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Tuesday 4 March 2008

Committee Business:
Standing Committee Membership

Executive Committee Business:
Building Regulations (Amendment) Bill: Second Stage
Public Health (Amendment) Bill: Consideration Stage

Ministerial Statement:
Post-Primary Transfer

Committee Business:
Standing Committee Membership
Hospital-Acquired Infections

Private Members’ Business:
Youth Services Budget

Plans for an Educational Campus at the Lisanelly Site, Omagh

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

Members observed two minutes’ silence.

Committee Business

Standing Committee Membership

Mr Speaker: Members, I have received correspondence from the nominating officer of the Democratic Unionist Party, the Rt Hon Dr Paisley, nominating Mr James Spratt as the Chairperson of the Assembly and Executive Review Committee. Mr Spratt has accepted the appointment. I am satisfied that that correspondence meets the requirements of Standing Orders, and I therefore confirm that Mr James Spratt is Chairperson of the Assembly and Executive Review Committee.

Executive Committee Business

Building Regulations (Amendment) Bill

Second Stage

The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr P Robinson): Before I move the motion, I would like to say that given that my duties require my presence in the House today, I am prevented from attending the funeral of the brother of my friend and colleague Dr William McCrea. I would like to record my condolences to William and Ian and the family circle, and I am sure that I express the sympathy of the whole House.

I beg to move

That the Second Stage of the Building Regulations (Amendment) Bill (NIA 11/07) be agreed.

The Bill proposes several significant amendments to the Building Regulations (Northern Ireland) Order 1979, which is the primary legislation that governs the health, safety, welfare and convenience of people in or around buildings in Northern Ireland. That legislation was last amended in 1990, so it is in need of some updating.

The proposed amendments acknowledge modern building methods and developments in the construction industry, and they align us more closely with recent changes elsewhere in Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland. Over the past few years there has been a marked increase in awareness of environmental issues, placing greater emphasis on matters such as sustainability and the environment.

Indeed, this Assembly has recognised the importance of sustainability and the environment in its Programme for Government, and the House has debated these matters. Indications are that further EU directives on these themes will emerge. I am therefore proposing to expand the general principles of building regulations to include protection and enhancement of the environment and the promotion of sustainable development. Further­more, I wish to extend and clarify the list of matters on which building regulations may be made to include, for example, low- or zero-carbon systems, sustainable use of water, recycling and security of buildings.

I am also keen that we move away from what are known as “deemed to satisfy” provisions towards a guidance-based system. As they stand, the building regulations in Northern Ireland identify a reasonable standard that must be attained. They refer to “deemed to satisfy” provisions in technical booklets that set the benchmark for compliance with those standards. Adherence to the “deemed to satisfy” provisions guarantees compliance with the requirements of the regulations. However, it is possible to satisfy the requirements using different methods. Legislative authorities elsewhere in the British Isles use a system of practical guidance which is taken into consideration when determining whether the requirements of the regulations have been met. However, as with our provisions, there is no obligation to follow the guidance.

The merits of moving from “deemed to satisfy” to a guidance-based system are several. The latter will encourage designers towards a more creative and flexible approach. Designers can move away from the potentially restrictive, guaranteed “deemed to satisfy” solution and base their plans on the rationale behind the provision, which will be clarified in the guidance documents. This approach also recognises the growing practice of providing guidance where a “deemed to satisfy” solution is not available, and the need to do so. In addition, a guidance-based system will facilitate closer and more rapid technical harmonisation with other legislative authorities, thus improving consistency across the UK regions. It will also relax some of the more onerous legislative requirements associated with the current rules. I am also proposing to introduce provisions relating to the preparation and review of guidance documents, including public consultation.

Under a further measure, district councils will formally be required to have regard to the special characteristics of protected buildings and buildings in conservation areas. They will have to ensure, when applying the requirements of the building regulations, that care is taken, as far as is practicable, to ensure that any special characteristics of the buildings are not compromised. This amendment will formalise current practice.

It is also my intention to give district councils the power to type-approve buildings, in recognition of the growing practice of constructing the same type of building in several district council areas. For example, this will allow a developer to submit plans for a particular house design, obtain type approval from one district council, and use that certification to build the same house in another council area. The matters for which type approval may be sought will be set out in the regulations. The district council responsible for the area in which the building is to be erected will have to ensure that it is constructed in accordance with the type-approved drawings. That council will also approve those elements of the design that are specific to the site — for example, with respect to local soil and weather conditions.

The levying of fees, and administrative provisions connected with these functions, will be prescribed in amendments to the subordinate legislation. Applicants will have the right to appeal to the Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP) if a district council refuses to grant a type approval.

Article 12 of the 1979 Order will be commenced. This will give district councils the power to require reasonable tests in order to confirm that there is no contravention of the regulations. However, I am proposing an amendment to enable the types of test to be laid out by the Department in regulations. The prescription of such tests removes the need to amend the primary legislation, thereby allowing the introduction of additional tests that may be required in the future.

I want to amend the period within which a district council may issue a final contravention notice. This will set a longstop of 12 months from the date when the council is notified of the completion of the works. That is in line with the defect liability period in normal building contracts.

Further, I propose to make it mandatory, through supporting regulations, for an applicant to notify district councils when the work has been completed and for the district councils to issue completion certificates once they are satisfied that the work meets the requirements of the regulations.

The Bill proposes to repeal a provision that had not been commenced and which would have allowed for a breach of the building regulations to be actionable where damage has been caused. The Department received no representations to activate the provision. However, in light of comments received at Executive stage that the provision could encourage compliance, I propose to introduce an amendment during the passage of the Bill to remove that repeal. I have asked officials to investigate how the provision may be modernised to better suit building regulations practice.

I intend to make it an offence for someone to knowingly or recklessly submit false or misleading information for the purposes of obtaining building control approval. At present, district councils have to rely on common law principles to remedy such matters, which can be a lengthy and expensive process.

The Building Regulations (Northern Ireland) Order 1979 requires the Department to consult with bodies rather than individuals when making appointments to the Northern Ireland Building Regulations Advisory Committee (NIBRAC). I am seeking an amendment to comply with the Nolan principles for public appoint­ments, which require the Department to adhere to the code of practice of the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments for Northern Ireland. The code of practice recommends that nominations to public bodies such as the NIBRAC must come from suitable persons who meet the applications criteria, including represent­ative bodies or associations.

Most district councils already maintain registers of information about applications for building regulations approval. However, the type of information held is not consistent across all councils. Therefore, I have included provisions that will require district councils to keep a register of particular information relating to each application for building control approval, including details of progress and outcomes. District councils will be required to make the registers available for public inspection. The actual format of the registers, including details of the information to be recorded, will be prescribed in the supporting regulations.

Finally, I propose to bind the Crown to the substantive requirements of the building regulations: by that I mean the technical requirements relating to design and construction and the provision of services and fittings as distinct from the procedural or administrative require­ments. I also propose to redefine a Crown building as a building, or part thereof, that is “occupied by the Crown” rather than one in which there is a “Crown interest”, and to clearly define exempted buildings or bodies in regulation. Exemptions would be based on the need to preserve the safety and security of the building or people in or around the building.

The Bill therefore presents a number of improvements relating to amendment of the existing legislative framework and additional powers. It expands the general principles of building regulations to allow them to address a wider range of environmental issues. Adopting the guidance-based system will provide the mechanism for setting technical requirements that are more consistent and responsive, and that should be to the benefit of the construction industry.

The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel (Mr Storey): I thank the Minister for explaining the general principles of the Bill to the House this morning. I welcome the opportunity to debate the matter.

The Committee for Finance and Personnel received an oral and written briefing from departmental officials on the background to the Bill on 7 November 2007. The Committee is aware that the Bill has two main objectives: to define the powers, duties and rights of the Department, and the district councils that enforce the regulations and applications; and to extend the general principles in the existing primary legislation to include protection of the environment and the promotion of sustainable development.

Committee members were briefed on a range of issues including the outcome of the consultations undertaken by the Department from January to May 2004 and from July to November 2005. In addition, a number of stakeholder workshops were held with representatives of the building control function in the district councils and representatives of the construction industry.

10.45 am

Members were also briefed on the key provisions of the Bill, which include: provision to extend the general provision of building regulations to include the protection and enhancement of the environment and the promotion of sustainable development in line with similar amend­ments to the corresponding legislation in England, Wales, Scotland and the Republic of Ireland; provision to enable building regulations to cover areas such as the security of buildings, sustainable use and management of water, the use, reuse and recycling of materials, and the inclusion of low- or zero-carbon systems for the purpose of reducing greenhouse gas emissions; provision for a new criminal offence of making false or misleading statements to building control; provisions that require local councils to keep a register that records applications for building control approval and to consider the special requirements of listed buildings and buildings in conservation areas when building control applications are being considered; technical changes that involve a shift from a “deemed-to-satisfy” system to a guidance-based system; and provisions for granting additional powers to district councils in approving superstructures and insuring conformity with building regulations.

Committee members raised a number of issues with departmental officials at the briefing session, which included: potential problems relating to contravention notices in trying to establish the date of completion of work; the potential burden on ratepayers resulting from additional duties for district councils; and the potential implications from differences in the approaches taken by district councils in exercising their powers relating to types of approvals.

The Department of Finance and Personnel also updated the Committee on some of the ongoing issues that were subject to further discussions relating to dangerous buildings, demolitions and extending the time limit of the appeals process. The Committee was satisfied with the briefing and clarification provided by the Department, and members will engage with depart­mental officials and other stakeholders on the details of the provisions of the Bill during the forthcoming Committee Stage.

Finally, I wish to highlight the related issue of the use of renewable energy sources in buildings, which is relevant because of the increased focus that the Bill places on the protection of the environment and the promotion of sustainable development. The Committee is mindful of the ongoing debate over mandatory microgeneration and is due to received evidence on that issue shortly. The Committee will, therefore, wish to consider the various approaches involved and carefully weigh up all the arguments before taking a position on how the matter should be progressed. In the meantime, I support the principle of the Bill and the motion.

Ms J McCann: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I welcome the Second Stage of the Bill. Its new powers and amended provisions illustrate the increasing significance of sustainability and environ­mental issues, as outlined in the sustainable development strategy.

Several public consultations were held on the amend­ments and provisions, during which all stakeholders had an opportunity to give their views. A number of amendments are particularly welcome, including the provision for the Department of Finance and Personnel to regulate the energy performance of buildings and the power to decide what proportion of energy comes from a particular energy source.

The Bill gives district councils some powers, including the right to ensure that builders adhere to preserving the character of protected buildings when they carry out their functions under building regulations.

There is a welcome new requirement that district councils keep registers of information for public inspection. Given the new procurement practices in public buildings, with projects such as Workplace 2010, what constitutes public buildings has been redefined, and they also come under building regulations when work is being carried out.

The scope of building regulations is extended to include the protection and enhancement of the environ­ment and the promotion of sustainable development. Although there is another debate to be had on the issues of sustainable development and renewable energy, measures to deliver sustainable energy homes have not thus far provided the sea change required to move towards carbon targets and homes that can cope with current oil and gas price increases.

A short-sighted building policy will cost the economy more in the longer term as it will miss the targets for the reduction of carbon emissions and incur EU fines. Once again the fuel poor will suffer most.

Sinn Féin broadly welcomes the measures outlined and in particular the fact that any future amendments to the legislation will be subjected to an equality impact assessment screening. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Beggs: First, I declare an interest as Carrickfergus Borough Council’s representative on the north eastern building control committee, which has some influence in the exercise of building control regulations.

I too give a general welcome to the proposals contained in the Bill with regard to increasing the sustainability of buildings. Those proposals bring the Northern Ireland legislation largely into line with that in Scotland, England, Wales and the Republic of Ireland. There are some relatively new proposals that will widen the scope of building regulations in the future. Those include the security of buildings, the detailed sustainability, the management of waste and the reuse and recycling of building materials.

The proposed legislation will make it an offence to provide deliberately either misleading or false inform­ation, as to do so could put people’s lives at risk. There are other shortcuts that can be used to reduce building costs, and it is important that designers and builders appreciate the seriousness of inappropriate action.

There is also a requirement for councils to keep records, which I found somewhat surprising — I would have thought that most councils already keep records — but if it improves the methods that are used to maintain records, it is to be welcomed.

It is essential that we all take action to reduce our carbon footprint. Given that a significant amount of energy is utilised in homes and other buildings, there needs to be greater scrutiny and regulation of building design.

Potentially, microgeneration is an area of contention. In July 2006, the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Peter Hain, announced that he would change the legislation to make microgeneration mandatory for all new builds from April 2008. The question is whether that is the best way of reducing energy consumption. There are serious doubts about that. In November 2007, I attended a Northern Ireland building control conference in Fermanagh. It was clear from talking to many of those present that there was a degree of scepticism about some of the ideas being floated, such as bolting a small windmill to the gable of a house. I understand that very few have been sold in Northern Ireland because they are just not practical.

The Construction Employers Federation (CEF) has indicated that in order to achieve lower carbon emissions in new homes:

“it is more cost effective to invest in the energy efficiency of the building including high insulation and airtightness rather than through micro-generation.”

We must get the basics right, and it would be wrong to give a message to the industry not to concentrate on the basics but to focus on microgeneration. Microgen­eration may become the sustainable way forward once the quality of buildings has improved substantially. At present, that is not the case.

In its press release, the federation noted that:

“initial indications are that the efficiency of a range of micro-generation technologies under trial was generally low. There were also practical issues such as potential for structural damage to brickwork and noise problems from wall mounted turbines.”

While those ideas may produce some wonderful visual images of houses with small windmills bolted to the gable walls, in reality they also create some practical problems that would have to be overcome.

There are, however, other methods of micro­generation that are feasible and much more practical and that are being driven by the private sector.

I noted in particular that, in many instances, the private sector installs solar heating, which is one of the more efficient and proven technologies.

Mr F McCann: With regard to the points raised by the Member, I heard an interesting news item concerning Antrim Area Hospital, where a wind turbine saved over £150,000 over a year, and electricity could be sold on to the grid. Should not most Government buildings follow that pattern in the provision of energy?

Mr Beggs: That turbine is large — 600-800 kilowatts. It is important that there is a balance between production and use of energy. Hospitals have a 24-hour energy requirement. Regrettably, however, many homes have a low daytime energy requirement, and are not in an efficient position to generate electricity.

I agree with the Member that Government must, in general, look to being more self-sustainable in their use of energy, and I expect that, over the next few years, the Northern Ireland Civil Service must examine the issue in respect of its entire estate. A sustainable and lower-carbon method must be found to heat buildings and sustain the work carried out in them.

Returning to microgeneration, a couple of issues are in danger of being linked. Last week I attended a meeting of the Northern Ireland Sustainable Energy Association in the Long Gallery. Its members were critical of the decision to remove the statutory requirement; however, they were even more sore over the decision not to renew the Reconnect programme at the moment. That grant-based system was there to encourage the private sector to move into microregeneration, and that issue should not be linked to the issue we now debate. The matter of providing grants to encourage the private sector to move into microregeneration is a separate, live, issue, which should be discussed and considered by another Department.

Given the rapid increase in fuel prices, it is important for our future that we sustain the industry, because this kind of technology reduces our energy use and contributes to a reduction in fuel poverty. On that issue, I welcome the announcement by the Minister for Social Develop­ment that she intends to introduce sustainable technology into newbuild housing.

Mr S Wilson: Does the Member accept that, although it is important that we make homes as energy efficient as possible, it is important to balance that with the need to ensure that the cost of building new homes is not so extravagant that it prevents many people from being able to buy them? Is he concerned that some major builders say that, were the full range of suggested measures to be implemented, a new home could cost an additional £45,000?

Mr Beggs: There must be a balance in this, as in everything else, particularly in regulations. Too often we look at the short term, at immediate prices. We must examine the long-term costs of running homes and buildings, because it might well be more efficient to increase insulation beyond mandatory levels. We must not be driven by basics or by what attracts first-time buyers. Good practice must be promoted and encouraged. If it were left to builders, the cheapest possible houses would be built, and we would be unable to meet our carbon-reduction targets.

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Nor would that provide for the future, given that energy is already very expensive and may become even more so. Therefore, it is important that we encourage gradually the continual upgrading of the standard of homes in Northern Ireland, and that should properly be done through building regulations and good practice. However, a great deal of education is needed for people in the building sector so that those such as architects and builders become better informed and include energy efficiency measures at an early design stage in order that costs may be kept down. There is a balance to be struck, but it would be wrong to allow the building sector to be the sole driver of the issue.

In making his announcement about curtailing micro-generation, the Minister said that he will consider over the next couple of years whether there is a need to further increase the building regulations, thus adding to the recent significant increases.

The new type approval was discussed earlier, and certainly, if someone has made detailed calculations and gained approval from a building control officer or department in one council area, I can see some logic in their questioning why they would have to go through a similar process in a neighbouring area. However, it must be ensured that there is good communication between all building control officers so that similarly high standards are applied throughout Northern Ireland. We want to avoid the situation whereby the lesser standards to which one particular council area agrees become the new standard for approvals in Northern Ireland. Hence, it is important that there is an overarching standard for planning approvals. That can be achieved through close communication between the building control sections in the different council areas of Northern Ireland.

The Committee for Finance and Personnel is just starting its scrutiny of the Bill. That will provide an opportunity for representatives of the industry, as well as environmentalists, to give evidence in writing or by other means. It is important that the issue is discussed thoroughly, and I hope that those who are passionate about it will make representations to the Committee. It is also important that the Committee is well informed, that the issues are aired and, if necessary, amendments are considered and agreed to. That is our role as a legislative Assembly, and I hope that the public and the industry will take up that opportunity.

I am generally content with the provisions of the Bill; however, I hope to hear the views of others to determine whether improvements to it can be made.

Mr O’Loan: In general, I support the principles of the Bill. It includes several clauses that deal with different matters, and I broadly support them all.

I want to discuss sustainability in particular; it is a key issue and the one with which the public will most engage. Climate change is a vital issue for us all. The fact that the climate is changing is no longer questioned, and there is very little debate about whether that change has been induced by humans. That creates a big responsibility for us all, given that the issue in question is nothing less than the sustainability of the planet. Looking globally, when one considers poverty and development issues, a moral dimension is brought into any discussion of climate change and the policy response to it. That added dimension means that the issue must be taken very seriously.

The SDLP takes climate change very seriously, and our manifesto contains several commitments on the matter.

