northern ireland assembly
Monday 18 February 2008
Executive Committee Business:
Private Members’ Business:
Oral Answers to Questions:
The Assembly met at 12.00 noon (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes’ silence.
Reorganisation of Health and Social Care
Mr Speaker: I have received notice from the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety that he wishes to make a statement regarding proposals for the reorganisation of the health and social care system in Northern Ireland and set out his plans for public health and the creation of a public health improvement agency for Northern Ireland.
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Mr McGimpsey): This year, the National Health Service is celebrating its sixtieth birthday. It was another unionist, William Grant, the Minister of Health and Local Government, who introduced the Health Services Bill to Northern Ireland, saying:
“the time is ripe for a complete overhaul of our health services and the adoption of an ambitious and bold new design.”
I believe that the time is ripe again for a “bold new design”.
The major challenges facing health and social care warrant new thinking and new approaches. My proposals for the reorganisation of health and social care services in Northern Ireland are, therefore, a “bold new design”. On 4 February, I outlined to the Assembly my proposals for the reorganisation of health and social care: today, I am formally launching a 12-week consultation, which marks the start of a unique opportunity for the public, representatives, health and social care staff, patients, clients, carers and all other key stakeholders to have their say.
I thank all the people who work in health and social care in Northern Ireland for their day-to-day dedication. It takes special skills to work in what is often a challenging environment, and it takes a special person, with strong personal values in caring and compassion for others.
My proposals are intended to make it easier for those staff to do their work and, through their commitment, expertise and professionalism, bring about real improvements in health for everyone in Northern Ireland.
William Grant was Minister of Health and Local Government. My proposals are intended to strengthen, renew and reinvigorate the role of local government in improving the health of the population. I am a councillor and an MLA, and I hear at first hand the concerns of my constituents and of colleagues on local councils and in the Assembly. Those concerns include healthcare infections such as MRSA and clostridium difficile, the worries of people struggling to care for elderly parents or children with disabilities, suicide rates, binge drinking, drug misuse and antisocial behaviour, and the stress of living in poor housing, with a fear of crime and, perhaps, little hope for the future.
Local government is already working with communities, helping to develop and shape services to achieve a better quality of life for people. Councillors know the importance of social and economic stability in creating vibrant, thriving, healthy communities. Most importantly, they know the needs of their populations. I want to harness the knowledge that they have gained from their communities. My proposals, therefore, reflect my desire to see local councils working closely with the new structures and playing a pivotal role in developing plans to improve public health.
What do I mean by “public health”? As William Grant said when he introduced his Health Services Bill in 1947, people:
“feel that they are sharing in a great adventure … to serve the health and happiness of all our people.”
More than 60 years later, those words are still apt. Instead of “happiness”, we now talk about “well-being”. Public health, therefore, is what we do as a society to protect and improve the health and well-being of the population. It is much more than just treating or caring for people when they are sick. It is about working upstream, across a broad agenda, to tackle the underlying causes of ill health, improve people’s life skills and, therefore, life choices, prevent disease, and add years to life and life to years.
In 1974, only 16 of the people who died in Northern Ireland were over the age of 100, for example. By 2004, that figure had risen to 69. We have added years to life, and we now renew our efforts to add life to years. Of course, we have seen major improvements in public health. In 1900, life expectancy at birth was 47 — lower than the age of many Members here today. In 1947, when the Health Service began, life expectancy was 63 for men and 66 for women. By 2002, it had increased to 76 and 81, respectively. Deaths from TB have decreased from 932 in 1948 to seven in 2006. Infant mortality has fallen from 53 deaths per 1,000 in 1947 to five per 1,000 in 2004. That is a remarkable improvement.
The past 20 years have seen further significant improvements. Measles used to be commonplace — there were 655 cases in 1984. Now a GP is unlikely to see measles during his or her career; there were only 52 cases in 2006. The awful effects of rubella in pregnancy have been virtually eradicated. Whooping cough has almost disappeared; there were 1,244 cases in 1989 and only 28 in 2006.
However, major public-health challenges remain — some old, such as health inequalities, and some new, relating to lifestyles. Health inequalities are still rife. It is a fact that people in deprived areas, living in poor housing, who are unemployed and have lower education attainment, are more likely to suffer ill health and an early death than the rest of the population. It is simply not acceptable that in Northern Ireland today, life expectancy is determined by where you were born and where you live.
From my constituency office in Sandy Row, a walk across the constituency reveals a stark picture of the health inequalities that are endemic in many communities.
The facts speak for themselves: in the most deprived areas of South Belfast, life expectancy for men is 5% less than for the area as a whole, and, for women, the gap is over three years; the teenage birth rate is 36, compared with 11 for the area as a whole; the average suicide rate is around 24 deaths per 100,000 of population, compared with 13 in the constituency as a whole. The picture is similar in all Members’ constituencies.
Therefore, the lifestyle challenges are stark. Around 20% of primary 1 children and 60% of adults are overweight. Smoking-related deaths account for around 15% of all deaths in Northern Ireland, and smoking rates among manual workers are still around 33% compared with 25% for Northern Ireland as a whole. Forty-three per cent of men and 33% of women binge drink. Northern Ireland rates of teenage pregnancy are among the highest in Europe. Suicide rates, particularly among young people, are rising.
However, it is not only our lifestyles that are damaging our health and placing heavy demands on the Health Service. There are other challenges, including the management of chronic conditions, such as heart disease and strokes, and the need to find new ways to help older people to live full, independent lives for as long as possible. I am pleased to say that we are already seeing a shift towards a more health-promoting service, with a greater emphasis on prevention and better management of long-term conditions. The quality and outcomes framework in the new contract for GPs is a clear example of that, and I congratulate the GPs and all the primary-care teams in Northern Ireland, who outperformed all other parts of the United Kingdom to achieve the highest levels of good-quality care.
Those challenges mean that we must be bold in designing our health and social care structures. I want a future where children born today in any part of Northern Ireland will have the same opportunities to survive their first year of life, play in a safe environment, make the most of their education and schooling, enjoy good mental and physical health, form supportive and positive relationships, secure satisfying and productive jobs, and live long, healthy and fulfilled lives. That is why I propose to put the public-health agenda at the heart of the health and social care system. We will use the yardsticks of improved health and well-being, and reduced health inequalities, to measure its success.
Key elements of the proposals that I announced on 4 February 2008 included a new regional health and social care board to replace the four health and social services boards; five local commissioning groups; a smaller, more sharply focused Department; a common services organisation that will provide a range of support functions for the Health Service; and strengthening the role of health and social services councils with representatives from local government.
Today, I want to talk in detail about the elements of those proposals to transform our ability to address the major public-health challenges that face Northern Ireland. The key public-health elements of my proposals are public health to be placed at the centre of policy and strategy, at ministerial and departmental level, and across Government, through the ministerial group on public health; better co-ordination and delivery of public-health services on the ground through a new multi-professional regional public health agency; a stronger role for local government in shaping health-improvement programmes and in tackling the underlying causes of ill health; robust arrangements to provide public-health support to the regional health and social care board and its local commissioning groups in developing their commissioning plans; and a continued role for health and social care trusts in developing and delivering health-improvement and health-protection programmes to meet key priorities.
The new regional public health agency will be an integral part of the health and social care system. It will drive the public-health agenda in a way that is not possible under current arrangements. It will bring together the wide range of existing public-health functions and provide a renewed and sustained focus on achieving key public-health goals.
I propose three key functions for the agency, the first of which is health improvement. We need a co-ordinated and consistent approach to tackling the key public health challenges. The new agency, therefore, will build on the work of existing partnerships between health and other sectors to achieve demonstrable improvement in priority public health measures; for example, better mental health, lower rates of suicide, lower levels of obesity, drug and alcohol misuse and, ultimately, better life chances for all.
Health improvement staff from the new agency will provide public-health support to the new regional board and its local commissioning groups as they develop their health improvement commissioning plans. The agency will be commissioned directly by me, or through the regional health and social care board, to provide public-health programmes at a regional and a local level.
The new agency will work closely with local government to assist and support councils in their role of improving the health and well-being of local communities. That enhanced support to local councils will be particularly important, as they will soon assume a lead role in community planning. To facilitate further links with local government, elected representatives will be appointed to the board of the new agency.
To deliver this health improvement agenda, the new agency will incorporate the functions of the Health Promotion Agency; the health and well-being improvement functions of the existing health boards, including community development and Investing for Health; the health action zone functions of trusts and boards; and the function of specialist improvement staff working with the trusts. However, to ensure an appropriate local presence, many health improvement staff from the new agency will be based locally, to enable them to work closely with colleagues in local commissioning groups, in the trusts and with local government.
The second function is health protection. The statutory health protection functions of the existing health and social services boards, the communicable disease surveillance centre and the healthcare-associated infection surveillance centre will transfer to a new health protection unit in the agency. Those transfers will ensure that there are clear lines of accountability for surveillance, prevention and control of infection, and for emergency planning. Above all, the new unit will improve the capacity to react quickly, and that will be vital. The recent outbreak of clostridium difficile, and the ongoing need to reduce all healthcare infections, reinforced the importance of being able to respond quickly and effectively. The health protection unit will provide a clear focus and strong, continued leadership in the battle against infection.
Therefore, the health protection unit will, furthermore, be an important regional resource, providing expert health-protection advice to the regional board, the trusts and the Department on prevention and control of infection, emergency planning, immunisation programmes, and other health-protection issues.
The agency’s third function is in the provision of public-health support to commissioning and policy development. That is a key role of the agency, as public-health support to the board will ensure a strong, commissioning function and, therefore, the development of services that are credible to front-line staff and consistent with good practice. The consultation paper sets out a range of proposals to ensure that public-health support to commissioning is fully embedded in the work of the board. Legislation will require the board to seek public-health advice and commissioning; contracted sessional commitments from public-health staff in the new agency to the regional board and its local commissioning groups; co-location of public-health commissioning staff from the agency with staff from the regional board and local groups; and representation from the agency on the board of the regional board.
Those measures are designed to ensure that the regional board is fully able to reflect the public-health agenda and its commissioning plans, so that we achieve our goals for improved health and well-being. The establishment of the regional public health agency, therefore, provides an important new centre of public-health expertise, drawing together existing resources to create a focused, co-ordinated and sustained effort to tackle the challenges I outlined earlier: health inequalities, lifestyle choices, and the prevention and control of infection.
I have put particular emphasis on the important role that public health will play in the new arrangements for health and social care. However, I have proposed other important arrangements for the new structures, and those are described in more detail in the consultation paper. Consultation on those proposals starts today, and I encourage all those who have an interest to participate in that consultation process. I look forward to hearing as many views as possible and to implementing the important reforms that I have announced. I need the knowledge and experience of health and social care staff, patients, carers, local councillors and the many staff who work in the other sectors that contribute to the public-health agenda. That knowledge and experience will inform the consultation and contribute ultimately to my goal of establishing a world-class Health Service that is fit for the twenty-first century.
I have laid out my proposals for the future of health and social care in Northern Ireland. We now need the courage to seize the opportunity that we have been given and to dare to make changes in order that we may be radical and ambitious in our goals and can lay the foundations for a more healthy, more productive and more confident Northern Ireland. I, therefore, commend the proposals, and I look forward to the debate that will follow my announcement.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Mrs I Robinson): I welcome the Minister’s statement. The Committee welcomed his original statement on 4 February that set out his proposals for the reorganisation of the health and social care system as putting an end to the uncertainty felt by staff who work in the sector. I am pleased that the Minister has moved quickly since then and that his proposals — in the form of the consultation document that was launched today — provide us with more detail.
I assure the Minister that the Health Committee will examine and scrutinise the proposals in detail, during both the consultation period and the passage through the House of any subsequent legislation. As part of the proposed reorganisation, the Minister has spelled out his plans for a new regional public-health agency that will drive forward the public-health agenda. The Minister has gone into some detail in highlighting the issues that he wants to see tackled under the new structures, particularly by the new regional public-health agency.
Many of those issues also concern the Health Committee. He mentioned anxieties about suicide rates and efforts that have been made to reduce them. He put great emphasis on the new agency’s working closely with local government. At last week’s meeting, the Committee had planned to hear from the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA) about how local government can work with the Health Service to tackle suicide rates. Unfortunately, however, that session had to be postponed, given that the Committee discussed another pressing issue and one that the Minister has mentioned — the outbreak of clostridium difficile.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClarty] in the Chair)
At Thursday’s meeting, the Committee passed a resolution calling for the Minister to order a public inquiry into the outbreak of clostridium difficile. I welcome the indication that he gave in his weekend statement that he is now minded to order such an inquiry from the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA).
Tackling the public-health issues that face our society is not, of course, a task that the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) can undertake on its own. That task must involve every Department and many other agencies in Northern Ireland. I ask the Minister to elaborate on how he intends to ensure that every Department takes its role in the task seriously and plays its part to the full.
Mrs O’Neill: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I, too, welcome the Minister’s statement, and I commend him on presenting it so quickly after his original statement of 4 February.
I welcome the detail that the Minister has given on the public-health agency. As he said, that agency will take on — among other things — the role of the Health Promotion Agency, community development, work on the Investing for Health strategy, and the trusts’ and boards’ health action zone functions.
On 4 February, I asked the Minister about the role of the Investing for Health strategy in what will now be known as the regional public-health agency. I am glad to see that the Investing for Health strategy is one of the key functions of the new agency. Will the Minister confirm that the current good work that Investing for Health partnerships and health action zones carry out can only be harnessed, rather than eroded, under the remit of the proposed new public-health agency? Go raibh maith agat.
Mr McGimpsey: First, I am grateful to Mrs Robinson for her expressions of support. I understand the need for cross-departmental working and support that fully. There is a ministerial group, which I chair, that promotes health. The key strategy within that is Investing for Health. I see that group continuing to play a vital role, because, as I said, cold, damp houses, poor educational attainment, unemployment, and so on all equal ill health. That is a matter that affects all Departments; no single Department can tackle the challenge on its own.
On Mrs O’Neill’s point about Investing for Health and the health action zones, those are key partnerships and instruments for the future of public health. I should point out that the health action zones are managed by Belfast Health and Social Care Trust. There is a health action zone for north and west Belfast, and there is an argument to be made for having one for south and east Belfast. Disparity in provision exists, and one of the key ways forward through the new agency is a regional application of policy, with equity across the Province. Health action zones and the Healthy Cities initiative play an important part in that; however, local government will have a key role as well. Local councillors know their areas best.
As I have said repeatedly, Departments are very good at making policies and writing plans, but when it comes to delivery and implementation, the people on the ground do it best. Therefore, I see a big role for local government and an important role for local communities.
Mrs Hanna: I welcome the Minister’s statement, and I hope that he will ensure that there is high degree of participation, particularly from front-line staff. They must be best informed, especially the nurses on the wards, the people who work in the community with the elderly, with children at risk and with those who have mental-health illness. I look forward to more detail on the functions of the new regional — I am trying to remember the name of it — public-health agency and the role of the Health Promotion Agency and other bodies within it.
With regard to the control of the outbreak of clostridium difficile in the Northern Health and Social Care Trust area and the action plan for hospitals, those measures demonstrate to the public that there is a new culture that enforces hand washing and educates people about what they must do. That is probably the best statement of the new regime.
Mr McGimpsey: I am grateful for Mrs Hanna’s remarks. The multi-agency, partnership approach is one of the key areas in the proposals. The new agency’s central drive will be to implement strategies on health improvement, health protection and support for commissioning. Health promotion is also very important.
I have initiated an immediate investigation into the clostridium difficile outbreak. We need answers quickly. I have also announced packages to tackle the outbreak, and I anticipate that people will notice a difference on the ground. They need to see the improvements rather than simply being told that they have been made.
Mr McCarthy: It will take some time for Members and the general public to get their heads round all those new names — Carmel Hanna struggled this morning, and I am sure that I will, too.
Up until now, organisations such as healthy living centres and the Health Promotion Agency have excelled in providing leadership in health in local areas, and I would be grateful if the Minister could assure the House that they will continue to receive the support of his Department. The consultation document states that there will be:
“a stronger voice for local government in shaping health improvement programmes, and in tackling the underlying causes of ill-health”.
It is easy to say that, but can the Minister give more detail on how it will be delivered and achieved?
Mr McGimpsey: The new agency will subsume the Health Promotion Agency, the healthy living centres and the health improvement staff in boards and trusts, including health promotion, Investing for Health, community development and health action zones. The health protection staff in boards that work in the communicable disease surveillance centre and the healthcare-associated infection centre and the public health commissioning staff on boards will also be brought together as part of the new agency. Lots of good practice currently takes place, but it is being practised by a number of bodies. The new agency is the best way to ensure a critical mass and joined-in thinking.
Local government will play an important role throughout the structures. As I announced last week, the regional health and care board will have five local commissioning groups, one roughly coterminous with each trust. Local government representatives will be on that board, and those groups will be there to commission for the health needs of their own area.
The original proposal that came from direct rule was that the four patient and client councils should be abolished and replaced by one. That would be a missed opportunity; I want their role to be much wider. I have set out two options in the consultation document: either one body with five local patient and client councils, or just five of the councils. There is a need for a regional as well as a local voice. However, local government and local councillors will also play an important role on those groups. I also see local councils or local government representatives being on the board of the Health Promotion Agency to influence the work of the agency. I also see the agency having a strong influence through representation into the board that includes commissioning. Local government will be properly harnessed in considering and having a vital role in planning and delivery. The expertise and knowledge of their communities and areas that local elected representatives can bring will no longer be ignored.
Mr Buchanan: I welcome the Minister’s statement, and I commend him on moving so quickly into consultation. I hope that the opportunity will be opened up for front-line nursing staff to have a good input into the consultation. The Minister outlined the vital role that local government will have, and that is a good development. What estimates has the Minister made of the efficiency costs that will result from a new regional health body, and how many staff does he anticipate that the body will require?
Mr McGimpsey: Between 250 and 350 staff will be needed. Those are not new jobs; people will come from existing agencies, councils and trusts, and they will be brigaded together under the new agency. That does not mean that they have to move under one roof; they do not. They will work together under a new organisation, and that will be the complement. As they will not be new staff, the efficiencies that were initially set out of reducing 1,700 administrative jobs, saving £53 million, remain the same and will be achieved.
My proposals represent real value for money, which is one of the key issues. The public-health agenda focuses on the demands placed on our Health Service due to the ill health of the population. We can reduce those demands through protection, prevention, and so on. That is the best value for money that we can plan for.
There is a staff complement for the agency, but no new jobs will be created; therefore, the efficiencies will remain the same. I do not envisage any extra costs for the creation of the agency.
Mr Easton: I too welcome the Minister’s announcement, and I look forward to putting more meat on the bones when the issue comes before the Committee. Is the Minister creating another level of bureaucracy with the creation of the regional public health agency? If he is not creating another level of bureaucracy, how will the creation of such an agency reduce bureaucracy?
Mr McGimpsey: The original proposal under direct rule was for the creation of a large authority of around 2,000 staff. A few weeks ago, I announced a proposal of 350 to 400 staff. I am examining the public-health agenda and the complements in the public-health sector, and I am simply bringing them together under one agency. Those 250 to 350 members of staff will achieve better outcomes by working together cohesively.
The creation of the regional public health agency will not add another level of bureaucracy. Those people are already there doing their jobs in the trusts, boards and so on — I am merely bringing them together to work as one. That does not mean geographically bringing them together, but bringing them together in one board to give it the cohesion, drive and prominence that public health deserves. The agency will have an influence by statute on the new board’s commissioning plans.
I am seeking to reduce bureaucracy, not increase it. The new body will be part of the delivery mechanism. In no way, shape or form will it create another level of bureaucracy.
Mr Durkan: I thank the Minister for his positive statement, which goes some way to further colouring in the outline that he gave us a couple of weeks ago. How will the new agency, by virtue of having people rightly embedded in the work of the regional care board and in the work of the different commissioning groups, not be embedded in such a way that it becomes disparately enmeshed in the bureaucracy in those different agencies? How will we ensure that its advocacy, challenging and championing role in health promotion and health protection is distinctive? The Minister and the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety will always be able to find out the agency’s recommendations and arguments in the various decision-making processes, because if there is transparency, openness and accountability, the agency really will make a difference in influencing, informing and inspiring our health performance in the future.
Mr McGimpsey: I thank Mr Durkan for his comments. Openness, transparency and accountability are vital. The Health Service belongs to the people of Northern Ireland. They pay for it, and they have a right for clarity, transparency, openness and accountability. I keep that very much in mind. The agency will have a board, which will be appointed properly through the Minister and the Department. It will be answerable to the Minister and, therefore, to the Executive, to the Committee and to the Assembly.
The board will have an advocacy role in which it will champion the agency’s cause. Furthermore, a statute will ensure that the board’s views are taken into account when the local commissioning groups are commissioning the health needs of their communities and during the consideration of the recommendations contained in the public-health agenda.
Mr Shannon: The Minister’s clear statement on the way forward is welcome. Many people feel that powers relating to health should be devolved to councils. Such a move would mean maximum accountability, and local knowledge, needs and interests could be catered for. Furthermore, councils could respond directly to the communities that they look after. I know that the Minister commented on that earlier, but has he — or will he — consider that point of view?
Mr McGimpsey: I have considered that option. I have been involved in local government for many years — as Mr Shannon knows, and as he has been — and I understand the importance of the local government function. I want to enhance that function. Throughout my political career, I have seen examples during direct rule of areas in which local government should have been involved properly, but were not. That shortfall has been particularly pertinent in the implementation and delivery of health services, and in instances where the local communities should have been involved in the tackling of such issues as health inequalities. For instance, it is unacceptable that a person’s lifespan can be influenced by where he or she was born. Such issues are important, and that is why I see local government embedded firmly in the structures.
I have also democratised the layers; that is important, and it is different from the previous proposals. Many of the measures that I have introduced are different from the previous direct rule proposals, but one of the most radical differences is that direct rule Ministers refused to consult with the people. However, I have introduced a 12-week consultation process that will allow everyone to bring forward their views. That is also important.
Mr McCallister: I welcome the statement and congratulate the Minister on his vision. During the Budget debates, it became obvious how critical it is that the population engages positively with their health. Therefore I agree with the Minister’s comments about the importance of local councils being involved in the delivery and implementation of the new policy. How will the Minister manage his new policy in the new council model? Is there a risk that his proposals are moving ahead and that other Departments are holding him back?
Mr McGimpsey: The engagement of the local population in their health is part of the over-arching strategy. I referred to the report by Dererk Wanless who was commissioned many years ago by the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, to ascertain whether the country could afford a Health Service that offered free healthcare “from cradle to grave”, as envisaged by Aneurin Bevan. The Wanless Report concluded that the country could afford such a Health Service, but that it would depend on three factors. First, investment would have to be made in staff and training and in modern premises and modern equipment rather than in the maintenance of old equipment and old premises. Secondly, there had to be efficiencies in the service with no more duplication or waste. Thirdly — and most importantly — the Wanless Report stated that the local population had to be engaged in a responsibility for their own health. That is covered in my public-health agenda, which is the key part of the proposals that I made this morning.
I am following that general outline, because — in common with Members — I believe that a Health Service as envisaged by Bevan is one of the keys to citizenship and one of the most important attributes of citizenship to this country. That is the pathway that I am following.
Concerning the review of public administration (RPA), it would be beneficial if I knew how many councils there will be. Currently, there are 26 councils and, under direct rule, it was proposed that there would be seven, which is an arbitrary figure set by the Secretary of State. It is fair to say that there will not be seven or 26, but some figure in the middle. I sit on the subgroup responsible for the review of public administration, and I am no wiser about those plans. However, the necessity to reach a decision is becoming critical. That lack of agreement is beginning to, and will increasingly, hamstring health proposals and, consequently, affect the population’s health and well-being. Having said that, regardless of whether the final number is 11 or 15, the Health Service will easily adapt to the agreed number of councils. However, it is important that such a decision is made, not least in relation to commissioning and today’s subject of the public-health agenda.
Mr Gallagher: I give the Minister’s statement a guarded welcome. With respect to the Minister, for people outside, this is an entirely different matter. Such proposals are likely to be perceived as an added layer of bureaucracy. Therefore, it is important that the new body’s role is clarified at an early stage, and that it proves that it has the teeth to tackle crucial health issues, such as health inequalities.
Such bodies are often considered, particularly by people on the margins, to be evidence of greater centralisation. When many people who work in health action zones or healthy-living centres hear today’s news, they will feel that it threatens their funding and roles. Much of their power developed at ground level, and they will be concerned that that power will be taken from them and given to the centre. I would like to hear the Minister’s views on that.
In addition, considering the development of cross-border initiatives, particularly those being advanced under the Cooperation and Working Together (CAWT)umbrella, what role in the new structures does the Minister envisage for such organisations?
Mr McGimpsey: The Member is concerned that people will consider the proposals to be another layer of bureaucracy, which they are not. I will rely on people such as Mr Gallagher to be advocates for the new body. As the proposals work their way through the Committee and consultation processes, Mr Gallagher will begin to appreciate their merits, and that will be a way to reassure the population and those who work in the various relevant bodies.
These proposals will allow the job to be done better. There are some shining examples of public-health services working well; however, there are also examples in which they are less effective. One must only consider the list of health inequalities, such as life expectancy for populations in areas of disadvantage, in order to appreciate that our successes have been, to put it mildly, patchy. Therefore, something must be done. We must make progress in certain areas.
Many years ago, the Department produced the Investing for Health strategy, which was described as the best public-health strategy document in Europe, and, ever since, it has been producing successful results. The smoking cessation strategy, which was launched just over a year ago, is a shining example. There are many other such examples; however, the results are patchy and we must improve and up our game, not least because, if we want to keep a Health Service such as that which we have now, we will have to consider demand, and that will be about helping the population to take better care of themselves. Consultation will play a key role in all of that.
We have a cross-border food safety body, as well as other initiatives, which I am examining. My approach is simple: my responsibility is to the people of Northern Ireland. Where I see benefits to the people of Northern Ireland, I will support them. Cooperation and Working Together is one of those mechanisms: my counterpart, the Minister for Health and Children in the Irish Republic, Mary Harney, uses a similar approach.
UK Energy Bill: Legislative Consent Motion
The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Mr Dodds): I beg to move
That this Assembly endorses the principle of the extension to Northern Ireland of the provision of the Energy Bill dealing with gas storage which is contained in clause 35 of, and paragraph 5 of Schedule 1 to, that Bill as introduced in the House of Commons.
This legislative consent motion is solely concerned with the one transferred issue in the Energy Bill from Northern Ireland’s perspective: that is, the restriction of the extent of the Gas (Northern Ireland) Order 1996. It is a somewhat complicated matter, so I will take a few minutes to explain it further.
The United Kingdom Government can legislate at Westminster for gas and carbon dioxide storage in Northern Ireland waters, even without a legislative consent motion, because the seabed is a reserved matter. Even though energy policy is transferred, the clear legal advice is that that reservation on the seabed gives Westminster enough reason to legislate.
If the UK Minister of State for Energy, Malcolm Wicks, legislates for gas storage in Northern Ireland territorial waters, the 1996 Order is effectively repealed; as lawyers would say, impliably repealed. Of course, in order to achieve clarity, it is important that we include the provision in the UK Energy Bill, which is the purpose of this legislative consent motion.
It is undesirable to simply have two pieces of legislation that appear to conflict with each other. It is better that the postion is clarified with a small amendment to the 1996 Order. The amendment to the Energy Bill amends the definition of gas storage facility in article 3 of the 1996 Order, to ensure that it is clear that offshore gas storage facilities in Northern Ireland territorial waters are excluded. That makes it clear that there is no conflict between the two regimes. Having a legislative consent motion is, therefore, necessary, because Northern Ireland legislation is being amended. It also respects the position of the Assembly.
The UK Government could legislate without a legislative consent motion, but in my view, that would be the wrong thing to do. They have agreed that the legislative consent motion is required. Assenting to a legislative consent motion gives Northern Ireland its place. If we do not agree to it, the UK Government will legislate anyway, without the amendment to the 1996 Order. In those circumstances it would be less clear which regime would apply, resulting in mixed signals to the industry. Nevertheless, the advice is clear about the actual legal position.
No meaningful powers will be sacrificed. The Gas (Northern Ireland) Order 1996 was never designed to deal with the offshore environment in any case. There is a case to be made that the UK Government may already have powers to license gas storage under our waters under the Petroleum Act 1998. It is also unlikely that there would ever be more than one or two such facilities in Northern Ireland waters, so the exercise of those powers by the UK Department for Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR) would only happen extremely infrequently.
My aim throughout the entire process has been to consider what is best for Northern Ireland. I believe that there are practical advantages for Northern Ireland in joining the United Kingdom-wide regime for offshore gas storage and unloading and carbon capture in storage. It is a tried and tested regime, which works well for oil and gas production. It makes full use of BERR’s expertise in those areas. It gives Northern Ireland value for money by not having to replicate a regime that exists elsewhere. As I said a moment ago, it does not materially dilute or constrain our powers.
The Northern Ireland dimension will be well represented in the decision-making process on any project within our waters. I have secured from the Energy Minister a commitment to a memorandum of understanding that will set out how the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform will work with relevant Northern Ireland authorities in the event of any proposal for a gas storage or unloading facility in Northern Ireland territorial waters. We have ensured that the Northern Ireland perspective will be taken into account.
In conclusion, I believe that that outcome is the best available outcome for Northern Ireland. The best way to respect the devolved settlement would be for the Assembly to assert its devolved position and actively consent to the restriction on the Gas (Northern Ireland) Order 1996 via the legislative consent motion. I therefore ask honourable Members to assent to the legislative consent motion. I beg to move.
