northern Ireland assembly
Monday 25 February 2008
Executive Committee Business:
Private Members’ Business:
The Assembly met at 12.00 noon (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes’ silence.
Mr Speaker: Before we begin, I wish to say that I have been approached by representatives from several parties in relation to an event that is planned to take place in Parliament Buildings. This is not a matter for the Chamber; it is a matter for the Commission, and the Commission will consider it at the earliest opportunity. I will, therefore, not be taking any points of order on the issue this afternoon.
Turning to another —
Dr W McCrea: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The deputy First Minister said that he “would have killed” every British soldier in Londonderry in the aftermath of Bloody Sunday. I ask you to rule on the appropriateness of that comment in light of the Pledge of Office that the deputy First Minister took, under which he is supposed to respect:
“the rule of law … policing and the courts”.
Surely his statement was totally appropriate and, at least, inflammatory, if not inciteful? We need to have an investigation into whether Mr McGuinness carried out any murders of members of the security forces.
Mr Speaker: These issues of ministerial conduct are complex matters that I have no intention of trying to address in the Chamber today. I encourage the Member to seek advice from the Business Office, as there are a number of areas that he could consider. Again, on this issue, I have no intention of taking any further points of order from any party.
I want to turn, very quickly, to another matter —
Mr McNarry: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. It seems that it takes only minutes for a Minister to resign in front of the press, but longer than seven days to resign in front of this House. In your estimation, Mr Speaker, when is a resignation a resignation? When can we expect a statement from the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister?
Mr P Robinson: Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker, is it beyond the wit of the Member for Strangford to recognise the difference between announcing an intention to do something, and actually doing it?
Mr Speaker: The Member in question remains a junior Minister. His duties are a matter for the First Minister and the deputy First Minister. That is all that I have to say on that matter.
I turn to a matter that was raised in the Chamber by Mr David Ford on Monday 4 February. He asked me to consider whether Ministers were in breach of the Pledge of Office, alleging a failure to support the Programme for Government and the Budget.
On Tuesday 19 February, Mr Mervyn Storey sought a ruling on whether the alleged actions of a Minister, as referred to in a debate, represented a possible breach of the ministerial code and the Pledge of Office.
The issue of whether the Speaker has any authority over the Pledge of Office has been raised in the House on approximately four occasions. I have considered those points of order carefully, and my ruling is that the Speaker has no role in deciding whether the Pledge of Office has been breached.
There are, of course, provisions in the Northern Ireland Act 1998 that allow the Assembly to consider a Minister’s, or junior Minister’s, failure to observe any of the terms of the Pledge of Office, and to take appropriate action. A range of sanctions can be found in that Act, and there are conditions on the moving of a motion relating to each of those sanctions.
These are complex matters, and I encourage Members to seek advice outside the Chamber, rather than raising such matters in the House.
Mr McNarry: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. On the issue of wit, I wish to congratulate the wit that the electorate of Dromore demonstrated recently when making decisions at the ballot box.
I raised my earlier point of order with you only because of the delay. That delay is not ingratiating itself with this House and —
Mr Speaker: Order. I have already addressed that issue, which is a matter for the First Minister and the deputy First Minister. It is certainly not an issue for the Speaker or for this House.
Building Regulations (Amendment) Bill
The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr P Robinson): I beg to introduce the Building Regulations (Amendment) Bill [NIA 11/07], which is a Bill to amend the Building Regulations (Northern Ireland) Order 1979.
Bill passed First Stage and ordered to be printed.
Mr Speaker: The Bill will be put on the list of future business until a date for its Second Stage is determined.
Further Consideration Stage
Mr Speaker: The Further Consideration Stage is intended to enable the Assembly to debate any further amendments to a Bill. As no amendments to the Budget Bill have been tabled, there will be no opportunity today to discuss the Bill. Members will be able to have a full debate during the Bill’s Final Stage.
The Further Consideration Stage of the Budget Bill [NIA 10/07] is, therefore, concluded. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker.
Review of the Construction Industry
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 to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes.
Mr Brolly: I beg to move
That this Assembly notes the downturn in the construction industry, and the concerns raised by contractors about the powers and responsibilities of the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB); and calls on the Minister for Employment and Learning to conduct a wide-ranging review of the remit of the CITB, to include the issues of levies, apprenticeships and the disbursement of grants.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. The Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) was established under The Industrial Training (Construction Board) Order 1964.
Since its inception, there has been growing discontent about its remit and its operation, the main reason being fundamental: the construction industry is the only industry that is expected to pay a levy on its annual wage bill.
The stated purpose of the Construction Industry Training Board is to encourage contractors to provide training to those people employed, or intending to be employed, in the industry. Contractors consider that to be unnecessary since the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 1994 ensure that contractors provide the best training for their employees. Furthermore, the Buildsafe initiative demands a competent and well-trained workforce, and the possibility of Government funding. Stringent health-and-safety regulations, which are monitored regularly, are also in place; insurance premiums are high; and employers are increasingly concerned about the dangers that their workforces face, which can lead to possible injury or death. The avowed role of CITB is the monitoring of those training standards, which are paid for by the construction industry. That is hardly necessary, because no building contractor will pay for substandard training; a contractor will pay only for training that meets the required standards of health, safety and efficiency.
Until 1989, there were nine training boards. Only the construction industry was kept apart —maintaining its own training board and the statutory right to charge a levy to employers in the industry — and the other eight training boards were incorporated into the Training and Employment Agency (TEA). For example, the engineering industry’s training board became the Engineering Training Council (ETC). That organisation does not collect a levy; it sells its training to the industry and is successful in doing so. The situation is similar in the catering industry. Electrical contractors paid a levy until the mid-1990s, but the Training and Employment Agency allowed them to withdraw from CITB. They set up what is now known as the Electrical Training Trust (ETT); it does not collect a levy and is surviving well, with no complaints.
In the construction industry, the amount of levy collected from individual companies is based on their annual wage bill. In England, Scotland and Wales, that levy is obtained only from those companies that have a wage bill of more than £76,000, and they are charged at a rate of 0·2%. Incredibly, here, CITB collects a levy from any construction company with an annual wage bill of £15,000. That sum barely constitutes a decent single wage; it would not even be enough for an MLA to rent a constituency office. CITB across the water has been renamed and rebranded, but half of its 1,500-strong workforce performs the same function as CITB does here — and it still has the power to lift a levy at a rate of 0·2%. Our levy is lifted at a rate of 0·65% — over three times the rate imposed in England, Scotland and Wales. It was clearly intended that that revenue would be used to provide training to the industry. In England, Scotland and Wales, the payout for training is 80% of the levy collected; here, it is approximately 50%.
Mr Elliott: I am pleased that the Member refers to the approach in England, Scotland and Wales — rather than in another part of these islands — as the guide that we should follow on this matter.
Mr Brolly: Thank you, Tom. CITB here has a staff of 52; in England, Scotland and Wales, of an overall staff of 1,500, over 700 are employed specifically in the management of apprenticeships — something that our CITB simply does not do.
Therefore, people who work for CITB here number 800. The generally accepted ratio of our population to that of England, Scotland and Wales is 1:40. As a result, CITB employees here should be one fortieth of 800, which comes to 20. CITB here is amazingly overstaffed.
The chairman of the board, who lives in Switzerland, is paid £18,000 a year to attend six meetings a year. Almost half of CITB staff here drive company cars. CITB used to provide considerable direct training. However, it has established a network of accredited trainers for that purpose, and they charge very high prices. Contractors must pay the commercial trainers and then apply to CITB for a grant towards the cost of that training. More than half of CITB’s employers do not apply for a grant, because the process is too complicated and the forms are complex. One office manager told me that the amount of time that his staff would have to spend applying for the grant would possibly end up costing his office more than the amount that they would receive in return.
For example, between 2006 and 2007, a substantial company where I come from paid CITB a levy of £17,500. It paid commercial trainers £49,000 for training. Having paid that sum, it applied for a grant from CITB and received £5,000. Therefore, that company paid almost £70,000, including a levy of £17,500, for £5,000 in return. Commercial training does not offer the construction industry good value for money.
Building contractors are particularly angry at the seemingly unlimited access that CITB officers have to their personal records and files. A CITB officer will come into an office to ask questions. He will record on his laptop the answers that he receives, and he will take that information back to CITB headquarters. That that is done causes contractors great resentment, not to mention the questions about data protection that arise.
In January 2006, the Department for Employment and Learning (DEL), under the review of public administration (RPA), decided to wind up CITB. However, lobbying by CITB resulted in the non-implementation of that decision. Again under RPA, and before the restoration of devolution, Peter Hain announced that he would amalgamate CITB and the Sector Skills Council (SSC) for Construction, but that did not happen. For a long time, the Construction Employers’ Federation (CEF)was a great supporter of CITB — they were almost in the same bed — but it has recently forwarded a document to CITB that asks for a complete review of its operation and the manner in which it conducts its business. It has also asked CITB for a considerable reduction in the amount of levy that is exacted. The motion is fundamentally in tune with that recommendation.
Mr Spratt: I support the motion, and I declare an interest. My son owns a small construction company, so I have been given an invaluable insight into the current climate and the challenges that are faced by the construction industry. As we all know, the construction industry is a vital component of our economy, so we must aid it however we can. The industry is largely made up of small firms with an annual turnover of less than £250,000 a year. The industry comprises 11% of the Northern Ireland workforce and provides a livelihood to many people in Northern Ireland.
Only last week, a construction worker spoke on Radio Ulster’s ‘Evening Extra’ programme, and I listened intently to his comments with a view to today’s debate. I was struck by the gentleman’s desire to remain in the industry, even at this difficult time. However, he made it clear that if work were not available in Northern Ireland, he would have to consider seriously the prospect of moving to Scotland, or perhaps the Isle of Man, to gain employment and earn a living. This young man should not have to leave Northern Ireland in such circumstances. This is his home; yet he faces the real prospect, as some of his colleagues have also faced, of being forced to leave Northern Ireland to find work elsewhere.
There is much talk about the brain drain — do we now have a skills drain? It is individuals such as that gentleman; bricklayers; plumbers; joiners and electricians, who need the support of the structures and mechanisms that are in place in their industry to help them to get through this tough period
Mrs I Robinson: Does the Member agree that instances of paramilitary activity, whereby paramilitaries demand protection money from construction firms, comprise an additional drain on the construction industry? If such money is not paid, vehicles and other paraphernalia belonging to the firms are destroyed by those same people.
Mr Spratt: I agree fully with the honourable Member, and we have seen many examples in the not too distant past of very expensive equipment being burnt, so that is also a problem in the industry. The mechanism is in place to help the construction industry to tough it out.
Training is an important aspect of CITB’s function; however, over the past few years, it appears that some people in the industry have become unclear about the organisation’s training and development role. Indeed, the clouding over of CITB’s role has been the knock on effect of a decrease in direct training. CITB appears to play a key role in identifying skills required, and one could argue that a more strategic role has developed for the board. We must assess whether the change in direction is positive, or negative, and whether both roles can be fulfilled adequately. We should note that CITB is a statutory body with the appropriate — and I emphasise appropriate — statutory powers to collect a levy and develop training criteria, and it is legally accountable. We should keep that in mind during our deliberations today.
It is vital that the board, as the representative body, is seen to represent the construction industry as a whole. That is particularly the case in the construction industry, where the vast majority of firms are small. We must ensure that the board is genuinely representative. Currently, CITB membership comprises employers, who take a lead role, academics, and trade unions. It is right that employers take a leading role on the board.
We must aid our industry in any way that we can at this time, as must those support groups that are already in place. We must always be mindful of the small construction firms that constitute probably the vast majority of employers in the construction industry; those small firms must not be left out. I support the motion.
Mr McClarty: I thank the Members for securing this very important debate. I, along with others, recognise that the construction industry is going through a difficult period, and it is likely to do so for the next couple of years. However, it should also be noted that the industry has recently undergone a period of record growth, although, unfortunately, it seems that this has, somewhat inevitably, ended.
The sub-prime mortgage scandal, the credit squeeze, and, perhaps, some overly exuberant speculative development have taken their toll on Northern Ireland’s housing market. We need a period of stocktaking in which we can support first-time buyers back into the market and ensure the construction industry’s long-term sustainability and growth.
Those larger issues are reflected in our falling house prices and reduced activity in the construction sector. Indeed, the Ulster Bank’s December 2007 construction purchasing managers’ index (PMI) figure is the lowest since records began in 2000. In Northern Ireland, annual planning applications have dropped by 10,000 since 2004-05. Many problems can be put down to events and economics only. However, in this time of difficulty in the industry, it is right that we should examine the workings of the Construction Industry Training Board. The levy employed CITB is unique among similar industries and the question of value for money is very valid. The levy often hits small construction companies harder, and they can often not get the same use from the services and facilities provided by CITB.
I also draw attention to the limits on payroll costs in Northern Ireland, which are very low in comparison with those in the rest of the United Kingdom. That means that employers who can least afford to pay the levy are in the same position as very large companies.
Although CITB may have been fit for purpose in past decades, there is a case for a more dynamic approach to training and apprenticeships that better suits the needs of the industry in an increasingly difficult marketplace. I support the motion and any subsequent review.
Mr Attwood: I, too, welcome the debate, not least because it brings to the Chamber issues around training and apprenticeships in the North. Before dealing with some of the issues raised in Mr Brolly’s motion, it is important to say that the House again expresses general concern about the current situation regarding the training of apprentices. The Minister will be replying later in the debate; however, on 11 February 2008, he confirmed on the Floor of the House that his Department is conducting a review of the Training for Success programme. That review is not only timely, it may well be urgent.
Preliminary figures given to the Committee for Employment and Learning a month ago showed that the number of people undertaking apprenticeships was down by approximately 2,000, year on year — from 7,500 to 5,000; there seemed to be some acute problems with the number of people entering apprenticeships at level 3; evidence given to the Committee, which the Chairperson can confirm, suggested that there are issues arising because part-time employees are not within the range of Training for Success contracts; and there are issues concerning people in the retail industry who may require training given that that industry is the single largest private-sector employer in the North. For all those reasons, the Minister should come to the House and state the nature of the Department’s review, its time frame and its overall purpose.
I would like to think that the Minister and the Department will address, through the review, the particular issues regarding the construction industry that have been highlighted to the Committee. I will highlight three or four of those today.
First, there is the payment to apprentices — the Department has not laid down how much they should be earning and, as a consequence, some employers in the North are paying the minimum amount of £40 per week to those in training.
Secondly, there is inconsistency in training under the Training for Success programme. Some trainees may be in training for two days and on site for three; others may be in training for three days and on site for two; and some may be in training for three days only. That is not the way to develop a cohesive group of trainers in the North to serve the needs of construction industry trainees.
Thirdly, the fundamental issue, given that the Training for Success programme was meant to offer employment from day one, I have evidence that indicates that only 40% of those who go into training are in employment from day one. I trust that these broader issues about the construction industry will be addressed by the Department and by the Minister in his review.
Finally, I want to turn to the other substance of the motion, namely the work of the Construction Industry Training Board. As Mr Brolly and other Members have said, I agree that it is time to conduct a review of the Construction Industry Training Board. If the Minister accepts the motion and a review is undertaken, I would urge him to consider four issues.
The first is the strategic planning role of CITB, whereby three members of staff and consultants are paid more than £300,000 per year. Is that value for money and is CITB providing the strategic planning requirements that the industry seeks? Secondly, why is CITB involved in careers promotion, because although it may or may not be doing that job well, is there not a family of careers advisers in the Department for Employment and Learning and the broader structures in the North who are providing that service? Furthermore, does £156,000 per year need to be spent on staff and other costs for that function?
Thirdly, will the Minister, through the review, examine regional advisory services — in which staffing and other costs amount to £500,000 per year — and determine whether that work is being done in a targeted way? Finally, will the Minister look at administration and the payment of grants — whereby six staff are being paid, with associated costs, £188,000 per year — and decide whether that is the right way for the payment of grants and the needs of the industry to be met satisfactorily?
Mrs Long: I do not think that I need to declare an interest in this issue because I am no longer a practising civil engineer. However, from my time as a civil engineer, I have experience of CITB, through being trained by the organisation and working with other members of staff who were also trained by it.
Although I do not have any particular problem with the wording of the motion, I am slightly disappointed at the jaded view that people have taken of the organisation in the debate so far. No organisation is perfect and all of us would admit that there are areas that could be changed and improved. However, some of the things that CITB do are important and should not always be placed in a negative context.
One of the biggest gaps in the construction industry is being able to have training and skills provided, especially in an industry largely based on the self-employed or very small firms of contractors. Such firms, especially in periods of financial difficulty, can find it very hard to afford to invest in their staff. It can also be difficult for them to see the benefit of such investment when staff might be very mobile. They could be investing large sums to train staff who, in six months’ time, could be working for a different company, which would be reaping the benefits. Therefore, it can be a difficult industry in which to embed training.
The idea behind the levy was that companies that had more money would pay more through a levy and that that would then be redistributed in more affordable training for those in smaller companies. Whether the levy balance is working well is an issue that needs to be considered. However, the notion that the construction industry as a whole should pay for the training of those employed in the construction industry is an entirely sensible and appropriate principle because, under current laws, many of the small, single-person or two-person firms in the construction sector could not afford to meet the requirements necessary to function in the industry.
There are other aspects of CITB that have to be considered. The organisation has its grant for training and achievement, providing training advice and research from its own facility. It also has a role in careers promotion and monitoring trading standards. Other Members have suggested that that may not be necessary and that people will pay only for good-quality training. However, the standard of training is crucial.
Historically, the construction industry has one of the highest fatality rates of any industry. That rate has come down significantly because of good quality health-and-safety training, good practice and good monitoring. Unfortunately, experience shows that we cannot simply rely on people in the industry to self-regulate the quality of that training or trainees’ performance on health-and-safety issues; it requires independent assessors. For those reasons, it is important that everyone has access to good quality training.
CITB has been reviewed several times, most recently in 2005, and the board is considering restructuring and reorganising. The Department for Employment and Learning is due to re-evaluate the board in 2010, so a review in 2008 would neither be value for money nor productive.
When people working in the industry were surveyed, more than half of them felt that health-and-safety concerns would be less of a priority if CITB were disbanded. Almost half of those surveyed thought that the quality and quantity of training would be reduced. If people are working in a dangerous and difficult environment in which investment in training, and the emphasis on health and safety, is reduced, that should concern the Assembly.
Mr Brolly: Will the Member give way?
Mrs Long: I cannot give way; I am very short of time.
The promotion of careers in the construction industry is also an issue. The industry is diverse, and it is difficult for people to get hands-on work experience, because of site conditions and health-and-safety requirements, in order to decide which area of the industry appeals to them. CITB has brought people onto controlled sites so that they can get valuable hands-on experience. I would not completely dismiss CITB’s role in such activities, but whether it should be the lead partner is another question. However, it is important to allow school-age students onto construction sites so that they can get a flavour of the opportunities that are available.
Mr Speaker: The Member’s time is up.
Mrs Long: The Alliance Party has no problem with the motion, but I am slightly concerned about the tone of the debate.
Mr McQuillan: All Members acknowledge the fact that there has been a downward trend in the construction industry over recent months. How do we address that downturn, and how do we invest in training our workforce for the future?
The Programme for Government and the Budget have made it clear that the present situation of Northern Ireland’s being heavily dependent on the public sector is not sustainable. We must examine every area of business life in Northern Ireland in order to address that issue. Last week, we debated our tourism industry, which can be developed by private investment. In the course of that development, the construction industry would undoubtedly benefit by way of newbuild projects.
We must also examine the development of Northern Ireland’s infrastructure needs to ensure that private-sector investors view Northern Ireland as being the right place in which to invest. The upgrade of the water and sewerage systems is under way, and the building of hotels and the upgrading of our road and rail networks are linked to the future economic well-being of our construction industry.
In order to achieve the technical or managerial skills and the professionalism required to ensure the delivery of those standards, we must have the best system in place, for Northern Ireland and beyond, to develop those skills and professionalism. A root-and-branch review of the Construction Industry Training Board will help to identify those areas where improvements can, or should, be made and modernised. That should also ensure that CITB is a proactive body that can identify the need for new skills early on — for example, in energy-efficient home construction — and put in place the training programmes that are needed to ensure that the industry can not only keep up to date, but be ahead of its rivals in the UK and, indeed, worldwide.
I am not saying that the existing CITB structure cannot deliver on those issues, and I do not want anyone who is involved with the board to think that I am criticising the current structures. However, there are always good reasons for taking a long, hard look at the structures and seeing ways in which they can be improved so that any skills deficit is reduced and a skills base is available in Northern Ireland when it is required. I fully recognise CITB’s good training work in several areas — health and safety, apprenticeships and scaffold operator training. My suggestion would ensure the best possible system for Northern Ireland.
I ask the Minister for Employment and Learning to conduct a review, with the aim of providing the world-class skills that are required to ensure that Northern Ireland can build its future in-house from a highly skilled workforce that has been trained by local firms. In that way, the economic benefits of regeneration and development can remain part of Northern Ireland’s economy. That will benefit not only construction firms, but the people whom they employ. Our economy can, and will, be expanded; however, any skills deficit will put us at a disadvantage competitively, result in a further downturn in the construction industry and result in fewer people being employed in the industry.
Let us take this opportunity to ensure that a vital component of our economic development is ready for the challenges that lie ahead.
Ms S Ramsey: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Like other Members, I welcome the motion. I welcome the Minister for Employment and Learning and commend the other parties for not tabling amendments, because the motion covers the issues that Members have highlighted. Judging by Members’ contributions, I think that the motion will receive the unanimous support of the House.
Although I take on board Naomi Long’s point about positive results emanating from the training board, I want to make it clear that Sinn Féin has not called for the disbandment of CITB, but a fundamental review.
I agree wholeheartedly, with David McClarty’s view that the construction industry has grown over the past few years. The investment strategy states that public investment could total £14·3 billion over the next 10 years, with nearly £4 billion already confirmed for 2006-08. Therefore, we must ensure that the correct amount of money goes to the construction industry.
The purpose of the motion is to raise genuine concerns that the construction industry has highlighted to Sinn Féin about CITB; I am sure that the board has done the same to other parties and individuals. In February 2005, Deloitte MCS submitted a final report to the Department for Employment and Learning on its review of CITB. The board was last reviewed in 1998. During the 2005 review, there were substantial terms of reference, but they did not include some issues of major concern to the construction industry. The purpose of Sinn Féin’s motion is to address those issues and for the review to start off on the right footing.
The purpose of CITB is to encourage the adequate training of those employed, or intending to be employed, in the construction industry. Francie Brolly and other Members highlighted the fact that no statutory levy is imposed on any other industry. Therefore, why impose a levy on one group and not on another? I accept that CITB uses the moneys to help the industry with training costs. However, companies complain that it is too difficult to claim grants under the current system. Some companies do not even try to claim, because the complicated application form changes from year to year.
Francie Brolly and Alex Attwood referred to the fact that CITB in England pays out over 80% of its levy in incoming grant aid, but here it is just over 43%. How do we account for the other 57%? It has been indicated that training accounts for that 57%, but we need to see that information so that people are made accountable for the money that they receive. CITB has an annual income of £42 million and a staff of 52; almost half the levies collected in 2002-03 were spent on salaries, travel and company cars. Is that value for money? We need to ask those questions and get answers.
The 2005 review accepted that the need for training in the construction industry is not matched by the uptake of training by contractors.
The perceived value for money provided by CITB is a concern for many in the industry. Those issues were highlighted during the Department’s own review. Members should bear in mind that, in the motion, Sinn Féin calls for the proposed review to include:
“the issues of levies, apprenticeships and the disbursement of grants.”
Naomi Long said also that there seems to be a jaded view of CITB and that no organisation is perfect. That may be her point of view, but the Assembly should strive for perfection and must move in that direction.
I agree with Jimmy Spratt that CITB, as the representative body, should be seen to represent the industry as a whole. That comment was spot on.
I had intended to make some other points, but I am conscious that my time is up. I support the motion and commend it to the other parties. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr Shannon: I support the motion. Indeed, it was not too long ago that the House debated the subject of apprenticeships in Northern Ireland, and it is important to discuss it again in relation to the construction industry.
There is work, and we have the employers. There is a need for the Department to exercise its rights and to put in place the regulations required to meet the projected need in the Province.