We referred to introducing stronger targets and policies to meet international obligations on climate change and to promoting renewable energy sources, including wind power, tidal power and biomass. We also referred to the need to create a renewable energy plan for Northern Ireland. The entire issue needs to be seen in the round, of which this Bill is one part.

We mentioned the need to encourage micro­generation from renewable sources by providing financial incentives and talked about encouraging higher energy efficiency and the integration of micro-renewables in new and existing buildings — the very theme being discussed today.

I have long felt that there is scope for the building regulations to contribute more in this area. We have not met the best international standards, which relate to energy savings through insulation and more efficient heating systems. That is not the focus of this Bill, but they are extremely important in themselves, and measures have been taken in relation to those. Another aspect of building regulations is the move to renewables as low or zero-carbon sources of energy.

Mr Beggs referred to the Construction Employers Federation’s view that choice should not be at the expense of homeowners. It feels that the decision to use microgeneration should be made by the developer; it should not be made mandatory. The Construction Employers Federation believes that much of the renewable technology at micro level is not yet proven. Existing research done by the industry, in conjunction with the universities, needs to work its way through. The federation feels that it is better to let building regulations set the energy efficiency targets and to let the industry work out how to meet those.

That is one view, and it certainly should be listened to, but it is not the only view. There is a strong argument that, without microgeneration, we simply cannot achieve the carbon targets that have been set. Payback time is certainly one issue, but achieving the targets is another, and it may become the dominant issue.

Measures may be required that will be at the expense of developers and, ultimately, homeowners, but the reality of this issue needs to be recognised. We are talking about payback times, and those technologies will pay back. There is an argument that the more those technologies are put in place, the more they will be the subject of research and development in order to make them more efficient and more cost effective.

The Bill creates the right to make regulations, but it does not make the regulations. There is further scope for consultation on what particular regulations should be put in place, and further discretion around the timing of when those regulations should be brought in. As the Bill goes through Committee Stage, there will be the opportunity to listen to further views, and for the Committee to give consideration to those. In principle, however, the measures — particularly this sustainability measure — are sound.

Mr Lunn: The Alliance Party broadly supports the Bill. I note that neighbouring jurisdictions have already updated their legislation, so it is only right that Northern Ireland should do so too. We recognise that this legislation is based on several rounds of consultation with key stakeholders, which, I am sure, will continue throughout the Committee Stage.

There is plenty to welcome in the Bill, and we have only a few concerns. The Alliance Party welcomes the greater potential for the consideration of environmental and sustainability issues, and we note the enabling powers to make regulations regarding reused and recycled materials and energy efficiency. There may be a challenge as how to use those powers, but that is a challenge for the future.

We are concerned about the Finance Minister’s recent backtracking on renewable energy grants, which is not very encouraging. The argument is that there is a need to protect the flexibility of designers and developers. It is hard to reconcile that statement with this legislation.

Like others, the Alliance Party is concerned at the absence of a reference to microgeneration in the long list of energy technologies in the Bill. However, there is plenty to welcome, such as the commitment to protected buildings. There is great concern in the community at the regular loss of valuable buildings to developers, and we are certain that greater use should be made of existing structures through renovations.

The Alliance Party has some concerns about the proposal for type-approvals. We are worried that approval for a type of development in one area will bind the building approval process in other areas in relation to such developments. There is a need for safeguards in that respect, but we look forward to further details as the Bill progresses.

We note the change of emphasis from the “deemed-to-satisfy” provision to a guidance-based system, and the new offence of knowingly or recklessly supplying information to circumvent regulations. I wonder why that offence was not always included, but it is good to see it now.

I also note and welcome the Minister’s reference to buildings being occupied by the Crown as opposed to being owned by the Crown.

I apologise on behalf of Dr Farry who should have been in the Chamber to speak in the debate. The Alliance Party supports the Second Stage of the Building Regulations (Amendment) Bill, and I look forward to hearing more from the Minister in due course.

Mr S Wilson: Just on that point —

Mr Lunn: Which point?

Mr S Wilson: Does the Member find it odd that the Green Party Member is absent from the Chamber for the debate? Does he agree that one would have expected the Green Party representative to have rushed through the door to show his support for the measures being debated?

Mr McNarry: Sammy Wilson is the Green Party’s man of the year.

Mr S Wilson: I have to speak up for the Green Party now.

Mr Lunn: Sammy Wilson may well have to speak up for the Green Party; I do not. I understand that Brian Wilson and Dr Farry have important business to attend to in North Down this morning. I am sure that the Member will sympathise with that; one cannot be everywhere. I am a poor substitute for Dr Farry, not for the Green Party.

Mr P Robinson: The Member for East Antrim should hand back the award that he recently received to the Green Party in protest at its Member’s absence from this morning’s useful debate. It is a dry subject, and I know that the people in the Gallery were not sitting on the edge of their seats waiting for the next word to be uttered. However, in practical terms, the Bill is important. Members — particularly those of us who have been through district councils — will be aware of the importance of the building control functions.

I will do my best to respond to as many of the issues that I picked out during Members’ speeches. I hope that Members will appreciate that if I do not address all concerns now, I will scan the Hansard report and respond to any that I missed.

I thank the Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel. I note that the Chairperson is not with us; he must have had a good time in Dublin, and the Dublin hangover must have lasted a bit longer than was expected. I thank the Committee for its support in looking at the issues relating to the Bill, and we will be happy to work with them during the further stages of the Bill.

Mr Storey mentioned microgeneration — an issue that was touched on by a number of Members during the progression of the Bill. The value of microgeneration to the construction industry is still in its early stages. Let me be clear: there is no question of my having done an about-turn on microgeneration, and I have noted that in papers on several occasions. I did not introduce the mandatory requirement for micro­generation in the first instance; I suspect that it was a hobby horse that was being ridden by a former Minister.

It is not the right time to make microgeneration compulsory, because the technology is not sufficiently advanced or the costs sufficiently low for us to make it mandatory. Some people say that it would put a heavy burden on the construction industry and that builders can afford it, but I assure the House that the builders would not carry the burden; they would pass it on. Mandatory microgeneration, therefore, would lead to higher house prices.

The power to regulate performance standards in making microgeneration systems mandatory may well be exercised in the future.

That will depend very much on the industry and on the costs attached to it. However, I am content that setting challenging emission targets for new buildings is the best approach to adopt at the moment.

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I welcome Mr Beggs’ remarks. By and large, he was right about the issue. There is scope for architects and builders to adopt a flexible approach that enables them to incorporate cost-effective energy efficiency measures, such as higher standards of thermal installation or renewable technologies — or a combination of both — should they wish to achieve the emission targets.

Mr Fra McCann must be an early riser, because he referred to an item about Antrim Area Hospital on this morning’s ‘Good Morning Ulster’. I also heard that item and thought that it was interesting. The hospital installed a wind turbine and reduced its costs by around £150,000. It also contributed towards its income by a further £50,000 by selling power back to the grid. I cannot remember the exact size of the wind turbine, but I think that it was between 130 ft and 140 ft high. Such a wind turbine could not be installed on every house in Northern Ireland nor on every Government building, as was suggested. There is value in wind turbines, and Government buildings could consider using that kind of energy in specific circumstances, but I am not sure whether a wind turbine should be installed on top of Parliament Buildings. However, it has been suggested that a wind turbine could be installed in the Chamber as we could generate enough power to light up the whole of Belfast.

Mr F McCann: Especially if Sammy is in the Chamber.

Mr P Robinson: I do not think that he would be the lone contributor to such power.

Declan O’Loan raised matters about zero-carbon systems. There is nothing to prevent builders from incorporating low- or zero-carbon systems into new or existing buildings. In fact, the amendment to the building regulations made in November 2006 sets targets that should reduce emissions to 40% below previous levels. Therefore, there is some flexibility in the system. I have asked officials to progress another amendment to reduce emissions from new buildings by a further 25%.

The Member for North Antrim Mr Storey, who was acting in his role as the Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel, dealt with issues relating to the serving of contravention notices. Building control officers will remain empowered to serve contravention notices when work is ongoing; they have up to 18 months after completion of the work in which to do so. We propose to retain the right to serve contravention notices at any stage during the construction process and to amend the period within which building control officers may issue such a notice — setting a longstop of 12 months from the date that the district council receives notification of the completion of the building. That period is in line with the defects liability period in normal building contracts.

Mr Beggs and my colleague Mr Storey raised the issue about some councils not holding registers, but I think that they all hold them. The requirement in the Bill will ensure that there is some conformity about the information that councils hold on their registers. At least that will provide a default position so that councils can fulfil a basic requirement on the registers.

Mr Storey also raised an issue about type approvals. District councils will have to consult with other affected district councils on type approvals. That touches on a matter that was also raised by Mr Beggs, who was concerned that we might end up with a lower standard of approval in some areas. When a type approval is being sought, the applicant will be required to indicate which council area from which they wish to seek approval. Therefore, there would then be contact between those two areas.

There are also matters, such as fees and fee sharing, that it will be necessary to deal with using subordinate legislation, and, at the appropriate time, I will be happy to work with the Committee to address those matters.

The Member for West Belfast Jennifer McCann spoke about new zero-carbon buildings, which I touched on; however, I wish to stress that building regulations apply to new buildings, which comprise only about 2% of the total stock, and, therefore, we should not get carried away too much.

I have dealt with the issues raised by Mr Beggs.

Mr Lunn gave the impression that he was suggesting that the Minster was backtracking on renewable-energy grants. I assume that he was referring to the Reconnect grant scheme, which was a direct rule proposal and is due to end in March. That is a matter for the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI), and it is not the responsibility of the Department of Finance and Personnel. Coincidentally, last Friday, in my constituency advice centre, a constituent expressed concern about that matter and the hope that consideration might be given to extending that scheme for a further period. Therefore, in my capacity as a constituency MP, I wrote to the appropriate Minister to ascertain whether that matter has been assessed. Mr Speaker, I trust that that was a deft piece of buck passing. That matter is not my responsibility, and I would not wish to step onto anyone else’s territory.

I thank Members for contributing to the debate, and, because of the subject matter, I was surprised that so many people took part. The debate was good, and several important matters were addressed. I am satisfied that when the amendments are enacted, the building regulations regulatory framework will be stronger and more effective. Such regulations are in everybody’s interests because they help to ensure our health, safety, welfare and convenience in and around buildings, as well as contributing to the important goal of saving fuel and power.

Question put and agreed to.


That the Second Stage of Building Regulations (Amendment) Bill (NIA 11/07) be agreed.

Mr Speaker: That concludes the Second Stage of the Building Regulations (Amendment) Bill [NIA 11/07]. The Bill stands referred to the Committee for Finance and Personnel.

Public Health (Amendment) Bill

Consideration Stage

Mr Speaker: I remind Members that the Consideration Stage is intended to enable the Assembly to debate any amendments to the Bill. As no amendments have been tabled, there will be no opportunity to discuss the Public Health (Amendment) Bill [NIA 8/07] today. Of course, Members will have the opportunity to fully debate the Bill at the Final Stage. Therefore, by leave of the Assembly, I propose to group the Bill’s two clauses for the Question on stand part, followed by the Question on the long title.

Clauses 1 and 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Long title agreed to.

Mr Speaker: That concludes the Consideration Stage of the Public Health (Amendment) Bill [NIA 8/07]. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker.

Ministerial Statement

Post-Primary Transfer

Mr Speaker: I have received notice from the Minister of Education that she wishes to make a statement about the structure to set in train an area-based look at provision in the post-primary phase.

The Minister of Education (Ms Ruane): Go raibh maith agat. On 4 December 2007, I set out my vision for the future structure for education in the North.

Ó shin, bhuail mé le hoideachasóirí, múinteoirí, ceardchumainn agus, go háirithe, le tuismitheoirí agus daoine óga a thuigeann go bhfuil níos mó i gceist sa phacáiste leasuithe atá beartaithe ná aistriú go hiarbhunscoileanna.

Since then, I have met educationalists, teachers, trade unions and, most importantly, parents and young people, who have not simply reduced the proposed reform package to the issue of transfer to post-primary schools. There is much more to what we propose than the important question of transfer. I have set out the need for new transfer arrangements within a much wider, progressive reform agenda, embracing demographic decline and the delivery of a new, expanded curriculum.

Effective area-based plans are central to that and need to be drawn up. Area-based planning has found broad support across the education spectrum. We need to quickly press ahead with this agenda in order to plan and deliver the curriculum to all young people, be they rural- or urban-based, Irish- or English-speaking. Such planning will ensure that schools collaborate and guide future investment.

This is the way to deliver effective, modern education — and that is what this is about. The entitlement framework is designed to ensure that, when it comes to making decisions at 14 and again at 16, all young people will have a much broader choice. Currently, that choice is too restricted in many schools. Some young people have as few as eight subjects to choose from at A level. We propose that young people have a choice of at least 24 courses at Key Stage 4, and 27 at 16, with a balance that ensures that at least one third are academic, at least a third vocational or technical, and the rest made up of an appropriate combination.

Ach deirim seo: ní thig linn a leithéid de churaclam leathnaithe a sholáthar muna mbíonn scoileanna agus coláistí ag comhobair agus ag roinnt áiseanna agus eolais. Ní bheadh an t-airgead ann lena dhéanamh. Ach cuirfidh pleanáil éifeachtach atá bunaithe sa cheantar ar ár gcumas córas roghanna agus áiméar den chineál a sholáthar.

Let me be clear: we cannot deliver such an expanded curriculum without schools and colleges co-operating and sharing facilities and expertise. It would be financially impossible. However, through effective area-based planning, we can deliver such a system of choices and opportunities. Local expertise, knowledge and energy, including contributions from local educationalists and parents during the consultation process, will be crucial in all of that.

In December 2007, I promised to update the Assembly on how we would advance area-based planning in the post-primary sector. Having already briefed the Chairperson of the Education Committee, this morning I met members of the Committee, and I thank them all for that. I have shared my thoughts on the issue with the Minister for Employment and Learning. I now set out how we will organise the process.

As the role of the education and skills authority is central, the timing is related to its establishment in April 2009. Full area-based plans covering pre-school, primary and post-primary sectors on the model outlined are not expected to be in place until 2010 at the earliest. How­ever, it is my intention, given the need to address issues of transfer and offer young people the choice that they need at 14, to make the delivery of the entitlement framework mandatory from 2013, and consequently to introduce the first election at 14 at that time.

To meet that timescale, I am announcing a post-primary area-based planning process which will proceed from next year, in advance of full area-based planning. This will be used to identify the structural change required for the delivery to every young person of election at 14 and the entitlement framework from 2013.

The full area-based planning criteria will be decided through a short consultation process. The main elements in the proposed approach to area-based planning are: a central role for the education and skills authority in the production of draft area plans, within a policy framework set by the Department of Education; the importance of sustainable schools, a new policy on which will be published shortly; a process including asset manage­ment, development of area plans, strategic investment plans and project appraisal; consultation on an area and sub-area basis, involving the sectors and the schools; and plans that cover all forms of schools and the contribution of DEL and the FE sector in the process.

11.30 am

The area-based planning process for the post-primary sector will be initiated and driven by a representative central group that will be independently chaired. The group will involve one senior figure from each of the education and library boards, the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools trustees, Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta, the Governing Bodies Association and the Council for Integrated Education. It will include a representative from the trade unions; a representative from the Education and Training Inspectorate; representatives from DEL and the Association of Colleges in the North; an educational expert from the South; and a representative from the team that is working to set up the education and skills authority.

That central group will be complemented by five specific area groups, which will be chaired by an independent person and involve a representative from each of the sectors and the further education sector. It will be the responsibility of those groups to consult with the sectors and the schools and to submit preliminary area-based plans for approval by the central group. In addition, schools in local areas may act collectively to bring forward their own proposals to the area-based groups for consideration.

Chun críocha riaracháin, tá na grúpaí bunaithe sa cheantar seo eagraithe ar theorainneacha na mbord oideachais agus leabharlainne atá ann cheana féin, ach, más gá, rachaidh fo-cheantair trasna na dteorainneacha seo.

Although the area-based groups are organised using existing education and library board boundaries for the purposes of administration, sub-areas will cross those boundaries where necessary. The approach to boundaries will have to be flexible, given that the maintained sector uses diocesan and parish boundaries, and that planning must take account of the flows of children, rather than fixed boundaries.

The terms of reference for the central group and the five area groups will be published this week. They will require those groups to develop plans capable of delivering the most dynamic, vibrant and effective schools to be accessed by transfer at age 11, and of offering the post-14 curriculum pathway that is appropriate to the young person. The task is to ensure that young people can access the education pathway that is most suited to their needs through the flexible organisation of an area’s schools and including collaboration with local further education colleges.

The work at central and local levels will take full account of the existing school structures; existing approvals for school capital projects; existing sectoral plans for development; existing further education provision; data on existing and projected enrolments; data on performance and other aspects of quality; progress towards the provision of the entitlement framework; the impact of and on transport policy; opportunities to promote sustainable schools and sharing between schools; and opportunities for mergers or federations in the development of learning communities.

I will shortly announce the membership of the central and area groups; the chairpersons will be announced before the end of this week. The area groups will be asked to report their progress to the central group at regular intervals and to submit final reports to it by the end of October. I expect the central group to submit complete area-based plans to the Department so that those can go out to consultation immediately after that. I want the consultation process on the completed area plans to be finished by January 2009.

Tá mé muiníneach gur céim mhór chun tosaigh na pleananna seo i bpróiseas na pleanála bunaithe sa cheantar; ar ndóigh, rachaidh an próiseas sin thar an earnáil iarbhunscolaíochta go gach earnáil ón bhliain dhá mhíle a naoi.

I am confident that the plans will be a major advance in the overall area-based planning process, which will of course extend beyond the post-primary sector from 2009. I have stated many times that it is not a question of advocating a one-size-fits-all system. Indeed, the delivery of essential curriculum reform and a structured response to demographic decline make area-based planning essential. Individual schools cannot be expected to deliver such expanded choices alone. The delivery of the entitlement framework requires area-level planning of provision in order to succeed and deliver for young people.

Dealing with the effects of demographic decline also requires an area-based planning response. At the same time as the entitlement framework calls for an expansion of post-14 provision, falling pupil numbers are restricting the range of provision that many schools can offer. That restriction is already being felt.

Secondary schools have borne the brunt of falling rolls, while the grammar-school sector has lowered entrance requirements to lessen the effects of demographic decline. Even without the need to expand post-14 provision, school viability will require the education sectors in all areas to plan the future of an area’s provision together.

