am very concerned about the tone of the debate. It suggests that Members wish to make the legislation so flexible that speculators and developers could drive a coach and horses through it, with the result that our countryside could be blighted with a hacienda on every hillside.

The presumption against development that is contained in draft PPS 14 must be retained, although certain exceptions for hardships, sickness and some family circumstances, could be extended. We must remember why PPS 14 was introduced — there was a growing concern about the number of single dwellings, spreading like acne, across the face of our countryside. In the year before the introduction of draft PPS 14, 9,000 applications for single dwellings were submitted, which is the equivalent of a medium-sized town. In Fermanagh alone, 1,000 applications were received, compared to five in North Down, which has a bigger population. It was clear that the bungalow blight that had destroyed the landscape of Donegal was inflicting itself on parts of Northern Ireland, and that had to be stopped.

The rural landscape is being destroyed, even though it is one of the most attractive features of Northern Ireland that greatly enhances our appeal to tourists. In addition to destroying the character of the countryside, single dwellings generate greatly increased car use and require considerable expenditure to be made on the infrastructure in order to provide services such as water and sewerage. In many cases, sewage disposal will lead to the pollution of local rivers.

The opponents of draft PPS 14 have a mountain of very effective propaganda, but many of their claims are misleading. Many Members have expressed concern today that the measures were causing hardship for farming families. There were also claims that its repeal would regenerate rural industries and schools and would provide affordable housing for young families. Those claims have little substance. Draft PPS 14 does not stop all building in rural areas or prevent genuine cases of a farming family, or a retired farmer, requiring and getting a new dwelling.

6.30 pm

It does not affect the supply of affordable housing for first-time buyers, as no low-income family could afford one of those sites, which often sell for £100,000. In many cases the occupants of those single dwellings do little for the rural community; they rarely mix locally; they commute, shop and socialise in the larger towns, such as Belfast; and, instead of attending the local village primary school, the children are driven to the larger schools in the nearby town. While providing no benefit to the rural community they cause the maximum environmental damage, requiring the installation of new services, septic tanks and the upgrading of roads and highways.

The campaign against PPS 14 is not only misleading, it is short-sighted and will lead to the destruction of our countryside. Furthermore, it will restrict the development of the tourist industry, which is the fastest-growing sector of our economy. The real issue is nothing to do with protecting the rural community, but with protecting the profits of property speculators, who are determined to site a single dwelling on every hillside. The vast majority of the applications do not meet genuine housing need.

Mr Boylan: Will the Member give way?

Mr B Wilson: No.

We are all aware of developers who have accumulated a large number of sites assuming that PPS 14 will be lifted and that they will make another fortune. It is time we moved from the culture of having a hacienda on every hillside and planned the development of rural areas to the highest environmental standards. That can be done by expanding existing settlements, hamlets and villages, as suggested in the review. They already have services, such as bus routes, and can provide affordable housing for young couples.

I recommend that Members look at Ireland’s first eco-village, Cloughjordan, which demonstrates how sustainable, environmental and affordable housing can be provided in the countryside.

No one disputes that PPS 14 should be amended to take account of difficult cases — [Interruption.]

However, the way forward must be by thoroughly planned, environmentally-friendly settlements and not the free-for-all speculators’ paradise that existed before PPS 14.

Mr Shannon: PPS14 wus a bane o’ contention i Norlin Airlan iver sine Lord Rooker brocht oot thon blanket ban. Efter mich pressure an’ legal stramashes hit wus foun’ tae hae bein’ uised un laa’fully an’ hit wus owreturned an’ the issue left tae mae weill thocht o’ colleague Minister Arlene Foster fer development at ansuers the needs an’ wants o’ fowk theday wi’oot daein hairm tae the ability tae meet thaim o’ generations tae cum.

PPS 14 has been a bone of contention in Northern Ireland since Lord Rooker saw fit to introduce the blanket ban. After much pressure and legal wrangling, it was deemed to have been illegally applied and was subsequently overturned. Consultation was carried out on PPS 14, and the results were shocking: 99% of those questioned were against it; 75% felt that it was badly thought out; and 67% felt that it adversely affected family life in the rural communities. Those were the views of everyday people, whose lives were affected by this policy. There is one everyday person, who does not seem to understand that, and he refers to haciendas on every hillside. I do not know in what world he lives, but it is not the one in which I live.