Ther er scaurs that tha industree canny keap gawn oan tha wae it shud be acaus o’ tha nummer o’ plannin eplikatshuns gaun thru’. But mi lukin wud be that whun we hae tha labur nummers whau hae tha knac, we wull be abel tae pit fort oorsels on tha mainland en fardar afiel, whuch meens ther wull aye be woark fer theim whau that er abel tae dae it.
There are fears that the industry cannot continue in the way that it is due to the number of planning applications going through. However, my view is that when we have the skilled labour numbers, we will be able to promote ourselves on the mainland and further afield. That means that there will always be work for those who are able to do it.
Northern Ireland’s growth rate is significantly higher than the rest of the United Kingdom’s as regards the construction industry. It has been estimated that both construction output and full-time employment are expected to rise by an annual average of 4·4% and 3·9% respectively, leading up to 2010. That prospective work will, of course, require an increase in skilled workers. DEL, therefore, must step into its role and work with CITB to make provision for that. The point is that we want partnership, not abolition, and for that partnership to be — excuse the pun — more constructive.
It is not simply the projected growth in Northern Ireland that demands attention. Our young men, and to a lesser extent, our young women are being poached to work on the mainland, as a consequence of the superior training that is inherent in Northern Ireland. I know a 22-year-old man who, having finished his apprenticeship as a foreman, did some work experience on the mainland. The English firm offered him a starting wage of £32,000 plus bonuses, as well as free flights home every other weekend. It was difficult for that young man to stay at home, especially as he was considering buying his own apartment in Ards, which is the property hot spot of the UK. He did, however, choose to work at home for a lesser wage. I cannot pretend that that will always be the case. We train young men to higher standards than on the mainland only to have them poached by firms there. That is unacceptable.
At present, the construction industry in Northern Ireland employs over 78,000 people, and that number is expected to increase by 10,000 in the next two years. At this point, I want to make a plea for Strangford. In that area, there are many people, young and old — especially the young ones coming through — looking for jobs, and the construction industry is a very important part of the employment structure. It is clear that there must be a considered and co-ordinated effort not only to supply the numbers needed to get the work done in the Province, but to enable more Northern Ireland firms to tender on the mainland, while displaying their superior skills.
A Saintfield firm called Dawson Wam (GB) Ltd, which is based in my constituency, is working on a signature project in Canary Wharf in London and on some motorway projects, using its teams from the Province and doing an exemplary job. It is its vision, and that of many other firms in Northern Ireland, to be able to expand on the mainland.
There are opportunities that far exceed the work to be done in the Province, and now is the time to put in place the structures that are needed to facilitate that growth, both in Northern Ireland and further afield. It is also clear that that must be done in partnership with CITB and that it is no longer enough for CITB and the Department to be exclusive from each other in the way that they work.
CITB is known for its ability to liaise well with small firms, and we must ensure that it liaises with bigger businesses, too. The Department for Employment and Learning’s role is to promote, as well as to encourage and support, the smaller things.
It is clear that, at some stage, there has been a breakdown in communication, and that a greater vision must be recognised and pursued. DEL must liaise with the Department for Social Development (DSD), and all other Departments, to ensure that the work that is scheduled is done by home-grown teams rather than by teams from the Republic and elsewhere, which has been the case in some hospital projects of which I am aware.
If we build up our own industry, train the men and women, and let them work, in the long run, we will see more Northern Ireland firms being big hitters on the mainland, and further boosting our reputation and economy. We must address the issues, put in the groundwork and the good foundations, and the superior skills that our construction industry displays will ensure that we get the recognition and the jobs that we very much deserve.
Mr O’Loan: I want to focus primarily on the phrase in the motion that refers to:
“the downturn in the construction industry”.
Although I am content with the latter part of the proposal, I have some concerns about that phrase, because it is neither accurate nor helpful. I say that in the context of the upcoming investment conference, which is a major opportunity for us. It puts huge demands on all sectors to deliver, and it is important that we send out the right message. I am not sure that the wording used does that.
We have a construction industry that can compete in international markets, even though I cite only two examples — Mivan and the Patton Group, which I heard being referred to recently as having done a multimillion-pound shop-fit for Selfridges in London. We have an industry that can compete on the international stage.
Today, I, and other members of my party, met the Construction Employers Federation. I want to make some broad comments about the industry as a whole, and I hope that I do justice to the remarks that were made to us. The mood of CEF is quite buoyant. I will make some specific points on housing, but we should not forget that construction is not just about housing — there are other sectors of the industry, such as retail and office building. There is also a much wider civil engineering sector.
There is no doubt that there is a decline in house starts, following a welcome drop in house prices. Nonetheless, the omens for the future are strong. Housing growth indicators describe a housing need, showing requirements for a large growth in the housing stock — I believe as many as 200,000 houses over a forecast period, which is something in the order of 15 years. We know about the determined plans of the Executive to build 10,000 social houses within five years.
We have an investment strategy, with plans for an overall investment of £18 billion by 2018, and much of that money will go into the construction industry. An important issue is the capacity of the sector to deliver, and the message that I heard today is that the sector is confident that it can deliver. A major concern of the sector is the reality of the public expenditure plans, both in the short term and the medium term. The Assembly and Executive are putting a great deal of faith in asset sales. The uncertainties in relation to that strategy need to be recognised. There is also a considerable lack of detail about the role of PPPs in the delivery of the investment strategy.
Before industry will invest, it needs to have confidence in that level of public investment. We want to put as much certainty as we can into the system — although there can never be total certainly, as the strength of a private enterprise system is that it is not certain. There is a link to the employment and training issue in the area of confidence and certainty. Before the industry will commit to expanding its workforce and investing in training, it needs to have confidence that it is going to get its money back on its investment.
Although I support the proposal concerning CITB, I am critical of a significant amount of what I heard from the proposer of the motion, and in one later speech.
Mr Brolly: Surely the Member understands that he is talking about firms such as the Patton Group and Mivan, which would be able to absorb a few years of weak turnover. Jimmy Spratt and I are talking about the people from our communities, such as the small contractors, who together employ a huge number of people. However, I know of construction workers from my home community who are walking the streets today.
Mr O’Loan: I am aware of the issues with which small employers have to deal, and I know that they are an important part of the construction industry. In fact, when I was talking to the representatives of CEF this morning, we discussed small firms. Therefore, I am not blind to those realities; I am merely attempting to give an overview of where the sector is going and of the part that the Assembly and the Executive play in it.
As I have said, I am critical of a great deal that I have heard Members say today. I feel that they have dealt unnecessarily with issues that, in the context of the overall strategy, are relatively petty. We have a bigger job to do; the Executive and Assembly need to rise to the occasion and contribute to major strategic decision-making.
The Minister for Employment and Learning (Sir Reg Empey): I am indebted to the Members who tabled the motion. There is a range of issues to be dealt with, and I will attempt to do that as I proceed. However, to give Members some context, the previous review of CITB commenced in 2004, and since then, progress has been made on its recommendations. The review, the report of which is available publicly on the Department’s website, concluded that CITB be retained and that a statutory levy is necessary for the sector. Construction industry employers indicated in that review that the functions of CITB and its continued existence were considered necessary in order to encourage training.
The skills context in which CITB operates is changing rapidly and is very broad. It may be helpful if I outline briefly the current skills position, including the policy debate on collective measures, which is topical across the UK. Over the past decade, our economy has experienced steady growth. Our labour supply continues to increase due to high levels of inward migration and to the stream of well-educated young people who are entering the workforce. Those developments, coupled with high labour demand, have seen employment rise strongly and our productivity increase. However, in Northern Ireland, we have the highest number of employed and the lowest number of unemployed people that we have ever had.
In the recent Programme for Government, the Executive identified the economy as a primary focus. They also identified skills as one of the six pillars that were specified in the investment strategy. Our vision for a successful future economy has been characterised by high productivity, a highly skilled and flexible workforce, and economic growth. However, this year, we will review our skills strategy to take account of the changing situation that has been described. That review will take account of the all-island and cross-UK context, and all that will be put in the context of Europe and of the global challenges that face us.
Total employment in the construction sector in Northern Ireland is expected to rise from approximately 84,000 to 95,000 between 2008 and 2012. To meet that demand, almost 3,000 new workers will be required to join the industry each year. One of the factors boosting demand will be the investment strategy for Northern Ireland 2008-18, through which over £18 billion of new infrastructure will be delivered during those 10 years.
The potential benefits will be maximised if we can build skill levels in the local construction workforce to strengthen the economy. CITB, as a partner in construction skills, will have to address the skills issues for the sector.
The motion noted the recent downturn in the construction sector. It is true that construction in Northern Ireland has enjoyed strong growth in recent years, and we know that that downturn has tended to be concentrated in the housing market. However, the investment strategy has resulted in the infrastructure side of the sector still enjoying significant buoyancy.
Turning to Members’ points, Jimmy Spratt asked who takes the lead role in CITB. Certainly, the employers have the lead role in making the decision on the levy, but the board’s entire membership deals collectively with other matters.
Mr McClarty discussed whether small firms get value for money. As I understand it, approximately 64% of the CITB levy comes from those firms, which receive approximately 68% of the grants that the board issues.
When proposing the motion, Mr Brolly referred to the RPA proposal to amalgamate CITB and ConstructionSkills. Both organisations exist here and in Great Britain, and the Department for Employment and Learning has encouraged their alignment here. As Members are aware, CITB has statutory levy-raising powers, which are preserved under the new arrangements. I warmly welcome the fact that ConstructionSkills is establishing itself in Northern Ireland in order to undertake its sector skills role.
Alex Attwood raised several issues, including careers and the review of Training for Success. Work on Training for Success has already commenced, and we envisage that we will be in a position to consult with the Committee for Employment and Learning in March or April, with a view to having any revisions in place for the next academic year, which commences in September. Although we have looked closely at several of the issues at an earlier stage than was anticipated, we believe that the necessary flexibility must exist. I hope to be able to talk shortly to Mr Attwood and other members of the Committee about that matter.
Mr Attwood also mentioned wages, and it is ironic that apprentices are exempt from the national minimum wage regulations. That point is perhaps not understood fully outside the House. The Department’s guidelines basically state that people should be paid the going rate for the job. We know that that does not happen in all cases, but to put it into context, the national minimum wage regulations do not actually deal with that.
Turning to the sector skills —
Mr Attwood: I thank the Minister for giving way. I have listened very carefully to what he has said, but I have not picked up whether he is minded to conduct a review on the workings of CITB.
Sir Reg Empey: Perhaps if the Member would let me finish, he would get a flavour of that later in the debate.
Mr Attwood: I thank the Minister.
My second point is that construction employers do not like the fact that people are getting paid £40 a week. They are telling their members and the industry that they should pay on an appropriate scale. The construction employers are saying that whatever the Department’s advice may be, it is so vague as to allow employers to pay their workers £40 a week. Is there not a need for less ambiguity and for more definition about what apprentices should, and must, be paid?
Sir Reg Empey: The Member will realise that the national minimum wage regulations are not a devolved matter, and that, therefore, creates a particular difficulty for us. An additional issue is the question of what employers pay and whether they provide apprenticeships. I have made it clear to the House previously that I believe that employers have a responsibility — and indeed a much greater role to play — to provide apprenticeships. Many do not do so, which is a weakness in our system.
Many employers have been able to hide behind the inward migration of substantial numbers of workers, who are effectively covering up for the skills gaps that clearly exist. If those workers decide to move elsewhere, we would have a significant problem ahead of us.
As far as the more substantial issues are concerned, I have dealt with Training for Success, and, as I said, I hope that my Department will shortly be in a position to ask Members to give the matter further consideration in a future debate.
Among the Members who highlighted other issues, Naomi Long talked about problems with the atmosphere and that a jaded approach was being taken. It is inevitable that any tax on employers will create difficulties, and that is the case with the one that CITB, in effect, imposes. However, I want to set that issue in the context of the Leitch Review that was published at the end of 2006. Over the past few months I have been under pressure from Whitehall Ministers who have been considering whether more bodies in GB should levy employers, which is what happened here several years ago. CITB is the only remaining training board in Northern Ireland to levy employers, but there used to be others.
The Leitch Review recommended voluntary arrangments with employers for training. However, it did not anticipate the necessity to proceed with the imposition of bureaucracy. It is inevitable and unavoidable that when that happens, administration accounts for a significant percentage of the levy. However, some Members seem to be confused about that issue: approximately 80% of the levied amount is returned to employers in the form of grants and soft assistance, such as advice, and so forth. Therefore, contrary to what has been implied, the entire levy is not taken up by administration. Simply to calculate the amount of money that remains after grants are paid would indicate that larger amounts are being spent on administration than is the case.
I have been resisting the suggestion that my Department creates a series of bodies that could levy employers to provide training. Not only have employers enough to contend with, but they must be convinced of the merit of training. One wonders at the long-term viability of employers who do not recognise that having well-trained staff is in the interest of their long-term bottom line.
Mrs Long: Does the Minister accept that workforce mobility and the difficulty in making employers aware of the benefit to their businesses of investing large sums of money in training an individual who may quickly move on from the company, make the construction industry unique?
Sir Reg Empey: I accept that the construction industry is unique because of the nature of the work and the fact that it is constantly changing: that is why CITB was not subsumed into a single training board with all the other bodies.
I welcome today’s debate. As Members said, CITB was reviewed in 2004-05 and, under the quinquennial arrangement, the next review is not due until 2009. The proposed review of CITB is at the core of the debate. As CITB is a non-departmental public body, it is fully accountable, through the Department for Employment and Learning, to the Assembly, and its performance is monitored closely. It is subject to regular formal reviews, the next of which is due to commence in 2009.
From Members’ comments today, the concerns that they raised, and the significant changes in construction skills, it is evident that it is now timely to pause and reflect on the operation and funding of CITB. Therefore, in view of the issues raised by Assembly colleagues in the debate, I am prepared to bring forward the planned review of CITB in 2009 to this year. Construction is an important sector in the local economy, and the review will clarify the appropriate future role of CITB.
I shall bring forward the review to the current calendar year. I will keep the Committee advised and apprised of the Department’s proposals. That is my response to the concerns that have been raised during the debate. I hope that I have taken into account the significant concerns that have been expressed. However, we must be fair to everyone, and the review will have no predetermined outcome. In view of what Members have said, it is timely to expedite the review.
Mr P Maskey: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for bringing forward the review. I hope — and I am sure that all Members agree — that the review takes place early this year because it is important that the industry moves in the right direction. Given that the Minister has said that he will bring the review forward, my speech will not last for 10 minutes.
When proposing the motion, Francie Brolly mentioned levies, which must be considered as part of the review. The Minister said that he is not sure how the review will look, or what outcomes it will produce. Along with the Minister, I attended an event organised by the Northern Ireland Assembly and Business Trust in this Building, which was attended by businesspeople from all over the North. One businessman that I spoke to said that he could employ an additional 200 people the following day if they had the necessary level of skills. That is a very important issue, as is the matter of levies.
One of the most important training initiatives in the construction industry is the apprenticeship system. CITB has no direct role in the delivery of that scheme or in the setting of standards, which are controlled by the natinal vocational qualifications system. CITB has a careers department, which duplicates the work of trained careers teachers in schools, recruitment officers for training organisations, colleges and universities, and staff in the local jobcentres. Government schemes such as Bridge to Employment have provided training for the construction industry, without a levy. The construction industry must invest in its workforce.
Francie Brolly also mentioned value for money, and used the example of a local firm that paid CITB a levy of £17,500, and £49,000 to commercial trainers for training, but received a grant of only £5,000. I am not sure whether such practice is sustainable in the construction industry.
The Member for South Belfast Jimmy Spratt mentioned the challenges that the construction industry faces, particularly small firms. He said that it is sometimes beneficial for small firms to move elsewhere, which some have done, and some might still do. We do not want that to happen because such firms are too important to the development and sustainability of the North. Mr Spratt went on to talk about skills training, which is something that Sinn Féin hopes is addressed by the review because the skills requirement is unclear.
David McClarty said that the record growth of recent times has ended, and he was later criticised by Declan O’Loan, who said that we must be careful about the terminology that we use. Mr McClarty then spoke of fit-for-purpose training and apprenticeships, which ties in with the issue of value for money.
Alex Attwood voiced his concern about training apprenticeships — a point that has been well made during the debate. The review should proceed as a matter of urgency.
Naomi Long mentioned her civil engineering background. She may not have a conflict of interests any more — it is up to her whether she goes back to that occupation.
Mrs Long: That depends on the electorate.
Mr P Maskey: I was just about to say that politics is a strange game — some of us may not be here next year. It is always good to have an occupation to return to if needs be.
Naomi Long also talked about affordability for employers and staff, and she mentioned the review, which she said should create more understanding.
The motion is very clear in calling for the Minister:
“to conduct a wide-ranging review of the remit of the CITB”.
I hope that we have managed to address some of her concerns about the wording of the motion.
Adrian McQuillan said that the review will assist in creating better-quality training and safety for the workforce. We must strive for world-class skills for our workforce. Sue Ramsey commended other parties for not tabling amendments to the motion, and I echo her remarks. Members have shown leadership.
Jim Shannon talked about people in his constituency of Strangford, and he referred to an individual who could have secured employment in England with a salary of £32,000 but who chose to stay here. That person has shown leadership by staying, and I hope that he can be a future employer. I ask Mr Shannon to send him our regards.
Minister Empey referred to some of the issues that we want to see covered in the review. I thank him for coming to the Chamber and for saying that he will bring the review forward by a year. I hope that the review will occur as early as possible this year; it has been pointed out several times already today that we need it to happen as quickly as possible. Go raibh maith agat.
Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly notes the downturn in the construction industry, and the concerns raised by contractors about the powers and responsibilities of the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB); and calls on the Minister for Employment and Learning to conduct a wide-ranging review of the remit of the CITB, to include the issues of levies, apprenticeships and the disbursement of grants.
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 to make 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 to make a winding-up speech.
Mr Lunn: I beg to move
That this Assembly notes with concern the lack of clarity in the Minister of Education’s proposals for post-primary transfer; and urges her to bring details of her proposals immediately before the Executive and the Assembly, to ease the concerns of parents, pupils and teachers.
The motion has been tabled on behalf of the many parents who are facing uncertainty about their children’s educational future. I am pleased to have the support of two other parties and, I suspect, the tacit support of one more. Whatever the politics, we will have the support of every parent, pupil and teaching professional in Northern Ireland, as they are equally frustrated and alarmed at the delay in the lack of concrete proposals from the Department.
In the Minister’s vision statement of 4 December, she offered:
“the creation and delivery of a fundamentally exciting new vision for the education system in the North”. — [Official Report, Vol 26, No 1, p8, col 1].
Those are the Minister’s words, not mine. Her aim, in itself, is worthy. However, visions are all very well, but we need proposals and some meat on the bones.
The Minister’s confirmation of her predecessor’s decision to end the 11-plus has been greeted by all sections of society as overdue and progressive, and her stated preference for transfer at the age of 14 by means other than purely academic selection certainly finds favour with my party. However, where are the details on that preference?
This will be the final year for the 11-plus, but where is its replacement? In her vision statement, she hinted at preferences — community, geography and family considerations. Does “geography” mean a postcode lottery? Does “community” mean nationalists, loyalists, Protestant or Catholic? How will the receiving schools sort out the problems of oversubscription without the benefit of access to the pupil profiles? In that context, I refer to an answer that the Minister gave during her meeting on 31 January. From that answer, it appears to me that the receiving schools will be allowed to advise pupils.
To my mind, that is another form of selection. If a school can advise pupils whether or not they should apply to it, surely that amounts to selection.
Will the Association for Quality Education be permitted to set up its own entrance exams? If new arrangements are not put in place soon, there will be nothing to stop it from doing that. Whether that is good or bad depends on one’s point of view, but I am concerned about legalities. Such tests will become inevitable due to ministerial inaction, and there will be no legal way of stopping them.
Beyond transfer problems, but closely linked to them, lie the issues of area-based planning, the future of the schools estate, and sustainable schools. There is also the problem of the 50,000 empty school desks — a number that is increasing. From my party’s perspective, the absence of any emphasis on integrated or broadly shared or mixed education, which we highlighted in our response to the Programme for Government, remains a concern. It is difficult to resist the unionist view that the Irish-medium sector is being given undue priority. However, I suppose that one could contrast the attitude of one DUP Minister towards Irish-language matters.
I wish to mention the role of the Committee for Education. I note the Minister’s well-timed interview in today’s ‘Belfast Telegraph’. She seems to be adhering to the principle of getting her reaction in first. Just before the Assembly debate on 11 December 2007, the Minister came up with a vision statement, and now she has given a major interview to a local paper in advance of this debate.
The Minister states that she is still waiting for the Committee to come to her with a consensus view on her transfer proposals.
Mr S Wilson: Does the Member agree that, at least, the interview with the major paper might have been an opportunity for the Minister to offer some clarity? However, all that she could say, on three occasions, was that she would give parents notice in plenty of time, but she did not say when new arrangements would be in place. Will it be in 2008, 2009 or 2010?
Mr Lunn: The Minister’s interview was well up to the standard of her recent statements, and did not add anything to the debate.
In that interview, the Minister said that she wrote to the Committee in December, and is still waiting for a reply. The Minister received a reply from the Committee in the form of about 30 questions, and she took until 31 January to answer them. The answers came in written form and were handed to Committee members just before the start of our now infamous meeting on that date. The answers were as vague as the vision statement and her response to the debate of 11 December 2007. That meeting was short and confrontational, and it added nothing to the debate. It provided no further clarity to the Committee.
Without excusing the behaviour of some Committee members — although I can understand their frustration — and speaking as someone who was prepared to give the Minister time and a measure of support, it must be said that her attitude to the Committee has been contemptuous and dismissive. It seems that she wants to acknowledge that a good relationship is important, but has decided not to contribute to it. Her refusals, most of the time, to come before the Committee, do not do her any credit.
The Committee must cool off too. However, I hope that the Minister will accept the invitation that is now on her desk to come to talk to the Committee again to see whether we can move the discussion forward.
Most of the SDLP amendment is fine. The references to equality of opportunity, protecting against a postcode lottery, local needs, area-based planning and sustainable schools echo and amplify the thrust of our motion. However, we prefer to leave in the reference to the Executive, and, therefore, we cannot accept the amendment.
The schoolchildren of Northern Ireland deserve better from the Assembly. However, in the special circumstances that pertain in this place, it is up to the Minister to step up to the mark. I look forward to hearing her detailed proposals. There must be no more equivocation or vague statements. The Minister must recognise of the role of the Committee, which, for the record, is not simply another stakeholder. It has a scrutiny job to do, but it requires something to scrutinise.
I await with interest the Minister’s contribution to this debate, when she will have another opportunity to explain herself and, perhaps, provide some timescales or a view of her emerging thoughts. At the least, she must provide something more illuminating than her previous statements.
Perhaps she can dispel the rumour that her relationship with her senior officials is even worse than the one she has with the Education Committee, and that her interminable consultations with all kinds of stakeholders are only covering up the fact that she does not know how to proceed.
Actions are needed: not more entreaties to “join with me”, followed by more confrontation and more squabbling through the media. I leave it at that.
Mr Speaker: Before I call Mr Dominic Bradley to move the amendment, I remind Members that they should speak through the Chair, not to one another across the Floor.
Mr D Bradley: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I beg to move the amendment: Leave out “the Executive and”; and at end insert
“, by setting out the practical steps necessary to deliver reform, while (i) enhancing quality; (ii) ensuring equality of opportunity for all; (iii) protecting against a post-code lottery; (iv) addressing local needs and making best use of resources through area-based planning; and (v) delivering sustainable schools.”
We live in a world in which change is rapid and necessary. In education, as in other aspects of life, we require change. The Minister has told us that; and not many would disagree with her. Change in education is needed because we need a system that meets the needs of today’s young people. The global economy changes rapidly, and high-level skills are needed across the workforce. We need an education system that values all pupils and the pathways that they choose to follow. Change is also inevitable due to the falling pupil numbers. At a time of scarce resources and empty seats, we must put what we have to the best possible use.
However, change must be managed carefully, and not brought about in a chaotic way. Not only do we need to show people, in a transparent way, where change is leading, we need to lay down clearly the route that will take us there and the various steps we will take along that route. People are naturally wary of change. They need to be convinced that if they leave the comfort-zone of the present system, they will arrive at a better place in the future.
One way of doing that is to provide people with the route, the steps involved and as much information as possible about the changes that lie ahead. When the necessary information is not available, the gap that is left is filled by anxiety, leading to resistance to change and making change much more difficult.