Those proposals are about providing greater choice, opportunities and flexibility for young students — and I am glad to see some of those young students here today. I also expect those plans to be a major step in delivering a modern education service for all young people, now and in the decades to come, thereby reversing the tail of educational underachievement that has been the reality for many passing through our current system.

I encourage everyone in the Assembly to play a constructive role in the process as together we shape an education system for the future. Go raibh maith agat.

The Chairperson of the Committee for Education (Mr S Wilson): I start by thanking the Minister for giving the Committee the opportunity to have a preview of her statement this morning. The Committee appreciated the fact that it had an early warning and an opportunity to speak to the Minister about the proposals. That is the end of the compliments, by the way.

Committee members recognise that, at a time when there is demographic decline and a need for a widening of the curriculum, there will be a requirement to change the school estate. The Committee and I have a number of concerns about the Minister’s statement. I will outline three of those concerns, and I know that Members will want to raise other issues.

First, the Minister said that this post-primary area-based planning:

“will be used to identify the structural change required for the delivery to every young person of election at 14 and the entitlement framework from 2013”.

The Minister’s preferred option is for provision for ages 11 to 14, and then for ages 14 to 19 in the post-primary sector. However, that is not the preferred option of many of the parties in the Assembly, nor has the proposal been agreed by the Assembly. Will the Minister assure us that the terms of reference of the area-based planning groups will not be such that they will pre-empt the Assembly’s view on her plans for schools for 11-14 schools and for 14-19 schools and that local areas will have the ability to choose the structure they want?

Secondly, the Minister said that the central planning group will comprise representatives from all the various sectors — there will even be a representative from the Republic of Ireland. However, the one group that is not mentioned is the Protestant Churches, which has a big role to play in education provision in Northern Ireland. Will the Minister assure us that that oversight will be remedied before the composition of the group is finally decided?

Thirdly, the central group will be obliged to consult all the various providers, but, as we know, some providers have run ahead of other providers in various parts of Northern Ireland. What does consultation mean, and at what point will the central group or the area-based planning group be able to intervene in the plans of another body, if those plans are seen to be detrimental to the provision of schools in other sectors?

The Committee will wish to ask the Minister many other question as the process continues, but, for now, I would like the Minister to provide assurance on those three points.

Ms Ruane: Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Chairperson of the Committee for Education for his questions. My meeting with the Committee this morning was useful, and I will take on board many of the Committee’s comments.

You asked about structural change and the terms of reference. I do not know where you got the idea that 11-14 schools are my option. I have always said that a one-size-fits-all system is not what is needed. I have also always said that different solutions will be required for different areas. Furthermore, I have always said that I want to ensure that all the different options are kept open.

The terms of reference will be published this week. I assure the Chairperson that some of the areas that we will be considering include access to 11-19 schools; transfers to alternative schools at age 14; and access across the learning community, which involves collaborative arrangements between groups of schools and the FE sector. There have already been good practice and collaborative arrangements between those learning communities. We will also consider provisions for 11-14 schools and 14-19 schools within an area.

Sin an chéad cheist, agus anois an dara ceist.

The second question was about the central planning group and the Protestant Churches. The education and library boards will be represented on that group, and we should not pre-empt who they will nominate. I assure the Member that the chairpersons who are appointed will be broadly reflective of society, and Protestant Churches will be included in that.

You talked about different sectors running ahead. Although, in the past, different sectors have done good work, there were instances in which different plans were made for children across those sectors. For the first time, we will now have a process in which the different sectors are sitting down together.

Proposals have been produced, for example, in Fermanagh, where the education and library board has been conducting pre-consultation exercises. The Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) has also produced proposals for consultation. Both have said that they will take into account, and be part of, the area-based planning process.

Therefore, there is consensus in the House and among educationalists on the need for area-based planning, especially given the demographic decline in the system.

Mr Speaker: I remind Members that this is an opportunity to ask questions, not to make further statements.

Mrs O’Neill: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for her statement and for meeting the Committee this morning. I also thank Committee members for the constructive way in which they engaged with the Minister.

In recent months, I have learned of a number of proposals, including plans for an educational village at the Lisanelly site in Omagh and a cross-sectoral proposal in Moy, both of which are progressive. Will the Minister confirm whether those types of naturally grown proposals will be welcomed by the subgroups that will be set up, and also by her Department?

Ms Ruane: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I have met the representatives of the Omagh group of educationalists, who were from different sectors, different schools and different Christian Churches. It was good to see the work that they have done.

I know that there is an adjournment debate in the House this evening on Lisanelly, and I look forward to contributing to it. That is precisely the type of collaboration that we are considering. We need to try to build support, with the different sectors having their schools, but also maximum collaboration between and among schools.

Omagh is not the only area in which there are models of good practice; there have been models of good practice in Ballymena, there have been learning communities in Ballyclare and there has been collaboration between the post-primary and further education sectors in Newry.

The terms of reference and the new groups will aim to build on good practice in areas where there is an organic coming together. Local groups will be encouraged to produce their ideas, and there will be maximum consultation. At the end of the day, educationalists are the people who understand the issues, as they have been delivering at the coalface for many years. They understand the needs of the system and the importance of working together.

I would expect any group working in the Western Education and Library Board area to consider the proposals for Omagh. However, I do not want to pre-empt any decisions. It is for the working group to make proposals, all of which I will consider. The point is that there will be consensus and a dynamic period throughout the North, in which, for the first time ever, many — though not all — sectors will come together to plan the schools estate.

11.45 am

Mr K Robinson: I thank the Minister for bringing her statement home to the Assembly at long last. Members expected a proposal on 29 February, as this is a leap year. However, we did not get it; we were sorely disappointed. The roses did not arrive either, by the way.

Mr S Wilson: Would we have accepted them had they arrived?

Mr K Robinson: Of course.

Recently, the Education Committee travelled to the city of Londonderry, where it saw collaboration among all sectors; it also heard of examples in the Limavady area. Can the Minister assure the House that she will build on that good practice and will not force a template upon areas that already tackle their own particular needs?

Did the Minister present the document to the Executive at their last meeting? Has she also spoken to and shown a copy of the document to the Minister for Employment and Learning? It is my understanding that the Minister for Employment and Learning has not agreed to anything at present and will not do so until he has carefully studied all the details. He reserves his position until then.

My colleague Sammy Wilson raised two points about transferors’ representatives and another point about the situation in Fermanagh, to which I want to refer. Can the Minister assure the House that rather than boards making representations on behalf of transferors, transferors will have representation in their own right on the area boards? That is most important in overcoming mistrust.

Ms Ruane: It would have been dangerous for me to make the proposals on 29 February; I might have been tempted to propose to certain Members. I wanted to resist that temptation. [Laughter.]

Mr Storey: The Minister knows what the answer would be. [Laughter.]

Ms Ruane: Thanks, Mervyn. I have, however, brought the proposals to the House today, and I apologise if they are three days or two and a half days or two and a quarter days late. They are here now.

I absolutely agree with the Member: interesting work on collaboration is being done in Limavady. Visiting one of the town’s schools, I was struck that children were wearing four different uniforms — those of schools from different sectors, including a special school. The children all worked together.

During a discussion with the teachers, I asked them how they found the situation. They replied that although it had been a long process, it worked well. I asked the young people how they found it. They said that it was great, because they no longer had to pass by one another’s school gates feeling like “others”. It was encouraging to hear the young people say that it was great to know children from other schools and to have been to every other school and that they wanted the arrangement to continue. They had no worries whatsoever. It was lovely to see how the education of children from the local special school was part and parcel of the arrangement. That is how the system should progress.

Before the debate, I sent a copy of the document to every one of my MLA colleagues. Yesterday, I discussed the proposals with Reg Empey, although I accept that he has not agreed to every aspect of them. However, as I said, I have shared the proposals with him. He agrees that further education must be an important part of any discussion, and we will examine existing further education plans. I will also bring those proposals before the Executive. Formulation of policies is at an early stage.

Mr K Robinson: With all due respect to the Minister, she did not answer my question on transferors.

Ms Ruane: I have already answered the question on transferors.

Mr D Bradley: Go raibh míle maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Tá ceist agam faoin amscála agus faoi pholasaí na scoileanna incothaithe.

As the sustainable schools policy is the foundation stone of area-based planning, can the Minister give the Assembly a date when it will become available?

Given that the consultation on area-based planning will not end until January 2009, after which further time will be taken to make a final decision, is the Minister concerned — as many others are — that there is not enough time for post-primary area-based planning to be implemented in time for the transfer of pupils in 2010? Go raibh maith agat.

Ms Ruane: Go raibh maith agat. A new policy on sustainable schools will be published soon; that issue was dealt with in the Education Committee today.

The process is evolving, dynamic and will feed into the wider area-based planning process. However, this is a good start. Members from all sides of the House have called on me to bring forward these proposals; I have now done so, and I am confident that we can make progressive changes in our education system in the required timescale. However, that change is evolving and 2010 and 2013 are key dates. I ask that all Members work with me on this and, from the good discussion in the Education Committee meeting this morning, I can see that there is broad agreement on how to advance area-based planning, despite slight differences in emphasis.

Mr Lunn: I apologise for my absence from the Committee meeting this morning — I might have heard something that I have not heard today.

The Alliance Party broadly welcomes the Minister’s statement. The buzzwords seem to be “collaboration” and “good practice”. The Minister has acknowledged that the delivery of the expanding curriculum is impossible without extensive co-operation between schools and colleges, particularly across the sectors.

Although I welcome the statement, I share the concerns that have been expressed — I did not hear the Minister answer the question about transferors, so I ask it again.

We understand that people want a balanced curri­culum, but how does the Minister think that subjects can be categorised as exclusively academic, vocational or technical? For example, in which category is physics? The first selection at 14 years of age will be in 2013, and the last 11-plus examination will be in November 2008, so there will be a five-year gap. Will the Minister clarify what will happen in that period?

Ms Ruane: Mr Lunn’s words on collaboration and good practice were more of a comment than a question. I view collaboration as good practice; some of the most dynamic collaboration that I have seen has resulted in vibrant schools. I refer to collaboration in the post-primary sector as well as between the post-primary and the further-education sectors. I saw tremendous collaboration between schools and educationalists through use of the internet — one young person in Ashfield Girls’ High School, who was probably one of many, did one of her courses through technology, which is one of the ways to expand the curriculum.

I categorise curriculum subjects as technical and professional for ease of reference and understanding, but the Member is correct — a tiler must have good vocational skills as well as good mathematical skills, and an engineer requires good vocational skills as well as good scientific and mathematical skills. I take the Member’s point. We try to ensure that vocational qualifications are given the esteem that they deserve and have not been given in the past. That is something that we are changing.

I was at the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition in Dublin and saw Abbey Christian Brothers’ Grammar School in Newry do very well in the technology section. That was good to see. The more that that type of thing happens, the more all our young people benefit.

I assure Members that there will be broad-based representation in the central planning group. People will see that when I announce the chair­persons and how we intend to move forward.

The age of 14 is already an important stage in the system at which major decisions on education pathways are made and young people decide which subjects to pursue. It is an informed and uncontentious elective process. They decide whether to study triple award science, extra maths, art, engineering, technology, home economics or whatever. I am confident that the system allows sufficient time for such decisions.

During my discussions with educationalists, I was struck by their huge knowledge of the system. As they work in the system daily, they understand its needs and deficits, and there is a very mature discussion with educationalists ongoing.

I want admissions criteria regulations to have the support of stakeholders and the approval of the Assembly, but such consensus takes time to develop. It can be frustrating but, as Trevor Lunn will agree, building consensus with the educationalists is the fastest route to the safest and surest system.

Mr Storey: I am glad that the Minister knows the difference between collusion and collaboration.

I do not accept that the manner in which the Minister brought the matter to the House today in any way fulfils what she said when she appeared before the Committee for Education on 31 January. She told the Committee that her statement would cover “area-based planning” and its “terms of reference”. She further stated:

“I will engage with the Committee on this matter before I make that statement.”

People cannot believe a word that the Minister says.

Given that the Minister missed an opportunity to outline her proposal on 29 February 2008, I assume that she thinks that this is a shotgun wedding. I assure her —

Mr Speaker: Please ask a question.

Mr Storey: I assure the Minister that the mood music is no different in relation to the outstanding issues.

In the past three years, 20 controlled schools and five maintained schools have closed. Will the Minister today place a moratorium on the closure, or the proposed closure, of any more schools? For example, there are proposals to close Maghera High School and schools in Fermanagh and other areas. Will she draw a line under school closures because, as the Chairperson of the Committee said, other sectors have moved ahead on selection?

Are Members to believe that the policy on sustainable schools that was published in April 2007 has been binned? The Committee has not been consulted; the Minister has not given a response, and her statement today states:

“the importance of sustainable schools, a new policy on which will be published shortly”.

What is going on? Is the document of April 2007 being binned? In contrast to her vision, which remains misty, will the Minister give Members a clear answer?

Ms Ruane: Go raibh maith agat. Members could have a long debate on collusion, but this is neither the place nor the time.

I found this morning’s meeting with the Committee for Education useful, and I am sorry that Mr Storey did not. The tone of the debate demonstrates that there is broad consensus on how to progress area-based planning.

I am not into shotguns in any context — and certainly not shotgun weddings. I like to take my time to plan, which is what I did, and I brought the resulting carefully considered statements to the House today. I am sorry that the Member does not agree. People can see that my Department is introducing a robust series of policies, such as every school should be a good school and the vision of area-based planning that I outlined on 4 December 2007, of which sustainable schools will be part.

As the Member is on the Committee for Education, he knows that it is not me who brings forward proposals for school closure: that is done by the various sectoral groups, such as the CCMS.

Then there is a period of consultation, and I make a decision. However, the process is initiated by the different sectors, such as Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta, NICIE, the boards or the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools.

12.00 noon

If the Member had stayed at the meeting this morning, he might have heard more of the proposals that I was presenting. However, I appreciate that people —

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

Mr Speaker: I will not take a point of order during a ministerial statement. I will be happy to take it afterwards.

Ms Ruane: I appreciate that Members are busy. Having said that, I have engaged with the Committee for Education at every turn. I have attended more than seven times — probably more often than most Ministers attend their respective Committees — and I plan to continue engaging with it. My officials have attended the Committee nearly every week to discuss key issues, and I am delighted that they have done so, because it is important that all these policies be developed. Of course there will be before-and-after consultation with the Committee on any of the policies. I thank the Member for his comments, and I ask him to join the rest of us in developing proposals with area-based planning.

Mr W Clarke: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for her statement, and I pay tribute to her for her diligence in relation to this matter. First, will she confirm that rural communities will not be disadvantaged by the area-based planning process? Secondly, parents have expressed concern about postcode selection to me and to many other Members. Minister, can you confirm that area-based planning will ensure that that does not happen? Go raibh maith agat.

Ms Ruane: Go raibh maith agat. First, I can confirm that rural areas will play a major role in any area-based planning. I will take account of urban and rural areas when nominating group chairpersons, because, for too long in the North, rural areas have been treated as poor cousins. I aim to ensure that that will no longer be the case. One reason why I chose this particular model was to ensure that, as well as a central group, there would be five local groups to take account of all the different areas, many of which are rural.

As for your question about postcode selection, there are a couple of key points that I want to make. If schools work together, our system has the capacity for areas to respond to, and manage, the ranges of educational choices that pupils will make at 14 and 11. Any method of academic selection will perpetuate social selection. Only access by choice, within a system that is flexible enough to deliver that choice, can truly ensure that access is equal.

Finally, the development of organisational flexibility is crucial. I accept that it will take time, but area-based planning will be central to developing that flexibility. Local solutions will be part of that flexibility. To return to your first point, rural — as well as urban — areas will be part of the area-based planning process. Go raibh maith agat.

Miss McIlveen: The Minister said that the area-based planning process will be initiated and driven by a representative central group. First, I note that a single representative from each sector will be present, irrespective of the size of the different sectors’ schools estates. To put that in the context of the Assembly, the Green Party would have a seat on the Executive. Will the Minister ensure that each sector is fairly represented?

Secondly, Members are being asked to agree to groups being set up, although no one, bar the Minister, knows what the remit of those groups will be. In the spirit of transparency, will she detail the terms of reference today — not some time later this week?

Ms Ruane: It is important that all sectors be represented in the central group.

A good, mature discussion is going on at the moment involving part of the central group and the local groups; it will involve education and library boards, the CCMS, Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta, the integrated sector and the trade unions. We need maximum collaboration based on respect and equality rather than talk about who is bigger, smaller, weaker or stronger; that is how we will progress. I am delighted that the different sectors will participate, as that is very important. Anyone working in education must take part. It must be cohesive and small enough to get the work done, but it must also be representative, and I assure the Member that it will be representative.

I will announce the terms of reference shortly. I will, however, ensure that the Chairperson of the Committee for Education sees the terms of reference before the announcement, and he can circulate them. I will also announce the chairpersons shortly.

Mr McCallister: The Minister and I represent the same large rural constituency. How does she hope to address the new transport demands, especially in rural areas where closures and amalgamations brought about by the proposals will mean that children will have to be transported over greater distances and, in some cases, considerable distances?

Ms Ruane: Go raibh maith agat. Sin ceist an-tábhachtach. That is a very important question. Transport is one of the key areas that must be looked at. Depending on the arrangements — and I do not want to pre-empt those in any area — some children may have to travel further, but in most cases there will be less transport. The beauty of area-based planning is that that is exactly what it is. Although children will have a choice of what type or sector of school they attend, there will be far fewer buses and children passing one another on their way to their respective schools, many travelling to Belfast. Far too many children spend far too much time on buses. From the constituency that we share, John will know that many children spend an hour or an hour and twenty minutes on buses travelling to school — and that is only one way.

I have said before that I could probably do more to clear the roads than Conor Murphy. Everyone recognises that it is important that our —

Mr McNarry: Will the Minister give way?

Ms Ruane: May I finish my point without interruption, David? You will have an opportunity to make a point or to ask a question.

Transport will be considered by the local and central groups as it is a key area in education.

Mr Speaker: I remind Members that they may not intervene during a ministerial statement.

Mrs M Bradley: I share some of John McCallister’s concerns. At first glance, it is clear that area-based planning will require investment. Has the Minister sought an assurance from the Minister of Finance and Personnel — or been given such an assurance — on the additional transport and investment costs needed?