I am reminded of the words of a song from Scotland. It is not a Scottish song — there is a difference.

“We’ll keep a welcome in the hillside”.

There will be a welcome, not only in the hillside, after the Minister’s statement today, which will now go out for consultation, but in Strangford, where she has given people opportunity. The Minister has indicated that there is a clear need for change. She knows that she is always welcome in Strangford. If Members were to go down Strangford Lough way, in lesser spotted Ulster, they would see the good things about Strangford. Furthermore, they would see the need for housing in the area of Strangford that I have the pleasure to represent.

I wish to comment on the Minister’s point about the dispersing of rural communities, and on affordable and social housing.

Does the Minister’s statement refer only to non-green belt areas? Will the clachans — which is a good Ulster-Scots word — be used as a model for affordable, social housing in the countryside? Such a model is important. Moreover, it will give the housing associations the opportunity to build.

The Minister’s proposal to increase the number of houses that will be permitted to form clachans from eight to 14 is good news. That means that rural communities can grow and that people will be able to live there in future.

I also welcome the Minister’s remarks about non-residential buildings. For too long, barns and other farm buildings have been left unused that could be replaced by residential dwellings. The Minister’s announcement that the policy on replacement dwellings will change is good news, and I welcome those changes for the better.

I am a wee bit concerned about the meaning of “abandonment” as opposed to “ruins”. If a storm takes the roof off a house, or its blue slates are stolen and it falls into disrepair, does that constitute abandonment, or is it a ruin? Such issues must be taken into consideration.

The Minister made some welcome comments on ribbon development, but I want her to go further. Although it is good that ribbon developments present opportunities, they should not be restricted to the edge of the road. Groups of houses arranged in a circular fashion often have room for “rounding-off”, and I ask the Minister to consider that.

I am glad that she mentioned business in the countryside. Businesses must demonstrate whether there is a need for their services, but I want the Minister to comment on forestry and equine industries. Those matters may not fall within her remit; they should be the responsibility of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and should be regarded as agricul­tural industries. Therefore, people involved in forestry and equine businesses should be entitled to the opportunity to live in rural dwellings.

I welcome the relaxation of the man-hours require­ments of planning applications for countryside dwellings. A planning application for a farm dwelling will not be tied down to the requirement that 2,200 man-hours must be worked on the farm; that is important.

With three seconds to go, I want to make one last point in relation to the three to five to 10 years —

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

Mr Shannon: I will ask the Minister about that matter again.

The Minister of the Environment (Mrs Foster): This has been a very good debate, and I have been writing notes furiously. Members have made several points, and I want to address as many of them as I can.

In his capacity as an MLA, the Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment, Mr McGlone, raised the issue of countryside policy areas. Those will be retained because, as Mr McGlone knows, they protect areas of the countryside that are under pressure from development. They also protect the visual amenity of areas of landscape quality and maintain the rural character of the countryside. It is important to state from the outset that countryside policy areas will remain in force.

As Chairperson of the Committee, Mr McGlone made comments about presumption against development, which was the cornerstone of PPS 14 when it was introduced in March 2006. That issue was raised by several Members, but the debate around presumption for and against development is divisive and is a debate that we do not need.

My aim, which is shared by the subcommittee, is to create a balanced policy. Some voices have been raised to say that it is not balanced, which is wrong. We are working towards a balanced policy, based on sustainability — a point made by the Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment, Mr Boylan, and by Daithí McKay. Sustainability is the key that underlies the policy, which should be remembered when people read the emerging findings paper. We have not yet finalised our views, but I also feel strongly about the issue of sustainability.

The restrictive nature of the farm viability tests was mentioned by virtually every Member who contributed to the debate, including Ian McCrea, Dr William McCrea, Tom Elliott, Francie Brolly, the Chairperson and Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment and Uncle Tom Cobbleigh and all. David Ford expressed concerns about the replacement of the farm viability tests. We must examine those tests actively, because they do not take account of the realities of modern farming practices.

