northern ireland assembly
Tuesday 12 February 2008
Executive Committee Business:
Executive Committee Business:
Private Members’ Business:
The Assembly met at 10.30 am (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes’ silence.
British-Irish Council — Environment Sectoral Format
Mr Speaker: I have received notice from the Minister of the Environment that she wishes to make a statement on the British-Irish Council (BIC) ministerial meeting in the environment sectoral format.
The Minister of the Environment (Mrs Foster): The eighth British-Irish Council environment sectoral meeting was held in the Clandeboye Estate, Bangor, on 1 February 2008. The following report provides an outline of the meeting and has been agreed with Minister Ritchie, who also attended.
As Minister of the Environment for Northern Ireland, I was delighted to host the first British-Irish Council environment sectoral meeting to be held in Northern Ireland. I am grateful to Margaret Ritchie, the Minister for Social Development, for agreeing to be the accompanying Minister on this occasion.
The UK Government were represented by Joan Ruddock MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State with responsibility for climate change, biodiversity and waste, who also chaired the meeting. The States of Guernsey Government were represented by Deputy David de G de Lisle, Minister of the Environment Department. The Welsh Assembly Government were represented by Jane Davidson, Minister for Environment, Sustainability and Housing, and the Scottish Executive were represented by Michael Russell, Minister for the Environment. The Isle of Man Government were represented by John Shimmin, Minister for Local Government and the Environment, and the States of Jersey Government by Senator Freddie Cohen, the Minister for Planning and Environment. The representative for the Irish Government was John Gormley, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government.
The meeting considered a paper on a climate change adaptation work programme, which was produced by the United Kingdom Government. That document updated the climate change work topics that were agreed at the previous BIC environment ministerial meeting, which was held in Guernsey on 26 July 2006.
Mr Roger Street, technical director of the United Kingdom Climate Impacts Programme (UKCIP), gave a presentation on the development of a new climate change update. That presentation explored the launch of a fifth-generation set of climate scenarios that will be a significant advance on earlier work. The climate scenarios will offer a comprehensive and user-friendly package of climate information that will allow users to assess the potential impacts that different scenarios will have and to identify effective responses.
Dr Jeremy Tomkinson, chief executive officer of the National Non-Food Crops Centre, gave a presentation on the renewable fuels and materials programme on behalf of the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). He advised the Council that DEFRA and the UK’s Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform published a joint strategy — renewable fuels and materials — in November 2004, which had been updated in 2007. The strategy covers all renewable materials derived from crops and animals for industrial use, bioenergy and transport. His presentation highlighted the business opportunities that exist for converting renewable material into products that would appeal to the marketplace.
The UK Government presented a paper on the work of the integrated coastal zone management (ICZM) working group. Ministers were updated on the progress of developing ICZM national strategies, and the paper covered a number of recent developments in the field.
Having considered various ICZM and coastal integration issues and strategies, Ministers agreed that each member Administration should continue to share ideas and ensure co-ordination between individual coastal policies and strategies, through the BIC ICZM working group and by other means where appropriate.
Minister Gormley suggested that the proposed paper on Sellafield and radioactive waste be tabled at a future meeting. He indicated that officials from the Irish and Manx Governments are working on the structure and content of a revised joint discussion paper on Sellafield and radioactive waste, which will address current operations at Sellafield, the safety of those operations, the final disposal of radioactive waste and the control of environmental discharges.
The Isle of Man Government presented a paper and a short film on the Fishing for Litter initiative. Although the initiative has been seen principally as environmental in purpose — by helping to solve the problem of marine litter — it was recognised that it offers significant benefits to the fishing industry, which suffers damage to fishing tackle and contamination of catches, with a consequential detrimental effect on coastal communities.
Ministers agreed to support the concept of the Fishing for Litter initiative and agreed to ask the appropriate Departments in each member Administration to examine the feasibility and potential cost to fishing industries and Departments of developing and implementing such schemes in their own jurisdictions.
The group also discussed the results of the British-Irish Council environment work review. Several issues concerning future working arrangements were explored, such as: frequency of meetings; developing common areas of interest; and ensuring clear and defined outputs that add real value to policy development through a joined-up approach.
The meeting concluded that the climate change adaptation work programme should continue, and that the Council should receive further updates next year; the Republic of Ireland Government should submit their joint discussion paper on Sellafield and radioactive waste; more supporting analysis should be provided on the feasibility and costs of the Fishing for Litter initiative; and member Administrations should continue to share ideas and ensure co-ordination between individual coastal policies and strategies.
It was agreed that items for discussion at the next meeting of the Council should include waste; climate change; Sellafield and radioactive waste; and integrated coastal zone management. The Council agreed that its ninth ministerial meeting in environment sectoral format would be hosted by Jersey.
Mr Ross: I thank the Minister for her statement. As always, we welcome increased east-west co-operation. Following the Council meeting, the Minister for Social Development, Margaret Ritchie, was very vocal about nuclear power — seemingly ignoring the fact that, to some degree, we are already relying on nuclear power in this country. First, is nuclear power within the departmental remit of Minister Ritchie? Secondly, we know that Patrick Moore, the co-founder of Greenpeace, is now a supporter of nuclear power, but does the Minister have any concerns about nuclear power stations being built in Northern Ireland?
Mrs Foster: Nuclear power is not within my remit or the remit of the Minister for Social Development. Energy policy is a matter for the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment. However, nuclear energy and nuclear installations are excepted matters and remain the responsibility of the UK Government under the Northern Ireland Act 1998.
However, my Department is responsible for ensuring that the environment of Northern Ireland is not adversely affected by activity elsewhere. A continuing programme to monitor the effects of radioactive discharges from nuclear installations in Great Britain on the Northern Ireland coastline has shown negligible levels of contamination on our population and marine environment. Therefore, I have no reason, on environmental grounds, to oppose the building of new nuclear power stations. I read in the press that the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment is considering the issue, so we will await its outcomes.
Mr Boylan: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I apologise for my little outburst in the Chamber a couple of weeks ago.
In light of recent reports about departmental websites being hacked into, and the current problems with the 20/20 system in the Planning Service, can I ask the Minister whether such issues were discussed with representatives of other legislatures at the BIC sectoral meeting? When does the Minister intend to introduce the Electronic Planning Information for Citizens (e-PIC) system into the Planning Service? Go raibh maith agat.
Mrs Foster: That is not only the most interesting question that I have had on a BIC environment sectoral meeting but the most inventive use of a statement.
We are investigating the hacking incidents of 2 and 3 February; given that the Member is the Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment, I am happy to report to the Committee when the full details are available. The e-PIC system is almost complete, and we hope to roll it out in the coming year; I shall also report to the Committee on that issue.
Mr Armstrong: I thank the Minister for her statement. Does she agree that waste-repair units would have less of an environmental effect in Northern Ireland than Sellafield-type plants, if they were to be built in certain areas of the United Kingdom?
Mrs Foster: I am not sure what the Member is talking about. Is he referring to the waste management strategy, which envisages power plants being built in Northern Ireland?
Mr Speaker: I ask the Member to clarify his question.
Mr Armstrong: Some people talk about waste repair as incineration.
Mrs Foster: I think that the Member is referring to power from waste, which is Arc21’s preferred option in the waste management strategy. Funding has now been granted to Arc21, and it is rolling out its plans. It does not use the word “incinerator”, it uses the expression “power from waste”, which will be developed over the coming years. I am sure that the Member, and the House, will agree that we must find alternative ways to deal with waste. We must fulfil our obligations under the European landfill directive, and I know that the Member will support measures to deal with those targets.
Mr Gallagher: I thank the Minister for her statement. Many people, especially those living on the east coast of Northern Ireland, are genuinely concerned about contamination and pollution from Sellafield, and I welcome the fact that that issue was discussed at the BIC sectoral meeting. I note that there is a working group on integrated coastal zone management. Given that Northern Ireland is aligning itself with the UK marine Bill, can the Minister confirm our representation on that working group and give the House further details? I welcome every voice that speaks on our behalf.
Mrs Foster: I am happy to do that. The Northern Ireland integrated coastal zone management strategy was launched in June 2006; a key element of that strategy was the establishment of a coastal and marine forum in Northern Ireland, which has been up and running since that time.
That forum co-ordinates research and provides expert advice and support towards achieving the strategy’s objectives. As well as our own forum, through the integrated coastal zone management working group in the BIC, we, from the UK perspective, co-ordinate with other involved member states.
In December 2007, the Northern Ireland forum published the first in what it is hoped will be a series of booklets on the many important issues facing Northern Ireland’s coastline. It was entitled ‘Striking a Sustainable Balance’. Moreover, the Member will be aware of the National Trust booklet, ‘Shifting Sands’, which had some stark findings regarding three of its properties in Northern Ireland.
Integrated coastal zone management is a phrase that will be heard more and more by the Assembly, and the Department wants to assist that where possible.
Mr Ford: I thank the Minister for her comprehensive report on what was, obviously, a very interesting and inclusive meeting, given the number of topics covered.
Mr Gallagher highlighted the ICZM issue; however, I have questions on two other matters. With regard to business opportunities for renewable fuels, and the detail from the climate change programme, how does the Minister intend to get that information out to the people and businesses of Northern Ireland? The meeting might otherwise make no great impact beyond having been useful to Ministers.
Mrs Foster: In relation to Mr Ford’s first point, Dr Jeremy Tomkinson gave an excellent presentation on hemp and its uses. The Minister for Social Development, who accompanied me, found what he did with housing, for example, very interesting. Furthermore, in light of what said he about non-food crops, we suggested that Dr Tomkinson should contact the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment about the business opportunities that are available to Northern Ireland.
Roger Street spoke very well on climate change, and Jeremy Tomkinson asked what we intend to do about UKCIP on climate change and our ability with the very useful tools for adaptation that will be available from November 2008.
Perhaps it is not a good thing to mention, given the day that is in it; however, I hope that we will be able to do something on the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) website. I hope to use the information technology available to the Department to bring the matter closer to the Northern Ireland people. Again, I shall use the Committee for the Environment, as well as this House, to publish the messages on climate change adaptation, which, it is hoped, will be available to everyone in the UK to see what can be done at a local level to deal with climate change.
Mr Hamilton: The Minister, in her statement, spoke of the intriguingly titled Fishing for Litter initiative. Will she outline the advantages and potential problems associated with implementing such a scheme for the fishermen of my Strangford constituency and from elsewhere in Northern Ireland?
Mrs Foster: The Isle of Man Government presented a very informative video, which, I presume, came from Scotland because a lot of Scottish people appeared in it. Scotland and the Isle of Man have operated the Fishing for Litter initiative for some time, and there are obvious benefits for the environment. Benefits for fishermen include a likely reduction in the risk of damage to their fishing gear and in contamination of their catches. However, further issues must be explored with regard to funding, and we are happy to be part of a feasibility study on possible costs.
On a more general point, initiatives to reduce marine litter benefit everyone, and fit well with integrated coastal zone management. Marine life would benefit from such a scheme, and we hope to develop that in conjunction with the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD).
Mr McKay: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Was there any discussion of the possible development of nuclear facilities along the west coast of Britain, and the possible environmental implications of that? Research has been carried out on the east coast of Counties Dublin and Louth on the proven high levels of radioactivity in those areas. Does the Minister have any plans to look into the possibility of carrying out research along the coasts of Antrim and Down to see whether there are higher levels of radioactivity there than in other parts of the North?
Mrs Foster: There was only the briefest of discussions on nuclear power, because the Irish and Manx Governments intend to bring a paper to the next BIC detailing the concerns that they voiced briefly at the meeting. There was no discussion about future installations on mainland UK, or anything of that nature.
I hear what the Member says about monitoring and what has been found in the Republic of Ireland. However, as I said in response to the first question this morning, there is a continuous programme of monitoring the effect on Northern Ireland of radioactive discharges from nuclear installations in GB, and that will continue. At present, it shows that contamination is negligible in terms of its impact on both the population and the marine environment. I have no plans to step that up, because it continues to be there.
Mr T Clarke: I join with other Members in congratulating the Minister on bringing this statement to the House today. Were any specific items discussed at the meeting that are unique to Northern Ireland?
Mrs Foster: No, because it was a meeting of the British-Irish Council. What we do is share information across Administrations on the issues that affect us all. I found the discussions with the Manx Government, in particular, to be very useful. As the Member knows, we are only a short distance away from the Isle of Man, and they had some useful things to say about waste, for example. That is one of the areas that we are hoping to look at at the next BIC meeting.
Mr Cree: In light of the fact that over 50 illegal landfill sites containing waste from the Republic have been discovered in Northern Ireland, and given the Environment and Heritage Service’s (EHS) estimate that there are some 250,000 tons of household waste in Northern Ireland that have come from the Republic, did the Minister discuss the issue of financial compensation for the return of illegal waste to the Republic with her counterpart, Mr Gormley?
Mrs Foster: As this was a BIC meeting, that was not discussed formally. However, the Member may be aware that I took the opportunity to speak to Mr Gormley on the sidelines. Progress on the repatriation of illegal waste from Northern Ireland to the Republic of Ireland has been much too slow. I also gave Mr Gormley a letter in which I proposed a way forward, in so far as we would remove the waste from one particular site in County Fermanagh that is causing concern, and it would then be taken to a landfill site in the Republic. I am awaiting his response.
The Member is correct; a road map was set out for dealing with illegal waste between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and I am concerned that progress is not being made. I am taking this very seriously. That is why I mentioned it to John Gormley at the BIC meeting and why I will continue to monitor the situation.
Mr Durkan: I thank the Minister and her ministerial colleagues for the work of what seems to have been a very good meeting. I have to correct the Minister on a reference that she made to the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee: the Committee is not looking at the issue of nuclear power. Passing observations on the part of a Committee member were elevated into a news report that stated that the Committee is conducting an inquiry. I miss one meeting, and I have nuclear fallout to deal with.
From my perspective as Chairperson of that Committee, I welcome what the Minister said about the business opportunities in the field of renewable energy, rather than just looking at it in terms of challenges and obligations.
Will the Minister say whether, at future meetings, she and her colleagues would be prepared to consider a framework for marine management organisations or one organisation for all these islands? That issue arises, of course, in the context of the UK Climate Change Bill [HL]. There will also be the issue for us of what discrete legislation is required here, with a discrete organisation, too. Given the content of the Minister’s statement, which focused on our shared marine life, it seems to me that there could be a distinctive role for an east-west body, or at least a clear network and co-ordinating framework on an east-west basis, in the area of marine management.
Mrs Foster: Marine management organisations are dealt with in the marine Bill, on which subject I will come to the House very soon. I have been talking to DEFRA about how we might take that issue forward. Before devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, it would have been much simpler for DEFRA officials because there would have been only one marine management organisation. Now Scotland wants its own organisation for those areas that have been transferred. Wales is also looking into the matter. We are considering a marine management organisation for Northern Ireland, but we will remain linked into the UK one, which has the expertise.
As I said, the matter will come before the House soon, and I am in close contact with DEFRA. We do not want to lose control of our marine life, which is why we are considering our own marine management organisation for transferred matters only.
Mr P Maskey: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I had not intended to speak, but I want to set record the record straight. I chaired the meeting of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment at which the nuclear explosion erupted. Some journalists reported that the Committee was to undertake an inquiry into nuclear energy. As far as I am concerned, that has never been on the agenda. The Chairperson and I put out a statement to that effect, but it did not get any press coverage.
I take this opportunity to ask the Minister whether it would be worthwhile exploring with her counterpart, John Gormley, a common position on nuclear energy.
Mrs Foster: As I have already indicated, nuclear energy is the responsibility of the United Kingdom Government, so, from that perspective, I will not be considering a common position with the Republic of Ireland Government. My obligation as Minister of the Environment is to decide whether there is any environmental impact on the Northern Ireland population and on the marine environment. I am satisfied at present that there is not. I will continue to monitor matters, and unless there is something that causes grave concern, I see no reason to worry about the situation as it stands.
Mr Storey: I welcome the focus on the east-west relationship. With regard to ICZM and the coastal marine forum, will the Minister assure me that issues relating to the only inhabited island off Northern Ireland’s coast — Rathlin, which is part of my constituency — will be dealt with in a way that engages fully with the islanders and ensures that they are fully informed about the proposals and of the impact that they are likely to have?
Mrs Foster: I am very happy to do so. Rathlin is much visited by my Department, and I know that the Member visits it all the time. EHS values Rathlin very much. It is carrying out a seabed exploration around the island, and some of the findings will be of great interest to environmentalists across the UK and Europe. Rathlin is a jewel, and I know that the Executive have a plan specifically for it. I look forward to visiting it again in June.
Budget Bill: Second Stage
The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr P Robinson): I beg to move
That the Second Stage of the Budget Bill [NIA 10/07] be agreed.
I want to draw attention briefly to a few points. I am not sure whether I am able to get Members of the House to concede yet — they have been talked to death in around half a dozen finance debates during the past few weeks. Today’s debate follows the Budget Bill’s First Stage yesterday. It also follows the Supply resolutions for the 2007-08 spring Supplementary Estimates and the 2008-09 Vote on Account, which were also considered and approved yesterday.
As I explained during yesterday’s debate, for logistical reasons, accelerated passage of the Bill is needed in order to ensure Royal Assent in March 2008. It is needed to provide the legal authority for Departments and other public bodies to spend the cash and use the resources in the 2007-08 financial year and to ensure a seamless flow of public services into 2008-09 by the Vote on Account.
I am glad to state that the Budget Bill can be given accelerated passage because the Committee for Finance and Personnel confirmed that, in line with Standing Order 40, it is satisfied that there has been appropriate consultation on the public-expenditure proposals contained in the Bill. The Committee’s confirmation was given in a letter dated 6 February from the Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel to the Speaker. Once again, I welcome and appreciate the Committee’s assistance in the matter.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClarty] in the Chair)
The Bill’s purpose is to give legislative effect to the 2007-08 spring Supplementary Estimates and the 2008-09 Vote on Account, approved through the Supply resolutions passed yesterday. Copies of the spring Supplementary Estimates, the Vote on Account, the Budget Bill and the explanatory and financial memorandum have been made available to Members. I do not intend to detain the Assembly with unnecessary repetition of the details that I gave to Members yesterday. However, in accordance with the nature of the Second Stage debate that is envisaged under Standing Order 30, and for the benefit of Members, I wish to summarise briefly the Bill’s main features.
The Bill’s purpose is to authorise the issue of £11,851,642,000 from the Northern Ireland Consolidated Fund and the use of resources that total £14,429,839,000 by Departments and certain other bodies detailed in the spring Supplementary Estimates for 2007-08. Those amounts supersede the Vote on Account that was passed at Westminster in February 2007 and the Main Estimate provision in the Budget Act (Northern Ireland) 2007 that was passed the Assembly in June 2007.
The sums to be issued from the Consolidated Fund are to be appropriated by each Department or public body for the services set out in schedule 1 to the Bill, whereas the resources are to be used for the purposes specified in schedule 2. The Bill also authorises a Vote on Account for 2008-09 of cash of £5,335,212,000 and resources of £6,493,908,000 to allow the flow of cash and resources to continue to public services in the early months of 2008-09 until the Main Estimates and the related Budget Bill are approved by the Assembly in June 2008.
Again, the cash and resources are to be appropriated and used for the services and purposes set out in schedules 3 and 4 respectively. In addition, the Bill revises the 2007-08 limit on the use of operating and non-operating accruing resources, and specifies the purposes for which they may be used in schedule 2. Mr Deputy Speaker, you will have gathered that the Bill is technical. However, and finally, clause 5 of the Bill authorises temporary borrowing by the Department of Finance and Personnel at a ceiling of £2,667,606,000 for 2008-09.
The Budget Bill represents the end of the Budget process for the financial year 2007-08. In this year, the Assembly has begun to juggle priorities, meet emerging pressures within a finite budget and make the difficult decisions that it is our responsibility, as publicly elected representatives, to make. As we enter 2008-09, that will continue to be the challenge, alongside the requirement to maximise efficiencies and deliver on the targets and outcomes envisaged in our Programme for Government.
As I have said on more than one occasion in the Assembly in the past weeks, the public will now be seeking the delivery of improved public services in health, education, roads, the environment and many other areas. This Administration must move on and develop a culture of delivery in public services, rather than constantly focusing on spending and attaining additional money.