Ms Ruane: An estimate of costs can be produced only when the area-based planning process has developed plans for all areas. However, the notions of massive restructuring and huge costs that we have seen in some of the media are wildly inaccurate. The proposed reforms assume affordable costs for sound reasons. We all know that we face restructuring investment because of the need for sustainability, and that investment can help to deliver my reforms. We should not forget, first, that school collaboration offers flexibility without major restructuring; and secondly, that due to surplus capacity, we have great potential for flexibility already.

Issues of cost are at the heart of my progressive reforms. Our system wastes money; unreformed, it will waste more. Broadly, two thirds of our post-primary schools are undersubscribed and a quarter is less than three quarters full — and that is before the full demographic decline reaches in our post-primary schools. Members are presuming that there will be more transport costs: equally, there may be fewer. We will consider the proposals when they are produced.

At the appropriate moment, I will engage in the appropriate way with my colleagues on the Executive, including my colleague, the Minister of Finance and Personnel.

Ms J McCann: I warmly welcome this being the first time that all the sectors will be sitting down together to plan the educational future of children in any area. Does the Minister feel that this is a welcome development that can only enhance educational provision in any area?

Ms Ruane: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. It is exciting that all sectors are going to be sitting down together and, for the first time, planning our schools estate. There have been models of good practice and they were a vanguard, and fair play to them. We can learn from where there has been good practice. This will mean that we can provide a broader, flexible and more stimulating education for all our children. It will mean that we can celebrate academic success in our system but begin to deal with the tail of underachievement. I know that everyone in this House agrees with me that we need to deal with that tail of underachievement. We need to give every one of our young people the opportunities that they deserve. We need to stem the flow of 12,000 people leaving school without a GCSE in English and maths because that state of affairs is just not fair. We are on the cusp of something very exciting and I am looking forward to working with all of you in that. I do sense a different tone in this House today and I welcome that tone because I sense that there is also a realism about the need for us to bring about changes — although there are a few notable exceptions to the tone. [Laughter.]

Mr Ross: I too have concerns about the focus in the Minister’s statement on transfer at 14.

The Minister said that she might not bring forward the proposals to close schools yet that she favours area-based planning. Therefore, can the Minister not instruct those bodies that there are to be no further closures until the area plans are developed? I noted that the Minister did not answer the question from Mr Ken Robinson about the representative central committee. There is no specific mention of Protestant clergy even though the Protestant clergy have had a massive role in education in Northern Ireland over many years. Although the Minister did refer to the education and library boards being able to appoint clergy, there is no guarantee of that being the case. Is that not, therefore, a gap in her proposals, especially since she said that she will appoint someone from the South — by which I presume she means Irish Republic rather than Newry or Fermanagh? Is it not the fact that she has simply overlooked the Protestant clergy in her proposals, and should she not now amend them to include Protestant clergy so that she does not start another unnecessary fight with the Unionist community and the Protestant Churches?

Ms Ruane: Some people think I favour transfer at 14, some people within the Member’s party think that I favour transfer at 11. What I have said is that I have kept all options open: 11 to 14; 14 to 19; 11 to 19; 16 to 19. People should be clear about that. It will be different depending on where you live: what school a child goes to; what further education college is available in your area, and what collaboration is happening.

Area-based planning does not necessarily mean school closures. However, we do have to recognise, as George Bain has made clear, that we quite simply have too many schools given the demographic decline at the moment. Demographic decline, particularly in the post-primary sector, will increase over the next few years. At the same time, we have to expand post-14 provision and ensure that all children have access to the education they need in a flourishing educational environment. Area-based planning is a key to achieving this. I reiterate: it is not I who brings forward proposals. Obviously, we are now moving into a period of area-based planning and all the sectors working on their proposals will be a part of that.

I have said that all Churches will be represented, and that will be seen when I present my choice of chairpersons.

Please do not try to create an issue that does not exist.

When I refer to the South, I mean the South of Ireland. In future I will be more explicit and I will use the terms North of Ireland and South of Ireland to provide clarity; but yes, there will be a representative from the South of Ireland on the representative central committee.

12.15 pm

Mr Butler: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil leis an Aire as a ráiteas.

I thank the Minister for making her statement on area-based planning. I am sorry that I missed the Committee meeting this morning — [Interruption.]

I was at Lagan Valley Hospital trying with my fellow MLAs trying to fight the proposed cuts — [Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order.

Mr Butler: There seems to have been a mixed response at this morning’s Committee meeting. When the Committee met on 29 February, some members were hoping that the Minister would bring forward proposals; the Member for North Antrim in particular was a bit miffed when the Minister did not turn up to propose to him, which is possibly why he is so angry today — [Interruption.]

Mr Storey: She is only here because we forced her.

Mr Butler: On more serious matters, today’s statement represents a major part of the jigsaw that was outlined in Caitríona Ruane’s statement last December. It is a welcome step forward in the debate on transfer from primary to post-primary education; it follows on from the Bain Report —

Mr Speaker: I must insist that the Member comes to his question.

Mr Butler: My question concerns area-based groups and subgroups. I believe the Minister is going to announce the chairs of those groups this week, but when will she be in a position to announce their memberships? Her statement also refers to the basing of those subgroups on the education and library board areas, but as the Minister knows, given changing and declining demographics, there needs to be some degree of flexibility. She referred to that need, but will it be taken into account when the area-based plans are drawn up, so that they will not adhere rigidly to the education and library board areas? Go raibh maith agat.

Ms Ruane: Go raibh maith agat. Even though you could not attend the meeting of the Education Committee, you were very well represented by your colleague Michelle O’Neill. In relation to a comment made by Mervyn Storey; no one has forced me to do anything. On 4 December 2007 I said that I would make a further statement detailing the progress made on the issue. I am happy to be here today to make that statement, because it is a very important issue.

As for the area-based groups, I will be announcing the chairs of those groups this week, and they will be up and running in March. We need to move quickly, and have set ourselves a time frame, which I have outlined. In reply to the Member’s point, I agree that there must be flexibility across board areas, because parish boundaries and board boundaries are different. Mr Butler’s constituency stretches across the Belfast Education and Library Board and South Eastern Education and Library Board areas, and of course those two must work together if we are to have an inter­connected system.

The five local area-based groups need to be inter­connected in the way that all of my educational policies are interconnected; the curriculum; the transfer; the area based planning; the sustainable schools and the aim to make every school a good school. All of those policies are interconnected, and they are all going to be working together. Educationalists know that: they are not going to create artificial borders around Tyrone, Fermanagh or Belfast, because we have seen that borders have not served us well in the past, and I do not think they will do so in the future. Go raibh maith agat. That is the answer to the question.

Mrs Foster: The Minister will be aware, having attended an Adjournment debate in the House in relation to the matter, that the pre-consultation document issued by the Western Education and Library Board was roundly rejected by the community in County Fermanagh. That document envisaged all post-primary education in the western board area being located in Enniskillen. I listened very carefully to what the Minister said to John McCallister about transport, and I say to the Minister that transport will be a huge issue in Fermanagh if those proposals are approved. I ask her to learn the lessons of the pre-consultation process in the western board area and to engage with everybody, including the Transferor Representatives’ Council, which, it has to be said, has played a crucial role in education in this country since its inception.

It is very disappointing that the Transferor Representatives’ Council does not have a position, as of right, on the new area-based planning boards.

Ms Ruane: It is great that there are so many young people in the Gallery today. I welcome all of them, because it is their —

Mr McNarry: That is very kind of you. [Laughter.]

Ms Ruane: You and all the young people in the Gallery, David. We are as young as we feel. It is good to have the children here because, at the end of the day, we are building for their future, and trying to ensure that they have an opportunity to access the broadest possible curriculum and to meet their counterparts in different sectors. It is fitting that they are here today, and I should like to give them a big céad míle fáilte — a hundred thousand welcomes.

I turn to Arlene Foster’s comment about Fermanagh. Obviously, the local group set up for the Western Education and Library Board area will consider both the pre-consultation proposals and the CCMS consultation — that is what area-based planning is all about. Transport is obviously a key issue. As I said earlier, it will be one of the issues that the local groups will look at. It is a key issue in relation to any proposals that we bring forward. It can be very costly. Depending on what proposals are put forward, sometimes more transport will be required, while less will be needed in other cases. Members should not pre-empt the work of the Committee, the working groups, the central group or the area groups; rather, let us see what they come forward with.

Mr Kennedy: I thank the Minister for her statement. I am reminded, however, of the quotation:

“The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons.”


Once again in this House, I question the Minister about the logic of excluding the Transferor Representatives’ Council from the area-based planning boards. Places are guaranteed to people from the education and library boards, who could deputise for the transferors, but that is not guaranteed. There are representatives from CCMS, the Irish-language sector, the governing bodies, NICIE, the trade unions, the Education and Training Inspectorate, DEL and the Association of Northern Ireland Colleges. There is even an educational expert from the Free State, and a representative from the team that is working to set up the ESA. All of those groups may be important, but equally important to many people —

Mr Speaker: I ask the Member to come to his question.

Mr Kennedy: Equally important is the role and expertise of the Transferor Representatives’ Council. It is impossible to create area-based planning boards without guaranteeing a place, or places, to the Transferor Representatives’ Council. I ask the Minister to tell the House that she will change the proposed plans and ensure that a representative of the Transferor Representatives’ Council is included on each of the area-based planning boards.

Ms Ruane: Go raibh maith agat as sin. Thank you for that. I have said it before, and I will say it again — I will make sure that everyone is represented in my proposals.

Mr Gallagher: I have two questions to put to the Minister. The first one is about small schools — two simple words that have not cropped up in anything that has been written or said here today. Will the Minister tell us whether she thinks that it will be a good thing if the area plans lead to there being no post-primary school in west Fermanagh, or in Tyrone west of Omagh? Indeed, there are very few controlled primary schools in either of those areas. Does the Minister recognise that it would be a disaster if there were no such schools in those places? The Minister — even when prompted and pushed by her colleague, Mr Willie Clarke — danced around the subject of rural schools.

A rural school in Bessbrook might have 1,500 to 1,800 pupils; a rural school in west Fermanagh might have 250 pupils. Those schools represent the character of their area and, therefore, should not be overlooked.

I welcome, and, indeed, agree with the Minister’s point that secondary schools have borne the brunt of falling enrolments as a result of grammar schools lowering entrance requirements. Essentially, the law of the jungle is in operation: if a school is big enough, it can get away with doing that, and the small schools suffer. Enrolments to grammar schools must be limited. Will the Minister consider that as part of the plan, given that the parcel will stop with her?

Ms Ruane: I have spoken about rural schools and stated that I am implementing a policy on sustainable schools. I made points, which I can repeat, about school closures. Area-based planning does not mean school closures, but the Assembly must recognise, as George Bain has made clear, that there are currently too many schools. Demographic decline, particularly in the post-primary sector, will increase in the next few years.

Regional imbalance and regional disparity also exists, and the Executive must deal with that. Fermanagh has fewer people because much of its population must travel outside the county to find work. I know that the Member will agree that it is important to build sustainable communities.

The Bain proposals do not tackle the issue of numbers alone. They also tackle educational quality, and six different criteria are used for small schools to measure that. The House must be careful not to scaremonger. We must have a responsible debate, but we must recognise that demographic decline exists and that it will continue.

Lord Morrow: The Minister continually speaks to the House about equality, which seems to be her central theme. However, there is a lack of equality in the detail of her statement. When Mr Sammy Wilson challenged her about whether the Protestant clergy would be included on groups, she suggested that she could not pre-empt whom the education and library boards would assign to them. The Minister has produced a list of those groups that will be included as of right, so why has she not included the Protestant clergy? Why has she not prioritised considering that? This side of the House is angry that she has deliberately ignored that issue. The Minister must take cognisance of that fact and return to the House and tell Members directly that she has corrected it, because the situation is blatantly unacceptable.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Ms Ruane: I do not know what the question is, but equality is at the heart of my proposals. The sectors represented take account of the education system, are from all areas of the community and satisfy the equality duty. I want to ensure broad representation — rural, urban, Churches —

Mr Kennedy: Does that include Protestant Churches?

Ms Ruane: Yes. I have said that.

Lord Morrow: Make sure you do not just talk about it.

Mr Kennedy: It is a disgrace.

Ms Ruane: Excuse me, I ask Members to stop interrupting me and let me make the points that I am trying to make.

Mr Kennedy: Act like a Minister.

Mr McNarry: Do you want sympathy?

Ms Ruane: No, I do not want sympathy —

Mr Speaker: Order. The Minister has the Floor.

Ms Ruane: I never expect sympathy. I want fair play, and I want Members not to interrupt me. Equality is at the heart of my proposals. Those sectors represented cover the current education system. The Catholic trustees and the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools comprise one sector — not two, as some Members have implied. I have also considered gender issues, which the House sometimes overlooks. When I announce my chairpersons, Members will see that men and women, from rural and urban areas, and from all sectors of society, are represented. Go raibh maith agat as sin.

12.30 pm

Mr Boylan: Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Minister for her statement.

Mr Gallagher discussed rural schools. Given that the Minister of the Environment is in the Chamber, perhaps she will consider how PPS 14 can be applied to those schools.

I commend Mr Wilson, the Chair­person of the Committee for Education. It must be very exciting in that Committee, with everyone discussing proposals, roses and shotguns.

Is the Minister aware of the transfer process from primary to post-primary education that the Catholic sector implemented in Keady some 20-odd years ago? If so, will she outline her views on it? Go raibh maith agat.

Ms Ruane: Go raibh maith agat. I am aware of what happened in Keady 25 years ago — it was a very dynamic, interesting process. All the primary schools in the Catholic sector got together and worked out how the transfer from primary to post-primary education would operate. There is now an amazing post-primary school there that provides different pathways for all different children, based on —

Mr Kennedy: That does not reflect the rest of the country.

Ms Ruane: I am sorry; I ask that Mr Kennedy refrain from interrupting me.

That school provides academic and vocational pathways, and I bear in mind Trevor’s comments, with which I agree. The process that brought about that system was very good, and we can learn certain things from it. Obviously, rather than examining just one sector, we need to consider collaboration between all different sectors. Given that, however, the way in which the proposals for Keady were made is certainly a shining example. School inspectors confirm that it is an amazing school that performs very well.

There is a great deal of good practice in many areas, which I have already mentioned — Ballyclare, Bally­mena, Limavady, Derry, Newry, Omagh, and Cookstown. The educationalists in those areas are ahead of the posse, and they are saying that we need change and that we need to work together. Let us do that. I know that those educationalists will value the vision that has been announced today because they know that changes need to happen.

Mrs Long: I have a couple of questions for the Minister. However, I will first stress the importance of the Transferor Representatives’ Council. It is important that the transferors are not under-represented as a result of the fact that a range of interests are represented on the education and library boards. That means that there is no guarantee that those who will be selected will reflect the views of the transferors. The transferors play a particular role in the education system. That role must be recognised, and I hope that the Minister will reassure us that that will happen.

I want to look specifically at the issue of area planning, which the Alliance Party welcomes. According to the Minister’s proposal, six new structures will be created with a view to dealing with the issue of area planning on a time-limited basis. However, area planning is an ongoing issue; it is not a one-off, because there will be continuing demographic change. How, therefore, will the Department handle the replication of bureaucracy?

I concur with Mr Butler’s point that traditionally there have been problems at the boundaries. For example, the geography of greater east Belfast means that natural boundaries could be planned, but those do not match the boards’ boundaries. Indeed, the Minister will be aware of specific incidents in which schools on the boundaries of east Belfast were closed without regard to the needs of the people in that area. I want to know what specific obligations will be placed on the groups to ensure that they consult specifically on those boundary issues.

Lastly, given all the other interests that are being taken into account, how will the views of the local community be acknowledged? Would the Minister consider conducting a community audit to allow forward planning in the education system, so that change therein can be managed according to the wishes of the parents whose children will go through that system? We have heard a lot about organic change and where that has worked, but I would like to see a system whereby, if there is an impetus for change in an area, a mechanism exists that allows people to make that change.

Mr Speaker: Unfortunately, the Minister has approximately two minutes to answer.

Ms Ruane: I thank the Member for her thoughtful questions.

I am certainly not in the business of setting up bureaucracy; I am trying to get rid of unnecessary bureaucracy. The Member will be aware of how the RPA is dealing with that.

Some people have said that I did not set up enough groups. That was one of the points that were made at the Education Committee meeting this morning. Establishing five groups across the North — using the existing boundaries of the education and library boards — is the way to go.

I agree that there must be flexibility in those groups. They must be interconnected and must work together. If not, they will miss out on the borderline areas. I have made the point about borders before; they do not always serve in the way that was intended.

The groups that I have set up are time bound — they will not be bureaucracies, and they will not last for ever. The process will continue to evolve, but the groups are time bound. Local communities are important in those plans. I know that I sound like a broken record, but I do not want to pre-empt local groups —

Mr McNarry: You certainly have broken down.

Ms Ruane: Thanks, Danny — or was it David?

Go raibh maith agat. I am glad to take compliments — but we will not go there.

Local communities are very important. Their voices must be heard, and that is why the plans are flexible. Local groups can feed into the five area groups, and we will actively encourage that.

Mr Storey: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Earlier, an assertion was made to the effect that I was failing in my duties as a member of the Education Committee. I remind the Minister that I informed the Chairperson of the Education Committee that, owing to business in the House, which commenced at 10.30 am, I had to be in the House to deputise for the Minister’s colleague Mr McLaughlin, the Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel, who has a bug. I hope it is not an MI5 bug. That is why I was not at the Education Committee meeting.

Mr Speaker: That is not a point of order. The business of a Committee is not the business of this House.

Mrs Long: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. On a previous occasion in the Chamber, one of my colleagues was corrected for making reference to the Public Gallery. On a number of occasions during numerous interventions this morning — not just in this debate, but in previous debates — references were made to the Public Gallery. Is it not correct that we should not be referring to the Public Gallery, or playing to it, but dealing with the issues that are raised in the Chamber?

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Mr Speaker: The Member’s point of order is well made. Members ought to know that they should not refer to the Public Gallery on any occasion. That is an important point of order, and has been the subject of rulings made in the House on several occasions. Nevertheless, Ministers and Members are still referring to the Public Gallery.

Committee Business

Standing Committee Membership

Mr Speaker: The next item on the Order Paper is a motion on the membership of a Standing Committee. As with other similar motions, it will be treated as a business motion. Therefore, there will be no debate.