Francie Brolly made the point that he knew of only two full-time farmers in the area in which he lives. That is something of which we must have cognisance. The replacement for the farm viability test should be fair, transparent and, above all, straightforward in its application.

Some Members raised the issue of a wider social test and non-farming families who continue to live in the countryside. I have had some discussions with stakeholders about that matter and, today, I met members of the Rural Development Council. We have also had discussions with the Ulster Farmers’ Union, and we will talk to other stakeholders, in the coming days, about the matter.

Some stakeholders have suggested that some sort of rural social test should be used as a way of assessing whether people who are not farmers should get planning permission in the countryside. I stress that, while we are still considering that, there are difficulties with regard to the kinship option. Members will know that the Republic of Ireland is, at present, experiencing some difficulties with those issues. It is something to which I am, and will continue to be, alert. I do not want to lead us into more legal difficulties with those policies, but it is something of which I am aware.

Other Members, including Tom Elliott, the Committee Chairperson and the Deputy Chairperson, spoke about social and affordable housing. We are glad that the Minister for Social Development is on the subcommittee and contributes well to it. Draft PPS 14, in its present form, allows for groups of social housing. Mr Elliott asked if I knew how many successful planning applications had been made. I do not have those figures, to date, but I am happy to communicate with him about that.

Currently, where Northern Ireland Housing Executive has identified a local need, and where there is no space to build in the nearest village, a group of up to eight social houses may be built close to a settlement or near to a traditional focal point, such as a church. I accept Mr P J Bradley’s point about including a school as a focal point. I am happy to take that suggestion on board.

We have considered extending the definition to cover affordable housing and to increase the number of houses to a maximum of 14. Some concerns have been expressed about that idea, but it is worthwhile to increase the number of houses and to look at it as a way of providing more affordable and social houses. It will also assist other Ministers — and that is what joined-up government is about — in what they are doing with regard to affordable housing. That is essentially led by the Housing Executive, however.

The Chairperson of the Environment Committee talked about equality, and Dr McCrea reminded me that there are more places in Northern Ireland than Fermanagh and South Tyrone. Although, as Mr Deputy Speaker might imagine, it is sometimes hard to recognise that. I am conscious of the need to consider how the policy will impact on all those who live and work in the countryside, no matter where they might be. We must take the whole of Northern Ireland into account. I want to ensure, therefore, that the policy proposals that we bring forward take equality considerations fully into account and are fair in respect of the whole rural community. Like all planning policy statements, PPS 14 will be subject to extensive public consultation and the statutory equality process.

The Committee Chairperson also mentioned businesses in the countryside. PPS 4 is currently being developed in conjunction with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment. We hope that a draft PPS 4 will be published in the summer. Peter Weir spoke about the mistakes of PPS 14, which he described as a sledgehammer to crack a nut. He said that we must not return to a free-for-all. Later on in the debate, others said that that was pejorative language. Unfortunately, the debate has been characterised by a great deal of pejorative language, right across the spectrum. That is one of the most regrettable elements of it.

Mr Weir talked about farm viability and the need for a balanced approach. The Deputy Chairperson referred to sustainability, which is one of the underlying key areas that I wish to pursue. He also made reference to ribbon development, which was also mentioned by Jim Shannon at the end of the debate. Some Members felt that allowing infill in ribbon developments would simply make the situation worse.

Rather than permitting new houses to extend a ribbon development, we are trying to allow infill in the ribbon, which will minimise impact. The Department’s suggestion is that such development would occur outside green belts and CPAs. If there is a suitable small gap, it could be dealt with appropriately.

6.45 pm

Other members, including George Savage and the Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for the Environ­ment, Mr Boylan, mentioned the danger of a cottage being replaced with an inappropriate building — George mentioned a mansion. Neither the subcommittee nor I envisage that the new policy would result in such an outcome. Draft PPS 14 states that a replacement dwelling should generally be within the curtilage of the original dwelling and of an appropriate design for its rural setting. Furthermore, it should take account of local distinctiveness and style overall, and its visual impact should not be significantly greater than that of the existing building. I have no plans to change those specifications, which are right and proper, and they will cover any proposals for the increased replacement of buildings. We must consider design, which is why the Department hopes to update the rural-design guide.