The spending plans in the Budget Bill were yesterday approved and endorsed by the Assembly — the Assembly has few more important duties than authorising public expenditure by Departments. As the Bill gives legal form to the same issues that were discussed yesterday, there is little more that I can usefully add without tiresome repetition. Although Members may feel talked out after so many debates on financial issues in recent days, I am still happy to deal with any points of principle that may arise.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel (Mr McLaughlin): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his opening remarks and ask him not to be too concerned, because the intricate and technical details of the Bill are, obviously, meat and drink to my colleagues on the Finance Committee.
As I reported in the Assembly yesterday, at its meeting on 30 January 2008, the Committee heard evidence from the Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP) officials. At a further evidence session on 6 February, officials took the Committee members through the detail of the Budget Bill.
The Bill gives formal legal authority for Departments to incur expenditure and to use resources as set out in the 2007-08 spring Supplementary Estimates and the Vote on Account for 2008-09. Following the evidence sessions, and in light of its scrutiny of the in-year monitoring rounds, the Committee was satisfied that it had received appropriate consultation on the public-expenditure proposals in the Budget Bill. Therefore, the Committee was content to grant accelerated passage to the Bill in accordance with Standing Order 40(2).
Yesterday, I spoke of the Committee’s active scrutiny role in the quarterly monitoring rounds throughout 2007-08. The Committee published an extensive report in early January on the Budget allocations for 2008-11, of which the Vote on Account for 2008-09, which was agreed yesterday, was the first step. A formal response to that is due from DFP in March, and we await that with interest.
Due to the timing of restoration in May 2007, the Committees and the Assembly did not have the opportunity to scrutinise the draft Budget proposals for the current financial year. Instead, it was inherited as a fait accompli from the direct rule period. New circumstances now pertain, and there will be a need to establish processes that maximise the role of the Assembly and its Committees.
One of the issues raised in the Committee’s report was the need to implement an effective process to scrutinise the Executive’s Budget proposals as soon as possible. The Committee’s report also included recommendations on several strategic and cross-cutting issues relating to the improvement of financial management across Departments — in particular, the important work to be carried out by the capital realisation task force and the performance and efficiency delivery unit (PEDU).
The Committee looks forward to working with the Minister and the Department on those issues, and supports the Bill. Go raibh maith agat.
Mrs I Robinson: The Minister will forgive me for selfishly focusing on a matter close to my heart. As he is aware, we in the Castlereagh Borough Council area of the Strangford constituency have been working closely with other agencies — not least the former South and East Belfast Health and Social Services Trust — to build a centre in Ballybeen square for the 10,000-strong community following the demolition of the Enler old people’s home.
At one stage, Ballybeen had been designated a targeting social need (TSN) area, but it lost that status as a result of the attention that was being given to rural communities. More recently, however, the Minister for Social Development, Margaret Ritchie, identified it as an area at risk, and her Department earmarked considerable money for the Enler project. However, she and her ministerial colleague the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety withdrew their financial offers, despite our taking seven years to work out our plans. Those plans included engaging with the whole community to identify what it saw as important facilities for the community. Those facilities included a senior citizens’ day centre, a start-up business unit, childcare facilities, a crèche, and shops, which are often in short supply in such large estates. It was also hoped that a new sub-post office could be attracted to the area, given that the previous one had been removed as a result of the recent cutbacks in post office services.
I believe that the decision to withdraw the money at the last minute — when we were ready to build — was politically motivated, despite the fact that capital expenditure was not a problem for the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS). The impact of those actions put in jeopardy our International Fund for Ireland funding, never mind the hundreds of thousands of pounds that were lost in the years during which feasibility studies were being prepared.
Does the Minister agree that additional moneys given to those two Departments would ensure that sufficient funding would be available to enable that life-changing facility to be core funded? That would, of course, depend on people’s having the will to overcome the type of petty point scoring that followed the farce of the Minister of Health, Social Services and Pubic Safety denying during the debate on the draft Budget that he had signed off on that document at a meeting of the Executive Committee, even though he is a member of the Executive. Sadly, Minister Ritchie felt the need to follow her new coalition friends. Will the Minister join me in convincing those Ministers that the long-suffering people of Ballybeen should not be left totally disenfranchised as a result of that behaviour?
I am sure that the Minister will join me in congratulating the people who are involved in pushing forward the Enler project. They include Paul Carland from the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, officials from our own Castlereagh Borough Council, Sammy Douglas of the International Fund for Ireland, the Ballybeen Improvement Group, and Maurice Kinkead, who did sterling work on raising money and on core-funding projects.
Does the Minister agree that if the project does not go ahead, the plans for improving Ballybeen square will be affected? That area has been a trouble hot spot throughout the period of unrest in our Province. I apologise if I have put the Minister on the spot — not the hot spot — but he will be aware of the need to show that predominately Protestant area that this Government will roll out programmes of funding to areas, particularly those in loyalist and unionist communities, that have, sadly, been so wantonly discriminated against by successive Governments.
Mr Beggs: I understand that Second Stage is the opportunity to consider the general principles of a Bill. Given that, I agree with the Minister that there is little point in covering areas that were discussed during the Budget debate. I could have taken this opportunity to highlight the lack of capital investment for health facilities in my area and the need for health and care centres in Larne and Carrickfergus. However, that is not the purpose of this Stage, so I will not continue along those lines.
The Minister said that the Budget process can be complex, particularly when we try to understand the spring Supplementary Estimates. I have a mathematical background, but one would need to be a well-trained accountant to better understand the spring Supplementary Estimates. I have attempted to gather the information as best I can. However, I hope that the Minister will accept that it would be useful for all Members, including members of the Committee for Finance and Personnel, to be given some training in that area, because it would help us to scrutinise better such matters in future. I simply wished to make that point about the process, and I hope that the Minister will consider my suggestion.
Mr O’Loan: A further debate on budgetary matters might give Members a sense of it being:
“like déjà vu all over again.”
My party has made its basic stance on the Budget clear. Having talked about the principles of the Budget Bill, we can see that there is a clear need for it, and we will not oppose it.
I do not wish to labour points that have already been made. In yesterday’s debate on the spring Supplementary Estimates, I talked about the important issue of secondary education. Today, I wish to refer briefly to water charges, about which substantial uncertainties remain. The strand-two report is presenting important proposals on the governance of NI Water, which will have implications for the level of funding required and the charges levied. The exact manner of charging remains to be defined; and, therefore, my party will continue to watch that issue with great interest.
Yesterday, important points were made about underspend and overcommitment, and I welcome the steps being taken to better control those related issues. Efficiency savings have been mentioned, but I wish to speak at length about efficiency in broad terms. There is significant inefficiency and waste in our public services. That is no criticism of public servants, the vast majority of whom are committed and hard-working. However, systems are frequently weak and do not provide optimum service; they are not effective in identifying and correcting instances of underperformance.
The SDLP is committed to social justice and equality — but low-quality public services can make no contribution to social justice. We do not want equality in inferior service. The word “transformation” has been used in relation to the recent changes that have been made, and continue to be made, to the National Health Service in England. Transformation is not a word that we use frequently here, but we must incorporate the concept into our thinking and vocabulary when examining our own public services. The challenge facing the Assembly is the transformation of the quality of our public services.
The Minister of Finance and Personnel’s principle vehicle for transforming public services will be the performance and efficiency delivery unit. When that idea was presented to the Assembly, most Members were inclined to feel that it could only be a good thing. We had a pretty simple idea that it would be some sort of machine, such as an automatic washing machine. Inefficiency would be put into the machine at one end, get churned around in a recognisable and straightforward way, and emerge at the other end as pristine efficiency. Following closer examination, there are questions about how such a unit will work. The Minister knows that the Committee for Finance and Personnel considered the matter and has commented on it.
The way in which PEDU will work presents several questions. Will it be invited into Departments, as the Minister suggested on one occasion? That is questionable. Will senior officials and Ministers, who regard themselves as being in charge of Departments, invite in an outside agency, which might do upsetting things to their Departments — things over which they will have no control? That, too, is questionable.
Whether PEDU will have the authority to interfere in Departments without their consent is equally questionable. Unless there is agreement and consensus, it is hard to see how one can reach the level of co-operation required to achieve significant change — and significant change is what we are interested in.
What issues might PEDU identify? We heard some evidence, by way of comparison with the efficiency unit in the Prime Minister’s office at Westminster, that PEDU might identify the burning issues of the day. At present, it might identify clostridium difficile as the big issue, and decide that that needs attention. One can imagine considerable effort going into dealing with that, probably successfully, and the headlines might be very good. However, it is open to question whether, in the end, PEDU can achieve the best allocation of resources and profoundly alter the efficiency of the broad services within which that particular element of the Health Service rests. The manner in which we achieve efficiency, and the potential contribution of PEDU, is something to which we should give a great deal more thought.
Another issue related to efficiency is procurement. In that respect, I look beyond inefficiency to abuse and corruption. I express the following in general terms, but it needs to be said. I do not have sufficient evidence on this issue to be able to walk into a police station and present a case for the police to investigate with a reasonable hope of conclusion. However, enough anecdotal evidence has come before me to convince me that, in certain areas of the public sector relating to procurement, there is significant and endemic corruption and abuse. The existing mechanisms for addressing it are not succeeding. Those close to the relevant sectors know very well that something rotten is going on, and they know what it is. As a political Assembly, in control of the public sector, we must do something about that.
As an important side point in relation to industrial derating, I quote from page (ix) of a report, which the Minister received from Economic Research Institute of Northern Ireland (ERINI) in October 2007, ‘Review of Industrial Derating Policy’:
“we have been struck when talking to industry at the degree of disillusionment that exists about the willingness of government to understand the problems of business and to create a sustainable supportive regime within which it can prosper. A decision on the future of industrial derating and the first Budget of the new Executive may be an excellent opportunity to forge a new concordat between industry and government that would set out clearly what each can expect from the other in obligation and support.”
The Committee reiterated those comments and elaborated on them somewhat in the report that it gave to the Minister. However, I want to bring this to the attention of the whole Assembly, because it is such an important issue. That feature of that report remains to be acted on, and I call on all relevant Departments, including DFP, to do so.
Mr Neeson: It will come as no surprise to the Minister that the Alliance Party has serious reservations about the Budget, for the specific reason that it does not place tackling sectarianism and segregation, rebalancing the economy, and delivering sustainable public services at the centre of Government policy and Government funding allocations.
That is based on our vision for this society, which is fundamentally different from that being advocated by the four Executive parties.
However, we will not seek to divide the House on the Bill, as we recognise that it is primarily about tidying up a financial situation that was left over from direct rule. The main discussion will come in the summer with the main Budget Bill. Our main and specific financial concern is with the amount of money that the Executive are making available to invest in public services now in order to make savings later, while maintaining a high standard of service delivery to the public.
No one minds paying for public services, provided that they are of a high standard and deliver true value for money to the people who use them. Therefore, I agree with Declan O’Loan’s point on efficiencies. The first difficulty remains that the Executive are restricting the full use of the tools available to them deliver an effective Budget. There are three main areas in which improvements could be made.
First, our public services are the least efficient in the UK. Therefore, our efficiency targets should be tougher than elsewhere. Achieving that requires an immediate start to addressing the cost of division. My colleague David Ford will be writing to the Minister to set up a meeting to discuss the matter.
Secondly, the refusal of the unionist parties to countenance tax-varying powers in line with those that are enjoyed by Scotland limits our potential for movement. It is as though we are telling the outside world that we are not competent to run our finances fully. It severely limits our ability to make the case for lower corporation tax, an issue that remains a high priority for business, if not for the Executive.
Thirdly, the Executive must think of other, fair ways to raise the money that is essential for public services. For example, most western European countries fund water through charges that are based on the ability to pay and consumption. We must also consider how the Republic of Ireland was able to finance its motorway network.
The Bill fails to link issues together effectively. That is not entirely the fault of the current Executive, but there is precious little evidence that they are putting things right. The failure to invest in education, health and infrastructure now will lead to economic difficulties later.
The Alliance Party is committed to low rates, and the Minister kindly referred to that. I thank him for reminding the public of that. However, we would keep rates low through savings on the cost of division, making full use of the financial tools that are available — and are potentially available — and by investing in the right areas now to make savings later. We would not fail to invest the money that is required for education, health and infrastructure, which are essential economic drivers, simply for the sake of covering up what is another new Labour Budget.
In conclusion, I will make some general points. I recognise that one of the main priorities in the Programme for Government is to grow the economy, and I welcome that. However, I question whether enough resources have been directed to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to achieve that. The Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment is committed to the development of renewable energy, and I wonder whether enough resources have been focused on that.
The Minister knows about my personal interest in maritime heritage. When I spoke in the Programme for Government debate on 28 January 2008, I said that no Department in Northern Ireland has any responsibility for the development of maritime heritage. A major maritime heritage project, which I consider to be of titanic proportions, in the Minister’s constituency of East Belfast, is in real danger of being scuttled. I seek a meeting with the Minister on that project at the earliest opportunity.
As a former teacher, I am deeply concerned about what is going on with the education system. Although I have no deep disagreement with what the Minister of Education is trying to achieve, I am concerned that issues such as the education estate have not been fully considered. The Assembly must face up to that major problem, because the public, and teachers and pupils in particular, are deeply concerned about what is happening. We as an Assembly have a responsibility to deal with the issue as a matter of urgency, and it must be tackled in the Budget. The whole question of the future management of the schools estate must be seriously considered.
Although the Alliance Party has reservations about the Budget Bill, we will not seek to divide the House on the issue.
Mr Hamilton: I wish to pick up on some points that have been made, principally by Declan O’Loan, on the issue of efficiencies. I for one welcome the focus on efficiencies in the Budget. Focus on this important area is much needed, as it was severely lacking under direct rule. It is a serious matter, as inefficiencies — particularly when they are on a huge scale and are easily avoidable — are tantamount to theft. It is public money that is being wasted on inefficiencies, and it could be put to better use delivering efficient public services.
I support the creation of the performance and efficiency delivery unit. Mr O’Loan raised some of his personal concerns about the unit, but it will prove to be a worthwhile creation in the long term. The unit will operate not in an ostentatious or obvious way, but in a quiet way to achieve efficiencies in the public sector.
The Prime Minister’s delivery unit at Whitehall has had some notable successes in reducing waiting lists, among other things. That is an example of how such a unit can achieve real success. I am optimistic about the creation of the unit and the opportunities that it will present. It is not simply about efficiencies: it is about delivery.
The Health Service in Northern Ireland is a good example of where there have been record levels of investment and where health professionals are working flat out, yet no one will say that the performance over those years of record levels of investment has improved at the same scale and trajectory as the funding. The work of PEDU could concentrate on that area, among others, to achieve real results.
Mr Beggs: Does the Member acknowledge that there has been improvement in waiting lists in the past year, as a result of concentration on providing a more efficient service? There was an acknowledgement in the Appleby Report that some of the additional costs in Northern Ireland were due to its rurality and the spread-out nature of our population. Does the Member acknowledge that if efficiency is driven too hard, some of the outlying services may be simply cut off in efficiency savings?
Mr Hamilton: I thank the Member for his contribution. One can never be too efficient: efficiencies must be pursued at every opportunity. The example that Mr Beggs gave with regard to the improvement in waiting lists is almost justification for the type of work that PEDU will do. Concentration and clear focus on one particular issue, such as waiting lists, demonstrates how such a thing can be achieved. When I raised the issue of waiting lists —
Mr O’Loan: Will the Member give way?
Mr Hamilton: Wait just a second.
I raised the issue of waiting lists as an example of what has been achieved in the Prime Minister’s delivery unit, but concentration should be focused on many other areas of the Health Service in Northern Ireland, such as our massive spend on prescription charges.
Mr O’Loan: I thank the Member for giving way. I am cheating a little, because I wish to comment on Mr Beggs’s intervention. However, it is a valuable point of debate.
There has been an improvement in waiting lists, but Members should not blind themselves to the fact that there was a considerable cost involved in achieving that. That is probably opaque to most Members; I do not know the detail, but the improvements did come at a cost. That is another illustration of the type of situation that I mentioned. In instances in which there is cost, there is also opportunity cost. Resources invested in one area might have been used in another. Finding particular ways to remedy a particular problem is usually the most efficient way to achieve better performance in that service. On that matter, it is open to question.
Mr Hamilton: I am worried that I look like an umpire in a tennis match; it seems that Members are hitting back and forth. The Member raised a good point. Widespread considerations must be made, but I am sure that Mr O’Loan appreciates that considerable focus and determination are required in looking at matters that are not necessarily the topic of the day, but that are endemic and cause widespread problems. PEDU will be useful in that regard.
Mrs I Robinson: Although there have been improvements in the hospital waiting lists across the Province, does the Member note that patients are rushed through their procedures to ensure that deadlines are met? Furthermore, the figures that illustrate how many people have to return to hospital because they were discharged too quickly — because deadlines had to be met — make interesting reading.
Mr Hamilton: I thank the Member for her contribution on a subject about which she knows a great deal and in which she has had a long-standing interest. There are no simple answers to those questions. Mrs Robinson is right — one can come up with solutions that are merely quick fixes, but they are not the answer. We look for long-term gains and performances that can be improved over time, and not something that, for instance, is simply to satisfy a particular media curiosity or a reaction to achieve deadlines merely for the sake of satisfying the media, for instance.
I must watch myself, because, for the second day running, I agree with a point — just one point — raised by an Alliance Party Member.
Mr Weir: Resign.
Mr Hamilton: I will be in trouble with the Whip. Mr Neeson stated that nobody minds paying for public services if they are delivered at a high standard. That is a relevant point when allied to the comments made about efficiencies. I have said this before, but it is worth repeating: people have paid over the odds, but they have not always received the service that they deserve. The Alliance Party would make the people pay even more, regardless of whether the services were efficient.
Furthermore, Mr Neeson called for the Assembly to embrace tax-varying powers. Recently, it has been clear that, were the Alliance Party to get their hands on the tax-varying powers, taxes would be varied in an upward direction, to the detriment, of Northern Ireland’s householders and businesses.
One of the main priorities in the Budget is the focus on growing a vibrant and dynamic economy for Northern Ireland. That has been named as the Executive’s number one priority. I have spoken about that before, and I welcome the objective. Given the Northern Ireland economy’s structural weaknesses, the difficulties that we have had through the years and those that we will face if we do not achieve that priority as we move into a sometimes uncertain future, as illustrated by the current uncertainty in the global marketplace, the Assembly wholeheartedly supports the objective.
I welcome the increased funding for innovation. That can be seen in the significantly increased budgets for the Department for Employment and Learning, which has an important role to play in developing skills, and for the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment. A higher concentration of funding has been given to tourism — an area that has been under-exploited in Northern Ireland through the years. There is potential there, and I welcome that boost in funding.
One should not think that social issues have not received the same focus in the Budget as has the economy. It is not a trade-off; the two areas go hand in hand. The Department for Social Development received an increased allocation of resources for social and affordable housing.
Following the Finance Minister’s Budget statement, there was much concentration on the extra £205 million for new social and affordable homes. However, it is worth restating that that money is on top of the amount that had already been allocated in the draft Budget.
My interest in this subject stems from first-hand constituency experience. In common with my constituency colleagues and, I am sure, colleagues throughout Northern Ireland, my workload is dominated by housing issues. In Strangford, there is a social housing crisis. Figures from the Minister for Social Development for settlements in the Strangford constituency — Newtownards, Comber, Ballygowan, Saintfield, Killinchy, Moneyreagh and Killyleagh — show that there are 3,586 applicants on the Housing Executive waiting list, 2,458 of whom are deemed to be in housing stress. Over the past three years a paltry total of 576 allocations were made — an average of fewer than 200 a year — and that is at the heart of the crisis.
It is an awful thing to say, but the harsh reality is that we are almost in the situation of waiting for people to die in order that houses become available and new people can move in. That is an awful predicament in which to be. Housing Executive officials do their best, and it is not for want of trying on their part, but they find it difficult to place people because the houses are simply not there.
In the extremely unlikely scenario that no new applicants are added to the list, at the current rate of allocations in Strangford, it will take an astounding 19 years to clear the waiting list. That is how bad the situation has become. Nevertheless, I am sure that Strangford is not in the worst position, and I would not wish to see a constituency requiring a longer timescale to clear up its waiting list.