That Mr Thomas Burns replace Mr Patsy McGlone as a member of the Public Accounts Committee. — [Mr P J Bradley.]

Mr Speaker: The Business Committee has arranged to meet immediately upon the lunchtime suspension. I propose, therefore, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm.

The sitting was suspended at 12.39 pm.

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

2.00 pm

Hospital-Acquired Infections

Mr Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to two hours 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 each. 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.

The Chairperson of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Mrs I Robinson): I beg to move

That this Assembly, following the number of deaths associated with hospital acquired infections from 2001 to date, calls on the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to initiate, as a matter of urgency, a full, independent and time-bound public inquiry.

As Chairperson of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety, I am very pleased to introduce this motion, which calls for a public inquiry into the current outbreak of clostridium difficile.

The outbreak and spread of the infection has been a cause of great public concern over recent weeks and months, and it continues to be so. The Committee unanimously believes that the only way to get to the bottom of how the outbreak came about, how it is being handled, and, most importantly, how we can begin to restore public confidence is to hold a full, independent public inquiry.

A few months ago the term “clostridium difficile” would have meant little or nothing to the general public or to many Members. However, given the recent outbreak in Antrim Area Hospital and the associated increase in deaths linked to the infection, we are, sadly, all too aware of the infection and the devastation that it can cause and continues to cause.

As well as the suffering of those who are directly affected by the infection, the many untimely deaths, and the anxiety and — in many cases — grief suffered by families and relatives, the Committee unanimously believes that public confidence in the Health Service has been dealt a major blow.

The infection was clearly not on the radar of trusts until very recently. For example, it is worrying to note that, only last September, the Northern Health and Social Care Trust’s submission to the Committee’s inquiry into healthcare-associated infection made no mention of clostridium difficile.

We have all heard stories about people who waited, perhaps for some time, for hospital admission, but who turned down the opportunity for treatment when it was offered because they were concerned about catching an infection in one of the hospitals. We have no way of knowing how many people may have turned down a vital hospital appointment for that reason, but Members have spoken about constituents who have turned down appointments for hospital visits.

The Health Committee visited the Northern Health and Social Care Trust in Antrim on 24 January. Incidentally, the visit was planned some weeks earlier, before the issue of clostridium difficile arose. Committee members were briefed by the medical director on the outbreak at that stage and the action that was being taken to control and contain it. That included the setting up of a cohort ward at Antrim Area Hospital and the establishment of a control team in the trust. The trust also provided the Committee with figures on the number of patients suffering from clostridium difficile at that stage and the number of deaths associated with the infection since July 2007.

In the light of subsequent confusion over the number of deaths throughout Northern Ireland in which clostridium difficile was recorded on death certificates, and in an effort to gain an overall picture of the extent of the infection across all trusts, the Committee called in the chief executives of all five trusts.

They were questioned at length about the issue and the measures that were being taken to control and prevent the spread of the infection. Many of the Members’ questions related to public confidence — as, I expect, will the debate today. Confidence in the Health Service was described as being at an all-time low, and it was recognised that openness and transparency were required to start to rebuild public confidence.

At that meeting, the trusts were reluctant to provide figures on the number of cases of infection since the beginning of January and the number of deaths where clostridium difficile was a factor, but they agreed to provide the figures separately. Those figures have been received, and some of them make disturbing reading.

From the beginning of January to 14 February, there were 20 cases of clostridium difficile in the Western Trust area, 17 of them in Altnagelvin Hospital. There were 26 cases in the Southern Trust area; 17 of those occurred in Craigavon Area Hospital. The Belfast Trust — the largest of the trusts — had 52 cases of clostridium difficile during the period. Twenty cases occurred in the Belfast City Hospital, 17 in the Royal Victoria Hospital and 14 in the Mater Hospital. There were 26 cases of clostridium difficile in the South Eastern Trust area. In the Northern Trust area, the location of the recent outbreak — worryingly, it is clear that the outbreak is not yet under control — there were 70 cases of clostridium difficile, 28 of which were in the Antrim Area Hospital and 14 in Whiteabbey Hospital. That means that 194 cases were recorded in our hospitals in a six-week period.

We also received figures showing the number of deaths that were linked to clostridium difficile — that is, cases in which clostridium difficile is recorded on the death certificate as being either the direct cause of death or a contributing factor. In the same six weeks, no deaths were linked to clostridium difficile in the Western Trust area; one death was so linked in the Southern Trust area, and six in the Belfast Trust area. Two deaths in the South Eastern Trust area were linked to clostridium difficile, and the Northern Trust reported 15 deaths in the period up to 15 February, and a further five deaths up to 26 February, in which clostridium difficile was a factor. There have, therefore, been 24 deaths linked to clostridium difficile in the six-week period, with a further five deaths in the Northern Trust area in the following 11 days to last Tuesday.

As well as providing the Committee with details of the current number of cases of infection, the trusts have outlined the action being taken in their areas to minimise the risk of clostridium difficile and to manage patients with suspected or confirmed cases of the infection. The Committee will publish those details on its website.

I am aware that, throughout this period, the Minister has made a series of announcements, including the provision of an additional £9 million over the next three years to improve patient safety. He has also announced initiatives such as the provision of single rooms for new hospitals, and that is, undoubtedly, the way to go in the future. He also announced more immediate measures such as restrictions on hospital visiting, a dress code for all healthcare staff, a regional hand-hygiene campaign and the funding of a pharmacist in each trust area to promote safer prescribing of antibiotics.

Those are welcome measures, and they are issues for which the Health Committee has pushed, so I welcome the fact that the Minister was listening. The Committee urged the Minister to introduce a ban on Health Service staff wearing their uniforms outside of work, particularly when travelling to and from work. However, those measures must be implemented immediately, and they must be rigorously enforced. The task of getting this outbreak under control and restoring public confidence must be the number one priority.

In response to the outbreak, the Minister announced a review by the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority, and the composition of that review team has been announced. However, the Committee unanimously and strongly feels that such a review is not sufficient to get to the bottom of the outbreak and to restore public confidence. After hearing from the trusts’ chief executives and the Chief Medical Officer at its meeting on 14 February, the Committee unanimously called for a full public inquiry.

The Committee unanimously believes that such an inquiry need not be a long-drawn-out affair that costs the earth, but, rather, it must be given concise terms of reference and a strict time limit.

I am, therefore, saddened that the two Ulster Unionist Members who sit on the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety seek to undermine their colleagues by tabling an amendment that, in my view, amounts to nothing more than playing politics with a serious subject. Clostridium difficile cost 77 lives in 2007, and many people have been left seriously ill as a result of contracting the infection. The public will not look too kindly on those Members who tabled the amendment. I hope that no other members of the Committee will go back on their commitment to support the motion tabled by the Committee.

The Minister has resisted calls for a public inquiry. However, since the Committee decided to table the motion, the Minister has indicated that he is minded to carry out an inquiry but only after work on the review is completed. I welcome that change of heart, but I call on the Minister today to make a firm commitment to put in place a full, independent and time-bound public inquiry. Such a commitment would begin to restore public confidence.

The amendment is basically irrelevant, because the motion addresses all the issues that are contained in the amendment. I reiterate the fact that the Committee — including Ulster Unionist Party representation — agreed unanimously to table the motion today.

Mr McCallister: I beg to move the following amendment: Leave out all after “Safety” and insert

“to consider initiating a full, independent public inquiry following publication of the independent review by the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority.”

Until a few moments ago, the Chairperson of the Committee had made some relevant points, but she then descended into a personal attack on Rev Robert Coulter and me.

Mrs I Robinson: Will the Member give way?

Mr McCallister: I think that I should have the opportunity to say something first, but go ahead.

Mrs I Robinson: Is the Member indicating that his colleague Rev Dr Coulter did not support the Committee in its unanimous decision to table the motion? Mr McCallister did not attend that Committee meeting — I do not know where he was — but the Rev Dr Coulter did attend, and he indicated that he was content with the motion.

Mr McCallister: I am happy to tell the Member where I was: I was at the count for the Dromore by-election, which, of course, her party called and went on to lose. The Chairperson probably took the vote at that Committee meeting because she knew that I was tied up at the by-election, which involved part of my constituency of South Down.

I support the amendment, and I urge all Members to support it. The Ulster Unionist Party tabled the amend­ment, because it felt that the wording of the motion indicates that the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety is opposed to any action on clostridium difficile and on all hospital-borne infections, when, in fact, the opposite is the case. The Minister has been very active, and he has placed on record that he is not opposed to an inquiry. That is what makes the terms of the original motion unfair and misleading. Fair-minded Members will realise that that is not the correct way forward, and they will find the wording of the amend­ment more appropriate in the circumstances. This is too serious an issue for political point scoring, especially as the Minister has made it clear that he is not opposed to a public inquiry.

The Committee does not need to force the Minister to do anything — that would be pushing at an already open door. However, it would be helpful if the Chair­person of the Committee were to permit the Minister to attend Committee meetings.

The Minister has been proactive throughout the hospital-acquired-infections crisis in the same way as he was proactive in sorting out the junior doctors’ crisis at the outset of his term of office. In appointing a review team comprising experts in infection control, dominated by the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority, the Minister has added to the actions that he has already taken in response to the hospital-acquired-infections crisis. Those actions include the introduction of a dress code for healthcare staff and consultation on hospital visiting policy for all trusts. The Minister said that he was confident that his team, which has the necessary knowledge and expertise in infections such as clostridium difficile, will thoroughly investigate the current outbreak and report back on any learning that the system must quickly incorporate into its daily practices. That is the key point: quickly.

2.15 pm

The Minister made it clear that, until the current outbreak in the Northern Trust is fully contained, the review group will focus on urgently examining infection-control measures that are being taken in other health trusts. The Minister announced a consultation process on hospital visiting policies, and set out key principles, which include firm restrictions on visiting hours, limits on the number of visitors to a patient, and a requirement that staff ensure that visitors comply with infection-control policies.

The Minister also launched a regional dress-code policy for healthcare staff and recommendations for changing facilities. A point of concern to the public has been the wearing of uniforms outside hospitals by staff, particularly the perception that that practice increases the risk of infection. That matter has been discussed in the Health Committee and is of concern to its members.

The Minister asked for a review of Health Service sites that do not have adequate changing facilities, and new buildings, which will include changing facilities for staff, will be required fully to implement the review’s recommendations. These measures form a picture of ministerial action — not inaction.

We should not underestimate the remit of the RQIA investigation into the Northern Trust. Its terms of reference include the circumstances contributing to the rates of clostridium difficile infection in the Northern Trust, including the recent outbreak; the trust’s manage­ment and clinical response to clostridium difficile rates and the outbreak, including actions to inform patients, their relatives and the public; and the trust’s arrange­ments to identify and notify the relevant people about cases, outbreaks and deaths that are associated with clostridium difficile infections. Other terms of reference are the trust’s governance arrangements concerning, and the priority given to, the prevention and control of infection; the actions of the Northern Health and Social Services Board and the Department in relation to the management of the outbreak; and to identify lessons from that incident’s management and make recommend­ations to the Northern Trust and the wider health and social care service.

The investigation will be carried out by experts from throughout the United Kingdom, and its terms of reference are evidence that the review will be comprehensive and will not pull any punches. When the report is published, we will be in a much better position to assess whether a public inquiry into those outbreaks is required.

It is a sad reality that we shall never be free from all hospital-acquired infections. The rise and spread of hospital-acquired infections affects us all, and, given the nature of infections’ mutations and their growing resistance to antibiotics, we will be engaged in a constant battle to bring them under control. However, many things must, and can, be done, and I welcome the extra steps taken by the Minister to help achieve a reduction in infection rates. The matter is subject to the Health Minister’s utmost attention, and I share his opinion that to launch a full public inquiry now would not be in patients’ best interests.

A constant criticism of the new Executive has been that certain Ministers are afraid to take decisions and make changes; yet, in this instance, the Minister has been, and is, willing to take action, and he is aware that more must be done. The Assembly should get behind the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and support him in relation to this matter. Of course, his handling of the task must be scrutinised; however, it would be regrettable if an exercise in scoring political points — such as we heard from the Chairperson of the Health Committee — was undertaken in relation to this matter. Therefore, I ask all Members to support the Health Minister and the Ulster Unionist Party’s amendment.

Ms Ní Chuilín: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I will not support the amendment.

Mr McCallister: Shame.

Ms Ní Chuilín: No, not shame. I thought that the Member for South Down Mr McCallister had actually been in Holland looking at trains, rather than at the Dromore by-election.

I will not support the amendment because, in light of the evidence presented to the Health Committee by the chief executives of each of the trusts and the Chief Medical Officer, there was unanimous agreement among the Committee members that it would be more prudent, and in the public’s best interest, to call for a time-bound, full public inquiry.

Indeed, on 11 February, Mitchel McLaughlin asked a private notice question. There were two reasons for doing so: first, to discover details of the number of deaths across each of the health and social care trusts and, secondly, to ask the Minister what plans he had to authorise a full public inquiry. Members were told that there would be an internal investigation. However, as the Chairperson of the Health Committee said, since then, unfortunately, more people have lost their lives through hospital-acquired infections including clostridium difficile.

This issue is of huge public concern. Public confidence in hospitals and in healthcare facilities has been shaken, and the phrase “clostridium difficile” has been introduced into everyday language. When the subject of hospital-acquired infection is not on the TV, it is on the radio.

We often hear stories of how people have been affected personally. Members must do everything in their power to reduce the potential for further loss of life, although it is understood that this “superbug”, as it is described, cannot be eradicated totally.

Let me be clear: Members are guided by the people they represent — those constituents and their families who have brought their concerns to our constituency offices. We are not guided by talk shows, and we will not act as cheerleaders for any Minister on this issue, because it is far too important. This is not about party politics.

I drew attention to three cases in which constituents were being affected. They were older people who had waited very long periods for treatment in hospital, but who, when the time came, were afraid to go into hospital. One family member told me that they did not want to go into hospital and come out in a box. This is not party politics: it is the perception of my constituents, and it is their fear.

I have no doubt that we will hear about the costs of a public inquiry; but we need to factor in human costs and public perception. Staff morale in the Health Service is at an all-time low as a result of other issues. Sinn Féin does not want to get into finger-pointing or political point scoring over this: I want to make that clear.

We will hear about contributory factors such as the over-use of antibiotics and the high rates of bed-occupancy. The action plan to change the culture in the Health Service is to be welcomed — the Chairperson acknowledged that when the debate opened, and John McCallister agreed. The Minister’s actions have been most welcome. However, Members are saying that those actions are not enough; which was unanimously agreed by the Health Committee. We ask the Minister to be decisive and introduce a full time-bound public inquiry to increase public confidence. That was discussed in Committee and with the chief executives of the various trusts.

Regardless of how many robust questions were asked by Committee members, we were left with the feeling that much more was to come and that much more needed to be done.

Mr McCallister: Will the Member give way?

Ms Ní Chuilín: Very briefly.

Mr McCallister: I will be brief. Will the Member explain why her colleague Mitchel McLaughlin asked for an emergency meeting with the Northern Health and Social Care Trust but did not turn up for it? Further­more, how can a public inquiry be time-bound?

Ms Ní Chuilín: I cannot answer for Mitchel McLaughlin, even though I am the party’s Chief Whip. I thought the Member’s intervention crass: it added nothing to the debate. It also reveals his lack of confidence and the weakness of his position. This is about people who are afraid to go into hospital: it is not about a Member’s failure to turn up for a meeting with a trust.

However, Mr McCallister’s point regarding a time-bound inquiry is valid. We will have to achieve agreement on that during the process. The public inquiry must be time-bound.

I support the call for a full, time-bound public inquiry, and I am disappointed and saddened that the House is divided on such an important issue. Go raibh míle maith agat.

Mrs Hanna: I support the amendment.

Mrs I Robinson: Shame.

Mrs Hanna: Hospital healthcare-acquired —

Mrs I Robinson: So you were not at the meeting that decided unanimously?

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. All remarks must be made through the Chair. There is a virus in the Chamber, and we need to get rid of it.

Mrs Hanna: I had not planned to explain my actions, but I will. During the Health Committee meeting on 14 February, I belatedly put my hand up to get the attention of the Chairperson to ask her whether we could discuss this issue. That is on the record. Now I will get back to the debate.

Healthcare-acquired infections concern the whole community, and we must all play our part in controlling and reducing them. A hospital is a place of refuge and healing. Patients should have the right to expect that, when they go into hospital to be made better, they should not have to concern themselves with picking up another infection, which might be far more serious, or even life threatening. A hospital is the very place in which patients should be with staff in whom they can place their trust.

Improvements and changes must be implemented urgently to convince us that acquired infection is a top priority, and that it is being addressed. Although we acknowledge that the staff work hard, they must find better ways of working. Great strides have been made at the high-tech end, which have resulted in better drugs for curing diseases, better quality of life and better health­care generally. Therefore, people are living longer and there is a bigger and growing older population. That presents other challenges, and hospital leadership must remember that basic hygiene and attention to detail is still paramount and that patients are individual people. That is equally important.

I have worked as a staff nurse in all the hospitals in Belfast, and in other parts of Northern Ireland. I realise how hectic, busy and stressful that job can be, but people must still remember the details of basic hygiene. We must see the visible signs of change — enforced hand-washing, the education of the public in personal hygiene, and respect for hospitals. The Minister mentioned spot checks; those must be regular and monitored.

A major cause of acquired infections is resistance to antibiotics, and I know that a new policy on that has been established. Prescribing issues must involve all prescribers, particularly GPs, who are probably the main prescribers.

As a member of the Health Committee, I regret that we did not have a full discussion on the proposal to hold a full public inquiry. The terms of reference, the costing and the timeline should have been discussed. I put my hand up and I asked whether the Committee could discuss those issues. I assume that a full public inquiry will mean that lawyers will be involved to represent parties. The Health Committee went through the health budget line by line, and rightly so. We should have thought through exactly what we want to get out of a public inquiry, and what can be learned from it. The motion proposes to hand the matter to the Minister to set the terms of reference for a public inquiry, but the Minister has already set terms of reference for a review.

Mrs I Robinson: Will the Member give way?

Mrs Hanna: I am sorry. The Member will have another chance to speak later, and I do not have much time.

We know some of the answers. Antibiotic resistance is a 30-year problem, and we know that we have to learn from the experience of other places. We know that we are victims of our own success, and that we must change the culture. I hope that the Health Committee will meet the independent review team. I am impressed with the apparent calibre of the independent members of that team. A meeting would provide the Committee with more detail on the depth of the review and the details of the terms of reference.