The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Mr P Maskey): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I will outline the Committee’s response on this matter, after which I will say a few words from a personal point of view.
On 13 December 2007, the Committee considered a paper, and received a briefing, from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) energy division on the UK Energy Bill. The Committee was invited to note the various elements of the Bill and their implications for the North, and to agree that a legislative consent motion should be sought to respect the devolution settlement and make a limited restriction to the extent of the Gas (Northern Ireland) Order 1996 offshore. The Committee agreed with that recommendation, following which DETI secured the Executive’s agreement to the legislative consent motion.
Further to that, the Minister wrote to the Committee to inform it of the introduction of the Energy Bill and to set out the terms of the legislative consent motion. On 14 February, the Committee approved the terms of the legislative consent motion. On behalf of the Committee, I want to emphasize that the motion is restricted to that sole transferred provision, which makes a limited restriction on the extent of the Gas (Northern Ireland) Order 1996 offshore. It is one very little window that deals with the singular issue of offshore gas storage and does not deal with the detail and wide range of the UK Energy Bill.
In particular, the nuclear power issue has been raised in different quarters, and I again emphasise that the legislative consent motion is in no way connected to the nuclear provisions of the UK Energy Bill. Agreeing to the motion does not imply agreement or assent to the other elements of the Bill.
It is important to note that refusal to assent to the legislative consent motion will not change the position in respect of nuclear power in the North — those clauses will come into operation if Parliament agrees them.
I will now make some personal comments. Recently, the nuclear energy issue has been, for want of a better phrase, blown up in some of the press coverage. [Interruption.]
Mr S Wilson: There would be some fallout when that happened.
Mr P Maskey: Another fall-out, Sammy. That is right.
I take this opportunity to call on the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister and the Environment Minister to adopt an approach similar to that of John Gormley, the Minister with responsibility for nuclear energy in the South.
Mr S Wilson: And for putting his waste over the border.
Mr P Maskey: The all-island approach could, and should, be taken, because the issue is too important for us not to take it seriously. Alex Salmond made it very clear that there is no chance of more nuclear power stations being built in Scotland. That is a very welcome statement, and, as a close neighbour of Scotland, we can feel safe. The DOE has responsibility for planning, and Minister Dodds has the responsibility for energy solutions. I hope that the Ministers in the Executive can take the same approach as has been taken in other areas on these islands.
Just to clear up any confusion: I believe that investment in renewable energy is the best way forward. However, more research and work must go into that sector, because it is of the utmost importance that we make those decisions properly and make them well. It has been mentioned that nuclear power plants could be handed over to the private sector. Again, I want to put on record Sinn Féin’s concern that profit could be put ahead of health and safety issues. We are all too aware of the disasters that nuclear energy has created on these islands in the past.
I thank the Minister for his statement today.
Mr S Wilson: I welcome the motion that the Minister has brought to the House. It is nice to see that even Sinn Féin is quite happy to integrate with the United Kingdom on this issue.
When it comes to wider energy issues, it is clear that despite Sinn Féin’s separatist claims and aims, it recognises that the fortunes of Northern Ireland are inextricably linked in many ways to the rest of the United Kingdom.
It is important to ensure that Northern Ireland does not get caught out by fluctuations in the energy market. As Northern Ireland is dependent on gas, oil and coal, a way must be found to ensure that there is some means of storing fuel in order that, in the event of short-term fluctuations in supply, the power stations can continue to operate. I have a particular interest in the issue, because one site that may be considered for storing gas is off the East Antrim coast.
Will the Minister detail what powers the Assembly, his Department and other Departments will have in relation to the planning applications for such sites? Will the applications be handled outwith Northern Ireland? Will it be his Department, or a Department located in another part of the United Kingdom, that deals with any safety concerns that people may express? People are concerned that if it is the latter, they may not have the same opportunities for direct representation. Perhaps the Minister will spell out to the Assembly the implications for planning, health and safety and other associated works.
Mr Durkan: I welcome the points made by the Member, and I am glad that he is sensitive to the fact that people may have health and safety concerns about storing gas under the seabed. I wish that he would also accept that people have legitimate health-and-safety concerns about the proposals — which he supports — to introduce nuclear power.
Mr S Wilson: There is a difference between the two subjects: any proposals to generate nuclear power in Northern Ireland will, of course, be subject to the scrutiny of the Department of the Environment and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment. I was simply asking whether there would be some local input.
Let us talk about nuclear power. I am the sole Member of the Assembly to have received a prestigious award from the Green Party — at least, I think that it is prestigious, but perhaps it is not — in recognition of the views that I have expressed on the subject. I digress a little, but then the Deputy Chairperson of the Committee was allowed to talk about the nuclear power element of the UK Energy Bill.
It strikes me as odd that those who jump up and down about nuclear energy are the same people who jump up and down about CO2 emissions — I see that the Member for North Down Brian Wilson is nodding in agreement — and about wind farms, because they spoil the environment, and about the tidal generation of power, because it disturbs marine life. People who object to nuclear power cannot have it every way. They do not want fossil fuels, renewable energy or nuclear power. Do they want people to live in the dark? That seems to be their only alternative.
Dr McDonnell: Does the Member accept that the emissions from nuclear fission are slightly more toxic than carbon dioxide?
Mr S Wilson: I do not know what science journals the Member opposite reads. Maybe he gets his information from ‘The Beano’ and ‘The Dandy’. Wherever it comes from, it is certainly not the view of the experts.
A proper debate about this issue is required. Members want economic growth and better standards of living for people. To achieve that, more energy will have to be consumed, whether we like it or not. If the Green Party does not want that energy to come from fossil fuels or renewable fuels —
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. That is not the subject of this debate, Mr Wilson. If you wish to table a motion about that issue, please do so. In the meantime, please return to the motion that is under debate.
Mr S Wilson: I apologise. I was waylaid by the remarks of the Members opposite. Maybe I have gone down a cul-de-sac. Perhaps we will debate that issue in the future.
The Minister’s proposals will ensure that we are able to have storage facilities for the kind of fuels that we currently use. Members need to be made aware of what planning and health and safety safeguards there will be. Subject to that, I welcome the motion.
Dr McDonnell: I notice that my learned friend opposite did not answer the question about the nuclear particles.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. Dr McDonnell, you are straying off the subject. Please stick to the motion in hand.
Dr McDonnell: I recognise that the Minister has indicated that the motion is a mere technicality. For reassurance, particularly for members of the public who may not always read between the lines, will the Minister state whether his proposal weakens the control of offshore gas storage? Will there be any difference in the regulation — have we conceded all control of offshore gas storage to become part of a uniform UK package, leaving us responsible only for onshore storage? Does this affect the gas interconnector, and will it affect the building of another gas interconnector? Will the gas that flows across the Irish Sea be affected?
Without straying too far off the subject, I ask the Minister to agree to a review of general energy supplies. Energy-supply companies have used instability and the rising prices of energy to rip off the public.
The issue of nuclear energy and renewable energy needs to be considered seriously. Motions on that issue may be tabled in the future, but it would be useful if there were also a clear steer coming from the Department.
Mr Neeson: I support the motion. This is an important issue, of significance to East Antrim. As Sammy Wilson said, plans are already being made to identify sites in that area.
It is important that greater security of supply be confirmed. That is really what the motion is about. Prior to the suspension of the Assembly, the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment was the driving force behind the extension of natural gas supplies, not only to the north-west, but to all other parts of Northern Ireland. The South/North natural gas pipeline provides facilities to develop the network throughout Northern Ireland.
Times have certainly changed. I remember ploughing a lonely furrow in the 1982 Assembly when I supported the linking of the Kinsale natural gas pipeline to Northern Ireland. At that time, I was lambasted by members of the DUP. I welcome the changing times.
Mr Shannon: I thank the Minister for his statement.
The Energy Bill could affect the fishing industry, and some fishing organisations have put their concerns to me. The Minister said that the gas-storage facility will extend to 12 nautical miles from the shore. If that is so, fishing organisations need to know how, or whether, that will affect them. As we all know — and those who do not know should know — Northern Ireland’s fishing industry is under pressure due to job losses, restriction on the number of days on which boats can go to sea, smaller quotas and over-policing by the Royal Navy and the fisheries division of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD). The fishing industry is concerned that it will be directly affected by the Energy Bill and that the bureaucracy from it could, in theory, and perhaps reality, destroy the industry.
Mr Dodds: I thank the Members who participated in the short, but interesting, debate, which managed to encompass some major issues in the short time allocated to it
I reiterate what the Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment, Mr Paul Maskey, and other Members said — the legislative consent motion refers to only a specific part of the Gas (Northern Ireland) Order 1996. The Department is clarifying and asserting the devolved position of the Assembly. Agreeing to the legislative consent motion does not mean agreeing with the policy content of the reserved matters in the Energy Bill, the most prominent of which are the nuclear decommissioning clauses.
Similarly, agreeing with the legislative consent motion does not mean that Northern Ireland is being lined up for nuclear power. In the debate, there was a brief exchange about nuclear power, and although it is an important issue that many people are concerned about, it is not relevant to this debate. Interestingly, when the Department of Trade and Industry carried out its consultation on nuclear power, attendances at the meetings were not very high. In that sense, the public did not seem concerned about nuclear power; although some may feel that there is no prospect of it happening anyway.
The Assembly can rest assured that, as Mr Sammy Wilson stated, two key consents are required for nuclear power in Northern Ireland. Although nuclear power is an excepted matter and will never be devolved to Northern Ireland, any proposal to build a nuclear power station in Northern Ireland would require consent for planning permission and permission for electricity generation. Responsibility for those rests with the Minister of the Environment and me, respectively. Without our consent, no nuclear power station could be built here.
To clarify, the Energy Bill is making it clear that operators are fully responsible for the costs of the decommissioning of any new nuclear power station as well as waste management and disposal in the lifetime of the station. No one will disagree that, in those circumstances, the burden of cost should lie with the operators of the station instead of the taxpayer.
The provision relating to nuclear energy in the UK Energy Bill is sensible, but it is not the main issue before the House. However, since the matter has been raised, I hope that what I have said has allayed concerns. I welcome the constructive approach being taken by Members.
I will deal briefly with several points that have been raised. I agree that the focus should be on renewable energy. That is the main focus for Northern Ireland in relation to energy generation, and it is what the recently announced grid study is concerned with.
Mr Sammy Wilson referred to the situation offshore at East Antrim. The most likely location will be in inland waters, and the Energy Bill will not cover that. My Department intends to legislate separately for inland waters, with full consultation with the Assembly, which should take care of those concerns. Planning considerations do not apply offshore. Therefore, the memorandum of understanding, which I referred to, will ensure that all projects are subject to full consultation with Northern Ireland authorities and should include health and safety issues.
Dr McDonnell raised several issues, including renewable sources of energy. As I said in my opening remarks, there are practical advantages for Northern Ireland in joining the UK regime for offshore gas and storage, primarily because it has the expertise. We would have to set up infrastructure and backup systems for situations that might never happen, or only happen once in a blue moon. It would not make sense not to make full use of BERR’s expertise in those areas. It is a value-for-money issue — we would not be replicating a regime that exists elsewhere.
The focus should be on renewable sources of energy. It is imperative for Northern Ireland, not only to comply with EU directives, including the recent proposal for a directive on renewable energy and other measures aimed at tackling climate change, but to reduce its dependency on imports of finite fossil fuels. There is an imperative to do that, and we are committed to mainstreaming renewable energy sources as part of the future energy mix of Northern Ireland. We must recognise that there will be an energy mix. Northern Ireland is deriving electricity as a result of nuclear generation. Therefore, it is a case of finding the appropriate mix. It is imperative, because of EU directives and other reasons, to do more on renewable energy, while recognising that it is a matter of balance.
Dr McDonnell mentioned the electricity interconnector. However, that has no impact on the Energy Bill. Mr Neeson referred to gas pipelines and the interconnector. My principle, and that of my DUP colleagues, has always been that we should co-operate with the Irish Republic on matters of mutual best interest. If it is in our mutual best interest to do so, and if they will benefit us economically, and in other ways, then we should support such projects. We have no difficulty with that.
The DUP takes issue with Mr Neeson and some of his colleagues over the drive towards North/South co-operation for purely political reasons. My party will not support that. The North/South electricity connector and other energy connections provide greater security of supply, reduce costs, and link into the greater UK/Irish Republic/European energy market. Therefore, those are very much east-west issues as well as value-for-money issues, and they are in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland. For that reason, the DUP will support the interconnector.
I listened carefully to what Mr Shannon said about the impact on fishing. A memorandum of understanding will be drawn up, and I welcome suggestions on what that should contain. I will be happy to liaise further with him on that matter.
I hope that I have provided reassurance on the various issues that that have been raised. It is important that Northern Ireland shows that it is open for business on key energy security of supply infrastructure.
The Energy Bill gives clear signals to industry on investment; it is about encouraging and supporting long-term investment in a wide range of energy infrastructure. Assenting to the motion will make it clear which regime will apply in Northern Ireland’s waters. Nothing discourages investment faster than a lack of clarity. I took the view that it was important for Northern Ireland to be in on this Bill. Every Government is likely to be concerned about the security of their energy supplies over the coming decades. The Energy Bill is one step towards ensuring that Northern Ireland will be able to keep the lights on.
Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly endorses the principle of the extension to Northern Ireland of the provision of the Energy Bill dealing with gas storage which is contained in clause 35 of, and paragraph 5 of Schedule 1 to, that Bill as introduced in the House of Commons.
Mr Kennedy: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I understand that media outlets are confirming that junior Minister Ian Paisley has tendered his resignation. Given that the post of junior Minister is an appointment of the Assembly, will you confirm whether and when there will be a ministerial statement from the First Minister, or a personal statement from Mr Paisley Jnr, informing the House of today’s important developments?
Mr Deputy Speaker: At this very moment, the Speaker is considering the issue, and I have no doubt that he will report to the House later.
Roads Maintenance Funding
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes for a winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes. One amendment has been selected and published on the Marshalled List. The proposer of the amendment will have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes for a winding-up speech.
Mr Cobain: I beg to move
That this Assembly calls on the Minister for Regional Development to review roads maintenance funding and to ensure that sufficient funding will be made available in line with the Roads Service structural maintenance funding plan.
This is, perhaps, a more boring subject than the last one. However, the motion is important and significant for a variety of reasons. Roads maintenance is not an optional extra or an unnecessary add-on. It is intrinsic to the operation of a modern highway system that is fit for purpose and delivers the sort of basic infrastructure that this Province needs in order to attract inward investment and create jobs and wealth for our people.
There are provable links between infrastructure development and economic expansion. Forty years ago, France had the worst roads in Europe. The French tackled the problem and created a roads system that is the envy of many countries. The French attribute the growth of their economy, in part, to the development of their country’s infrastructure. The quality of road-building and road-finishing in France is far in advance of that in this country.
The French system is so well developed that it provides alternative routes for heavy traffic, especially in urban locations, and that has worked wonders for the economy and in easing traffic congestion in towns. The French roads network is designed on a grid system, which has been the driving force behind a regional distribution of industry that is far healthier than that in this Province.
The point is that roads design and maintenance are critical to economic success. That is why one can see so much highway development in the newly emergent countries of eastern Europe. For example, Bulgaria is constructing a new superhighway into Romania, which involves some major engineering works and bridge construction. That country has not missed the point about the link between the development and maintenance of good roads and economic development.
The Irish Republic has also developed its roads infrastructure by leaps and bounds. The quality of roads in the South is commonly contrasted with the state of those in Northern Ireland. That is a reversal of the situation of 40 years ago.
Maintaining roads is as important as building them. We need to learn what will happen if we do not maintain our infrastructure properly. Underinvestment in the railways has taught us that lesson already. Such underinvestment leads to deterioration, which in turn creates the need for massive investment at a later stage. After 30 years of neglect under direct rule, one would have thought that we would have recognised the consequences of underinvestment. Planned expenditure on structural roads maintenance for this year — 2007-08 — stands at only £3,800 a mile. That is only 70% of what the figure was four years ago. This year, it is planned that £59 million will be spent on roads maintenance overall, compared with the £82 million that was spent in 2003-04. That represents a 28% cut.
The story of that decline can be traced, year-on-year, back to 2003. In that year, the Department for Regional Development spent £82 million on structural roads maintenance; by 2004, the figure had declined to £73 million; in 2005, it had declined further to £70 million; in 2006, it fell to £65 million; and in 2007, it declined, yet again, to £59 million.
Worse than that, the amount that is currently spent on structural roads maintenance is a small fraction of what is spent elsewhere in the United Kingdom. In England, £13,000 a kilometre is spent, which equals £20,000 a mile; in Wales, spend is £7,600 a kilometre, or £12,000 a mile. Those figures compare with the £3,800 that is spent on each mile in Northern Ireland. Therefore, Northern Ireland spends just 18% of what is spent in England and 31% of what is spent in Wales. Those figures mean that, by English standards, Northern Ireland should be spending £331 million a year on roads maintenance, instead of the £59 million that we propose to spend in this financial year.
Ring-fencing a roads budget of £110 million a year for three years would enable us to spend in three years what the English spend in one. By any standards, that is a pitiful figure.
An explanation for that is required from the Minister. By “explanation”, I do not want him to say that he does not have the money, which is the usual mantra that many Ministers recite. I ask the Minister where the money is spent and how exactly he arrived at the current set of priorities for the Department, which has pushed structural roads maintenance so far down the pecking order of necessary works. We are all concerned at the apparent complacencies of the Department on the issue. A first-rate roads infrastructure is a critical factor in attracting inward investment and jobs. It is bad enough that Northern Ireland cannot compete on a level playing field with the Irish Republic on corporation tax; it is even worse when the amount that the Minister spends to maintain the Province’s roads is only 18% of what is spent on each mile in England.
One has to wonder at the Department’s priorities. The lack of proper investment will have immediate consequences. In 2006, the Department for Regional Development (DRD) spent over £100,000 in settling claims, and a further 136 claims were still outstanding. In 2007, it spent £73,000 on claims. Since 2005, the Department for Regional Development has paid out almost £333,333 in personal injury and vehicle claims. We hope that the Department has not made the appalling calculation that, in order to justify its inaction over structural roads maintenance, an acceptable amount of public money can be paid in damage claims.
That is why I proposed the motion. Unless a ring-fenced, dedicated budget is applied to structural roads maintenance, the Province will soon resemble a Third World country. How will that resonate with the investment conference that is to be held here in May?
Mr Dallat: I beg to move the following amendment: Insert at end:
“; and further calls for an urgent review of end of year management of funds to ensure that a more strategic approach is applied to the way in which maintenance schemes are undertaken immediately before the end of the financial year.”
I thank Mr Cobain and his colleagues for bringing this timely motion before the Assembly. I hope that the SDLP’s amendment is accepted.
The lack of roads maintenance and the failure to operate early intervention are two of the more frequent issues that elected representatives must deal with daily. A lack of funding to tackle serious roads maintenance is costing millions of pounds every year because damage that is left unattended leads to costly repairs, if they are eventually carried out. Indeed, recently, the Department gave a presentation to my local council that illustrated the seriousness of the problem. It has got to the stage where the Department would dearly love to abandon many of the roads that are under its control.
Of course, a price cannot be put on the cost in road deaths and serious injuries. It is not possible to measure in monetary terms the grief, the physical and emotional pain, the days lost from work, the pressures on the emergency services, the horrendous cost to hospitals, and, of course, as Mr Cobain mentioned, the high cost of insurance. It cannot be said for certain how much of that is attributable to the less-than-satisfactory roads maintenance programme. However, I doubt whether anyone will take exception to the argument that the risk of road-traffic incidents is significantly higher when roads have lost most of their adhesive properties as a direct result of neglect, damage by exceptional hot or cold weather and the haphazard approach in which money is spent on their repair.
The SDLP put forward its amendment because it is particularly concerned about the mad scramble at the end of the financial year to spend money with a less-than-satisfactory approach as to how that is done. How can any industry cope with the demands of a customer, which is the Department for Regional Development in this case, when its purchasing strategy is reduced to impulse buying if a windfall of money becomes available at the end of the financial year?
Not only are lives and money on the line; so, too, are jobs in the roads industry. The under-usage of plant and machinery costs millions of pounds. They are used little because of the stop/start approach to road maintenance, particularly at the end of the financial year. The road maintenance programme is also the victim of lack of co-operation between utilities, which adds greatly to the cost of roads maintenance, the horrendous damage to roads and, dare I say it, to death and serious injury. The Minister will be aware of several Public Accounts Committee reports on the seriousness of the damage that is caused to roads as a direct result of failure to enforce that utilities stick to their undertakings to reinstate roads.
The Minister must look seriously at end-of-year management of funds. Given that all Departments operate resource accounting, surely it is possible to carry forward unspent money into a new financial year when there are good arguments for doing so and it is short term. I hope that the Assembly has moved beyond the old receipts-and-payments method of controlling finances; that it has progressed from Mr Micawber’s financial philosophy of measuring income and expenditure.
The SDLP supports the motion and hopes that the amendment is accepted by the Ulster Unionist Party. My party believes that, for all of the reasons that I have explained, there is an urgent need to take a strategic approach to how money is spent on road maintenance, not only for the sake of the people who use roads but for the contracting firms that employ many hundreds of people to carry out that work. Bad practices must be left behind and progress made towards a more strategic and intelligent approach.
Mr Bresland: I welcome the opportunity to speak on the motion. There is a serious need to invest in improvement of the roads infrastructure, especially in the west of the Province. The Programme for Government sets out a clear commitment to improve the roads infrastructure. Roads remain a major issue in my constituency.
I welcome the considerable investment that has been made in upgrading the A5, which links Ballygawley and Omagh and carries on to Strabane and Londonderry. That will provide a considerable opportunity for my constituency of West Tyrone, alongside further investment and the recently commenced improvement of the road from Dungannon to Ballygawley.
In 1965, the west lost its rail network, and the commitment was given to improve the roads infrastructure there. It has taken more than 40 years to honour that commitment.
Although I welcome the investment in the A5, I am concerned about lack of investment in road and bridge maintenance. That lack of investment will have a serious negative impact on a number of areas in West Tyrone, such as Newtownstewart, which is a historic town at the very heart of my constituency. The town has three main entrances from the recently constructed A5 bypass, and two have been converted into single-lane carriageways due to structural problems with the Abercorn Bridge and Moyle Road. The Minister for Regional Development advised me that improvements were five years away and would cost £1·3 million. The single carriageways have created an extremely negative impact for Newtownstewart, especially in the business community.
It is intolerable that the Department for Regional Development cannot find £1·3 million to solve those problems. Newtownstewart, like many towns in West Tyrone, is struggling to attract investment and faces major challenges from larger towns such as Omagh, Strabane, Enniskillen and Londonderry.
I urge the Minister to find the necessary funding to address the problems facing Newtownstewart and the many other issues relating to roads infrastructure and road maintenance in West Tyrone.
Mr W Clarke: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Members for bringing the motion to the Chamber. I welcome the opportunity to speak on funding for road resurfacing across the North. I have every confidence that my party colleague Conor Murphy is determined to use his ministerial position to address the failures of successive direct rule Administrations.
Mr Wells: Did the Minister write that for you?
Mr W Clarke: What was that, Jim?
As I said, direct rule Ministers failed to invest properly in our roads network.
I am from South Down, which is mainly a rural constituency. The workforce commutes daily to Belfast and other large urban centres such as Newry and Lisburn. I realise that our inadequate roads network is a significant factor that is stifling local economic growth.
The Mournes is an area of outstanding natural beauty, and there is a massive potential for tourism in South Down. However, that can be achieved only through a joined-up approach to spatial development. There needs to be significant investment in the roads infrastructure to ensure that visitors across the island can make the journey to the north-east coast without having to endure a bad roads infrastructure.
It is important that the Department for Regional Development, with the Assembly’s support, takes the necessary progressive and innovative steps in planning for the future. That means implementing policies that make use of cross-border initiatives which can have significant benefits for our economy. I welcome, for example, the recent announcement of almost €400,000 for a feasibility study for a bridge at Narrow Water in Warrenpoint, a signature project, which Sinn Féin has been to the fore in lobbying for. Were it to be realised, the project would have major benefits for South Down and for the east border region.
We also need to secure capital funding for a relief road around the southern side of Newry — I just thought I would get that in — to ensure the continuing expansion of a city that has grown significantly in the past 10 years.
The Department’s priority must be to maintain existing services and the underlying structure of roads and footways that is essential for the social and economic well-being of the North. I welcome that this is a high priority for the Minister who has proven his commitment to that goal by his willingness to address a number of local issues in my constituency — I thought that I would get that in as well.
However, clearly all of the Department’s programmes are under-resourced, and there is no ideal or painless solution to be found to meet the improvements that are necessary to our less-than-adequate roads network.
I commend the Minister for putting in place measures that should ensure an equitable distribution of road maintenance funding across the North. DRD must be more proactive in its approach to highlighting the importance of networking to other Ministers, the business community and, of course, the general public. Furthermore, the road construction industry must have certainty in workflow and factual budgets in order to ensure the delivery of quality work programmes. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr McCarthy: I support both the motion and the amendment, and congratulate John McCallister on giving us the chance to debate this important subject. I thank the Minister for being in the Chamber.
In my constituency, road maintenance is the number one complaint, after health. The Minister was due to visit my locality a few weeks ago. Unfortunately, for health — [Interruption.]
Mrs I Robinson: Our locality.
Mr McCarthy: Yes.
The Minister was due to visit our locality a few weeks ago. Unfortunately, the Minister, for health reasons, was unable to fulfil that important engagement. However, he has assured me that he will visit my constituency —
Mr Elliott: Will the Member give way?
Mr McCarthy: I have only started, but I will give way.
Mr Elliott: I am just looking for clarification. Was it the Health Minister who could not attend your constituency because of roads issues, or the roads Minister because of health issues?
Mr McCarthy: It was the Minister who is in our presence at the moment. I hope that he is now back to full health, because I want to see him in my constituency as soon as possible.
The starting point is that the roads in Strangford, and particularly the Ards Peninsula, were built many years ago — for horses and carts. Because of the lack of even minimal maintenance over those years, that is all they are good for now. We are crying out for immediate help to get the roads back up to a reasonable standard.
As has already been said, Roads Service is paying out a huge amount of cash in compensation claims. Surely that money would be better spent, in the first instance, on providing the rate- and taxpayer with the improved road surface, to which we are all entitled? The Minister and his Department must know that bad roads create the danger of road accidents. God knows that Northern Ireland has had far too many road deaths and serious injuries. Maintenance could help to prevent further fatalities on many roads.
The A20 is the main road from Portaferry to Newtownards. That is the only road on which we can travel to get to work. The A2 runs from Portaferry to Donaghadee via the Irish Sea coast. I am going to mention a few names, and I have three minutes in which to do it. These are the roads in my constituency that are crying out for help. [Interruption.]
Yes. Rubane Road; Gransha Road; Lisbane Road; Loughdoo Road; Cloughey Road; Portaferry Road, Cloughey; Abbacy Road; Ardminnan Road; Deer Park Road — if anyone in the Chamber feels that these roads are not ready for maintenance, please interrupt me. Drumardan Road; Dunevly Road; Inishargy Road; Manse Road; Glastry Road; Parsonage Road; Tullycross Road; Bar Hall Road; Kearney Road; Lough Shore Road; Tullymally Road; Tubber Road — I have a picture of Tubber Road, although I am sure that the Minister cannot see it. It is an absolute disgrace, with water three-quarters of the way across. My colleagues will know exactly what I am talking about. I will give the Minister this picture before I leave. It is unbelievable, and it is continuously like that.
Ballygalget Road; Ballyblack Road; Ballyrussley Road; Ballyhemlin Road; Ballyegan Road; Ballygelagh Road; Blackstaff Road; Ballyeasborough Road; Upper Ballygelagh Road. I have run out of roads. I can assure the Minister that almost every road in my constituency needs a lot of maintenance.
Mr Shannon: The Member left out two roads: the Mountain Road and the Tullynagardy Road, which are equally as bad as the roads that he mentioned.
Mr McCarthy: I apologise to the Member and to any constituents whose areas have not been included on my list. I assure the Minister that the vast majority of roads not only on the Ards Peninsula but in the Strangford constituency as a whole need much maintenance. I appeal to the Minister to make every effort to ensure that our roads are suitable for modern-day traffic rather than the horse and cart.
Mr Deputy Speaker: I am sure that the Member’s friends are delighted that he does not have “one for the road”.
Mrs I Robinson: Kieran McCarthy, once again, thinks that the world beings and ends in the lower Ards Peninsula. We represent a vast constituency, but the Member mentions only Kircubbin and the lower Ards Peninsula. However, I like to battle for the entire Strangford constituency.
I welcome the opportunity to address the Assembly on one of the most commonly raised matters in my constituency office — the condition of the roads network across Northern Ireland. Given the overwhelming rural nature of Northern Ireland and the lack of a comprehensive rail network, our roads are the veins and arteries that facilitate day-to-day life. There is, therefore, a greater emphasis and importance placed on the quality and condition of our roads compared with some other regions of the United Kingdom. Our roads network facilitates the maintenance and growth of our local economy as produce and services are taken to, and brought from, every corner of Northern Ireland.
The majority of complaints that I receive, however, are from local residents who express frustration that they pay their taxes in return for roads whose maintenance is either inadequate or non-existent. I understand that it would be fantastic for Government to have bottomless pockets of funding to complete all the work that Members would like to see done. However, I appreciate that, as for any Department, the Department for Regional Development and Roads Service must prioritise their work, given the finite budgets that they are allocated. There is also a focus on Belfast and its main arterial network; that is understandable, given the city’s central role in the administration and economy of the entire country. It is crucial, however, that roads maintenance receives due attention in order to ensure the ongoing quality of the entire roads network. Given the place that tourism is to play in the future of our economy, road quality in rural areas is essential.