In Strangford, the problem is compounded by the fact that, in addition to suffering from some of the longest waiting lists, we suffer simultaneously from some of the highest house prices in Northern Ireland. A survey by the Halifax in October 2007 showed that Newtownards was deemed to be the United Kingdom’s property hot spot, with average house-price rises of 65% and an average house price of £250,000. Therefore, young people who would otherwise buy a new home simply cannot afford to do so, and they present themselves to the Housing Executive in order to get on the waiting list, which places additional and perhaps unnecessary pressure on that list.
The social-and-affordable-home targets in the Programme for Government, backed up by the resources allocated in the Budget, are ambitious but absolutely necessary, and the Budget provides the Minister for Social Development with the cold, hard cash to deliver on her desire, which we all share, for more social housing.
Finally, returning to my earlier point about focusing on problems, although we all want to sort out this problem now, it is important to ensure that we do not permit ourselves to get into this sorry situation again. Some years ago, a belief developed that we needed no more, or perhaps minimal, newbuild social housing. Clearly, circumstances have shown that not to be the case, and we must maintain a newbuild social housing programme in order that people can eventually buy those houses and assume the responsibility of becoming a homeowner.
We must learn lessons from the current crisis and not repeat mistakes. I support the Budget Bill.
Mr Durkan: As other Members and the Minister have said, the Bill is about ensuring that public expenditure flows properly, and, despite the SDLP’s reservations about the overall Budget, it has no intention of impeding that flow. Furthermore, given the debate and consideration that has taken place both in the Committee for Finance and Personnel and in the Chamber, the SDLP agrees with the Committee that the Bill should be granted accelerated passage.
I wish to address several of the points that have arisen during the debate. The SDLP expressed serious reservations about the way in which education was treated in the Budget. To point out that the subject is not adequately covered in the Budget and that the proposals for education are unclear is not to have a go at the Finance Minister or the Minister of Education, it is simply to highlight that, if the Assembly is to be deemed a competent authority on the Budget, its Members must be realistic about the fact that they do not have a fully articulated picture of the serious public-expenditure implications of the education proposals.
Similarly, there are unknowns and assumptions about water. The Independent Water Review Panel’s strand two report is out for consultation, and we have had the strand one report for some time, but there are parts of that report from which Ministers, or the Executive, appear to have resiled, or to be keeping their distance. In those circumstances, and given that the overall period of the Budget as presented previously was three years — I appreciate that the focus of the Budget Bill is slightly different — that reservation is valid and legitimate, and the SDLP is no more relaxed now than it was before.
The SDLP also raised the issue of the move away from cross-cutting and non-departmental funds. We favour those types of funds, not just because we helped to create them in the past, but because they serve to focus Departments beyond just using the money in their budgets as though it were their own private property for their own particular priorities. When we had the Executive programme funds, we were able to encourage some Departments to come together on a cross-cutting basis, and we would have been able to do even more if we had had a clear Executive substructure, or an Assembly Committee, to set priorities and commissioning criteria for possible bids. In a settled process, with a fully working Executive, that substructure would have made good some of the problems of the past.
Ministers have said that money for children, instead of going into a children’s fund, is now going into Departments, but the fact is that money that goes into Departments is not always used for the purpose for which it is ring-fenced, and it is not easy to track it to see where it has been used.
People outside Departments find it difficult to have their ideas and proposals on funding heard. The children’s fund was open to applications from the community and voluntary sector, and in one of the rounds we did not allocate as much money as had been earmarked for the statutory sector, because of the relatively poor quality of bids from the Departments. Instead, we put that money aside to top up what was available to the community and voluntary sector, or to take revised bids from the statutory sector, on a play-off basis.
That approach to funds is used in Whitehall and in the South, where Brian Cowen, in his very first Budget, set aside €800 million to be available for bids from six Departments. Among the priorities that he indicated for those funds were children, families with disabilities and families in stress. At that time, when everybody thought that a lot of money was available to the Southern Exchequer, he felt that it was important to hold some in reserve to await quality proposals, instead of giving the money to Departments to use as they pleased. Those are all rational, constructive and different approaches that we can use in the Budget as framed.
In previous debates a number of comments have been made about the past Executive, and about me, that I did not have a chance to respond to at the time. Indeed, some of the Members making those comments would not allow me to answer. I will deal with a couple of them now.
During Question Time, the Minister for Regional Development said that money had been allocated by the previous Executive — and by me, as Minister of Finance and Personnel — for new trains on condition of a reduction to the core network. That is absolutely untrue. The record of the time will show that, when the expenditure for the new trains was announced, although officials said that money for new trains should be linked to a reduction in the core network, I rejected that in my role as Minister of Finance and Personnel, the Executive did not adopt that recommendation, and the House passed the Budget on the basis that there was no question of a precondition of a reduction in the core network.
Members of all parties asked about that matter during the Budget exercise because of what was said. I absolutely refute the misrepresentation by the then Minister for Regional Development. I said at the time that there would be money for new train sets because the proposals had been worked up and that I was asking for proposals for investment in the network; however, no serious proposals ever emerged.
There were some small bids, some of which, we were told at the time, would not be fully spent. That is why the Executive did not meet them. However, it was made clear that the reinvestment and reform initiative and the infrastructure fund would support significant investment in the railway network. Those means were identified; it is just a pity that significant investment in the railway network has not been expedited since.
The Minister of Finance and Personnel also referred to a meeting that he said he had had with me at which he attempted to discourage me from breaking the link between water services and the rates. That link had already been broken in the comprehensive spending review: it was partly discussed when the direct rule Minister with responsibility for finance and personnel, Paul Murphy, addressed the comprehensive spending review. That is when the idea that part of the rates should be dedicated to water charges was thrown out. Bizarrely, at the same time, the direct rule Minister was justifying the then projected increases of 7% almost entirely on the need for water charges.
When Mr Robinson and I met — when he was Minister for Regional Development and I was Minister of Finance and Personnel — he and his permanent secretary proposed that my Department should convert the entire regional rate to a water rate. It was not an idea that I found particularly attractive, but I shared it with my Executive colleagues, as they had to be in full possession of the facts. Some Executive colleagues were not attracted to the idea because they wanted the revenue from the regional rate to be available to all Departments and not just to the Water Service and the Department for Regional Development.
More important, we saw the dangers in converting the regional rate into a water rate, as the Treasury could simply acknowledge that we had introduced water charges but that we were far short of any measure that compared with council tax. The Treasury would have come after us with full steam. That is why the Executive did not act on Mr Robinson’s suggestion.
An option was specifically written into the consultation paper that was issued on a rating policy review to the effect that the link between water services and the rates would not merely be restored, but that revenue for the Water Service would be an identifiable component on people’s rates bill. That option was agreed by the Executive and by the then Committee for Finance and Personnel; however, direct rule returned before we had any results from the consultation exercise.
References have also been made to the reinvestment and reform initiative and to disastrous deals. First, the transfer of all the significant sites — which are now of great value — happened as a part of that so-called disastrous deal. Secondly, the only borrowing power exercised as part of that deal by the last Executive was the borrowing of £200 million without a penny extra on the rates. That included enabling the regional cancer centre to come about. It was not coming about through the Department of Health, despite requests by me and others for the project to be prioritised.
We used the reinvestment and reform initiative, and moneys in the infrastructure fund, to make that project happen — without resort to PFI or anything else. That project was delivered and was a proud achievement, along with other projects that were funded by that package.
As for the terms for longer-term borrowing power, the Treasury said that it wanted a linkage to rates — to narrowing the gap between the household rate in Northern Ireland and that of GB. We never agreed those terms, and negotiations were never concluded on that matter. The terms for the borrowing power of the reinvestment and reform initiative were agreed by direct rule Ministers during suspension of the Assembly; they were not agreed by the Executive.
We have been told that the Executive signed up for water charges as part of the reinvestment and reform initiative. Neither water charges nor water reform were part of the reinvestment and reform initiative because the Executive did not have control over the water reform agenda. That control rested with a Minister who did not take part in the Executive. During direct rule, a decision was made to include water reform in the reinvestment and reform initiative. At that time, as deputy First Minister, I was involved in a series of meetings with direct rule Ministers about the reinvestment and reform initiative.
When those direct rule Ministers took the decision to include water reform in the initiative, I ceased to have any further meetings with them because I had advised against that and had said that I was opposed to its inclusion because it was not part of the reinvestment and reform initiative. The Official Report will confirm that. The then Minister will bear me out on that point. I am dealing with a number of issues on which there has been misrepresentation.
The debate provides an opportunity for us to look more widely at some issues of budgetary management and, particularly, at our role in an Assembly that is meant to have serious budgetary competence. Other Members have referred to the importance of the performance and efficiency delivery unit. I fully support that development. I understand that we will be warned not to rely solely on the unit — not to give it total discretion — without anyone else making any assessments or judgements. Nevertheless, the unit will be useful in advancing the wider agenda of performance and efficiency.
However, the House has a strong role to play in promoting performance and efficiency. The House rightly values the role of the Public Accounts Committee, which is able — on a cross-departmental basis — to challenge and interrogate the basis of evidence that is provided by the Audit Office. The House needs more cross-departmental Committees so that there is more real-time scrutiny of what Departments and other spenders of public money are doing. The Public Accounts Committee is able to deal with matters only after they have happened. Some real-time scrutiny would be helpful.
In the past, we have proposed that there be a Committee of the House to focus on issues such as the cost of Government, administrative spend and efficiencies, policy effectiveness and performance. Such a Committee should be able to use intelligence and information from the Audit Office — and, now, the performance and efficiency delivery unit — to examine and to challenge. That Committee should also be able to initiate some challenges and scrutiny in its own right. After all, MLAs are paid and employed as elected representatives to act as watchdogs.
More cross-cutting Committees could help us to do that job. It is easy for us to get stuck in a rut in our departmental Committees and become cheerleaders for particular bids, rather than seriously challenge Departments about the quality of their plans and about delivery. We can learn from some of the successes of the Public Accounts Committee, and from the respect in which it is held. We can design more Committees in that mould.
The Minister, in the course of previous debates on the Budget, placed some emphasis on the issue of assets. When the House was considering the Resource Accounting and Budgeting Bill, I pointed out that, in future, the House’s budgetary role should no longer simply involve authorising and making decisions on public expenditure; rather, it should also involve making conscious decisions on what should be done with assets. Decisions would have to be made as to whether they were being used properly, whether it costs us money to hold assets that are not being fully used and whether it is better to realise those assets in other ways.
That was the theory, but it has not been fully realised. Although I recognise that the capital realisation task force has taken steps to address that issue, it will be all too easy for Members to see it as some black box quango that examines what happens in Departments, and then Departments brief MLAs or others against some of the proposals or whatever. As a budgetary authority, the Assembly is meant to make decisions on assets, so it should have a way of taking competent, articulate decisions in those areas, too.
Therefore, I do not suggest that we do not need a capital realisation task force, rather, I suggest that the Assembly needs an arm and an instrument of its own that enables it to address those issues properly. It should be able to generate ideas itself and pursue other enquiries about our assets base, and not simply work on the basis of what the capital realisation task force says.
For many Members, the heat has gone out of some of the more current Budget issues, so this is an opportunity for the Assembly to consider how, structurally, it can get a better handle on the budgetary arrangements along the way. As Members have said, the business of spring Supplementary Estimates and Votes on Account can appear technical and dry. Given that those are some of the key ways in which the Assembly acts as a budgetary authority, we must find ways of exercising that authority in a more relevant, telling and current manner. It would be helpful if some cross-cutting Committees could be developed to assist in that regard.
I know that in previous speeches, the Minister has said that he wants Members to help to deliver the efficiency agenda and that he will look for help from the Committee of Finance and Personnel in doing so. It will take far more than the Committee’s help to deliver the agenda, given that the Committee has big departmental issues of its own to deal with, never mind what is happening across other Departments. I welcome the challenge that the Minister has given to the Assembly, and we should create a means by which we can take up that challenge and play a full and positive part in addressing the issues.
Mr Ford: I want to add a few comments to those made by my colleague Sean Neeson earlier, and by my colleague Stephen Farry in yesterday’s debate. I apologise to the Minister that I was not present to hear his opening speech, but I was called away by a higher authority — higher even than the Finance Minister.
I enjoyed much of Mr Durkan’s contribution. I suspect that the debate between the current Finance Minister and the former Finance Minister will run for some time. Who knows, when Stephen Farry gets involved, perhaps the future Finance Minister will be involved as well.
Mr Durkan raised an interesting issue about the Assembly’s scrutiny role. Although there is a degree of expertise in the PAC, it tends to scrutinise events only after they have happened, and the departmental Committees do not currently have the expertise to examine the full financial implications of budgets and expenditure plans as they are developed. Expertise tends to be in the areas with which the Department deals, rather than in financial management. The Assembly must consider that issue and become much more adept at scrutinising financial matters. If the Minister welcomes the Assembly’s assistance in providing such scrutiny, we may be able to increase efficiencies in Government.
Of course, a key issue goes back to the Assembly and Executive Review Committee, which is chaired by the Minister’s colleague Mr Donaldson. We cannot claim any level of efficiency for public service as long as we maintain 11 Government Departments and 108 MLAs for a population of only 1·7 million people.
Speaking as leader of the opposition and in support of my colleague, I must point out that our party does not have the resources to develop a detailed financial model and alternative Budget. However, we do have the right to scrutinise what is being proposed. We will continue to exercise that right and to ask questions about the decisions that are being taken.
One question that has not been satisfactorily resolved at this stage relates to the overall level of the resources available. It is clear that the meetings that took place in 11 Downing Street before the restoration of devolution failed to produce any significant extra funding. The outcome of the Varney Review was also disappointing, as the Assembly is still unable to take greater responsibility for fiscal matters. We will have to wait for the outcome of Varney II, but, in the meantime, we have to consider the available resources and what priorities we have for that expenditure.
The Minister of Finance and Personnel was right to express concerns about the level of rates increases under direct rule. Increases of between 8% and 19% were completely ridiculous, totally above any level of inflation or any justification in terms of public services. However, making a statement that for three years there should be what is effectively a 2% or 2·5% cut in the regional rate is not necessarily the right measure to take, because it is not inflation-linked. I notice that Economic Research Institute of Northern Ireland, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action (NICVA) have expressed concerns about what is in effect a real-terms cut in rates. There is an issue as to whether we can afford to take such a cut, especially given that we are looking to invest for the future through building the economy, as has been emphasised.
Significant efficiency savings are clearly required, but have yet to be identified. There is no doubt that much of Government in Northern Ireland is less efficient than in other regions of the UK. We need to deal with that issue, and we need to be realistic about it. There will be implications as to how we can deal with public services in the future if adequate income is not generated.
The Minister would be disappointed if I did not emphasise that part of this involves considering where savings can be made regarding the cost of segregation, allowing funds to be reinvested in more productive services. I know that Sean Neeson has again repeated our offer to engage with the Minister. When a little bit more work has been completed by our limited number of extremely hard-working staff, I hope that we will be able to have a useful discussion with the Minister and contribute constructively to the addressing of that issue.
The Minister has said on many occasions that the real issue for us is not that our public sector is too large, but that our private sector is too small. We have a real challenge as to how we divert current expenditure from where it is not achieving full results to where it can assist in developing economic growth and funding the public services in matters such as education and health — particularly mental health — which have a direct contribution to make to the economy. At this stage, we have doubts that the Budget will redirect resources to enable that to happen.
We need to invest in the drivers that will develop the economy, and we need to invest in the public services that support the entrepreneurs and investors who will make those changes. We, on these Benches, are entitled to remain sceptical at the same time as saying that, in a spirit of goodwill, we accept the points that the Minister made. We will certainly engage with him to seek to improve the quality of public services and the way in which money is expended by him and his Department.
Mr P Robinson: I thank all the Members who have contributed to this debate. A number of issues that have been raised have previously been discussed in the Assembly. However, I will do my best to address as many of the points as I was able to jot down.
The Chairman of the Committee for Finance and Personnel, Mr McLaughlin, said that the technical issues involved in the Budget were meat and drink to his colleagues on the Committee. They must be very hungry and thirsty if they are satisfied with all of those technicalities. He mentioned the Committee’s report, which has been forwarded to my Department. It is actively — and, indeed, carefully — being considered by departmental officials, who will report to me. We will respond to the Committee expeditiously; I hope that we will be able to do so by early March.
The Chairperson of the Committee made several comments about the performance and efficiency delivery unit, as did Mr Declan O’Loan and Mr Simon Hamilton. It might be worth my taking a moment to explain some of my thinking on that unit.
I very much take the same position as Mr Hamilton; I do not think that Departments can be too efficient. In the past, there has been a tendency for Governments and Ministers to dress up cuts as efficiencies, a practice that gave efficiencies a bad name. Of themselves, efficiencies do not reduce valuable, front-line services; rather, they seek to ensure that we get the best value for money from the services that we provide to the public. That is the role that I see for PEDU.
I think that I told the House that my views on the performance and efficiency delivery unit had developed over time and that initially, I had considered it very much as a way to create cost-efficiencies in Departments. Indeed, that remains one of PEDU’s key focuses. However, over time, I have considered the importance of improving performance itself, especially of being able to achieve the key targets that have been set out in our Programme for Government and investment strategy. Therefore, performance, efficiency and delivery are all component parts of the work of PEDU.
I say to Mr O’Loan, who is a Member for North Antrim, that he is correct to say that PEDU would not get very far if it went about its business by breaking down Departments’ doors and throwing its weight around. Michael Barber headed Tony Blair’s Prime Minister’s delivery unit, and in a conversation with him, I was struck to hear that the unit’s modus operandi involved assisting Departments. Its team made it clear at the beginning of its work with Departments that it was not seeking any publicity or kudos and that whatever it could do to help would be to their benefit. The team also said that each Department could claim any successes that came about. That general approach won him the support of Departments and encouraged Ministers in particular to work with him and his team in order to secure the delivery that was being sought.
Therefore, PEDU must adopt a collaborative approach. We have been spending some time putting together our team of officials, and I am in the final stages of holding meetings with individuals who I hope will be part of the panel of advisers, overseers, mentors, or whatever title we choose for them. The team will comprise people who have vast experience in the public and private sectors and who have dealt with issues such as performance, efficiency and delivery. Later in the process, I look forward to being able to give the Committee, in the first instance, and later the Assembly, further details on that issue.
My friend, colleague and wife mentioned the Enler project in Ballybeen. I agree that that community needs, and, indeed, deserves, the scheme, work on which was begun. I have been encouraged by the remarks that the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety made in response to the Adjournment debate that the Member secured a few weeks ago. I can tell her that on 1 February, DFP supply directorate approved putting the project to tender, on the understanding that once the preferred bidder had been identified, the costs would be updated and the business case resubmitted for final approval.
Therefore, the matter is for the Department for Social Development and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to determine. However, DFP Supply has given the business case the green light.
The Member for East Antrim Mr Beggs said that he would not use the debate to make comments about Larne and Carrickfergus, yet he did. He said that there were real Health Service requirements there. I am sure that his relationship with the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety is as good as, if not better than, mine, and I am sure that he will want to speak to the Minister about improving facilities there. A considerable budget is available to the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, and the Minister will want to see the benefits spread across the Province.
Mr Beggs also mentioned training for Members, and I assume that he meant members of the Committee for Finance and Personnel in particular. Having seen Committee members in action, I am not sure that I want them to have more training, because they already seem to be very capable. However, if the Committee wishes to receive further training, my officials will be happy to facilitate such a request. Indeed, if other MLAs wish to go into detail on items such as spring Supplementary Estimates, annually managed expenditure (AME), departmental expenditure limits, and other finance issues, my officials will be glad to assist. It is in all our interests to have a grasp of public-sector finances.
Mr O’Loan made some comments that were based on the words of Yogi Berra, the US baseball player and broadcaster, who said:
“This is like déjà vu all over again.”
I prefer his other quotation:
“You should always go to other people’s funerals; otherwise, they won’t come to yours.”
Of course, neither of those quotations has anything to do with the Budget Bill.