Unfortunately, that has been the history of this process to date. Key information necessary to assess the planned change has not been made available when sought and has been forthcoming only at the last minute. One Member has already referred to the fact that it has proven extremely difficult for the Education Committee to get the information that it requires to perform its work. Important policies, pivotal to the Minister’s proposals, are even now being kept under wraps, although time is running out rapidly.
It is not only the man and woman in the street who are complaining; some of the main education providers are openly expressing anxieties about the lack of information. In particular, we need to see the detail of the Minister’s sustainable schools policy, which will be the bedrock of area-based planning. Consultation ended last Easter, yet we still have not had sight of the policy, nor have we seen the policy on area-based planning, which is the linchpin of the Minister’s proposals.
Time is of the essence: education providers need to start planning. Perhaps the Minister will enlighten us when she responds to the motion; I hope that she does. She promised to return with a statement this month. Today may be the day; I hope that it is. We must not underestimate the level of confusion in the Committee over the future of education. People want to know what is happening: parents want to know what the future holds, how education in their area will be organised and how change will affect their children.
Mr S Wilson: Does the Member find it odd that, in today’s interview in the ‘Belfast Telegraph’, the Minister appears to believe that there is no concern among parents and that they are happy to wait because they are so excited about the changes that she is introducing?
Mr D Bradley: I thank the Member for making that point. Only yesterday, at an event in Newry, I spoke to a principal of a post-primary school, who reflected precisely the point that the Member has just made. Not only do parents want to know what is happening, but teachers want to know how the changes will affect their schools. Education providers want the tools and the policies that are necessary to bring about change.
People are asking whether the educational estate can accommodate the Minister’s proposals in the short term. Can schools be reorganised to fit the Minister’s proposals in the time that is available? The main cause of contention remains the transfer from primary to post-primary schools. That issue lacks clarity, and until selection at 14 is properly provided for, it looks as though the focus on transfer at age 11 will remain for the foreseeable future. Where will the resources, which will undoubtedly be needed to invest in the future, come from? The Minister’s proposals have not been costed or included in the Budget. The SDLP has drawn attention to that glaring omission, and that is one of the reasons for our voting against the Budget.
To send this matter to the Executive would risk its being gridlocked in the mass of other business with which they are dealing. That would further increase delay, which none of us wants. This issue must be handled with openness and transparency, and bringing it before the Assembly is the best means of ensuring that all MLAs and the general public have that transparency. The Executive route may push the issue behind closed doors. The SDLP amendment deals with the detail, rather than the politics, of the policy.
Although we support the case for reform, we have serious concerns about the Minister’s capacity to deliver change in a way that can restore lost public confidence. Parents are saying that they would almost prefer the continuation of an unfair, inadequate system, rather than face such a degree of uncertainty and anxiety. That is a travesty. Reform requires strong leadership from the Minister to clearly set out the step-by-step process that will be followed as children transfer from primary to post-primary education.
The SDLP wants a high-quality education system that gives equal opportunities to all, promotes educational excellence, widens the horizons and choices of all our young people and does not lead to a postcode lottery. That is not an unattainable ambition, so we call on the Minister to develop and communicate her plans to the Assembly forthwith. Go raibh míle maith agat.
Miss McIlveen: I support the motion. It has been almost three months since the Minister’s blurred vision was foisted on the Assembly. According to her, the final transfer test will be held in nine months. The clocking is ticking, Minister. This matter must be addressed urgently, and the delay on the part of the Minister helps no one. Some children are already in the preparatory years for the transition, but face the uncertainty that has been created by the Minister. It is no exaggeration to say that confusion will turn to panic.
Ideally, there would be no need for the motion. From hearing the concerns of my constituents, it is quite apparent that deep consternation runs throughout the community as a result of the Minister’s creation of a vacuum. Even worse, it appears that she has adopted a dilatory strategy in some attempt to present the Assembly with a fait accompli for her proposals for education. Such matters may be handled in that way in a Marxist state, but we live in a democracy. The failure of the Minister to properly address the Education Committee, and her petulant behaviour before it in the Senate Chamber on 31 January 2008, is there for all to read in the Official Report.
The Minister should, by now, have provided us all with a pair of special glasses so that we can see her vision, or she should, at least, have placed legislation before us to debate. However, all we have had is the Minister’s charade before the Committee, where, once again, she sought to filibuster her way through awkward questioning and to criticise, in some vain attempt to deflect attention from herself.
The Committee would be failing in its role if it did not seek answers from the Minister, and the Chairperson of the Committee would be failing in his role if he did not express the Committee’s views on events that have been unfolding over the past few months. Thankfully, the Chairperson and the Committee have not been found wanting. However, the same cannot be said of the Minister.
As the Minister should know, the DUP secured a veto at St Andrews over proposals that she may seek to introduce, such as excluding educational criteria as one of the options open to schools when deciding on entrance requirements. In the absence of alternative proposals, that leaves us with the default position that academic selection will remain.
On a previous occasion, I quoted to the Minister from paragraph 20 of the explanatory notes to the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006. Section 21 of the Act amended The Education (Northern Ireland) Order 2006. I shall take this opportunity to remind her of what that section provided for:
“In the event of the restoration of the devolved institutions on this date, the commencement of the provision abolishing academic selection would be subject to an affirmative resolution of the Assembly.”
The date in question was 28 March 2007. If the Minister does nothing else today, she should at least advise the Assembly and the people of Northern Ireland that what the explanatory notes state is the case. That would ease the concerns of parents and pupils, and it would permit teachers to prepare those children in their foundation years. If she fails to do that, she will merely perpetuate the confusion and uncertainty that have been the hallmarks of her tenure to date.
It says something when all the parties represented on the Committee — apart from members from her party — are unified in their criticism of the Minister. There comes a time when we must ask whether she is competent to hold the post.
It will come as no surprise to the Minister that I share the concerns of the parents and teachers to whom I have spoken since her announcement. It is no exaggeration to state that she is gambling with our children’s future. We have all received her Department’s consultation document, titled ‘Every School A Good School’, yet her vision is to downgrade our excellent schools. The focus should be on those schools that are failing, not on destroying those schools that are succeeding and producing excellent results. Her vague proposals have thrown up huge concerns around postcode lotteries, budgets, sustainability of schools, timescales, transition periods and independent admission tests, among many other issues.
I do not hold out a great deal of hope that we will be provided with greater clarity after today’s debate. When the Minister speaks in the Assembly, we hear the generalised platitudes, and criticisms of the DUP and the Committee for Education. We will again hear about the world-class education system that she wants to establish, but I doubt that we will receive clarification. Of course, as ever, I am willing to be surprised by the Minister.
Mr Butler: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I am disappointed that the motion was tabled for today, and I am disappointed in the Alliance Party and by the SDLP amendment. Sometimes it is difficult to know whether the Committee for Education is a Committee or a branch of the DUP, given the way in which Sammy Wilson runs it. It seems that the other political parties on the Committee are being led by the nose by Sammy and the DUP on the issue.
Mr D Bradley: Will the Member clarify whether he confuses his ability to represent his party’s point of view and to defend his Minister in Committee with his attitude to other Committee members?
Mr Butler: I thank the Member for that intervention. The SDLP and the Alliance Party tell us that they are against academic selection and that they want change, yet they proceed to introduce motions such as this one. There is no confusion about the issue.
Powerful forces are trying to prevent change, because they do not want the type of change that Caitríona Ruane is trying to bring about. People are using it to try to stop change. Some Committee members are not standing up and letting their voices be heard on the issue; they are letting the DUP dominate the Committee, and that is wrong.
Two weeks ago, suggestions were made to the Committee on how to lessen the antagonism between it and the Minister. It was proposed that a closed meeting be held, at which there would be no time limit and to which people could bring their concerns and raise the issues that we are talking about here — the Minister’s proposals — but the Committee voted against it. One must ask why the Committee voted against such a meeting. Members want to score political points, and they have come to the Chamber today to do the same thing.
Mr S Wilson: I thank the Member for giving way. The Member said that I was leading the Committee by the nose, but I was not even there that day. Is the Member suggesting that I led the Committee by remote control?
Mr Butler: He might have, yes.
We must get to the heart of the matter and consider what the issue is about. There is no confusion about it. People talk about the need for clarity: Caitríona Ruane is involved in a process of consultation with stakeholders. She has said that she will introduce proposals in relation to area planning within weeks. The debate is a distraction from that, and it does not disguise the fact that the Committee for Education is still at loggerheads with the Minister and still trying to undermine her proposals. The Committee should be responding to Caitríona Ruane’s request for proposals and positive contributions.
The Education Committee also discussed what it could and could not agree on, but that was shouted down, because nobody wanted to have that discussion. That also makes us question why we are here.
Members should know that a lot of change is going ahead. The entitlement framework, the revised curriculum and the demographics are moving in the direction of a need for an education system that is fit for the twenty-first century. No other country in western Europe uses academic selection. It is only here that we want to cling on to an outdated, discriminatory form of education. I urge the Assembly to await the proposals that Caitríona Ruane will bring to the Assembly. She says that she wants to get agreement; the Committee should also agree to having a private meeting with the Minister at which a lot of issues can be addressed, rather than having meeting after meeting under a spotlight. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr B McCrea: I speak for the Ulster Unionist Party, and I do not have a chain through my nose. There may be agreement on various issues, but I am able to speak for myself and the party.
The disappointing thing about this debate is that the Minister will not listen: she will not listen to me; she will not listen to the Committee Chairperson; she will not listen to the Assembly; she will not listen to the Executive; and she will not listen to the people. That is why there is risk. If she will not listen to all those people, perhaps she will listen to the experts. As befits an education debate, I have a book, from which I shall quote:
“Now, we have got education and there is a debate all over the country whether this education is adequate to the needs of society or the needs of our young people. I am one of those who always believe that education needs a thorough overhauling. But at the same time, I think that everything in our education is not bad, that even the present education has produced very fine men and women, specially scientists … One of the biggest responsibilities of the educated women today is how to synthesize what has been valuable … in our ancient traditions with what is good … in modern thought.”?
It is irresponsible to throw out everything and to try to change in two years what should take 10 years to change.
I considered and talked to people about other matters. Equality is often mentioned and when reading ‘Education Policy in Britain’, which I recommend to the Minister, I came across a famous dictum by the great socialist historian and political thinker R H Tawney, from his classic work ‘Equality’:
“What a wise parent would desire for his or her own children, so a nation, in so far as it is wise, would desire for all children.”
That raises questions about the Minister’s choices in relation to this matter.
In the past, I have quoted from ‘Scottish Education: Post-Devolution’ because it deals at length with the subject of failing to consult. On page 82, it states that, despite distributing 27,000 copies of a document:
“In effect, very few changes were made as a result of the consultation stage.”
We cannot allow that to happen again.
Achieving consensus does not mean doing what I say, or else. Consensus is about talking to people and providing leadership. People often ask me the difference between leadership and management. If everything is clear and the way ahead is certain, good management is required. However, if not, consensus must be built. That is genuine leadership, and that is precisely what we are not getting.
“Respect” is another key word. The Minister does not respect Members, the statutory roles of the Committee and the Assembly, parents, teachers, and the pupils who produce fantastic results. The BBC reported:
“As usual, entries from Northern Ireland easily outperformed the rest of the UK, with a third (33.2%) getting A grades and a pass rate of 98%”
What could be better than that? Why are we attempting to fix the entire system? If one considers GCSEs, the results in Northern Ireland — 8·2% at grade A*; 24·8% at grade A* to grade A; and 72·4% at grade A* to grade C — are better than those in England and Wales, or any other comparable system.
It concerns me that the Minister believes that she has found a way of bringing about changes to the transfer system without referring to the rest of us. In her meeting with the Committee, when discussing area planning, article 101 of The Education and Libraries (Northern Ireland) Order 1986 was mentioned, which, provided that the Minister agrees, gives the Department complete power to dictate what anybody and everybody should do. That is not democratic. Even if I agreed with the Minister’s proposals, she will not be able to implement them within her two-year timescale. I oppose what she is attempting to do not because she is a member of Sinn Féin but because she is absolutely wrong.
Mr Storey: Yet again, 10 months after the restoration of devolution, we are in the Chamber discussing this matter, and the Education Minister still has not taken any decisions. Sinn Féin told us that it was keen to have the devolved Administration re-established. However, having been re-established, Sinn Féin’s Minister of Education has failed and failed again.
Every time the Minister of Education is asked detailed or probing questions about her proposals — or, rather, non-proposals — for post-primary education, she begins by saying — and, no doubt, we will hear the same today — that this is a good day for education and we can achieve consensus, because, of course, she is the Minister of consensus and equality. She wants us all to share and to have an all-embracing policy for the children — we have heard it all before. The truth is different. This Minister prevents, rather than seeks, consensus, and, given our experience during the past 10 months, the evidence is indisputable, and it has become abundantly clear that she has failed to achieve consensus.
First, as has been said, there is the Minister’s attitude to the Committee for Education. She refuses to answer the Committee’s questions, which are legitimate questions. On one occasion, she arrived late and then took up half of the Committee’s time in making a meandering, meaningless and irrelevant opening statement. She tells Committee members that we do not have the warrant, remit, power, authority or competence to hold her to account or to scrutinise her oversight of the Department of Education. She refuses to add the necessary detail to her proposals in order that the Committee can assess them.
Then, of course, we have Mr Butler, whom I thought for a few weeks was going to be replaced by John O’Dowd. It seemed as though the Minister’s minder was not big enough, so they had to bring in someone with a bit more stature to try to intimidate us a wee bit more. Well, it will not work. Mr Butler tells us that the Committee should have a meeting with the Minister behind closed doors. I remind the Minister that when the Committee challenged her about confidentiality, she told us that she could not divulge what the stakeholders were saying because it was confidential. Why did she do that? She did it because her party still likes to have its politics the way it ran its terrorist organisation — behind the hedges and in the dark. I assure the Minister that there will be no behind-the-hedges agreements, nor any closed-door sessions. Committee business will be carried out in public so that everyone can see what is going on.
Secondly, we know about the Minister’s attitude to the Assembly and to the existing legislation — my colleague Ms McIlveen already mentioned that. The DUP secured a veto on academic selection at the St Andrews negotiations. That position is clear, and it is enshrined in legislation. Whether the Minister wants to face up to that or not, it is obvious that her new minder faced up to it. John O’Dowd acknowledged as much on the BBC’s ‘Hearts and Minds’ programme, when he said that academic selection may be protected, but that there was no obligation on the Department to fund it. Whatever his views about funding on that occasion, John O’Dowd did at least admit that what has been sticking in the Minister’s teeth all these months is that she cannot end academic selection, because the law is against her.
Instead of accepting political realities, the Minister continues to try to headbutt the brick wall of legal protection that has been given to academic selection. First, she attempted to deny that that protection exists, then she tried to bully the rest of us into abandoning it, and then she looked for ways to get around it. By doing this, she has shown that she has neither interest nor commitment to consensus or to the long-term well-being of pupils in Northern Ireland.
Finally, there is the Executive. Why, at the most recent Executive meeting, did the Minister not agree to the creation of a subcommittee? We would appreciate answers from the Minister, rather than a prepared speech.
Mr Speaker: The Member’s time is up.
Mrs O’Neill: Go raibh maith agat. In her statement to the Assembly in December, the Minister of Education gave us her vision of a system that will transform our outdated and unequal education system. She laid before the Assembly a vision of an educational future that will ensure that the equal rights of all children are at the heart of the new system. Despite the fact that the Minister made that statement, followed by a further statement in January, we find ourselves coming back to this debate time after time. I wonder whether it is not that the statements lacked detail, but that people do not like what they are hearing.
Mr B McCrea: There is a lack of detail, but there is also some fundamental agreement. Would the Member not agree that it would be better if we engaged properly to discuss these matters, but that we cannot do so in the absence of anything to talk about?
Mrs O’Neill: I thank the Member for his intervention. My colleague Paul Butler made a proposal in the Committee for Education to address that point and get agreement, but it was not supported. Today is like ‘Groundhog Day’; time after time, we have the same debate.
I know that parents have concerns — of course they do. What is most precious to parents is their children’s future. As I have said before, my child will transfer in 2010, and I am confident that the new system will ensure that he fulfils his potential. In saying that, I am not trying to dismiss the concerns of parents, pupils or teachers, because we must address those genuine concerns — they are more genuine than the sense of panic that some Members are trying to create. In her speech, Michelle McIlveen said that confusion is turning to panic. Perhaps she and her colleagues could stop feeding into that agenda — it is they who are trying to create the confusion and panic.
The Minister is working through a democratic process, and she has said that when the consultation with the stakeholders is finished, she will report to the Committee and to the Assembly.
Mr Storey: I thank the Member for giving way, and I appreciate her reference to a democratic process. Does that include the agreement and the arrangements that were made at St Andrews on the retention of academic selection?
Mrs O’Neill: I thank the Member for his intervention. In her visionary statement, the Minister outlined how she intends to address the issue. She will appear before the Executive and the Committee as we move forward and she makes more statements on area-based planning and all the other issues that are involved in post-primary transfer. In her statement in January, the Minister said that she will provide more information on area-based planning in the next few weeks. I look forward to hearing that information, and I urge Members to respond to it constructively rather than engage in the constant whining that we hear from the same Members, time and again.
Mrs Long: I thank the Member for giving way; I realise that she has done so a couple of times already.
Is the issue under discussion today clearly not quite different? It is not simply a case of the same Members complaining again and again. Some of those who agree with the direction in which the Minister is headed — including those in my own party — are extremely concerned about how we can reach our destination within the time available.
Mrs O’Neill: I thank the Member for her intervention. I accept that Members have genuine concerns and that they want to get to the bottom of some issues. That is what the Committee is trying to do, and the Minister is trying to address the issues that have been raised.
Today’s debate has taken away from the focus of the issue. It has been about attacking and insulting the Minister. Basil McCrea talked about respect. However, respect must also be shown to the Minister; it cannot just be demanded from her. Today’s debate has not been helpful in our attempts to move forward and introduce those long overdue changes to our education system. I urge Members to take a more proactive approach to the issue and to engage with the Minister in trying to address it. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr S Wilson: Despite the comments from Sinn Féin Members, I believe that this debate is very necessary. The Minister made her declaration to the Assembly in December 2007, which led to more questions than answers. Up to now, the Committee’s questions have not been frivolous; they have been serious questions. The Committee has put around 72 questions to the Minister on her comments and vision. The proposer of the motion Mr Lunn said earlier that he wanted to see some meat on the bones. My difficulty is that I do not even see the bones at the moment. We still have some vague idea of what will happen, and getting the bones might just be a start.
Of course, the Minister and her party are running away from her responsibilities. Like other Ministers in the Executive, it appears that when the Minister gets into difficulty, she blames everybody but herself. She blames the media, the Committee, the Chairman, scaremongers and Assembly Members. The difficulty is that the Minister is not facing up to her responsibility.
The Committee wants to work with the Minister. Its role is to assist and advise, but it can only do so when it knows the background papers and the information on which the Minister is basing her policy. She refuses to give Committee members answers to those questions. How can we assist if we are not given the means by which to do so? Of course, it is easy to say that it is all my fault. I wish that I could lead the Committee by the nose. I sometimes wish that I could get rings through the noses of members of my party, let alone members of other parties.
That is an easy jibe for the Minister to make. However, some strong, independently minded Members are on that Committee.
The warning to the Minister should be that rather than pointing her finger at the media and everyone else, she would be better to ask herself why every party is opposing her. However, as Naomi Long — a member for East Belfast — said, those parties include those who actually support what she is doing.
The Minister’s other defence has been to say that there are no problems or concerns. It appears that not only is the Minister paranoid about everyone else, she is also deluded. The Minister should read the newspapers and the letters from parents in those newspapers, and she should listen to constituents. Of course there are concerns — people are uncertain about what is going to happen.
What the Minister is doing will have implications. If she proceeds in the way that she has done, everyone will be kept in the dark until November 2009. That will cause immense problems for receiving schools, primary schools, parents and so on.
Mr B McCrea: Much of the work that must be done after any solution is found will have to take place in primary 6, given that any new measures will have to be implemented early in primary 7. Bearing that in mind, does the Member agree that it is important that schools, teachers and parents are made aware of what is happening before June 2008, which is merely a few months away? We cannot wait for one year; something must be done now.
Mr S Wilson: I agree. However, unfortunately, all that the Minister has told us is that parents will know “in time”. I notice that during her interview with the ‘Belfast Telegraph’ she repeated that phrase on five occasions. However, she will not define what “in time” means. Indeed, there have been suggestions that the issue will still not be resolved by November 2009.
There will also be implications for secondary schools. If there is a free-for-all, the grammar-school brand will ensure that places in those schools are filled. It will be the secondary schools that lose out — the very schools that the Minister says that she wants to defend. Instead of having a mix of vocational, academic and general-education schools, there may be a drift towards pupils attending one kind of school.
The last effect will be that the Minister will single-handedly bring the Assembly into disrepute. People believed that devolution would give local politicians the opportunity to address local problems quickly. Owing to her procrastination, dithering and unwillingness to face up to her failures, the problem will not be resolved in time. All Assembly Members will suffer as a result.
Sinn Féin has appointed a Minister who is a one-woman demolition team. She wants to demolish education, and, in turn, she will then demolish the Assembly. Sinn Féin should ask her to go and appoint someone who can actually do the job. [Interruption.]
Mr Speaker: Order.
Mrs M Bradley: When Members talk about the proposed changes to the education system, I feel as though I am experiencing a distinct case of déjà vu. Although the issue has been discussed many times before, the Minister has not yet given us a workable and effective blueprint. Parents and teachers approach me every week about the future of their children who are currently in primary 5, primary 6 and primary 7. However, I still cannot answer their questions.
I am disappointed that there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel regarding the relationship between the Minister and the Committee for Education. The publicity that that is generating is not helping confidence or the work of the Committee.
Mr Storey: I thank the Member for giving way. The Member may recall the altercation that I had with the Minister about her answering my questions in Irish. The Minister is now sending her responses to questions for written answer in Irish, which she had not done prior to the Committee meeting in which the altercation took place. I have no idea what the first paragraph of one particular answer means. Does the Member agree that that practice further alienates the Minister from the Committee and that it will not help to get the consensus that she continues to tell us that she is so interested in?
Mrs M Bradley: I do not have a problem as long as there is a translation. However, it is important that the Minister clarifies her position on how she proposes to implement her blueprint. For example, what priority will the Department of Finance and Personnel give to the extended years of accommodation that every Northern Ireland primary school must provide for children aged 11 to 14?
New premises were recently built at some schools, albeit to fit the needs of the existing education system in which primary 7 children leave and go to secondary or grammar schools. If the Committee for Education cannot get information, when can principals and teachers expect to be made aware of how this proposal will impact on their role and service delivery?
For some time, my colleague Dominic Bradley has been asking pertinent questions about that situation, but no answers have been forthcoming. As politicians, parents and grandparents, we constantly seek to reassure children that everything will be OK and that we — as, supposedly, more mature adults — will take care of things; not so, in this case. The adults are just as confused and disillusioned as most of the children concerned, and their parents are totally frustrated.
As politicians, we are charged with translating the decisions of Ministers on behalf of the general public and with answering questions on how those decisions will impact on their daily lives. Unfortunately, in this case, the blind have been leading the blind. It is not good enough that the Committee for Education cannot be given answers to questions that are far from new. We have been asking those questions since May 2007; parents, teachers and pupils have been asking them for longer than that.
I support the amendment and ask the Minister to furnish the Assembly with the relevant details to enable us to reach a position in which we can offer some information to the concerned stakeholders. Some of those are 10- and 11-year-old children, who are becoming more and more stressed and uneasy as each day, week and month passes us by without furtherance.
Mr O’Dowd: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I had hoped today to hear a debate on post-transfer systems; however, instead I have heard the views of individual members of the Committee for Education on the Minister of Education.
I clarify for Mr Storey that I am not here as the Minister’s bodyguard. I assume that she does not need one and that verbal attacks will not turn into physical ones. I always rely on my brain instead of my brawn, and I find that my brain — as well as my brawn — soars above his. I have no difficulty in engaging in any debate on any subject.
Had I signed up to the motion that the Minister lacks clarity and that details of her proposals must be brought forward, my speech would have included my proposals and my vision of the future, and the visions of the future of the DUP, the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP. However, I have heard none of that.
The duty of an opposition — whether upper or lower case — is to present alternatives. The reason — [Interruption.]
Mr Speaker: Order. The Member has the Floor.