Another factor that must be taken into account is the increased prevalence of heavy rainfall and the impact of flooding on our roads. No one can legislate for the weather nor for that heavy rainfall.
Mr McCarthy: It is incomprehensible that there should be flooding on the A20, which runs parallel to Strangford Lough. Does the Member agree that that should not happen?
Mrs I Robinson: As the Member knows, I travel the A20 frequently and am aware of the flooding. I agree that it is crucial that that pocket of flooding is dealt with expeditiously because it can result in tailbacks from the lower Ards Peninsula.
On the whole, the roads network and associated drainage provision cope fairly successfully with the demands made on them. However, there are certain locations that seem to flood persistently and could present a danger to road users.
In the Ards Peninsula, we are only too familiar with the problems of flooding along stretches of road, not least on the road from Portaferry to Newtownards, which is a major problem. I am also concerned about the amount of flooding at the roundabouts at the Ards shopping centre and at the bottom of Frederick Street. Those are two of the busiest roundabouts in the district; they cater for almost all the traffic that travels through Newtownards, yet, on a number of recent occasions, they experienced considerable flooding. It is important that measures are taken to ensure that adequate drainage provision is in place, especially on the busy roads right across the peninsula and in Newtownards.
Furthermore, tourism will be crucial to Strangford. I boast honestly that Strangford is one of the most beautiful scenic areas of Northern Ireland and, if we are to attract tourism, the coastal roads infrastructure must be addressed. We have Mount Stewart; we have Portaferry; and we have scenery right through to Killyleagh along Strangford Lough; but the road is only potholes and a bit of tarmac. If we are to do anything of benefit to tourism, particularly for Strangford, we must see improvements to our coastal roads. The tourism that is attracted will bring much-needed economic benefits.
Mr Boylan: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom cúpla focal a rá. At the outset, poverty is a legacy of past administrations and, under direct rule, the roads were left to get into bad condition. Members mentioned the roads in Belfast; however, rural roads also lack maintenance. As a member of the Committee for Regional Development, I am aware — as are all of the Committee members — of the need for further funding for road maintenance. However, where do we get that money? Do we take it from some other project? Surely that decision lies at the door of the Minister of Finance and Personnel. The Committee has noted that, whatever its budget, the Department for Regional Development has always made road maintenance a significant priority. It is expected that, over the next three years, funding for structural maintenance will be in the region of £200 million. Bearing in mind that budget allocations over the last three years totalled £165 million, that increase is welcome; however, it is still below the recommended level for the budget period. I am sure that all Ministers would like unlimited resources; unfortunately, such is political life.
The funding allocation for road services is done by district councils and on a district council basis. As a former councillor, I am aware that — regardless of perception — that is done on an equal footing.
I cannot go beyond this point without being parochial and mentioning the areas of Newry and Armagh that I represent. They contain a vast, rural road network. Resources are allocated on a basis of need. Resurfacing and maintenance are, of course, an important aspect of road safety; therefore, priority is given to issues of that nature.
The Department for Regional Development’s budget has to cover many other issues, and other key priorities are challenged. When everything is taken into account and analysed, it is disappointing that more funding is not available; however, the amount set aside for road maintenance from the available budget is quite generous. Moreover, £15 million was secured in the December monitoring round, and I am sure that, where possible, the Minister will seek further funding in any future monitoring rounds.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak to the motion. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr Irwin: The issue of road maintenance in such rural areas as my constituency of Newry and Armagh is something of concern to those who live and travel throughout that region. The majority of roads are classed as minor roads, and are, therefore, not subject to the continuous maintenance that is received by other routes. However, it is apparent that the quality of minor roads in my constituency has lessened over the years. Many of them are a patchwork of quick repairs, and I can show Members others that, in years, have seen no reasonable maintenance. They urgently need resurfacing, and, in some cases, are likely to damage vehicles or are a danger to drivers.
The supply of funding available to the Department is not unlimited, and I understand that there is a lengthy list of priorities in respect of the roads network. Several priority schemes have been planned for Newry and Armagh; those are welcome, and will assist with the flow of traffic on our busy roads. However, minor roads still receive much less attention. Although it could be argued that those roads are used much less than are main roads, they are nevertheless the only routes available to those who live in the countryside.
It is vital that our minor roads receive more maintenance. The longer that those routes are neglected, the worse the situation will become, and more money will then be required to address the problems properly.
Winter gritting is another issue that is of great concern. The daily threshold for gritting is currently set at 1,500 or more vehicles on a road, and, although that may seem reasonable, it disadvantages rural dwellers who use roads that carry fewer vehicles.
There is an argument that it is impossible to grit every single thoroughfare in the Province, and I accept that that would be extremely difficult to do. However, improvements could be made by lowering the vehicle threshold and by giving special consideration to the more dangerous minor routes. Indeed, one such route could be taken by a school bus. Conditions on some of the minor roads that I have travelled in the past few weeks have been treacherous. Those poor conditions must be addressed.
Our vast network of rural roads must receive the maintenance that is necessary to ensure that rural dwellers have a good-quality and safe road network.
I support the motion.
Mr Elliott: I welcome the opportunity to speak to the motion. If we are not maintaining the asset that is our roads infrastructure, we are devaluing it. Although the Government are attempting to maintain parts of the asset, their contribution is less than one fifth of 1% of its overall value. The Budget allocation for road maintenance over the next three years is £200 million. However, that is totally inadequate, given that it adds £125 million to the already immense shortfall in the road maintenance spend, which is some £450 million.
Before I rose to speak, I thought of Mr McCarthy, who read out the list of roads in his constituency. I was thinking of doing the same, but I realised that five minutes would not have been long enough for me to get through my list. If those are the only roads in Strangford that badly need repairing, they are in a much better state than those in Fermanagh and South Tyrone.
I am sure that most Members will not mind me talking about the problems with the roads in my constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone. I was pleased that the Minister was in my constituency last week for the cutting of the first sod of the new A4 dual carriageway between Dungannon and Ballygawley. That road will make a huge difference to the area.
However, although 9% of the roads in the entire network are in County Fermanagh, the county receives only 6% of the maintenance budget. Given that, and given the lack of a good public transport system, a rail network, and the fact that people in the county lack the same choices as others in the Province, 6% of the budget is clearly nowhere near enough.
Although I agree with the sentiments of the SDLP amendment, I am concerned about the call for a “strategic approach” to the end-of-year financing for roads. There is a difficulty with that approach. If we take into account the overall end-of-year allocations, I assume that money can be spent on roads quite quickly. It is sometimes difficult in the last six weeks of the financial year to build in such a strategic approach perfectly, or in as exact a manner as one would like. I appreciate and accept where the SDLP is coming from, but we should not throw the baby out with the bath water by making the funding so strategic that our roads receive no allocation at the end of the year.
Mr Boylan and Mr Willie Clarke commented on the allocations. Perhaps when he is on his feet, the Minister can tell the House whether he was happy with the allocations that he received over three years for road maintenance under the comprehensive spending review. I know that I was not happy when I examined the figures, and, indeed, I raised that issue in the Chamber when we debated the Budget.
That overall financial package was certainly not high enough or strong enough. The majority of the communities in my constituency suffer from poor access to services, and that is, of course, highlighted by the poor and inadequate road infrastructure.
Mr Boylan: Surely the Member must recognise that we are fighting an uphill battle from the start. The roads have been neglected for years, and we have to deal now with that legacy. Will the Member not agree with that?
Mr Elliott: I have no difficulty agreeing with the assertion that the roads have been neglected for years. However, does that mean that we carry on with that process and continue to neglect them? I am afraid that with the current allocations that is exactly what will happen — the neglect will continue.
To return to the point that I was making, the increased number of people travelling throughout Fermanagh and South Tyrone are, because of its rurality, totally dependent on the roads infrastructure. There is no other means of getting goods in and out, and it costs the community and businesses a significant amount of money, more so than is the case in the east of the Province or in GB. That is the difficulty; we are so reliant on the export market. We export many products, particularly from rural areas, and that adds to the expense.
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Member’s time is up.
Mr P J Bradley: I welcome the motion and also the amendment, which, in my view, complements the motion. I ask Mr Elliott to read it carefully, as it is a good amendment.
I want to speak briefly about the complete breakdown in the rural infrastructure, both seen and unseen. I welcome the fact that I address a local Minister, who unlike the previous direct rule Ministers, at least knows and understands the problems that are out there. That should be helpful to all of us.
I referred to the problems that exist, both seen and unseen. Anyone driving along a minor or unclassified road will see and often experience at first hand the collapsed verges, the blocked gullies, the potholes — some with a little yellow mark around them, noting that they will be attended to one day — the flooding and damage caused by flooding, and the overhanging hedges. The problems faced by rural road users, whether in a vehicle, on a bicycle or on foot, are endless and deserving of better attention.
Unseen dangers also exist out of sight of the public view but present nevertheless a threat to rural road users. I refer to the ditches and banks that were originally put in place to retain the roads. Many of those have now collapsed, and only if they are identified will the danger be indicated by being marked, until repaired, with coloured ribbons.
Unlike Kieran McCarthy, I do not have my canvassing list with me, but I want to draw attention to one road in my area — Derryleckagh Road — as an example. That road is used by more than 1,000 motorists a day, and I doubt if many of them are aware of the dangers lurking over long tracts of it. Many ditches have collapsed into the adjoining fields, and there is nothing but a small hedge or little soil bank between the motorist and a 10- to 12-foot drop into the field. Many under-road culverts and small bridges are also in disrepair. The longer they await attention, the more expensive it will be to repair or replace them.
I know that it is the role of the Minister to listen to the debate and to take away some of the recommendations for consideration by him and his Department. With that in mind, I have only two recommendations to make, but I make them with all the confidence of a rural dweller and a regular road user.
First, I remember the era of the roadman, when an individual was responsible for a defined mileage of road. That was his patch, his pride and joy. Hedges were neatly trimmed, all roadside verges were kept neatly lined and blocked gullies were cleared regularly. Then along came modernisation, and the machine and the office computer took over. That has led to the unacceptable conditions that we must endure today. Perhaps the return of the roadman would be the key to the upkeep of our minor and unclassified roads.
Secondly, I wish the Minister to consider introducing two-year hedge-cutting and roadside-trimming programmes, rather than the half measures contained in the annual trims that the roads receive now. A full and proper job carried out every two years would achieve greater results and offer rural road users some level of equality with their urban counterparts, who know nothing of the rural problems.
Mr McElduff: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I speak in support of the motion, and I also pay tribute to Roads Service personnel in the area with which I am most familiar, the western division and west Tyrone, in particular Omagh and Strabane districts.
Roads Service does the best with the limited amount of funding that tends to be available. I would be a rich man if I had £5 for every time that I was told by a senior Roads Service official that every project competes on a priority basis for a limited pool of funding. When drawing the attention of senior road engineers to the needs of an area, it is frustrating that the stock answer tends to be that they need a greater budget, because I could say the same about countless numbers of roads in the west Tyrone area. I pay tribute to the Roads Service personnel because they do the best that they can with the limited amount of resources that are available to them, and I support the call for greater funding for roads maintenance.
Recently, in my area, we have been lobbying for an upgrade of the A5/N2 route, which is a strategic corridor. Only last week, the Minister was at the sod-turning for major road improvements on the A4. All of those major, strategic-corridor type of works are important. However, the voice of the rural citizen beyond the A-class roads must be heard.
Mr Deputy Speaker, I do not know how you spent Valentine’s evening, but I was summoned to a public meeting in Altamuskin Community Centre. At that meeting, 50 people were present at 8.00 pm, when you might think that they would be otherwise engaged in going out for meals. It was a very animated community meeting. Such a crowd had never before shown up in the local community centre in Altamuskin, which is between Sixmilecross and Ballygawley.
The subject under discussion was the state of the Altamuskin Road, which is an important route but it has a series of dangerous bends and it is in poor surface condition. A number of local businesses, including quarries, use the road but it does not qualify for inclusion on the winter gritting schedule. Recently, I wrote to the divisional roads manager and I was told that a recent traffic count showed that the volume of traffic using the Altamuskin Road is below the threshold of 1,500 vehicles a day that is required for inclusion in the winter gritting schedule.
I call on the Minister to visit the Altamuskin Road and the nearby Whitebridge Road, which runs from Carrickmore to Ballygawley. I deliberately prioritise those roads; I could mention the Omagh-to-Fintona road and the Omagh-to-Drumquinn road. I know that the Minister is aware of the concerns of local communities about the condition of those roads, and I specifically invite him to come to the Altamuskin Road, to meet people at Altamuskin Community Centre and to drive on the road for five or six miles to view its current condition.
Mrs M Bradley: I would like Barry to include the road from Omagh to Derry in his list.
Mr McElduff: I am happy to include the road from Omagh to Derry. Of course, Mary Bradley often travels on that road, and she is aware of the difficulties that arise on the Omagh-to-Derry road.
I will put forward an idea that I previously put forward, and which has not been taken up. I understand that Roads Service is content for gritting to reach 80% of the traffic by covering 20% of the roads. If that rule is applied, it leaves out the rural community and the isolated rural community.
I would like the Minister for Regional Development to engage in discussions with the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to explore further the viability of deploying local farmers who have much of the machinery to assist, on occasion, with gritting the rural roads network.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Had I known about the meeting in Altamuskin, I would have saved myself the cost of dinner.
Mr G Robinson: It will be no surprise to the Minister that I am contributing to this debate, as I am a member of the Committee for Regional Development. I hope that he appreciates that I also have a genuine interest in seeing that the roads maintenance budget is spent in as useful and meaningful a way as possible. My concern is to ensure that the main traffic corridors in Northern Ireland are kept at a standard that is worthy of the twenty-first century, especially as we try to develop a new, strong economic future. To successfully achieve that future, potential investors must view the roads infrastructure as an asset rather than a liability.
Our main roads are often referred to as arterial routes, and there is a simple reason for that. As the arteries carry the blood around the body, the roads carry the vast majority of Northern Ireland’s financial lifeblood, be it tourists, construction materials, commuters or the food on our supermarket shelves. Just as we are advised to stay healthy and to maintain our body’s blood circulation, we must maintain the routes that carry our economy.
Many arterial routes in the Province need funding — from counties Fermanagh to Londonderry. To aid that funding, the Minister of Finance and Personnel allocated an additional £15 million in the December monitoring round, which represents a substantial increase. No amount of money to maintain the roads network would ever be enough; such is the demand for funding due to many years of underinvestment. Therefore, it is essential to prioritise projects, especially for the maintenance and upgrading of our main traffic thoroughfares. However, we cannot forget that, in order to reach those main routes, many miles of other roads will require a slice of the financial cake. It is a no-brainer — a minimum fund should be put in place to ensure that projects can be assured of funding in the short to medium term.
Members will be able to identify projects in need of funding all over Northern Ireland, but the Minister will not be surprised if I mention the A26 and A37 again. I use those roads as examples of where ring-fenced funding over a minimum of three years could improve the condition of roads, while projects that I have raised with him on so many occasions are kept on the long finger.
I support the motion in so many ways, but I must sound a note of caution: I do not want worthy projects, such as the road improvement works in Dungannon and those on the Larne to Belfast corridor, to suffer. Northern Ireland does not have a bottomless pit of money. There are no rainbows with pots of gold hiding underneath the Finance Minister’s desk. We must take a long-term view of how we wish to invest the money available to us to ensure that not only the main traffic corridors are maintained and upgraded, but the rest of the road network — especially in rural areas — receives its fair share of funding.
The ‘Belfast Telegraph’ reported that there were gaps of 104 years between resurfacing of rural roads, but that should not be tolerated. That is unacceptable in any area. Ring-fenced funding would enable work to be planned on a medium- to long-term basis. However, our arterial traffic corridor must be upgraded so that investment is not restricted by poor road conditions. I support the motion, but I hope that my notes of caution will be taken on board.
Mr Wells: I support the motion and the amendment — as much as it grieves me to do so — in the name of the honourable Member for East Londonderry Mr Dallat. It is an interesting indication of how far Northern Ireland has moved on.
The motion deals with Northern Ireland’s biggest publicly-owned asset. The valuation on the entire roads network in Northern Ireland is £30 billion — a hugely important aspect of our economy. As Mr Elliott stated, we are spending one fifth of 1% of the value of that asset in maintaining it. There can be few situations in western Europe where the maintenance of an asset is less than one fifth of 1% of its total value. That will show Members how far behind we have fallen with regard to roads maintenance.
In Northern Ireland, £2,800 per kilometre is spent on roads maintenance, and the equivalent figure in England is £12,000. However, in Wales — a more relevant comparator due to its many rural roads — the spend is £7,500 per kilometre. We, therefore, spend less than one third of an equivalent area in the rest of the United Kingdom, and that is a matter for real concern. Over the next three years, we have set aside £200 million for roads maintenance, and that will add over £100 million to the present shortfall of at least £450 million. Northern Ireland, therefore, is in a serious situation.
I accept that much of the underinvestment is due to the mismanagement under direct rule, and we must be reasonable and accept that it is a huge tanker for the Minister of Finance and Personnel and the Minister for Regional Development to turn in a short time. One must accept that these issues are part of the problems that we faced for many years.
It is worth quoting from the Roads Service’s 2006-07 annual report in which its chief executive stated that:
“An area of risk about which I am concerned is that I believe the level of funding made available to Roads Service for structural maintenance is insufficient to maintain the road network in a satisfactory condition”.
“on the non trunk road network we continue to ‘paper over the cracks’ on too many occasions. The relatively low level of funding means that the good practice resurfacing frequency of once in 25 or 30 years is not achieved.”
The frequency of resurfacing is often only once every 68 years. There is a chance that some Members will see their local C-class road resurfaced only once in a lifetime. If anyone does see that, take a picture, because it is unlikely that it will happen again.
The chief executive also stated that the infrequent resurfacing will mean that:
“significant lengths of the non-trunk road network will be of irregular profile and/or below the desirable skid resistance level”.
That cannot be allowed to continue. Similarly, we cannot continue to fund the resurfacing and maintenance of our rural roads on the basis of occasional good luck through the monitoring round. The Department for Regional Development does well on the monitoring rounds, because it is usual for it to have projects that are ready to take up money that is returned from other Departments every quarter. However, that is no way to run and maintain a £30 billion infrastructure.
Neither is it an appropriate way to treat one of Northern Ireland’s most important industries — the quarrying and aggregates industry. It is important to remember that that industry employs 5,000 people in Northern Ireland and has an annual turnover of £750 million. In many rural areas, the quarrying and aggregates industry is the only form of non-agricultural steady employment.
Other Members have been parochial, so I will be and give a few examples from my constituency of South Down. The most important local industry in such areas as Mayobride, Cranfield and Atticall — which are not bustling industrial centres — is quarrying and aggregates. However, they are bound by a system of stop-go. They do not know where they stand, because they do not know what money will come through in the monitoring round. They have to have contracts ready to run, but it is difficult to plan ahead, buy equipment and maintain staffing levels when they do not know where they stand from one quarter to the next.
The Department for Regional Development, therefore, must be weaned off its dependence on the monitoring rounds. Our spending must be planned more effectively, so that — at the start of the year — Roads Service is given the equivalent of what it receives in the monitoring rounds, so that they associated industries know exactly where they stand, and are able to plan ahead. The lack of an assured long-term, guaranteed pot of money for the resurfacing and maintenance of roads is the most fundamental of Roads Service’s problems.
Mr Shannon: I support the amendment tabled by Members from the SDLP.
The Minister for Regional Development is well aware of Strangford’s needs, and Members will be glad to hear that I do not intend to deliver a road-by-road list. However, I can say that all roads in my constituency require attention and, every day of the week, someone from my office is in touch with the Minister’s Department’s offices in Jubilee Road, Newtownards, in relation to such matters. Some of the girls in my office phone simply to have a wee chat with the admirable staff in the Minister’s office. Nonetheless, every week another problem with the roads in Strangford is highlighted; another car is ruined by a pothole; another claim is made by someone who falls; and another accident is caused by slippery roads.
Strangford is not alone in having problems with roads. Throughout the Province, roads are suffering from varying degrees of decay, which, as my colleague said, is little wonder if one considers the amount of money that we spend compared to England or Wales. It is no surprise to discover that we have the worst roads in the United Kingdom — you get what you pay for.
DRD must come to terms with the fact that, in the long term, the outlay of the required spend will actually save it money, and that is not new information to the Minister. In 2007, the acting chief executive of the Roads Service said that the cost of reconstructing a road compared to maintaining it can be up to four times greater. Surely that fact alone would behove setting aside money for works maintenance, rather than holding off until maintenance cannot make a difference and work must be started again from scratch. That is what has happened throughout the Province.
The Roads Service acting chief executive’s annual report informs us that road resurfacing should happen once every 25 to 30 years, yet there are some roads in my constituency — and others will reiterate this point — which have not been resurfaced for 68 years. Cosmetic tar and loose-stone spreading is said to seal a road; however, before doing that the Roads Service would do better by filling in the potholes. The figures for cars ruined by uneven roads and accidents caused by slippery surfaces are easier to understand if one realises that our roads must last for twice as long as they were built to.
Terrorism attacks are over; tourism increases month by month and, considering that more people are moving to, and living in, the Province, our roads are under more pressure than ever. Nevertheless, the Department is not investing enough money in maintenance. Money is not the issue. In response to my written question, at the beginning of February, the Minister replied that, in 2004-05, the Department spent £272,500,000 on roads maintenance, and, in 2005-06, £269,300,000. In 2006-07, that figure rose to £302,400,000. Those figures are self-explanatory and illustrate the Minister’s commitment; however, I urge the Minister to support the amendment and answer the questions that it raises. I believe that £110 million could be ring-fenced for such purposes, and such a policy should be urgently implemented.
Mr McCarthy: Does the Member agree that the Department seems to spend more money on yellow paint to go around holes than it does on actually filling the holes?
Mr Shannon: I cannot comment on the cost of yellow paint, but I am sure someone could. I believe that the cost might be considerably less than the cost of repairing a road. I might comment on the cost of red, white and blue paint, but that would be moving away from the issue. [Laughter.]
Concerning road surfaces, 43% of the trunk-road network is below the skid-resistance standard for national roads, and, in the areas that I represent in the Ards Peninsula — Newtownards, Ballygowan, Comber and towards Carryduff and Killyleagh — the roads are not up to the required standard. Will the Minister also consider that matter? The Minister is also well aware of the issues concerning the Mountstewart Road, which I previously brought to his attention.
It is a pity that the statistics for major road accidents reflect only those in which there were injuries. The Minister should consider having all road accidents recorded, which would provide him with better information about the dangers present on the roads in my constituency.
I urge Members to support the motion and the amendment.
Mr Deputy Speaker: As Questions to the First Minister and deputy First Minister will take place at 2.30 pm, I propose that Members take their ease.
Mr Burnside: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Since the House met in plenary session this morning at 12.00 noon, there has been an announcement of a resignation from the junior Minister the Member for North Antrim from the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. Can you confirm whether the junior Minister requested to come to the House and make a statement on the reasons for his resignation? Has there been any contact from that junior Minister? In my experience, it is normal parliamentary procedure for a resigning Minister to show respect to the House by making a statement on the Floor.
Mr Deputy Speaker: The point was made earlier by your colleague Mr Kennedy, and I shall give the same response that I gave to him. The Speaker is considering the matter and will report later today or tomorrow.
I ask Members to take their ease until 2.30 pm. The debate will resume at 4.00 pm. The final contributors will be Mr Brian Wilson, to be followed by the Minister for Regional Development and the proposers of the amendment and the original motion, who will make their winding-up speeches.
The debate stood suspended.
(Mr Speaker in the Chair)
Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister
1. Mr W Clarke asked the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to confirm whether the issue of the undocumented Irish was raised in any of the meetings held by the First Minister and deputy First Minister, during the recent visit to the United States of America. (AQO 2078/08)
The deputy First Minister (Mr M McGuinness): I had a meeting with the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform in New York on 4 December 2007, during which it outlined its proposal for a reciprocal visa programme, similar to that which exists between Australia and the United States of America. I raised the issue subsequently during a meeting with Steve Hadley, the US National Security Advisor, and during our meeting with President Bush on 7 December 2007.
Mr W Clarke: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the deputy First Minister for his response. Will he give a further guarantee that he will raise the issue in his meetings in Washington during his St Patrick’s Day visit?
The deputy First Minister: The issue is close to my heart, and I will raise it at every appropriate opportunity while I am in the United States.
Mr Gallagher: On 3 January, in a written reply to my colleague PJ Bradley, the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) stated that the matter of the undocumented Irish was raised during the meeting with President Bush in Washington. In view of all the ongoing suffering of so many Irish people and the unfairness of their situation, I again ask whether the US Government gave a commitment on the issue.
The deputy First Minister: No specific commitments were given, but Steve Hadley and President Bush listened very intently to what we had to say. It was quite clear from the way in which they received what was said that the issue is being considered.
Obviously, immigration reform is a highly vexed issue in the United States, and many competing agendas are involved. There is a huge Hispanic community in the United States. The situation is very complex and difficult, as is clear from the debates in the United States Congress, and the fact that the immigration Bill was not passed because of the division that existed between members. The view in the United States appears to be that the issue will not be resolved this side of the next presidential election. That said, the Member has rightly pointed out the hardships that are being experienced, so we still have a duty to lobby on behalf of citizens here — from every section of the community — who may be affected by the difficult circumstances in which they are forced to live.
United States of America: Recession
2. Mr Gardiner asked the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister what impact the present recession in the United States of America is having on efforts to attract inward investment from American companies. (AQO 1968/08)
The deputy First Minister: Economists have conflicting views about the inevitability of a recession in the United States in 2008. There is no doubt that the American economy has been affected adversely by the collapse of the sub-prime housing market. However, the falling value of the dollar is increasing exports and slowing imports, thus helping the American economy.
Given the complexity of the US economy, it is too early to predict whether a recession is inevitable. Notwithstanding that, the turbulence in the financial services market could provide opportunities for our economy. For example, in the mid-term to longer-term, those multinationals will be looking for cost advantages in a near-shore location that is close to their customers and a talented labour pool that is close to their customer base. Cost competitiveness is our valued proposition to those businesses.
I also want to use this opportunity to promote the investment conference that will take place in May, which will be important in underscoring to American investors the fact that we offer one of the best business opportunities in western Europe. The event has the direct and unwavering support of the US Government. The two-day conference will bring together a number of chief executives of major US companies, who will have the opportunity to see our business opportunities at first hand.
Mr Gardiner: Will the First Minister and deputy First Minister consider offering the Ulster Unionist Party their congratulations on the great election of Carol Black in the recent by-election in Dromore?
If the investment climate in the United States is unfavourable because of the current market difficulties, do the Executive have a back-up strategy in place — dare I call it plan B? — for developing the economy? Should more emphasis be placed on developing new home-grown businesses based on patents held in Northern Ireland’s two universities?
The deputy First Minister: I was pleased that more than 80% of people who voted in the recent by-election voted for pro-agreement parties that support the Assembly as an institution.
From the perspective of inward investment, concerns about a recession may delay, rather than put an end to, decisions by US companies to invest overseas. However, the turbulence in the financial services market could provide mid- to long-term opportunities as multinational corporations seek to find cost advantages in near-shore locations that are close to their customers and culturally compatible.
I am a strong supporter of encouraging local entrepreneurs. I agree with the well-made point contained in Mr Gardiner’s final question. People who are prepared to invest in the community, and have a stake in it, create the greatest stability. Over the years, local businesspeople have provided employment opportunities for many people in towns, villages and cities throughout the North. Local entrepreneurs should be, and are, continually encouraged by Invest NI and other agencies under the auspices of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment because they have made an important and valuable contribution to the economy.
Mr Durkan: I thank the deputy First Minister for his reply. I agree with him that uncertainty about the global economy should not distract Members from putting all their efforts into the opportunity afforded by the US/NI investment conference. Perhaps local businesses could prepare show-and-tell packages to demonstrate the investment opportunities that they can offer and the attractive locations available.
Will the deputy First Minister tell the Assembly how he and other Ministers hope to ensure that the benefits of the investment conference, albeit that it is being held over a limited two-day period, are felt not only in Belfast, where the main events will be held, but more widely in the region? How will they ensure that the wider business community is able to engage in the conference?
The deputy First Minister: Representatives and businesspeople throughout the North share Mark Durkan’s concern. Last week, I spoke to senior officials of the Chamber of Commerce in Derry. They said that they wanted an opportunity to have an input into the conference, which they accepted was being held for a short period of two days. People on local councils are extremely interested in the conference and want to be included.
The First Minister, the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and I have met regularly to ensure that we are consistently fine-tuning our approach to the investment conference. I assure Mark Durkan that we include wider involvement in our deliberations and take that extremely seriously. Given that potential investors will be here for only 36 to 48 hours and that the conference must be concentrated in the Belfast area, it is important that people in other parts of the North feel that they, too, have ownership of it.
The challenge is to find a way to ensure that locally elected representatives — such as mayors — chief executives of councils and the heads of different Chambers of Commerce consider that they have had an opportunity to network.
Mr Simpson: I apologise for my late arrival in the Chamber during Question Time. It is difficult to instruct companies to invest in specific locations. However, does the deputy First Minister agree that it is imperative that areas of deprivation, or areas in which there have been substantial job losses, must be highlighted during the investment conference?