Mr O’Loan raised an issue about water charges that his party leader also raised. I can only make estimates and assumptions based on what I know about each Department’s position. When the Budget is being introduced, no time is available in which to stand still and tie up all the loose ends. When a certain point is reached, we must make an educated guess about what will be necessary. The Executive supported some aspects of the strand-one report, and a subcommittee is making real progress on the outstanding issues in the independent panel’s first report. The subcommittee is now considering the panel’s second report. We have made some assumptions in the Budget. Indeed, the Minister for Regional Development has made several statements to indicate the reductions that we believe will be appropriate, because people should not be asked to pay twice for water. We must take account of the situation as it develops.
The Democratic Unionist Party readily accepted the Ulster Unionist Party amendment to the motion on the Programme for Government and the investment strategy, because Governments, by their nature, must develop and take new circumstances into account. If developments require us to make reassessments, that is what we will do. The Executive are in the business of dealing with situations as they arise and of planning as well as possible, based on the information available.
Mr O’Loan made a number of remarks about procurement, and I take those remarks very seriously. I have spoken to a wide range of people who have been involved in procurement for the Civil Service, and for the public sector generally. I know that the Member would want me to state that the people whom I have met are scrupulous and honest, and are seeking to get the best deal possible for Northern Ireland through the work that they do.
However, like in any group of people, there may be someone in the category to which the Member referred. If he has any evidence, or any strong leanings, can he please give us the details; we are happy to investigate. It is vital that people involved in the procurement process are satisfied that it is fair and that their proposals are considered objectively. It is important that a selection process results in the best price or the best job.
The Member raised the issue of industrial derating. I am glad that he supports the idea that the relationship between Government and the business sector must be improved, and I believe that that is happening. One of the Member’s leading colleagues wrote to me stating that he doubted the wisdom of holding industrial rates at 30%, and I am glad that the Member, who has a keener view on financial issues, supports that decision.
If the Member for East Antrim Mr Neeson’s comments are compared with those made by his colleague the Member for North Down yesterday, they have exposed a serious split in the Alliance Party. However, he still goes on about the cost of division. I am glad that I am meeting members of the Alliance Party to discuss the issue. The Member will meet no resistance whatsoever from me if, in our present circumstances, we can make savings because of the findings of the report on the cost of division. I shall be energetic in seeking out such savings. However, that is a medium- to long-term aim, but I support making use of our improved circumstances in Northern Ireland in order to redirect funds to areas in which they can be of greatest value.
The Alliance Party gives the impression that the Executive are not interested in matters about division; of course, they are. The Executive want to deal with issues of division at levels that are other than political. If the Member examines the Programme for Government in more detail, he will find that it deals with reconciliation and sectarianism. I hope that the Alliance Party will support those proposals as the Departments develop them.
The Member referred tangentially to an Alliance Party proposal for road tolling. Roads are tolled in the Republic of Ireland, in many European countries and extensively in the United States. I am not sure what road in East Antrim the Member wants to be tolled. However, I am sure that the Minister for Regional Development would examine his proposal closely.
The Member said that the Alliance Party was committed to low rates and thanked me for producing quotes to that effect. He ignored the fact that I produced those quotes because his colleague the Member for North Down made a proposal that would have amounted to the doubling of the regional rate. Perhaps it was more convenient for the leader of the Alliance Party to be in the Chamber today to debate the Budget rather than yesterday, but the party seems to be trying to patch up the ship that was scuttled yesterday when it was exposed as a tax-and-spend party. I described it as:
“the party that wishes to get its hands into the pockets of the people of Northern Ireland”. — [Official Report, Bound Volume 27, p285, col 2].
I am sure, therefore, that there is some embarrassment in the Alliance Party; however, that did not stop its Members from making further requests for more money. To suggest that, had we kept abreast with inflation at 2·7% in the increases in the regional rate, that would somehow pay for the Alliance Party’s want-list is nonsense. In the next financial year, such an increase might have brought us approximately £7 million. For health alone, the Alliance bill yesterday amounted to £200 million. Some maths is necessary. The Alliance Party said that it had had difficulty with resources and researchers; however, it could go a long way to find a researcher who can pay a bill of £200 million out of £7 million in additional funding from rates.
We must seriously examine those issues, and recognise that our real opportunity to direct more money to front-line services comes through efficiencies. In the relevant three-year period, that means realising efficiencies of at least £790 million. Set that beside the Alliance Party proposal to dip, once more, into the pockets of Northern Ireland’s people to acquire another £7 million next year.
I point out to the Alliance Party the fact that the people of Northern Ireland have been paying substantially more in rates than they should have been paying, and that cannot be brushed aside. To have a 60% increase in the regional rate over five years is unacceptable, and for that reason I felt that rates should be frozen. If the Member wants to pillory me around the country for keeping rates down, I will even pay for the advertising space for him to do so. It would be good propaganda for us.
I am happy to meet the Member for East Antrim on the issue of maritime heritage. We might have more in common on that issue than on others.
My colleague Simon Hamilton dealt with such issues as efficiencies. I agree entirely that to throw money away through waste is tantamount to squandering, if not to theft. For that reason it is imperative that every Department does everything possible to make the best use of the money that is entrusted to us by the taxpayers and ratepayers.
Furthermore, Simon Hamilton referred to the priority of growing a vibrant and dynamic economy in Northern Ireland. The Budget, together with the targets set in the Programme for Government, helps us to reach that goal. Considerably more funding has been invested in the Departments that lead on the key drivers of the economy, skills, innovation, enterprise, and infrastructure, and we have managed to increase their budgets. On top of that, we have added the innovation fund of £90 million.
I agree with Simon Hamilton’s comments on social housing. It is a priority for everyone in the Assembly to recognise that there are people in significant need of better housing accommodation. Some find themselves homeless. It is our responsibility to ensure that the capital is made available to the Minister for Social Development to meet the defined targets. I am convinced that the funding that we have made available should allow us to do more than is set down in the Programme for Government targets with regard to social and affordable housing, and I shall give the Minister every encouragement and assistance in meeting those targets.
The leader of the SDLP, Mark Durkan, again touched on the issues of education and the unforeseens. I point out to him that we must make judgements on those issues as they develop; however, the Budget cannot be held back because Ministers are not yet in a position to bring precise proposals before the Executive and the Assembly.
He went back to the issue of cross-cutting funds. By their very nature, those funds were temporary. There are massive advantages in having cross-cutting funding for important issues mainstreamed, and that is what we have done. That will reduce waste and administrative duplication. Members will know from experience that, in most cases, the rolling out of the programmes and the associated spend suffered from delays. It was not an effective way of managing limited resources. There is a very strong argument for cross-cutting policies and monitoring to ensure that those programmes go ahead, but they should be sourced within the various Departments that have direct responsibility.
The Member for Foyle also touched on a number of other issues. He got into what might be described as revisionism. I think that his memory is somewhat defective. I am not sure that, had I been left to rely entirely on my memory, things would have been as clear as I will state them. However, I did not rely on my memory; I pulled out the papers. I had the Department provide me with the papers for the meeting that Mr Durkan spoke of, and I put on record at Westminster the precise chain of events at that time. We made it clear to Mr Durkan that he needed to reinstate the link, but, unfortunately, he did not do so. I have to say to the Member for Foyle — [Interruption.]
I am not sure whether the Member wants to go somewhere or wants me to give way.
Mr Durkan: I thank the Minister for giving way. He now, correctly, says that he asked me to reinstate the link. Earlier, as the Hansard report will show, he said that he had asked me not to break the link. He has said several times that the link between water and the rates was broken by the last Executive, or by me; he is now accepting that it was actually broken under direct rule. He was not just asking me to reinstate the link; he was calling for the entire rate to be a water rate. He said to me:
“I will set it in future. There will be no question of your having to make unpopular rate rises, no question of a Durkan tax. It will be Robinson tax in future.”
My memory is very clear on that.
Mr P Robinson: The Member had better go back to his papers, as I have done. A decision had been taken by the direct rule Administration, but the task of putting it through was the then Minister’s. I remember him coming to the Assembly trying to get a very significant increase in the rates, and having to go away with his tail between his legs and come back seeking a much smaller increase.
Furthermore, the Member’s recollection of my view that there should be a swap-over of the regional rate to cover water charging belongs not to the meeting of June 2000 but to a much later meeting, when the Executive were seeking some response to the issue of water charging. I was the only Minister to oppose it; it was advocated by the then Executive as being necessary. There is some revisionism on the part of the Member, and the record is very clear on the issue. I still have the letter that I sent, indicating my opposition to water charging — people should not have to pay twice — and advocating a way in which the Minister could have avoided the very things that happened thereafter.
The Member for South Antrim Mr Ford indicated that there should be changes that could bring real savings and efficiencies. In particular, he mentioned the wastefulness of having 11 Departments and 108 Assembly Members.
I am always glad to welcome converts. The Democratic Unionist Party published policy documents many years ago that showed the massive savings that could be made by reducing the political bureaucracy in Northern Ireland. It is an absurd situation, and there can be no justification, other than as a means of ensuring that smaller parties have places on the Executive, for having 11 Departments. Even the former Secretary of State recognised that six would be quite adequate. I agree that it should in the order of five, six or seven rather than 11 Departments, with all of the private-office costs and additional bureaucratic spend that that number entails.
Equally — and this comment may not be too popular — I agree with the Member about the size of this Assembly. It is too large compared with England, Scotland and Wales; the Northern Ireland Assembly should probably have half the number of Members that it currently has. When we are spending public money, we should really make the best use of it. Leadership must be given by political representatives. While the issue may be difficult for some individuals in the Assembly, the political parties should recognise that they need to take steps to resolve the matter. My colleague the Member for Lagan Valley the Rt Hon Jeffrey Donaldson and his Assembly and Executive Review Committee have the task of examining and dealing with that subject, and I hope that they will.
In what I assume was an attempt to prop up the weak performance of his colleague yesterday, Mr Ford returned to the subject of increasing rates in Northern Ireland in order meet the £200 million gap in funding. He had to think of a new way of getting that money, so he took the poor example of the Ulster Unionist Party and said that we did not get enough money from the Treasury at the time of devolution. If he were to check the record, he would see that the DUP said that we needed a budget in the region of £1 billion for infrastructure development in Northern Ireland. That was the key element, and it is clear from the figures in the Budget and the investment strategy that there is £2 billion of additional spending as a result of that process.
Mr Beggs: Will the Minister give way?
Mr P Robinson: I will give way, but I want to finish the point that I was making first.
As I said, £2 billion of additional spending is available to Northern Ireland in the form of asset disposal. Under previous regimes, the Treasury would have taken back that money. However, we were able to reach agreement with the then Chancellor that a significant portion of that money should remain in Northern Ireland. In consequent negotiations, that amount has increased further. In addition, we were able to secure and front-load end-year flexibility to our advantage during this comprehensive spending review cycle.
We were, of course, able to correct the mess that was made by the then Finance Minister and the Ulster Unionist Party with the reinvestment and reform initiative (RRI). They will know that I welcomed RRI as an instrument — and I still do — but, happily, in those negotiations, my colleagues were able to convince the Treasury to make the fundamental change in the RRI that meant that we were not required to keep ahead of any increases in GB. Previously, past Governments were forced to increase rates so much that the end result was a 19% increase, courtesy of the SDLP and the Ulster Unionist Party.
Mr Durkan: Will the Minister give way?
Mr P Robinson: I said that I would give way to the Member for East Antrim.
Mr Beggs: The Minister has pointed out that his £1 billion package is now £2 billion. Why, then, have independent economists estimated that the package is worth £100 million? Is the Minister in danger of recounting money that would have come to Northern Ireland in any case in order to try to achieve his figures? Does he not agree that £100 million is closer to the package that was awarded as a result of cross-party lobbying of the Prime Minister?
Mr P Robinson: Mr Beggs makes a good case for more training for some Members. I can now see why he sought for such training. I will ask my officials urgently to provide some assistance. No economist can hide away the fact that assets of around £2 billion have been identified that can be disposed of, and which, I believe, will amount to even more than that figure as the years go by. That cannot be wished away. Of course, in addition to that —
Mr Beggs: They are Northern Ireland’s own assets.
Mr P Robinson: The Member says that Northern Ireland is getting its own assets. However, perhaps he is not aware that, previously, the sale of assets went back to the Treasury and Northern Ireland did not get the proceeds. Indeed, there is every advantage for Northern Ireland in ensuring that it gets the benefits of assets that have not been utilised properly and that are not of value; to ensure that those funds are used to provide Northern Ireland with infrastructure that is of benefit to its people.
I am aware that you want to wind up the debate, Mr Deputy Speaker. I thank Members for their interest in the legislative Stage of the public-expenditure cycle; not only during the debate, but in the valuable contributions that they have made in Committees, correspondence and questions that they have posed in the Assembly on other occasions. Again, I want to record my thanks to the Committee for Finance and Personnel for assisting the accelerated passage of the Budget Bill and ensuring that the legislative timetable is adhered to.
The Bill brings to a close the first financial year under the governance of the current Assembly and Executive. The Executive have already cut their teeth in some difficult choices in the monitoring rounds and in the draft and revised Budget process. That will, undoubtedly, continue to be the case as we go forward in 2008-09. I look forward to the challenges that lie ahead, to commencing the first financial year of the Executive’s Budget for 2008-11, and to building a better future for all of Northern Ireland’s people.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Before I put the Question, I remind Members that because the motion is on the Budget Bill, it requires cross-community support.
Question put and agreed to.
Resolved (with cross-community support):
That the Second Stage of the Budget Bill (NIA 10/07) be agreed.
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to meet immediately upon the lunchtime suspension. I propose, therefore, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm.
The sitting was suspended at 12.43 pm.
On resuming (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Dallat] in the Chair) —
The Draft Disability Discrimination (Private Clubs, etc.) Regulations
The junior Minister (Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister) (Mr G Kelly): I beg to move
That the draft Disability Discrimination (Private Clubs, etc.) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2008 be approved.
The regulations were laid in draft form before the Assembly on 31 December 2007. Their purpose is to ensure that private members’ clubs that have 25 or more members be placed under the same duties of reasonable adjustment imposed by part III of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 in respect of providers of goods, facilities and services to the public. The regulations complete the proposals on private clubs that were set out as part of the consultation on The Disability Discrimination (NI) Order 2006. In that consultation, we proposed to make it unlawful for clubs with 25 or more members to discriminate against disabled members, prospective members, associates and — in certain circumstances — their guests. That was modelled on the provisions of The Race Relations (NI) Order 1997.
The provisions on private clubs are set out in article 13 of the 2006 Order and came into operation on 31 December 2007. Since then, private clubs have not been able to discriminate unlawfully against a disabled person by treating him or her less favourably. Unlawful discrimination also includes a failure to comply with the duty to make reasonable adjustments. However, the detail of the duty to make reasonable adjustments was not set out in the 2006 Order, which instead gave powers to the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) to set out the detail of the duty in regulations.
During the 2005 consultation on the 2006 Order, a commitment was given to consult further on regulations before imposing the reasonable adjustment duties. That consultation was completed in September 2006, and the majority of responses indicated general agreement on the provisions of the regulations.
In keeping with the legislative process set out in the 1995 Act, those regulations must be made under the draft-affirmation procedure. That means that they must first be laid in draft form and considered by the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. That process is complete. The Committee is content with the regulations, and it afforded to them, and other disability regulations, a significant amount of time and consideration in late 2007.
I commend the Committee on its detailed consideration of this important legislation, which will have a significant beneficial effect on the lives of many disabled people.
What will the duty to make reasonable adjustments mean for private clubs? Many private clubs meet the requirements. Any club that provides a service to the public, such as dining facilities or hiring rooms, must meet the duties on service providers in the 1995 Act. The same duties are now being produced for private clubs.
Private clubs will have to make reasonable adjustments in three areas. First, a private club’s practices, including policies and procedures, must be set out, formally or by custom. That could mean that a private club has a practice, which — perhaps unintentionally — makes it impossible, or unreasonably difficult, for disabled people to make use of its services. In such cases, private clubs must make reasonable adjustments to change the practice, policy or procedure.
An example of that would be a case whereby a private social club organises an annual dinner for its 30 members upstairs, as it has for a number of years, in a small local hotel. The problem is that the room that is being hired is not accessible to disabled members, who find it very difficult or impossible to climb stairs. There is no lift. Although the hotel has ground-floor facilities of equal quality, the organisers of the dinner prefer the privacy of the room upstairs. In that instance, the club should consider whether a change in that practice would be consistent with a reasonable adjustment to allow access for its disabled members.
The second area concerns physical features. In cases in which a physical feature makes it impossible, or unreasonably difficult, for disabled people to use any service that is offered to private club members, reasonable steps must be taken to remove, or alter, the feature so that it no longer has that effect. Alternatively, a reasonable means of avoiding the feature, or a reasonable alternative method to make the service available to disabled people, must be provided.
For example, a local private club may hold its meetings in a building that must be entered by steps, and the room in which the meetings are held has a narrow entrance door. To ensure that its meetings are accessible to disabled people, the private club should take the reasonable steps of installing a permanent ramp at the entrance to the building and widening the door into the room.
Thirdly, when required, a private club must take reasonable steps to provide auxiliary aids or services, if that would make it easier for disabled people to use any of its services. For example, people with visual impairments could be offered the use of an auxiliary aid or information that is provided on an audio tape. An auxiliary service ensures that a member of staff is able to communicate with deaf clients who use sign language. On the other hand, an auxiliary aid or service might be the provision of a special piece of equipment, or simply extra assistance that staff give to disabled people. Given that those duties are anticipatory, private clubs must consider in advance what adjustments they might need to make.
I emphasise that clubs will be asked to do only what is reasonable in all circumstances. What would be reasonable for clubs to do to make their facilities more accessible for disabled people would depend on all the circumstances of the case and would vary according to the type of facility and activity that the club provided, the nature of the club, its size and resources, and the effect of the disability on the individual disabled person. There will, of course, be plenty of advice available for private clubs on how to meet their duties. The Equality Commission has prepared extensive advisory material for private clubs, and its advisers are available to give individuals guidance.
I commend the draft regulations to the House.
Mr Shannon: I apologise on behalf of the Chairperson and the Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, Mr Danny Kennedy and Naomi Long, for their absence today. They are attending separate meetings, so I have been asked to speak on behalf of the Committee.
On 3 October 2007, the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister was briefed by the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister on proposals for a number of regulations that have been designed to give effect to the provisions of the Disability Discrimination (Northern Ireland) Order 2006. The Disability Discrimination (Service Providers and Public Authorities Carrying Out Functions) Regulations 2005, the Disability Discrimination (Premises) Regulations 2006 and the Disability Discrimination (Questions and Replies) Order 2004 have already been considered by the Committee, and subordinate legislation has been introduced to reflect the provisions of those regulations. New guidance on the definition of disability has been laid in draft form and is due to come into effect within the next few weeks.
The Disability Discrimination (Private Clubs, etc.) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2008 ensure that larger private clubs — those with 25 or more members — are brought within the scope of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. The introduction of the regulations will ensure that it will be unlawful for a club to discriminate by treating a disabled person less favourably, because of his or her disability — compared to a person who is not disabled — or by failing to make a reasonable adjustment so that a disabled person can access its facilities.
The Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister is committed to working constructively with the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to ensure that progress is made to introduce effective legislative protection for people with disabilities. Therefore, the Committee supports the motion. It will continue to work with the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to ensure that people with disabilities are afforded full legislative protection.
On behalf of the Committee, I take this opportunity to urge Members to introduce, as soon as possible, subordinate legislation that reflects the Disability Discrimination (Transport Vehicles) Regulations 2005. Many disabled people have spoken to me on that subject, making it a matter that is close to my heart. Being able to avail themselves of transport is critical to the quality of life of people with disabilities. The Committee wishes to see the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister prioritising the introduction in Northern Ireland of subordinate legislation to reflect those regulations. I ask the Minister to establish a firm timetable for the introduction of such legislation for those regulations.
Returning to the substantive issue, I am happy to advise Members that, at its meeting on 23 January 2008, the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, having considered the report of the Examiner of Statutory Rules, agreed to recommend that the draft Disability Discrimination (Private Clubs, etc.) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2008 be approved by the Assembly. Therefore, on behalf of the Committee, I support the motion.
Mrs O’Neill: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for bringing these welcome regulations to the House. They will go some way towards further cementing the rights of people with disabilities.