There has been much talk about the stakeholder events, and Members have complained about both the times at which they have been scheduled and the short period over which they are being held. Invitations to stakeholder events were issued about two weeks ago, and, as of lunchtime today, 240 people have confirmed that they will attend. Eight stakeholder events are being held across Northern Ireland, with at least one in each county. There will be three in the morning, three in the afternoon and two in the evening, with the aim of facilitating everybody across the spectrum. I know that some people feel that farmers will not be able to attend at that time of day, but this stakeholder event is for everybody across the rural spectrum, not just farmers; indeed, as some of my honourable friends said, it affects urban developments too.

Those events are part of the review process and will help us to complete our work on those issues. This is not a consultation; it is stakeholder engagement. Mr McElduff asked about the consultation period, and I can tell him that there will four months of consultation after draft PPS14 has been published. I am content that people will participate in that consultation. He also said that only two council members per council would be allowed to attend the stakeholder events. I have listened to Omagh District Council — as I always do — and four council members can now attend. I know that the Member will welcome that news.

Mr McElduff: It is very welcome.

Mrs Foster: Having listened to David Ford, I get the feeling that I cannot win. I bring the emerging findings document to the House as soon as I possibly can to allow Members an opportunity to consider the Department’s thinking on the new policy, only for Mr Ford to tell me that not enough detail has emerged. The Department is trying to get the House’s view on the revised policy to work that into the emerging findings and to any further details on it.

Mr Ford also mentioned personal health circumstances, as did Mr Elliott. I want there to be independent medical verification of health conditions. Mr Elliott is right: planners are not properly qualified to deal with such issues. I think that it was my friend Iris Robinson who first mentioned that matter to me, and I am happy to take on board her comments and any other comments — we need independent medical verification for planning applications in which personal health conditions are cited.

Barry McElduff wanted to put an end to the myth that there was a free-for-all before draft PPS 14 was introduced. In his very passionate speech Brian Wilson did not agree with that, referring to a hacienda on every hillside, which is rapidly becoming his single transferable slogan.

Mr Shannon: Hacienda Brian.

Mrs Foster: Hacienda Brian is right.

It is unhelpful for colleagues to engage in such debate. We are trying to have a balanced discussion, which I thought Brian Wilson from the Green Party would have welcomed. We are not going back to the situation that obtained before PPS 14 was introduced in March 2006, although some colleagues advocate that. Likewise, we must take into consideration what rural dwellers — and town dwellers — are telling us, the political representatives for Northern Ireland. We cannot ignore what people have mandated us to do.

It is unhelpful for Brian Wilson to make gross generalisations about people who live in the countryside travelling past schools to bring their children to schools in town. I do not do that, and I am sure that there are plenty of other Members who live in the countryside who do not do that either. I had wondered whether Mr Wilson had even listened to what I had to say at the beginning of this debate; then I remembered that he had been on Radio Ulster this morning telling everyone what was going to happen in this debate. Obviously, he had sight of what I was going to say even before I said it.

Jim Shannon asked an important question about the differences between green belt and non-green belt areas. Again, it is too early to be definitive, but we have considered that outside green belts and countryside policy areas, relaxation might include the reinstatement of dispersed rural communities, up to 14 rather than eight dwellings in an affordable housing group, a more relaxed approach to replacement policy, and suitable small gaps in a ribbon development — which is what was talked about before — with a substantial and continuously built-up frontage possibly being filled by two houses rather than one on some occasions. That is outside green belt and countryside policy areas; all the other proposals will apply inside the green belt areas as well.

I am not getting into a debate with Mr Shannon on whether a horse is an agriculture animal; that is a debate for another day. Others may have strong views on that issue. However, I appreciate what he said about the equine industry, and it was a point that was well made.

I thank all the Members who contributed to this debate; their points were well made. I look forward to coming back to the house in April with the finished product.

Question put and agreed to.


That this Assembly notes the emerging findings of the review of draft Planning Policy Statement 14 ‘Sustainable Development in the Countryside’.

Adjourned at 6.52 pm.

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