The deputy First Minister: The issue of equality is an important aspect of the economic investment conference. All of us have a duty and responsibility to address the problems that areas of deprivation face. Hopefully, some of those problems can be addressed through the outcomes of the economic investment conference.
The huge job losses in Limavady are a case in point. We are conscious of the need to encourage foreign direct investment into the areas that have suffered social deprivation and huge employment losses. However, we cannot order people to invest in certain areas; investors will, obviously, make their own decisions.
3. Ms Ní Chuilín asked the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to detail the steps it is taking to support (i) the work on interface areas; and (ii) initiatives that will divert and challenge the potential for interface violence. (AQO 2087/08)
The deputy First Minister: The First Minister and I remain fully committed to addressing the divisions in society. Our priority is to build relationships that will be the basis for sustaining the developing peace that people living in those areas are entitled to expect. Our Department is giving ongoing support by providing funding of £5 million to the Community Relations Council and to district councils through the locally based community relations programmes.
The Department has also provided funding of £400,000 to the Department of Education for the provision of summer intervention programmes, special intervention programmes and summer diversionary youth intervention schemes that are conducted by the education and library boards. Those programmes are targeted at supporting work in interface areas and initiatives to challenge the behaviours that are associated with interface violence.
Ms Ní Chuilín: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Will the First Minister and deputy First Minister use their influence to ensure that those programmes that have been mentioned are made available to the communities at the earliest opportunity, rather than at the eleventh hour? It is practically impossible to build, develop and foster good relationships when groups have to wait until the eleventh hour to receive the funding.
The deputy First Minister: We are conscious of that. It goes without saying that we value the work that has been undertaken — often in difficult circumstances — in interface areas by those who are involved in initiatives aimed at challenging and changing the behaviours associated with interface violence.
We are committed fully to addressing the divisions in society, and to achieving measurable reductions in sectarianism and intolerance. That is why, in the coming comprehensive spending review period, we are making additional resources available to target those issues and to support the dedicated people upon whom that work depends.
Mr Cobain: Will the deputy First Minister update Members on what is happening at the Girdwood site and inform us whether anyone from the private sector has shown any interest in that site?
The deputy First Minister: Principally, that is a matter for the Department for Social Development (DSD); it is not an issue that the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister is involved with. However, we will get an answer for the Member from DSD.
Mr Speaker: Question 4 has been withdrawn.
Victims’ Groups: Funding
5. Mr Storey asked the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to provide a breakdown of the amount of funding allocated to victims’ groups, broken down by those from (i) an army background; (ii) a police background; (iii) a prison officer background; (iv) an ex-prisoner background; and (v) a civilian background; in each of the past three years. (AQO 1963/08)
The deputy First Minister: In the past three years, OFMDFM has allocated some £15 million to address the needs of victims and survivors. Over the next three years, we are providing £36 million towards those issues, which is an increase of some 140%. Some of that funding will support the victims’ commissioners designate.
All groups that access funding in that area must demonstrate that their work is designed to support individuals who have been affected by the conflict that we have all experienced over the past four decades.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Mr Storey: I am glad that the Ulster Unionist Party Members have such confidence in the supplementary question that I am going to ask. [Laughter.] I would have appreciated — [Interruption.]
Mr Speaker: Order. The Member has the Floor.
Mr Storey: I remind the Ulster Unionist Party Members that one swallow does not make a summer.
I am disappointed that the deputy First Minister did not answer my question. I asked for a breakdown of the funding that was allocated to victims’ groups from an army background, a police background, a prison-officer background, an ex-prisoner background and a civilian background, instead of two headline figures of £15 million and £36 million. What steps does he plan to take to adjust the levels of funding so that innocent victims of terrorism are prioritised and so that members of terrorist organisations who heaped sectarian violence on the Province for decades are not rewarded?
The deputy First Minister: It is our duty to ensure that funding is directed to those who are most in need. The Department intends to bring forward a strategy, which will have the requirements of victims and survivors at its core. We want to ensure that no one is forgotten and that a more comprehensive and co-ordinated system is implemented.
The Victims and Survivors (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 defines a victim as:
“(a) someone who is or has been physically or psychologically injured as a result of or in consequence of a conflict-related incident; (b) someone who provides a substantial amount of care on a regular basis for an individual mentioned in paragraph (a); or (c) someone who has been bereaved as a result of or in consequence of a conflict-related incident.”
The Member expressed disappointment with my answer, but the Department does not have the information in the format that he asked for.
Mr McLaughlin: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Will the deputy First Minister assure the House that the determining factors for the funding of victims’ and survivors groups will be transparent and equality proofed to ensure that there is no hierarchy of victims?
The deputy First Minister: Funding for victims’ and survivors groups will be based on assessed need, and the processes involved will be transparent and equality proofed.
Dr Farry: How does OFMDFM intend to avoid balkanising the issue of victims? Does the deputy First Minister feel that the manner in which the victims’ commissioners designate were appointed has contributed to the perception that the issue has been balkanised? Has the approach of the Executive helped or hindered the eventual devolution of policing and justice?
The deputy First Minister: The Member has rolled a number of questions into one. The devolution of policing and justice is a work in process. I reject the Member’s first point outright because we are not interested in balkanising the issue of victims.
Mr Speaker: Question 6 has been withdrawn.
7. Mr Bradley asked the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to provide (i) an update on the review of the Civic Forum; and (ii) a date for its completion. (AQO 1989/08)
The deputy First Minister: The First Minister and I are considering how to improve arrangements for consulting civil society. As Members will be aware, in October 2007, the Executive agreed the terms of reference and methodology for the review. Since then, considerable preparatory work has been undertaken, and it must be completed before the review can begin. We hope to move into the next phase of the review process over the next few weeks. It is not possible to be definite about the timetable, but the review will be progressed as quickly as possible commensurate with doing a thorough job.
Mr P J Bradley: I thank the Minister for that answer. How will OFMDFM advance the all-Ireland consultative forum?
The deputy First Minister: As I and the First Minister have previously stated, the first exercise must be the review of the Civic Forum. The all-island consultative forum has been raised in British-Irish Council meetings, but we must first complete the review of the Civic Forum.
As the First Minister has said on several occasions, there have been many changes since the first Civic Forum was set up. Many newcomers have come to our shores; therefore, we want to move forward inclusively and allow everyone to have a voice.
Mr Hamilton: Will OFMDFM ensure that an assessment of the cost of the resurrection of a Civic Forum is carried out, and that that exercise is done in tandem with an assessment of the output — or lack of output — from the previous incarnation of a Civic Forum?
The deputy First Minister: A review is ongoing, and it would be a mistake to prejudge how the issue will be dealt with, or to make any commitments at this time on the work in progress. We must await the outcomes. OFMDFM is interested only in ensuring that there is a comprehensive review. A lot of work is being done, and we hope to progress that work soon. The cost of the review will be met from the existing civic forum budget. Further decisions relating to the finances required will be taken following the review.
Mr P Maskey: Go raibh maith agat. Will OFMDFM detail its opinion on NICVA’s (Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action) proposals for a Civic Forum, and can it identify why version one failed?
The deputy First Minister: Although NICVA strongly supports a social partnership body, it has consistently made two main points in correspondence with OFMDFM since restoration. Those are that the original forum was flawed in its structure and operation — particularly in its chairing and accountability arrangements — and that a review of the forum should be completed to address those issues, rather than reconvene the forum in its original form.
It is in response to NICVA’s concerns, among other things, that we have commissioned the current review of the Civic Forum. As part of its remit, the review will assess the effectiveness and appropriateness, or otherwise, of the original forum. However, the main purpose of the review is to learn from the experiences of the first forum to arrive at improved arrangements for consulting civil society.
Inter-ministerial Subcommittee on Suicide Prevention
8. Ms J McCann asked the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to detail its role in the inter-ministerial subcommittee on suicide prevention. (AQO 2060/08)
The deputy First Minister: Suicide is a devastating event for all involved. It is clear that prevention requires intervention that goes beyond the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. It needs an innovative, comprehensive, multi-sectoral approach right across the public service. The inter-ministerial subcommittee, which has met on three occasions, is chaired by the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. Ministerial membership includes the Minister of Education and the junior Ministers. The junior Ministers have particular responsibility for children and young people, a group often affected by suicide, and it is important that those Ministers are part of the subcommittee. Like all members of the subcommittee, the role of the junior Ministers is to enhance cross-departmental co-ordination.
Ms J McCann: Will the Minister join with me in extending our sympathies to the community of Bridgend in Wales? Recent experiences there illustrate the impact that suicide can have on a local community. Will the Minister say what role the inter-ministerial subcommittee will have in overseeing the targets for reducing suicide that have been incorporated in the Programme for Government?
The deputy First Minister: I saw the recent news report, although I am not sure whether it was on Channel 4 or BBC Two. It was a shocking and very sad story. Recently, around 16 young people in Bridgend in Wales have lost their lives.
One of the functions of the inter-ministerial subcommittee is to identify and agree a draft action plan for the suicide prevention strategy. The draft action plan will contribute to the achievement of two of the high-level outcomes in the 10-year strategy for children and young people around health, living in safety and with stability.
Mr T Clarke: Does the deputy First Minister accept that, because of the role of his party’s military wing and other paramilitary organisations, many people have turned to suicide in Northern Ireland?
The deputy First Minister: No, I do not accept that.
Mrs Hanna: Will the deputy First Minister detail any sharing of best practice with neighbouring jurisdictions on suicide prevention?
The deputy First Minister: The First Minister raised the issue of suicide at the recent British-Irish Council meeting in Dublin. I have no doubt that that issue exercises all Administrations, not only those in the North and South, but those in Wales, Scotland, England, the Isle of Man, Guernsey and Jersey. We are all conscious of the need to share best practice when we can. We are anxious to see whether, through collaboration, the unacceptable levels of suicide can be reduced.
Mr Speaker: Question 9 has been withdrawn.
Some Members: Shame.
Mr Speaker: Order, order.
As Mrs Kelly, Mr Simpson, Ms McGill and Mr Adams are not in the Chamber, questions 10, 11, 12 and 13 fall.
Understanding between the Travelling and Settled Communities
14. Mr O’Dowd asked the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to detail the programmes that it will deliver to enhance understanding between the Travelling and settled communities. (AQO 2081/08)
The deputy First Minister: The Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister is intent on promoting good relations, including good race relations. In that context, we are committed to enhancing understanding between all people here.
As part of its funding scheme for minority ethnic groups, since 2005, the Department has provided funding of almost £400,000 to organisations representing Travellers here. That figure constitutes almost 20% of the funding scheme’s overall budget. That funding provides a range of activities to enhance understanding between Travellers and settled people, including the development of an integrated children’s club, support for Travellers in further education and training, the provision of equality and diversity training for settled people, and the development of an advocacy project to help Travellers to speak on behalf of their community. An Munia Tober in Belfast continues to provide a resource for individuals and groups who wish to explore the culture and heritage of Irish Travellers.
Under the programme of cohesion and integration for a shared and better future, we will examine ways in which to promote good relations between Irish Travellers and settled people further.
Mr O’Dowd: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the deputy First Minister for stating that his Department is prepared to examine new ways to improve relations between the settled and Travelling communities. He will be aware of recent publicity surrounding events in the Craigavon area, some of which was inaccurate and unfair. Does he agree that if relations between the settled community and Travellers are to move forward, they must do so on a basis of mutual respect?
The deputy First Minister: If we are to live in an inclusive society, in which people are treated equally, we must all have respect for one another. That has been an age-old sore in society, not only in the North, but in the South. There is no doubt that our approach has been patchy. However, as we move forward, we have a duty and responsibility — particularly given the responsibility of the new Assembly — to face up to all those issues in society that require to be addressed. The relationship between Travellers and the settled community must be taken seriously.
Mr Speaker: As Mr Bresland is not in the Chamber, question 15 falls.
Programme for Government/Investment Strategy
16. Mr Kennedy asked the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to outline the action that it is taking in relation to the process of revision of the Programme for Government and the investment strategy, as agreed by resolution in the Assembly on 28 January 2008. (AQO 1952/08)
The deputy First Minister: The Executive will consider carefully how best to manage the review of the Programme for Government and the investment strategy, as agreed on 28 January 2008. Although the Programme for Government sets a framework for the next three years, and the investment strategy sets a 10-year framework, the annual review will provide an opportunity to make whatever amendments prove necessary as we move through the first year of their implementation.
In reviewing the Programme for Government and the investment strategy, we must strike the right balance between maintaining our overall direction and responding effectively to changing circumstances and learning from our experiences. That will ensure that the Programme for Government and the investment strategy remain up to date and relevant.
Mr Kennedy: I remind the deputy First Minister that the resolution that was passed by the Assembly made it clear that the Programme for Government would be subject to ongoing review and necessary revision.
Will he undertake to report on that matter to the Assembly regularly and to the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister?
Mr Speaker: The Minister may answer if he is brief.
The deputy First Minister: I will undertake to do so.
Social Housing Planning Applications
1. Mr Brady asked the Minister of the Environment to detail the number of applications for planning permission, received from the Department for Social Development, in relation to social housing, broken down by divisional planning office. (AQO 2059/08)
The Minister of the Environment (Mrs Foster): The Department for Social Development does not make planning applications for social housing. Individual housing associations apply for planning permission for schemes that are on the social housing development programme, which is managed by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. That programme is subject to regular review and the number of social housing applications in the planning system is subject to regular change, depending on the programme date of the scheme in question. In this financial year, 2007-08, there were 245 schemes, including schemes for single dwellings, of which 137 were in the Belfast division, 12 in Craigavon, 25 in Northern, 23 in Omagh, 45 in Downpatrick, and three in Ballymena.
Mr Brady: I thank the Minister for her answer. Given the urgent need for social housing, will she instruct the Planning Service to deal with any such applications as quickly as possible?
Mrs Foster: Planning Service will give priority to social housing schemes and, through regular liaison with the Housing Executive, issues and potential problems are identified as early as possible, and that will continue. I will continue to have discussions with the Minister for Social Development on this important issue.
Mr Burnside: The Minister is well aware of the target in the Semple Report that 5,250 social homes should be built over the next three years — it looks as though there will be a shortfall of 750 homes in trying to meet that target. Can the Minister give any incentives to private developers, who face much more difficult market conditions? Can anything be done to help them to meet the Semple target?
Mrs Foster: The Member knows that that is primarily a matter for the Minister for Social Development. However, we have held several discussions in relation to planning policy statement (PPS) 12 and how article 40 agreements can be used to maximum effect in social housing applications, and those discussions will continue.
With respect to private developers, the Minister for Social Development plans to meet private developers, and has done so, to encourage them to bring more social housing into their plans.
Mr Gallagher: Will the Minister tell us whether applications for social and affordable housing will be on her Department’s website, so that all interested parties will have access to information about that process fairly quickly? Will she also assure the House that the website is secure as regards information in relation to applications?
Mrs Foster: I assure the House that the website is secure. What happened a couple of weeks ago showed that the security system works. As soon as difficulties in the wider Civil Service network were detected, the Planning Service website shut down immediately. As regards social housing on the website, I will write to the Member this week.
Mr Speaker: Question No 2 has been withdrawn.
Buildings of Historic and Architectural Significance
3. Mr McCausland asked the Minister of the Environment to outline her plans to (i) review the criteria under which buildings of historic and architectural significance are listed; and (ii) take account of the criteria used in other parts of the United Kingdom, as part of this review. (AQO 2074/08)
Mrs Foster: I have asked the Environment and Heritage Service (EHS) to review the criteria under which buildings of special architectural and/or historic interest are listed. I recognise that the well-established criteria used in Northern Ireland are in accord with those used throughout Great Britain, as is the legislation under which buildings are listed. Therefore, the review will take full account of criteria used in other parts of the kingdom.
Mr McCausland: I thank the Minister for her answer. I am sure that she will agree that buildings of historic and architectural significance are a part of the cultural wealth of Northern Ireland and can contribute to our cultural tourism product. We have lost several of those buildings: for example, a house associated with Seamus Heaney in south Belfast and, more recently, another historic house in north Belfast.
Can the review pay special attention to those buildings that are of historic importance because of the people who have lived in them? That importance might not necessarily be reflected in the building’s fabric, which was the key issue in the second case.
Mrs Foster: Legislation on those matters is the same throughout the United Kingdom. However, with specific regard to the review, I have suggested that more clarity be provided. In Scotland, listing criteria includes a building’s close and well-documented associations to nationally important people or events. A building’s physical fabric must also be of some quality and interest. That is what happens in Northern Ireland, although it is perhaps not set out as clearly as it should be. The Department will examine listing criteria in order to determine whether it could be clearer so that the wider public understand why buildings are listed and, indeed, why they are not.
Mr P Maskey: I have written to the Minister with regard to the Thomas Caffery brewery on the Glen Road. It is of the utmost importance that that building is listed and protected. The Minister’s reply directed me to Belfast City Council. However, when I wrote to the council, it responded by saying that it has no responsibility whatever for the listing of buildings because that is done by EHS. I therefore ask the Minister to reconsider the matter. That building is of the utmost importance, given that thousands of people were employed there over many years. It is part of west Belfast’s history and is a building of significant interest. Therefore, it is important that it is retained.
Mrs Foster: I am happy to revisit that matter. In respect of Belfast City Council, I was probably referring to its blue plaque scheme. I hope that under the review of public administration, which will be discussed later during Question Time, local authorities will have the power to draw up local lists. Therefore, if a building is of significance to a local area or, indeed, a city, that will be taken into account. We look forward to that’s being part of the review of public administration (RPA).
Rev Dr Robert Coulter: In September 2007, the Minister told the Assembly that she had been able to remove 32 historic properties from the at-risk register and that she aimed to save 200 buildings by 2016. Can she update the Assembly further, particularly on the situation as regards the stables and gate lodge at Chairndhu in Ballygally, Ballynacree gate lodge, and the former national school at Bushmills?
Mrs Foster: I am happy to write to the Member about those buildings. I am sure that he will appreciate that I do not have that local information with me, but officials will take a note of his point.
The Department is pushing ahead to take buildings off the at-risk register. The Member will be aware that the Department has been set a challenging target in the Programme for Government. However, I want to take up that challenge and to make progress. As far as I am concerned, all of us can take pleasure in the built heritage. That being the case, I want to push ahead with the matter vehemently.
Conservation Schemes: Red Squirrels
4. Mr Easton asked the Minister of the Environment to provide an update on her plans to develop conservation schemes for endangered species, and, in particular, on her plans to protect red squirrels. (AQO 1948/08)
Mrs Foster: My Department has published 23 individual Northern Ireland species action plans and four Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland plans. By the end of March 2008, my Department intends to publish a further 11 Northern Ireland plans and three Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland plans, one of which is for red squirrels. The production of further action plans is envisaged during the next few years, following the recommendations of the Northern Ireland Biodiversity Group.
Mr Easton: I thank the Minister for that positive reply. As she is aware, North Down Borough Council is trying to reintroduce red squirrels into Castle Park. That process has been ongoing for the past three years. The problem is that North Down Borough Council is finding it hard to obtain a licence that will allow it to work with red squirrels in order to relocate them. Can she assure me that her Department will contact the council and work with it so that it can obtain that licence? Will her Department also examine the problem at Glenl Lyon Park in Holywood, where the red squirrel population is under threat from grey squirrels?
Mrs Foster: I am happy to tell the Member that departmental officials will renew contact with North Down Borough Council on that matter as soon as possible.
However, the following requirements must be met before such a translocation exercise can take place: first, North Down Borough Council must locate a donor population of red squirrels in Northern Ireland or in the Republic of Ireland — the Member is saying that there is a donor population in Glen Lyon Park, so that should not prove difficult for the council; secondly, Environment and Heritage Service and the landowner must agree to the transfer’s taking place; thirdly, North Down Borough Council must acquire the necessary expertise to carry out the trapping, transfer and release of the red squirrels before a license for the trapping of red squirrels for translocation can be issued.
My officials do not have any knowledge of the situation in Glen Lyon Park, but when they go back to the council I will be quite happy for them to talk about that also.
Mr Boylan: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. The Minister may not be aware that the Environment Committee visited Teal Lough and Lough Fea. Although it was very cold, we saw the great work that the conservation group, farmers, the Ulster Wildlife Trust and EHS are doing to preserve the habitats there. What financial implications are there for areas of special scientific interest (ASSIs) and conservation as regards implementing EU regulations?
Mrs Foster: The Department is very aware of EU regulations. They are always to the forefront of my mind when I come to the Environment Committee, and they will be to the forefront of the Department’s consideration of ASSIs. I will be coming to the Environment Committee very soon to discuss some issues regarding ASSI designation. We must take into consideration the fact that EU directives have to be complied with and may impact on our ASSI designations. As the Member knows, our resources are finite.
Mr Kennedy: Does the Minister agree that endangered species now include successful DUP candidates in local government by-elections? Will she provide a full list of endangered species in Northern Ireland, in addition to red squirrels?
Mrs I Robinson: That is your party.
Mr Kennedy: We are very much alive.
Mr Speaker: Order.
Mrs Foster: Is it not a great thing when one has to rely on transfers from the Traditional Unionist Voice to get elected in a by-election? Neither group has a vision for Northern Ireland; perhaps that is why they have come together on that point. I also think that it is a bit rich for the Member to trumpet a by-election success when his party’s vote has gone down from 31% in 2005 to 24·1% last week. Apparently, that constitutes a success for the Ulster Unionist Party — in this country, everything is relative.
Review of Public Administration
5. Mr Storey asked the Minister of the Environment to provide an update on the time frame for the implementation of the review of public administration. (AQO 2005/08)
Mrs Foster: As I indicated when I opened the take-note debate on the emerging findings of the review of local government aspects of the RPA on 13 November 2007, we wish to implement an agreed reform and modernisation package as quickly as possible to remove uncertainty for those who work in local government.
At this stage, our aim is to implement the package by 2011, although I recognise that to do so will require the sustained effort and engagement of all the key stakeholders in the process. However, the Executive have not reached agreement on the way forward, and if agreement cannot be achieved by the end of the month, and we cannot begin the implementation process immediately, I must rule out any possibility of implementing the agreed package by 2011.
We would then have no option but to run elections to the 26 councils in 2009, for the full four-year term of office. Were that to happen, 2013 would become the next target date for implementation. In such circumstances, I could not justify putting in place a severance scheme for councillors prior to the 2009 council elections.
Mr Storey: The Ulster Unionist Party should take note, because there is a European election in 2009, and that party will not be chirping as much as it is today, because it will be beaten.
Can the Minister assure me that the uncertainty surrounding local government, particularly in respect of all who are employed by the councils, will be allayed quickly so that we can move forward in a process that will provide the relevant powers and the structure that is necessary for strong local government in Northern Ireland?
Mrs Foster: Following the publication of the emerging findings of the review of the local-government elements of the RPA, the written responses from stakeholders, the views collated from the focused process of engagement, the views expressed by Members of this House during the take-note debate, and the views of the Environment Committee were all shared with relevant Executive colleagues in an Executive subcommittee in November and December. Since then, we have been working very closely to consider those responses and agree a way forward. Those discussions continue.
Although I recognise that it is important that decisions be announced as quickly as possible — and I hope that the Member realises from the tone of my answer to his initial question that I recognise the time frame in which we are operating — it is also important that the Executive take their time and get those decisions right. It is my intention to report to the Executive, and to announce decisions to this House, as quickly as I possibly can.
Mr McGlone: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Will the Minister provide detail of the guarantees on power-sharing and partnership, including checks and balances on decision-making by councils, which must be at the heart of the proposals on local government reform? What is the current status of work on those important provisions?
Mrs Foster: The Member will know, because of his work as Chairman of the Environment Committee, that that issue has always been at the forefront of the proposals. My colleagues on the Executive subcommittee and I are committed to the development of a statutory system of safeguards. The development and design of the proposals on that aspect of the structural reform of local government will be taken forward under the auspices of the strategic leadership board of the local government task force.
I must take this opportunity to pay tribute to the work of the strategic leadership board. The leadership that it is showing at local government level, and through its engagement with the Department of the Environment, has been tremendous, and I hope that the partnership that we have developed will continue.
Mr McCarthy: The review of public administration seems to be going on for ever, with no end in sight. Has the Minister discussed with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment giving the new councils a more definite leading role in economic development and ensuring prosperity for Northern Ireland?
Mrs Foster: The short answer is yes. I have had meetings with many, if not all, of my ministerial colleagues in respect of the review of public administration, and my friend Nigel Dodds has been one of them. We held a very productive meeting, and that is reflected in the fact that Northern Ireland Local Government Association has also held a meeting with Minister Dodds. That is a work in progress.
Mr Speaker: Question 6 has been withdrawn.
Blue Bin Facility
7. Mr Molloy asked the Minister of the Environment what plans she has to extend the blue bin facility to encourage commercial recycling. (AQO 2071/08)
Mrs Foster: I have no plans to extend that facility in the way that the Member suggests. District councils are the statutory authorities that are responsible for providing suitable receptacles and for collecting controlled waste in their districts. They may collect waste from commercial premises if asked to do so by particular businesses. However, all councils operate within the overall waste management strategy for Northern Ireland, which aims to increase resource efficiency by promoting the recycling and recovery of waste. To that end, district councils are encouraged to accept commercial and industrial waste at a minimum of one civic amenity site per council area, so as to encourage recycling on the part of small and medium-sized enterprises.
Mr Molloy: Does the Minister agree that the bulk of the recyclable waste — cardboard, and so on — comes from commercial premises? Many councils do not have a mechanism for disposing of that. Would there be an advantage in the Minister’s publicising the fact that local businesses can call on manufacturers and producers to take that material back? That may encourage the shopkeepers to recycle such material for use by the original businesses.
Mrs Foster: I hear what the Member is saying, and he is right that manufacturers should take back waste. As a member of the strategic waste board, he knows that the Department is considering those matters. He will be aware of the waste and resources action programme (WRAP), which works in partnership to encourage and enable businesses and consumers to be more efficient in the use of materials and to recycle more often. WRAP has been investing in the recycling sector in Northern Ireland since 2003, and my Department works closely with it. I hope that the waste management strategy takes a role in tackling commercial waste and that the important work with WRAP continues.
Mr Ross: What efforts is the Minister making to increase recycling figures to ensure long-term sustainability?
Mrs Foster: I spoke about WRAP in my previous answer, which demonstrates my commitment to meeting the recycling targets in the waste management strategy. Funding from WRAP’s core market development programme, as well as the recycling and organics technical advisory team programme, which provides hands-on advice for local authorities on their collection programmes, means that we are well on our way to helping commercial businesses to deal with the targets that are set out in the Northern Ireland waste management strategy. I wish to put those targets on record: 60% of commercial and industrial waste must be recycled by 2020; 75% of construction, demolition and excavation waste is to be recycled or reused by 2020; recycling and composting of household waste should be at 35% by 2010, 40% by 2015 and 45% by 2020.
Communication is important in relation to recyclables and waste. I have been saying that at the strategic waste board, and I will continue to say so. We must get the message out about our commitment under European legislation on the landfill directive and what is right for the environment. The strategic waste board agrees with me about communication, and it is taking the issue seriously.
Mr Dallat: Given that the Government are possibly one of the worst polluters, can the Minister tell us when we will have a genuinely independent environmental protection agency?
Mrs Foster: The Member will know that I am considering the position of an environmental protection agency, in the light of a report that was presented to me in June 2007. I am also considering the Criminal Justice Inspection’s report and its comments about the Environment and Heritage Service and wildlife crime, people — most notably, Northern Ireland Water — polluting our water systems and illegal waste, which is a huge issue on which the EHS is making progress. I am aware of all those issues, on which I intend to come to the House before the summer.
Review of Public Administration
8. Mr Gardiner asked the Minister of the Environment to give a time frame within which she will make a decision on the number of local councils under the review of public administration. (AQO 1967/08)
11. Mr P J Bradley asked the Minister of the Environment what progress has been made in finalising the number of councils that will result from the review of public administration. (AQO 1988/08)
Mrs Foster: With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will take questions 8 and 11 together.
After the publication of the emerging findings of the local government elements of the review of public administration on 19 October 2007, the written responses that were received from stakeholders, the views that were collated from the focused process of engagement and the views that were expressed by Members of the House and members of the Committee for the Environment were all shared with relevant Executive colleagues and the Executive subcommittee in November and December 2007. Since then, I have been working closely with my ministerial colleagues to consider those responses and agree a way forward; those discussions continue.
Although I recognise that it is important that the review process is concluded and decisions are announced as quickly as possible, it is also important that the Executive take the time to get those decisions right. I intend to report to the Executive and announce the decisions to the House as soon as possible.
Mr Gardiner: The Minister will be aware that the number of local councils impacts on decisions such as the number of planning authorities. If, for example, there were to be 15 councils, how will she handle the number of subregional planning authorities? Will there be groups of five or three, or five groups of three?
Mrs Foster: The Member will be aware that, in the debate in this House on emerging findings, it was indicated that Planning Service and many of its functions would pass to local councils. How those services will be distributed among councils has not been finalised; however, I assure the Member that those shared services will be able to work effectively. It is exciting when we can say to local government that there have been enough complaints about planning decisions, and that it is about time that councils took responsibility. They should look forward to making planning decisions in 2011.
Mr P J Bradley: Under the review of public administration, what Government functions has the Minister secured for transfer to local government from her colleagues in the Executive, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure? Is she entirely satisfied that the functions that they have offered to transfer have her support in the new vision for local government?
Mrs Foster: My colleagues encourage me to say that the whole of the Department for Social Development will be transferred, but I shall not be so bold.