I understand that a private club is defined in the regulations as one with 25 members or more. That, in itself, could send out a message that discrimination is permissible in smaller clubs and organisations. I ask the Minister whether another definition of private clubs can be found. The Minister said that the Equality Commission is there to give advice to clubs. I encourage small organisations to take advantage of that advice in order to protect the rights of disabled persons in their clubs. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr Moutray: The regulations are very welcome, and I wish to place on the record my endorsement of them. Without doubt such a law will help to stamp out discrimination against those in our society who are classified as disabled. Public bodies have been required to comply with new provisions, and the same responsibilities are now being extended to private clubs.
The regulations demonstrate the Assembly’s proactiveness in providing a non-discriminatory Province, particularly for those who are vulnerable. In the past, those individuals were often susceptible to discrimination. In today’s society that is, quite honestly, unacceptable. Every individual, with or without a disability, deserves to live a peaceful and prosperous life, unhindered by others in society, with laws to protect his or her social well-being.
I welcome the fact that this law prohibits discrimination against disabled people by private clubs. In turn, that will ensure that no disabled person will be treated less favourably due to his or her disability than a person who is not disabled, unless justified in very limited circumstances. Furthermore, I welcome the fact that all private clubs with more than 25 members will have to make reasonable adjustments, unless justified in limited circumstances, so that disabled people can access and use clubs’ facilities with ease. Regulation 6 enables such members, associates and guests to benefit and make use of facilities.
I would, however, like clarification on the regulations with regard to adjustments to historic buildings. No doubt the fact that buildings will have to be adjusted to comply with the regulations may mean altering the character of some of them. Are there special circumstances that will protect the heritage of our historical buildings, or requirements to ensure that any work that must be carried out is done sensitively and in a manner that best preserves the character of those buildings?
The introduction of the legislation has highlighted the lack of a central database of private clubs — no one knows how many exist in Northern Ireland. A system should be put in place that will address that issue.
In conclusion, I trust that the House will approve the draft Disability Discrimination (Private Clubs, etc.) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2008. I, for one, am in favour of the legislation; it will benefit society as well as the individuals whom it affects. The regulations will reward individuals with a sense of dignity and respect, both of which they richly deserve.
Mr G Kelly: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I was called sooner than I expected. I thank Jim Shannon, who spoke on behalf of the Committee, and other Members who support this step forward. A few issues were raised, and I will deal with those.
Mr Shannon and the Committee wrote to the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister about the transport regulations. The delay in implementing that provision has occurred due to an overload in implementing other disability legislation, such as the private clubs regulations, regulations for service providers and public authorities carrying out functions, and premises regulations. Those other issues shifted the time frame somewhat.
However, OFMDFM will shortly be setting up a cross-departmental working group with the Department of the Environment and the Department for Regional Development, both of which hold policy responsibilities for transport. The group will work on the consultation on the regulations and, on completion of that process, OFMDFM will make a statutory rule to implement the legislation.
The consultation process will start shortly, and the transport regulations will then be drafted and brought before the Assembly. It is anticipated that the legislation will come into effect by the end of 2008. Officials plan to brief the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister by the end of March 2008. I hope that that answers the questions asked by Jim Shannon.
Stephen Moutray mentioned buildings of historical value — I cannot find the answer among my papers, so I will respond off the top of my head. We must be sensitive to the needs of disabled people and to the preservation of buildings of historical value. It is our intention to avoid any clash of interests — and one reason for setting up the cross-departmental working group is to ensure that one aspect does not interfere with the other. Owners of buildings of historical value have only to do what is reasonable to accommodate people with disabilities; only reasonable adjustments need be made. Where it is not reasonable to make physical alterations to a building, other venues may have to be sought. We are aware of that aspect.
We may have to examine the issue of a database of clubs and societies: it is important that the right type of information is available. I will write Mr Moutray on that matter.
The Committee and Members who support the regulations recognise that they constitute another important step forward in improving the civil rights of disabled people. These regulations will close another gap covered in the provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, and will send the message to everyone that disabled people must have access to all aspects of daily life. They will allow disabled people to have more opportunities for socialising, networking and taking part in all aspects of life. Yet another barrier to equal opportunities for disabled people will have been removed.
In drafting the regulations, we have had to bear in mind that special relationships exist between clubs and their members, associates and guests. There are, therefore, some differences in the details accommodating the particular circumstances of clubs. For example, where a private club, perhaps one comprising a local interest group, meets in a private house belonging to one of its members or associates, additional considerations apply to ensure that the person concerned is under no obligation to agree to make changes to his or her home. Those circumstances are similar to those that apply to providers of goods, services and facilities to the general public, and which already exist.
We have consulted on the policy underlying the regulations, and it is intended that they will apply from 5 March 2008. The regulations will serve as a consistent legislative framework for the providers of goods, facilities and services, and they will take account of the special relationship that clubs have with their members. They strike a fair balance between the rights of disabled people to participate fully in all that society has to offer and the rights of people to associate in private.
Michelle O’Neill asked why private clubs are defined as having 25 members or more. That threshold is used in law to define a private club in the Race Relations (Northern Ireland) Order 1997. It is a recognised mechanism that helps to strike a balance, by extending application of the provisions to private clubs but excluding small private gatherings, for example, those that take place in private homes.
A private club is not defined only by the number of members, it must have a constitution. That does not have to be a written constitution; as long as there are rules governing issues such as membership, those will count. The club must also run its affairs in such a way that its constitution regulates the membership. For example, it must operate a policy of membership selection that is genuinely based on personal criteria.
Question put and agreed to.
That the draft Disability Discrimination (Private Clubs, etc.) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2008 be approved.
Amendments to Standing Orders
Mr Deputy Speaker: As the next two motions to amend Standing Orders are so similar, I propose to conduct only one debate. The Chairperson of the Committee on Procedures will move the first motion. Debate will then take place on both motions. When all Members who wish to speak have done so, I shall put the Question on the first motion. The Chairperson of the Committee on Procedures will then move the second motion, before putting the Question without further debate.
The Chairperson of the Committee on Procedures (Lord Morrow): I beg to move
In Standing Order 49, after paragraph (1) insert:
“(2) The Committee may exercise the power in section 44(1) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.”
The following motion stood in the Order Paper:
In Standing Order 50, after paragraph (1) insert:
“(2) The Committee may exercise the power in section 44(1) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.” — [The Chairperson of the, Committee on Procedures (Lord Morrow)]
Mr Deputy Speaker, I make it clear to Members that, as you have pointed out, I speak now to the motions to amend Standing Orders 49 and 50.
Section 44(1) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 gives the Assembly the power to call for witnesses and documents. That enables the Assembly to require any person to attend proceedings for the purpose of giving evidence, or to produce documents relating to:
“transferred matters concerning Northern Ireland”
“other matters in relation to which statutory functions are exercisable by Ministers or the Northern Ireland departments.”
Section 44(6) says:
“That power may be exercised by a committee of the Assembly only if the committee is expressly authorised to do so by standing orders.”
All Statutory Committees are required by Standing Order 46(2) to have that power. Moreover, certain Standing Committees have that power, such as the Public Accounts Committee, the Committee on Standards and Privileges, and the Assembly and Executive Review Committee. The Northern Ireland Act 1998 contains no express limitation on which Committees may be authorised to have that power. Therefore, it is up to the Assembly to decide which Committees do or do not have it.
The Committee on Procedures gave detailed consideration as to whether all Assembly Committees should have the power, and to why all Committees do not already have it. The Business Committee, the Committee on Procedures and the Audit Committee do not have that power.
The Committee on Procedures understands that such authority is not to be used lightly, and that it is, ultimately, exercised by the Speaker, as stated in section 44(7) and section 44(8) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. It is important that Members note that if that power were given to the Business Committee and the Committee on Procedures, those Committees would be subject to the exact same limitations and constraints as the Statutory Committees and the other Standing Committees. The amendment does not give those Committees any more or any less than is already available to the majority of Committees in the Assembly.
The main concern of the Committee on Procedures is that some Standing Committees would not be able to access that power, were that required at some stage in the future.
In deciding whether it should have that power, the Committee on Procedures considered whether a situation might arise in which that would be required. The answer to that was yes. In the current and the previous mandates, the Committee on Procedures has had to request that papers and persons come before it. There have never been any problems in that regard, and we hope that there will never be any such problems in the future.
That said, it is prudent to ensure that the power is in place. Closing the stable door after the horse has bolted is not the kind of management that the Assembly wants to encourage. The Committee on Procedures wrote to the Business Committee to find out whether it required that power, and the Business Committee replied in the affirmative. Therefore, it is the opinion of the Committee on Procedures that it would be sensible and practical to ensure that such power is in place for all Standing Committees. In fact, I will propose the same power for the Audit Committee in the next debate. If the two motions are agreed to, the Committee on Procedures will make the necessary changes to the numbering of the paragraphs in the two Standing Orders.
Mr O’Loan: As the Chairperson of the Committee on Procedures has said, the matter has been given proper consideration by the Committee. There are no matters of concern of which the Assembly ought to be aware, and I believe that the motion should have the support of the Assembly.
Lord Morrow: I thank Mr O’Loan for his comments. I have nothing further to add.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Before we proceed to the Question, I remind Members that the motion requires cross-community support.
Question put and agreed to.
Resolved (with cross-community support):
In Standing Order 49, after paragraph (1) insert:
“(2) The Committee may exercise the power in section 44(1) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.”
Lord Morrow: I beg to move
In Standing Order 53, delete all and insert:
“(1) There shall be a Standing Committee of the Assembly to be known as the Audit Committee to exercise the functions mentioned in section 66(1) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. In accordance with section 66(2) of that Act, no more than one Member of the Committee shall at the same time be a Member of the Public Accounts Committee. (2) Any motion for a resolution of the Assembly relating to the salary payable under Article 4(1) of the Audit (Northern Ireland) Order 1987 to the holder of the office of Comptroller and Auditor General shall be tabled on behalf of the Committee. (3) The Committee may exercise the power in section 44(1) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.
(4) The Committee shall have a membership of five and a quorum of two.”
The motion to amend has three parts. The first element deals with the removal of the need to establish the Audit Committee by resolution. As currently written, Standing Order 53 allows for the Audit Committee to be established by a resolution of the Assembly. No other Committee is required to be established by a resolution. When the Audit Committee and the Committee on Procedures explored the matter further, it became clear that there was no need for the Audit Committee to be established any differently from any other Committee. The amendment to Standing Order 53(1) will remove that requirement, allowing the Audit Committee to be treated as any other Standing Committee. The amendment is simple in that it provides consistency of approach and removes any anomaly.
Proposed Standing Order 53(2) deals with providing the Audit Committee with a new power that will enable it to table a motion for resolution by the Assembly regarding the salary of the Comptroller and Auditor General. According to the Audit (Northern Ireland) Order 1987, that must be done annually. During the Assembly’s first mandate, the responsibility was undertaken by the Minister of Finance and Personnel, and, during direct rule, it was undertaken by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
The post of Comptroller and Auditor General must be independent of Departments. If the Department of Finance and Personnel were to lay a resolution on the salary for that post, it would compromise that independence. The Audit Committee, in close consultation with the Department of Finance and Personnel and the Northern Ireland Audit Office, has agreed that that responsibility would be better placed under its remit. Proposed Standing Order 53(2) deals with providing the Audit Committee with that responsibility. The Audit Committee has examined the issue in some detail, including considering alternative ways of meeting that responsibility and the salary agreement in place for the Comptroller and Auditor General.
The motion is clear. It is the responsibility of the Audit Committee to table the resolution, but it is the Assembly’s responsibility to approve the resolution.
The third part of the amendment relates to new Standing Order 53(3). The House has addressed the motion on Standing Orders 49 and 50, whereby the Committee on Procedures and the Business Committee will have the powers to call for persons and papers. The third part of the amendment on proposed Standing Order 53 provides the Audit Committee with the same powers as other Standing and Statutory Committees to call for persons and papers. In deciding on that, the Committee on Procedures took the opinion of the Audit Committee, which replied that it could see foresee circumstances when it may be of use to have those powers. The same reasoning that I applied in my speech on the amendment to Standing Orders 49 and 50 applies to the Audit Committee.
Chairperson of the Audit Committee (Mr Newton): I thank my colleague Lord Morrow, the Chairperson of the Committee on Procedures, for moving the motion. As my colleague said, there are three issues to be discussed on the amendment to Standing Order 53, and the Audit Committee and the Committee on Procedures worked together closely to ensure that the amendment provides the Audit Committee with the best fit and best remit for its future work.
Proposed Standing Order 53(1) deals with why the Audit Committee is set up by resolution. I will not rehearse the arguments made by my colleague Lord Morrow, but suffice it to say that the Committee is more than content to remove the need to establish the Audit Committee by resolution.
The proposed amendment at new Standing Order 53(3) allows the Audit Committee to have the same powers as other Committees to call for persons and papers. In having those powers, the Audit Committee recognises that the same restrictions and boundaries apply. The Audit Committee regularly requests persons and papers from the Northern Ireland Audit Office — in particular — and, on occasions, from other organisations that are required to respond under section 44(1) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Every organisation that has been called has been more than helpful, and there have never been any problems, but it is useful to have the power. The Audit Committee does not expect to have any problems, but the amended Standing Order will ensure that the Committee is as well prepared as any other if problems arise.
The second paragraph of the proposed Standing Order deals with the resolution for the salary of the Comptroller and Auditor General. In reaching agreement on the amendment, the Audit Committee consulted closely with the Department of Finance and Personnel and the Northern Ireland Audit Office. Both organisations are content with what the amendment seeks to do — its policy — and with the wording.
The Department of Finance and Personnel raised the matter contained in proposed Standing Order 53(2) with the Audit Committee, and it soon became apparent that that paragraph covered two issues. First, it provides the Audit Committee with the remit to table the resolution — which this amendment allows for — and, secondly, it contains the more complex issue of addressing the retrospective payment of the Comptroller and Auditor General’s annual salary increase.
The governing legislation for this Standing Order is the Audit (Northern Ireland) Order 1987, and it states that the Comptroller and Auditor General will have his salary increase on 1 April each year. The salary and annual increase is tied, by agreement, to the scale for judicial rate five. The Committee has looked at that agreement, which was put in place during direct rule, and we are content with it — as are the Department of Finance and Personnel and the Comptroller and Auditor General.
During its investigations, the Audit Committee discovered that the judicial rate scale is sometimes not published in time for the salary increase to be paid on 1 April. When that happens, back pay is due from the date of the publication of the scales back to 1 April. However, the governing legislation does not allow for back pay. The Audit Committee looked at three possible ways in which retrospective pay can be handled, including the use of existing legislation.
That turned out to be a dead end. The Committee also considered the possibility of sponsoring a Bill to amend the governing legislation, and, although not the Committee’s preferred route, that is still a possibility. In the end, the Committee’s preferred option is to amend those Standing Orders using careful, exact and specific wording.
Assuming that the Assembly approves, those amendments will enable the Audit Committee to table a motion for the annual salary increase for the Comptroller and Auditor General on or before 31 March each year. Of course, such resolutions will be subject to the Assembly’s approval.
The Committee has invested considerable work and thought in the amendments and, therefore, I am happy to recommend them to the House. I support the motion.
Lord Morrow: I thank the Member for his sole contribution to the debate.
It should be noted that the Audit Committee carries out a vital role on behalf of the Assembly. I must be careful with the pronunciation of my next statement because my Latin is not good; however, quis custodiet ipsos custodes? That is roughly translated as “who will guard the guards?” or “who will watch the watchmen?”. If the Northern Ireland Audit Office’s role is to be the guardian of public expenditure by Departments, the Audit Committee’s main role is to guard the Audit Office in order to ensure that it maintains the expected high standards. I am convinced that the amendments to the Standing Orders will work in the best interests of that role and will enable the Audit Committee to better carry out its responsibilities.
Although it is in no way detrimental to be established by resolution and nothing meaningful will be added to the Audit Committee’s remit, the amendments remove the anomaly of its being established in such a way. Furthermore, the amendments will provide the Committee with the power to ensure that the independence of the Comptroller and Auditor General is not questioned in relation to his or her salary.
Finally, the amendments will provide the Committee with the power, if necessary, to call for persons and papers, which is an essential requirement if the Committee is to perform in its role of guardian.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Before I put the Question to amend Standing Order 50, I remind Members that this motion requires cross-community support.
Question put and agreed to.
Resolved (with cross-community support):
In Standing Order 50, after paragraph (1) insert:
(2) The Committee may exercise the power in section 44(1) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.
Mr Deputy Speaker: The amendment to Standing Order 53 has already been debated. 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):
In Standing Order 53, delete all and insert:
(1) There shall be a Standing Committee of the Assembly to be known as the Audit Committee to exercise the functions mentioned in section 66(1) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. In accordance with section 66(2) of that Act, no more than one Member of the Committee shall at the same time be a Member of the Public Accounts Committee.
(2) Any motion for a resolution of the Assembly relating to the salary payable under Article 4(1) of the Audit (Northern Ireland) Order 1987 to the holder of the office of Comptroller and Auditor General shall be tabled on behalf of the Committee.
(3) The Committee may exercise the power in section 44(1) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.
(4) The Committee shall have a membership of five and a quorum of two.
Charities Bill: Extension of Committee Stage
The Chairperson of the Committee for Social Development (Mr Campbell): I beg to move
That, in accordance with Standing Order 31(4), the period referred to in Standing Order 31(2) be extended to 27 June 2008, in relation to the Committee Stage of the Charities Bill (NIA Bill 9/07).
The Charities Bill passed its Second Stage on 15 January 2008 and was referred to the Committee for Social Development on 16 January. Although the Committee has already considered several pieces of primary legislation, the Charities Bill was the first piece of primary legislation to come before it for Committee Stage.
The Charities Bill is a lengthy and highly technical piece of legislation that contains 186 clauses and nine schedules. As you can imagine, there is a considerable amount of Committee scrutiny to be carried out. Some may wonder why we are asking for an extension only until 27 June, and I will come to that shortly.
The Bill will introduce an integrated system of registration and regulation, including control of charitable fundraising, as well as the supervision and support of registered charities. In particular, the Bill will provide a definition of charity and charitable purpose; establish a charity commission for Northern Ireland and a charity tribunal for Northern Ireland; create a register of charities; provide for a new form of charitable body — a charitable incorporated organisation; and deal with the regulation of charities and public charitable collections.
The Committee has received more than 40 submissions in response to its request for written evidence, and it has already heard evidence from several key organisations that will be affected by the Bill. Although the provisions of the Bill have generally been welcomed, the Committee needs to consider several issues in greater detail. I, therefore, seek an extension of the deadline to 27 June 2008 to allow the Committee sufficient time to consider views and to compile its report on the Bill.
I ask Members for their support.
Question put and agreed to.
That, in accordance with Standing Order 31(4), the period referred to in Standing Order 31(2) be extended to 27 June 2008, in relation to the Committee Stage of the Charities Bill (NIA Bill 9/07).
Bullying of Children and Young People with Disabilities
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for this debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes for a winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes.
Ms Ní Chuilín: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.
I beg to move
That this Assembly calls on the Executive to carry out a thematic inspection across public bodies, to establish their response to bullying experienced by children and young people with disabilities.
I thank the Business Committee for selecting the motion for debate today. I also acknowledge the work of Mencap in raising the issue, and I commend all the groups and individuals who have worked throughout the years on anti-bullying campaigns for children and young people, in particular those with difficulties.
Sinn Féin is calling for a thematic inspection across all public bodies to establish their response to the bullying that is experienced by children and young people with disabilities.
Children and young people of all ages identified bullying as the single biggest barrier to living their lives to the full. Bullying wrecks children’s lives and makes them too frightened to go out. Children and young people with learning difficulties are missing out on opportunities to learn, to make friends, to socialise and to play; that leads to isolation and social exclusion throughout their lives and can make it more likely for them to be the targets of bullying and abuse as adults.
All Members will find the bullying experienced by children and young people abhorrent. Moreover, children and young people with a learning disability are more likely to be targeted by bullies because of their disability. We must all take action to ensure that bullying is eradicated.
It is important to understand that bullying is a huge problem for children and young people, and particularly for those with a learning disability. Many children and young people with learning disabilities have low self-esteem. They are taunted, intimidated and abused because of their disabilities, and their sense of self-worth is damaged as a result.
Children and young people with a learning disability are among the most vulnerable people in society. Most of them do not feel safe in their communities because of disablist bullying. Far more must be done to tackle disablist bullying in our communities. It cannot be allowed to destroy lives.