Mr O’Dowd: The reason my colleagues opposite have brought forward no proposals is that they have none. Their plan is to attack the Minister, because they know that they have failed miserably in academic selection. The vast majority of people are opposed to the retention of the 11-plus. Their mission failed, so their next tack is to go down the road of attacking the Minister and causing confusion. Some of the publications on our news-stands feed into that confusion, and one could almost believe in the “old school tie” with regard to the grammar school network. Some of the newspaper headlines are factually inaccurate.
Mr Storey: When I reminded the Member on ‘Hearts and Minds’ about the statement by Cardinal Brady — not a card-carrying member of the DUP — criticising the Minister, Mr O’Dowd said that there would be clarification on that statement. Did that clarification ever materialise? I did not see it in any newspaper.
Mr O’Dowd: Mr Storey must have cancelled his subscription to ‘The Irish News’, because it included a belated clarification from the cardinal — as with many publications, not on the front page, where the incorrect article had been printed, but in the back pages somewhere. I am sure that, if Mr Storey wishes to phone the cardinal for his views, the cardinal will take the call, considering Mr Storey’s interest in education.
We have ended up with a debate on the relationship between the Committee and the Minister. The Minister has offered to meet the Committee again. She has met the Committee Chairperson on a regular basis. However, the Committee has refused to meet the Minister unless the meeting is in public. Is the purpose of such a meeting to gain publicity — a few column inches in the ‘Belfast Telegraph’, ‘The Irish News’, or other morning newspapers — or is it about bringing this matter to a resolution that meets the needs of the children who are going through the education system?
Mrs M Bradley: Will the Member give way?
Mr O’Dowd: No, Mary, I am nearly out of time.
Some people are concerned with building egos, not education. If the Committee is serious about engaging with the Minister, it is best done behind closed doors, away from the glare of the television cameras and all the attention, so that Members and the Minister can speak freely and engage properly. That has been the case with all the issues that we have had to resolve in this society. Certain Members have one eye on the camera in the corner of the Senate Chamber, instead of on the issues at hand. [Interruption.]
Mr Speaker: Order.
Mr O’Dowd: That is what is really going on here: the seeking of media attention. Basil McCrea said that the Minister needs to listen. She is listening; that is the process that is going on now. As set out in her speech of 4 December 2007, the Minister is engaging with all the key stakeholders. The Education Committee is one of those stakeholders, but the others have not chosen to hold their discussions in the glare of the media spotlight. They have chosen to hold talks in a mature, reflective manner, and those talks are ongoing. Let us go through the process properly.
On 4 December 2007, the Minister said that there would be engagement. There is engagement, and in no circumstances — despite the headlines in certain newspapers — will the current situation continue until November 2009. It will be resolved long before then, and I ask the Education Committee to play its role. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr McHugh: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. This is a vital debate. Everyone is wondering when we are going to get started on the real debate. The Minister must bring her plans for post-primary transfer in 2009 before the Assembly. Any further delay in announcing how she is going to roll out the new system or how it is to be implemented will have a knock-on effect on the current P5 and P6 classes. Teachers will not be sufficiently prepared for the new system.
There are always children who suffer when changes are made to the education system. However, a longer lead-up to change, with preparation on the part of the teachers who are to deliver that change, can minimise the negative effects on the children. The roll-out of the revised Northern Ireland curriculum is a case in point. P1 and P5 teachers were expected to deliver the new curriculum this year with minimal training — in some cases, just two days. Principals were not included in the training sessions, and had to rely on feedback from the teachers involved. It is unacceptable for school principals to be working without a proper overview of the system. The laptops and whiteboards needed for the implementation of the curriculum were delivered long after the start of the school year. In some primary schools in my area, they still have not been delivered.
If such shambolic implementation is repeated with the new post-primary transfer system, all our children will suffer. The Minister must reveal her proposals for change as a matter of urgency. Principals and teachers must be made aware of the proposals and given adequate preparation and training as soon as possible. Parents must be included in the process in order to retain their confidence in the education system. Children should not suffer because the Minister refuses to make her proposals available to us all. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr Ross: I listened to Mr O’Dowd’s contribution, during which he asked for the alternatives to the current proposals. The entire basis for this debate is that there are no current proposals. The motion once again calls on the Minister to bring her proposals for post-primary transfer before the House to ease the concerns of parents, pupils and teachers throughout Northern Ireland, who simply do not know what is happening.
However, in calling on the Minister to introduce such proposals, we are assuming that the Minister knows what she is going to do. Previously in the Chamber, we have heard the Minister of Education referred to as “the Minister for mess and confusion”. Perhaps she should be known as “the Minister for mess, confusion and evasion”, because she will not detail her grand plans, and she has an uncanny ability to refuse to answer questions.
I am not a member of the Committee for Education, but there is no guarantee that being on that Committee allows Members an opportunity to question the Minister, because she tends to avoid such circumstances, as my colleagues have said. The only way in which I can submit questions to the Minister is by tabling questions for written or oral answer.
We have heard about the gains that the DUP made at St Andrews. On a related matter, on 11 November 2007, I tabled a question for written answer to the Minister to ask whether the principle of academic selection was safeguarded in legislation. I am still waiting for the answer 100 days later, despite the fact that the Minister stated in another answer that she answers questions, on average, within 11 days. We shall see whether the Minister answers that question today.
Mr Storey: I can confirm what the Member has said. I submitted a question to the Minister of Education for priority written answer, which should be answered within two days. I received the answer 14 days later. That demonstrates the priority that the Minister gives to answering questions.
Mr Ross: That is absolutely right, and I am sure that other Members have similar experiences. Perhaps the Minister knows the answer to the question that I asked her on 11 November 2007 but does not want to tell me the answer because she does not like it.
I heard Dominic Bradley talk about change, and a US presidential race is taking place in which Barack Obama’s campaign is centred on change. Perhaps the change that we really need in Northern Ireland is a change of Education Minister.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Mr Ross: It is a disgrace that there are no plans in place for the ending of the current transfer arrangements in 2009, despite the fact that children have entered school years during which preparation for the transfer has already begun, as the Member for Lagan Valley Mr Basil McCrea said.
Already, as predicted, parents have bought houses in the catchment areas of the most popular schools, which means that families with money have an advantage over those who do not. That is not a fair system.
Although there will be different views on how to move forward, there is agreement that the Minister is making a mess of this matter. We must be able to scrutinise detailed proposals so that the real debate on the future of education can begin. I have no doubt that we need a fair system that matches pupils to the school of their needs. The fairest way to do that is through a system of academic selection. Given that academic selection is safeguarded in legislation — perhaps I have answered my own question of 11 November 2007 — any proposals should include that option for schools.
All-ability comprehensive schools do not work. They have not worked in England, and they will not work here. I was interested to hear the Chairperson of the Committee for Employment and Learning, Sue Ramsey, say during a meeting of that Committee in the Senate Chamber on 30 January, that one size does not fit all. She was speaking about children who have been in care, who often start from a lower educational base than most other children, and who therefore need education that is pitched at a level that suits them. I agree with her, but it is a pity that that sentiment does not extend to debates such as this one. I argue that post-primary education is no different.
Children are not all the same, and do not all have the same educational ability or aptitude. We must ensure that children receive the education that best suits their needs. The Minister’s proposals should reflect that. If they do not, she knows that her plans cannot make it through this House.
We already know that the Minister will not be able to slip her plans through the back door, as some Members have suggested. Such significant or controversial matters must be decided by the Executive. That is one of the difficulties that we have with the SDLP amendment, which does not mention the Executive.
The Minister must recognise reality. She must stop being stubborn and obstructive. All the parties that are represented in the Assembly must unite in a call for the Minister to start doing what she is paid to do. She must introduce proposals that not only recognise the legal and political realities, but which will gain the support of all the parties, give clear guidance to pupils, parents and teachers, and ensure that her incompetence thus far does not tarnish the reputation of the Assembly. I am hopeful that the SDLP will withdraw its amendment so that a common position can be found among all the parties, which is what the Minister should be aiming for.
Some aspects of the amendment are to be welcomed. Enhancing equality is important not just for grammar schools, but for secondary schools. I am also a strong advocate of equality of opportunity.
All children are not the same, but they should be afforded equal opportunities, including equal opportunities to get into good schools. Academic selection offers those opportunities. Its retention would also protect against a postcode lottery, but, as I have argued in the Chamber before, “lottery” may be the wrong phraseology to use, because it suggests that everyone has an equal chance of success.
I support the motion, behind which I hope the House can unite.
Mr Gallagher: I support the amendment, which stands in the name of my colleague Dominic Bradley. The amendment focuses on some key issues that must be tackled. It is disappointing to hear what amounts to a sense of paranoia from those Sinn Féin Members who have spoken so far. To them, a debate about education somehow or other represents an attack on the Minister. That is a very poor response to make in an open discussion on the need for clear proposals on the way forward for post-primary transfer.
As Members know, our education system has significant strengths, such as our high levels of attainment and our high academic standards, particularly in our grammar schools. We have, however, a disproportionate number of secondary schools in which low attainment is combined with social disadvantage. That situation must be resolved as quickly as possible.
Statistics from the Bain Report, along with other recent reviews of our education system, highlight the need for a clear way forward on post-primary transfer, falling enrolments and, from next year, the curriculum entitlement framework. There are about 157,000 children in our primary schools, but that figure will have dropped to 149,000 by 2030. That trend will create difficulties and demands from all school authorities — in the controlled, maintained and other sectors — for a fresh and innovative response. Not least, if some school closures are to be avoided, that trend demands the possibility of some cross-sectoral co-operation. The Bain Report took a view on the main criteria for viability, identifying collaboration and co-operation as alternatives to closure. It did, however, contain a key warning that the benefits of all that co-operation should be balanced against costs and manageability.
It is clear that that warning implies that many small schools will be closed, and, as we know, the issue of small-school closures is not that simple. Other factors must be considered when schools close, such as the loss of community identity and the cost to the local economy.
Mr S Wilson: The Member makes an important point about small schools. Does he accept that, in order to save them from closure, it will require some of the many sectoral interests’ sacred cows being set aside? We could then have shared sites, shared campuses and shared uses of schools. Schools themselves might even blur the differences between one sector and another.
Mr Gallagher: I agree with much of what the Member says. However, what he suggests will have to emerge over time rather than overnight.
We cannot ignore the costs to the environment and the implications of carbon emissions when we begin to bus thousands of children into heavily congested county towns and some of our urban centres.
The experience in England should remind us that a changeover to large schools does not always deliver benefits. Many educationalists in the United States now accept that to go to a large school is a mistake and that small schools are better. We should not ignore what is happening elsewhere. If the Department’s policy is to press ahead with school closures, to close our small schools will be a mistake.
It would be a big mistake that everyone would come to regret. Those schools are at the heart of communities, and to persist in measuring them by how much they cost, but ignoring their value — and there is a hint of that in the Bain Report — would be a short-sighted policy. I agree that costs must be factored into all policies but, in doing so, care must be taken not to revert to Margaret Thatcher’s education policy: her officials knew the cost of everything and the value of nothing, and people are still living with the consequences of that policy. New structures must be developed urgently, but I do not have time to go into the detail of those now.
Mr Speaker: As Members know, Question Time begins at 2.30 pm. I suggest that Members take their ease until then. After Question Time, the debate will resume with the Minister’s response.
The debate stood suspended.
On resuming (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Dallat] in the Chair) —
Health, Social Services and Public Safety
1. Mr Ford asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety what action his Department is taking to prevent further outbreaks of clostridium difficile. (AQO 2222/08)
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Mr McGimpsey): In January 2008, my Department issued guidance to all health and social care trusts on the lessons that have been learned from the outbreak of clostridium difficile in the Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust. My Department also issued all doctors with guidance on good practice in the prevention and control of clostridium difficile.
On 25 January 2008, I announced a £9 million package of measures aimed at fighting healthcare-associated infections, which adds to the wide range of measures already in place and includes single rooms for new hospitals; unannounced inspections of all hospitals; restrictions on hospital visiting; a dress code for all healthcare staff; a regional hand-hygiene campaign; rapid response cleaning times at all hospitals; quarterly publication of infection-control performance; and five pharmacists to promote the prudent use of antibiotics.
I also announced a review by the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA), which will focus on the circumstances that contributed to the recent outbreak. The review will be independent, rigorous, comprehensive and thorough and will identify any lessons that the Health Service can learn. The central purpose of the review is to help to prevent similar outbreaks.
Mr Ford: I thank the Minister for his response, which dealt with a number of high-level issues. However, I have a concern that arose recently when a relation was terminally ill in a Northern Health and Social Care Trust hospital and not because I have relations employed by the trust. The Minister spoke about the rapid response cleaning times at hospitals. However, the Northern Health and Social Care Trust does not employ cleaners outside normal working hours. Is it not the case that that is contributing to the hygiene problems in our hospitals? Does the Minister agree that that is a case of being penny wise and pound foolish?
Mr McGimpsey: I referred to rapid response cleaning teams, which are being established at all hospitals. Hygiene is an important factor, and — in its response — the Northern Health and Social Care Trust is looking at the prudent use of antibiotics, hand hygiene, environmental cleaning, isolation, cohort nursing, and the use of protective equipment. The Northern Health and Social Care Trust response has been adequate, but I have also brought in the RQIA to carry out a thorough and robust investigation. As Members are aware, I have not ruled out the possibility of a public inquiry once that investigation is complete.
Mr Craig: Is the Minister content that the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust is tracking deaths adequately, specifically those where clostridium difficile is a contributory factor?
Will the Minister comment on the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust’s proposal to close obstetrics at Lagan Valley Hospital, and whether the 1,200 births there every year can be accommodated elsewhere?
Mr McGimpsey: The South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust hospitals and institutions will follow set guidelines on recording deaths. The Chief Medical Officer has issued fresh guidelines on what is recorded on death certificates. As far as I am aware, the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust will follow those guidelines.
I have not seen any plans that the trust has for obstetrics at Lagan Valley Hospital, or anywhere else. When I see such plans, I will discuss them with the trust and will then be in a position to comment.
Mr Durkan: I thank the Minister for his replies. It has been brought to my attention that some families are finding out for the first time, from death certificates, that family members had suffered from clostridium difficile — they have then been confused about the circumstances of deaths. What importance does the Minister attach to the role of infection-control nurses? Is he satisfied that they will have the remit, the resources and the powers that they require to achieve his stated goal?
Mr McGimpsey: Yes, I attach great importance to their role. Obviously, I am advised and guided by experts in that field. Several measures are in place, such as the action plan, a change in culture, the ward sisters’ charter and mandatory surveillance programmes for the range of infections, including clostridium difficile.
I also refer the Member to my reply to Mr Ford’s remarks about infection control, prudent use of antibiotics and environmental cleaning, which are all key areas. We are doing what we could reasonably be expected to do. I visited the isolation ward in Antrim Area Hospital recently and talked to staff. I was very impressed with the way in which they are implementing measures. In order to be certain, however, I have announced the review to be conducted by RQIA, which I anticipate will take 12 weeks. That will allow me to give the Member the full and definitive assurance that he seeks.
Medical Treatment: Older Members of the Community
2. Mr Attwood asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety what steps he is taking to ensure that older members of the community (i) receive fair and equal treatment in hospitals; and (ii) are not disqualified from required treatment as a result of their age. (AQO 2196/08)
Mr McGimpsey: Decisions to admit someone to hospital, and his or her subsequent treatment, are determined by clinical factors that take account of the individual patient’s condition and circumstances, and consideration of the risks and benefits of particular treatments. A patient’s chronological age will not disqualify him or her from receiving the necessary healthcare.
Mr Attwood: The Minister will be aware that a range of concerns exists about the treatment of people based on their age. I look forward to the Minister’s comments on how he intends to address the review of fertility treatment. People approaching 40 years of age may not get the early treatment that they need.
Has the Minister’s Department undertaken any review of hospital discharge arrangements for vulnerable older people since he came to office, bearing in mind that there appears to be evidence that different arrangements are in place — depending on which trust area a person is in — that govern the discharge of vulnerable older people. That may result in some of those older people being put in jeopardy.
Mr McGimpsey: Mr Attwood is aware that my Department is conducting a review of fertility treatment as a result of a debate that he instigated.
I concur entirely with what the Member said about the discharge arrangements for older people. They should be discharged when it is safe and proper for hospitals to do so. The Member asked whether I have undertaken a review of the discharge process. I would be concerned if inequities existed across Northern Ireland, and procedures and guidance on the matter should be followed. I am not aware of my Department’s having conducted such a review since I came to office. However, I will be in touch with the Member on that issue. He is aware that we are developing a range of service frameworks, and although they will automatically cover older people, there is an argument to be made for a specific framework for older people, and I am looking into that.
However, any framework will not simply relate to discharges. The issue must be dealt with, not least because, by 2015, around 500,000 people in Northern Ireland will be aged 65 and over. We are looking at the demographics, and that is why the Health Service is skewing.
Mr K Robinson: Given that we are striving for parity on health provision across the UK, will the Minister tell us why standards in the national service framework for older people in Great Britain do not apply in Northern Ireland? Will the Minister consider introducing those standards here in the near future?
Mr McGimpsey: I refer Mr Robinson to my previous answer. We are looking at service frameworks. This is the way in which the Health Service in Northern Ireland proceeds with service frameworks: it sets out levels of standards that patients and users should expect.
There is an argument that there should be a service framework for older people, and I am considering that, bearing in mind that service frameworks in any area should automatically cover all patients. There is an argument for a special service framework, which would correspond with the work that has been undertaken by the Health Service in England.
Mr Doherty: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. In supporting the call for fair and equal health treatment for senior citizens, and in light of the case of the Strabane pensioner Maureen McGinley, who sustained 34 rib fractures after her death in Altnagelvin Hospital on 3 January 2007, will the Minister tell the House what practical steps he has taken to assure relatives who find themselves in similar circumstances that the bodies of their loved ones are treated with the utmost care, dignity and respect from the point of death? Will he explain what happened to Maureen McGinley’s body, before it was cleaned, after her death?
Mr McGimpsey: As I had no advance warning of that particular question, I am unable to comment on what happened to that person at the point of her death in Altnagelvin. However, I will find out what happened, and I will respond to the Member. The case of Maureen McGinley raises issues, but I understand that those issues are being dealt with by the Coroner’s Office. As the Member will be aware, the Coroner’s Office is part of the Northern Ireland Office, rather than my Department. Therefore, it seems that the Member should direct his question to the Northern Ireland Office.
In response to the other points, I will ask questions about care and respect. However, I cannot get involved in individual cases while a police investigation is ongoing.
Mr Deputy Speaker: I remind Members to keep their questions short. The object is to get through as many questions as possible.
Mr McClarty: Question 3 — you cannot get any shorter than that.
Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service: Future Funding
3. Mr McClarty asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to provide details of future funding for the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service. (AQO 2171/08)
Mr McGimpsey: The proposed funding for the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service, net of required efficiencies, for the next three years, will be £79·3 million in 2008-09; £80 million in 2009-10; and £83·1 million in 2010-11. Those sums will provide additional funding to meet pay, non-pay inflation and resources for service developments, including the revenue consequences of planned capital investment. The proposed level of capital investment is £8 million, £9 million and £29 million for the CSR period.
Mr McClarty: I pay tribute to the Minister for being so successful in obtaining increased funding for the Fire and Rescue Service. Will capital investment be made in the redevelopment of fire stations, and will the Minister ensure that Coleraine and Limavady fire stations are included in any such plans?
Mr McGimpsey: The capital budget is as I have stated. The Fire and Rescue Service has completed refurbishment work on Enniskillen, Rathlin and Portadown stations, and work on Armagh station is under way. In the next three years, there are plans to refurbish Antrim, Cushendall, Fintona, Newtownstewart and Omagh stations. Coleraine and Limavady stations are on the list. However, I regret to inform the Member that they are not among the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service priorities for the next three years, as things stand. Some 26 stations are in need of replacement, and the capital is not available to do all that we would like to do.
Mr O’Loan: Will the Minister give details of where the £15 million of capital investment that has been allocated to the Ambulance Service will be directed?
Mr McGimpsey: The Northern Ireland Ambulance Service, as Members know, is separate from the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service. I received no notice of the Member’s question; however, I am happy to furnish him with the details when they are provided to me.
The Ambulance Service is in a similar situation to the Fire and Rescue Service. For example, the Fire and Rescue Service operates 112 pumping appliances and replaces those at a rate of 11 a year, so there is a 10% turnover. The Ambulance Service replaces its fleet at the same rate. However, by and large, ambulances operate out of hospitals and medical facilities and do not have dedicated stations. I am happy to write to the Member about the capital provision for ambulances.
Mr Bresland: What assurance can the Minister give that the six retained fire stations in the West Tyrone constituency will be maintained? Can he assure me that the facilities and services provided by those stations will be enhanced?
Mr McGimpsey: I will write to the Member about those six fire stations.
New Regional Hospital for Children and Women
4. Ms S Ramsey asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to provide a timetable for the completion of the new regional hospital for children and women on the site of the Royal Group of Hospitals. (AQO 2230/08)
Mr McGimpsey: I am actively considering all medium- to longer-term strategic investment proposals, including one for the women and children’s hospital. In determining final allocations of capital investment funds beyond the comprehensive spending review period and in light of constraints on capital funding, I will carefully consider and prioritise that investment proposal, alongside many others, when we receive it.
It is not possible to provide a timetable for the completion of the new hospital at this stage.
Ms S Ramsey: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I am disappointed with the Minister’s answer: I had asked for such a timetable.
Will the Minister confirm that provision of the new regional hospital is a priority for the Department and that he is committed to it? The decision to build the hospital was made more than five years ago and work was expected to begin in May of this year.
Has the Department set aside money for clearing the site so that we can see some progress on the new regional hospital for women and children?
Mr McGimpsey: The capital bill for that development is £404 million; the capital available for the three-year period is £728 million, all of which is already spoken for. We are examining provision of hospitals in the south-west, and other capital projects.
The women and children’s hospital on the Royal Victoria Hospital site is one of the Department’s priorities, but we have others. One of those is the Ulster Hospital, phase B, the fabric of which is very poor. We are also examining Craigavon Area Hospital, Daisy Hill Hospital and Altnagelvin Area Hospital. I also give notice that the tower block at Belfast City Hospital requires major investment. There are many large-scale capital projects to finance. One of the key aspects of efficiency is investment. I am examining capital provision, not least for this development.
Advance design work on the women and children’s hospital has been done, and some site work may also be started; however, until I am absolutely clear about the time frame for building, I cannot answer the question. I regret that, because there is a need for a women and children’s hospital.
Mrs I Robinson: Will the Minister comment on the removal of maternity services from Lagan Valley Hospital? How will expectant mothers be provided for in future, given that Craigavon Area Hospital, the Ulster Hospital and the Royal Maternity Hospital are all under pressure? Surely, since Lisburn is a city it should have its own maternity services.
Mr McGimpsey: I refer Mrs Robinson to my previous answer. The maternity units at the Royal Victoria Hospital and the Ulster Hospital are not working to capacity, and Mrs Robinson is well aware of the need for efficiencies. In fact, she is one of those Members who has pressed me hardest to find efficiencies.
Each trust is required to come up with an individual plan for its area. The South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust has prepared its plans; I have yet to see them, but I will examine them in due course. I will discuss the plans with each trust, but everyone must be well aware that I have to find £700 million by year 3 of the comprehensive spending review, and I have given undertakings to do so. I have been urged time and again to make tough decisions, and there will be some tough decisions to make. [Interruption.]
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order, please.
Mr McGimpsey: By following the efficiency targets that I have set, I am doing what every party in the Executive agreed that I would do. When those plans come through, and I agree them with the trusts, I will seek the support of all those parties that have argued so strongly for efficiency in the Health Service.
Dr McDonnell: I thank the Minister for his answers. My question has been partly asked and partly answered, but will the Minister provide some clarity on the issue either today or on some other occasion. Although there is some capacity in Belfast hospitals and the surrounding hospitals, the demand created by the closure of the maternity unit at Lagan Valley Hospital would far exceed any spare capacity. Babies are not born on a rota basis; sometimes there is a rush. It depends on the circumstances of how, where and when they are conceived.
Some Members: Ask a question.
Dr McDonnell: My question is simple. There are fluctuations in birth rates. Will the Minister return to the House and reassure Members that the —
Mr Deputy Speaker: Ask a question, please.
Dr McDonnell: Will the spare capacity be able to take up any slack?