The initial proposals in my paper on emerging findings, published on 19 October 2007, drew much adverse comment, particularly from local government and from this House. I listened carefully to those views and reflected upon them. Since then, I have worked closely with ministerial colleagues on developing recommendations on the future shape of local government, and I hope that those will live up to the vision that everyone shared. When we came to the review, the one non-contentious issue was the vision of a strong, local government partner. That is how I want local government to be seen in future — as a partner, working in tandem with the regional administration in the Assembly.
Mr Weir: With regard to the time frame, what does the Minister see as a window of opportunity for the decisions? What are the implications if decisions are delayed by more than a few weeks?
Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for that question. This is where it gets serious. If agreement cannot be reached by the end of February and the implementation process begun immediately, I must rule out any possibility of implementing the agreed package by 2011. There will then be no option but to run elections through all existing 26 councils in 2009 for a full four-year term of office. If that happens, 2013 becomes the next target date for implementation. As I have said before, in such circumstances I could not possibly justify putting a severance scheme for councillors in place prior to the 2009 council elections.
Mr Speaker: Questions 9 and 10 have been withdrawn.
Draft Planning Policy Statement 14
12. Mr D Bradley asked the Minister of the Environment, further to her Assembly statement on 25 October 2007, to confirm that draft Planning Policy Statement 14 will be published within the given timescale. (AQO 2037/08)
Mrs Foster: I am delighted to get to double figures: there is a first time for everything. Good progress has been made in the matter, and we are on target to deliver a revised draft by the end of April, as indicted in my statement.
Mr D Bradley: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. The Minister should share her expertise in answering questions quickly with the Minister of Education. At the moment, she has not got as far as the medals.
The proposal to increase the amount of social housing permitted in rural settlements is to be welcomed, and I congratulate the Minister for Social Development in securing that important concession. However, is the Minister of the Environment not concerned that her proposals are still overtly restrictive with regard to allowing country people, who are not necessarily connected to farms, to exercise a basic right to live in the countryside?
Mrs Foster: I could give a short answer; however, I shall flesh it out a bit. It remains the case that there is a need to protect the countryside from unnecessary development. We do not propose a return to a pre-PPS 14 situation, and there was a consensus on that.
The Member said that a concession on social housing was made to the Minister for Social Development. That was not a concession; it was something that was agreed. There was sufficiently broad consensus on the dispersed rural communities to allow for the development of appropriately sited small groups of houses. That should be seen as a positive move forward and a way in which we are trying to address creatively the issues with which the Minister for Social Development has to deal.
Mr Speaker: Order. Time is up for questions to the Minister of the Environment.
1. Mr McLaughlin asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel what further consideration he has given to seeking tax-varying powers for the Assembly in order to address the shortfall in funding for front-line services. (AQO 2026/08)
The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr P Robinson): The Assembly debated the issue of tax-varying powers on 16 October 2007. I recall warning Members that seeking additional fiscal powers represented a double-edged sword. Increasing the tax take in Northern Ireland would generate additional public expenditure, but it might also harm regional competitiveness. Furthermore, if HM Treasury were to agree to grant a tax-varying power to Northern Ireland and we decided to reduce the level of taxation, the implication of the Azores ruling would be that the Northern Ireland block would have to cover the loss of receipts. That would result in fewer resources for front-line services.
Mr McLaughlin: There is obviously a divergence of opinion on the matter. However, does the Minister agree that there is a significant deficit in the settlement under Barnett in that it cannot provide the financial resources to enable the Executive and the parties therein to deliver the type of front-line services and economic competitiveness that they desire? In those circumstances, does the Minister agree that it is important to keep all options open and available to the Executive?
Mr P Robinson: I agree that as the years go on, the Barnett squeeze will increase. However, if we seek to deal with that squeeze through tax-varying powers, the total additional revenues would come directly from the pockets of the people of Northern Ireland, rather than the burden being spread by dealing with it on a UK-wide basis. I am sure that the Member has read about the Prime Minister’s appearance on the ‘Politics Show’ on Sunday, although I hope that he was at church rather than watching television. In case the Member did not see the programme, speaking directly about Scotland — and there is some resonance for Northern Ireland in his words — the Prime Minister said:
“There is an issue about the financial responsibility of an executive or an administration that has £30bn to spend but doesn’t have any responsibility for raising it.”
He went on to say:
“In any other devolved administration in the world, there is usually a financial responsibility that requires not only the spending of money by the administration but also its responsibility to take seriously how it raises money.”
He continued by saying that the Government are considering the issue. That seems to suggest that, for Scotland at least, the Government intend to consider how revenue is raised. If that happens for Scotland, it is pretty likely that there will be a read across for Northern Ireland.
Mr Burnside: Thank you, Mr Speaker. Given that I do not want you to rule me out of order, I will not refer to the Ulster Unionist victory at Dromore.
I ask the Finance Minister — perhaps soon to be leader of his great party — to give the commitment that, for as long as he is Finance Minister or even leader of his great party, that no additional tax-raising powers will be used during this Assembly. The experience in devolved Assemblies has been that if they are given those powers, they will tax more, thus placing a greater burden on the electorate and the taxpayers. In Northern Ireland, those people are already suffering as a result of the increased taxation that has come about through, for instance, rates and water charges.
Mr P Robinson: The Member’s conclusion is basically what I said to the Member for South Antrim. I have neither any plans to seek tax-raising powers nor to open the Barnett formula. I am pretty sure that opening that formula could be damaging for Northern Ireland. I do not mind getting Barnett plus, but there are some dangers in us opening up the formula.
As far as the by-election is concerned, I will not respond by indicating that it was a disastrous election for the Ulster Unionist Party, which fell from polling 60% of the vote before 2005 down to 31%. It has now gone down to 24%, having lost 60% of its vote in the area. The big difference is that the DUP learns lessons from its election results, and the party will address the issues that are of concern to the people of Northern Ireland, as any democratic party should.
Mr O’Loan: Does the Minister support the recent initiative by the Institute of Chartered Accountants in Ireland to pursue the 12·5% corporation tax rate? Does he welcome the fact that the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee at Westminster is also looking into the matter? Will he confirm that he is still personally committed to achieving that reduction and say what practical steps he is taking to bring that about?
Mr P Robinson: Yes, I am committed to it. The differences that exist between Northern Ireland and any other part of the United Kingdom — in that we are a country that is coming out of decades of division, violence and conflict — distinguish us from the rest of the UK. We were held back from so much of the growth that other areas enjoyed. Furthermore, we are the only part of the United Kingdom that has a land frontier with another part of the European Union that has a much more competitive tax regime. For those reasons, Northern Ireland deserves to be treated in a better way than other parts of the UK with regard to corporation tax. Therefore my commitment remains.
I indicated after the Varney Review was completed that the issue may have been determined for that time but that it would not go away and people would continue to campaign for it. I enjoy that there is support from the Committee and from those outside the Committee, who believe that the issue must be dealt with. Whether it is from the present or a future Administration at Westminster, I believe that the time must come when we get that dispensation to give us a fiscal instrument that allows us to be on a level playing field with those closest to us and who are competing against us.
Mr Speaker: Questions 2 and 3 have been withdrawn.
4. Mr Buchanan asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel to provide an update on the Workplace 2010 project. (AQO 1977/08)
10. Dr Farry asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel to provide an update on Workplace 2010. (AQO 2007/08)
Mr P Robinson: With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will take questions 4 and 10 together.
I can confirm that the two bidders who are still in the competition have been invited to submit their best and final offers for the Workplace 2010 contract. When those bids are received, they will be subject to a three-month evaluation, after which the Department will wish to appoint a preferred bidder in the early autumn, with a view to finalising the contract early in 2009. I have, however, given assurances that we will engage fully with the Finance Committee and with the Executive before moving to what are, effectively, the final stages of the procurement.
Mr Buchanan: I thank the Minister for the clarification. Will he indicate what progress has been made with the associated review of the location of public-sector jobs?
Mr P Robinson: I indicated to the House that I wanted to conduct the review of public-sector jobs and their dispersal in parallel with the Workplace 2010 bidding process. As Members will be aware, the team chaired by Professor Sir George Bain was established just before Christmas 2007. I met him towards the end of last year and made it clear that I was not a Minister who was going to interfere and seek to get a particular result from the group considering the matter. It is an independent review, so I am not privy to the details of the project and how it is advancing.
I can tell the Member that, to date, Sir George has given evidence to the Committee for Finance and Personnel and hosted an informal media briefing. The group is currently gathering its own evidence, and I understand that it has set itself the aim:
“to recommend the distribution of public sector jobs that best enhances the sustainable economic and social development of Northern Ireland.”
The group is due to report in summer 2008, which will allow us time to consider its findings on job location in the context of Workplace 2010.
Dr Farry: At the outset, I welcome the Minister’s decision to allow the Workplace 2010 contract to proceed on the basis that Rathgael House in Bangor will remain, with the Department of Education located there.
Will the Minister clarify whether that decision has been endorsed by the entire Executive, including the Minister of Education and Ministers whose Departments are located in similar buildings elsewhere? While respecting the contract process, can he give some indication of the timescale in which buildings such as Rathgael House will be replaced? I am conscious that people are keen that new buildings be put in place across the Civil Service estate to replace those with existing problems.
Mr P Robinson: I am fully aware that a number of civil servants operate in conditions that are totally unsuitable. Part of the rationale behind Workplace 2010 is to ensure that modern accommodation is available to facilitate improvements and reform in the Civil Service by having better working conditions.
The intention is that the Department of Education will remain at Rathgael House. That will probably require a modest extension to the newest part of the building. It is also intended that the Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP) staff will return to the Stormont estate. The Executive have agreed that we will examine the detail before anything is signed, rather than just agreeing the broad principles of Workplace 2010. Not only will everything be subject to the support and approval of the Executive, but we have undertaken to consult the Committee for Finance and Personnel, of which Dr Farry is a member.
Ms J McCann: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. The Minister touched on the issue of the relocation of Civil Service jobs. Can he detail any steps that he is prepared to take to ensure that any contracts concerning Workplace 2010 will not put any barriers in the way of the future relocation of Civil Service jobs?
Mr P Robinson: The Member is right to raise the issue, and I also raised it with my officials. There would have been little point in taking those two processes in parallel if we had already taken decisions that would not have allowed the flexibility to act on the conclusions that will be agreed as a result of Sir George’s review. My officials have assured me that there is sufficient flexibility in the contract to deal with any of the issues that arise out of the review process. If that were not so, I suspect that it would not be signed off by the Executive.
Mr McGlone: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. As a result of Workplace 2010 and other modernisation processes, including the review that is being undertaken by Sir George Bain, and bearing in mind the desire to decentralise administration, can the Minister give any indication of how many Civil Service jobs are anticipated to be decentralised out of greater Belfast by 2010-11?
Mr P Robinson: It would be entirely wrong to set up a review with a respected individual in the chair and a panel to consider those matters, and then to give him a remit that allows him to consider all the factors that are at play but to have a fixed view on what the outcome would be.
The group will consider more than Civil Service jobs. Sometimes, questions on this subject seem not to distinguish between Civil Service jobs and the wider public sector. The wider public sector must be considered, although the panel will undoubtedly consider the categorisation of Civil Service jobs. We must take into account — and I suspect that the panel will — that Belfast is our capital city. There will be a requirement for the headquarters of some organisations to be in Belfast. It is not a case of spreading everything evenly across the Province; it does not work that way. We must recognise that the bulk of the population is in the greater Belfast area, and that, for administrative reasons, it is appropriate for the headquarters to be there.
Peace III Funding
5. Mr Kennedy asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel to confirm whether there has been a delay in the schedule to deliver Peace III funding; and to outline the plans he has to assist those projects that were previously assisted through Peace II funding and which may be eligible under Peace III. (AQO 1980/08)
9. Ms Ní Chuilín asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel to detail the action he is taking to ensure that Peace III funds will be delivered to groups within the voluntary and community sector as soon as possible. (AQO 2047/08)
Mr P Robinson: With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will take questions 5 and 9 together.
There has been no delay in the overall schedule to deliver the Peace III programme. It was agreed in November 2007, and applications are already being signed under two of its themes — creating shared public spaces and the regional element of building positive relations. Local councils took three months longer than expected to form clusters in the local element of the building positive relations theme. The local peace and reconciliation action plans are due in March 2008. If that deadline is met, funding should flow by summer 2008.
Peace III is a new programme with new objectives and activities. Peace II projects that are eligible for Peace III funding can apply and receive advice from the Special EU Programmes Body. The voluntary and community sector are expected to benefit from all parts of the programme, but the building positive relations theme is particularly relevant.
Mr Kennedy: I thank the Minister for his reply. Given that the unionist community has been traditionally slow to avail of or to receive EU funds, will special emphasis be placed on encouraging unionist groups, particularly those that represent victims, to apply for Peace III funding? Will he assure the House that gap funding will be available for such victims’ groups should any delays result in the administration of Peace III funding?
Mr P Robinson: I will deal with the latter question first. I do not envisage a gap. There is no reason why we cannot move ahead of the deadline and start processing the applications, providing that the council clusters bring together the action plans.
Mr Kennedy rightly drew attention to what I believe is more than a perception that Unionists have not received the per capita allocations that Nationalists have received. The Minister for Social Development and I attended the North/South meeting that dealt with the Special EU Programmes Body. We raised the issue with its chief executive and highlighted the importance of ensuring that every effort is made to attract bids from the unionist community. The Special EU Programmes Body will do whatever it can to assist in that effort. We have a job to do to make our constituents and groups in our constituencies aware of the availability of such funds and to give them assistance to apply for them. However, the Special EU Programmes Body (SEUPB) will give them whatever assistance is needed.
Ms Ní Chuilín: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I am encouraged to hear that Peace III funding will be available by summer 2008. Although gap funding will be avoided, will the Minister concur that everyone — but particularly him and his Executive colleagues — must bring to bear pressure to ensure that a gap is not created and that there are good diversionary programmes to build positive relationships. In the past, the gaps have been more like chasms than small gaps.
Mr P Robinson: To avoid any misunderstanding, I should say that although Peace III follows Peace II, there is no continuous programme. Some of the objectives in Peace II and Peace III are the same, but others are very different. Therefore, it does not automatically follow that if an organisation has received funding under the Peace II programme, they will receive it under Peace III. Applicants cannot automatically move from one programme to the other. They will have to compete for Peace III funding in the same way as anyone else. Otherwise, it would be unfair to the new applicants.
There is not a direct line from Peace II entitlement to Peace III entitlement, because the two programmes have different objectives. However, some Peace II organisations have a criterion that is in common with Peace III, and that will allow them to make an application, but it will have to be assessed under the criteria that are set down.
Mr Ross: Peace III funding is important for many groups in Northern Ireland. I will meet a group from Carrickfergus this week about Peace III funding. What is the closing date in Northern Ireland for receipt of action plans? Will the Minister outline what process follows the SEUPB’s receipt of an application?
Mr P Robinson: The deadline is 31 March 2008, but, as I said previously, SEUPB will be happy to receive earlier applications. Following receipt of the applications, SEUPB will conduct an independent economic appraisal on each of the action plans and assess them for eligibility and value for money. Each plan will be passed on to the steering committee to be scored against selection criteria, and it will receive formal approval. Departmental approval — as well as steering committee approval — may also be required, and the first meeting of the steering committee has been scheduled for mid April.
Mr Durkan: I welcome the Minister’s comments about the timelines, although I understand the health warning about people falsely assuming that eligibility for Peace II automatically qualifies them for Peace III.
Will the Minister take steps to ensure that the groups understand the difference of focus between Peace II and Peace III and the differing quanta that are available? Will he take steps to ensure that all Departments understand the difficulties of the community and voluntary sector in coping with the uncertainties around neighbourhood renewal, uncertainties arising from the review of public administration — and the changes that that could make to some of their service level agreements— and the uncertainty in EU funding? Will the Minister work with the Departments to ensure that people in the community and voluntary sector have a better sense of what is coming and how best they can make a contribution and a bid?
Mr P Robinson: I am sure that the evening news will not make this their main story tonight, but I would be wise to heed the Member’s advice and ensure that the appropriate information is passed to all organisations — although I am sure that many of them will be aware of the criteria. He is right to state that the numbers in Peace III are different to those of Peace II. We are dealing with a smaller quantum in Peace III. Therefore, if groups are not aware of the timescales involved or if they have to refine their applications because of the change in criteria, they might lose valuable time and lose out.
Water Reform/Rates Reform
6. Mr P J Bradley asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel to detail the number of occasions that he has held bilateral meetings with the Minister for Regional Development to discuss water reform and rates reform. (AQO 1986/08)
Mr P Robinson: The Executive have established a subcommittee to take forward the review of water and sewerage services. That was formed under the chairmanship of the Minister for Regional Development who has direct responsibility for those matters. The subcommittee comprises the Minister for Social Development, the Minister for Employment and Learning and myself, and it has met on five occasions since its inception.
In my capacity as the Minister of Finance and Personnel, I had a number of informal meetings with the Minster for Regional Development before the summer, at which discussions were held on how we propose to take forward our respective reviews on rating and water reform.
Mr P J Bradley: I thank the Minister for his answer. Does he consider it fair that after all the choreography, he has announced a series of concessions in rates while the Minister for Regional Development is left to announce hefty new water charges in which there is no room for manoeuvre?
Mr P Robinson: There is something about departmental responsibility, and I am sure the Member is not suggesting that I should have taken over any of the Minister for Regional Development’s authority and made announcements on his behalf.
The Minister for Regional Development is attempting to reach agreement with all his Executive colleagues, and any agreements thus far have been between all Executive members. Even if additional time is required, it is important that consensus is reached in the Executive. Therefore, by forming a subcommittee in order to consider those matters in detail, I believe that the Minister is taking the right steps, and I am sure that everybody recognises that, if there is to be agreement in the Executive, a subcommittee can be a good mechanism to use.
Mr Weir: Will the Minister confirm, or offer a guarantee, that no householder will pay more as a result of devolution than he or she would have under direct rule proposals?
Mr P Robinson: I have already indicated to the House that if one projects the intended direct rule figures, every household in Northern Ireland will be £1,000 better off by the time the Assembly moves into its electoral mode. That is a distinct advantage; however, that figure is an average for all households. Concerning individual households, in the subgroup, I have been at pains to ensure that that is the case. I can only guarantee my own intentions; however, there must be all-party agreement. If other parties agree with my intention that no one should be worse off as a result of devolution, then that will undoubtedly be the outcome. Nevertheless, that is certainly my objective.
Mr Beggs: Will the Minister advise Members whether he has discussed the proposed charging mechanism in the EU Water Framework Directive with the Minister for Regional Development, particularly in light of the fact that the proposed method for charging water rates in relation to house values would not encourage water conservation? Consequently, has the Minister directly contacted the European Commission in order to ascertain whether the proposal will breach the EU directive?
Mr P Robinson: Without divulging too much about internal Executive business, I can tell the Member that not only have I made that comment to the Minister but I have also submitted it to him in writing. My party has a manifesto commitment that water metering should be available at least voluntarily, and, although not everybody in the House agrees with that, the DUP will stand by that commitment. At least, I hope to find allies in the UUP Ministers.
2011 Northern Ireland Census
7. Mr McCausland asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel what plans he has in relation to the 2011 Northern Ireland Census. (AQO 1974/08)
Mr P Robinson: The next census is planned to take place in 2011. There has already been formal consultation on the topic content, and users are being kept informed about current thinking. For example, the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency’s website lists information-day events.
Census offices are evaluating a census test that was conducted in 2007, and final consultative proposals for the 2011 census will be published later this year, which will be followed by a census Order and, in 2010, census regulations. That will provide an opportunity for full legislative scrutiny.
Mr McCausland: I thank the Minister for his answer. Does he anticipate the census forms being available in languages other than English?
Mr P Robinson: I indicated that there will be a full consultation process concerning that issue. In 2001, census forms were available in English only, and it is anticipated that that will also be the case in 2011. Final proposals for the approach to be adopted in 2011 will be published later this year. However, Members should note that, in 2001, a range of supporting material was produced in several other languages — including Irish and Ulster Scots. That material included a translation of the questionnaire in order to assist those people who wished to read the census questions in their own language or language of choice. It is anticipated that a similar approach will be adopted in 2011, no doubt involving not only Irish and Ulster Scots, but perhaps Polish, Portuguese, Cantonese and who knows what else.
Mr B McCrea: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Please forgive me if my voice is not particularly strong. I wish to raise a matter under Standing Order 19(11), with regard to question 9 to the First Minister and deputy First Minister submitted by Mr Stephen Moutray the Member for Upper Bann, which was either withdrawn or not put. That question is particularly topical at this time and is about a matter that we would have liked to discuss. There may or not be reasons why the question was not put, but it means that there is a problem with the procedures in the House, in that we cannot select a question to ask.
If questions of a topical nature were to be withdrawn repeatedly just before they are to be put, one could begin to consider whether, under Standing Order 60(1)(b), there was wilful obstruction of the business of the Assembly. It is a matter that must be resolved.
Mr Speaker: I hear what the Member is saying. All Members know that they can come to the Table and withdraw a question. That facility is used quite often by many Members from all sides of the House. Indeed, they can go further. If a Member fears that a question will not be answered, it can be withdrawn and put on another day. That facility has always been available to every Member of the House, and any Member can withdraw a question. It is not there to be abused, however.
Mr B McCrea: Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker, for the purpose of clarification. I understand that a number of options are available. It would have been useful, because provision exists under Standing Order 19(11), for the Member to postpone the question until another day. I wonder whether the Member took advantage of that facility.
Mr Speaker: That is not a relevant point of order. Any Member of the House can withdraw a question. It is my understanding that the Member concerned withdrew the question.
Mr McFarland: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I have a broader question. As I understand it, Members submit their questions for oral answer, which are then balloted. They are put in order, and you take the first 20 questions. Unlike the first Assembly, in which only the odd question was withdrawn, I notice that this week, and in previous weeks, it has become quite common for questions that have been selected out of the ballot to be withdrawn during the interim two-week period. That means that other questions did not make it. That is the first matter that I would like you to look into.
Secondly, in the first Assembly, it was considered really bad form to submit a question and then to be absent from the House at Question Time. At Westminster, a Member is viewed in a very bad light if he or she does not turn up to ask a question for oral answer. Will you examine that issue, Mr Speaker? At the moment, we are hopping all over the place with the questions, and Members withdraw them willy-nilly, even though other very important questions may have been left out of the ballot.
Mr Speaker: I hear what the Member is saying, and I agree with some of the points that he has made about Members submitting questions and withdrawing them at short notice. The other issue, which was commented on by Members on all sides of the House, is that Members have on occasion not been here to ask the questions that they submitted. There are a number of issues, and I agree with the Member to a certain extent.
On the other hand, the Whips have complained that Ministers have not always been able to answer enough questions, and sometimes only get to answer three or four. The Ministers have done extremely well today. The problem is that Members have been caught out: they have not been in the Chamber because they did not believe that we would get through such a number of questions. There are certainly issues for both Ministers and Members to consider.
That concludes Question Time. We will now resume the debate on roads maintenance funding.
Roads Maintenance Funding
Debate resumed on motion:
That this Assembly calls on the Minister for Regional Development to review roads maintenance funding and to ensure that sufficient funding will be made available in line with the Roads Service structural maintenance funding plan. — [Mr McCallister, Mr Cobain, Mr Elliott]
Mr B Wilson: I welcome this opportunity to discuss our roads, and I agree that more money should be spent on roads maintenance. However, I do not share the feeling of doom and gloom that other Members have expressed. Our main roads are not that bad, although I accept that minor roads have some problems.
Mr McCallister: There are cracks in the coalition.
Mr B Wilson: Some Members have mentioned that road conditions impact on the number of road accidents. In fact, there is no evidence that road condition have anything very much to do with accidents. Some 40% of accidents are due to the use of excessive speed; 25% are due to the use of alcohol and drugs; and 10% are due to inattention, but there is no indication that accidents are due to the state of the roads.
Priorities must be considered. If I had £20 million extra, would I spend it on roads maintenance? I am not sure that I would. Spending an extra £20 million on healthcare would prove more effective in improving people’s quality of life. Likewise, £20 million extra for social housing would benefit the homeless and more vulnerable in our community. Then again, that extra £20 million could be used to tackle child poverty. There is certainly a good case for funding roads maintenance, but many other areas are underfunded, and there are many other demands on a very limited budget. I am simply not convinced that roads maintenance should have priority over those other areas.
However, I must agree with Mr Dallat’s amendment. I am more concerned about the manner in which the roads maintenance budget is allocated. The immediate budget allocation is inadequate to meet the ongoing maintenance requirements, but it is supplemented by further funds that are allocated throughout the financial year in the in-year monitoring rounds. That system does not make economic sense and is a grossly inefficient way of using resources. It makes planning impossible. Local Roads Service offices have no idea how much money they will have to spend, or when they will receive the money. Invariably, they receive the money late in the financial year, and are then required to spend it before the end of that same year, which can lead to chaos. Thus, instead of carrying out the most beneficial schemes, the Department will select the projects that are easiest to complete within the limited timescale.
Last month, North Down Borough Council received an additional £1 million, which was to be spent before the end of March. Much of Bangor has come to a standstill as three or four major roadworks schemes have started in the past few weeks. Instead of phasing in that work throughout the year, all the schemes started at the same time, causing gridlock on the main roads.
A further problem is that the additional funding is allocated in the middle of winter, which is the most difficult time to carry out roadworks. The bad weather — snow, ice and rain — certainly does not make that work any easier. Winter also brings shorter days. Often, workers must work late into the night, and floodlighting is required to enable them to carry out that work. That is an inefficient process, and the work should be carried out in the summer when the evenings are lighter.
Those problems were illustrated in Bangor this past weekend. The ring road was closed at 10 o’clock on Friday night to allow resurfacing work to be carried out overnight. For two or three hours, I was swamped by phone calls from residents complaining that the work was being carried out in the middle of the night. There were massive floodlights all over the place, pneumatic drills were going and jackhammers were thudding. The entire operation caused chaos in the middle of the night and was a massive nuisance. The project should have been phased in earlier in the year when the nights were long.
I welcome the additional funding for roads maintenance, but the present method of funding through monitoring rounds is unacceptable. It is an inefficient use of resources and makes long-term planning impossible.
The Minister for Regional Development (Mr Murphy): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Members who introduced the motion and the amendment today. I welcome the opportunity to debate the funding for resurfacing of roads across the North. The maintenance of road surfaces, their underlying structures and footways is essential to the social and economic well-being of the North, and it is a high priority for Roads Service.
All of the Department’s programmes are under-resourced, which presents us with difficult choices at Budget time. The good news is that on the capital side of the Budget, which is aligned with the first three years of ISNI 2008, the roads network will benefit from £612 million of investment over the three years to 2010-11. That will result in a significant increase in the size of the motorway and dual carriageway network, reduced journey times and improved access to urban centres and regions in the North.
The cost of the combined ISNI proposals for roads is in excess of £3·1 billion over a 10-year period, including £400 million from across the island of Ireland to upgrade the A5 and the A8. That is a significant increase from the level of funding envisaged in the regional transportation strategy and the scale of investment currently being delivered by the Roads Service. The majority of the ISNI investment is earmarked for strategic road improvements on key transport corridors. In its allocation for maintenance, the Roads Service has consistently given the highest priority to structural maintenance and kept other maintenance to a sensible minimum.
In the Budget that was announced on 22 January, funding for structural maintenance was £56·3 million, £71·8 million and £70·4 million over the three-year Budget period. It is, however, accepted that that total of almost £200 million is approximately £125 million below the level recommended in the structural maintenance funding plan. Initial Budget allocations for structural maintenance in 2006-07 and 2007-08 were approximately £46 million and £59 million respectively. Therefore, in comparison, the Budget for 2008-11 provides a real-terms increase in the resources allocated to that key activity.
Many Members referred to the Budget, and the Chairperson of the Regional Development Committee, who spoke first, wondered how Budget priorities were identified. I found that puzzling because, apart from my Department and me, he probably has the best access to information on how the Budget priorities are arrived at. In fact, his Committee provided valuable scrutiny of, and comment on, that process.
Tom Elliott from Fermanagh asked how happy the Department was with its Budget allocations. As is generally the case, most Ministers — indeed, all Ministers whose views I have been privy to at Executive meetings — are equally unhappy with their allocations. One of the Finance Minister’s tasks is to provide as many resources as he can, and all Ministers argue for more than they ultimately receive. When the Department is allocated funding for road maintenance, or receives additional in-year funding, it is welcome. However, I noted Mr Robinson’s remark that when I am not successful in getting funding, it is my responsibility and when I do, it is the Minister of Finance’s responsibility. I cannot win either way. Nonetheless, that is how the Budget is decided.
Following the lengthy debate and all the Committees’ discussions on the Budget to which Members have been privy, Members know that no Minister is completely satisfied with his or her Budget allocations. As a consequence of identifying priorities and dividing the finite resources, tough decisions have had to be taken. Roads Service’s funding allocations are issued on a district-council basis, and I assure Members that there is an equitable distribution across the North. As Members know, Roads Service prepares the annual work programmes that cover the development and maintenance of the network, and they reflect the availability of finance.
This year’s 2008-09 work programme is being finalised in preparation for presentation to the respective district councils at the spring meetings that will be attended by Roads Service managers. In distributing the resources available for road maintenance, including resurfacing, patching, gully cleaning, grass cutting and so forth, allocations are made to the four divisions of the Roads Service on the basis of need, and a range of weighted indicators tailored to each maintenance activity are used. The four divisions use those indicators when apportioning resources across council areas to ensure, as far as possible, an equitable distribution of funds. Resurfacing work is generally undertaken on the basis of priority and reflects the structural condition of the road and the volume of traffic that it carries.