As a community, we have not had a good experience of public inquiries. Indeed, I fear that when the Saville report is published next year, no one will be happy with it, except the lawyers. The last thing that I want to do is let the lawyers be the main beneficiaries of any monies that could go towards implementing some of those recommendations.

2.30 pm

I support the amendment because it adds more structure to the motion. I have an open mind about the call for a public inquiry; I am not opposed to the idea in principle. However, we have put the cart before the horse, and we should await the outcome of the review before considering calling for a public inquiry.

Mr McCarthy: I thank the Chairperson of the Health Committee for bringing such an important issue to the House today.

For months, the headlines in the newspapers and on the television and radio have been full of horror stories about MRSA and clostridium difficile. I am extremely worried that if action is not taken — and taken soon — people will not go to hospital for fear of catching MRSA or clostridium difficile. That has already been said. In particular, older people may be reluctant to go into hospital. That causes me, as someone who has championed the cause of older people, great concern. That situation must be avoided at all costs.

I will describe a slightly different case that happened recently, which has similarities in terms of fear. A young man from Northern Ireland called John Thompson was in America, but he did not have the correct papers. He was unwell and did not go to hospital, even though he knew that he should, because he was afraid of being deported. That is an example of the fear factor. Unfortunately, in this case, it cost that young man his life — John later died as he did not seek medical attention because of fear. We extend our sympathy to John’s family on that sad loss. I hope that people here do not delay seeking medical treatment because of fear of catching a bug in hospital.

Last week, I was very concerned by the Conservative peer who made highly critical remarks about nurses and other hospital staff. Of course, that happened across the water. I believe that all staff in our Health Service do a brilliant job, but they are often constrained by rules and targets. In the House last Monday, my colleague David Ford highlighted the problem of hospital cleaners being employed at certain times only — usually between 9.00 am and 5.00 pm. However, people are admitted to hospital around the clock, and beds and wards need to be cleaned when one patient leaves and before another arrives. Something must be done to improve the situation, and if that means employing more cleaning staff, so be it.

Hospital staff are under pressure to meet waiting-list targets, and the resulting high patient turnover and bed occupancy does not allow for the sort of thorough cleaning that staff would like to carry out were they not under such immense pressure. The emphasis should always be on delivering the best possible care for patients, and not just on meeting Government targets.

We must do all that we can to end the outbreak of clostridium difficile. It is estimated that, in the long term, it costs between £4,000 and £10,000 more to treat a patient with an infection. It also estimated that the hospital stays of such patients are increased by between three and 10 days. Action must be taken, and taken now, to overcome the problem.

My party will support an inquiry into the outbreak, but only if it is a thorough and independent inquiry that covers all trusts, not just the Northern Trust, and only if it is concluded as quickly as possible. Indeed, more importantly, any recommendations flowing from such a report should be implemented immediately so that all patients can be protected without further delay.

To conclude, I appreciate the Minister’s recent efforts to solve this particular crisis. However, time is of the essence, and Members should support, as a matter of urgency, a public inquiry.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Before we proceed, I welcome to the Assembly the members of the Constitutional Review Committee from Iraq, who are visiting Northern Ireland.

Mr Buchanan: I support the motion, and I congratulate the Chairperson of the Health Committee for securing this timely debate.

I have heard some cheap remarks in this House since power was devolved in May 2007; however, what I heard today takes the biscuit. It is outrageous for Carmel Hanna to say, more or less, that the Chairperson of the Health Committee has not given her an opportunity to speak in Committee.

Mrs Hanna: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am sorry, but I did not say that the Chairperson of the Health Committee did not allow me to speak.

Mr Buchanan: I remind Carmel that the Committee Clerk provides the Chairperson with the names of Committee members who wish to speak. Carmel said that she wanted more discussion on hospital-acquired infections before an inquiry be initiated. I wonder whether Carmel was asleep in Committee, because she has not taken into account all the evidence that the Committee received.

I state categorically that the DUP, for three reasons, will not support the amendment that stands in the names of John McCallister and Robert Coulter. First, the motion received the full support of the Committee, including Rev Robert Coulter, who, I assumed, was speaking on behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party. It is ironic that, for some unknown reason, that party has declined to support the motion in its entirety.

Secondly, the amendment simply calls on the Minister to:

“to consider initiating a full, independent public inquiry”

rather than:

“to initiate, as a matter of urgency, a full, independent and time-bound public inquiry.”

There is a distinct difference between considering something and initiating something. The Minister could consider the matter for years yet still do nothing about it, and that is not good enough. Action is required, especially given the concerns about the continual increase in hospital-acquired infections. That is why the motion has been tabled.

Thirdly, the amendment does not call for a time-bound inquiry. It would be open-ended and would permit an independent inquiry — if the Minister saw fit to initiate one — to run for years without reaching a conclusion. Again, given the current levels of infection in our hospitals, that is unacceptable. I call on all Members to support the motion and reject the amendment.

Since 2001, there has been a continual increase in the number of deaths recorded as a direct result of hospital-acquired infections. Between 2001 and 2006, clostridium difficile was mentioned on 217 death certificates — 53% of which recorded it as being the underlying cause of death. Deaths caused by that infection increased from 63 in 2006 to 77 in 2007. Thirty of those deaths were recorded in the last three months of 2007.

We must ask ourselves what effect those deaths have had on public confidence. Public confidence in our hospitals is currently at an all-time low and needs to be restored urgently. People are afraid to go to hospital — whether for a check-up, for minor surgery or for something more serious — simply because they are afraid of catching an infection.

I know that the Minister announced an investment of £9 million and a comprehensive range of measures to tackle healthcare-associated infections. I also know that he set a target to reduce instances of clostridium difficile by 20% by March 2009. However, to put that in context, that would simply mean that the number of deaths would be reduced from 77 to 62 by March 2009.

Although that target is commendable, it does not offer much comfort to the families of elderly people who require hospital treatment. Such families are afraid to send their relatives to hospital in case they catch an infection.

Therefore, robust, strategic measures must be implemented urgently, not only to deal with the current outbreak of hospital-acquired infections, but to prevent further outbreaks. It is extremely important that anyone who is admitted to hospital does not have to worry about being at serious risk of catching an infection that could claim his or her life. Having listened to John McCallister, who does not want the independent inquiry to proceed, I can only assume that he is out of touch with people on the ground. Although the Committee cannot force the Minister to do anything, it is good practice for the Minister to listen to the Committee’s concerns when they are put to him collectively.

I support the motion.

Mr Easton: It is rather disappointing that the amendment has been brought before the House through a coalition between the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists, with each party supporting the other in favour of it — [Interruption.]

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order.

Mr Easton: It is quite sad that the Ulster Unionists, who had supported the original proposal in the Committee, now support the amendment. However, it is clear that there is a split in their party on the issue. The Minister has had to knock heads together and force his party colleagues to table an amendment. It is not surprising that they are split on the issue, because of the infighting that has taken place in their party and the fact that one of its members has recently joined Fianna Fáil.

Mr McCallister has been out partying when he should have been present at the Health Committee. That is no surprise, however, because instead of representing his supporters at the Health Committee, he has missed nine of its meetings. The fact that an Ulster Unionist has missed over half of the Committee’s meetings shows what that party thinks of health.

There are few certainties in life. However, everyone is likely to end up in hospital at one time or another. There was a time when that prospect might have frightened people because of the state of medical knowledge and technology and because medical practitioners’ abilities may have been less advanced than they are today. In those days, however, people had few fears about getting ill as result of going into hospital.

Hospitals were places where matrons wielded enormous power over all aspects of patient care and ruled their wards with great authority. They enjoyed enormous respect from doctors, patients and visitors alike. When someone entered hospital, that person felt that he or she was in a clean, germ-free environment. Patients felt that they were not only in safe hands, but in a safe place. The vast majority of hospital staff were directly involved in the treatment and care of patients. Their only target was to get patients well.

Sadly, those times are gone. Today, the first emotion that surfaces when someone learns that he or she must go to hospital is the fear that he or she might acquire a serious infection, such as MRSA or clostridium difficile. Old people, in particular, are afraid to go into hospital. Every Member knows of cases of people not seeking medical attention if it might involve an invasive procedure or an operation.

Recently, Members have had many opportunities to become more informed about hospital-acquired infections; their causes, treatment and the action that is taken to reduce their incidence and impact. However, the truth is that many people are frightened and look to the Assembly, to members of the Health Committee, to the Minister and to his Department for assurance that the problem is being dealt with as effectively as possible. They are not reassured by targets and statistics, or by reviews. They have come to regard reviews as a tactic that is used by Government Departments to, at best, postpone dealing with a problem and, at worst, to try to brush it under the carpet.

I have not been reassured by the description of a 20% reduction of clostridium difficile by 2009 as a challenging target. According to my reading of the information that the Minister has given to Assembly, that would simply mean that figures for deaths that have occurred when clostridium difficile has been a factor would remain at around the same level for 2008. Therefore, instead of there being 77 deaths, there might, at best, be around 63. The man or woman in the street would not call that reassuring.

Mr McFarland: Will the Member give way?

Mr Easton: No, I will not give way.

People have not been reassured by the manner in which statistical information has been so clumsily made available — the drip-feed nature of the supply of that information, and the time that has been taken to get an understanding of the scale of the problem. Their impression is that trusts work in isolation and not in a co-ordinated and effective manner.

Therefore, it is hardly surprising that many people, myself included, are concerned at the complacency of the Minister’s response to the public’s need for reassurance and at the way that he has wrongly limited the review solely to the Northern Health and Social Care Trust.

2.45 pm

Members are here to serve the people of Northern Ireland. The people who raise questions on the issue with their elected representatives on a daily basis want answers and reassurance that any review will not have a focus that is so narrow that appropriate comparisons will not be allowed to be made across all trusts and hospitals in Northern Ireland. For those reasons, I join my colleagues in calling on the Health Minister to initiate urgently a full, independent and time-bound inquiry across all the health and social care trusts in order that we can have the answers to the critical questions that have arisen because of the incidences of life-threatening hospital-acquired infections.

The motion had the unanimous support of the Committee; it is unfortunate that the Ulster Unionist Party has now split the Committee —

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

Mr Easton: I support the motion.

Dr McDonnell: I am glad that I can add a few brief comments. We have lost all sense of proportion, which is why I am speaking in the debate.

There is an issue in our hospitals that must be dealt with. As the Member for West Tyrone Mr Buchanan has stated that, public confidence in some of our hospitals is low. However, it is a matter of opinion whether that low public confidence is because of genuine fears or whether it is the result of childish political games such as those that are being played this afternoon. Such behaviour makes a cheap football out of peoples’ lives. We should not —

Mrs I Robinson: Will the Member give way?

Dr McDonnell: No; the Member has caused enough damage already this afternoon.

We must tackle all hospital-acquired infections, of which clostridium difficile is just one, so that patients are not terrified of dying in hospital from diseases that they have acquired in hospital — be they MRSA, clostridium difficile or something else. Our older people are fearful, and that is why there is an onus on us to act. Some of that fear may be justified, but much of it is hysteria that has been created by people who should know better.

I do not want to be drawn into the public anxiety on the issue, and I refuse to add to it: the health of the public is too important. If the DUP is genuinely concerned about the public’s health, it should not make a political football of it. We must be clean, clear, honest and open about the issue. This is not a party political issue; it is an issue that affects every one of us.

Mrs I Robinson: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Is it right that the Member is saying that this is a DUP-led debate, when I, as Chairperson of Committee, am doing what was agreed by all members — and parties — on the Committee? Is the Member allowed to state that the motion is my political football, when I am representing the unanimous will of the Committee?

Mr Deputy Speaker: That is the cut and thrust of politics. However, I will refer the point of order to the Speaker, who will reply to you.

Dr McDonnell: I do not want to debate how the Health Committee is chaired or how it works; however, the information that I have received from my colleague here — and others — suggests that there should be courses that coach people in how to act as chairmen.

Mrs Hanna: I did not say that.

Dr McDonnell: Yes. When a Member is made the Chairperson of a Committee, there is an onus on him or her to chair that Committee impartially. This is one such issue that should not be debated in a partisan manner. [Interruption.]

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order.

Mrs I Robinson: Is it right for any Member to cast aspersions on the capacity of a Chairman to behave in a neutral fashion? I never give preferential treatment to anyone in a Committee — never — nor have there been any such complaints. Today’s criticism is from gutless wonders who would not speak out at meetings of the Committee.

Mr Deputy Speaker: All Members must be careful about what they say to one another. Everything that is said is recorded in Hansard, and no doubt it can be read. Please continue, Dr McDonnell.

Dr McDonnell: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.

Such irrational and emotional behaviour is entirely inappropriate for this debate.

My point is that a review is under way, and Members should be fully informed of its findings before any further investigation is carried out. We should analyse the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA) report before taking any further action. Perhaps no further action will be necessary because the report may tell us everything that we need to know — in fact, I worry that we may discover some things that we would rather not know about.

A fair amount of consultation has taken place, and it would be difficult to justify a massive public inquiry in addition to the current review while hospitals need money for cleaners. The thousands of pounds that an inquiry would cost would be misspent, as far as elderly people, others who are not so elderly and their families are concerned.

Furthermore, a public inquiry would be likely to freeze any serious engagement with the problem because, in the course of the inquiry, little could be done to address the issue. I do not want the issue to drag out — I want it to be tackled tomorrow, and I urge the Minister to take all necessary steps to enable that to happen. Members must deal with the problem, rather than generate hot air. An inquiry will not make hospitals any cleaner, more sterile or more hygienic. The only way to achieve cleaner and safer hospitals is to ensure that all necessary resources are available to deliver the highest standard of hygiene. More action is required; not more talk.

Mr G Robinson: I congratulate the Chairperson of the Health Committee on bringing this important motion before the House. This debate offers the opportunity to seek an agreed way forward, rather than to seek to score political points, as has happened during the last few contributions by Ulster Unionist and SDLP Members.

Every MLA is focused on reducing the number of hospital-acquired infections, and my particular target is the examination of the process used in cleaning hospitals. I appreciate that many other serious and important health issues must be addressed.

Will the Minister consider retuning the responsibility for requesting that specific areas be cleaned to the nursing staff on the ward? I have heard reports of nursing staff being unable to secure the co-operation of contracted cleaning staff when the inevitable spills on wards have to be cleared up. It is common sense that an increase in the co-operation between nursing and cleaning staff will reduce hospital-acquired infection to a less shocking level.

Will the Minister also consider the return of in-house cleaning staff to hospitals? The direct line of responsibility would make the eradication and control of infections such as MRSA and clostridium difficile easier. That may seem to be a small change, but it would be of great benefit in the fight against hospital-acquired infections.

The Minister may consider my next point to be petty, but does he not agree that the cleaning of defined areas, such as toilets, ward floors, shower rooms and public areas should be made the responsibility of dedicated teams who would do nothing else? I have heard that the same equipment has been used to clean more than one of those areas. That is madness, and possibly contributes to the spread of infection in the wards. It also means that if a complaint is received, a team or individuals can be identified and training can be given.

Each and every one of us wishes to ensure the safety of the patients in our hospitals. Sometimes we must look to the past to get a few pointers for the future. Many of us believe that we must look back to the days when hospital cleaning was done in-house. There was a clear and definitive line of responsibility, and, in most cases, cleaning appeared to be carried out to a much higher standard. In order to move forward fully and fight the high level of hospital-acquired infection, we must get the basic cleanliness of hospitals right. I have great pleasure in supporting the motion.

Mr Shannon: There can be little doubt that nothing causes as much fear to many people as the thought of a stay in hospital. No one likes to be away from family, no matter how short that stay may be. No one likes the thought of being poked or prodded, and no one likes the needles and the pills. That is the way that it has always been. People had a fear of what could happen or of what they might be carrying. However, that fear has deepened and increased over the past few years, and now people fear that they may come out of hospital more unwell than when they were admitted.

People are afraid of picking up hospital-acquired infections, such as MRSA or a super strain of a bug that will leave them with disabilities, possibly for the rest of their life. Many people are worried sick — literally — about clostridium difficile.

I asked the Minister a question for written answer — and what I have to say is not an attack on him. We are all looking for an inquiry to put at ease the concerns of the people that we represent. In my question, I asked the Minister to detail the number of outbreaks of MRSA and in which hospitals those outbreaks had occurred. I was startled by the answer: the Ulster Hospital had 34 cases in 2004, 25 in 2005, and 37 in 2006. The Minister assured me that there was a target to reduce infection rates by 10% by 31 March 2009.

Quhan ye yairn wi’ onie o’ the fowk wha wrocht aa the Ulster Hospital an see the nummer o’ inpatient cairds at hae MRSA writ across the tap o’ thaim hit’s clear tae see at MRSA hasnae gane awa’, at monie o’ oor aulder fowk wul bae seekened bae this infection fer the rest o’ thair days efter pickin’ hit ap an’ this cannae bae let gae oan. Quhan ye visit fowk i hospital ye’re fit tae see the efforts tae stap infection i the rid han’wasch pumps ootby ivry bay, hooiniver fer ivry boadie at uises thaim afore an efter thair visit anither 5 fowk dinnae an, tae me, hit’s clear at thair maun bae a concerted public campaign aboot uisin’ thae wasches quhan aa the hospital.

From speaking to staff at the Ulster Hospital, or observing the number of inpatient cards with MRSA written across the top, it is clear that MRSA has not gone away. Many of our elderly people will be plagued by the infection for the rest of their lives after picking it up in hospital. That situation cannot continue. There are tangible efforts to reduce infection by encouraging visitors to use the red hand-wash pumps outside each bay. However, for every person who uses the hand wash before and after a visit, another five people do not. There must be a concerted campaign to draw the matter to the public’s attention.

That is why a public inquiry must be carried out independently, so that when people visit their loved ones they are not unwittingly making matters worse. The motion was not tabled to score points. We are here because of our constituents. The Member for North Belfast, the Chairperson of the Committee and every other Member who spoke are all clear about the issues. I know of people in my area who are afraid to go into hospital. I am making that point because I represent my people — as I should do, and as everyone in the Chamber should do. Some people in my constituency decided not to go into hospital for operations because they were worried about catching the bug. As elected representatives, we cannot ignore that fact.