Mr McGimpsey: I refer Dr McDonnell to my earlier answer. When I see the plans and examine them, I will be in a position to make my decision. Capacity in the system is crucial.
5. Mr McCallister asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety what his assessment is of the future provision of services at Downe Hospital. (AQO 2182/08)
Mr McGimpsey: In keeping with the Department’s strategy for acute hospitals developing better services, Downe Hospital is to be developed as an enhanced local hospital. A new multimillion-pound hospital is being constructed on the Ardglass Road in Downpatrick. The new Downe Hospital will be linked to the acute hospital network and will include a 24-hour accident and emergency unit, consultant-led inpatient medical services, acute psychiatry and a dementia unit. A range of day-case, outpatient and diagnostic services will also be provided. The new hospital is on schedule to open in April 2009.
Mr McCallister: I thank the Minister for his answer. I am sure that the people of south Down — [Interruption.] — I apologise to Members that my voice is hard to listen to today; I might need to visit the hospital before it opens.
Will the Minister join me in distancing himself from the remarks of the Chairperson of the Health Committee just before Christmas? She suggested that Downe Hospital should have been mothballed to save money. Does he agree that such investments put patients first and will, ultimately, save lives?
Mrs I Robinson: Nonsense.
Mr McCallister: The Member was against any form of new money.
Mr McGimpsey: I have not consulted the Hansard report of the Committee meeting, but I am sure that what Mr McCallister said is correct.
I have a fleeting memory of talk of the Mater Hospital closing, of a hospital in Enniskillen not being built, and of Downpatrick not getting a new hospital, but I do not wish to labour those points today.
The new Downe Hospital will be completed in April 2009. Running costs are stated in the Estimates, and they have been agreed in the Budget.
Mr Deputy Speaker: I remind Members to address their remarks through the Chair.
Mr P J Bradley: I thank the Minister for a reply that I received from his office today regarding mental-health provision at Downe Hospital. I note from the reply that sites identified in the business plan are no longer available and that other land is being assessed in the Rathfriland area. Will the Minister provide details of services for the elderly in the new Downe Hospital? Does he envisage that the non-availability of those sites will create difficulties in the future?
Mr McGimpsey: The profile for the new Downe Hospital is 124 beds. Of those, 114 will be inpatient beds. There will also be 20 beds for care for the elderly, as well as beds for acute psychiatry, elderly psychiatry, coronary care, general medicine, an obstetric day unit and a paediatric day unit. We are also considering a proposal to locate a midwifery unit in the new Downe Hospital. That is one of the aspects where investment may be considered.
Mr Deputy Speaker: I call Willie Clarke to ask a supplementary.
Mr W Clarke: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. My question has been asked.
Mr McGimpsey: I am sorry, Mr Deputy Speaker, I did not pick up what the Member said.
Mr Deputy Speaker: I apologise. We shall move on.
6. Mrs O’Neill asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to detail the number of people taking the Vioxx drug, prior to its being taken off the market. (AQO 2252/08)
Mr McGimpsey: Information on patients who were prescribed Vioxx in Northern Ireland is not held. However, it is estimated that approximately 400,000 people have been prescribed the drug in the UK.
Mrs O’Neill: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. The Minister will be aware of a successful campaign by victims of Vioxx in the US. Does he agree that people from the North who took the same drug suffered similar health effects and were subjected to the same misrepresentation? Does he agree that they should be given every support to challenge that multinational company? Surely, that company has a moral responsibility, never mind a legal responsibility, to compensate victims.
Furthermore, does the Minister agree that if a company is regulated to supply drugs to people in the North, they should be accountable to the Health Service?
Mr McGimpsey: I fully support the principle of compensation for any patient who has suffered ill health as a result of using medicines. Merck, which is the manufacturer of Vioxx, voluntarily withdrew the drug and set aside a large sum of money for compensation. That compensation is only for citizens of the US. That was challenged in the US courts and confirmed by a US judge.
I will monitor the situation in respect of UK citizens obtaining compensation. Legal action is under way; therefore, it is not appropriate for me or the Department to comment on the case, as it is likely to end up in litigation. However, I fully support the principle of compensation for patients who suffer as a result of taking medicines.
Mr Shannon: Will the Minister add his support for people who have suffered in Northern Ireland and in the United Kingdom? If money has been set aside for compensation in the USA, would it not be appropriate to set aside the same compensation for people in the United Kingdom and in Northern Ireland? Will he add his support for those patients who are seeking compensation?
Mr McGimpsey: I do not have much to add to what I said to Mrs O’Neill. I support the principle of compensation. I assume that those people will work towards litigation and the case will end up in court, so it is not appropriate for me to comment in detail on it at this point.
Mr Gallagher: This raises another issue regarding the regulation of drugs coming on to the market. Given that Vioxx was on the market for about five years before it was withdrawn — in a period that pre-dated the Assembly and the Minister’s appointment to his office — can he assure the House that such policies will be reviewed so that we do not repeat mistakes?
Mr Deputy Speaker: Time is up for questions to the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. I am sure that the Minister will respond to Mr Gallagher in writing.
1. Mr Doherty asked the Minister for Regional Development whether he intends to conduct a review of the criteria for providing directional signage to facilities, in particular to those operated by sporting organisations in rural communities. (AQO 2216/08)
The Minister for Regional Development (Mr Murphy): Roads Service has clear policies on directional and tourist signage. Both policies were introduced in 2004, and the latter was developed and agreed by the Tourist Board. Unless designated by the Tourist Board as a tourist attraction, facilities — including public sports facilities — are not eligible for white-on-brown tourist signing. However, in certain cases were there is a clear road-safety reason for doing so, or where the facilities are hard to find and generate a significant volume of traffic from outside the locality, normal directional signing is provided.
The objective of the signing policy is to reduce sign clutter and guide drivers to their desired destination via the most appropriate route during the latter stages of their journey. The signing is intended to complement — not replace — the pre-planning of the journey and the use of maps, road atlases and verbal instructions. I have no plans to review those policies.
Mr Doherty: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. As the Minister is aware, I wrote to him recently on the matter of providing directional signage to churches, chapels and sporting grounds, such as Healy Park in Omagh. Also, has the Minister plans to erect bilingual signs?
Mr Murphy: Under the policy, directional signage is not, usually, permitted to facilities that are located on urban distributor roads or rural A- or B-class roads, because it is assumed that such premises can be found easily by following directional signage to the adjacent town or village. Healy Park in Omagh is a case in point; it is located on a B-class urban distributor road, and drivers can locate the facility easily by following signs for Gortin. I have followed them myself on many occasions — although I have been less successful in getting out of the ground.
There is a legislative question about the power to promote Irish or Ulster Scots on traffic signs. Roads Service is working on a draft policy, with associated legislative change, to permit those languages, in addition to English, on a limited number of traffic signs. That policy does not extend to directional signage generally.
Mr McCausland: Reference has been made to signage that leads to churches. Present policy dictates that signage to a church will be provided only if the church has got a seating capacity over a certain figure. Many smaller evangelical churches and mission halls across Northern Ireland fall below that figure and are, therefore, excluded. Will the Minister undertake to review that figure to make some provision for the churches and mission halls that fall into that category?
Mr Murphy: As I said, under the current policy, facilities that are located on urban distributor roads or rural A- or B-class roads are considered to be easily found, if one follows directions to the nearest town or village. I will be happy to look at whether such small churches that are located on C-class roads well off the beaten track have a case for signage; I know that there are some in my own constituency. There are no plans to review the policy, but there should be scope to consider, case by case, signage for small facilities that are off the beaten track.
Mr Gallagher: There are serious signage issues in urban and rural areas. The Department refuses to erect signs on busy streets in towns warning that there are children at play; likewise, it refuses to erect signage or put down road markings on dangerous rural roads on which there are sharp bends and blind corners.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Will the Member ask his question, please?
Mr Gallagher: The Minister has said that he has no plan to review the policy, but, in view of the dangers that still exist, will he reconsider that view and allow another review to take place?
Mr Murphy: Road safety is a priority. However, demands in urban and rural areas for traffic-calming measures — whether signage, surface alterations or traffic humps — far outstrip the Department’s resources and therefore, unfortunately, such considerations must continue to be based on priority. Nevertheless, compelling cases on grounds of road safety will be treated seriously.
Rivers Agency and Bad Weather Conditions
2. Mr Shannon asked the Minister for Regional Development what consideration he has given to implementing a plan with the Rivers Agency to respond to bad weather conditions and to assist road users and pedestrians. (AQO 2155/08)
Mr Murphy: Roads Service has arrangements in place with the Rivers Agency to deal with local flooding. Responsibility for the drainage infrastructure is shared by the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) and the Department for Regional Development (DRD) through the Rivers Agency, the Roads Service and Northern Ireland Water.
DARD’s Rivers Agency has taken the lead in formulating liaison procedures between the three drainage organisations and in co-ordinating the emergency response to localised flooding. That has resulted in best-practice guidelines and a flooding hotspot register. The best-practice guidelines explain how the three drainage agencies will manage local flooding events, and they include a protocol for the formation of a flood team — made up of representatives from the Rivers Agency, Northern Ireland Water and the Roads Service — which will provide co-ordination and liaison with the public and the media.
In addition, the Roads Service will work alongside other responding organisations, such as local councils, the PSNI, the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service and NIE (Northern Ireland Electricity) to minimise property damage and disruption.
Mr Shannon: I thank the Minister for his response. I will be interested to see those arrangements in action. In response to an earlier written question, the Minister said that Foyle was the Province’s flooding hotspot, followed by Fermanagh and South Tyrone and that in the area that I represent, Strangford, there were 91 emergency call-outs over Christmas and the new year.
Given that the Minister said that there would be a flooding hotspot register, what plans are in place for the Rivers Agency and DRD to agree where flooding will occur in the Strangford area? I am not a prophet nor the son of a prophet; however, the next time it rains in Strangford, I can tell the Minister where flooding will occur, and if I know, DRD and the Rivers Agency should know. Is there a plan of action for Strangford?
Mr Murphy: There is a flooding hotspots register, which includes key locations throughout the North that have been identified by NI Water, the Rivers Agency and the Roads Service; it also lists the nominated lead agency for dealing with each location. The criteria for a location’s inclusion on the hotspot register are that there must be a history of flooding and more than one agency must have been involved. Problems are not always easily resolved; they are sometimes expensive, relatively serious and solutions may not be immediately obvious and may require inter-agency liaison.
If the Met Office issues a heavy rain warning, preparations include the advance removal of debris from drainage outlets and culverts in flooding hotspots by the relevant agency. The flooding hotspot register will be updated as new locations are identified and problem locations are dealt with.
Recently, weather patterns have produced severe and more prolonged periods of heavy rain than in previous decades. That puts stress on the agencies that are expected to deal with hotspots; however, wherever hotspots are identified, the agencies are expected to deal with them, and if there are breakdowns, we aim to improve future arrangements.
Mr McNarry: Will the Minister ensure that a permanent, full-time, multi-agency approach is initiated to anticipate bad weather alerts?
Mr Murphy: We have a permanent multi-agency approach. Following the flooding in east Belfast last summer, the Executive examined the emergency response, and a single phone number was set up to deal with such matters and to sharpen the response.
Met Office reports can be quite vague, so it is difficult to provide a targeted response. For instance, at the time of the Belfast floods, weather reports referred only to heavy rainfall over the east of the Six Counties, and that did not enable teams to be on the ground in the specific east Belfast streets that suffered. It is not possible to get an accurate enough forecast to enable people to go to specific sites. However, when heavy rain is forecast the agencies are expected to respond according to the flooding hotspot register to ensure that culverts and gullies are cleared and that preventative action is taken where possible.
Certainly, there is always room for improvement in the response of all the agencies concerned. The Executive examined the emergency response and how to sharpen co-ordination between the agencies that deal with those issues.
Mrs Hanna: I apologise that my question is in the same vein. Will the Minister ensure that there is a seamless relationship between all the bodies he has mentioned, so that the emergency and statutory services can ascertain where their responsibilities lie — in other words, to determine where the buck stops? I think particularly of my constituents in South Belfast, in areas such as Stranmillis and Four Winds, who are tortured by flooded gardens all year round.
Mr Murphy: As I have said, protocols and best practice guidelines have been established to ensure that emergency responses are properly co-ordinated between agencies. Undoubtedly, when major — or even minor — incidents occur, we always find areas in which improvements can be made and communication can be enhanced.
Following last summer’s flooding, in which a wide range of agencies were involved, such as Belfast City Council, the Fire and Rescue Service and the PSNI, the Executive examined the issue of the overall emergency response and how to improve it. Best practice protocols exist, and the agencies concerned follow them, but there is always room for improvement. Every incident points up somewhere that the arrangements can be tightened. I appreciate the Member’s comments; people do get frustrated when they try to contact the agencies responsible, and we must continue to work on improving that response.
A1: Future Upgrades
3. Mr Savage asked the Minister for Regional Development to outline his Department’s plans to upgrade the A1 in the near future. (AQO 2163/08)
Mr Murphy: The regional strategic transport network transport plan 2015 identified the A1 from Sprucefield to the border as a key strategic route. The Department’s Roads Service plans for upgrading the A1 are as outlined in the transport plan, which was published in March 2005, and in the consultation document published in 2006, which outlined proposals for expanding the strategic road improvement programme.
The schemes already completed, or ongoing for improvement, on the A1 include the flyover at Rathfriland Road, Banbridge, which was opened in March 2004; the dual carriageway from Loughbrickland to Beech Hill, which was opened in 2006; the underpass at Hillsborough Road, Dromore, which was opened in June 2005; the cross-border dual carriageway link between Newry and Dundalk, which was opened in August 2007; and the dual carriageway from Beech Hill to Cloghogue, which is being constructed as part of package 2, as are four junctions, comprising a flyover at Dromore Road, Hillsborough, an underpass at Banbridge Road, Dromore, a flyover at Dromore Road, Banbridge and an underpass at Dublin Road, Loughbrickland.
Work on the assessment of an expanded strategic road improvement programme is at an advanced stage, following the endorsement by the Assembly of the investment strategy 2008-2018. Among the schemes under consideration are proposals for further improvements on the A1: namely, the M1/A1 Sprucefield bypass; additional A1 junctions; and four additional flyover junctions at Listully Curran Road, Gowdystown Road, Skeltons Road and Waringsford Road. Those proposals also include provision of a crash barrier along the entire central reservation on the A1 between Sprucefield and Loughbrickland, thus removing all at-grade road crossings.
Mr Savage: I thank the Minister for his detailed answer. Bearing in mind the number of fatal accidents that occurred on the A1 last year, will he undertake to improve road widening along the full length of the road, which would make it motorway standard and would significantly improve safety on the dual carriageway?
Mr Murphy: I apologise for giving such a long answer, but as I said, road safety has been progressively improved in all the plans that I mentioned in detail. The Member will be aware that the junctions at Dromore and Banbridge have been made safer by flyovers or underpasses. In the long term, it is intended that there should be an unbroken central reservation along the full length of the road from Sprucefield to the border. That will greatly enhance road safety, and we are conscious of that at every step. Four junctions have been made safer as part of the current improvements, and there are plans for further improvements to remove all crossover junctions, which will enhance safety for the travelling public.
Mr O’Dowd: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Will the Minister give the House an update on the proposals for a bypass to the M1/A1 Sprucefield junction, which he touched on in his previous answer?
Mr Murphy: The draft Belfast Metropolitan Area Plan (BMAP) contains a proposal for a new road link between the M1 and the A1. That is a longer-term proposal and it will be progressed outside the period of the plan. However, Roads Service is seeking protection for the proposed new routes through BMAP until the proposals for Sprucefield and the Maze can be assessed in detail. If progressed, the highway proposals will be subject to the normal statutory procedures and full consultation. That will include an option appraisal, economic evaluation and environmental assessment. The public will have a formal opportunity to comment on any aspect of the scheme. A local public inquiry may also be held if objections raised to the proposals cannot be resolved.
Mr P J Bradley: Many residents in the constituencies of South Down and Newry and Armagh have expressed concerns about the cessation of work on the scheme. On a previous occasion, I asked the Minister about that, and I thank him for his prompt reply. However, will he confirm that the work had to cease for no other reason than because of the archaeological findings?
Mr Murphy: First, the work did not cease; it has continued. There was some suggestion that contractors had walked off site. However, I confirm that the contractors who were appointed by the Department have been on-site throughout: the work has not ceased. As the Member and I know well, anticipation of discovery of some areas of archaeological interest is built into any contract, particularly those that cut across the countryside. Those matters are being dealt with, and, according to the information that I have received, they will not prolong the contract.
As far was as we are concerned, the contract is still on schedule. Thus, the archaeological work is the only reason that I have been given for any delay to the original schedule of work, and, in many ways, that delay was anticipated. I have received no information about any other problems on that site.
Ratio of Spending on Roads Versus Public Transport
4. Mr Lunn asked the Minister for Regional Development to outline the ratio of spending on roads versus public transport, during the period covered by the investment strategy for Northern Ireland. (AQO 2160/08)
Mr Murphy: Over the 10 years of the investment strategy — to 2017-18 — the ratio of the indicative capital allocation for roads versus public transport averages at 81% for road against 19% for public transport.
Mr Lunn: I thank the Minister for his response. Will he specifically outline what he means by Belfast rapid transit and which areas of greater Belfast will benefit from that?
Mr Murphy: Two further questions have been tabled about that matter, so I will delve into my responses to those now. When I came to the Department, it had already appointed the consultants WS Atkins PLC to carry out a study of two particular routes in the east of the City; one involving the E-way route and one into Titanic Quarter.
I asked for the study to be extended to explore options for routes in west and south Belfast. We have recently received quite a detailed study, which we are currently analysing. Last week, some members of the Regional Development Committee and I had an opportunity to look at rapid-transport provision in different cities in Holland to consider the most appropriate and effective system for Belfast.
Ultimately, we want to create an appropriate and effective system that encourages more people out of their cars and into public transport and that provides reliable, safe and fast public transport. That is obviously evident in the very term “rapid-transit system” We want a system that will get people quickly across the city and from the outer areas of the city to the inner-city, as the case may be. It is early days for the propositions, but in the Programme for Government, which the Executive agreed and the Assembly endorsed, we have committed ourselves to be working on the scheme by 2011.
Mr Boylan: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Will the Minister outline the steps he has taken to ensure that public transport continues to be adequately funded?
Mr Murphy: I am committed to continuing to invest in public transport. The Department submitted bids in ISNI II (Investment Strategy for Northern Ireland II) for a variety of road and public transport schemes, including bids to upgrade the rail network and for the development of a rapid-transit system in Belfast, as I have just mentioned. Those bids total £5,185 million for roads and £1,602 million for public transport at 2007-08 prices.
The roads network has been allocated £612 million capital, against £195 million for public transport, for the 2007-11 Budget period, which equates to 76% for roads against 24% for public transport.
During a debate on this issue a couple of weeks ago, I made the point that buses — which use the roads — make up the vast majority of public transport. Therefore, investment in roads does not necessarily come at the expense of public transport; in many ways it contributes to public transport.
Mrs M Bradley: Heavy traffic is constant on Main Street in Dungiven, and there is evidence that pollution levels are well above what is deemed to be safe. Will the Minister indicate how he intends to fast-track and prioritise projects such as a bypass for Dungiven?
Mr Murphy: I am aware of the issues in and around Dungiven. Although we desire to move with all speed, there are statutory processes that have to be gone through with any major road project. People have to have the chance to see what is being proposed, and to raise objections if they feel that their rights are being impinged on. It would be unfair and unwise to try to deprive people of the right to have their say on any major roads projects.
The ability to fast-track projects is restricted. No one would advocate steamrolling the process of identifying and appointing contractors, the designing of the projects, or indeed, dealing with public enquiries, concerns and objections. Furthermore, in major road-building processes, it is important to do what is right by the public purse.
Having said that, I know that there is a strong desire in the north-west to get a bypass completed as quickly as possible. I will try to ensure that there is no delay. Nonetheless, as I said, processes have to be followed or we will find ourselves in court facing a judicial review, which would, in turn, delay the process.
A2 Carrickfergus to Belfast Road
5. Mr Neeson asked the Minister for Regional Development to give a timescale within which the findings of the public inquiry into the improvements to the A2 Carrickfergus to Belfast Road will be published. (AQO 2202/08)
Mr Murphy: In many ways the answer to that question relates to the type of process that I have described just now. The Roads Service held a public inquiry into its proposals for a major works scheme on the A2 Shore Road at Greenisland in October 2007. The inspector’s report on the inquiry — which was forwarded to Roads Service on 22 January 2008 — is currently being considered with a view to producing a departmental statement on proposals for progressing the scheme. It is presently anticipated that a statement will be published in the autumn.
Mr Neeson: As the Minister knows, major disruption will be caused when work is being carried out on that road. Can he give an assurance that he will improve public-transport services in that area, particularly the park-and-ride scheme at Carrickfergus train station? That could be done by relocating the Roads Service depot, which is in the council yard.
Will the Minister also give an assurance that he will replace the clapped-out, Third World trains that currently service the Larne line?
Mr Murphy: We want to advance that scheme as quickly as possible. However, as with any road scheme, we anticipate that there will be disruption during the construction period. As I outlined earlier, there has been substantial investment in public transport.
The route that the Member referred to, coming into east Antrim from the Carrickfergus side, is a busy one. My Department will be considering a range of measures, including improvements to the rolling stock that he mentioned. We have given a commitment to get the new carriages operating as quickly as possible. I have spoken to representatives of Larne Borough Council and several Members from East Antrim about that issue.
Other facilities that my Department is considering include improved access at train stations, park-and-ride facilities and increased parking. There are a range of measures that contribute towards improving public transport.
Ultimately, although we can improve the roads network, congestion will continue to be a problem in the foreseeable future. Therefore, other ways of investing need to be found in order to encourage more people to leave their cars at home and use public transport. However, people will use public transport only if it is fast, efficient, effective and comfortable. That is what my Department wants to achieve through investing in public transport.
Mr Beggs: Further to Mr Neeson’s question, there have been considerable difficulties even in resurfacing the A2 because of the lack of viable alternatives to that route. Will the Minister ensure careful consideration and close consultation with the public and key groups so that traffic disruption can be minimised and the optimum plan developed? Will he also ensure that park-and-ride facilities at various locations along the east Antrim line will be increased; and that there will be an increase in rolling stock so that train capacity expands and traffic congestion is minimised?
Mr Murphy: I am acutely aware of the depth of feeling in east Antrim about the current level of rolling stock. My Department will move as quickly as possible to find a resolution. I have, on many occasions, explained to Mr Beggs, to other Members, and to the local district council, the problems that we face in trying to improve the situation. As is the case with any major roads project, there will be traffic disruption.
Roads Service is considering projects at various junctions along the Shore Road, the Old Shore Road in Whiteabbey village, and the Glenville Road. It is anticipated that that road works will displace traffic-causing problems in that area.
I will certainly raise the Member’s concerns with the local Roads Service division. It is good practice to engage with local representatives and communities so that those people are given the opportunity to air their views. Useful solutions can often be gleaned from dialogue with local people, so I assure Mr Beggs that his comments will be passed on to whoever is managing that project.
Ms Ní Chuilín: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Can the Minister assure the House that the full findings of the public inquiry will be made available to everyone?
Mr Murphy: The inspector’s report and the findings of the public inquiry will be made available to the public after the publication of the departmental statement, which I anticipate will happen in the autumn.
6. Mr Ford asked the Minister for Regional Development to outline the steps that he is taking to alleviate the difficulties of people living and working in the Hightown and Mallusk areas of Newtownabbey, as a result of the closure of the Hightown Bridge. (AQO 2204/08)
Mr Murphy: The 50-year-old Hightown Bridge over the M2 has been assessed by my Roads Service and deemed to be in need of replacement. If the bridge is not replaced, it will deteriorate further, eventually becoming unsafe.
After Roads Service’s detailed assessment of a range of temporary traffic options, I announced on 7 January 2008 my decision to close the Hightown Bridge, and allow for its demolition and reconstruction. At that time, I also announced a package of measures aimed at alleviating the disruption during the closure to people living and working in the Hightown and Mallusk areas of Newtownabbey.