Mr Speaker, you were not in the Chair for the first part of the debate, when Members cited many examples from across the constituencies of what they perceive to be poor roads. Perhaps Strangford topped the poll.
I do not have information about the specific roads mentioned, particularly those on Mr McCarthy’s lengthy list. However, my Department will endeavour to provide answers to Members who had queries.
I note that Mr Brian Wilson is content with the roads in North Down, so I can stroke that off my list of places to visit.
Mr McElduff: Will the Minister visit Altamuskin Road?
Mr Murphy: I will bear in mind a visit to Tyrone.
Road safety is always the top priority, and Roads Service has a regular inspections system, which ensures that essential maintenance is identified and completed when necessary. The key issue for public safety is defect repair. Roads Service has an excellent track record in meeting defect response and repair targets, which has been recognised by the courts in public liability cases.
Over the past few years, considerable effort has been made by Roads Service to resurface the main traffic routes across the North, particularly those in the strategic road network that link the more heavily populated urban areas.
Of course, it is always the case that more resurfacing work would be carried out if more funding were available. I appreciate that funding for structural maintenance in the past three years has been almost £50 million short of the levels recommended in the regional transportation strategy. However, it is important to consider the issue in the context of correctly managing the overall Budget, which involves assessing competing priorities and making decisions. That is the job of the Executive, and it was supported by the Assembly when Members voted for the Budget.
In the last three years, £788 million has been spent on developing and maintaining the road network in the North. Some £503 million has been invested in revenue activities, including maintenance, and a further £285 million was invested on capital projects.
Up to 2018, the investment strategy envisages that £3·1 billion will be invested in road improvements, subject to the availability of resources in future Budget rounds, economic appraisals and statutory re-approvals. In the three years to the end of March 2008, £211 million will have been invested in the structural maintenance of our roads. However, I assure Members that Roads Service will continue to make strong bids for additional structural maintenance funds as part of the in-year monitoring process.
With regard to Mr Dallat’s proposed amendment, I do accept — and Brian Wilson also made the point — that Departments release moneys increasingly throughout the monitoring rounds that they know they will not spend. Therefore, the biggest release of money takes place usually during the last monitoring round of the year. Roads Service can then try to take advantage of that by having projects ready to be progressed when the moneys are released. That is not the optimum way to do business and it is not good for the industry. I have discussed the issue with people from the industry.
Although that has been the custom and practice for many years, there is a desire in the Executive for Departments to identify much earlier moneys that they may not spend during the year. That will help the process because it will allow the Department for Regional Development to identify areas where money could be spent earlier in the year, rather than rushing to complete work in the last quarter of the year, which, as Brian Wilson said, results in many projects being crammed into a short period of time.
Therefore, the onus is on all Departments to be more up-front in their assessments about moneys that they have been allocated as part of the Budget that they know — for whatever reason — they will not be able to spend as part of that year’s spending process. Those sums can then be reallocated earlier.
Roads Service is well versed in dealing with end-of-year funding: it has great experience of that and is able to take advantage of such situations. Owing to the flexibility of the industry, it is normal for Roads Service to benefit from underspends in other areas. Its divisions have predetermined work programmes that target the worst roads; these can be implemented immediately on the additional funding becoming available.
Roads Service works closely with the Quarry Products Association to ensure that the industry can cope with what are quite often significant increases in output. I will bear in mind the point that Mr Wells made about the small quarry owners and their ability to respond to increases in output.
Although the Department would prefer the additional funding earlier in the year, it welcomes additional resources at any time. Roads Service is content with the current arrangements for managing that funding. However, as I said, the Executive do want to improve the way that funds are identified and returned to the central pool much earlier than has been case over the past number of years.
More than £15 million of additional funding was allocated to Roads Service divisions in January 2008. I understand that they are on course to spend that record amount of end-of-year money, although that does depend on the weather remaining reasonable.
I am sure that all Members will agree that maintaining the surfaces and underlying structures of roads and footways is essential for the socio-economic well-being of the North. When the time comes, I hope that Members will support my Department’s bids for additional structural maintenance funds. Go raibh míle maith agat.
Mr McGlone: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank all Members who contributed to, and intervened during, the debate. The SDLP amendment is not entirely incompatible with the motion, and the flavour and content of the debate has reflected that.
Mr McCarthy outlined several issues. He is sitting beside his colleague Brian Wilson, with whom, after this debate, some bridge building may be needed, although that might be the wrong term to use in the circumstances. Issues were raised that affect constituencies across the North. I am glad that Mr Willie Clarke is confident that the Minister will deliver on road schemes and other issues that were raised. My colleague John Dallat has a constituency interest in some —
Mr Dallat: Will the Member give way?
Mr McGlone: I will.
Mr Dallat: Does Mr McGlone agree that, given that it is the most polluted town on these islands, Dungiven should be included in the magic tour that some Members are arranging for the Minister?
Mr McGlone: I hope that the magic tour will include Dungiven, as well as Mr McElduff’s Altamuskin Road. That is a plug for Barry.
Mr McElduff: I thank the Member for that.
Mr McGlone: Mr Elliott referred to the condition of roads in the west, where there are no longer any railways. Proper investment is required in our roads. Mr Irwin said that maintenance of our rural roads is patchwork, as is the state of some bus routes. The SDLP proposed the amendment to create an in-built mechanism to end the last-minute rush by deeply committed staff in our district offices to undertake maintenance schemes. I pay special tribute to the staff whom I know from my constituency. They are dedicated and on the ball, but, inevitably, they must wait until the last minute — I am sure that the same happens in other districts — to try to spot extra cash, and, if any extra cash is available, to decide to which project it should go.
My colleague P J Bradley referred to inadequate investment in our roads and to how that manifests itself; for example, roads are subsiding, and culverts and small bridges are not being maintained. If the Speaker will permit me some leeway, I shall mention some areas in my constituency that require extra road maintenance: Kildress; Ardboe; Moortown; Ballinderry; Ballyronan; Ballymaguigan; and Newbridge.
On the capital side of the departmental budget, the Minister mentioned an investment of £612 million, which will result in an increase in the motorway and dual-carriageway network and in improved access to urban centres and towns. As important as that is, it is just as important that those who live in and commute from rural areas receive a slice of that budget.
Mr George Robinson said that there is not a bottomless pit and that funding should be ring-fenced for upgrades and maintenance. I pay particular tribute to Mr Wells’s research, which revealed that there is £30 billion worth of assets in our roads and that 0·5% is spent maintaining those assets. He compared the £2,800 per kilometre that is spent in the North with the £12,000 per kilometre that is spent in England and the £7,500 per kilometre that is spent in Wales. Mr Wells articulated his point well, and we should learn from his remarks.
Mr Shannon, whom I thank for supporting the amendment, mentioned roads in Newtownards, accidents as a result of falls, slippery roads and the necessary requirements for resurfacing. I was surprised to hear that some roads had not been resurfaced for 68 years, which is incredible.
Mr Brian Wilson said that the £20 million that is spent on roads maintenance could be better spent on health, child poverty or housing. I do not agree with the latter part of that comment, but I, and many people in my constituency, feel that all those sectors should receive extra money. However, I do not know how possible that is.
I support my colleague Mr Dallat’s amendment, which adds to and complements the original motion.
Mr McCallister: I thank the Members who participated in the debate. Mr Elliott expressed some reservations about accepting the SDLP’s amendment, but we are prepared to accept it.
My colleague Mr Cobain began the debate by talking about the importance of investing properly in roads, and he cited the example of France. We need not look that far. Our neighbours in the Republic of Ireland have experienced rapid economic growth and have invested in their roads infrastructure.
A recurring theme of the debate has been short-term fixes to our roads and the heavy over-reliance on in-year monitoring rounds. Mr Dallat referred to the current stop/start approach as “impulse buying”. It is difficult to manage such an approach. I accept that the Roads Service does its best, but a stop/start approach is far from an ideal scenario for meeting the demands of the Roads Service, managers, contractors, the quarrying industry and workers.
Mr Bresland referred to the importance of roads to the west and to how dependent on roads that area had become, because there has been no rail link for many years. Mr McGlone talked of “bridge-building” between the Alliance Party and the Green Party. Some bridge-building may also be required within Sinn Féin, because Willie Clarke spoke of the less-than-adequate budget for road maintenance, but Mr Boylan talked of a generous budget. The Sinn Féin camp may need to collect its thoughts because there is clearly some confusion about whether the structural maintenance budget represents a good or a bad settlement. Perhaps the Newry and Armagh area is getting too much money, and some should be diverted to South Down.
Brian Wilson of the Green Party said that roads maintenance funding was not that bad, although I am not sure what he meant because he went on to say that Bangor was gridlocked. I accept Mr Wilson’s point that there will always be competing demands for resources — one could refer to health and social housing. However, I contend that roads are important. The Minister said that it is important to keep our roads in good condition and for people to have good access. Public transport relies predominately on roads, which are important for social inclusion and for addressing health needs and inequalities across Northern Ireland. We must have a decent and properly maintained road network.
There was some rivalry between Mrs Robinson and Mr McCarthy about who spoke for all of Strangford. I am not sure who won that argument. Mr McCarthy was probably quite pleased that there was a debate between him and Mrs Robinson.
The rural nature of constituencies such as Strangford, Fermanagh and South Tyrone, or my constituency of South Down, makes the road network vital to those communities. Mr McCarthy mentioned some of the roads.
At the risk of leaving out any road in South Down, I ought to list every road in the constituency, but, to everybody’s relief, I will not.
The rural nature of most roads in Northern Ireland was the crux of most of the arguments. Mr Irwin also talked about rural roads, and he made an important point about the criteria for deciding which roads are gritted in winter. Like me, many Members may feel that certain roads in their constituencies should be gritted, although those roads do not quite meet the criteria.
Mr Elliott spoke about the lack of choice in relation to public transport and poor access to services. Those matters are critical to those of us who represent large rural constituencies and who are concerned that services are maintained and not devalued. Poor road drainage and other problems are costing businesses money. Heaping more costs on to businesses will cause problems with employment, and areas that have poor road networks will be much less attractive to inward investment.
It would be remiss of me not to pay tribute to Mr McElduff for sacrificing his St Valentine’s night to go to a meeting about a road. I am sure that his wife was delighted, although I am not sure how Mr McClarty knew about it. That was very commendable of Mr McElduff, and I am sure that he is delighted about the money that he saved.
Mr P J Bradley mentioned the traditional “road man”. Many people who may not be as young as I am have talked about a similar theme. That sort of local knowledge and the pride that is involved in keeping local roads, verges and drainage well maintained may be something that the Minister might wish to consider in the future.
Mr Wells gave us some interesting figures on roads. I was surprised that he sounded so reasonable — almost uncharacteristically so. When even Roads Service’s own annual report talks about papering over the cracks, we must find a better system. An over-reliance on in-year monitoring puts pressure on the entire system, and the Minister for Regional Development accepted that in his speech. I noted that the Minister mentioned that the Minister of Finance and Personnel seemed to take credit when the money was available. I could not agree more. In the previous Executive, the concessionary-fares scheme seems to have been all his idea and nobody else was involved. However, as I have pointed out before, only his party could have introduced something so unequal.
Mr Shannon suggested that we get the roads that we pay for. He highlighted concerns about the skid resistance of roads and the recording of accidents. The Minister should examine the way in which accidents are recorded throughout Northern Ireland to ensure that, if roads are at fault, that defect is properly recorded.
It has been a good debate, the main theme of which is that we must find a better way of financing road maintenance. The infrastructure is much too important to neglect, and we do not want to end up as the poor relation in that regard. The infrastructure must be financed and looked after; it is extremely important for travel, for health provision and for the economy, and we must get it right. We must look after our roads and ensure that they are maintained in good condition. After all, once roads fall into a bad state of repair, bringing them back up to standard can cost four or five times as much as maintaining them properly. I thank all the Members who have spoken in support of the motion.
Question, That the amendment be made, put and agreed to.
Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.
That this Assembly calls on the Minister for Regional Development to review roads maintenance funding and to ensure that sufficient funding will be made available in line with the Roads Service structural maintenance funding plan; and further calls for an urgent review of end of year management of funds to ensure that a more strategic approach is applied to the way in which maintenance schemes are undertaken immediately before the end of the financial year.
Mr Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes for the winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClarty] in the Chair)
Mr Storey: I beg to move
That this Assembly repudiates any suggestion that the 30 year terrorist campaign in Northern Ireland be re-classified as a “war”.
I preface my remarks by remembering all those innocent victims who have been murdered, maimed and injured over the past 35 years as a result of what can only be described as a terrorist campaign. The motion should act as a reminder to the republican movement that, however it may view its position in the Assembly, it is being scrutinised. Despite what Caitríona Ruane may wish or think, my party will continue to scrutinise it in every aspect, policy and issue. Sinn Féin Members should never think that they may have pulled one over on the unionist community. We will not see their portrayal of IRA violence as anything other than an attempt to airbrush history and distort the true facts. Robin Eames and his colleagues should also be clear that any attempt to support the rewriting of paramilitary terrorism will be totally rejected by the unionist community. I hope that Members on the SDLP and Alliance Benches will also utterly reject such a notion.
I am not blind to the activities of loyalist groups. However, their support was always tiny and, as we can see from the Chamber, it has diminished further.
The IRA murdering campaign will always remain what it was: the grubby, cowardly actions of sectarian terrorists who are in denial about their past and who betrayed the very cause that they claim to support. Republicans are in denial about the nature of Irish republicanism, about their so-called struggle and their personal responsibility in it. They still try to deny, for instance, their direct role in the demonising and targeting of the Loyal Orders, despite Gerry Adams’s boastful claiming of credit for it on the part of Sinn Féin activists. They are still in denial about what they have called “collusion”, because they claim that loyalists colluded but that republicans did not. They still try to deny that the republican movement was riddled with informers, even though it was, and that the security forces utterly infiltrated and fatally compromised it, even though they did. Sinn Féin still denies the truth that by the early 1980s, surveillance was in place, by the mid-1980s, it had been infiltrated and agents recruited at all levels across the entire movement, and that by the early to mid-1990s, it was a busted flush looking for a way out.
Although Sinn Féin means “ourselves alone”, the truth is that, for many years, it was not alone, because British Intelligence had placed its people at the very highest level of Sinn Féin, ensuring that it would, in the words of Mr Molloy in 1999:
“administer British rule in Ireland for the foreseeable future.”
“The very principle of partition is accepted.”
I shall return to that theme in a few moments.
Irish republicanism is also in denial about the true nature of its so-called struggle. There was no war fought out in the ditches, houses, hedgerows, back alleys or dark corners of Northern Ireland. We know that because, when terrorists crawled out of their lairs to murder their neighbours, they ignored every convention of warfare. In warfare, prisoners are afforded certain rights and standards of treatment; however, the Provos tortured and murdered their prisoners and then booby-trapped their bodies.
The Provos also broke regulations with regard to the wounded, whom they tortured and killed. There are regulations to ensure that people do not:
“employ weapons, projectiles, materials or tactics of a nature to cause superfluous injury”.
Once again, the Provos ignored that. Consider the planning behind Bloody Friday — in the Sinn Féin leader’s territory — when bombs were planted specifically in order that civilians might run directly into their path.
Furthermore, they ignored the regulation that states:
“The attack or bombardment of towns, villages, habitations or buildings which are not defended, is prohibited.”
Consider the Claudy bombing — in Martin McGuninness’s territory. Consider how many major town centres were blown to smithereens. In all of those cases and others, the Provisional IRA deliberately ignored the international conventions of warfare, at will, for decades. Therefore, no war was fought in Northern Ireland.
If the IRA campaign was not a war, what was it? In order to answer that question, the Assembly must consider exactly what the IRA did. In some instances, the IRA murdered people for no reason other than their religion. The Kingsmill massacre was carried out by the IRA under a cover name. The gunmen asked each of the workers their religion. One of them was a Roman Catholic. He was told to get out of the way. The rest — 10 men in total — were riddled with bullets because of their religion. In other cases, people were specifically targeted because of their ethnic background. Consider the bombings of Birmingham and Warrington, where people were attacked because they happened to have been born British.
In other cases, people were murdered because of their political opinion. When I look across at the Ulster Unionist Party’s Benches, I think of the late, and greatly missed, Rev Robert Bradford and Edgar Graham. I look at my own Benches, and although I am thankful that planned attacks failed, I know that many of my colleagues are only alive today because the IRA failed in its plans. Its intent, however, was the same.
The Assembly knows that the IRA did not fight a war because it ignored the international conventions that govern warfare. It knows that the IRA stands guilty of sectarian, ethnic and racial murder and political assassination. Therefore, what exactly was the IRA’s campaign about? It simply fought a seedy, grubby, sectarian, terrorist campaign — nothing more or less.
The only alternative would be that if the IRA’s campaign were a war, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness are war criminals every bit as much as Mladic and Karadzic, or any others who are associated with atrocities in the former Yugoslavia. The IRA campaign was no war. The IRA merely inflicted its sectarian misery on society.
It was, however, a fatally compromised and infiltrated sectarian terrorist organisation. As I said earlier, by the mid- to late 1980s, British intelligence had agents across all levels and every section of the organisation. In 1984, Gerry Adams was still saying that:
“You cannot claim to be an Irish nationalist if you consent to an internal six county settlement and if you are willing to negotiate the state of Irish society with a foreign government.”
In 1986, Gerry Adams was still saying that:
“Irish nationalism within British constitutionality is a contradiction in terms.”
In 1986, Martin McGuinness was saying that:
“Those who collaborate with Britain in exchange for a slice of the cake will implement British policy and remain silent when Irish people are murdered and oppressed.”
In 2008, however, McGuinness and Adams implement British rule, just as Francie Molloy had foretold.
The IRA was simply the largest terrorist organisation in Europe. The people who were dead and mourning were left that way, not as part of any war, but as the result of the Provisionals’ naked sectarian hatred. It is painful for democrats to comprehend that the political representatives of such a body should sit in an Executive in a democratic country. For some people, it is not only painful, but unbearable. I have every sympathy with those who feel that way.
However, I take comfort from the fact that although there was no conversion on Sinn Féin’s part, there was corruption from the inside.
Although there was no transformation, there was infiltration from the outside, and although Sinn Féin used to be a political wing of the IRA, it is now, in many ways, a political wing of MI5.
The House should send out a clear message today that, although all that is true, we will not play along with Sinn Féin’s self-delusion, nor have anything to do with the Eames/Bradley group’s proposal to airbrush history. Members should send out the message that we know Sinn Féin for what it is and what it did, and that its past crimes should neither be covered nor whitewashed. As we try to complete the task of creating a new, better and prosperous Northern Ireland, we should send out the message that, in the process of achieving that, we will not leave the truth behind. I support the motion.
Mr Deputy Speaker: I remind Members that every other Member who speaks will have five minutes to do so.
Ms J McCann: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I want to say, at the outset of the debate, that I very much doubt whether the sponsors of the motion really care how the conflict that we have all been through is described. It was not that long ago that they were calling on the IRA to say that the war is over, and they consistently called on the IRA to say that. They had no problem using the word “war” when it suited their own political interest, but now it is like a scene from ‘Fawlty Towers’: “don’t mention the war”.
In speaking against the motion, I am mainly concerned about the relatives of all those who have been killed in the conflict. I could bring Mervyn Storey, or anybody, to any republican or nationalist constituency — even just a few streets from where I live, he could speak to a woman whose 12-year-old daughter was murdered by a British soldier firing a plastic bullet, as the child went to fetch a carton of milk. We can all talk about that type of thing, but I am not going to do that now.
Not for the first time in recent months, unionist parties — in their endeavours to score points against each other — have brought motions to the Assembly that have more to do with reaching out to the unionist electorate than with improving the quality of people’s lives. The sponsors of the motion know that Sinn Féin, and its electorate, have an entirely different view of the origins of the conflict and of the reasons why we ended up in the conflict situation that resulted in so many people losing their lives.
To nationalists and republicans, the core problem in this country is partition and the British Government’s historical occupation of Ireland. I know that the Members opposite think that we lived in a wonderful little place prior to 1969, and that is always their reference point. They simply ignore the injustice of unionist one-party rule, which treated nationalists and Catholics as second-class citizens in their own country.
Mr D Kennedy: Does the Member not accept the historically accurate fact that Ireland has never been united except under the British Crown?
Ms J McCann: No, I do not agree with that at all. [Interruption.]
Can I finish? I did not interrupt you.
It is the unionist parties opposite that are living in denial, not republicans. Those parties are in denial about the role played by unionists from the time of partition, and about their responsibility for the conflict. They need to get real about the injustice of partition and about the society that they created and forced nationalists and Catholics to live in.
Mr Storey: Will the Member give way?
Ms J McCann: No, I let you finish and I would like to finish what I have to say. I only have five minutes to speak. [Interruption.]
Right, go on ahead.
Mr Storey: I thank the Member for giving way. I will ask a question that I have failed to get an answer for from republicans. I do not accept the premise that there was injustice, because unionists had equal difficulties with the problems of running water and housing that it is claimed were suffered by nationalists and Catholics. However, even if that injustice did exist, did that justify the murder, mayhem, graves and sorrow that were inflicted for 35 years?
Mr Deputy Speaker: I will allow the Member an extra minute.
Ms J McCann: It was not just the IRA that did those things, OK? I am not even going to get involved in that debate, because it must be recognised that other people were involved in the conflict, including the British state.
The sponsors of the motion need to be mindful of the language that they use, because it could be deeply offensive to the people whose lost loved ones were members of the IRA. Those who died on the republican side were noble, brave people: they were patriots, involved in a struggle to end Britain’s occupation of this part of Ireland — [Interruption.]
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. The Member has the Floor. It is fine to disagree with her, but Members must allow her to have her say, just as they were permitted to have their say.
Ms J McCann: I am not asking anyone in the Chamber to accept my views, but I have a right to express them. I am asking Members to respect the feelings of the relatives of those who died. Their grief is the same as that of anyone else who has lost a family member. Their tears are the same.
I have no difficulty in accepting that because of the actions of republicans, relatives of members of the Crown forces who were killed, are hurting. I would not, for one minute, consider making remarks that could cause offence to those families. All I am asking for is the same level of respect for republican families.
The sponsors of this motion, and similar motions, should bear all that in mind when referring to IRA volunteers and their families. I remind unionist MLAs that they are part of a power-sharing Administration with nationalists and republicans. It is a very —
Mr T Clarke: Under British rule.
Ms J McCann: Well, you are still here. It is a very popular Administration among unionists and nationalists across Ireland. Many people in conflict situations around the world visit us, seeking help to —
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. The Member’s time is up.
Mr Kennedy: I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in this debate. The suggestion that the IRA terrorist campaign of the past —
Mr McCartney: Will the Member give way?
Mr Kennedy: Very briefly.
Mr McCartney: The Member made an intervention and stated that Ireland was only ever united under the British Crown. Is that an acceptance that uniting Ireland is a worthy cause?
Mr Kennedy: Yes — under the British Crown. If the Republic wants to rejoin the British Commonwealth and renegotiate the terms and conditions for the union, I would withhold any objection.
The suggestion that the IRA terrorist campaign over the past 35 to 40 years was a war — as opposed to an insurgency — is not only emotive but offensive to unionists. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the motion has been tabled for debate because of recent leaks from the Eames/Bradley Consultative Group on the Past, and that this course of action was, perhaps, under active consideration.
The move that this motion exposes and opposes would be very inappropriate in any Western democracy at any time. However, in the world climate, following 9/11, it is a complete non-starter. I can only imagine what people in the United States, for example, would think of such a proposal, given the brutality and loss of life that took place on 9/11, and the ongoing threat posed by the terrorist organisation al-Qaeda.
Legitimising terrorism is not what the world is about these days — dealing decisively with terrorism, in the interests of the public who are threatened by terrorists in life and limb, is what we are about nowadays. Trying to rewrite history is never a good idea, even at the best of times. In a very real sense, one cannot rewrite history in any case. The past is exactly that — warts and all. Playing with words is also not a good idea — because that is all it really is. Nothing can take away from the sacrifice of the thousands of victims of the IRA terrorist campaign.
At the very least, we owe victims the respect of refusing to place their murderers on a moral par with them. That would be dishonest and grotesque.
I counsel the political representatives of the terrorists who perpetrated crimes against humanity — and that is exactly what they were — that their interests would be better served by keeping quiet about the past in the hope that, in time, people would stop seeing them as the men who gave up Armalites for Armani suits and would begin to view them as members of a legitimate political party.
Sinn Féin is taking a big risk with the continued existence of the IRA army council, which, if that party had any sense, it would disband. Tomorrow, a debate is due to take place on the murder of Mr Paul Quinn. Every such incident inevitably raises the question of whether the IRA was involved and whether it is still inextricably linked to Sinn Féin, which places its political project, as it calls it, at risk every day that the IRA army council continues to exist.
Talk about terming the IRA terrorist murder campaign a “war” is as laughable as any debate about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin — it is irrelevant and inappropriate. However, such talk still has the power to hurt the victim community.
When proposing the motion, Mr Storey remembered the sacrifices of many politicians, including the Rev Robert Bradford. When Members approach this Chamber and the Senate Chamber, they see memorial tablets in honour of Senator Paddy Wilson, Senator Jack Barnhill, Sir Norman Strong and his son, Jim, and Edgar Graham. Those are chilling reminders on which all of us should reflect, every day, as we pass them. We do not want to go back to those dark days.
This Assembly should pass the motion and, in doing so, should dismiss the notion that a terrorist insurgency was in any way a legitimate war. I shall watch with interest to see which way the political representatives of the IRA vote. I support the motion.
Mr Durkan: Contributions to the debate have already demonstrated that this is an emotive subject. The colour of those contributions perhaps suggests why a body such as the Consultative Group on the Past had to be established and why the victims’ commissioners desginate for might be better able to make progress on the legacy of the past than politicians in this Chamber or elsewhere.
It is all very well for the DUP to tell us — as Mr Storey did — that people find it unbearable to take part in the power-sharing arrangements. It seems to me that the DUP is grinning and bearing power-sharing rightly. DUP Members use motions such as this to beat their breasts and Provo-bash and to talk about the past in a very emotive and one-sided way.
The SDLP does not believe in classifying as a war what we went through during the Troubles, the conflict, the division, the violence — all the terms that Members are comfortable with. Members use much the same language about the past few decades of our history.
The SDLP does not believe in equating victims with victim-makers in any way; however, there was not just one set of victim-makers. My party never condoned, excused or indulged violence from any source in any circumstance. However, today, we are being lectured by members of a party that was prepared for years to retell the lie that loyalist violence existed simply in response to republican violence. That is an absolute lie and is completely wrong.
Mrs I Robinson: Does the Member accept that his party was happy to use IRA violence to ensure that it got plenty of handouts from the British Government through the years — by claiming that if the Government did not do a, b or c, succour would be given to Sinn Féin/IRA?
Mr Durkan: I refute that as an outrageous untruth. The SDLP neither did anything nor argued for anything on the back of the IRA campaign. Unionism argued for plenty on the back of the IRA campaign, and on the back of the so-called loyalist backlash, which was supposedly responsive, yet was not. Loyalist violence was absolutely wrong; republican violence was absolutely wrong.
Some of the people who examine issues of the past mean well, but it would be equally wrong were those people, in a well-meaning effort to deal with the past, to airbrush from history some of the hurtful truths that were experienced. To pretend that what happened was a war would be completely wrong. To talk about there being blood on everybody’s hands and about there being wrong done on both sides would be wrong, because many, many people in this society made a conscious decision to play no part in supporting violence, whether that violence was committed in the name of the state, in the name of Ireland or in the name of Ulster. Those people do not have blood on their hands. The only blood that some people have had on their hands was the blood of their innocent loved ones while they tended to them.
The SDLP is opposed to all the crass moves to deal with the past in a false, phoney and dangerous shorthand, whether that be done through branding our recent past a war — as though everybody should have been on one side or another — or through somehow trying to pretend that the Troubles were some necessary and inevitable prelude to the peace process. Thank God that we are here in these power-sharing institutions; however, we could have been here decades ago. Parties must ask themselves about the position that they attempt to justify. There is no point in their simply condemning the violence that others practised. What about the vehemence that they displayed in opposing power sharing, North/South arrangements and political accommodation? That opposition ensured that we endured lost years, lost opportunities and lost lives for longer than was necessary.
That is why, Mr Deputy Speaker, although the SDLP does not wish to see our recent past, in order to airbrush atrocities and people’s suffering, branded some sort of war, we shall not trot along behind the DUP into the Aye Lobby to vote in favour of the motion. The DUP does not have the right to propose a motion that deals with the past in a partial and emotive manner. That is no way in which to deal with the past, and it proves why we need — [Interruption.]
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order.
Mr T Clarke: Provo lover.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Please give the Member —
Dr W McCrea: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Dr McCrea, I am talking about the noise that has been created. Allow the Member who is speaking to make his point. Several Members have yet to speak, so those Members who have been interrupting will have opportunities to make their point.
Dr W McCrea: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. It has been said that we had no right to bring the motion to the House. Is it not correct that the Business Committee accepted the motion, so it has a right to be debated?
Mr Deputy Speaker: Absolutely, I could not agree more. Those Members who tabled the motion had a right to bring it before the Business Committee. The Business Committee decides whether a motion can be debated, and its decision was that it could be debated.
Mr Durkan, I shall allow you a further 30 seconds.
Mr Durkan: I was making the point, Mr Deputy Speaker, that the DUP had no right to table a motion that, in purporting to deal with the past, deals with it very partially and emotively. Rather than jumping in irrationally and emotionally, what we all need to do is allow Eames, Bradley and the others who are dealing with the issues to deal with them.