Disablist bullying is bullying based on a person’s disability. It is bullying that occurs because of prejudice. Some of the key survey findings contained in Mencap’s report, ‘Bullying wrecks lives: the experiences of children and young people with a learning disability’, reveal, for example, that eight out of 10 children and young people with a learning disability are bullied, while eight out of 10 are scared to go out because they are frightened that they might be bullied.
Six out of 10 children and young people with a learning disability have been physically hurt by bullies. Five out of 10 who have experienced bullying said that they stayed away from the places in which they had been bullied in the past. Six out of 10 said that they cried because they were bullied. Three out of 10 said that they hid away in their rooms.
Of every 10 children surveyed, four said that bullying did not stop when they told someone. Three out of 10 children were bullied for three years. Nearly half of the children surveyed had been bullied for over a year. Children and young people with a learning disability are twice as likely to be bullied as other children, but are bullied in the same way. For example, eight out of 10 children and young people with a learning disability said that they had been called names. Six out of 10 have been physically hurt, four out of 10 were left out of things, and four out of 10 had their belongings taken or stolen.
Two out of 10 children and young people with a learning disability were bullied by phone and text messaging. They have reported that they have been bullied on the street, in the park, on the bus, and in youth clubs and leisure centres. Five out of 10 children and young people have been bullied in more than one place, and eight out of 10 have been bullied at school.
Those figures make uncomfortable listening, and they are totally unacceptable. Sinn Féin has asked the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to establish the extent of bullying experienced by children and young people with learning disabilities across the North, and to determine what actions have been taken by public bodies, through their disability action plans, to address this serious problem. We are also asking the Minister of Education to outline what her Department has done to promote zero tolerance of disablist bullying in schools, and what plans she has to ask schools to record and monitor all instances of bullying, particularly of children with learning disabilities.
Furthermore, we will ask the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure and the Minister for Employment and Learning to work together and direct the Education and Training Inspectorate to carry out a thematic inspection across public bodies connected to cultural pursuits, leisure, education, further education and the arts to determine how they have responded to bullying experienced by children and young people with disabilities, and to ask them about their plans to promote positive attitudes among disabled children and young people and encourage their participation in public life.
The Commissioner for Children and Young People has produced excellent guidelines to promote the involvement of pupils in anti-bullying school policies. Those guidelines include awareness raising and strategies to encourage pupils to think about bullying, setting up a school council that could monitor and implement an anti-bullying policy, examining how peer-monitoring schemes can help anti-bullying awareness through peer-support networks, and reviewing anti-bullying policies.
We must also consider our section 75 obligations, which place responsibility on other public bodies to promote equality of opportunity for disabled people, including disabled children and young people.
Furthermore, the Disability Discrimination Order 2006 requires that public bodies produce disability action plans that outline what they are doing to promote positive attitudes and disability awareness. Sinn Féin asks that the First Minister and the deputy First Minister take the lead on that matter and carry out a thematic inspection. Members must send out a clear message that the Assembly cherishes all children equally, and that it will be prepared to do all that it can to champion the cause of some of the most vulnerable and excluded children in society. I ask the House to fully support the motion. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr Shannon: I commend the Members for bringing this motion to the Chamber. Many of us feel strongly about the matter, and I look forward to the debate.
Have any Members ever spoken to a child who has been bullied? Ask any teacher or youth worker who has seen the silent tears or the quivering chin, and they will tell you how heartbreaking it is. Some people will say that children will be children; others may quote the adage about sticks and stones. However, consider a bullied child’s level of confidence: words alone cannot repair the damage that has been caused simply by words.
Bullying is a worldwide phenomenon. Department of Education research shows that, in 2001, 40% of primary-school children and 30% of secondary-school children had been bullied. That is an incredibly high number and a horrible fact. However, there are some groups and individuals who are targeted more often than others; disabled children are one such group. It has been found that children who have learning disabilities are twice as likely to be bullied as those who do not. That fact underlines those shocking statistics.
I read Mencap’s report, ‘Bullying wrecks lives: the experiences of children and young people with a learning disability’, on the bullying of disabled children. I was shocked and saddened by its findings, especially when one considers that children with disabilities are, inherently, that little bit more vulnerable; they need our understanding and protection that little bit more. Mencap found that, of 500 children with learning disabilities, eight out of 10 had been bullied. That equates to an inconceivable 280,000 children with learning disabilities being bullied in the UK.
Eight out of 10 of those children said that they were scared to leave their houses, and over 60% said that they were frightened for their physical well-being. As a result, five out of 10 children will not return to the place in which they have been bullied. Those are not isolated incidents — indeed, 50% said that they had been bullied for a period of more than one year and 27% said that they had been bullied for more than three years. When we look at the results for children with learning disabilities as a whole, we can see that over half of those children cry regularly because they are bullied, and one third hide away in their rooms and avoid social areas — some even contemplate suicide.
I have described the problem; today, we need to find the answer. How do we solve a problem such as bullying, which is often done in a sneaky manner? A large percentage of children who are bullied never tell anyone about it. The figure is even higher among children with learning disabilities, who have an even more limited scope of expression. There must be a concerted approach and strategy in all areas to tackle that problem. That must include teachers and classroom assistants, dinner ladies, school cleaners, youth-club workers, and mothers watching their children playing in the streets. There must be a dedicated effort to step in and make a difference.
I was disgusted to learn that when children told a responsible adult about their problem with bullies, four out of 10 were told that the bullying would probably not stop and that they should learn to live with it. That is totally unacceptable. It is unbelievable and unacceptable that that should be the attitude of some adults. That kind of approach to the problem must be eradicated, and a well-publicised approach to disablist bullying must be developed.
Other Members and I have been visited by parents who are worried about what is happening to their children at school. Those are heartbreaking cases that bring home the reality of what is happening to disabled children. It is for that reason that I fully support — and ask the Assembly to support — the recommendations of the Mencap report.
The Mencap report recommends, and I also suggest, that disablist bullying must be recognised and treated as seriously as other forms of bullying, such as racist and homophobic bullying. That should include the production and promotion of robust guidance as to how best to prevent and tackle disablist bullying. The Minister of Education, as the proposer of the motion rightly said, should report regularly to the Assembly on progress in tackling disablist bullying as part of her duty to report on her Department’s progress on promoting equality for disabled persons.
Schools and services that are used by children should be required to record all incidences of disablist bullying. Public bodies should fulfil their public duty to promote equality for disabled persons, positive attitudes and participation in public life. The Education and Training Inspectorate should be commissioned to review progress on eliminating disablist bullying.
The bullying of any child — particularly our most vulnerable children — should never be tolerated. The Assembly must send that message to schools and youth clubs and to mothers in our streets. We can combat the problem if we work together and send out the correct signals. Let us not see another generation of vulnerable children hiding away in their rooms and not fulfilling their true potential. I support the motion.
Mr Beggs: It has been estimated that more than 22,000 children in Northern Ireland have some form of disability. Disability sets a child apart and makes them different. Sometimes, people choose to use that difference as a little excuse for picking on those vulnerable children. Unfortunately, that means that the likelihood of an individual with a disability being bullied is significantly increased. Our schools and youth clubs must take action to stop that from happening. I declare an interest as a governor of Glynn Primary School and an active Boys’ Brigade officer. On occasions, I have dealt with the problem myself. There is an immediate responsibility not only to identify incidents of bullying, but to take effective action to deal with, and, if possible, prevent them.
Disabled children lead lives that are already restricted by their disability, and bullying adds to those restrictions. Quite apart from the trauma that is experienced during the bullying episodes, children are left with a residual fear of bullying that is ever-present in their minds.
Other Members have mentioned the extensive Mencap survey. The statistics are horrifying: eight out of 10 children with learning disabilities are bullied; eight out of 10 are scared to go out because they are frightened that they might be bullied; and six out of 10 have been physically hurt by bullies. Those unacceptable statistics demonstrate a clear need for action. The fact that almost three out of 10 children who were surveyed were bullied for three or more years demonstrates that this is not a matter of isolated incidents; it is an ongoing problem.
A separate survey by the National Autistic Society found that two out of five children on the autistic spectrum have been bullied at school. Disabled children often lack the social skills to deal with that situation, let alone report it. For many children and young people, bullying can come to characterise their lives and leave them feeling depressed, isolated and withdrawn. Often, the low self-esteem that they experience as a result of bullying is carried into their adult lives, which means that, in addition to other forms of disability that they may have, they may experience significant mental suffering. Isolated children can become isolated adults.
Schools and youth clubs can implement a number of steps to reduce the occurrence of bullying of children who have disabilities. They should ensure that disabled children be treated in an inclusive way by reviewing accessibility issues. That would lessen the likelihood of differences standing out. Disability issues should be discussed with the children and young people. All staff and volunteers must be made aware of any disabilities so that they can assist when necessary. Staff should be inclusive in their approach, thus setting a good example to other children and young people. It is also important to select a variety of games and activities so that everyone can be involved in them. Support staff should allow children to display some level of independence. There is a need for dignity for all, and every child should retain a sense of self-worth.
Above all, we must do everything in our power to ensure that disabled children feel a valued part of our society. Schools can take several immediate steps: anti-bullying days inform pupils where they can get help and advice; teachers can listen to pupils’ problems; befriending and peer-mentoring schemes can be set up; and a scheme could be established whereby pupils can report bullying anonymously.
Although such schemes would be particularly beneficial to disabled children, it would be good practice if all schools were to introduce them, given that they would be beneficial to all children.
The Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People published a report on bullying entitled ‘Being Part and Parcel of the School’. I commend the Commissioner and her office for their work on that. As a result of that research, guidance has been developed on how children and young people should be involved in producing, reviewing and monitoring anti-bullying policies in schools.
I support the motion, and I ask that all statutory organisations actively consider what they can do to improve the lives of disabled children.
Mrs D Kelly: I welcome the opportunity to participate in the debate, and I thank the Members who tabled the motion. A definition of bullying that we should consider is that which was agreed by the Northern Ireland Anti-Bullying Forum, which defines bullying as the:
“repeated use of power by one or more persons intentionally to harm, hurt or adversely affect the rights and needs of another or others.”
Although I am sure that all Members wish to condemn bullying in all its forms and across all groups and individuals in society, the motion refers specifically to bullying that children and young people with disabilities experience.
We cannot fail to be touched by the comments of the young people themselves. A Mencap report quotes one child as saying:
“I haven’t got any friends. At playtime I just walk round the playground on my own. I would give the other children anything if they could be my friends.”
Bullying destroys lives. It has long-lasting and far-reaching effects. The motion calls for the Executive to:
“carry out a thematic inspection across public bodies, to establish their response to bullying”.
Although it is right and proper that that action be taken, a great deal of research on the matter already exists. Recommendations have already been well articulated. Such recommendations are particularly relevant to the Department of Education, as it is at school where children and young people spend most of their time, and, unfortunately, where many of them experience ongoing bullying.
A report on children’s rights commissioned by NICCY in 2004 found that, although since 2003 each school has been required to have anti-bullying policies and to consult pupils when they are drawing up those policies, bullying remains a major concern for children and young people across Northern Ireland.
The one-size-fits-all approach does not work. Each school should be able to tailor the guidance to meet the needs of individual schoolchildren. There is also a need for innovative strategies such as peer mediation for dealing with bullying.
In general terms, it was found that although the resources to tackle the issue exist, more work needs to be carried out to educate pupils in tolerance; to train teachers and support staff to identify, monitor and address the issue; and to co-ordinate support staff for all involved.
In 2002, the Committee on the Rights of the Child recommended that the Government should take measures to set up adequate mechanisms and structures to prevent bullying and other forms of violence in schools and that children should be included in the development and implementation of those strategies.
I welcome the attendance of both junior Ministers at this debate. Perhaps one of them will outline what steps they have taken to act on that 2002 recommendation and provide a timetable for the setting up of a ministerial subgroup on children. I trust that the specific needs of children and young people with disabilities will be a priority for that subgroup.
In other research, Mencap found that schools and children’s services should record incidents of bullying of disabled children, and that those children and their parents should get good-quality information about the help that they can expect from education authorities and other public bodies. The research also found that specific training for teachers to deal with bullying is also required; that finding was similar to those of the NICCY report.
When addressing this issue, Members must also be aware of how the inherent dignity and worth of each human being should be valued. Unlike some parties in the House, the SDLP has always been, and continues to be, opposed to abortion. What message do those parties send out, when in supporting the pro-choice lobbyists, they then agree to the abortion — up to 38 weeks into the gestation period — of an unborn child who has a disability? That term is almost at the point of birth.
On behalf of the SDLP, I support the motion, and I call on all in society to stand up against the bullies who are in our midst.
Mr Lunn: I apologise to the Member who moved the motion for not being present during her speech; I was unavoidably detained.
The Alliance Party supports the motion. Although we have some reservations about its wording, of course we support its broad aim. It is essential that public authorities are made aware of their responsibilities on this matter, and we recognise that that awareness goes beyond the passive practice of carrying out the odd impact assessment.
Some statistics have been quoted today, so please forgive me if I happen to repeat them. When we carry out research into matters such as these, we suddenly discover things that we did not know. For example, 82% of children in the UK who have a learning disability are bullied. That figure equates to 280,000 children. That is an absolutely staggering figure. The Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People has reported that children who have a disability are twice as likely as other children to be bullied. What on earth does that unbelievable statistic say about society? It is more than 12 years since the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 was passed, yet children who have a learning disability are still frightened of being bullied.
Over half of children who have a learning disability and who have been bullied stop going to the places where their bullying occurred. What does that say about their opportunities to join in with normal community activities, given that they are afraid to go to the places where they could participate?
We have no problem with supporting the motion, although it appears to assume that all public bodies could perhaps do something about bullying. However, for a variety of reasons, people of all ages experience bullying, the responsibility for which rests primarily with the bullies. Although we offer our support, we look forward to hearing details in the winding-up speech about what is meant by the word “thematic” and to getting some examples of what a “response” might entail. I hope that it will not be suggested that we introduce yet another bureaucratic process to make it look as though we are tackling the problem, but I am sure that it will be recommended that we actually do something about the problem.
I know that we are all interested in action, and that being the case, I suggest that we go a little further. As part of the introduction of citizenship into schools and of broader youth services, the Executive could look usefully at investing in education on this matter to demonstrate that people have a responsibility not to bully others because of their prejudices against disability or, indeed, for any other reason. Although that may suggest that a great deal of bullying is either indirect or sometimes unintentional, its effect remains the same.
I pay tribute to the work of Disability Action and other organisations that have proved so good at raising awareness of issues such as this. Their broad community education and awareness-raising projects and events serve as useful reminders to us all that, as citizens, we have a role to play.
We support the motion, but we look forward to hearing the proposers put more meat on the bones in their winding-up speech.
Mrs I Robinson: This is a timely debate and one that I welcome.
I was bullied at school, not by children, but by a very small male teacher who had problems with a 13-year-old girl who was 7 inches taller than him. At every opportunity, I was picked on, bullied and humiliated. I know what that cost me in those days, and I would dread to think what a child with a disability would suffer in the same circumstances.
Research by Professor Conti-Ramsden of the University of Manchester, which was published recently in ‘Educational and Child Psychology’, raised our awareness of the bullying of children and young people who have learning disabilities. It is therefore vital that we debate this topic for the sake of all our young children.
That research showed that teenagers who have a communication disorder that stops them expressing and understanding their emotions are twice as likely as their peers to be bullied. Speech and language impairment, which is just one area of disability, is an important area to note with respect to bullying. Speech and language impairment is four times more prevalent than autism, and it affects around 520,000 children throughout the United Kingdom.
In the University of Manchester research, almost half of the 16-year-olds interviewed who had speech and language impairment recalled being teased or bullied when they were younger. Thirteen per cent of the teenagers had experienced persistent bullying over time. Dr Knox, who worked on the same research team, also noted that:
“young people who experience bullying can often become anxious and depressed in adolescence”.
That behaviour must be nipped in the bud, as it can contaminate a person’s long-term mental health, not just into adolescence but into adulthood.
Thankfully there are organisations and charities working in speech and language impairment across the United Kingdom and Ireland. They are helping to decrease the vulnerability of the young people by improving their communication skills. My office was contacted by one of those groups, which is called I CAN. In the past 20 years the group has focused solely on helping children with communication disability. The charity is asking for support to secure funding for the I CAN early-years centre at Ballynahinch Primary School, which was set up in November 2000 in response to the high prevalence rates and lack of early-intervention services available for children with speech, language and communication disability.
Previously, funding for the centre came from the Department of Education and the DHSSPS. However, it is the funding from the former that is likely to be withdrawn. The charity has been asking MLAs to write letters of support and send them to the Minister of Education, Caitríona Ruane, and I would like to state clearly that I will be asking the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to look into the I CAN project and state how his Department stands with regard to funding such an important service.
Mark Twain said:
“Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.”
We must reintroduce the quality of kindness so that we can equip our children with the twenty-first century life-skill of communication. We must equip them with the skills to communicate the things that matter.
A therapist at a recent training event told me that “hurt people hurt people”. We must work with all children, including the bullies, and help to equip them with communication skills so that hurts can be prevented or healed. In that way we can stop the bullies of the playground becoming the bullies of the workplace.
I finish with I CAN’s vision:
“A world where children have the communication skills to be all they can be.”
That is a worthy objective.
Mrs O’Neill: My colleague Carál Ní Chuilín opened the debate by saying that bullying wrecks lives, and that is the reality. Bullying is becoming more common in communities and is damaging the lives and life-chances of some of the most vulnerable children and young people in our society.
The facts to back up those claims can be found in Mencap’s study into the experiences of children and young people with learning disability. The Commissioner for Children and Young People has also identified that bullying of disabled children is of concern, following the research that her organisation commissioned into children’s rights.
In bringing the motion to the House, we are challenging this Administration to confront the gravity of such bullying, and in confronting it to take up the challenge to eradicate it. In 2007, Mencap held numerous workshops with children as part of its research. It produced the report ‘Bullying wrecks lives: the experiences of children and young people with a learning disability’. In all of Mencap’s workshops, young people were asked to give experiences of bullying in their lives, not just in the school environment but in their leisure activities, buses and parks and in every aspect of their lives. It became apparent that children with learning disabilities are being subjected to bullying across the board. That aspect of the research was very important because a lot of the focus has been on bullying in schools. Although it does play a large part, Mencap’s research has shown that children and young people with a learning disability are being bullied everywhere they go.
Children with a learning disability are more likely to be subjected to bullying because of their disability. Unfortunately, bullies see them as easy targets because they can be easily persuaded to get into trouble, or perhaps do not understand what is happening to them. As elected representatives, we have a responsibility to ensure that we protect those young people.
I know parents whose children have a learning disability. They have fought battle after battle — whether for access to mainstream schools, proper age-appropriate recreational facilities or other services — with various agencies throughout their child’s development. They are tired, and they need the new Administration to stand beside them to ensure that their children are protected, supported and helped to develop to achieve their full potential. They need Members to help them to take some of the strain.
All people, including children and young people, have a right to live in a safe environment. Disabled children have a right to live their lives free from discrimination and harassment. However, this right is simply not a reality for thousands of children and young people with a learning disability. I call on the Executive to address those issues and make a start on securing the rights of disabled children and young people.
In calling for a thematic inspection across all public bodies, we are asking everyone to consider carefully the experiences of this vulnerable section of society in all sectors, with a view to the stamping out of disablist bullying becoming a Government priority.
Jim Shannon has already listed the Mencap recommendations, so I will not go over them again, but we ought to consider its suggestions. We must address the needs of children and young people with learning disabilities and support them.
Miss McIlveen: The motion proposes a positive, although preparatory, step in addressing an issue that affects a vulnerable, largely silent but significant minority of our society.
Six per cent of children in Northern Ireland are affected by disability, and 4% of those have two or more disabilities. Over 12,000 children under 16 years of age receive disability living allowance, so it is a shameful fact that Barnardo’s Northern Ireland research conducted in 2002 demonstrates that bullying is so pervasive and such a major part of disabled children’s lives that it could be seen as a formative experience for them. It found extensive examples of disabled children and young people being bullied — verbally and physically — not only at school but in the community. Mencap research shows that 53% of children with learning disabilities had been physically bullied, and 73% of children were frightened to go out because of bullying. Over 40% of disabled children and young people actively avoided the places where they were bullied. Therefore, bullies are dictating the places to which those children can go and when they can go; that is wrong to me, on so many levels.