Those measures include the offer of an Ambulance Service vehicle base at Glengormley; the maintenance of pedestrian access across the bridge during reconstruction; the provision of traffic signals at the Sandyknowes junction of Scullion’s Road; the provision of traffic-monitoring cameras on Scullion’s Road; the provision of an additional bus lane for Hightown and Mayfield, funded by Roads Service; the provision of an emergency-breakdown vehicle-recovery service for the Sandyknowes roundabout; the ongoing management of traffic-signal times on the diversion route in order to minimise traffic congestion and delays; and ongoing liaison with the emergency services about access arrangements to Hightown and Mayfield. There are other measures, but I am conscious that the Member will want to ask a supplementary question.
Mr Ford: I am grateful to the Minister for not repeating a list of the measures that we already know about. However, in a letter that he wrote to me, dated 31 January 2008, the Minister admitted that the economic appraisal that was carried out in 2004 took no account of the greatly increasing population in Upper Hightown, or the increasing employment in the Mallusk Industrial Estate. Is that not unacceptable, and has it not led to huge problems for people in that area? Could I also ask the Minister what assessment of traffic flows — or, rather, the lack thereof — he has made since his decision to close the bridge for the second time?
Mr Murphy: Mr Ford and various other Members have repeatedly been in touch with the Department about these matters. I had two opportunities, before and after Christmas, to meet with a representative delegation from Hightown, and I am very aware of the disruption caused by the closure of the bridge. However, I have held many meetings with Roads Service on this issue, and I know that every viable alternative option was considered. Eventually, it was agreed that closing the bridge and getting a replacement constructed as soon as possible was the only solution. That is what the Department intends to do.
I am conscious of the disruption that that has caused in the area, and I intend to continue to monitor its impact. It is not much comfort to those who have been caught up in traffic, but the early assessment is that the arrangements are managing, and the problem is no worse than was anticipated. We have given a commitment to listen to any further suggestions, and to implement any possible improvements as the work goes on. We will hold to that.
1. Mr McCallister asked the Minister for Social Development to outline the steps that she is taking, in conjunction with other Executive Ministers, to tackle social deprivation. (AQO 2133/08)
The Minister for Social Development (Ms Ritchie): Tackling social deprivation is central to the work that is being progressed by my Department under the Programme for Government. Much of that work is encapsulated in the public service agreements that underpin the Programme for Government, which recognises my Department’s significant role in a range of issues that are critical to the fight against poverty. My Department takes the lead in the promotion of decent, energy-efficient, affordable housing; in the regeneration of disadvantaged areas, towns and city centres; and in supporting community development.
The bottom 10% of disadvantaged communities in respect of multiple deprivation are addressed through the Executive’s — or the interdepartmental — neighbourhood renewal scheme, which is led by the Department for Social Development (DSD).
Mr McCallister: I thank the Minister for her answer. How does she square her views on tackling social deprivation, fuel poverty and child poverty, with the fact that some factors are outside her control? Examples are fuel prices and the imposition of water charges, which will hit the poorest families hardest.
Ms Ritchie: I recognise Mr McCallister’s points. We have very little control over certain costs, whether we are Ministers, MLAs or members of the public. Such indices as fuel costs are independent of levels of income. When additional costs come from Government, such as rent, rates and water charges, we tailor them to have a minimal adverse impact on those who are most disadvantaged. Such measures include housing benefit and exemption from rates and, in due course, will probably include an affordability tariff for water.
Mr Bresland: Will the Minister outline what benefits the local community fund has brought to tackling social deprivation, and will she make a commitment to provide further funding to that fund beyond the current financial year?
Ms Ritchie: I thank Mr Bresland for his question. The local community fund is one of the issues that I am currently considering, along with neighbourhood renewal, and the funding of the voluntary and community sectors. I wish to make it absolutely clear to the Member, and to all Members, that I am compelled — and charged with the need — to tackle social and economic deprivation, as they impact on disadvantaged communities throughout Northern Ireland. As Members of this House, all of us must be committed to address the needs of those who are most deprived.
Mr O’Loan: If neighbourhood renewal is to become a successful example of joined-up government, how important is it that other Departments are prepared to support and fund their particular elements of neighbourhood renewal action plans?
Ms Ritchie: All parts of Government are committed to tackling disadvantage and deprivation in neighbourhood renewal areas through effective use of their available mainstream budgets against agreed priorities and needs. Over the past several months, I have tried to secure the effective buy-in of every Minister and every Department to address disadvantage and deprivation.
All Departments and statutory agencies are currently working to agree a collective response to local needs, as identified in neighbourhood action plans, and there are 36 neighbourhood renewal areas in Northern Ireland.
Competing demands, and a need for greater co-ordination in service planning and delivery, have meant that the process has proven difficult. Neighbourhood renewal can be effective only if we target our limited resources more effectively, with all branches of Government playing their full part. For example, I was pleased to learn that all parties will be participating in a focused neighbourhood renewal health workshop, which is due to take place later this week. That exemplifies the level of partnership working that is needed to tackle the complex issues around poor health levels that people who live in disadvantaged communities experience. I welcome that level of commitment and support from colleagues in the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety.
Two weeks ago, I visited the West Belfast Partnership, which demonstrated to me that there must be buy-in from all Departments if the basic purpose of neighbourhood renewal — namely, to tackle disadvantage — is to be addressed properly.
Travellers’ Site: Legahory, Craigavon
2. Mr Simpson asked the Minister for Social Development to outline the current status of the Travellers’ site at Legahory in Craigavon. (AQO 2127/08)
Ms Ritchie: The Travellers’ site at Legahory in Craigavon is an emergency halting site. I fully appreciate the concerns that the Member raised with Mr Moutray and me only this morning, and that Mrs Dolores Kelly subsequently raised in a telephone conversation that I had with her about the site. I understand what they have told me, and I will be meeting the Housing Executive shortly to discuss the issue. I will also be visiting Craigavon next week, where I will speak both to the Travellers and to residents, in order to deal with the particular issues and problems that pertain to that area.
For the benefit of Members, I should explain that Legahory is a temporary place to park, with basic facilities. The development of the emergency site is being progressed as an interim solution, until a suitable location can be acquired for the construction of a permanent transit site. Once such a location is found, the emergency halting site at Legahory will close.
Mr Simpson: I thank the Minister for her answer, but will she assure the community that that site will not become permanent and that the current status that it holds will not be renewed at the end of its duration? Furthermore, will she commit to a review of the legislation in order to bring about a fairer spread of sites throughout Northern Ireland, and not just throughout Craigavon, or throughout six council areas, as is currently the case?
Ms Ritchie: I fully take on board what Mr Simpson has said, having been made aware of his concerns at our meeting this morning. However, we must be careful to balance the requirements and needs of those who live in the settled community with those who belong to the Travelling community.
To get to the meat of the Member’s question, the status of the site is precisely the reason why I will meet the Housing Executive shortly, in advance of my visit to Craigavon and Legahory. In my discussions with the Travellers and residents, I shall ascertain the nature of the problem at first hand and see what can be done to resolve it. Not only have Mr Simpson and Mr Moutray informed me about the matter, but my colleague Mrs Dolores Kelly has outlined the problems that are faced there.
Mr O’Dowd: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. The status of the Travellers’ site at Legahory is a disgrace — that is its status. I met the Housing Executive several months ago to discuss that site, and its status is not the fault of the Travelling community but the fault of the Housing Executive and the Department for Social Development. Some £25,000 of public money has been wasted on the site, and I ask the Minister whether she will conduct an urgent review of the Housing Executive’s policy booklet on the development of emergency sites, because it meets neither the needs of Travellers nor settled communities.
Ms Ritchie: I have heard what the Member has to say. Unfortunately, he has not raised this particular issue with me in the past —
Mr O’Dowd: On several occasions —
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. I remind Members to make their remarks through the Chair.
Ms Ritchie: We have to be very careful in how we deal with these issues. As I said earlier, we are dealing not with competitive needs, but with the very special needs of a settled community and the very special needs of Travellers. Those are particularly sensitive issues, and I want to ensure that the best possible solution is achieved for the people of Craigavon. It would be best if the Member directed his requests in writing to the Minister, rather than using the Chamber as a means of getting at the Minister.
Mr Deputy Speaker: There has been good order up to now; let us continue in that way.
Mr Gardiner: The Minister will be aware that Craigavon is known as the Northern Ireland headquarters for Travellers’ sites. She will also know that the Housing Executive is proposing an additional site or sites. Is she conscious of those other local authorities that are not providing any Travellers’ sites, and what does she intend to do about it?
Ms Ritchie: There are 11 sites in Northern Ireland — six service sites, two transit sites and three emergency halting sites — and they are found in 10 district council areas. An accommodation-needs assessment is being carried out to find out which are the best possible sites for Travellers. Always remember — Travellers identify where they want to live. Their preferred locations are usually based on historical reasons; for example, their family may have been in a particular place for several years. I can go only on the information and the evidential research that is available to me.
The results of the accommodation assessment are due in May, and decisions will be made on the basis of that.
Integrated Housing Schemes
3. Mr Ford asked the Minister for Social Development to outline her plans for developing further integrated housing schemes. (AQO 2195/08)
Ms Ritchie: I have visited the first shared housing scheme, which is at Carran Crescent in Enniskillen, and I found it to be very well settled. That was back in December 2007. I am encouraged to see that good progress is being made in the consideration of potential schemes at Sion Mills, Loughbrickland, Ballygowan, Banbridge and Magherafelt. Other sites are at an early stage of consideration in Rasharkin, Ballycastle, Derry and Randalstown. Of course, those are all newbuild schemes.
Mr Ford: I thank the Minister for her response as far as newbuild schemes are concerned. However, does she not agree that it is also vital for her Department and the Housing Executive to take action to support people in areas where the community is already integrated and wishes to remain so? Does she have any specific proposals to support people in estates such as Springfarm in Antrim? Unlike my colleague Kieran McCarthy, I will not name every estate in my constituency.
Mr Deputy Speaker: That is very generous of you.
Ms Ritchie: Like Mr Ford, I am concerned about the level of segregation, particularly in the social-housing sector. I am anxious that we move away from that level of segregation to a position of greater integration. With the bedding down of political institutions and the greater level of peace and harmony in our community, it is possible to achieve that. We have an integrated sector in health, and we see a preference for integration in education. There is a compelling logic behind greater integration in the housing sector, and I will address that issue in my statement on housing tomorrow.
Ms Ní Chuilín: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. All Members share a concern about the lack of social, affordable and, possibly other, housing schemes in their constituencies. Why did the Minister not instruct her Department to carry out a full equality impact assessment on the Girdwood site in north Belfast, which will have some form of affordable and social housing built on it?
Ms Ritchie: I am very much charged with the need to address the social housing inequalities in north Belfast. If I may explain some of the background: when I launched the ‘Crumlin Road Gaol & Girdwood Army Barracks Draft Masterplan’ for public consultation on 16 October, 2007, and when I launched the environmental improvement scheme for Crumlin Road jail on 17 September, 2007, I indicated that my preference was for shared, equal housing on the Girdwood site in order to address those inherent, historical inequalities in housing which have been prevalent for many, many years. We cannot get away from that.
I note what the Member said about the equality impact statement. Whenever I bring forward my proposals, they will be put out at that stage for an equality impact assessment.
Mr K Robinson: I have listened carefully to the Minister’s last two answers. However, will she assure the Assembly that her priority will remain the actual provision of social housing and that that consideration will take priority over the imposition of integration as a precursor to any scheme, lest we create a situation similar to that which is developing around the proposals for the national stadium at the Maze Prison?
Ms Ritchie: I want to assure Mr Robinson and Members that my first priority is the provision of social and affordable housing — and, within that context, the need to increase the supply of social and affordable housing to address the clearly identified need, namely the 38,000 people on the waiting list, people who are homeless, and those with significant savings and who have so far been unable to get on the first rung of the property ladder. I will be addressing those issues in more detail in my statement tomorrow. With the bedding down of the political institutions, however, there is now a need to move ahead and try to live together as part of housing schemes.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Unrestricted Development of Houses in Multiple Occupation
4. Mr F McCann asked the Minister for Social Development to detail the assessment that she has made of the effect of her proposals for unrestricted development of houses in multiple occupation, on the resident communities in Andersonstown Road, Falls Road and Springfield Road. (AQO 2226/08)
Ms Ritchie: Although my Department is responsible for the legislation relating to houses in multiple occupation, the ‘Houses in Multiple Occupancy: Subject Plan for Belfast City Council Area 2015: Draft Plan 2006’, which sets out the restrictions, or lack of restrictions, is the responsibility of the Minister of the Environment. As Mr McCann is a Member of the Committee for Social Development, I am sure that he will appreciate that distinction.
The development of houses in multiple occupation (HMOs) on the roads specified in the question will help to regenerate the area and help to meet local needs for shared and affordable accommodation. The 10% restriction on all other streets will protect traditional residential areas.
Mr F McCann: Initially, the proposals were being championed by the Minister’s predecessor under direct rule. However, the Minister was in west Belfast a few weeks ago and would have seen at first hand the severe social deprivation in the area. Not one community organisation, including the West Belfast Partnership Board, supports the introduction of HMOs in the area. Will the Minister say why she intends to pursue the policy when there is no support in the area for such developments, which could lead to the demise of close-knit communities as we have witnessed in other parts of Belfast.
Ms Ritchie: Let me give some background information about the particular issue in west Belfast. The subject plan limits the number of houses in multiple occupation to 10% in any street in west Belfast. Obviously, the only exception will be small stretches along the frontages of the lower Springfield Road, the Falls Road and the Andersonstown Road.
In relation to west Belfast, there has been a lack of accurate, in-depth information on houses in multiple occupation. The Planning Service and the Housing Executive are working together to improve the situation. I do take on board what residents have told me. They have spoken to me about issues such as antisocial behaviour and other matters. My principal concern is to ensure that housing need across Northern Ireland, whether in disadvantaged areas or not, is properly and adequately addressed and that we serve the best interests of the community.
However, the issues that Mr McCann raised relate more to planning.
Ms Lo: Given that south Belfast already has a large number of homes of multiple occupancy, does the Minister agree that her proposals would have a further negative impact on the resident communities there?
Ms Ritchie: I thank Ms Lo for her question. Recently, I met residents of south Belfast and the chairperson and deputy chairperson of the Belfast Holylands Regeneration Association, which has a particular interest in housing. A multidisciplinary approach is required to tackle housing problems, and other Departments and agencies must contribute to tackling related issues, such as policing and community safety.
I am concerned with addressing the need for housing in the best interests of the community and to ensure that the interests of the settled, resident community, as well as those of any incoming population, are taken on board. Everyone should try to live in peace and harmony with one another.
Mr Attwood: I acknowledge that the Minister visited west Belfast in the past couple of weeks. She walked the roads and witnessed the issues relating to neighbourhood renewal and houses in multiple occupancy around Andersonstown barracks. However, the Minister led the successful negotiations that led to an increase in her budget for the provision of social and affordable housing. Compared with the original proposals, what impact will that increase have?
Ms Ritchie: As well as the £70 million secured for this financial year, additional funding of £70 million, £75 million and £60 million has been made available to the social housing development programme to support the delivery of 1,500, 1,750 and 2,000 new units across the three-year period of the Budget.
Although I attracted criticism for being difficult at the time of the Budget, people on waiting lists, the homeless and those who want to get on to, and stay on, the housing ladder will most appreciate the value of negotiating for greater resources. My officials and I are reviewing the implications of the increased Budget allocation for priorities in the housing programme, and I will make a statement on that subject tomorrow.
I particularly appreciated my visit to the West Belfast Partnership Board and An Cultúrlann. I also enjoyed the guided tour of the Andersonstown Road, Glen Road and Falls Road. At the behest of Mr Attwood, I took a close look at some of the houses in multiple occupation. I also had an opportunity to meet local residents and hear their concerns about community safety, planning and wider issues of social development.
Unclaimed Pension Credit
5. Mr Brady asked the Minister for Social Development, in light of the current level of unclaimed pension credit benefit, to detail her plans to ensure that as many people as possible who are entitled to this benefit, receive it. (AQO 2235/08)
Ms Ritchie: I am committed to ensuring that everyone in Northern Ireland receives the benefits to which they are entitled. I assure Mr Brady that there is good news about pension credits. When pension credit was introduced in October 2003 to replace the minimum income guarantee, 78,000 households received the benefit. Since 2003, the number of households that receive pension credit has increased by more than 17,000 to 95,000, and almost 117,000 individuals now benefit from pension credit. The most recent figures available from the Northern Ireland income-related survey for 2004-06 show that 83% of those who are eligible receive pension credit.
Mr Brady will undoubtedly agree that that is a notable increase from 2003-05, when only 67% of eligible people claimed pension credit, and provides further evidence of increasing levels of successful benefit uptake.
Although those figures are encouraging, I am not complacent. In May 2007, I launched the Social Security Agency’s 2007-08 benefit uptake programme, the aim of which is to ensure that over 150,000 older people receive their full benefit entitlement, including pension credit. The current programme builds on those undertaken in previous years, which generated over £7 million of additional benefits to some of society’s most vulnerable people. I will soon launch a further uptake programme for the next financial year.
Mr Brady: Will the Minister explain how she can continue to deliver on pension credit — or, indeed, any issue — if she does not have the support of her own party, as witnessed by its refusal to support her on the Budget and the Programme for Government?
Ms Ritchie: Mr Brady must be unaware of the fact that the Treasury in London deals with benefits, and payments come directly to me through annually managed expenditure. Benefits are neither part of the comprehensive spending review nor the Budget.
My party has no problem. It has always supported the need for benefit uptake, the need to address social disadvantage and deprivation, and the need to ensure that the people who are in greatest need of benefits receive them.
Mr Cobain: The problem of unclaimed benefits is growing, mainly because of the complexity of the benefits system. Does the Minister agree that that problem will not be fully resolved, and will continue to raise its head time and time again, until we have a properly maintained and funded service that supplies free advice to the relevant areas of the community?
Ms Ritchie: Mr Cobain represents the constituency of North Belfast, where he deals with people who are suffering and disadvantaged, and he sees, at the coalface, the needs of those individuals.
The Department for Social Development and the Social Security Agency have commissioned the establishment of various advice agencies to help with the benefit uptake campaign, and, as a result of 2007’s Positive Steps consultation, I will soon announce news about regional hubs for advice services throughout Northern Ireland. Therefore, I hope that Mr Cobain will be able to factor some of the responses from his constituency into the new consultation period later this year. I will take his comments on board.
Mr Shannon: I thank the Minister for her positive response, which shows that benefit uptake is increasing. Does the Minister agree that a major advantage of the present system is that pension advisers from local Social Security Agency offices have gone out into the community? Does she agree that that is one of the main reasons for such an uptake?
Does the Minister have any plans to increase and enhance the role of pension advisers to ensure that even more people take advantage of pension credit, thereby increasing current numbers?
Ms Ritchie: I agree with the Member for Strangford Mr Shannon that the pension advisers have done an excellent job. Not only have they assisted people with pension advice but they have been able to direct people to other areas for advice — namely, social services, social workers and the Housing Executive. In many instances, those advisers have been the only point of contact in any one week for pensioners who live in isolated rural communities.
The Social Security Agency held a review of its outreach service for older people in 2007. Although the report recommended 15 staff, based on the workload information, the agency increased that to 20 pension advisers to ensure the continued successful delivery of outreach services. I assure the Member that I will seek a working report from my officials on how effective that has been in recent months, because the most important thing is that we target our money where it is most required.
Mr Deputy Speaker: That concludes Question Time.
Mr O’Dowd: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Is it appropriate for a Minister to say that he or she will not answer a Member’s question during Question Time because it is not the appropriate place? Surely the clue is in the title — Question Time.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Ministers can answer as they choose.
Mr Adams: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. The Minister for Social Development did not get beyond question 5. Is that a record?
Some Members: No.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. Mr Adams, do you see what you have done? I doubt that that is a point of order. The Speaker has been concerned about the number of questions being answered at Question Time, and five is certainly not a record. We will now resume —
Mr O’Dowd: Further to that point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Does it not devalue Question Time when a Minister refuses to answer a Member’s question because this is not the appropriate venue? I accept that a Minister can answer a question as he or she chooses, but surely it is wrong for a Minister to tell a Member that he or she will not answer a question because it is not the appropriate time.
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Member has made his point. The Speaker will issue a statement. Perhaps that issue could be raised with the Business Committee.
Mr Attwood: Further to that point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Will you check the Hansard report to see whether the Minister said what Mr O’Dowd said she did? In my view, he is in error and has misrepresented the Minister. Is it not highly appropriate that when a Minister answers a question on areas that are outside her statutory responsibility, she states on record that those areas are outside her statutory responsibility? Rather than being irregular, as Mr O’Dowd said, is that behaviour not highly appropriate?
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Hansard report will be examined carefully, and the Speaker will make the necessary statement.
Mr Ross: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Mr Deputy Speaker: I am sorry, but we are moving on.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClarty] in the Chair)
Debate resumed on amendment to motion:
That this Assembly notes with concern the lack of clarity in the Minister of Education’s proposals for post-primary transfer; and urges her to bring details of her proposals immediately before the Executive and the Assembly to ease the concerns of parents, pupils and teachers.
Which amendment was:
Leave out “the Executive and”; and at end insert
“, by sitting out the practical steps necessary to deliver reform, while (i) enhancing quality; (ii) ensuring equality of opportunity for all; (iii) protecting against a post-code lottery; (iv) addressing local needs and making best use of resources through area-based planning; and (v) deliverying sustainable schools.” — [Mr D Bradley.]
The Minister of Education (Ms Ruane): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Once again, I welcome the opportunity to address the Assembly on post-primary transfer. This is a welcome opportunity to further update Members on developments on this issue since my statement to the Education Committee on 31 January 2008.
As I have stated before, my focus is on building a consensus for new arrangements. By working together, I want to find the best way to meet the requirements of all our children based on a shared vision that places high-quality educational outcomes and equality for every child at its epicentre. Therefore, in December 2007, I held a series of meetings with groups that have a key role in the future of post-primary arrangements, including the Governing Bodies Association, the Association of Head Teachers in Secondary Schools, the Catholic Trustees, the controlled grammar schools, the Transferors’ Representative Council, the trade unions, the chief executives of the education and library boards and the Association for Quality Education.
I sought, and have received, written responses to my vision from those groups. In January, my Department undertook a further round of meetings with the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS); Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta; the Council for Integrated Education; and representatives of controlled grammar schools. A third round of meetings commenced last week, on Friday 22 February.
The aim of those meetings is to seek consensus on the new arrangements. I appreciate the request from Education Committee members, and others, for clarification on the new arrangements for the 2010 transfer procedure. I am very aware of the opinions expressed by parents, pupils and teachers about the need to provide firm information on new transfer arrangements at the appropriate time. In that context, I will outline where we are in the process of securing those changes. From the outset, my approach has been to set the overall vision, and then to engage with those with a key role to play, in order to seek a set of proposals to which everyone can sign up and be committed.
The process that I have undertaken is the biggest reform ever of the education system here in the North of Ireland. Far from there being lack of clarity and delay, I am pleased at the progress made to date, in the necessary democratic process of consultation, to deliver such a progressive overhaul of the education system. I re-emphasise that the debate has moved on from the narrow one around academic selection. Nobody is now arguing for the retention of the 11-plus. We are engaging positively across the breadth of the education sector on the reform of the system.
Let us be honest: there are many Members, right across this House, who are opposed to change. They are afraid of change and of what it will bring. Some are merely paying lip service to the notion that they are behind progressive change. At the same time, they have joined forces with those who are most opposed to change, and are playing narrow, opportunistic party politics. That is very regrettable. Others have difficulty with a Sinn Féin Minister leading change — particularly a female Minister — and have chosen to personalise the debate, rather than positively engage on the need for reform. Just listen to the language that was used this morning. It was the language of the scared. There is no need to fear change. Change is good, and it is going to happen.
Others, still, are opposed to educational reform, and wish to retain the antiquated system that we currently have — a system designed by successive unionist and direct rule Ministers. Sinn Féin chose the Education portfolio — and I am proud that it did. We chose that portfolio because we care about the education of our children. We care about the education of — [Interruption.]
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. Please allow the Minister to respond to the debate.
Ms Ruane: We care about the education of all our children. We are going to bring in a system in which every child gets the same chance. Other parties had the opportunity to choose the Education portfolio. They did not choose it, but Sinn Féin did.
Mr Kennedy: Will the Member give way?
Ms Ruane: No; I will not give way.
Sinn Féin did, because we understand the need for change in a system that is decaying and is in free-fall. Members can shout at me, try to abuse and bully me, but that is what it is all about. They are afraid of the much-needed change that is going to occur. We are about reforming education in a progressive way.