Yes, for its own political convenience, it suits the DUP to have such a motion debated, but that motion makes no contribution to the past, no contribution to the victims’ lot and no contribution to progress. We are hearing lectures from the man who shared a platform with Billy Wright, yet he dares to call me a Provo lover?
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Member’s time is up.
Mr Lunn: The Alliance Party has no difficulty in supporting the motion. [Interruption.]
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order.
Mr Lunn: The Alliance Party has no difficulty in supporting the motion, although we doubt its necessity. As far as we are concerned, those who view the years of conflict as a war will continue to refer to it as such, and no number of motions being debated will change that.
The proposers of the motion evidently feel so strongly about recent comments made by people who should, by now, know the effect of wrongly used language in this country that they must emphasise their point again. I must say that I was equally surprised by the language that the Eames/Bradley group used, and the circumstances in which that language was used.
Factually, our conflict was never a war. The internationally recognised Army of the state was never placed on a war footing in Northern Ireland. That is why the Alliance Party was correct to back demands for investigations into allegations of collusion. It was also correct to oppose internment many years ago. Collusion and internment are not legitimate features of peacetime counterterrorism or intelligence gathering.
The positions that have been taken by the unionists and Sinn Féin are contradictory. The broad unionist position — not just that of the DUP — rejects the term “war” but is quite happy to use the term “private armies”. Unionists have been known to demand assurances that the war is over. They do not see the urgency of investigating collusion, although that should be a massive issue for them in peacetime. Sinn Féin, however, sees the past as a war, but it demands inquiries into collusion and events such as Bloody Sunday. If it really was a war, collusion and such events would, by now, be regarded as unfortunate but necessary, or, in the modern, Iraqi-style terminology, “collateral damage”.
The real issue is that there are parties who are so entrenched in division that they cannot deal with the tragedy of the past 30 years without dividing it up. Sinn Féin’s campaign is concerned with legitimising the illegitimate by trying to make out that a grubby campaign, which failed utterly, was somehow a glorious success. Meanwhile, others seek to deny their role in creating the conditions for that tragedy.
It is interesting to debate such matters. Indeed, raking over the past seems to be one of our national pastimes. Although the past must be dealt with, rewriting history is not desirable. I hope that a campaign by terrorists will never be reclassified as a war, or given any kind of legitimacy.
Lord Morrow: As my name is one of the ones in which the motion stands, I support it. Over the past 35 years, Northern Ireland has suffered severely as the result of a vicious, sectarian murder campaign. It was waged, in the main, by the Provisional IRA, which claimed some 1,800 lives. The brutality of that campaign can be measured by the number of people who lost their lives — around 3,600. It seems that hardly a family has escaped. That systematic annihilation was carried out by those who were intent on driving out a people who wanted to be a part of the United Kingdom, and forcing those who remained into a united Ireland.
The neighbouring state, the Irish Republic, was not a disinterested bystander. Rather, it permitted its territory to be used as a safe haven for those who fled there after carrying out their deadly deeds. During the long years of that terrorist campaign, co-operation from the Irish Republic Government was in short supply. Extradition was never going to be implemented, and the reason for that was simple: the aims and objectives of the Provos were similar to those of the Dublin Government. They agreed on those; the only thing on which they disagreed was the tactics.
We have moved to the stage at which some in our society want to see the past redefined as a war. They want to lend some respectability to what happened over the past 35 years; to lend some credibility to those who carried out those dreadful deeds, with victims and perpetrators treated as equal. Could anything be more absurd? That would be rubbing salt into very raw wounds.
We all thought that the release of prisoners under the Belfast Agreement and the destruction of the RUC was the final insult, but now comes a further heinous suggestion — that those who carried out those murders be treated in the same way as their victims. Could anything be more hurtful, repulsive and soul-destroying than such a dirty suggestion? Surely, victims and Northern Ireland as a whole have suffered enough. To even attempt to justify such actions is a travesty — it is an insult to the victims and the memories of their loved ones. That would be to conveniently smooth over a horrendous part of this country’s past and piece together a more presentable history on which to build its future.
To attempt to cloak the past 30 years or more of terror in a shroud of respectability demeans the intelligence of all right-thinking people and heaps additional pain and suffering on victims and their loved ones. Reclassification of the terrorist campaign as a war feeds the ego and is a misplaced belief that there was a struggle towards a goal. A romanticised “La Resistance” image is always portrayed by the so-called IRA volunteer who gave the ultimate sacrifice in search of freedom: that is a fairy tale. They were sadistic, bloodthirsty, remorseless criminals of the worst calibre who cared for nothing but the sheer driven imposition of their will.
In reality, the struggle was carried out by the citizens of Northern Ireland, who were caught up in a nightmare for over 30 years. They strove to carry on against all odds to maintain some semblance of normality. However, some of those citizens were caught up in attacks and became victims. The real claim to fame of the so-called fallen heroes, who are commemorated at various locations across the country, is murder and atrocity. They play no part in the sensible thinking of any society.
Attempts are being made to systematically remove the legal, justified heritage of this country — a country that is part of the United Kingdom. Those attempts are being made to facilitate the sensitivities of those who claim a desire for neutrality. However, they have not offered to remove the sick monuments that extol the virtues of a murderous villain who fell while on active duty. Once again, we are being exposed to the all-too-familiar stench of republican hypocrisy. They love to instigate the rules of change but fail to apply them to themselves. That is what we now define as Sinn Féin equality — it has a different meaning to the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of equality.
Mr O’Dowd: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. In the past, I treated this type of debate as a challenge, but now I approach it as a chore. I do not want my colleagues across the Chamber to think that they have worn me down in some way; they have not. If there is a debate on this subject next week, we will return to debate it, and, if necessary, we will come back again the week after that and the week after that.
What do we achieve by continuing to have this debate? I suspect strongly that it is more to do with providing therapy for the DUP Back Benchers than with anything that is based in reality. No matter how much some DUP Back Benchers wish to shy away from it, they are in a power-sharing Executive with Sinn Féin, and they will continue to be in a power-sharing Executive with Sinn Féin for as long as tens of thousands of people vote for us and put us in power. They will have to accept the reality that we have come out of 40 years — some would say 80 years or even longer — of terrible conflict. However, the motion gives an insight into the thinking of the unionist parties.
The motion is about reclassifying what happened over the past 30 years to a terrorist campaign. Three unionist Members have spoken on the debate so far, and the most time that has been spent on loyalist violence is three seconds. I watched the clock as Mr Storey, the only Member from the opposite Benches to mention loyalist violence, spoke only for three seconds on that subject before he moved off it. Therefore, on average, each of the unionist Members who spoke spent only one second on loyalist violence.
If it was not a war, it was hell. War is not nice. Republicans have not asked anyone to reclassify the campaign as a war. We know what we went through, and we know what our communities went through. Unionists will refer to it in whatever way they wish, but it was a war because it was hell. War is not a nice thing — people die, terrible things happen, and terrible things are done by all sides in a conflict.
Mr Storey said it was not a war because the IRA killed prisoners, but the British Army and the RUC killed prisoners. He told us that it was not a war because the IRA tortured prisoners, but the British Army and the RUC tortured prisoners.
Mr Burnside: Will the Member give way?
Mr O’Dowd: No, I will not give way.
Loyalists tortured prisoners. Mr Storey told us that it was not a war because the IRA targeted civilians deliberately. Civilians were targeted deliberately on Bloody Sunday. A 12-year-old child who was going to the shop to buy a carton of milk for her mother was a civilian, and she was killed by the British Army.
The loyalist campaign of the UVF and UDA — with whom Members on the opposite Benches have marched — is based on the definition of terrorism. We got an insight into that from David Ervine who said that the UVF existed to terrorise the Catholic community — [Interruption.]
Mrs I Robinson: He did not represent us.
Mr O’Dowd: Members of the parties opposite marched with him often enough. They marched with him on more than one occasion and shared platforms with him.
The UVF existed to terrorise the Catholic community into submission. Who armed the UVF? The British Government armed the UVF. Who armed the largest terrorist organisation in western Europe? The British Government did that as well. The Ulster Defence Association is the largest armed group in Europe. It is no wonder that that group retains its weapons. If unionists devote only three seconds in this debate to talking about loyalist paramilitaries, what pressure is there on such groups to hand in their weapons? There is absolutely no pressure on them. Is it any wonder that loyalist paramilitaries have murdered 30 people — the majority of whom were Protestants — in the past five years, when unionist representatives speak for only three seconds on the issue in the Chamber?
Members can feel free to define the campaign as they wish, but I would like to know why 30,000 troops of one ilk or another were on the streets of the North. The soldiers who served in south Armagh, east Tyrone and north Armagh and those who were in bases hidden under 20 feet of concrete should be asked whether they were at war. They knew that they were at war, and they knew that they were up against the force that was at war with them. [Interruption.]
The British Government put the Army on the streets; I thought that the Member might have known that. If Members want to have a quick history lesson, I will remind them that the British Army was put on the streets in response to a peaceful civil rights campaign.
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Member’s time is up. There is no time for a history lesson.
Mr Simpson: When the Eames/Bradley group briefed the media that it was considering recommending that decades of terrorism should be repackaged as a war, it was understandably met with outrage, because it is an outrageous suggestion. It was also met with shock, not only because of its shocking revisionism but because it appeared to come out of nowhere. However, in Northern Ireland, nothing of that nature comes out of nowhere. My understanding is that the Eames/Bradley group was divided on the issue, and there were two differing factions on the matter.
There are serious questions for the Eames/Bradley group to answer. Why were the press briefed about something that was not the view of the entire group? Did the press briefing amount to one faction briefing against another? How can we, or the public, ever trust the group’s recommendations? The proposal to reclassify the terrorist campaign is disgusting, but so is the way in which the hurt and bereavement of the long years of the Troubles has been used by elements of the Eames/Bradley group for their own ends.
There ought to be no cover given, or legitimacy afforded, to those who over many decades have visited sectarian misery and slaughter on all sections of the community. Did republicans claim to be at war with Roman Catholics? They say no. Why, therefore, was the IRA the greatest killer of Roman Catholics during the Troubles? In her speech, Jennifer McCann said that those republicans who died during the conflict were brave, noble people. Jennifer McCann should tell that to her co-religionists who were butchered by those people and to the young victims of the Omagh bomb — whose limbs policemen had to carry — and its unborn victims. There is nothing brave about that sort of republican activity. As a woman, Jennifer McCann should understand the feelings that were stimulated when unborn children were butchered by republicanism.
Did they claim to be at war with their Protestant neighbours? It often appeared that way; however, republicans tell us that they were not. Why, then, did the IRA follow Protestants for many weeks, carry out dummy runs in preparation for real operations, and then cut many hundreds of Protestants down in cold blood simply because they were Protestants?
Did they claim to be at war with people who held a different political opinion? Today, they would tell us that they were not. Why, therefore, did they set out to murder unionist representatives and leaders?
Did they claim to be at war with the British Government? They say yes. Why, therefore, did so many republicans, from the top down, so readily, quickly and effectively collude with the security forces against the ideals for which they claimed to be fighting? We have already heard that old phrase, “collusion is not an illusion”, and that certainly applies to the republican movement.
However, that did not simply drop out of the sky onto an unsuspecting and ill-prepared republican leadership. The groundwork was carried out over years. In 1981, Sinn Féin decided to contest Northern Ireland elections. In 1982, it fielded candidates in elections to the Prior Assembly. In 1985, its members took up seats on local councils. In 1986, it recognised the legitimacy of the Dáil. By the end of that year and into 1987, it was negotiating with the British Government. Someone once said that the definition of a good politician is someone who, once he is bought, stays bought. Few would argue that Sinn Féin members are not good politicians.
My time is running out. I fully support the motion tabled by my colleagues; it is a disgrace that anyone, or any organisation, would even attempt to offer amnesty or declare that this was a legitimate war.
Mr Burnside: I support the motion because I do not wish to glamorise or dramatise the conflict as a war. However, in some ways, I have a split mind on the subject. In some ways, I wish that, back in the late 60s and early 70s, it had been declared a war. Sinn Féin/IRA thought that it was a legitimate state army, representing authentic Irish republicanism, and it wanted to declare its vicious little insurrection a noble war against the British state, with the objective of British withdrawal from Ireland — which it has totally failed to achieve.
Sinn Féin/IRA was glamorised and given authority by the then party of Government in the Irish Republic, which is the same party that now forms the Government in the Irish Republic — Fianna Fáil — and which, through Haughey, Boland and Blaney, organised Sinn Féin/IRA’s original financing and has helped to finance the republican movement for the past 35 to 40 years.
Those of us who supported the British state — the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the Ulster Special Constabulary, the UDR and the regular Army — were not allowed to fight a war. If we had, there would be many fewer of the current elected representatives sitting on that Bench, including the president of Sinn Féin and the deputy First Minister. However, the British Government did not authorise the fighting of a war.
Mr Molloy: Will the Member explain whether that is a threat directed at the Members on these Benches about what he would have done if he had been given the free rein that he would have wished?
Mr Burnside: If there had been a declaration of war and, through emergency powers, the methods acceptable in war had been used by the British Army and state, many of the commanders and members of the Provisional IRA — and of any other terrorist organisation — would have been removed from society using those methods. That is the reality of life. However, we had to fight a Southern Government that laid claim to us and was helping to finance a terrorist campaign — [Interruption.]
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order.
Mr Burnside: — terrorist campaign in this country that did not allow the security forces the opportunity to act as in a war in order to achieve their objectives.
Special methods had to be used. We had to bend civil society, using Diplock courts and other methods that no one in a normal democratic society would want to use to defend democracy and freedom against rebellion and insurrection. Credit is due to all those who served in the RUC, the UDR, the regular Army, the support services and all the brave Catholics who stood up against intimidation. Credit is due not just to those Catholics who joined the police, the UDR or the Prison Service but to ordinary Catholics who had to keep their heads down in their own communities because of intimidation by the same people who still intimidate in south Armagh. The remnants of the terrorist army — an army only by Sinn Féin’s definition — is still intimidating there.
Let us not rewrite history. We stood up against the party opposite; we will not glamourise what they stand for by calling what happened a war. We will not glamourise the disgusting acts of those who, in the name of loyalism, took out ordinary Catholics because they were in the wrong part of Belfast at the wrong time of night. That butchery shamed loyalism and unionism. It is nothing that we should be proud of, and we condemn it. It happened during the conflict, and it should be condemned completely.
This is a condemnation society; it is very easy to condemn. It was much more difficult to support the security forces during the Troubles to fight the terrorists who wanted to glamourise themselves by calling the Troubles a war. It was an insurrection, which I hope is now over. Sinn Féin has not moved fully from terrorism and criminality to democracy, but it is going in the right direction. Do not go back to where we were. I support the motion. What happened was not a war; it was an insurrection against the legitimate state: the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The IRA was defeated in the war that it wanted to fight, because there is not and will not be a united Ireland — unless it is under the Crown.
Mr Molloy: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the opportunity to debate this issue, even though it provides the DUP with the usual ritual that it goes through every once in a while to assure its base that it is still as hardline as ever.
Forty years ago, the civil rights campaign took to the streets in a peaceful protest to demand the rights that Mr Storey said were not denied. That campaign was an attempt to secure civil rights for everyone: the basic right to a vote, a house and a job. This little statelet could not deliver those basic rights; this little black statelet ensured that it went down rather than grant those basic civil rights.
Mr Storey says that it was not worth one death. That is true, to a point. Mr Storey ignored all the nationalist deaths. However, the first death that he forgot to tell us about, which I witnessed, was that of John Gallagher. He was taking part in a peaceful civil rights march on Cathedral Road in Armagh when he was mowed down by the Tynan platoon of the B-Specials, who were brought in with their .303 rifles to mow down peaceful demonstrators. Let us talk about reality: the people of this country were denied the basic civil rights that they were entitled to, and they were shot down in the streets for demanding them.
We could talk about other incidents. Patrick Rooney was a young fellow who was shot dead as he lay in bed in his home in Divis Flats by an amalgam of the B-Specials and the RUC. The aim of the unionist pogrom was to burn the area down, as happened later in Bombay Street. There was no sign of the IRA. In fact, the IRA was criticised for not defending the community at that time.
We have talked about other deaths. No one wants to glorify any death, but we have to face reality. Mrs Kathleen O’Hagan was a young pregnant mother from Creggan in County Tyrone who was mowed down by Portadown loyalists in her own kitchen only days after the RUC had raided the house.
Mr T Clarke: It is interesting to note that everything that the Members cites is from the republican side. When will he get to the part where his party perpetrated murder on the innocent Protestant victims — and I stress that they were innocent victims — in Northern Ireland?
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. I ask the Member to please be careful about what he says.
Mr Molloy: I have already talked about the innocent victims. Let us be quite clear: my party did not inflict any death on anyone.
The murder of the victims that I mentioned earlier shows how this conflict started and how people had to defend their homes — and I make no apology for that defence of their homes at that time. It was the British Government, through Reginald Maudling, who declared that they were at war with the IRA. Let us be very clear where the declaration of war came from. It was those who were part of the British Government’s murder machine – the RUC, the B-Specials, the UDR and the RIR — who wanted their names on the war memorials to justify their actions. They declared it a war because they wanted to be included in that particular line.
Mr Kennedy: What is the Member’s view on the murder of Jean McConville by the IRA? What status has that murder in republican theology?
Mr Molloy: Republicans have made their position on that very clear; they have said that they regret all deaths that have occurred, whether as a result of IRA actions or the actions of other organisations. Every death is regrettable.
Remember the situation that existed at the time: people wanted very basic civil rights. While we are on the subject of equality, the Rev William McCrea was the man who gloated on television that republicans were on the run from loyalist paramilitaries. On that same weekend, he stood on a platform in Portadown in support of Billy Wright, the loyalist murder squad leader who, day and daily, brought death and destruction into republican homes around Mid Ulster and the murder triangle. Let us be very clear where you stand and about your association with — [Interruption.]
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. This is a debate, and the two sides of the House will get an opportunity to debate. I ask each side of the House to please give the other side the opportunity to put their argument across.
Mr Molloy: Thank you, a LeasCheann Comhairle.
Republicans do not have to justify to our community whether or not what happened was a war. The nationalist and republican people know that there has been a war for 800 years, during which the British Army and the British Government have occupied this country against the will of the people. When the people voted for the independence of Ireland, the British Government imposed partition and denied the people their rights. They armed the loyalist murder squads, and, as they have done in every other country around the world, they adopted the policy of divide and conquer. They created and supported colonial powers, and murder and destruction was part and parcel of what they did at that time.
Let us be very clear about collusion. If there was as much collusion as Mr Simpson talks about — although he does not talk about it that loudly — then why did the British Government, your Government, allow the IRA to be so successful on so many occasions?
Mrs I Robinson: Time.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. Mrs Robinson, thank you for that reminder; I will decide when time is up.
Lord Browne: I support the motion and reject any suggestion that the Provisional IRA’s 35-year terrorist campaign should be classified as a war. Historically, the term “war” has been used to describe conflict between nation states. So-called rules of war have been drawn up since the time of St Augustine until the present day Hague Conventions. Those rules extend to the justification of war in self-defence, the treatment of enemy aliens, the treatment of prisoners of war and the outlawing of certain weapons, such as gases and biological agents.
Today, we talk loosely about all kinds of wars; for example, the war against poverty, the war against drugs, and the war against crime. However, today I will confine my remarks to the traditional definition, which confers a certain dignity and legitimacy, because of the rules that I have just outlined.
There must be an agreed definition of terrorism, and I suggest the following attributes: the terrorist is a non-state actor who uses violence for political ends, contrary to both domestic and international law. That, undoubtedly, accurately describes the Provisional IRA’s activities of the past 30 years.
Terrorists seek to achieve their objectives by instilling fear and frightening their opponents into submission. I do not need to list the numerous occasions on which civilians were deliberately targeted. However, the occasions when naked sectarianism was displayed in the singling out of victims from the unionist community are perhaps particularly worthy of mention — one need think only of the appalling massacres at Kingsmill and Darkley.
A terrorist employs unconventional military methods that may be regarded as immoral. Again, I do not want to provide a detailed list, but the summary execution of three off-duty Scottish soldiers, who were lured to their deaths when out for an enjoyable evening, was outside the rules of war and morally repugnant to all right-minded people.
Such acts of terrorism can be accorded the dignity of the description of acts of war only in exceptional circumstances. Such atrocious means of achieving political ends may have limited justification when all other means have been exhausted. For example, Jews in the Warsaw ghetto were being systematically murdered in the Treblinka extermination camp — imprisoned and denied any right to political action, they were justified in employing unconventional military measures when they rose against their oppressors. To a lesser extent, Nelson Mandela may be regarded in a similar light, because blacks were denied the right to vote and freedom of movement in their country.
Those campaigns could, perhaps, be dignified by being described as wars, but the Provisional IRA’s campaign in Northern Ireland in no way meets those criteria. Those with nationalist sympathies were free to organise political parties, and on several occasions Sinn Féin won seats at Westminster that they refused to take up.
Nationalists had complete freedom of movement in Northern Ireland and beyond. They were free to address meetings and circulate literature that advocated a united Ireland. [Interruption.]
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. Mr Molloy is shouting from one side of the Chamber to the other. He should be acutely aware of the necessity to maintain order in the House.
Lord Browne: The much maligned Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Acts were applied only when acts of terrorism were being contemplated.
It is absurd to apply emotive language, such as a war of liberation or a war of independence, to civil disorder and violence in a liberal democracy.
Mr Brolly: Will the Member give way?
Lord Browne: No, I have nearly finished.
It is doubly absurd to apply such language when one considers that the vast majority of the population indicated through the ballot box time and time again that they had no desire to be freed and liberated by the IRA’s terrorist campaign. I support the motion.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Mrs I Robinson: Of all the proposals mooted in recent times, one of the most nauseating is the attempt to rebrand 40 years of cowardly terror as a war, thereby lending some credibility to those who participated in a diabolical campaign of murder and destruction. Despite the political progress and the fact that the DUP is today in a position to form an Executive with others who have committed to the principles of non-violence and constitutional politics, what happened in the past was what it was: a campaign of guerrilla terrorism that included a dimension of genocide and the clearance of people from certain border areas because of their religion.
The legal questions as to whether the Troubles constituted a war have been well aired over the years and were put to bed long ago. It was anything but a war: the IRA failed to issue a declaration of war; its members targeted and murdered individuals because of their religion or their occupation; they caused billions of pounds worth of unnecessary damage; they tortured and murdered anyone whom they discovered had informed on their nefarious activities; they detonated hundreds of bombs that claimed the lives and destroyed the property of those not directly affected in their tawdry little campaign; and they tied victims into car bombs and ordered them to drive to checkpoints and blow themselves up under threats to kill their families. All those activities are in contravention of all internationally recognised laws of war.
At the same time, that organisation generated millions of pounds through tax fraud, racketeering and drug pushing. By the end of the 1970s, IRA members had even carved up Belfast between themselves and so-called loyalist organisations for the purpose of criminal activity. In doing so, they brought unparalleled deprivation to the community that they purported to protect.
I want the last female Member from Sinn Féin who spoke in the debate to tell me what my mother got as a widow bringing up six children in the Cregagh estate, which was built over 59 years ago and was a mixed estate. The answer is that my family got nothing more than our Catholic neighbours; we got no more help or no more money than the O’Neill family, the Hanna family and every other Catholic family in the Cregagh estate. Therefore, I want to put that argument to bed.
Ms J McCann: Will the Member give way?
Mrs I Robinson: I will not give way.
Ms S Ramsey: Her name is Jennifer McCann. The Member asked her a question, so she should give way.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. Please allow the Member to speak.
Mrs I Robinson: I also condemn the loyalist paramilitaries — I make no bones about it because I have been threatened by them. As far as I am concerned, they are hoods, thugs and murderers. I always spoke out when a Catholic was murdered; I never held back on that.
Mr Molloy: Will the Member give way?
Mrs I Robinson: No, I will not.
Mr Molloy: Why not?
Mrs I Robinson: I am not subject to you.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. Mr Molloy, you of all people should understand that it is a Member’s prerogative whether he or she decides to give way.
Mrs I Robinson: The difference between the unionist community and the nationalist community was that the nationalist community supported terrorists by electing them to a place of Government. The unionist community elected two, and, thank God, they are not here any longer, because they were an abomination to me and to the people whom I represent.
Yesterday, on the Lord’s Day, I joined the families of those who lost loved ones and who were seriously injured in the La Mon House Hotel bombing 30 years ago. They were simply attending the annual dinner of the Irish Collie Club, and they were murdered because they were Protestants. We know who was responsible, and we know who did that damage; I named him in the House of Commons. Unfortunately, he is not present today. That bombing was one of the most cowardly gutless murders ever committed in Northern Ireland.
As for the SDLP, the moderate nationalist John Hume, when he was asked why the unionist population of one million Protestants and their elected representatives were ignored when the Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed, said that it was because they would not accept it. So much for being moderate; so much for democracy. Therefore, SDLP Members should never stand up and lecture me about moderate nationalism — it does not exist.
Sinn Féin/IRA are now targeting all that unionists hold dear, to the point of absurd pettiness in being offended in a local council by a mug with Princess Diana’s face on it. SDLP members in Downpatrick would not even support the removal of the paramilitary trappings in a park in that town that saluted the heroes of Sinn Féin/IRA murderers.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. The Member’s time is up.
Mr Armstrong: Members should listen carefully to my speech in case they miss a wee bit. I welcome the motion, and I am pleased to support it.
Sinn Féin and the IRA have long sought to peddle the notion of a just war, and it is no surprise that they seek to rewrite history in a desperate attempt to justify the hell that they created and the misery that they put the people of Northern Ireland through.
(Mr Speaker in the Chair)
Mr Burnside: Northern Ireland.
Mr Armstrong: Yes; Northern Ireland.
It is more surprising that the so-called Consultative Group on the Past, which was established to find the best way in which to deal with the legacy of the Troubles, is throwing the IRA a lifeline by considering asking the British Government to say formally that they fought a war against the IRA. That is utter nonsense and must be rejected firmly from the outset. We must not allow ourselves to forget the carnage that was inflicted on this country and its people. The Troubles were not inevitable; every death, shooting and bombing occurred because terrorists chose to carry them out. They had choices, and they chose violence deliberately. Those people must be forced to take responsibility for their actions, and they cannot be absolved by well-meaning liberals who, in the comfort of a more peaceful Northern Ireland, seek to rewrite history.
The IRA might think that it fought a war against the British state. The IRA can think what it likes, but the rest of us do not have to agree. The IRA fought a terrorist campaign, not a war. I base that statement on the principle that if something looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it is a duck.
I can recall many atrocities, but I shall mention only a few to make my point. I remember the horrific images of the Abercorn bombing, Bloody Friday, La Mon, Enniskillen, the three policemen who were killed at Carnan Corner, the two civilians who were killed outside Stewartstown, and the many other people from my area who were gunned down and lost their lives purely because of their religion. I also remember the so-called disappeared who were dragged off, tortured and had their bodies hidden. Sectarian murder, indiscriminate bombing and ethnic cleansing of Protestants in the west bank of the city of Londonderry, north and west Belfast and along the border area, are all the handiwork of republicans.
Some people may have forgotten what Northern Ireland went through at the hands of terrorists. It suits their agenda to forget. However, as an RUC reservist in Tyrone in the 1970s and 1980s, I assure those people that I have not forgotten. I have not forgotten the night, over 30 years ago, that I was hit by a bullet while I was on patrol in Stewartstown.
The terrorist campaign tried to end British rule in this part of Ireland and end the Union by force. It failed. Sinn Féin’s acceptance of partition in 1998 was a public admission that the campaign had been defeated. Sinn Féin representatives sitting in the Assembly is daily evidence of the scale of that defeat. I have one question for those who still try to claim that there was a war: would they be prepared to have those responsible for acts such as Bloody Friday, La Mon, Enniskillen and Warrington tried as war criminals? If not, why not?
Dr W McCrea: I feel privileged to be making the winding-up speech on the motion because, before the so-called ceasefire, my family and I were to be the last people to be executed by the gutless Provos. It is good to be alive and to be able to speak in the debate.
In Northern Ireland, we know how important language is, and that is especially true for victims. Former terrorists who attempt to reclassify themselves as volunteers add further insult to injury to the people whom they hurt deeply over the past 30 years. When a family is told that their loved one was not murdered as a result of an act of terrorism but instead was a legitimate target, killed by someone on so-called active service, they are made to suffer again.
There is no way that those who suffered at the hands of murdering thugs and gangsters of terrorism would ever describe the murder of their loved ones as being part of some “war”. Those who went out to deliberately maim and murder can never be equated to those innocent people who suffered at their hands.
I reject utterly the description of terrorists as being “volunteers” and “on active service”. That terminology is designed to infer that the IRA was a legitimate army. It most certainly was not. It was an illegal terrorist organisation that went out to murder, slaughter and maim an innocent law-abiding people, whose only crime was a desire to remain a part of the United Kingdom — a legitimate and democratic desire of any people. Thank God we still are, and will remain, a part of the United Kingdom.
Regardless of what terminology people want to use, the fact remains, and always will remain, that Tony McBride — and others of that ilk — was a terrorist who was shot by the SAS because of the illegal murderous campaign in which he was involved. The Provisional IRA never fought a war; it usually hid behind a hedge and shot innocent men in the back, without the guts to face them eyeball to eyeball.
I agree with the honourable Member Mr Burnside. In many ways, I wish that it had been declared a war, because our army could have taken the Provos on and they would have been put six feet under where they belong. Sad to say, that did not happen. It was a cold-blooded, sectarian, terrorist campaign that sought to wipe out the long-suffering Protestant minority along the border, with a desire to steal their farms after they had slaughtered their sons and daughters.