Bullying at school is more likely to take place when adult supervision is absent — in the playground, at lunchtime and on school buses. At school, disabled children indicated that they found it difficult to make friends and to cope with bullying. They were particularly stressed at times of major change in their lives, such as moving to post-primary or special schools.
The research led to the Department of Education establishing an anti-bullying forum, along with some voluntary organisations. Further action was taken in 2006, with funding being made available for a regional co-ordinator to develop, implement and promote good-practice models. We look forward with interest to the results of the Department’s review of schools’ anti-bullying policies later in the year.
An essential tool that is funded by the Department is the dedicated anti-bullying helpline that is run by ChildLine and its online live-time advice website, www.there4me.com. However, there has been limited success, with no focus on the particular vulnerabilities of disabled children and young people.
An anti-bullying policy must also be a key tenet of school inspection, and schools should have clear proactive plans that seek to build networks of support that will help to protect disabled young people from bullying. All too often, that is a failing in schools not only for disabled young people but those able-bodied young people who suffer at the hands of bullies.
There are international examples, particularly from Canada; they have tackled bullying in a holistic manner and have built the concept of “peaceful schools” that focus on a zero-tolerance approach and develop different ranges of attitudes among all pupils and teachers. We should investigate and mirror that approach.
The social isolation of disabled children is linked to bullying. In the 2002 Barnardo’s Northern Ireland study, many children indicated that they had no, or few, peer friends at school or at home. That sense of isolation from the community left them vulnerable to bullying. For many of those children, the isolation was quite extreme, resulting in their having only adult friends and carers, and no friends of their own or a similar age.
The research found that the children’s social contact in their local communities tended to be restricted, and that where there was contact between a disabled child and local children, it was often a negative experience. Indeed, some children were so isolated that researchers found that they had become withdrawn and had lost interest in the outside world. That isolation was caused by ignorance and prejudice about disability; practical difficulties caused by problems of access; pervasive levels of bullying, and difficulty in creating social opportunities for disabled children.
Many children told the same, familiar story about how they could not go out on their own, and that because they went to special schools, which draw their pupils from a wide geographical area, they had no local friends. The children were relying on their parents and carers to provide opportunities for them to meet other children. When such opportunities were not readily available, the children did not have normal interaction with others of their own age.
Not surprisingly, disabled children living in deprived households are most vulnerable to social isolation. Thirty per cent of children who live in households with a disabled child experience poverty. Everyone is responsible for assisting and promoting opportunities for disabled children to become fully involved in their communities. Public bodies also have a responsibility to ensure that they put in place the kind of support and assistance that can make a difference.
Bullying cannot be addressed by simply tackling individual incidents. Plans must be put in place to tackle the underlying causes of bullying in all public places and, by doing so, to ensure that disabled children are less isolated and, in turn, less vulnerable.
Mr G Robinson: I will begin by saying that no matter who is on the receiving end of bullying, I condemn such behaviour outright. Although the Assembly is discussing the bullying of disabled children and young people, I am aware of bullying in all its forms. At the weekend, we heard about the young man who sustained serious injuries when he jumped off a footbridge in Belfast to escape bullies. That is one of the more extreme outcomes that can result from bullying.
The bullying of disabled children and young people is particularly vicious. Bullies can be more accurately described as cowards. They simply pick on easy targets who are no match for them. They do not realise or, indeed, care that they are ruining people’s lives.
It is not only the person who is attacked who suffers; the whole family can be affected. Fear that a child or sibling will be physically or mentally hurt can have devastating effects. I was appalled to read in Mencap’s report about a family who had been forced to move home to ensure a child’s safety, rather than having to face the continual fear that he would be harmed. The extent of such bullying in society is not known, which is partly due to the fact that victims do not report bullying for fear of reprisals.
In some cases, the problem is that victims are not taken seriously because of their disability. I was appalled to read the comment made to one child, that because he had special needs he should “get used to it”. How disgraceful. Society must not accept that as a suitable state of affairs for disabled young people.
To discover what public bodies are doing to deal with the bullying epidemic that has spread through society in recent years, the depth of the problem must be established. That can be done only by engaging with the victims of those cowardly verbal and physical attacks on as many levels and in as many surroundings as possible.
We must liaise with young people where there is a bullying problem — in schools, youth clubs and day centres — to find a way to reduce such cowardly deeds to a minimum. If, over time, we solve the problem, imagine the difference that will make to young disabled people’s quality of life and how it will empower them to achieve their best. Our able-bodied children and young people are rightly encouraged to achieve. Do their disabled counterparts not deserve the same encouragement?
If we create an environment in which all our children can succeed without the fear of bullying, Northern Ireland and the Assembly will have achieved something of which to be proud.
Mr Easton: We are all aware that bullying has become a major problem in our schools and society. In many respects, that problem is a reflection of our society in general — small numbers of ill-disposed people wreak havoc on our streets by destroying property, committing acts of vandalism, and disturbing and disrupting classes in schools, with no prospect of punishment. In many cases, it seems that rehabilitation is not possible or that rehabilitation schemes do not work. Worst of all, those who do the damage are seldom required to apologise or to restore the damage that they have caused.
When parents send their children to school, they have a right to expect that they will be taught in a secure, safe and disciplined environment. Sadly, in many schools, more time is spent dealing with pupils who set out to disrupt the system than is spent on those who want an education. Persistent physical bullying, attacks, name-calling, teasing, ganging up to exclude someone from a group and mocking someone’s clothes or appearance are all features of the daily experience for many children in our society. Such behaviour is particularly offensive when applied to children with disabilities, and that can have a devastating impact on the mental well-being of such children. Bullying results in great unhappiness, loneliness and, in extreme cases, can lead to mental breakdown or suicide. The perpetrators are aware of that, and yet they persist with their behaviour.
Although bullying is not a new problem, changes in attitudes to punishment and an excessive emphasis on the rights of perpetrators have created a culture in schools in which teachers experience many difficulties in protecting those who are on the receiving end of bullying that can, at times, be quite vicious.
Many schools and youth organisations have done excellent work in developing effective anti-bullying strategies in their day-to-day responses to the problems that bullies create. Those schools, the teachers and counsellors deserve enormous credit — we must benefit from their experience and skills and ensure that their knowledge is shared. However, written policies are no guarantee that the problem is being dealt with effectively. We must ensure that all children feel confident that they will receive timely and consistent support.
Bullying outside school is another area of huge concern, and we must examine in detail how to respond in community settings to the needs of young people — disabled or otherwise — who are on the receiving end of sustained pressure from bullies. We must not lose sight of the fact that the vast majority of young people are kind and considerate, and will quickly support action that is taken against bullies by adults or those in authority. It is important to remember that bullies are a minority. Work to protect young people from bullies must be a major area of endeavour for the Commissioner for Children and Young People.
Persistent bullying — physical or mental — should be treated as a criminal offence. Anyone who is prepared to commit a crime should be prepared to face the consequences. Bullying is an evil and pernicious crime, and strong retribution will ensure that we spell out our abhorrence to those who are engaged in it. Bullies know that what they are doing is wrong and the consequences that their actions can have. There must be a change in culture. The penalty should be proportional to the severity of the offence. As a priority, we must vigorously protect and defend the most vulnerable in our society.
To develop appropriate responses and policies, we must make use of the widest possible range of available information and experience. Therefore, it is necessary to undertake an inspection across all public bodies to establish their current response to the bullying that many children and young people, particularly those who are disabled, experience. I support the motion.
The junior Minister (Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister) (Mr Paisley Jnr): I thank the Members who are present for staying for the debate — their interest is an indication of how seriously the House regards this matter. I congratulate the Member who proposed the motion on securing the debate.
The Member for East Londonderry George Robinson mentioned the timeliness of the debate, bearing in mind the headlines about a young boy who was bullied and who jumped from a bridge in Belfast, which we read with horror last weekend. That is just one of many incidents that highlight the issue of bullying.
Before I deal with points that Members made, I want to stress that bullying is a huge issue for children and young people. Any efforts to raise awareness of the issue and to develop mechanisms to help to tackle the problem will be widely welcomed by everyone in the Assembly. This debate has been useful in helping to raise awareness of the issue.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Molloy] in the Chair)
Bullying in any form and in any setting is unacceptable, and I do not single out any particular form of bullying for special mention. Bullying is unacceptable, no matter what form it takes, and society should tackle it with vigour. The needs and welfare of all the victims of bullying should be paramount in our minds.
Today, we are considering the issue of bullying of children and young people with disabilities. The Assembly has been asked to consider a thematic inspection across public bodies to establish their response to bullying that children and young people with disabilities have experienced.
It is important to be clear about what the motion means. If we are talking about an audit of all public bodies that interface with children and young people, all that we will end up with will be a dossier of anti-bullying and disability hate-crime policies. We will have nothing that will quantify the size of the problem or make new proposals to alleviate it. However, that is not what we are debating. That is not to say that those policies are not important, because they are. Nevertheless, if we were to expend all that effort, and it would be a huge task, we could end up with a product that would not be much more valuable than the one that we currently have.
The recent Mencap report, ‘Bullying wrecks lives: the experiences of children and young people with a learning disability’, revealed that eight out of 10 children with a learning disability said that they have been bullied. That is not acceptable. A sizeable amount of research is now available that highlights the needs of those children and young people. We must focus on effective ways in which to enable all children and young people to cope with the situations in which they find themselves. We must get the message across that there is nothing wrong with asking for help, and it is critically important to ensure that those children know where to go to for help.
One of the six high-level outcomes in the strategy for children and young people involves living in safety and with stability. Child protection and safeguarding of all children, especially those who are vulnerable, is a key priority for us all.
Huge strides are already being taken to tackle all forms of bullying, especially in our schools and colleges. Boards of governors and principals of every grant-aided school and further education college have a legal responsibility to encourage good behaviour and discipline. The Education and Libraries (Northern Ireland) Order 2003, which was introduced in April of that year, requires all grant-aided schools to include measures to prevent all forms of bullying among pupils in their discipline policy. From that date, schools were also required to consult registered pupils and parents before amending their existing discipline policy.
I shall deal with some specific matters that Members mentioned. I was drawn to the personal account from the Member for Strangford Mrs Robinson, who referred to her personal experience of bullying. As busy MLAs, we will all have heard constituents’ experiences. They bring instances of bullying to our attention. During the first mandate, a young boy in my constituency tragically took his life because he was bullied on a school bus. Events such as that really bring home the seriousness and extent of bullying across Northern Ireland.
The proposer of the motion made her points well. She called for a joined-up response from many of the Departments. The bullying of children and young people with disabilities is not an issue for OFMDFM alone, nor is it an issue for the Department of Education alone, the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety alone, or the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure alone. We must all work together. The subgroup on children and young people that OFMDFM established will help to co-ordinate a joined-up response and drive the issue. It will encourage all Departments to understand their particular roles and responsibilities and to work at achieving a joined-up approach.
With regard to asking the Department of Education to monitor the situation, some matters should be put on record. The Department of Education has collated annual statistics on the reasons for suspensions and expulsions from the education and library boards since the 2002-03 school year. Some suspensions and expulsions resulted from bullying incidents. There are no plans to require schools to collect statistics on the instances of bullying. Indeed, the Department of Education has expressed concerns about adding to the bureaucratic burden on schools by requiring principals to record and provide information on each incident of bullying at their schools. However, the Department of Education is funding a pilot scheme with 16 schools via Save the Children. That work is under way, and we await its outcome, which is sure to be interesting.
Many Members quoted statistics. A recent University of Ulster research report revealed that 43% of primary schoolchildren and 29% of post-primary schoolchildren perceive that they have been bullied at least once while at school. That is a frightening statistic, given the number of children and young people who have been affected. It is important that we take opportunities, such as this debate, to repeat the statistics and let people know the extent of the problem so that they can take steps to address the concerns of many children.
It is important that we make the House aware of some of the requirements that are already in place and the work that has been done. The next issue involves the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, and it indicates the joined-up nature of the response that must be made. The draft minimum care standards for children’s homes that provide respite care for disabled children are to be published by the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety in March 2008. Those regulations will require homes to have a strategy for the prevention of bullying. That goes to the heart of some of the issues that have been raised today. The Department of Health is drafting minimum care standards for family-based short-break overnight care for disabled children and young people, which will include a bullying and victimisation section as guidance for staff.
The draft standards for disabled children in hospitals are to be published by the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety in March 2008. Those standards will require hospitals to have in place an anti-bullying policy, which will refer to children who are in the wards.
Roy Beggs mentioned the activities of the Department of Education’s Youth Service, and it is important to note that the Youth Service highlights the need for a rigorous approach to bullying through child-protection anti-bullying policies. As an inclusive service, young people with disabilities who attend its projects are subject to the same pastoral care as others. However, through child-protection training, staff are aware that young people with disabilities are more vulnerable to bullying, and, therefore, the level of pastoral care may be enhanced through consultation with parents, carers and the appropriate professionals and professional services to ensure that it meets the needs of each child. It is important to encourage such bullying-awareness training.
Several Members mentioned the Department of Education. Jim Shannon, Iris Robinson, Roy Beggs and a Member for Mid Ulster mentioned the Northern Ireland Anti-Bullying Forum (NIABF). The Department of Education is a founder of, and provides funding for, the Anti-Bullying Forum and funds the co-ordinator post attached to it. The local Anti-Bullying Forum represents various statutory and voluntary bodies, including Mencap, with the aim of sharing models of best practice, disseminating information and developing and co-ordinating joint initiatives. It helps to ensure that schools and organisations that work with children and young people have appropriate strategies to deal with and to prevent bullying behaviours. The forum has also established formal links with similar bodies in England, Wales and Scotland.
Dolores Kelly’s comments are timely. She asked when the ministerial subcommittee will meet. I am pleased to announce that the meeting is scheduled for 13 March 2008. The matter has already been raised at the Executive and a draft set of priorities has been drawn up for that meeting. However, I do not want to pre-empt it: we await agreement on those priorities by the people who will attend. The junior Ministers will be pressing the issue and will be making it visible so that children and young people will be seen to be a priority for the Government.
Michelle McIlveen mentioned the task group on disablist bullying, and the role of the regional co-ordinator of the Northern Ireland Anti-Bullying Forum. The co-ordinator, Leslie-Anne Newton, has met with Paschal McKeown of Mencap, and I am please to announce that NIABF will be establishing a task group to consider how the bullying children and young people with disabilities should be tackled. All key stakeholders, including children and young people themselves, will be involved in the process. I assure the House that the Ministers will take an active interest in that work and its outcomes.
NIABF is in the process of developing a website so that people around the world can share examples of good practice. The website will be launched next month, and it will be another good example of the work being done in this area. The website will draw attention to the interest, not only here but worldwide, in finding ways to stop bullying and identify good practices in that regard.
Many Members have spoken about actions that we, as an Assembly and as a Government, can take. A small number of voluntary organisations that deal with disability are receiving core-project funding from the mental health and disability policy directorate. Twenty organisations will receive a total allocation of approximately £2·5 million in the 2007-08 financial year; which indicates the seriousness with which we believe those organisations and their actions should be taken.
Many other issues were mentioned, and there was some repetition of issues. The debate is timely: it indicates that the House has a significant interest in dealing with bullying in general and, specifically, by making sure that the bullying of children and young people with disabilities is properly addressed. My office, which provides a co-ordination role, will take an active interest in ensuring that policies and best practices are put in place so that the concerns of the Member who tabled the motion are properly addressed.
Ms S Ramsey: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I commend my party colleagues for securing the debate. Like the junior Minister, I thank everyone for taking part. Many useful comments and statistics emerged during the debate.
I also think it useful, a LeasCheann Comhairle, that the debate took place following the earlier debate on the disability discrimination legislation. I hope that, following these debates, we will see progress on the issues in the Committees. I thank both junior Ministers for attending and, I am sure that, as they have responsibility for children and young people, they will have found some of the issues that have been aired today to be relevant to their work.
I place on record my thanks to Mencap and the Office of the Commissioner for Children and Young People for the information that they provided to Members who took part in the debate.
It is also important, as the junior Minister said, to highlight the work of the groups from the community and voluntary sector who lobby to ensure that the rights of children and young people and adults with disabilities are central to the work of the Assembly. We must take on board the fact that those groups do that on a daily basis. Without those people, such issues might not come to light, and I commend them for the work that they do.
Several Members said that, time and time again, children and young people of all ages report bullying as the single biggest barrier to living their lives to the full. I am glad that the motion was not amended and that it has received all-party support. That sends a clear message that the Assembly takes seriously the issue of bullying of children and young people.
Jim Shannon gave a number of statistics that showed that not only is bullying going on among children and young people, but that children with a learning disability are twice as likely to be bullied. The message from that is that it is wrong and that it must stop. He also called for the Assembly to support the recommendations from Mencap and to support the Children’s Commissioner’s anti-bullying campaign, and I agree. The information that I received from the Children’s Commissioner’s office has been good, and the anti-bullying posters are useful for schools, and the community and voluntary sector.
Roy Beggs mentioned the problem of bullying in schools and youth clubs, and, because of that problem, the motion calls on the Executive to carry out a thematic inspection across all public bodies. The junior Minister highlighted the fact that a number of Ministers and Departments have a role to play in challenging bullies. Rather than adopting a haphazard approach to the issue of bullying, we suggest that the Executive should take the lead. The junior Ministers, who have responsibility for children and young people, should push that through the Executive.
I agree with Dolores Kelly that none of us can fail to have been touched by the examples of children and young people who have suffered from bullying. Michelle O’Neill, in answer to a query from Trevor Lunn, said that the motion speaks for itself. We want an approach from all public bodies to tackle bullying. I do not claim that the junior Minister speaks for me, and I do not speak for him, but he explained the reason that we want a thematic approach across all public bodies.
Iris Robinson mentioned the I CAN project, and she said that she would speak to the Health Minister about it. As a member of the Health Committee, I support her in doing that. The more information that we get into the public domain and give to children and young people, the more it will help to tackle the issues.
Michelle O’Neill said that the majority of bullying takes place in schools, but that children and young people with a disability suffer bullying everywhere. The issue is not just about tackling bullying in schools; social settings must also be considered. The junior Minister mentioned a number of programmes. He said that bullying is a huge issue, that any efforts to highlight the issue must be welcomed and that he was glad that the motion was proposed for debate.
The motion does not ask for an audit, although that would be useful. The debate has shown that an inspection of how bullying is dealt with is required. It is also important to find out what anti-bullying policies are in place. Some positive work is going on in Departments, as the junior Minister mentioned, and especially in the Education and Health Departments. That is to be welcomed, but is it enough? I have listened to the debate for the past one and a half hours, and I do not think that enough work is being done. To answer Trevor Lunn’s question, that is why we want a thematic approach across all public bodies.
I appreciate the junior Minister’s telling us the date of the first meeting of the ministerial subgroup on children and young people. That is useful information, which we welcome. I hope that a copy of today’s Official Report can be included in the papers for that meeting, because this issue must be addressed.
I ask everyone who really wants to cherish the children of the nation equally to support the motion. Go raibh maith agat.
Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly calls on the Executive to carry out a thematic inspection across public bodies, to establish their response to bullying experienced by children and young people with disabilities.
That the Assembly do now adjourn. — [Mr Deputy Speaker.]
Broadband Access in Rural Parts of West Tyrone
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Member who secured the debate will have 15 minutes in which to speak. Depending on how many other Members wish to speak, they will each have approximately 10 minutes.
Mr McElduff: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment for his attending the debate. It is obvious that he appreciates the importance of this matter. Yesterday’s Question Time exercised the minds of Members and the Minister, so that is not a bad reference point for the beginning of the debate.
Information and communication technologies have become part of our everyday lives. These days, broadband is crucial for high-speed Internet connection to emails; for research; for booking flights or concert tickets; for downloading photographs, music or videos; for interactive entertainment; for the delivery of Government services; for assisting with young people’s homework; and for anyone else involved in lifelong learning. Broadband is crucial for everyone, including the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, in efforts to increase the competitiveness of local businesses and to boost business productivity.