We were under no illusions as to the challenges of delivering the biggest reform ever in the history of the North of Ireland. We make no apology for that. I repeat that no amount of shouting, sniping, bully tactics — whether it is in this Chamber, on the sidelines, or in the media — will stop the progressive reform process that is under way and moving forward. I will not be swayed, because I am not prepared to fail our children.
Dúirt mé ariamh go bhfuil mé ag lorg creatlach láidir reachtaíochta do mo chuid tograí. Má thig linn comhaontú oideachais a bhaint amach, is é mo chéad chéim eile tacaíocht an Choiste Feidhmiúcháin, an Choiste Oideachais agus an Tionóil a fháil do na tograí. Ina dhiaidh sin, cuirfidh mé dréacht-rialacháin ar chritéir iontrála faoi chomhairliúchán lena chinntiú go mbeidh bonn láidir reachtaíochta faoi na socruithe úra.
That translates as: fortunately, the vast majority of the discussions that we have been engaged in have been productive. I am grateful to all concerned for the constructive spirit in which they have engaged in the process.
The issues discussed include an inclusive transfer process based on shared information about the applicant, but used in such a way that the information does not become the determinant of admission; matching appropriate teaching to the needs of children; the use of admissions criteria for oversubscribed schools; introducing greater flexibility and agility into our school structures so that we can offer expanded post-14 provision and choice to young people; the nature of election at 14 years of age and the different routes through which young people’s choices at that critical age can be facilitated; area-based planning and its links with the delivery of the entitlement framework and with the reorganising of the schools estate at a time of inefficiently utilised excess capacity; expanding the extent of school collaboration and the development of learning communities; and providing schools with time and assistance to adjust to new arrangements.
Again, I wish to emphasise the current state of play in our education system, with a significant proportion of children disengaging from the education system by the age of 16, and the stark statistic of more than half of our current student population leaving school without basic reading and writing skills. That amounts to 12,000 young people every year.
Mr B McCrea: Will the Member give way?
Ms Ruane: No, I will not give way.
Twelve thousand young people are being failed because people are afraid of change. We need an education system that is reflective of society and capable of catering for the diverse needs of our children, whether they choose an academic or vocational course in life — be that a bricklayer, a tiler or an engineer, a childcare worker or a teacher, an electrician or a scientist, a carpenter or an accountant. We are capable of delivering that flexibility and choice to our education system.
We already have a broad consensus on the importance of 14 years of age as a key educational decision point. We also have broad educational consensus, supported by independent advice —the Costello and Bain Reports — on the need to deliver to young people the entitlement framework and expand educational choice from the age of 14 onwards. I understand that parents and schools want certainty, and I also understand that my pursuit of a consensus, which takes time, can be frustrating. However, let me make it clear why the pursuit of a consensus is so necessary.
Mr B McCrea: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Ms Ruane: Whatever system of transfer we finally agree on, that transfer will perform a critical —
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order.
Mr B McCrea: For the benefit of the House, will the Minister define the meaning of the word “consensus”?
Mr Deputy Speaker: As Mr McCrea knows, that is not a point of order.
Ms Ruane: I will repeat what I said, as I was interrupted.
We also have a broad consensus on the importance of age 14 as a key educational decision point. We also have broad educational consensus, supported by independent advice, on the need to deliver to young people the entitlement framework and to expand educational choice from the age of 14 onwards.
Whatever system of transfer we finally agree on, that transfer will perform a critical function. The only proposals that can be produced by such processes are proposals commanding widespread support. That is why we are investing the time in engaging the necessary democratic process of consultation with education stakeholders, time that, so far, has been well spent on building and securing consensus regarding the system of transfer that our children and schools need. Yes, it will require difficult decisions, and I will show leadership on those difficult decisions, but it will also require leadership from all concerned.
A good starting point for Members would be for them not to get so agitated that they have to keep interrupting.
I will present proposals very shortly — [Interruption.]
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. What an example some Members are giving to the schoolchildren who may be watching this debate. I know that some Members sit on schools’ boards of governors, and this is an awful example to be giving to any schoolchild.
Ms Ruane: I will present proposals very shortly, given that negotiations are at an advanced stage. When I do, I want everyone to understand that those detailed proposals will be wide ranging, will have been prepared in a careful and consultative manner, and will warrant serious consideration, rather than a knee-jerk reaction.
The debate has moved on. There is no going back. We cannot continue to fail our children. We can keep academic excellence in our system, but I repeat: we cannot continue to fail all our children. It is simply not acceptable, and I will not allow it to happen. Join with me — [Interruption.]
Instead of rudely interrupting me, Members should join with me in transforming our education system into a dynamic educational model that reflects the world that we live in and that equips our children with the qualifications and skills that they need for the twenty-first century. I mean all our children, not just the selected few. Go raibh míle maith agat.
Mr D Bradley: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. There is no doubt that we have had a varied, wide-ranging and lively debate here today, with contributions from many parties, and with many points of view being shared.
Mr Butler spoke on behalf of Sinn Féin, and he chose to criticise members of the Education Committee for seeking information for which the general public is crying out. Mr Butler seems to think that there is some reference to academic selection in today’s motion and amendment — I do not know where it is and cannot find it, but the Member seems to think that it is there nonetheless.
Mr Butler is a frequent absentee from the Committee’s meetings, and today we saw him trying to cover up his inability to defend the indefensible on those occasions that he does attend. He tried to do that by attacking the SDLP, but his own weakness was revealed. Mr Butler’s view of open and transparent Government — which Sinn Féin claims to champion — is that it should be conducted behind closed doors.
Michelle O’Neill, one of Mr Butler’s colleagues, outlined the Minister’s vision. However, that vision is not the issue; the matter in question is the route that will lead us to that vision and the various steps that will lead us along that route in the available time frame. Mrs O’Neill said that the debate was not very helpful, but the Minister has shown that she will provide MLAs with information only when the glare of transparency that is required on the Floor of the House prises it out of her.
As Tommy Gallagher said, Sinn Féin Members seem to confuse a call for clarity and information on important policies with an attack on the Minister. Sinn Féin’s desire to defend its Minister has led to that party’s becoming paranoid. That paranoia is clouding Sinn Féin’s view and deafening its ears to the strong public concern that clearly exists in all areas of the community.
Several issues have emerged from today’s useful debate, which was basically a plea for information, given the lack of clarity in the Minister’s proposals. A number of Members echoed my point that an information gap has been allowed to open up, thus increasing the level of anxiety in the community. If Sinn Féin Members were truthful, they would admit that they are hearing the same anxiety from their supporters that every one of us is hearing from the general public — from teachers, parents, and the education providers.
Martin McGuinness declared victory, but then he went home for his tea. He has dropped Caitríona Ruane in it; and she is struggling to stay afloat.
The role of the Committee for Education has been a central theme in the debate. I am a member of that Committee, and although I do not speak on its behalf today, I can safely say that Committee members wish to engage with the Minister in an open and transparent way on the basis of all available information. The Committee cannot perform its function in the dark, although the Minister and some Sinn Féin Members would like to see the Committee work, not only in the dark, but behind closed doors.
There seems to be general prevalence for doing things behind closed doors. Some people want the Committee to work behind closed doors, and they want this issue to be referred to the Executive and dealt with behind closed doors. As I said earlier, if this issue were to be referred to the Executive, it would be in danger of becoming mired in the gridlock of Executive business, which would lead only to further frustration among parents, teachers and the education community in general.
I looked forward to hearing something new from the Minister today. Unfortunately, not for the first time, I have been disappointed. The Minister said nothing new. Today, she spoke more as a Sinn Féin Member than as a Minister, and engaged in petty, political point-scoring. She spoke of bullying tactics, but she tried to bully the Education Committee in January by filibustering for 25 minutes and walking out —
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order.
Mr D Bradley: — after an hour.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. I am going to have to bully you, Mr Bradley: your time is up. Thank you.
Mr Lunn: As Dominic Bradley said, the debate has been interesting, if predictable. However, Members have, at least, been able to express the depth of feeling and frustration that exists throughout the Chamber on these most important issues.
I echo some of what Dominic said. He mentioned the working-behind-closed-doors approach, and I want to clarify the Committee’s view on that. Three weeks ago, the Committee met the Minister, in public. At the end of the meeting, I suggested that the Committee should meet the Minister behind closed doors, so that everyone could have their say and vent their feelings without having TV cameras, microphones and reporters in the background. There would be no grandstanding, because there would be no point in doing so, and we might have a constructive debate.
As I understand it, the Committee has asked for a further meeting with the Minister. Perhaps she has already responded, but she had not done so by last Friday. We were waiting for her response, and we were, I believe, going to suggest that that meeting could be held in private. As far as I know, that was the accepted view of the Committee.
Mrs M Bradley: Does the Member agree that the Committee has never refused a meeting with the Minister?
Mr Lunn: Far from refusing a meeting, we have clamoured for meetings, at times, without success. Although it is not always desirable to meet behind closed doors; in this case, it would be useful to do so. It would not be unprecedented for a Committee to go into closed session — far from it.
Dominic Bradley also mentioned ‘A Consultation on Schools for the Future: A Policy for Sustainable Schools’, which, apparently, was concluded last Easter, but which still has not been made public. That is a good example of the sort of matter that frustrates Members. Michelle McIlveen talked about confusion turning to panic, and she mentioned consternation taking place where there is a vacuum — fair enough. She also talked about the Minister’s approach of filibustering her way out of the situation in the Committee meeting a few weeks ago. It really is not on for a Minister to come to a one-hour meeting and start off by making a 25-minute statement, and, at the end, leave.
Mr K Robinson: Basically, the Minister has put much store in her discussions with stakeholders. We do not know who those stakeholders are, in the round, although some of them have been mentioned today. Does the Member think that, in her discussions with stakeholders, including, presumably, the teachers’ unions, the Minister explained that there would be major job losses in education under some of her proposals, should they go through?
Mr Lunn: I will leave that question hanging in the air for someone else to answer.
A Member: Probably not.
Mr Lunn: “Probably not” will do.
Michelle McIlveen also referred to the possibility of these proposals reducing standards at the top end of our education system, when what we should be trying to do is improve the standard at the bottom end. That is a fair point.
Paul Butler made a good fist of defending his Minister, which is a thankless task at present. He expressed disappointment with my party and with the SDLP. His point was — [Interruption.]
It was either that, or he thought that we were being guided by DUP policy, rather than our own. However, if he reads my speech, he will see that the DUP received a couple of rebukes as well.
Basil McCrea mentioned the need for the Minister to provide leadership, and I agree with him. That is what we are looking for. It is all very well for her to say that she is waiting for the Committee’s consensus proposals. She has proposals from every relevant body in the whole of Northern Ireland, including the individual political parties. Why would she wait for the Committee to make proposals? The Committee needs to scrutinise her proposals, not the other way around.
Mervyn Storey referred to the assertion that the stakeholders’ consultations were confidential. There are those among the stakeholders who know more about what is going on than Committee members or Assembly Members. That cannot be right.
Michelle O’Neill referred to the film ‘Groundhog Day’ to describe the way the debate comes back to the same points time after time. I had the misfortune to watch ‘Groundhog Day’ for the first time a few weeks ago, and a more tedious, boring film I have never seen.
Mr Kennedy: You are not very up to date, are you? [Laughter.]
Mr S Wilson: He does not have time to sit and watch the TV like you.
Mr Lunn: As Mr Wilson has said, I do not have as much time to watch TV as Mr Kennedy.
Mr Kennedy: I have not seen ‘Groundhog Day’.
Mr Lunn: The Member is very lucky. The point is that it is boring and tedious, as is the requirement for the Committee to go back to the Minister time after time, asking the same questions and effectively getting the same answers. We received no answers to our questions today. I heard nothing about timescales or initiatives. The Minister tells us that everything is very advanced —
Mr Storey: The Minister — as she always does when she comes to the House — mentioned area planning. Members of the Education Committee will recall that when we met her in the Senate Chamber, she told us that she would come to the Committee with proposals on area planning in February. There are not many days left in February, and we still do not know what her proposals are on area planning.
Mr Lunn: That is correct. There is one Friday left in February. I will not hold my breath.
The Minister also said that some Members, right around the Chamber, are afraid of change. The Alliance Party is not afraid of change; far from it. That is true of most Members. I will be careful where I look, but there may be a few diehards around who think that the present system is defensible.
Mr S Wilson: There is one on the roof. [Laughter.]
Mr Lunn: I did not want to look at my own Chairman. [Laughter.]
There is an obvious need for change, and the sooner the better; we agree with the Minister on that.
The Minister also talked about a broad consensus around selection at 14. Some weeks ago, I would have agreed with her that that was so. Now, however, I am not so sure.
Mrs Long: Does the Member agree that reaching consensus on a transfer at age 14 is one thing, but that reaching consensus on what will actually be done at that age is entirely different?
Mr Lunn: Yes, I was about to make that point. In the absence of firmer proposals and of knowledge of the Minister’s thoughts, every party is developing their own ideas.
Mr S Wilson: Although I did not believe that consensus could be reached on transfer at age 14, many people did. Does the Member agree that, given that the Minister could not answer questions about many matters, including cost, the effect on the school estate, the size of schools, how far people in rural areas would have to travel, and about what type of selection would apply to 14-year-olds, people began to have doubts about whether she knew what she was talking about when she spoke about selection at that age?
Mr Lunn: The Member’s point is well made.
I did not hear anything new from the Minister; I merely heard a restatement of what she said in the vision statement, the debate of 11 December 2007, and the Minister’s comments to the Committee on 31 January 2008.
Mr Ross: Will the Member give way?
Mr Lunn: I am getting tired of giving way.
Mr Ross: I thank the Member for giving way. He said that we are not getting any new answers. Will he agree that it is an absolute disgrace that I have been waiting for over 100 days for an answer to a written question? The Minister was given the opportunity to deal with that during her contribution today, but again, we did not hear any answers.
Mr Lunn: A wait of 100 days for an answer must be a record, but we have all suffered at the hands of the Department or the Minister in having to wait for a long time for answers. I do not know why that is; I thought that the House had rules about such matters.
I will conclude shortly, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Mr Deputy Speaker: You will conclude now, Mr Lunn. Your time is up, and you will not be allowed any extra time. I know that almost every Member intervened during your 10 minutes, but time is added only if a Member has been given five minutes or less to speak.
Question put, That the amendment be made.
The Assembly divided: Ayes 14; Noes 79.
Mr Attwood, Mr D Bradley, Mrs M Bradley, Mr P J Bradley, Mr Burns, Mr Dallat, Mr Gallagher, Mrs Hanna, Mrs D Kelly, Dr McDonnell, Mr McGlone, Mr O’Loan, Mr A Maginness, Mr P Ramsey.
Tellers for the Ayes: Mr P J Bradley and Mr Burns.
Mr Adams, Mr Armstrong, Mr Beggs, Mr Boylan, Mr Brady, Mr Bresland, Mr Brolly, Lord Browne, Mr Butler, Mr T Clarke, Mr W Clarke, Mr Cobain, Rev Dr Robert Coulter, Mr Craig, Mr Dodds, Mr Doherty, Mr Donaldson, Mr Easton, Mr Elliott, Sir Reg Empey, Dr Farry, Mr Ford, Mrs Foster, Mr Gardiner, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Irwin, Mr G Kelly, Mr Kennedy, Ms Lo, Mrs Long, Mr Lunn, Mr McCallister, Mr F McCann, Ms J McCann, Mr McCarthy, Mr McCartney, Mr McCausland, Mr B McCrea, Mr I McCrea, Dr W McCrea, Mr McElduff, Mr McFarland, Mrs McGill, Mr McGimpsey, Mr M McGuinness, Miss McIlveen, Mr McKay, Mr McLaughlin, Mr McNarry, Mr McQuillan, Mr A Maskey, Mr P Maskey, Mr Molloy, Lord Morrow, Mr Moutray, Mr Newton, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O’Dowd, Mrs O’Neill, Mr Paisley Jnr, Rev Dr Ian Paisley, Mr Poots, Ms S Ramsey, Mr G Robinson, Mrs I Robinson, Mr K Robinson, Mr P Robinson, Mr Ross, Ms Ruane, Mr Savage, Mr Shannon, Mr Simpson, Mr Spratt, Mr Storey, Mr Weir, Mr Wells, Mr B Wilson, Mr S Wilson.
Tellers for the Noes: Ms Lo and Mr McCarthy.
Question accordingly negatived.
Main Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly notes with concern the lack of clarity in the Minister of Education’s proposals for post-primary transfer; and urges her to bring details of her proposals immediately before the Executive and the Assembly, to ease the concerns of parents, pupils and teachers.
That the Assembly do now adjourn. — [Mr Deputy Speaker.]
Housing in North Belfast
Mr Deputy Speaker: The proposer of the topic for debate will have 15 minutes in which to speak. All other Members who wish to speak will have six minutes. I remind Members that, given that this is an Adjournment debate, I will listen carefully to ensure that Members speak only to the topic.
Mr A Maginness: I thank the Business Committee for the opportunity to speak about the important matter of housing in North Belfast. I have dealt with the subject many times in the House and, because it is such an important matter to me and my constituents, I am sure that I will deal with it again. I also thank the Minister for Social Development for attending, and I am pleased to see other North Belfast MLAs in the Chamber.
This important issue affects many people throughout the constituency — from both the Catholic and Protestant communities. There is a chronic shortage of social and affordable housing in North Belfast. The problem is not new and has been recognised by many people for many years. Nevertheless, decades of underinvestment and underfunding have left social-housing stock close to breaking point. Some Housing Executive properties in North Belfast are almost 100 years old and no longer fit for purpose. The Minister is well aware that large areas of the constituency require urgent redevelopment. Last month, she met a large number of residents from the upper “long streets” area of New Lodge Road, who, for years, have campaigned for the redevelopment of their area.
It is only now that they can even consider the prospect of that necessary work being undertaken, and for that, the Minister must be congratulated. I know that the residents of the upper “long streets” were delighted with the Minister’s visit and the personal concern and interest that she showed.
As well as the redevelopment of existing older properties, there is a real need for additional newbuild housing development in North Belfast. At present, there are 2,352 people on the housing list in North Belfast, 1,401 of which have been designated as being in housing stress. Of those people in housing stress, 16% are elderly people, 34% are families, 5% are adults and 45% are single adults. The Housing Executive and the Department for Social Development have produced a document that they hope will be able to deal with some of the most pertinent issues. That follows on from the housing strategy for North Belfast published in 2000.
Those in greatest need are families and single people living on their own — mostly males in their middle years. The latter problem has become increasingly evident and critical in the past number of years, and is due to lifestyle preference — people living on their own — marriage or relationship break-ups, or family division. That is an increasing phenomenon that must be taken seriously because it is a trend that is here to stay. Nonetheless, we must concentrate on families, because they are at the very heart of this housing crisis. There are 471 families in housing stress, and it is important that we address their plight.
Bearing in mind the sectarian history and geography of North Belfast, it is important to recognise that there are differences in the way in which this housing problem affects the Catholic and Protestant communities. Paddy McIntyre, the chief executive of the Housing Executive, said:
“The most significant barrier to delivering housing solutions in North Belfast is the segregated nature of housing. The presence of six major peace-lines is a key inhibitor to the freeing up of resources such as land, but since 2000 I am pleased to say that a number of community initiatives are underway to tackle the serious sectarian divisions which exist.”
Of the 471 families in housing stress that I mentioned earlier, 375 are Catholic and 96 are Protestant. In the single persons category, 469 are Catholic and 168 are Protestant. There is a total of 1,008 Catholics in housing stress, as opposed to 393 Protestants. Those figures illustrate the differential needs on a religious/community basis in North Belfast.
It is clear that the Catholic community has much greater needs than the Protestant community. I emphasise that that does not mean that the Protestant community does not have a significant housing problem in North Belfast. I do not seek to diminish Protestant housing need in North Belfast. However, there are different levels and types of housing need for each community in North Belfast. That has been officially recognised by the Housing Executive’s strategy, which emphasised the need for newbuilds in Catholic areas and the need to raise housing standards in Protestant areas. A two-pronged approach has been employed to address the differential needs in North Belfast.
The North Belfast Housing Strategy, which was launched in October 2000, was intended to serve as the blueprint for tackling the housing crisis over the following seven years.
It was estimated that £76 million might reasonably be spent on housing schemes in North Belfast. The Housing Executive conducted a review of the strategy between February and April 2007, which focused on the work carried out during the first five years of the strategy. The strategy was an ambitious document, which, if successfully implemented, would have vastly improved the housing situation in North Belfast. At the time, I was hopeful that the strategy would meet the majority of the goals that it had set itself, but it is now becoming apparent that it will fail to meet a number of those goals. That is disappointing.
The main target was to build 1,750 new homes for social renting by 2007-08. From 2001 to 2006, a total of 1,248 new homes were built. That means that by the end of 2008-09, an additional 502 units will have to be constructed to fulfill that target figure of 1,750. The review indicated that the Housing Executive is well on course to meet that target, and there is a real possibility that it will build more houses than it originally intended. For that, it is to be commended.
The problem lies in the fact that the actual demand for social housing in 2008 now exceeds that which was predicted in 2000. In addition, many more people than was originally anticipated have now applied for social housing because of the massive increase in house prices over the past two years. In short, housing demand far outstrips supply. Put simply, we need more houses than was originally anticipated in 2000.
Although it seems as if the strategy will meet its targets for additional homes for social renting, it has fallen short on the number of re-lets that have been available each year. It was anticipated that there would be 520 re-lets each year, but, on average, the annual figure has been only 421 re-lets a year. The Housing Executive has attributed that to the settled nature of housing in a number of high-demand areas in the overall strategy area.
The strategy planned to invest an additional £15 million on the acquisition of land for new house-building programmes and £10 million to buy new homes on the open market to meet urgent need. The Housing Executive has failed to meet those targets. As of 2006-07, only £5·3 million has been spent on the purchase of land for new buildings and only £4·54 million for the purchase of homes on the open market. Again, the Housing Executive will have to explain and address those shortfalls.
When Minister Ritchie addressed the first meeting of the Committee for Social Development on 24 May 2007, her message was simple:
“Give me the money and I will build you the houses.”
The Budget allocation that the Minister negotiated for the Department for Social Development was one of the few real highlights of the Minister of Finance and Personnel’s Thatcherite Budget. The Minister for Social Development fought tooth and nail to secure an additional £205 million over the next three years for social housing. She was criticised by Sinn Féin and the DUP for daring to criticise the inadequate Budget allocations for social housing. Those parties originally claimed that she did not need the money, but the Minister laid out her case in the clearest way possible, and common sense and logic prevailed. The DUP/Sinn Féin Executive were ultimately forced to agree with the Minister’s assessment.
The housing situation in North Belfast is critical and requires a serious and sustained effort by the Housing Executive in revisiting its strategy and reinforcing its efforts to address the problems. In order to speak about what must be done to alleviate this scenario, I have demonstrated to Members the facts of the situation. The Minister for Social Development has set herself a scheme of work, and, if she is allowed to fully implement it, it will do much to solve many of the problems that are now faced in North Belfast.
Part of the problem is the underuse of what is available. That may seem marginal and trivial in comparison with the overall problem, but there are 140 vacant homes in interface areas of North Belfast, and they are blighted by the fact that they are in such areas.
Consider the use that those homes could be put to, and the impact that that would have on the families in housing stress who I referred to earlier.
I do not have time to talk about the many other aspects of housing in North Belfast. However, I want to draw attention to the fact that the development of the Girdwood/Crumlin Road jail site represents the best hope that many people in North Belfast have of finding suitable accommodation in the next few years. That particularly applies to families who are presently homeless and living in inadequate temporary accommodation. In terms of housing land, the availability of the Girdwood/Crumlin Road jail site should be seen as a windfall, and it is fortuitous that it is now available for social development.
My strong view is that the Girdwood site should be made available as soon as possible for social and affordable housing developments on a mixed tenure and mixed housing-type basis. I urge the Minister to work towards that in the near future. The Girdwood site could make substantial inroads into the obvious objective housing need in North Belfast. It could provide the space for 200 housing units at the very least. That should be a top priority, and it is one that I prevail upon the Minister to adopt.
The money is available, the building land is available, the housing need exists, and there is an irresistible argument — based on objective proven need — for using the site of the former military base for social housing and development. Furthermore, a fortuitous opportunity to do so has been provided by the release of that site. We should seize the opportunity, and, in that context, the whole community will win.