The hospital bug clostridium difficile is similar to MRSA in the way that it is spread, and it should be on a downward trend. However, it is not. It was listed on 77 death certificates in Northern Ireland in the past year. That figure, which was revealed by the Minister’s Department, shows a rise of 14 from 2006. Again, the facts are clear. There were 10 recorded cases in the Ulster Hospital alone, and three people died between September and December 2007. Province wide, 30 people died from the bug. Those are the facts — they are not made up, and we cannot ignore them.

3.00 pm

The statistics are repeated over and over again, and that is why we need an inquiry. My colleague Simon Hamilton and I had a meeting with John Compton just a few weeks ago, and he told us that 30% of elderly people and 3% of young people carry the clostridium difficile bug. Many people carry the bug, and something can trigger it off. More often than not, that happens when people go to hospital.

A healthcare professional — a young lady, by the way — told me that she wants to see matrons back in hospitals, along with a regime where people scrub themselves before visiting hospitals, where the halls smell clean with disinfectant. I understand that there is no quick-fix solution; however, I believe that theories must be translated into action, and now is the time for that to be done. The motion will end some people’s fear of going into hospital, and for that reason I support it. For the sake of people having operations, now is the time to begin the process. I support the motion.

Mr McFarland: This has been a chippy debate, which has not been helped by the Committee Chair­person’s history of politicking in the Committee, and in the House today. We all know that hospital-acquired infections have been increasing for some time, and the reason for that is directly related to antibiotics. There is, therefore, an issue with antibiotics; furthermore — as has been well documented in the House — there is an issue of cleaning and cleanliness in hospitals.

However, the problem centres around the elderly, who have weak immune systems, and are much more susceptible to microbes. No one can be in any doubt of the seriousness of the issue, it has been discussed on ‘The Stephen Nolan Show’ and in the House, so every­one knows what the issues are. No one is more aware of them than the Minister. The Minister has taken action. You may have a go at him in the Committee, but he has taken action. He has organised a whole system for cleaning in hospitals that he has already explained to the House. The Minister has now set up a Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority inquiry to investigate the problem, so that a timely solution can be found and action can be taken now. The Committee will no doubt have looked at the inquiry’s terms of reference, which are extensive.

Public inquiries in Northern Ireland take quite a long time to set up, cost a fortune, and probably involve lawyers. It could be argued that there is not enough time for all of that to happen. The Members who have spoken so far are right that there is clearly a public-confidence issue here — people are scared about going into hospitals, and we are trying to solve that by taking timely action. I urge the House to call on the Minister to get on with that, as he has done, and to get on with his inquiry, as he is doing, to produce a solution that does not cost a fortune and that is done in time. A public inquiry is not going to do that. I support the amendment.

Dr Deeny: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to speak on this important issue. I was somewhat saddened by the debate. Sometimes it is good not to belong to one of the main parties, because this debate has been reduced to a bickering exercise between parties, and that should not be the case.

Cáral ní Chuilín quite rightly said that we are guided by our people, and I, as a GP, am guided by my patients. The situation is not new from a medical perspective, but it is an increasingly serious situation in our hospitals. I want to state at the outset that what may be a cheaper or a quicker method of doing something is never the right way of doing the job, particularly when it concerns human lives.

I have to speak up for the Health Committee Chair­person, as she has been most impartial in the Committee, and it is unacceptable for my fellow GP to make such comments about her today. Each member of the Committee gets a fair share, and I am sure that his fellow party Members did not indicate otherwise to him: I would not believe it of them. All members of the Health Committee have had a fair chance to make a contribution and have been working well together, and I would like to make that public today.

We are advocates for our people, and we must speak up. As has been discussed in the Committee, our job and our duty is to restore public confidence, which is at an all-time low, in our hospitals. I see it still in practice.

The word “review” is far too mellow and shallow; an inquiry is needed. This issue concerns human lives. The Hansard report of the Committee evidence session on 11 October 2007 states that I asked the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority about its powers of enforcement. For those Members who do not know — I am sure that my GP colleague knows — the RQIA is an agency of the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. The RQIA told me that, although it had powers for the regulated sector, its powers of enforcement were limited for statutory bodies. I have worked with the RQIA; it dealt with a nursing home in my area very effectively. However, at that evidence session, the RQIA explained that it could not hold the Department to account. Therefore, the RQIA is an in-house body.

Patients in my area are hearing, for the first time, about evidence of clostridium difficile in the west, in addition to Belfast and elsewhere. Those people will want the inquiry to cover all of Northern Ireland, not just one trust area.

Mrs I Robinson: Hear, hear.

Dr Deeny: Do we have to wait until there is an outbreak or a disaster before we have a Northern Ireland-wide inquiry? Of course we do not. The Minister has mentioned the RQIA; I want to know who the members are and when the review team will report.

The limited power of an in-house review of only one trust will certainly not restore public confidence in our hospitals. I reiterate what my colleague the Member for West Tyrone said about the amendment: I was shocked to see it on the Marshalled List this morning. The Committee agreed the issue last Thursday, and I believed that it was unanimous. To see the word “consider” in the amendment shocked me: I underlined it in red. Our two colleagues from the Ulster Unionist Party are not prepared to ask the Minister to initiate a review, only to ask him to consider it. The issue is far too serious only to consider initiating an inquiry.

The introduction of unannounced spot checks is to be welcomed. Will the Minister give us some details about them? Who will carry them out? Will they be independent? How often will they occur? Will they be announced quickly?

I also want to ask about whistle-blowing. The Minister and the Department must issue a statement about Health Service personnel, whether relating to the poor performance of a health professional, a procedural matter or an issue about hygiene in hospitals —

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

Dr Deeny: Health Service staff must be encouraged to speak out, without fear of punishment. I support the motion and reject the amendment.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Mr McGimpsey): The battle against so-called superbugs such as clostridium difficile and MRSA is a challenge that we all face. Reducing and preventing the spread of healthcare-associated infections requires the full co-operation of staff, patients and the general public. Health trusts have a responsibility to ensure that their facilities are clean and that staff comply with proper hand-hygiene measures. The public also has a responsibility to comply with visiting restrictions and to follow good hygiene practices when in hospitals. Those measures will all make a difference; they will help to reduce the spread of infections, but they will never fully eradicate infections from our hospitals. That is not possible.

Preventing and reducing healthcare-associated infections is a major priority. I know that infections such as clostridium difficile are a cause of great concern for patients and the public. They are also a great concern for Health Service staff, who make every effort to stop their spread, as well as for me as the Minister. I am fully committed to doing everything in my power to reduce those infections.

Those infections can have a significant impact on patients and their families, and they have shaken public confidence in the Health Service. The current outbreak of the virulent 027 strain of clostridium difficile in the Northern Trust area has been particularly distressing for all those who have been affected. It has been made all the more distressing given that so many of those people who have contracted clostridium difficile have been seriously ill already, and, in most cases, they have been elderly. Tragically, several people who have contracted clostridium difficile have died, and I want to extend my deep sympathies to all those who have lost a loved one.

The ethos of our Health Service is about helping people to get better. It is about cradle-to-the-grave care that is free at the point of contact. It is about providing the best treatment and support to patients and their families. At the start of the twentieth century, childhood infections such as measles and whooping cough were rife, and thousands died each year of those and other diseases of poverty, including TB. Those days are gone, thanks to improvements in the general standard of living and advances in modern medicine, such as immunisation and antibiotics. However, we continue to face challenges such as the healthcare-associated infections that we are debating. Northern Ireland is by no means unique in having to face that problem. Only last week, we saw newspaper headlines in England and Wales about a rise of over 70% in deaths caused by clostridium difficile. Although Northern Ireland has the lowest rate of healthcare-associated infections in the UK — 5·5% — that does not mean that we can become complacent, and we do not want people in our hospitals to pick up avoidable infections. However, it is important to put this into context: each year, 700,000 people attend accident and emergency units, 500,000 inpatients and day-cases are treated, and one and a half million people attend outpatient appointments.

As I have stated already, I am committed to tackling healthcare-associated infections. Unfortunately, we will never be able to eradicate them fully, given that 70% of the elderly population and 3% of the adult population carry clostridium difficile in their bowel. However, by following robust infection-control measures, it is possible to reduce such infections. Five main control measures, rigorously applied, will help to reduce clostridium difficile: the prudent use of antibiotics; hand hygiene; environmental cleaning; isolation and cohort nursing; and the use of personal protective equipment by healthcare staff.

Since I took up my post last year, I have introduced a comprehensive range of measures aimed at driving down infection rates. Last September, I set targets to reduce the number of cases of clostridium difficile by 20%, and MRSA by 10%, by March 2009. On 1 January, I announced an additional investment of £9 million for clean and safer care in healthcare facilities. New initiatives included: unannounced hygiene inspections of hospitals; additional pharmacists in trusts to promote the safer prescribing of antibiotics; a new regional dress policy; consultation on hospital visiting policies; rapid-response cleaning teams in hospitals; the quarterly publication of trusts’ infection-control performances; a regional hand-hygiene campaign; and single rooms for new hospitals, with the aim of improving hygiene. Those initiatives are in addition to the measures that are under way already, including: the Changing the Culture action plan, which focuses on improved surveillance, education and training and which contains 37 actions; the ward sisters’ charter, which puts ward sisters in charge of cleanliness in their wards; the development of a regional infection control manual; and one million copies of leaflets on infection control for the public and visitors.

Only yesterday, I announced the outcome of the second environmental cleanliness audit. Members and the public should take great confidence from that report, as it has shown a significant improvement in the environ­mental cleanliness of the majority of our hospitals. I want to thank staff for all their efforts in striving to make hospitals clean for patients and the public.

3.15 pm

I fully understand Members’ concerns about the current outbreak of clostridium difficile and their desire to hold a public inquiry. I have given the matter careful consideration and taken advice from my Chief Medical Officer. I understand why Carál feels that she should be guided by her constituents. However, as the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, I cannot do that, and I must be guided by the Chief Medical Officer, medical professionals and infection-control staff in the Health Service. I have never ruled out a public inquiry. My first priority, however, is to ensure that this outbreak is contained quickly and that trusts are taking all the necessary action to try to reduce the levels of clostridium difficile.

All Members have a common objective of wanting to make our Health Service work. I am sure that Members will agree that we cannot deflect staff from their essential work in trying to reduce and control infections; to do so would detract from the paramount priority, which is patient safety. The health and safety of our patients, and the ability of our staff to carry out their work, must be our first priority. I visited Antrim Area Hospital and have been keeping a close eye on the measures that are being taken to contain the current outbreak. The number of new cases is falling, and I am encouraged by the continuing efforts and professionalism of the staff at the hospital to try to control this outbreak. I have spoken to all five trust chief executives to ensure that there is no complacency and that efforts are redoubled across the Health Service to deal with clostridium difficile and other infections.

As Minister, I have a duty to ensure that my actions are appropriate, timely and responsible. I also want to ensure that lessons are learned quickly and are shared across the Health Service, which is why I announced an independent review, led by the RQIA, into the clostridium difficile outbreak in the Northern Health and Social Care Trust area. That review will be rigorous and comprehensive; its terms of reference are broad and will ensure that every aspect of the outbreak will be investigated thoroughly so that any shortcomings are identified and the necessary lessons learned. Later in the year, the review will be complemented by a comprehensive assessment of the progress made across Northern Ireland in all trusts to achieve the goals and targets of the Changing the Culture action plan.

The terms of reference are: to review the circum­stances contributing to the rates of clostridium difficile infection in the Northern Trust in 2007-08, including the recent outbreak; to review the trust management and clinical response to its clostridium difficile rates and outbreak, including actions to inform patients, their relatives and the public; to review the trust’s arrangements to identify and notify cases, outbreaks and deaths associated with clostridium difficile infection; to review the trust’s governance arrange­ments and the priority given to the prevention and control of infection; to review the actions of the Northern Health and Social Services Board and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety in relation to the management of the outbreak and wider actions to help to reduce clostridium difficile rates in other trusts; to examine any other relevant matters that emerge during the review; and to identify learning from the management of this incident and make recommendations for the Northern Trust and the wider health and social care system.

The review team is made up of leading experts in infection control from across the UK. Those experts will have the power and authority that they need to investigate the outbreak thoroughly. What is more, they have already started to work by examining actions being taken by other trusts to try to prevent possible further outbreaks and check whether their current infection-control processes are robust. The review team will investigate the Northern Trust outbreak as soon as it has been contained.

The investigation will be speedy, without compromising its rigour or thoroughness. I have asked the RQIA to complete the investigation, and report back to me, within 12 weeks — by the end of May. That will allow me to ensure that immediate action can be taken, and I can also decide whether a public inquiry is warranted. The motion calls for a time-bound inquiry; as Minister, I can set a target for completion, but experience suggests that an extension is often sought and granted. I doubt whether it is possible to complete a public inquiry in 12 months, let alone 12 weeks.

Both the human organs inquiry and the inquiry into hyponatraemia-related deaths exceeded 12 months, and the latter still has substantial work to do. Those are the only public inquiries established by my Department in the last 10 years. Those are the important and necessary inquiries, and I am hopeful that the inquiry into hypo­natraemia-related deaths will resume its work shortly.

It is a well-established principle both here and in the rest of the UK that inquiries are called only in exceptional circumstances in which no other investigatory mechanism would be sufficient. That is by no means to rule out a public inquiry, and I am still minded to carry out one. First, however, I want the independent review to progress its work urgently and to get assurances that the trusts are doing what they should be doing to reduce and control infection, that there is no delay in identifying the lessons from that outbreak and that there is no delay in trusts making any changes needed to address those lessons. Ultimately, I want to ensure that we work quickly to prevent putting patients at risk of further infections.

There are clear and compelling reasons for proceeding as I have done in commissioning the RQIA investigation. That review will report back its findings urgently, ensuring that the Health Service can respond rapidly. Public confidence in the Health Service must be restored and restored quickly. Modern medicine has brought huge benefits to the population; we are now able to treat and cure more people than ever before, thanks to advances in medicine and specialist drugs. We must never forget that the overwhelming majority of patients who enter our hospitals receive high-quality care and treatment. Tackling superbugs is everyone’s responsibility — patients, the public and healthcare staff all have a part to play.

For my part, I will continue to take every action to ensure the prevention, early detection and reduction of these infections and to ensure that cleaner and safer care is the guiding principle for the Health Service.

Rev Dr Robert Coulter: I rise with a heavy heart, having listened to some of the chief comments that have been made earlier. We are dealing with people’s lives, with their health and happiness, so it is a sad commentary on the quality of the speeches in this House that we have had to listen to some of those remarks today.

I want to make it clear that I will not allow anyone, including the Minister, to tell me what to do. When I, along with my colleague, tabled the amendment to the motion, I did so honestly because I felt that it strengthened the position. Are we to have two inquiries running at the same time? Surely that makes a laughing stock of our supposed professionalism.

Mrs I Robinson: Why did the Member not say that at the time? At the Committee he agreed that we should ask for a full, independent and time-limited public inquiry.

Rev Dr Robert Coulter: I have not ruled that out, and neither has the Minister. Did he not say that he was not ruling out a public inquiry? Take the wax out of your ears.

Mr Deputy Speaker: I remind Members again to be extremely careful of what they say to one another.

Rev Dr Robert Coulter: I am glad that you said that, Mr Deputy Speaker. I apologise if the Chairperson of the Health Committee has no wax in her ears.

Mrs I Robinson: I clean them every day.

Rev Dr Robert Coulter: Thank you. It is good to know that.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. There is a vaccine available if there is disorder in the Chamber. It is Standing Order 60, and I do not want to have to use it. Members, please take notice of what I have said.

Rev Dr Robert Coulter: If we are to have an in-depth examination of the problem by the RQIA, surely it is better to let that organisation carry out its inquiry and then, if need be, have a full and independent public inquiry.

Would it not benefit the full public inquiry to be able to draw on the RQIA’s decisions? Were the inquiry to do that, we could proceed step by step, as we should do. Moreover, as far as immediacy is concerned, has not the Minister said that the RQIA’s work will be finished in 12 weeks? How much quicker is that than to have a public inquiry that could last 12 months?

The amendment represents the way forward. Therefore, I take pleasure in commending the amendment to the House.

The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Mrs O’Neill): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I commend my colleagues on the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety for bringing the motion to the House. I thank those Members who contributed to the debate, and I thank the Minister for responding. However, I am disappointed that certain Members, and certain parties, felt the need to move the debate’s focus to point scoring and personal attacks. That is not good enough.

Several Members spoke with passion and emotion. Hospital-acquired infections is certainly a massive public-confidence issue, and we must work at restoring the public’s confidence in the Health Service.

It is fitting that the call for a public inquiry into the outbreak of clostridium difficile should have the full weight of the Health Committee behind it. We thought that that was the case; however, it was Members who supported the motion in Committee who tabled the amendment to it.

In proposing the motion, the Chairperson of the Health Committee set out the latest figures on cases of clostridium difficile, and the number of deaths linked to the infection over the first six weeks of 2008. I remind Members of those stark figures: 194 cases of clostridium difficile and 24 deaths in which clostridium difficile was either the cause of death or a contributory factor.

Much of the media attention is focused on an outbreak in the final quarter of 2007 in the Northern Health and Social Care Trust area. However, it is clear that that outbreak is not yet under control, and that makes it very difficult to begin to rebuild public confidence.

The Committee Chairperson and other Members, including Carál Ní Chuilín, Thomas Buchanan, Dr McDonnell, Jim Shannon, Alan McFarland and Dr Deeny, pointed out that public confidence has been dealt a major blow from which it will take time to recover.

Several Members referred to a report on hospital cleanliness that was published yesterday. That report states that environmental cleanliness in our hospitals has improved. It is the second such report, and it shows that 13 out 18 acute hospitals have improved on their scores. Although that is welcome news, it masks some real problems.

Hospitals are banded according to their scores, and it is disappointing that only four hospitals are in band 1, which merits the following description:

“Reflects high standards of environmental cleanliness with only a few instances where environmental cleanliness is below standard.”

Thirteen hospitals are in band 2, with the following assessment:

“Environmental cleanliness standards in hospitals were generally satisfactory but there is room for improvement.”

One hospital was in band 4, for which the assessment is:

“Hospitals in this band are likely to have significant problems with their cleaning services and maintenance issues may compound this.”

The public have a right to expect nothing but the highest standards of cleanliness in our hospitals, and incidents such as the outbreak of clostridium difficile highlight the real dangers of not maintaining those standards.