‘Broadband Northern Ireland — Fully Connected’ is a statement and a boast of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, and it is another good reference point for this debate. The introduction to the document refers to “equitable access” to cost-effective broadband services for all, and to the consequent benefits to communities, Government and industry. Part of me wonders whether the use of the word “equitable” was carefully chosen to prevent the use of the word “equal”. Perhaps that takes into account available resources, or represents a belief that rural areas may present additional problems. I would like the wording to be changed to “equal access to cost-effective, equal-cost broadband services for all”.
Both the direct rule Minister Ian Pearson MP and Nigel Dodds, the locally elected Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, have made the proud boast that we are the first region in Europe to have 100% broadband availability, whether by telephone line, cable or satellite. The current Minister made that boast as recently as yesterday.
I am making the case that there is really no more than 99% broadband availability. I am highlighting the fact that satellite provision is not proving to be the answer for businesses and communities that have brought this issue to my attention. If I were to make an even stronger case, I might say that the statement about 100% broadband availability is, in effect, misleading, because it creates an expectation that the service is the same, across the board. That is not the case.
There is a problem in West Tyrone and in other rural parts of the North. I appreciate that the Department and British Telecom are attempting to address the issues.
Mr Boylan: Will the Member give way?
Mr McElduff: Be brief, Cathal, if you do not mind.
Mr Boylan: Thank you, comrade. Mr McElduff has mentioned Tyrone, but parts of Armagh still do not receive broadband. As far back as 2004, it was stated that broadband would be accessible in the whole of the North. Does the Member agree that four years is a long enough time in which to make broadband accessible to the whole of the North?
Mr McElduff: I continue to hear about other areas. The tabling of the Adjournment debate has created an amazing reaction. Many people have told me to make sure and mention their villages. A public meeting was held in Drumsurn on Monday, 4 February in St Peter’s village hall, which was packed. The meeting was convened by the deputy mayor of Limavady, Brenda Chivers. I was pleased to read in the ‘Northern Constitution’ that senior officials from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and Ofcom showed an interest in the issue, and I appreciate that.
I was also asked to mention that people in Ballintoy in County Antrim have problems accessing broadband. It is, therefore, not only Eskragh, Broughderg, Greencastle, Gortin, Carrickmore, Cloughfin and Dregish — where an impromptu meeting was held in the parochial hall after mass a few Sundays ago — that have problems accessing broadband. Inaccessibility to broadband is not a contrived issue; it is a real issue for many people. I know that Councillor Buchanan MLA will also appreciate the Dregish/Drumquin situation, because it is local to him.
A letter that was received by Sean Clarke, the chairman of Broughderg community association, brings me to the crux of the matter. The letter acknowledges that Mr Clarke has applied for broadband, that significant progress has been made in providing it, and that everyone has access to a broadband service. The letter also states that an engineer visited Mr Clarke’s premises, but that it is not yet possible to get Mr Clark’s telephone line to support asymmetric digital subscriber line (ADSL) broadband. The letter states that alternative technological solutions were being sought to address that issue, and that it could happen by broadband.
People who have access to broadband services and provision by satellite advise others not to install satellite broadband, because it is filled with problems. They say that, technologically, it is not sound, the satellite product is inferior and it provides a different service to that enjoyed by people a few miles away. The people for whom satellite broadband is identified as the solution are at a major disadvantage, because the quality of broadband service is not consistent and it costs more. There is a £70 installation fee and monthly charges of £27. Other people enjoy access to broadband at a rate of £15 a month, and there is no installation fee, although they might have to pay for a router box.
Rural people say that the assertion that there is 100% broadband availability here is misleading, because it does not tell the whole story.
I also have a letter from Alberta Pauley, from the telecoms policy unit of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment. I am grateful to Alberta and her team for responding to me on the specifics of a meeting in Omagh on 12 December, which aimed to get to the bottom of the problems regarding broadband access. The letter deals with 42 enquiries that emerged from that meeting.
I am aware now that similar meetings are held in other villages, towns and rural areas, and the consistent message is that broadband is not fully accessible in all communities. It is being delivered by satellite only, and there are technological problems associated with that. Furthermore, satellite broadband is more expensive than broadband through a telephone line. Why should people in rural areas pay more for the service?
When I arrived at the Assembly as an elected representative for a rural community, I had faith in the assertion that all Government policies would be rural proofed. I contacted the head of the Civil Service, Nigel Hamilton, and asked to meet him in order to discuss his definition of “rural proofing”. He told me that it is about considering circumstances in which a rural person might be adversely affected to a greater extent than an urban citizen.
Is there rural proofing? If so, the people in Drumsurn want to know about it, because many businesses in that area cannot operate properly without broadband, and schools are also suffering. Senior DETI officials heard that in Drumsurn, Omagh and other places. People in Drumsurn do not understand why they should have to pay for satellite connections when others can get cheaper and easier broadband Internet connections. A local person told me that satellite is not an acceptable method for connecting with the Internet.
I should be interested to hear the Minister’s comments about his Department’s press release in December, ‘Minister welcomes broadband stimulation campaign’:
“new marketing campaign to promote the importance of access to broadband … targeting Strabane, Fermanagh, Omagh, Magherafelt and Moyle District Council Areas.”
I would like to think that, in addition to being a marketing campaign, that initiative is aimed at delivering broadband to rural communities, citizens, businesses and schools.
I emphasise that this is an issue, and that I am not being mischievous for the sake of it. I am trying to address a real issue, and I call on the Minister and his Department to take whatever action is necessary in order to deliver equality in broadband provision, cost and quality for everyone, whether they live in rural or urban communities.
If this is not a real issue, why would my constituent from the townland of Inishative, Carrickmore, tell me that his wife could not take up her employer’s offer of working from home? She was full of hope that that flexible option would benefit her; however, because of the slow delivery of broadband, and the cost, which was prohibitive, she has taken up a petition in Greencastle, Gortin and Broughderg. Hundreds of people in those communities are exercised by this issue.
I thank the Minister and his Department for listening to those people; they are engaging with people, but they should be aware that we will go the distance to satisfy the expectation and demand that rural communities should be equally served by proper broadband facilities and technological services, which must be delivered at a cost equal to that enjoyed by people who live in towns and cities. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr Buchanan: I thank the Minister for listening to the debate. I will concentrate on my constituency of West Tyrone.
Although it is often said that Northern Ireland has 100% broadband coverage, that does not mean that every homeowner is able to access that service. Rather, it means that all the telephone exchanges in Northern Ireland have broadband capability. For many people, that means that they must install satellite broadband if they wish to be connected to the Internet. Most people understand that it is virtually impossible to provide the standard broadband service to every remote dwelling in Northern Ireland. However, there are a relatively large number of people in rural areas who are unable to access broadband facilities through British Telecom or any of the other broadband providers in Northern Ireland.
Many people, when informed that they cannot be connected to standard broadband, will not enquire about other ways of receiving it and will simply go without access. When they opt for satellite broadband, it is likely to end up costing them more than the average customer. Does the Minister agree that satellite broadband is an inferior, and more expensive, product? Was the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment justified in spending £9 million, when broadband cannot be provided through all telephone lines?
The irony is that broadband is more necessary in rural areas, because people living in places such as West Tyrone are more remote from the services that people living in Belfast take for granted. In a time when we are aware of carbon footprints, it is vital that someone living in Castlederg or Omagh can work from home on occasions instead of having to commute to Belfast, as many people have to do daily.
Speed of broadband access is important for people in areas such as West Tyrone. Rural dwellers have to pay the same amount of money as those living in cities and towns for their access, but they rarely receive broadband at the speed at which it is advertised. Broadband is advertised as being up to a certain speed, which means that many people in rural areas are not fully aware that they may be paying for broadband that is not up to the mark. Many people sign up to a service that claims to provide eight megabytes a second, but they rarely, if ever, receive data at that speed. Although people are paying for eight-megabyte broadband, they may actually receive only 400 kilobytes. The Member of Parliament for Foyle, Mr Mark Durkan, recently raised that issue in the House of Commons, and I hope that the Ofcom regulator will consider it.
I welcome the Minister’s announcement that he is giving his backing to BT’s campaign to promote broadband in rural areas, which will target the Strabane, Fermanagh, Omagh, Moyle and Magherafelt council areas. Delivering wider broadband access to areas such as West Tyrone is not simply about ensuring that people have access to the Internet on the same terms as everyone else; it is also a vital tool to stimulate the economy in rural areas across Northern Ireland. People in West Tyrone welcome the Executive’s putting the economy as their number one priority, and better broadband service is one way in which we can help to stimulate new businesses or allow existing businesses to grow.
The Assembly has previously discussed public-sector jobs in West Tyrone, and Omagh relies heavily on them. Therefore, it is vital that the private sector also invests in those areas. In recent years, Omagh has seen the loss of Desmond and Sons Ltd, Rixel and Nestlé UK, and Strabane has lost Adria Ltd and Herdman’s linen mill. Although both towns have seen investment in the retail sector, high-quality jobs are still needed in the area. An area such as West Tyrone must be able to compete for jobs in the technology sector, and, for that, it needs to have high-speed broadband infrastructure in place.
Will the Minister outline the benefits that have already been brought to Northern Ireland by investment in broadband services?
Mrs McGill: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Yesterday, when the Minister was in the House for Question Time, I was called to ask my question, and I had to apologise, because it had already been answered. I now find myself in a similar position, a LeasCheann Comhairle, because Mr McElduff and Mr Buchanan have already covered everything, so I apologise for any repetition.
I welcome the Minister to the Chamber. At the beginning of the debate, Mr McElduff made a key point about equality of access. I have read yesterday’s Official Report, and I know that Mr Dodds said that 1% of people receive broadband services through wireless systems, specifically satellite. The Official Report also states that that represents a small group that receives that service as a result of its geographical remoteness. That may be true, but given that I represent such an area, I know that people lack a certain mobility, as well as access to the technology and information that is available elsewhere. It is therefore perhaps more important for them to have broadband services. The Minister said that people experiencing difficulties in particular pockets should contact his officials, which was a very positive comment.
In their contributions, my colleagues Mr McElduff and Mr Buchanan covered practically all of West Tyrone, as well as parts of Derry, but I will mention a few instances of constituents contacting me. Mr McElduff mentioned Broughderg, and the chairperson of the community group there told me that he is keen for people in the area to have broadband access.
There is also the issue of the green broadband boxes. What is their function? Do they boost the service in some way, and can they be utilised more extensively? I hope that the Minister will comment on those points.
I was contacted by a family in Plumbridge who were keen to have a broadband service. A BT engineer visited them and installed a system with some success, but it seemed that a satellite system was the only available option for them. Mr Dodds is quoted in yesterday’s Official Report as saying that the maximum cost of a broadband service is £27 a month, with a £70 installation charge. I am led to believe that a router costs £60. We may be talking about a small group of customers, and those amounts may not seem like a lot if you repeat them quickly, but it can be expensive for many people. Anything that could be done for people in those areas would be very welcome.
Some people who were talking to my constituents and who live not far from Plumbridge pay £14·99 a month for their broadband services. The difference between that amount and the quoted £27 maximum charge matters to the people who need the service.
That can apply to Greencastle and Clady, which is in the Strabane District Council area. The chairman of Strabane District Council, who is a constituent of mine, had the satellite system installed — and I declare an interest as a councillor — but for some reason it was not much of a success. Someone from the council spent a couple of hours on it to make it work. However, it did not work, or at least, it did not work as well as expected.
He said that when one contacts BT, it will check to see whether broadband is available in an area; however, sometimes it cannot determine whether broadband is working successfully in a specific house. In that particular case, the family did receive satellite and, I suppose, that was a limited success.
Mr Brolly: Will the Member agree that broadband access is essential to farmers, who are being encouraged to do their documentation online?
Mrs McGill: It is absolutely essential that the farming community has access to broadband.
I will repeat the names of the areas that have problems with broadband access: Broughderg, Greencastle, Plumbridge, Clady and Aghyaran.
I welcome the comments that the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment made yesterday, and I hope that we can approach officials on the specifics of the matter. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr Elliott: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for permitting me to speak on the issue. As you are aware, I arrived late in the Chamber because I had been at a Committee meeting.
I understand the position of Members from West Tyrone with regard to broadband access; I am sure that they will respect my situation in Fermanagh and South Tyrone. I have spoken to Members from West Tyrone and found that their issues on broadband access are similar to mine in that we in Fermanagh have a guarantee of 100% broadband access. I appreciate the answer that the Minister gave to the House yesterday.
However, I am concerned that even though there is an opportunity for wireless access, including satellite — which appears to be the most common type of wireless Internet access — it does not provide the coverage, speed or the availability that the landline provides. That causes a huge difficulty.
Although people say that one can get broadband in or outside Lisnaskea or between Ederney and Leck, it is, in effect, no better than a dial-up service. I am concerned that people may be paying much more for a satellite or wireless Internet service that is not nearly as effective as a landline service. Will the Minister tell the House how soon the landline service will be available to 100% of the people of Northern Ireland?
We have huge difficulties in accessing broadband services in part of the east Erne area and between Ederney and Leck.
I am told that in the village of Leck there is a dedicated line that provides the local controlled primary school with broadband access. However, no one else can get broadband access there. Is it possible to get broadband access from that point? Why is it not possible for the rest of the community in that area to get broadband access from it? Broadband access would make a huge difference to that community.
I have heard scores of stories about people having to go to Internet cafes to send work-related or study-related documents, despite having broadband access through a satellite system. That is unacceptable. It is clear that access to broadband services in that area is not effective. I appreciate the difficulties in West Tyrone that other Members have talked about, as we have the same difficulties in Fermanagh and South Tyrone.
Mr Deputy Speaker: I gave the Member a wee bit of leeway because Fermanagh will probably be in the new West Tyrone.
The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Mr Dodds): I do not know whether Fermanagh will be in West Tyrone or whether it will be the other way round; depending on where one lives, that might be important.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate, and I thank the Members who have taken part.
I commend the Member for securing a debate on this important matter. As Members have said, this issue was raised at Question Time yesterday. I reiterate that I want all of Northern Ireland to enjoy the benefits of high-quality telecommunications. Many Members have already referred to the benefits of the Internet. Indeed, good-quality broadband access is not just a benefit; it is almost a necessity for businesses, and, increasingly, for households.
I am proud of the fact that the policy adopted in Northern Ireland has resulted in our having 100% coverage. This is the first region in Europe to have such coverage — it does not exist anywhere else.
I thank Members for the way in which they have approached the debate. This area is technical and complex, but the more we discuss it, the more we understand the issues.
Several Members fleetingly mentioned 99% coverage and said that it is perhaps a wee bit misleading to talk about 100% coverage. I must put on record the fact that there is 100% geographical coverage in Northern Ireland. Everybody who wants access to broadband services can get access, whether it is the 99% who get it through telephone lines or the 1% who get it via satellite. However, it has emerged in this debate that there are issues with the speed and cost of the broadband services. I hope to deal with those issues as we proceed.
I thank Members for mentioning the way in which my officials have engaged on this matter. I want to put on record my appreciation of the work of officials; they have engaged on this matter daily and they have responded to enquiries at the public meetings that have been mentioned. That has resulted in greater clarification, and, in some cases, has resolved some issues in relation to access.
In the limited time that is available to me, I want to reiterate that the contract that the Department and BT have entered into requires that a service of at least 512 kilobytes per second is provided to any consumer at a monthly price not exceeding £27. I accept that nowadays one can get a broadband service for less than that, but that is the contract; the figure is capped at £27. It is service-based and technology-neutral. Thus far, the Government have invested £9·23 million. In my view, that is remarkable value for money in comparison with investments in other regions — not just in the UK, but in the Irish Republic as well.
The rationale for local broadband access was to create the conditions for the development of a knowledge economy. Broadband access effectively acts as a key enabler for business development, and there is a mounting volume of international evidence that supports the value of broadband as a key enabler. It is also worth pointing out that, in setting the benchmark for access at 512 kilobytes per second, DETI was seeking to deliver services comparable to any service that was commonly on offer at that time. That technology moves at a fair pace, and when that contract was entered into, that was deemed to be entirely reasonable — indeed, cutting edge.
We were largely constrained from delivering higher access speeds on the basis of Government intervention in what is a privatised and independently regulated industry. It must be borne in mind that the industry is privatised, and therefore Government intervention has to be justified on the basis of whether value for money will be achieved for the taxpayer.
It is technology-neutral, and, as has been mentioned, in practice, over 99% of existing or potential users will access their broadband services across their telephone lines, through what is known as ADSL. Of course, that is dependent on proximity to telephone exchanges. Normally, broadband services can be delivered to premises 7 to 8 kilometres from an exchange. In some instances, BT has successfully delivered the services up to 10 kilometres from an exchange.
However, in a number of rural areas, in particular, it is simply not possible to deliver a broadband service across telephone lines at the moment, and the alternative technology usually involves delivery by satellite. There has been much mention of “many” people in rural areas. We must get this matter into context. As I said at Question Time yesterday, there are over 360,000 broadband connections in Northern Ireland. Some 320,000 are delivered by telephone lines, 40,000 are delivered via cable television services, and 680 use the satellite technology.
Although there are concentrations of satellite customers in the rural west, it is by no means unique to that region; satellite users are scattered across Northern Ireland and cover some 450 individual telephone cabinets.
I understand the argument for ensuring that every connection should be via telephone lines. However, the cost of upgrading each cabinet to enable delivery of services across telephone lines is estimated at £60,000 to £250,000 per cabinet. Assuming that we could lever the additional funding from the private sector — similar to that achieved through the contract with BT — that would require an investment of more than £25 million.
As I said, since the contract with BT was agreed, the costs of telephone delivery services have decreased to between £10 and £15 per month, which are the figures that have already been mentioned. Such decreases are to be expected in a competitive market; however, there has not been a similar reduction in the cost of satellite services.
Under the terms of the contract with BT, the monthly charge for services is capped at £27 per month and the maximum installation charge is £70. An equivalent service to households elsewhere in the UK costs £72 a month, with installation costs of £1,400. It is worth bearing that in mind when considering value for money and the advantage that people in Northern Ireland enjoy.
Issues were raised regarding the quality of the satellite product. The contract requires BT to commission an independent external review on behalf of the Department on the suitability of the satellite product. The report by Heron Consulting in January 2007 concluded that the satellite broadband service is as good as and, for some requirements, better than equivalent ADSL services, and that it is suitable for the requirements of the contract. That is worth putting on record.
When I investigated the matter, I found that many villages and towns across Scotland with populations of 10,000 to 15,000 do not have broadband access. Many western parts of the Irish Republic outside the big urban areas have no coverage at all. Even Japan — one of the most technologically advanced and pioneering countries in the world — does not have 100% broadband coverage.
I understand entirely the points that have been made. I reiterate that if Members become aware of people having problems, particularly business people or households, they should make my departmental officials aware of them, and they will seek to maintain the high standards that have already been set in trying to resolve some of those issues.
I understand that not having broadband access is seen as a disadvantage. However, the alternative is no service at all. In most other regions and countries that is the choice — they simply do not have access to broadband. In Northern Ireland, we took the decision to ensure that there would not be a digital divide in coverage.
The issues that have been raised need to be addressed. However, our broadband coverage is more advanced than that of our counterparts in the Irish Republic or in Scotland, England, Wales and elsewhere.
I assure Members that as we look to the future and to next-generation broadband, all those issues will be addressed through the private sector and with departmental officials working with our UK counterparts in an attempt to provide the best possible coverage across the Province. It should be borne in mind that this is a privatised industry and that value for money has to be considered. The importance of broadband to the economy, which several Members raised, should also be borne in mind.
The issue of stimulation was raised. The two strands to that programme are the implementation of a broadband fund to support small and medium-sized enterprises and the provision of supplier-neutral ICT advice. A significant number of small and medium-sized enterprises west of the Bann will be able to benefit from those services.
Economic appraisals that will examine the value of locating ICT centres in the west are under way.
Members referred to several meetings with representatives of, for example, Omagh District Council and Limavady Borough Council. I shall endeavour to continue such engagement with local government, business organisations, local chambers of commerce, etc. I remain interested in this matter, and I thank every Member who has taken part in the debate for his or her interest and concern. I hope that I have gone some way towards explaining and clarifying the situation, and have provided some assurance that the Department will work with local people to ensure, as far as possible, that they get the quality of service that they want.
Adjourned at 4.30 pm.