Mr McCausland: The issue of housing demand in North Belfast includes demand for social housing and other types of housing provision. Mr Maginness quoted a significant number of figures, which I do not intend to rehearse.
Mr Maginness is right that the demand exists in both unionist and nationalist areas — that is clear. However, the different areas often have different needs. The need in nationalist areas is particularly reflected through housing lists, whereas, in unionist areas, it is reflected in housing lists but also in the growing demand for, and lack of, accessible good-quality private housing. As the demand exists in both communities, no distinction should be drawn between the two.
There is an ongoing situation in which people are moving into North Belfast from other areas — it is an increasingly popular area. I know of folk who have moved from the west of the Province into North Belfast looking for work in hospitals or other Government bodies, and they found that North Belfast was a particularly attractive place to live. Folk are also moving into North Belfast from west Belfast and Newtownabbey. I know of a number of recent private-housing schemes in which a significant section of the uptake was by people moving back into North Belfast who had previously moved to the Newtownabbey area.
However, the housing need will have been recognised and folk will move into those areas only when the houses have been built.
The BMAP also raises issues, because there is a need for land to be made available. I hope that that will be kept in mind when the BMAP process goes through its next stages. There is a particular need for land in the greater Ballysillan area of North Belfast where I was born and brought up, because any houses that have been built there have been bought immediately.
The number of single-person households is much higher than previously and influences the situation. The traditional pattern of houses with between four and seven occupants has disappeared in many places. The large rise in the number of single-person or two-person households has resulted in an increase in the demand for housing.
North Belfast has a significant number of long-term blocked-up houses. Some houses in the Silverstream estate have been blocked up for the past 15 years, and there is even a question about who owns them. That matter has been brought to the attention of the Minister, she has been considering it and her response is forthcoming. If that issue were addressed, it would significantly increase the number of available housing units. The redevelopment of areas often demonstrates the number of houses that are empty because they are being used as benefit drops. For example, it may turn out that when 60 houses are demolished to allow redevelopment, only 40 of the occupants immediately seek rehousing in the area. Such houses must be brought back into use.
I want to pick up on a point made by Mr Maginness about Girdwood Barracks and the Crumlin Road jail. He referred to the area as a “windfall site”. If the site is to succeed, it is crucial that it must be a shared site. No one, not even Alban Maginness, has managed to demonstrate how it can become a truly shared housing site.
The concerns of the unionist community in the area have not been alleviated by some of Alban Maginness’s past comments. Members will recall an incident in 2004, when the last of the families living in the heart of the Torrens area in North Belfast finally left their homes after years of intimidation by republicans. The departure of those folk was overseen by a Sinn Féin councillor from North Belfast, who was present as republicans drove workmen off the site as they attempted to erect a small fence to protect Protestant homes from serious and sustained sectarian attacks. Protestant families moved out after that indefensible and sustained attack by republicans. Two years later, in March 2006, when talking about housing need, Alban Maginness said:
“The windfall sites of Torrens and Girdwood will do much to relieve the pressure over the next two or three years but we are going to continue to have a short-term housing crisis in relation to the Catholic community in north Belfast.”
In other words, he said that the driving out of Protestant families was a “windfall”, a word that, to me, means an unexpected benefit. In that case it was not of benefit to those Protestant families who were driven out.
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Member’s time is up.
Mr G Kelly: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank both Alban Maginness and Carál Ní Chuilín, because initially two motions on housing in North Belfast were submitted, and the Business Committee selected this one.
As Alban accurately detailed many of the relevant statistics, I will not go over them again. It is well known that North Belfast is an area of multiple deprivation. It suffers from deprivation in the areas of housing, fuel poverty, health, mental health, unemployment and education. There are over 600 hostel beds and several interfaces in the area. It has headed the Noble and Robson indices for a long period, and NISRA’s (Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency) statistics put it at the top of the 900 most deprived areas in the North.
Therefore, there is a housing crisis. Alban Maginness spoke about the Housing Executive’s seven-year strategy, which was not comprehensive and did not deal with the housing crisis. As he pointed out, on a number of occasions, the Housing Executive did not deal with the huge waiting list: in December 2007, there were 2,452 people on the waiting list, over half of whom — 1,400 — were in housing stress.
Housing is, of course, a cross-community issue. Lack of housing is more of a problem in the nationalist community than it is in the unionist community, but there is also the big problem of upgrading housing in sections of the unionist community in North Belfast. However, there is an issue of equality: over three quarters of the people on the waiting list for housing are nationalist. When we asked the Housing Executive for statistics, we were told that there was no data kept about religion or districts. I wonder why. The Minister might address that in her response. From other statistics, it is clear that there is a lack of equality in housing. Objective need and equality are at the heart of the Programme for Government and the Budget. Therefore, I ask the Minister if the housing issue in North Belfast will be equality proofed.
There is also an issue over what can be called “flat land”. All types of houses are being turned into apartments: developers move in, take over and renovate the properties. People then walk into the poverty trap, because the lack of housing means that they have to go to private landlords. That area has not been regulated for generations. I know that the Minister already spoke at Question Time, but I would like her to address the important issue of regulation.
I am disappointed that Nelson McCausland sectarianised the housing issue; politicians must try not to do that. Lack of housing affects all the people of North Belfast whether they are in Carrick Hill, Glenbryn, the “long streets” area of New Lodge, Ardoyne or Ligoniel. Before I became a junior Minister, I was on the steering group for the Girdwood site; in the mission statement, it was agreed by all parties — including the DUP — that housing would be an essential part of the project. In answer to Alban Maginness, Mr McCausland began talking about shared space and ended up talking about shared-housing space. There is a difference — Girdwood is a landfill site. Also, housing cannot be built without amenities such as leisure facilities, of which there is a dearth in nationalist areas of North Belfast.
There was a coming together among the parties on the Girdwood site, and there is almost agreement on it. I ask unionist Members to acknowledge that there is a huge waiting list for housing and that the Girdwood site can deal with some of it. No one — not Alban Maginness, the Minister or anyone else — wants to use the entire site for housing. However, not to use a section of the site for housing would be a huge mistake.
I welcome the Minister’s interest in North Belfast — as Alban Maginness stated, she has visited the area on a number of occasions. She mentioned that she would make an announcement tomorrow, to which I look forward. As was stated, if the Minister gets the money, the houses will be built; the proof is in the pudding. The Adjournment debate concerns a constituency that has suffered from multiple deprivation over a long period, and many people will be interested in it who look to the Minister for hope. I hope that that will be forthcoming in her statement.
There is a need, a human cry, for a substantial investment because of the significant injection that was allocated in the Budget period. I hope that we have a shared North Belfast, and things are improving. There is a Minister and a junior Minister from North Belfast, and a number of MLAs, and it is important that we get together to try to sort out the housing problem across the board. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr Dodds: It is a pleasure to take part in the debate on this important subject. I want to add to what my colleague Nelson McCausland has said about housing need, and it is important to re-emphasise one point. Alban Maginness talked about different “levels” of needs. That is not the right way to approach the issue: it is that there are different “kinds” of needs. There are needs on both sides of the community in North Belfast.
People are living in stressful housing situations in unionist and nationalist, Protestant and Catholic communities, and that has already been mentioned. It is reflected on the nationalist side through people on waiting lists. However, for many years there has been housing need and the need to regenerate unionist areas. Sadly, for many years there was a total lack of interest by many in authority, and those who represented the area, for the regeneration of those areas. I am glad that some of those issues have been addressed.
It is fair to say that there are different types of housing need across the board — and that is how we should approach the issue. The demand for social and private housing is growing in unionist areas as well as nationalist areas, and that is to be welcomed.
However, we must get on with the programme of regeneration in North Belfast. There are many areas where that is happening far too slowly. One example is the Fortwilliam/Queen Victoria Gardens area in North Belfast, which has very poor housing conditions and continuing housing blight. The area has suffered for many years — part of it was featured in the film, ‘Closing the Ring’, and one reason why it was chosen was because it fitted in well with scenes of Second World War devastation. In some cases, that is what the houses look like, which is a disgrace in this day and age.
Work on the regeneration scheme started in 2001. I received a letter from the Minister on 21 October 2007 — and I appreciate her response to me — indicating that consideration was still being given to the economic appraisal and apologising for the length of time it was taking to get the matter sorted out. I have still had no confirmation that the matter is reaching a conclusion. I urge the Minister to get a move on. When local people hear a lot of talk about regeneration but see no real action, it breeds a lack of confidence and despair.
The level of regeneration and put-back is far too low, and is unacceptable. The Housing Executive is proposing to knock down 112 houses in Rosebank Street, Columbia Street and Ohio Street and is proposing to replace them with 37 houses. Those streets are well occupied and contain vibrant communities. The Housing Executive has no proposals for the overspill, and that must be addressed. That is one example, but it illustrates a more general problem. There is also a need to do more work on regeneration in the Tiger’s Bay area of my constituency, and I know that the Housing Executive wants to consult with local people there.
Has the Minister any specific plans about the budget and the resources that will follow through from that clear housing regeneration need. There must be a firm follow-through on the amount of time and effort needed on consultation.
Members raised the issue of flats. In all local communities, whether settled, privately occupied areas or areas of social housing tenure, there is great concern among many local people about the prevalence of flats and apartments. Over the years, the Housing Executive has sold land to private developers and has put no constraints on the future use of that land. Land has been banked for years — particularly in and around the Crumlin Road/lower Shankill area — and I understand that in the lower Shankill area, from Agnes Street to Peter’s Hill, there are planning applications for 1,200 flats. Some of those applications are on land that was previously owned by the Housing Executive and was sold off for pennies. That matter must be addressed; otherwise the authorities can be accused, rightly, of abdicating responsibility for an over-provision of the type of accommodation that is not wanted, and the lack of social housing provision.
With regard to the lack of investment, there is a growing dependency on the private-rented sector to fill housing need. That has led to problems in many areas, where more and more landlords are buying properties, changing the character of areas, putting tenants in and charging rent, all while taking very little responsibility for the future of an area. That must be examined. I advocate a licensing scheme for landlords, thus ensuring much higher standards in that sector than exist at present.
It is clear that the Housing Executive is adopting a policy, particularly in unionist areas, of selling vacant sites to the private sector. For example, in lower Oldpark, there is a major vacant site that could be used to build affordable housing. I call on the Minister for Social Development to examine that.
Finally, I know that my time is up, but I was interested to hear what Alban Maginness said about the Girdwood site. He failed to mention the issue of a shared future. He also failed to refer to the work of the panel, to which Gerry Kelly referred, that came up with the view that there could be no agreement on housing, because, primarily, it could not meet the shared-future criteria. If we are to make progress on that site, we must do so by reaching an agreement that does not threaten anyone and that provides for a shared future.
Ms Ní Chuilín: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank Alban Maginness for proposing this subject for the Adjournment debate. It is interesting that, every time that we talk about social housing, particularly in nationalist or interface areas, the argument about a shared future is brought up. If we are talking about housing need, that is what we must address. There is a variety of housing need. We faced the same situation in Carrick Hill and in other areas. I would like to think that such arguments will be relegated to the past and that we will move on.
As a member of the Girdwood advisory panel, I can say that Nigel Dodds was correct to say that it could not reach a consensus. However, the panel’s mission statement still stands, and some sort of mixed-tenure housing must be built on the site.
Several Members mentioned statistics. On average, between 74% and 86% of people on the waiting list for housing in North Belfast are nationalists. That percentage may fluctuate, but it rarely falls below 70%. Housing allocation must be based on need, not creed. I do not wish to sectarianise the debate, but that housing stress and need must be addressed.
We need to examine redevelopment and regeneration. I look forward to the Minister’s statement to the House tomorrow on how she proposes to proceed. I would like to think that, following that statement, all the representatives of North Belfast will be able to make progress together in some shape or form, despite our disagreements.
I look forward to an announcement about the upper “long streets” and, in particular, the urban renewal assessment (URA) areas. Without attempting to prejudge, guess or suss what the Minister will say, I live in that area. My house, although privately owned, is old and expensive to look after. People in the area are anticipating change. The URAs, which have taken place across North Belfast — albeit at a slower pace than we would have liked — have raised hopes and aspirations. People are hanging on to those hopes and waiting to see what will happen.
Through personal contact, the Minister has become aware of the issues, and she has gained first-hand knowledge of what it is like for people to live in those areas and in those conditions. There is evidence — not only anecdotal — that, to date, the housing strategy for North Belfast has failed many people. We have an opportunity to examine the outcomes of the review and to address the issues.
Many Members are worried about the increased poverty and deprivation suffered by families who, through no choice of their own, have to move into private-rented accommodation. More often than not, housing benefit does not meet the full cost of their rent. People have to dip into a purse that is already stretched. The adage about the choice between heating and eating is true; the same choice about paying the rent is becoming a fact of life.
As for affordability, when I was canvassing, many families asked me how their children would ever get on to the property ladder. Members must face the affordability issue.
I return to the matter of Girdwood Barracks. Its redevelopment represents a windfall, and it is an opportune site for social development and regeneration. There is an opportunity for North Belfast to do something different and to address people’s needs. That project will be subject to an equality impact assessment, which is a statutory responsibility. I look forward to that responsibility being fulfilled.
I also look forward to everyone’s realising that building social and affordable housing is absolutely necessary in North Belfast. Without wishing to sound glib, I welcome the fact that Alban Maginness has become involved as another housing champion. It boggled my mind, along with his unionist colleagues, when he blocked the application for the acquisition for social housing of the former site of the Milk Marketing Board. I wondered whether his mentality was one of “not in my backyard”.
The people whom I represent in North Belfast are waiting for homes, and particular types of social housing — not the “seven towers” type of social housing or the type that crams families into two rooms. They are waiting and looking forward to the opportunities that affordable housing can provide. Those families are waiting for equal treatment and they expect us to deliver on their behalf.
I am glad to have had an opportunity to speak in the Adjournment debate. I look forward to the Minister’s response. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr Ford: I thank Alban Maginness for securing this debate, and Carál Ní Chuilín for her request.
The level of demand for social housing in North Belfast is so large that it is not an issue that solely relates to the current boundaries of that constituency. Much of the rapid population growth, which has expanded into the constituency of South Antrim, is driven by the inability of people from North Belfast to secure housing in the area where they want to live. Many who have moved to my constituency are relatively well off; others are left trapped in the city, because they are unable to afford what is on offer. As Nelson McCausland highlighted earlier, some people, having sampled the delights of Newtownabbey and points beyond, are now moving back into the city. That may be an issue for Translink to address.
In the midst of a debate dominated by statistics and figures — and we have heard a number of them already — we should not forget the human cost of the social housing crisis that exists in an acute way in North Belfast, compared to other regions. The consequences of overcrowded and inadequate housing — or even a complete lack of housing — include disruption to children’s education, poor physical and mental health, stress on family relationships and difficulties in employment. The housing crisis has a direct and perceptible impact on the poor socio-economic conditions endured by many people in North Belfast, and those issues are too real to be reduced to bare statistics.
Some of the factors that feed into the housing crisis are not unique to North Belfast. A frenzied property market has left people unable to afford private-sector rents, and even more unable to afford to purchase a home. Many young people, even those who traditionally would have been able to access housing in the private sector now cannot do so, with the result that social housing is overwhelmed at a time when there has never been less availability. With relatively low wages and a traditionally high level of social housing, North Belfast has been impacted by those fractures particularly strongly.
One cluster of issues affects the housing market in North Belfast more deeply than in any other area: sectarianism, segregation and intimidation. Members from both sides of the House have already indicated the degree of imbalance in need in North Belfast. However, it must be remembered that the suffering of a family in housing need is the same, regardless of what their community background may be. The single biggest reason for that imbalance is that too many areas in North Belfast have become the exclusive preserve of one section of the community or another. The type of healthy, gradual change in communities that would have taken place without that division has been arrested.
Nigel Dodds has already said that different types of housing need exist in different areas across the constituency so that, today, there is a situation whereby Catholic areas are drastically overcrowded and Protestant areas suffer from decay.
The only solution to the problem in the long term is to get away from the concept of Catholic and Protestant areas altogether. Before I am accused of naivety, I must add that that cannot be achieved overnight or be achieved easily. Tackling the legacy of division in North Belfast is a project that will probably take a generation, but that is absolutely no reason not to start. Churches may be built for Catholics or Protestants, but houses should be built for people.
The allocation of housing on the basis of need — and only on the basis of need — was one of the key demands of the civil rights movement. It is a sign of how things have moved over the last four decades that it can now be seen as politically acceptable to some to allocate housing, in part, on the basis of community background. To allow such divisions to trap families in appalling physical circumstances is a terrible indictment of our society, and it is not acceptable to the Alliance Party.
Mr A Maginness: Will the Member agree that, not only is it necessary to have good housing development, but that that housing development must be of a high quality to meet the real needs of the people? Will he agree that the type of development that took place at the former site of the Milk Marketing Board was the result of sustained representation by local people, and me, as a local representative, to get high-quality housing for working people?
Mr Ford: I cannot go into the minutiae of North Belfast, but I agree with the Member’s fundamental point: it is essential to provide good-quality housing for everyone in the community, whatever section of society that they come from. Allocation purely on the basis of need would be the only acceptable mechanism in any other country. I make no apology for saying that it must be the basis here.
The golden opportunity for kick-starting change that is presented by the Girdwood site has already been highlighted. Earlier today, the Minister said that she remained absolutely committed to social housing on a shared, equal basis on the site, and I agree. Although Gerry Kelly and Nigel Dodds pointed out the difficulties, there is a clear need to use Girdwood as a demonstration of what can be achieved. North Belfast desperately needs good-quality social housing to be an important part of the mix at the Girdwood site. Families who are in housing stress desperately need good homes, and North Belfast needs an end to segregation and intimidation. It needs practical steps towards a shared future, and that must be shown in other areas of North Belfast.
The Minister highlighted areas in which she hopes to make progress on shared housing. I hope that when she next answers a question in the Assembly, she will be able to announce that a part of North Belfast is also on the list for such a scheme.
The Minister for Social Development (Ms Ritchie): I thank my party colleague Alban Maginness for giving the Assembly the opportunity to discuss the housing situation in North Belfast. He tabled the debate a considerable time ago, and some two weeks ago, it was selected for debate.
Mr Maginness and the other Members who spoke — the representatives from North Belfast and the Member for South Antrim Mr Ford — clearly characterised the housing situation in North Belfast. They also spoke about the need for a consensus on a shared future in housing, and I am glad about that. The debate is timely as it comes ahead of my statement to the Assembly tomorrow, which will set out my overall plans for social and affordable housing in the North of Ireland.
In addition to answering questions in the Assembly, meeting deputations and dealing with much correspondence, I have visited North Belfast many times. I have seen at first hand the housing challenges, including problems with pigeon waste, that face, among other areas, New Lodge, “seven towers”, “long streets”, Duncairn Gardens, Oldpark, Tiger’s Bay, Sailortown, Carrick Hill, Brown’s Row, Crumlin Road, Limestone Road, Ligoniel and Ardoyne. In the early 1980s, when sectarian divisions were high and trouble was very bad, I worked in North Belfast. Therefore, I can safely say that I know the area quite well.
I accept that North Belfast has many unique factors that make the housing situation difficult. It is an area of many interfaces, and it contains communities within communities. There are difficulties in obtaining land suitable for development. There are housing shortages in areas perceived to be nationalist and problems of poor conditions in areas perceived to be loyalist. It is still a polarised area, and that can limit the room for manoeuvre.
In March 2000, there were 880 applicants with 30 or more housing points. Eighty per cent of those applicants were from the nationalist community, and 43% of them were families. That was unlike the waiting list trend in the rest of Northern Ireland, where single people made up the largest section of the waiting list.
I have listened carefully to the points made about the composition of the waiting list. In 2000, the Housing Executive set out a seven-year investment strategy that was designed to tackle a need for increased housing mainly — but not exclusively — in the nationalist community and to address poor housing conditions substantially — but again not exclusively — in the loyalist community.
The strategy estimated that £133 million would be invested in the area up to March 2007, and it proposed that 1,750 new social housing units should be provided. It identified five key themes to bring about regeneration: housing supply; better use of stock; improvement of Housing Executive stock; sustaining and improving private housing areas; and promoting regeneration.
Progress has been made since the implementation of the strategy, despite many incidents of civil unrest in some areas in the early days. As well as local tensions, problems were exacerbated by soaring property and land prices, which affected our ability to secure development opportunity sites due to competition from private developers. Like the rest of Northern Ireland, social waiting lists began to grow significantly in North Belfast. However, despite all those difficulties, by the end of March 2008 about £258 million will have been invested against the target of £133 million, and building will have started on 1,600 homes.
To put the north Belfast development programme into context, from 2001 to 2007, investment represented almost 20% of the total Northern Ireland programme and almost one third of the Belfast programme. Unfitness levels reduced from 9·4% in 2000 to 5·5% by 2004. I expect that figure to have fallen to 4% when the final report of the house condition survey is published later this year.
Urban renewal areas have been completed in Glenbryn, Grove, Lower New Lodge, Clifton/Oldpark, North Queen Street and Rosewood/Crumlin. Work is continuing in Torrens, Gainsborough and Mountcollyer. Renewal proposals are being considered for Upper New Lodge, Parkside and Queen Victoria Gardens.
Mr Dodds referred to the economic appraisal for Queen Victoria Gardens and Fortwilliam. There has been a delay, and this afternoon I instructed my officials to expedite matters on that issue.
By March 2008, more than £60 million will have been invested in maintaining and improving the Housing Executive stock in areas such as Lower Oldpark, Ballybone, Jamaica Street and Sunningdale. Improvement works are also proposed in Tiger’s Bay and Lower Oldpark.
North Belfast received 70% of the budget for the group repair scheme, and about £20 million will have been invested in private-sector grants by March 2008.
The structure of housing demand has changed significantly. Single-person households now account for 45% of the waiting list. Demand from families decreased from 42% of the overall waiting list in March 2000 to 34%, although in real terms the number of applicants has increased from 354 in March 2000 to 461 in March 2007. More than 70% of family applicants are lone parents — a trend evident elsewhere in Northern Ireland.
Against the background of those changes, the housing strategy has been revisited and reviewed. The exercise has included an examination of the strategic planning context, demographic trends, the housing context and the housing programme. The Housing Executive will publish the findings soon. Those who are directly affected by the shortfall in housing will want to see more being done, and I, as Minister, also want to see the housing problems alleviated. However, I have to ensure that available resources are allocated to meet need across Northern Ireland.
North Belfast has been singled out for special attention for a number of years, and that has borne fruit, but other areas are exhibiting the same or greater levels of need now, and their needs must be addressed. However, North Belfast will continue to see considerable investment, and that will be set out in the revised strategy.
The housing strategy includes a potentially exciting and innovative project in Great Georges Street, which will provide many social and private homes. I welcome the investment and regeneration that will result in that area. Last week, I had a meeting with the St Patrick’s and St Joseph’s Housing Committee at which we discussed that issue, among others.
My Department has also been involved in developing master plans for a number of sectors in the inner city. One master plan that covers the north-west quarter impacts on North Belfast. Following detailed consideration of the consultation responses to the ‘North West Quarter Part 2: Baseline Regeneration Issues Report’, my Department is finalising its approach to the regeneration of the north-west quarter area part 2, and I intend to announce details by 30 April.
I am aware of the housing needs in North Belfast, and I accept that the nature and location of housing remains a contentious issue in that area. Members will be aware that proposals for the regeneration and redevelopment of the combined site of the Crumlin Road jail and the former Girdwood Barracks in North Belfast are contained in a draft master plan about which I launched a public consultation on 16 October. The draft master plan illustrates the entire site’s potential to be a major driver in the physical, social and economic regeneration of North Belfast. It does not preclude any type of use for the site — including housing and social housing — and I emphasised that on the day that I announced the draft master plan.
It is my hope that the site will be developed as a place where people of all persuasions can live, work and socialise, and, hence, live up to the desire for a shared and equal future. I will say more about the Crumlin Road jail/Girdwood site in tomorrow’s statement.
I heard what Alban Maginness and other Members said during the Adjournment debate. I recognise and acknowledge that much remains to be done to address the complex housing problems in North Belfast.
Mr Deputy Speaker: I ask the Minister to draw her remarks to a close.
Ms Ritchie: I do not want anyone to leave the Chamber believing that the story is one of doom and gloom. Members raised other issues during the debate, and I will respond to them in writing.
Adjourned at 5.43 pm.