Methinks that Members across the way protest too much. Martina Anderson did not go to jail for being innocent. Some other Members across the way were smarting under the remarks that were made. As a child, I was told that when I threw a stone among a pack of dogs, I would know which one had been hit because it would yelp the most.
When I was MP for Mid Ulster I stood in the House of Commons — the Mother of Parliaments — and held up a wedding photograph of a bride, a bridegroom, a bridesmaid and a best man, and the only person alive that day was the bride. The best man, the groom and the bridesmaid were murdered by gutless thugs of the Provisional IRA. Those people were butchered because they wanted to remain a part of the United Kingdom. We do not have to demonise those who supported the terrorist campaign; their actions stained with blood demonise them, and they will never be able to wash away their guilt. It is on their conscience, and neither God nor man will be able to remove that guilt from their conscience. Until they repent of their sins, God Himself will not forgive the deeds that they have done.
One Member said that if the terrorist campaign was not a war then it was hell. If that Member knows anything about the Bible, he will know that it was certainly not hell. However, there is a hell for those who will not repent of their sins and who have done the dastardly deeds of murdering and slaughtering the innocent people of the Province. That is the reality of the eternity that they are facing. Men and women must repent of their sins.
Let me make it clear. There can be no confusion — [Interruption.]
Mr Speaker: Order. The Member has the Floor.
Dr W McCrea: There can be no confusion on the issue. There can be no comparison between those who deliberately set out to murder and those who were murdered. There was a campaign of terror by the republican movement, and there was a totally inadequate response from our Government. Thank God that, at the end of the day, this is still British Ulster, and we are proud to be in British Ulster. No Provo will be able to take us out of our homeland and the place that we love the best.
The Assembly divided: Ayes 46; Noes 20.
Mr Armstrong, Mr Beggs, Lord Browne, Mr Buchanan, Mr Burnside, Mr Campbell, Mr T Clarke, Mr Cobain, Mr Craig, Mr Cree, Mr Dodds, Mr Donaldson, Mr Easton, Sir Reg Empey, Dr Farry, Mr Ford, Mrs Foster, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Kennedy, Mr Lunn, Mr McCallister, Mr McCausland, Mr B McCrea, Mr I McCrea, Dr W McCrea, Mr McFarland, Miss McIlveen, Mr McNarry, Mr McQuillan, Lord Morrow, Mr Moutray, Mr Newton, Rev Dr Ian Paisley, Mr Poots, Mr G Robinson, Mrs I Robinson, Mr K Robinson, Mr P Robinson, Mr Ross, Mr Shannon, Mr Simpson, Mr Spratt, Mr Storey, Mr Weir, Mr S Wilson.
Tellers for the Ayes: Mr T Clarke and Mr Moutray.
Ms Anderson, Mr Boylan, Mr Brady, Mr Brolly, Mr Butler, Mr W Clarke, Mr Doherty, Ms Gildernew, Mr G Kelly, Mr P Maskey, Ms J McCann, Mr McCartney, Mr M McGuinness, Mr McKay, Mr Molloy, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O’Dowd, Mrs O’Neill, Ms S Ramsey, Ms Ruane.
Tellers for the Noes: Mr Butler and Mr McCartney.
Question accordingly agreed to.
That this Assembly repudiates any suggestion that the 30 year terrorist campaign in Northern Ireland be re-classified as a ‘war’.
Mrs I Robinson: On a point of order, Mr Speaker — will you comment on whether it was appropriate for the Member from Sinn Féin to have been warned about his conduct twice during the last debate, given that he is a senior figure in the House and holds the office of Deputy Speaker, and also bearing in mind that he will call other Members to order who act inappropriately. Is that a proper way for the Deputy Speaker to conduct himself?
Mr Speaker: I acknowledge the Member’s point, however I understand that Mr Molloy was speaking as an individual Member of the House. From time to time, debates provoke a rush of blood to Members’ heads when they are speaking in the House. Members from all sides of the House occasionally get that rush of blood.
Discovery of Confidential Pupil Records
Mr Speaker: I have received notice from the Minister of Education that she wishes to make a statement regarding pupil records found in County Armagh.
The Minister of Education (Ms Ruane): A Cheann Comhairle. I want to update Members on the discovery of confidential records dating from 1969 to 1974, which relate to pupils from the Southern Education and Library Board area.
Chuala mé faoin tarlú seo den chéad uair tráthnóna aréir agus labhair mé láithreach le príomh-fheidhmeannach an bhoird, a bhí i ndiaidh imscrúdú a sheoladh.
I first learned about the incident yesterday afternoon, and I immediately spoke to the chief executive of the Southern Education and Library Board, who had just launched an investigation. I am disturbed that those records were found in a public place, and I have asked the chief executive to ensure that all aspects of the incident are investigated fully, and that she reports to me promptly.
All public bodies need to be aware of their responsibilities under the Data Protection Act 1998 with regard to the collection, storage, and disposal of personal information that is held about individuals, particularly children. In addition, all staff members need to be aware of their individual responsibilities when handling sensitive personal information, particularly when that information is removed from official premises.
The initial investigation suggests that the folders were compiled by educational welfare officers, many of whom operated from their own homes at that time. That procedure is no longer practised, and has not been practiced for some time.
I was also shocked and saddened when I read some of the descriptions used in the reports. They reflect some ways of thinking that existed at that time, but thankfully we now live in more enlightened and sensitive times. Today we have counselling services available to provide confidential support to children and young people in our post-primary schools who may be experiencing personal difficulties. Just last week, I announced that this counselling service will be extended to primary schools and special-needs schools.
Dúirt príomh-fheidhmeannah Bhord an Deiscirt go mbeidh a cuid oifigeach i dteagmháil leis na daoine a raibh a n-ainmneacha ar na taifid le haiféala an bhoird a chur in iúl dóibh má bhí siad i mbroid de bharr an tarlaithe seo. Caithfidh mé a rá go bhfuil brón orm féin freisin.
The chief executive of the Southern Education and Library Board has told me that her officers will be contacting the people who are named in the records, in order to express the board’s regret for any distress that may have been caused to them. Let me also say how sorry I am. Over recent months, there have been some high-profile cases involving the loss or mishandling of personal information.
On 10 December 2007, my Department — as part of a public-service-wide review — initiated a self-assessment exercise to examine data-security arrangements. That exercise extended to my Department’s non-departmental public bodies, including all five education and library boards. As a result, the Department is formally auditing its own processes — including the arrangements for the collection, recording, storage, retrieval, access, transmission of, sharing and management of electronic and hard copy data and information. We have also asked all our non-departmental public bodies to take remedial action as weaknesses are identified, to reassess their arrangements, and to report back to us.
We have also asked the education and library boards to ensure that schools — and other bodies for which they have responsibility in their areas — have robust procedures in place. In addition, the Department has written to all voluntary grammar schools and grant-maintained integrated schools to ask them to review their data security arrangements, and report back to the Department. That work is proceeding as a matter of urgency.
Dearbhaím mo chuid oifigeach dom, agus dearbhaím do Chomhaltaí, go dtarbhfaidh an t-athbhreithniú aghaidh ar na laigí a thug an tarlú cásmhar seo chun solais.
I am assured by my officials, and I can assure Members, that the review will address the initial weaknesses that have been highlighted as a result of this very regrettable incident.
Although the information that was found apparently relates to welfare visits carried out more than 30 years ago, it is possible that many of the children and families may still live in the same areas, and it is essential that their right to privacy is respected by those who have access to the information.
I am concerned that some of the records were passed to at least one of the daily newspapers, which reproduced parts of the documents. One of the documents clearly shows an individual’s date of birth, and could lead to their identification. I understand that the records were first discovered on Friday. I have some major questions for public representatives who have had possession of those personal records since Friday.
Cé go mbaineann an tarlú seo le leas an phobail, níl a fhios agam an gclúdaíon leas an phobail foilsiú — [Interruption.]
I ask that Members treat this serious issue in the way that it deserves. To do otherwise is unfair to the children and other people involved. I should be able to make statements without snide comments being made about such a sensitive issue.
Mr Kennedy: Yes, Miss.
Ms Ruane: Thank you.
Cé go mbaineann an tarlú seo le leas an phobail, níl a fhios agam an gclúdaíonn leas an phobail foilsiú cáipéisí aonaracha ar ábhair ghoilliúnacha mar seo.
Although there is an issue of public interest in light of this discovery, I question whether that extends to the publication of individual documents on such sensitive issues. Why was no attempt made to immediately contact the Southern Education and Library Board, given — [Interruption.]
I am making a statement. Why was no attempt made to contact the Southern Education and Library Board immediately, given the obvious sensitivity of the content of the records? The chief executive’s telephone number is in the telephone book. I spoke to her yesterday afternoon. Why were the records not handed to the PSNI, or another relevant authority? Why was one of the first communications about the records made to the media, instead of the appropriate authorities? In addition, was any thought given to the individuals who may be able to identify themselves from the personal information published in a newspaper?
This incident generates many questions that relevant bodies need to provide answers to, but there are also questions about how those records were handled and treated, since their discovery, by public representatives. It is important that those issues are also addressed. Go raibh míle maith agat.
Mr Kennedy: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I obtained a copy of the Minister’s statement — in advance of her making it to the House — expecting it to contain all of the information that the Minister would report to the Assembly. Having followed the statement in close detail, it is clear that that was not the case. On at least one occasion, the Minister included a full paragraph that was not included in the text of her printed and published speech. Is that custom and practice, and is it permissible? Should it not be the case that, when a Minister is making a statement to the House, that statement is produced in advance, in full?
Mr Speaker: I will not rule on how a Minister may bring a written statement to the House. I am sure that Members can ask those types of questions themselves.
As Members realise, the business on the Order Paper has not been disposed of by 6.00 pm. In accordance with Standing Order 10(3), I will allow business to continue until 7.00 pm, or until business is complete, whichever is the earlier.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Education (Mr S Wilson): Like many Members, I am deeply disturbed that another Department has been found guilty of not being able to look after personal information that it and its associated bodies hold about individuals. Of course, the Department of Education is not the only Department to have been guilty of that. The issue reinforces the concerns that the public must have about the ability of public bodies to safeguard and keep secret the sensitive information that they gather and hold on individuals.
I have two questions for the Minister. She has commented on the use that the material has been put to by some public representatives; does she understand that one of the reasons for that is that when public bodies are found to be guilty of gross negligence in this way, Members are not convinced that those bodies will not cover it up and try to hide the impact? Does she accept that when public bodies — not only her Department — make a mistake in how they handle such information, they have a responsibility to act with total transparency in dealing with it? That may stop the way in which this was dealt with from happening.
The Minister mentioned that, in the past, some of the records were compiled and held by educational welfare officers in their home, but that that practice had stopped. Is the Minister telling the House that the information came into the public domain because one individual who held it dealt with it irresponsibly, or was it held centrally by the board and put into a bin without being shredded to ensure that it did not come into the public domain?
Ms Ruane: Go raibh maith agat. First, there will be no cover-up. I have been clear that full transparency is needed, because the information is very sensitive. Secondly — well, the Member asked more than two questions. He asked whether I take my responsibilities seriously: of course I do, and so do the boards.
No one in the House can support the way in which the documents were provided to newspapers, with elected representatives pictured looking at the documents. That is unacceptable behaviour, and I hope that everyone in the House agrees with that. It would worry me greatly if they did not.
The Member asked about the details of an investigation. An investigation is currently being carried out, and I will bring the results of that back to the House. I do not want to go into any details of that now, because it is a live investigation.
Mr Butler: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a thabhairt don Aire Oideachais as a ráiteas.
There are two issues involved. As the Minister said, no one wants a cover-up. In recent months, several high-profile cases have related to missing disks. Elected representatives and those of us in the public domain are entitled to ask questions about such cases. However, there is a separate issue here: the material is sensitive, personal and confidential, and serious questions must be asked about the way in which certain individuals brought it to the media’s attention.
Mr D Bradley: Questions should be asked about the way in which the files were dumped on the roadside.
Mr Speaker: Order. The Member has the Floor.
Mr Butler: I listened to Radio Ulster this morning, and the broadcasters had copies of this sensitive, confidential material on children in front of them. An article in today’s ‘Irish News’ contained a photograph of Dominic Bradley MLA and a member of the Southern Education and Library Board examining the files. Why did that board member not alert his chief executive immediately to the fact that he was in possession of that material? Why did he not alert the PSNI, as the Minister said, rather than running to the media?
Ms Ruane: I made it clear that it was totally inappropriate for anyone to leak documents of such a sensitive nature to media outlets. The appropriate way to have dealt with the matter would have been to contact the chief executive of the Southern Education and Library Board. One of the representatives in today’s newspaper is a member of the board.
The PSNI is involved in the matter. The chief executive met the PSNI this afternoon. It is investigating the vehicle from which the documents are thought to have been dumped, and it is checking CCTV tapes from the area. The PSNI is taking the matter very seriously, and it is important that the matter is treated with the outmost seriousness, because the children referred to in those report are now adults, and they are very concerned about the matter. We will contact them to assure them that we will do everything in our power to protect their privacy.
Mr K Robinson: It is obvious from what the Minister has said that there is great concern about the impact on those who are affected: the children who are now adults. Over the years, professional staff, such as health workers, teachers or education welfare officers, have written professional, and, hopefully, accurate commentaries on situations that they were asked to investigate and perhaps resolve. If we are to continue to rely on those professional people, there must be a safeguard that the way in which they have described a situation is as accurate as possible, so that a solution can be found for the problems that children experience in their schools. Unless we can assure those professionals that there is absolute security about what they write down, we will stumble into a situation in which they simply make bland statements that are no good to the children who are the subject of the reports.
Mr Speaker: Will the Member come to the question?
Mr K Robinson: The Minister talked about new procedures that she hopes to put in place. Will she ensure that those procedures are so watertight that any professional — whether health workers, education welfare officers, teaching staff, or anyone in the front line who is asked to produce one of those carefully crafted reports in order to help the children — will have an absolute assurance that the situation will not occur again?
Ms Ruane: There are two parts to your question. The first part relates to the content of the reports. I am mindful that the files date back 30 or 40 years, and that attitudes to many of the issues that we face in today’s society were different. As I said in my statement, we now, thankfully, have a more enlightened approach. It is important for me to say that, because some of our young people today who are suffering in a similar way will be disturbed by the content and the way in which some of the reports were written.
I want to reassure those young people by sending out a clear message that things are done differently now.
I did not intend to cause problems for anyone, or to pull a fast one, by making comments that were not in the statement that Members received. Rather, I wanted to explain that counselling services are available in all post-primary schools. Last week, as part of my budget announcement, I stated that those services would be extended to primary schools. Any young people who are affected by today’s media reports should access those counselling services, because it is difficult for them to have to read such reports.
The second part of Ken Robinson’s question asked whether the Department can be sure that robust procedures are in place to ensure that such an incident does not happen again and whether I can assure the House that it will not happen again. I wish that I could give such an assurance. However, it is not only the Department of Education that is involved in data handling but many organisations. All are working together, and when so much inter-agency work is involved in supporting our children, I cannot give an assurance that such an incident will not happen again. However, the education sector is determined that it will have the most robust processes and the most professional standards in place to ensure that data are properly handled. The investigation will be thorough. I will study it carefully and report its findings to the House.
Mr D Bradley: Go raibh míle maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Mr Speaker, I do not know whether you are aware that I met with the chief executive of the Southern Education and Library Board this morning, and I handed her the missing files that had come into my possession. However, I did so with reservations, because it was her organisation that had lost the files in the first instance, and I needed the Minister and the chief executive to reassure me that those files would be stored safely in future, and that they would not reappear in the public domain.
Mr Brady: Will the Member give way?
Mr D Bradley: I will not give way. I was disappointed to detect from the chief executive of the Southern Education and Library Board an inclination to shoot the messenger. [Interruption.] I am coming to my question.
I detect that same inclination in the Minister; in fact, I can hear the chief executive’s voice echoing from the Minister as if she were a ventriloquist.
Ms Ní Chuilín: Question?
Mr Speaker: Will the Member come to his question, please.
Mr D Bradley: Members of the House are accountable to the public, not to chief executives of education and library boards. In fact, chief executives of education and library boards are accountable to public representatives.
Ms Ní Chuilín: Question?
Mr Speaker: Order. I ask the Member to take his seat.
Mr D Bradley: I am coming to my question.
Mr Speaker: I am trying to give Members as much latitude as possible when asking a question. The House has had a ministerial statement, so we do not need further statements from Members. Mr Bradley, please ask your question.
Mr D Bradley: I am coming to my question. Is the Minister aware that Southern Education and Library Board representatives are now saying that the files were stolen? This morning, the chief executive gave me the same details as those that are contained in the Minister’s statement — that the files came from the home of an education welfare officer who had worked for the board. However, it seems now that the board is changing its story. I get the impression that the board’s chief executive is looking for a scapegoat instead of facing up to her own responsibilities.
Mr Speaker: Order. I ask the Member to take his seat. It is obvious that the Member is not coming to a question, and I have given him some latitude.
Mr D Bradley: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I have asked a question. May I complete my remarks?
Mr Speaker: I call the Minister.
Ms Ruane: I am not prepared to play politics with this issue, because it is too serious and important. A thorough investigation is ongoing, and I will await the results of that investigation.
I shall make the House aware of the results of that investigation as soon as I have them.
The protection of children is the most important issue that faces the Assembly and our society, and it was one of the matters raised during the recent meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council. I believe in accountability, which Dominic Bradley mentioned; however, one can be accountable without affecting the confidentiality of children and young people. Mr Bradley knows that because he is a teacher. We must be careful about how we deal with this issue, and we must think of the young people.
I entirely accept that there is a problem, and I have apologised —
Mr D Bradley: Do not shoot the messenger.
Ms Ruane: I ask the Member not to interrupt me and to allow me to finish.
I accept that the fact that those documents were found is a serious problem and that the board has a case to answer. That is why I have instigated an investigation. However, playing politics is not the way to deal with that. We must send a message to children who are worried now, and who are watching the debate, that we will do everything possible to ensure the safety of their records. We must assure the adults who were children at that time that we will contact them and ensure that their confidentiality and identity is protected.
Mr Storey: Bearing in mind the circumstances in which the Minister has come to the House to deal with a sensitive and serious situation, I am disappointed that she made a political point. A third of her statement was, as Mr Bradley said, an attack on the messenger. I am also concerned that the files that were found might contain the answers to the questions that the Committee for Education has been waiting several weeks for, and that this was, somehow, another way of getting those answers to us.
The Minister said that we live in more enlightened and sensitive times. However, given that there is no record of the disposal of any documents, why, according to her statement, did the Department contact the bodies on 10 December?
In her statement, the Minister refers to the fact that the process that began on 10 December as part of a public-service-wide review was a self-assessment exercise. If that is so, and we now find that there has been a major problem with controlling sensitive documents, self-assessment is clearly inadequate and we require some form of independent assessment of how bodies deal with such information.
Will the Minister also inform the House about the arrangements to dispose of sensitive documents that have exceeded their lifespan?
Ms S Ramsey: Perhaps the Member might raise those points with his colleagues who sit on the Executive.
Mr Storey: On a point of Order, Mr Speaker. In the past 20 minutes, Members have had to sit and listen to comments across the Chamber from two Members. I did not ask that question of the Member, because I knew that she would not have the ability to answer. I asked the Minister of Education.
Mr Speaker: Order. I remind Members to behave in the House. As I have continually said, I understand that, from time to time, debates and statements can raise emotions. However, surely it is vitally important that Members attempt to respect one another.
Ms Ruane: I shall not pre-empt the investigation, but I take the Member’s points. Those files date from 30 to 40 years ago, but the investigation will be thorough and, as I said, I will report back to the House. One reason that the assessment began on 10 December was because, over recent months, there have been several high-profile cases, and we must ensure that information that is held by the various Departments is stored and disposed of correctly.
The assessment will examine every aspect of storage and disposal, and I will bring a full report on it to the House.
Mr Lunn: My question is similar to the previous one. Nevertheless, I note that the self-assessment exercise began on 10 December. How long will that process take? Surely the disposal of records is a basic task. I would have thought that, in this day and age, paper records should never be disposed of in their complete form — there must be ways to get rid of them that involve their being destroyed and put beyond use.
I thank the Minister for her statement, but can she tell the House where those records were destined for, and how they came to be at the side of the road? Unlike most Members, I did not hear the news over the weekend, so I do not know where the records were going and who had custody of them.
Ms Ruane: I do not wish to repeat myself, but I do not want to pre-empt the ongoing investigation either. Given that this is a very serious matter, the PSNI is involved, and I will bring the full details of its investigation to the House. I cannot say any more than that, but robust procedures must be in place for all aspects of the storage, retrieval and disposal of key documents such as this, particularly those that contain sensitive information.
Mr Brady: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I have no doubt that Dominic Bradley was surrounded by a media posse when he handed over the folder to the chief executive of the Southern Education and Library Board.
Mr D Bradley: Ask the question.
Mr Speaker: Order.
Mr Brady: I wonder whether he gave back the copies that the radio presenters had this morning. As someone who has worked in an environment in which confidentiality was paramount, I think that Dominic Bradley and his colleagues have allowed confidential information to float around the countryside.
Does the Minister agree that it would have been incumbent upon Dominic Bradley’s colleague, who is a member of the Southern Education and Library Board, to at least contact the board and make it aware that such confidential and sensitive information was either in the public domain or was certainly going to be so? Does she agree that he should not have been so blasé, as seems to be the attitude here today, about such sensitive and confidential information that could have had an impact on people’s lives?
Ms Ruane: I agree that anyone who comes into the possession of documents has a duty to return them to the relevant authorities. If that person did not want to return those documents to the board, they should have given them to the PSNI. That is what should have happened, given that this is a very serious issue. I am sorry that it did not happen.
The chief executive of the Southern Education and Library Board has informed me that she has requested the return of all copies of the documents, including those that were in the possession of journalists.
Mr Kennedy: In reference to my earlier point, I ask the Minister that, when making statements to the House in future, she provides them in full so that Members can follow them in complete detail.
The Minister and others have made a mistake in attacking those who found this information and brought their concerns into the public domain. The Minister and those others should simply give the House a reasonable explanation, apologise, get over it and deal with it. I also want to place on record that the integrity and the professionalism of the chief executive of the Southern Education and Library Board should in no way be impugned.
It seems that Members are not getting all the details. If we were due the courtesy of an answer, it should be as complete as possible. Will the Minister confirm the precise number of files that were found? Will she also confirm that all those individuals whose details were found will be contacted — if that has not happened already — and that they will be given a full explanation and an apology?
Can the Minister at least provide some clarity about the records that were found? Were they lost by officials who are currently employed by the board? The suggestion seems to be that the records were held by private individuals who decided, for whatever reason, to discard them without due care and attention. We are entitled to know that much detail at least because the matter has been subject to speculation, not only in the press but elsewhere, and some conflicting answers have come from the board.
Can I also respectfully say to the Minister and members of her party that in complaining about the actions of those who brought this matter into the public domain —
Mr Speaker: Order. The Member has already asked several questions. Is he now coming to the end of his questions?
Mr Kennedy: My final question is —
Mr Molloy: Will the Member give way?
Mr Kennedy: No. As Deputy Speaker, Mr Molloy should know that questions should not be put to me; rather they should be asked of the Minister.
Mr Speaker: I remind the House that it is not appropriate for Members to give way when a ministerial statement is being dealt with.
Mr Kennedy: Mr Speaker, the Deputy Speaker should know that.
Will the Minister contrast her view of the actions of those who brought those items into the public domain with the actions of her own party when public documents, photo montages —
Mr Speaker: Order. I ask the Member to take his seat.
Ms Ruane: The Member’s first question was a request for me to include everything in my statement. I brought the statement to the House immediately. As soon as I came in this morning, I made sure that my office contacted the Speaker about this important issue because I wanted to ensure that Members had as much detail as I had. I worked on the statement during the day; however, an important part was left out of the original statement, which I included this afternoon. Members must be careful before getting themselves exercised about what should or should not be in my statement. I will read out that important part again:
“Today we have counselling services available to provide confidential support to children and young people in our post-primary schools who may be experiencing personal difficulties. Just last week, I announced that this counselling service will be extended to primary schools and special-needs schools.”
I am sorry if that caused difficulty, but I felt that it was important to say it. Some people listening to this debate, particularly children, may be going through difficult times right now. They may be traumatised by reading about this matter in the ‘The Irish News’ or in any other paper that has picked up on the story. I am trying to send a message to them that there are procedures in place to support them. I am sorry if that caused difficulty, but we had to get the statement photocopied and written up at very short notice, as well as having to speak to the chief executives of the education and library boards and get updates throughout the day on the investigation. Therefore I think that we should be given a little bit of leeway.
I want to make it clear that I support the chief executive of SEELB. I agree with Mr Kennedy’s comment, and I assure him that she is in no way being impugned today. She was very upset about what happened and spent her entire Sunday afternoon and today dealing with the matter.
Mr Kennedy also asked whether the people who have been affected by this matter will be contacted. They will be contacted, and they will be given a full explanation. He also mentioned the lack of detail about what has happened. There is a lack of detail at the moment because this matter is being investigated by the chief executive of the board, and the PSNI is also involved. Am I supposed to give out information on an ongoing investigation? I do not think so. However, I have said that I will bring a detailed report to the House.
Mr Speaker: Before I call Mr P J Bradley to speak, I remind Members from all sides of the House that it is important that they check a ministerial statement against delivery.
Mr P J Bradley: I heard the Minister express concern in her statement. However, I heard no criticism of the failed storage system. I heard criticism only of ‘The Irish News’ and of my conscientious colleague Dominic Bradley. I commend him for the action he took, which was in the interests of those named in the document and the public interest. Had Dominic not taken that action, the Minister would not have been pressurised into coming to the House to make a statement. There is no question about that, and it highlights the importance of Dominic’s action.
I heard the Minister’s reply to Mr Kennedy’s question, but is she aware of any of the same consignment being disposed of earlier than the one that was found by the side of the road? Is there any chance that part of the original consignment is still being retained in the place where the lost files were kept?
Ms Ruane: I was not pressurised into coming here today: I wanted to come, and I contacted the Speaker accordingly. It is an important issue, and I ask Members to stop playing politics with it. I am glad to be here, and I am happy that Members are asking the necessary questions. As political representatives, we can be accountable in a way that respects the confidentiality of sensitive information — but going to the media is not the way to do that. The media could have been told that files were lost and had been handed back. Confidential files should not be given to the media: that is not responsible behaviour.
Mr D Bradley: Neither is leaving confidential files at the side of the road.
Ms Ruane: The people who found the files had a choice: they could have given them to the PSNI. People must face up to their responsibilities. I have expressed deep regret as have the boards. I have apologised unreservedly. In case P J Bradley did not hear me do so, I apologise again, because it is wrong that such information entered the public domain in that way. It is wrong that such information —
Mr D Bradley: It was wrong that it was left in the middle of the road.
Ms Ruane: Perhaps the Member will let me finish my point without interrupting. It is wrong that such sensitive information ended up on the side of the road. I ask Members to stop playing politics.
Mr D Bradley: The Minister is playing politics.
Ms Ruane: I am not playing politics. I came here to make a statement, because people are concerned.
Mr D Bradley: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Given the extensive input of the chief executive of the SELB into the Minister’s statement, I wonder whether it can properly be described as a ministerial statement. Is there not a conflict of interests?
Mr Speaker: That is not a point of order.
Ms Anderson: Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Minister for her statement. What has happened is terrible. The responsibility for securing such documents lies with the Minister’s Department. Therefore, I welcome both her announcement of a full investigation and the additional information that she provided to Members today. That was not included in the initial information that was provided to Members but, as Mr Speaker said, Members should check that they have received all the relevant documentation.
Does the Minister accept that elected representatives who find themselves in possession of such sensitive material have a particular duty of care to ensure that there are no further breaches of confidentiality and that the details of the documented individuals are not provided — [Interruption.]
Mr D Bradley: Shoot the messenger.
Mr Speaker: Order.
Ms Anderson: The Member should show some manners. Individuals’ details should not be provided to the media, particularly given some of the descriptions that were ascribed to them. It is unacceptable for such information to be provided to the media, and I want to know whether multiple copies of the files were found, or were they photocopied or faxed for media distribution? I hope that all breaches of human rights associated with this find will be investigated.
Ms Ruane: I accept that every Member has a duty of care to children and to the adults who were children when the extremely sensitive information was documented. Their confidentiality must be respected, and the information was gathered on that basis.
At this point, I am not aware of how the documents were sent to the media as I have not yet received a report on the matter. I have been clear in my answer: I do not believe that sending the documents to the media was the right action to take. Members should reflect on that.
Mr Molloy: Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Minister for her statement. Does she agree that the people who tell us that everything should be passed on to the PSNI should heed their own advice in this type of situation? [Laughter.]
Mr Speaker: Order. The Member has the Floor.
Mr Molloy: If it was a member of the board who found those documents, does the Minister agree that that member had a duty to ensure that the information was protected over the weekend?
Does the Minister know how many people may have read those documents over the past three or four days? Are we even sure how many days the files were missing? My colleague Martina Anderson mentioned the files being photocopied. Does the Minister share the concern about the number of photocopies that may exist?
Ms Ruane: My understanding is that the files were found on Friday and were not handed in to the Southern Education and Library Board until this morning. I am concerned about their whereabouts between Friday and Monday. That will all be part of the investigation.
Adjourned at 6.57 pm.