John McCallister said that it is on record that the Minister is not opposed to an inquiry, and that the Committee is pushing at an open door. However, that begs the question: why was it necessary to table an amendment to the motion?

Carál Ní Chuilín said that the Committee unanimously agreed that a full public inquiry would be in the public interest. She spoke of the huge issue of public concern and lack of confidence in healthcare facilities. She also said that the human cost and public perception of infection must be taken into account.

Kieran McCarthy spoke of horror-story headlines about MRSA and clostridium difficile. He said that older people are increasingly reluctant to go into hospital, a situation that must be avoided at all costs. He also mentioned reports that cleaners are employed to work from nine-to-five only, while patients are admitted to hospitals 24/7.

3.30 pm

Carmel Hanna welcomed the improvements and changes that the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety introduced and said that they must be implemented urgently. She recognised that the high end of the Health Service is getting better through improved drugs and technology, but she also emphasised that people are living longer. She reiterated the importance of people remembering the basics of cleanliness.

Thomas Buchanan gave three reasons for his opposition to the amendment: first, the motion had the full support of the Health Committee; secondly, the amendment calls on the Minister to merely “consider” initiating a public inquiry, which is not strong enough; and thirdly, the inquiry requested by the amendment is not time bound.

Dr Alasdair McDonnell spoke of the need to deal with public confidence and of the necessity to tackle other hospital-acquired infections besides clostridium difficile. George Robinson said that the cleaning of healthcare facilities should be done in-house again, because it gives a direct line of responsibility. He also said that responsibility for cleaning certain areas should be given to nursing staff, and he stated that the cleaning of such areas as toilets, washrooms and shower-room facilities should be carried out by dedicated teams so that the risk of cross-infection is reduced.

Alex Easton said that hospitals used to be clean environments but are now institutions to which people fear having to go. He said that some people avoid going into hospital for essential treatment. He also said that people are not reassured by reviews and targets: rather, they are seeking specific reassurances, and the motion is a step towards providing that assurance.

Jim Shannon highlighted the seriousness of clostridium difficile and other infections, and he also reminded the House that MRSA has not disappeared, despite the current focus on clostridium difficile. He spoke of the importance of hand washing and said that many people did not wash their hands. He also said that a campaign to ensure that people are educated on the importance of hand washing was required.

Dr Deeny said that the RQIA review is shallow and limited in its powers and is an in-house publication — hence the need for a full independent inquiry. He spoke of the need for more details on spot checks, and he called for a statement on whistle-blowing from the Minister.

Alan McFarland stated that the Minister has taken action to improve cleanliness and has instigated the RQIA review. I do not dispute that; the Minister’s work to date is welcome, but we need more.

I welcome the Minister’s commitment to eradicate hospital-acquired infection as far as possible. However, the best way to do that is by initiating a full independent inquiry. The Minister spoke of a common objective and said that patient safety must be our first priority. The Committee shares that objective, and we need the Minister to work with us in trying to restore public confidence and safety. I repeat: that a full public inquiry is the best way to do that.

With regard to the amendment, originally the Minister set his face against a full public inquiry, but, following the Committee’s unanimous decision on the matter, he changed his mind and said that he was minded to have an inquiry following the publication of the RQIA review. I welcome his change of heart, but the amendment dilutes that minded approach and decision and merely asks him to “consider” such an inquiry following the review. I will, therefore, oppose the amendment, and I call on the Minister to give a firm commitment to set up a public inquiry as soon as possible.

The chief executives of the trusts and the Chief Medical Officer made much of the comparisons with other jurisdictions when they attended a meeting of the Health Committee a couple of weeks ago. They informed the Committee that, notwithstanding the current outbreak of clostridium difficile in the Northern Health and Social Care Trust, infection rates in our hospitals are low by international standards. The Chief Medical Officer said that dealing with the issue was a global challenge, and he put our situation into context by informing the Committee that between 5% and 10% of patients across the world contract healthcare-associated infections.

The most recent figures for the North show that 5·4% of patients contracted healthcare-associated infections in 2006, compared with 8·2% in England. Recent figures published in England show that clostridium difficile killed or hastened the death of almost 6,500 patients in 2006 — a 72% increase on the previous year. Although that may be the case, it is little consolation to those who are affected by the infection, and it does little to reassure anyone who is worried about going into hospital.

In fact, it only adds to their concern. The trusts here were clearly unprepared for the outbreak of clostridium difficile, so lessons must be learned for the future.

In conclusion, the Committee believes that the only way in which we can learn those lessons and begin to restore public confidence in the Health Service is by having a full, independent inquiry. I call on Members to support the motion.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The Assembly divided: Ayes 29; Noes 51.


Mr Attwood, Mr Beggs, Mr D Bradley, Mrs M Bradley, Mr P J Bradley, Mr Burns, Mr Cobain, Rev Dr Robert Coulter, Mr Cree, Mr Durkan, Mr Elliott, Sir Reg Empey, Mr Gallagher, Mr Gardiner, Mrs Hanna, Mrs D Kelly, Mr Kennedy, Mr A Maginness, Mr McCallister, Mr McClarty, Mr B McCrea, Dr McDonnell, Mr McFarland, Mr McGimpsey, Mr McGlone, Mr McNarry, Mr O’Loan, Mr P Ramsey, Mr K Robinson.

Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Gardiner and Mr McCallister.


Mr Adams, Mr Boylan, Mr Brady, Mr Bresland, Mr Brolly, Mr Buchanan, Mr Butler, Mr T Clarke, Mr W Clarke, Dr Deeny, Mr Dodds, Mr Doherty, Mr Donaldson, Mr Easton, Dr Farry, Mrs Foster, Ms Gildernew, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Irwin, Mr G Kelly, Mrs Long, Mr Lunn, Mr A Maskey, Mr F McCann, Ms J McCann, Mr McCarthy, Mr McCartney, Mr McCausland, Mr McElduff, Mrs McGill, Miss McIlveen, Mr Molloy, Mr Moutray, Mr Murphy, Mr Neeson, Mr Newton, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O’Dowd, Mrs O’Neill, Mr Poots, Mr G Robinson, Mrs I Robinson, Mr P Robinson, Mr Ross, Ms Ruane, Mr Shannon, Mr Spratt, Mr Wells, Mr B Wilson, Mr S Wilson.

Tellers for the Noes: Mr Easton and Miss McIlveen.

Question accordingly negatived.

Main question put and agreed to.


That this Assembly, following the number of deaths associated with hospital acquired infections from 2001 to date, calls on the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to initiate, as a matter of urgency, a full, independent and time-bound public inquiry.

Private Members’ Business

Youth Services Budget

Mr Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes for the winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes in which to speak.

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 wind up.

Mr S Wilson: I beg to move

That this Assembly expresses its concern at the eight per cent reduction of the Youth Services budget for the year 2008-09; calls on the Minister of Education to redirect resources from within her budget to make good the cuts; and believes that Youth Services would have greater long term security with local councils, after the Review of Public Administration.

I am pleased that this debate has come before the Assembly. I did not dare leave this place today in case I was caught up in a traffic jam — I knew that I would never survive a second occasion on which a motion did not reach the Floor.

I tabled the motion because, along with all other Members who deal with youth organisations, either in their constituencies or generally across the whole of Northern Ireland, I genuinely believe that the Youth Service does a sterling job, in all its various forms — voluntary groups, uniformed groups, unattached youth workers — right across the spectrum of youth provision. It does so not only with difficult youngsters — youngsters who have difficulties and are at risk, but with many other young people, by giving them leader­ship and character-building opportunities, helping them and diverting them into a wide range of activities.

In Northern Ireland, some 180,000 young people benefit from Youth Service provision and more than 20,000 people give of their time voluntarily, along with paid workers, to ensure that there is provision right across the Province. The Youth Service makes a vital contribution to society.

I am concerned for the immediate prospects of the Youth Service as a result of the budget that the Minister of Education has presented to the Assembly. Although she has restored some of the money that was originally cut, it is the only area in the Education budget where there was not just a cut in real terms, but a cut in the figure allocated over the next three years. The Minister has restored some of that money, so that there is no longer a cut in the figure allocated. There is, nevertheless, a cut in real terms over the next three years. The increase for this year is 2·2%; for next year, 1·2%; and in the third year, 0·4% — all of which are cuts in real terms. The cut in real terms gets bigger every year, so the Youth Service faces a declining budget in real terms.

Despite her protestations, the Minister has shown that she and her Department do not value the Youth Service in the way in which many Members want it valued. The Minister, in her response to the draft Budget, and after she had made a cut in money, said that the Youth Service’s role in the personal and social development of young people was well-recognised. If that is good recognition, it is perfectly legitimate to ask what poor recognition would be like. The Youth Service has become the Cinderella of the Department of Education.

The amendment calls for more money to be put into the Youth Service budget, but there are several areas from which the Minister could have got that money. She will sigh at this, but we all know the amount of money that she has poured into opening schools, with 12 youngsters in them, in the Irish-medium and integrated sectors. That has cost millions of pounds.

The amount of money that the Department spends on consultancy must also be considered. Was any attempt made to reduce that? Was any attempt made to reduce the amount of money that the Department spends on public relations? There is a whole host of places in which the Minister could have found money. We are not talking about hundreds of millions of pounds; a few million pounds over the next three years would have at least restored the budget in real terms to what it was. That small amount of money could have been found; but was not.

I have a short-term concern that the Youth Service is not safe in the Department of Education. In the hands of the Minister, the Youth Service is not being given the provision that it ought to be given. I have a longer-term concern —

Mr Elliott: Does the Member believe that any part of the education system is safe in the Minister’s hands?

Mr S Wilson: I do not want to get into that area: there have been enough comments about that. I will stick to talking about the Youth Service, but the Member’s question illustrates the problem that it has not been given priority.

In the longer term, as we move towards the possibility of having a single education and skills authority (ESA), the Youth Service is being thrown in with a mishmash of other functions. In fact, it seems that one of the eight sections, or directorates, of the ESA, will encapsulate around 16 different functions, few of them related; and it is into that section that the Youth Service is being thrown.

There are even graver concerns about the long-term future of the Youth Service, and that is the reason for the second part of my motion — that the Youth Service should become the responsibility of local councils. I have several reasons for that. First, the Youth Service is essentially a local service. I recognise that there are regional bodies.

Mr B McCrea: Will the Member clarify his position on the fact that there are organisations that work at the regional and national level and others that work at council level?

Mr S Wilson: Yes, there are. Indeed, I have met some that operate on a regional basis, and they have genuine concerns over how regional bodies would be serviced if money were to go to local councils. There is an easy answer to that: if the service were to transfer to councils, the Department could still keep a section of the Youth Service budget that would be distributed to regionally-based bodies. That part of the budget would not go to councils; it would be kept for central administration to fund regionally based bodies.

Given that much of what goes on in youth services takes place at local level, there would be direct accessibility to the decision-makers at local council level. If I am wrong I will take an intervention from the Minister, but it is my understanding that during the time of the budget cuts, and despite the fact that parts of the Youth Service sought meetings with the Minister, they could not get a meeting with her. I cannot conceive that youth organisations would not have access to local councillors and the local council to make their case in such a situation.

That is one reason why I believe that accessibility is important.

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Secondly, the local dimension is important. Local youth services are just that. Youth services are dynamic. They respond to circumstances and to issues in local areas, and they do so very well because they have flexibility. Therefore, the closer those services are to local areas, the better. Likewise, the more funding that is devolved to those local areas, the better. Therefore, when an issue is identified, the services would immediately have a body to approach for funding for a particular role.

There has been great concern — this point has been made to me — that if money is given to local councils, they would simply absorb it into their leisure-services budget or community-services budget. Of course, that does not have to be the case because the money could be ring-fenced. Indeed, I would like a Minister to tell councils that the money will be ring-fenced and that they will be given it only if they match the funding. Therefore, local groups would have access to an increased pot of money through the local council.

The proposal seems to be to move everything into the centre in the longer run and put it into a grand regional education and skills authority that will be remote, inaccessible and unaware of local concerns. However, rather than do that, responsibility for youth services could be devolved to local councils. That would provide better protection for local youth services and, at the same time, ensure that the Department maintains the central money so that regional organisations can be protected. The House should accept the motion for two reasons: first, because of the current short-term funding issue, and, secondly, because of the long-term organisational issue that will likely arise under ESA.

Mr D Bradley: Go raibh míle maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom an leasú ar an rún a mholadh.

I beg to move the following amendment: Leave out all after the first “the” and insert

“reduction of the Youth Services budget for the year 2008/09; regrets the absence from the budget of a cross-cutting fund for children and young people which could be topped up with in-year monitoring reallocations to support youth services and other projects; and calls on the Minister of Finance and Personnel, the Minister of Education, and the Executive to give appropriate priority to the Youth Services budget in in-year monitoring rounds.”

A LeasCheann Comhairle, tá seanrá sa Ghaedhilg a ndéanann daoine tagairt dó go minic: mol an óige agus tiocfaidh sí. Is minic an rá sin i mbéal na ndaoine, agus ní hionadh ar bith sin, nó caithfimid an mhuintir óg a chothú ar gach bealach ar féidir linn. Ní amháin iad a spreagadh agus a ghríosú le gach leas a bhaint as na buanna atá acu go pearsanta, ach, lena chois sin, páirt ghníomhach a ghlacadh ina bpobal féin agus sa tsochaí ar gach leibhéal.

There is an old saying in the Irish language: praise youth and it will flourish. It is oft-quoted, and that is not surprising. We must encourage our young people in every way that we can. We must inspire them and encourage them to use all their talents for their own personal good and to take an active part in their local communities, and society at every level.

“Ní bheathaíonn na briathra na bráithre”, a deir an t-amhrán, agus is fíor é. Bíonn níos mó ná briathra de dhíth ar an óige fosta: bíonn na hacmhainní cuí de dhíth orthu leis an ábaltacht fhisiciúil, intinne, mhorálta, spioradálta atá iontu a chothú agus a fhás.

The old song says that the brethren are not fed by words alone. Our young people need more than words. They need the suitable resources to enable them to develop physically, mentally, morally and spiritually. Our Youth Service enables them to do that and it should be properly funded.

The amendment focuses on the budgetary uncertainties that the Youth Service faces, and that is a real concern in our local communities. The motion states that:

“Youth Services would have greater long term security with local councils, after the Review of Public Administration.”

The motion covers two separate issues, and it should be brought before the House as two separate motions. That is why I have proposed the amendment, which focuses chiefly on the budgetary position of the Youth Service, which is currently its most pressing need.

Given its small amount of resources, the Youth Service in Northern Ireland provides excellent value for money. Members do not have to simply take my word on that; they can ask the young people who benefit from it in the ways that I mentioned earlier.

Although we are led to believe that funding for the Youth Service has been restored for the next three years, there will, in fact, be no increase in its budget. It will remain at the same level as in 2007-08, with no inflationary rise over the next three years. Although that is a significant improvement on the 7% decrease that was in the draft Budget, the situation is still difficult for youth organisations for a number of reasons, such as decreases in peace funding and, due to the Olympics, lottery funding, and increasing demands from young people for services.

The Youth Service provides good value for money. Every £1 invested can attract up to £10 from other investors. As Sammy Wilson said, 20,000 staff work free of charge on a regular basis. That creates a saving of £50 million every year in labour costs, which is double the total annual investment. Furthermore, over 180,000 young people benefit from access to its services each year.

The 2004-06 report by the chief inspector of the Education and Training Inspectorate stated that:

“The youth service makes an important contribution to the personal and social development of many young people … youth work makes a distinctive and valuable contribution to helping young people overcome barriers to learning and achievement”.

And yet we have to come to this House to fight hard for an adequate budget for the Youth Service.

My calculations show that the proposed increase from 2007-08 to 2008-09 is 2·2% — which is in accord with the figure that Sammy Wilson mentioned — for the Youth Service and the Youth Council. That will represent a slight reduction after inflation, assuming that inflation is approximately 2·5%.

That will not have a significantly adverse effect on the Youth Service operation in 2008-09. However, the percentage increases for the following two years are 1·2% and 0·4% respectively. Therefore, the total Youth Service budget will suffer a real reduction, allowing for inflation, in 2009-10 and 2010-11. If inflation continues at 2·5%, the Youth Service budget will decrease by 1·3% in 2009-10 and 2·1% in 2010-11. The current level of funding for the Youth Service is equivalent to £1 a week per young person in the Youth Service age range, which is from 4 to 25.

As someone who formerly worked with young people, I know that the Youth Service represents excellent value for money, which is coupled with the annual input of 22,000 volunteers.

The Youth Council is under pressure to extend its funding to regional voluntary youth organisations in order to meet increasing demand for public grants. As I said earlier, that is due, in large part, to reduced funding from other sources.

In addition, more sophisticated services are required to meet the needs of our young people, especially those from disadvantaged areas or groups. With that in mind, I am astounding by the absence from the Budget of a cross-cutting fund for children and young people. The SDLP welcomed the cross-cutting themes in the public service agreements of the Programme for Government. However, we were disappointed that those themes were not backed up or reflected in the Budget that was presented the next day.

The children’s fund, a cross-cutting fund aimed at helping vulnerable and disadvantaged children and young people, has been abandoned.

My party is on record as highlighting the issue in the Chamber. Indeed, that is one of the reasons that SDLP Members cited when they voted against the Budget.

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

A cross-cutting fund for children, which can be topped up with in-year monitoring reallocations to support youth services and other projects, is needed. That is why the amendment calls on the Minister of Finance and Personnel, the Minister of Education and the Executive to work together to give appropriate priority during in-year monitoring to the Youth Service budget.

Mr S Wilson: I appreciate the Member’s giving way. Although I understand the point that he has made for trying to find as much money as possible for youth services, does he accept that by the time that money is reallocated as a result of in-year monitoring, it is halfway through the year; it is a one-off payment; and organisations cannot plan how they will spend the money in advance? At present, youth services complain that they must survive on short-term finance, and apply for a grant here and a grant there. Funding becomes available, but then it stops. Plans cannot be made for the future. The Member’s proposal will, therefore, not be of any long-term help to the development of youth services in Northern Ireland.

Mr D Bradley: I thank the Member for his intervention. The present deficit in youth services funding can be made good through in-year monitoring. Of course, if there were other means by which that can be done more speedily, I would certainly support the Member in proposing those particular methods.

As I mentioned earlier, what is required is a cross-cutting fund for children that can be topped up through in-year monitoring. That is why I have proposed the amendment, which calls for the Minister of Finance and Personnel, the Minister of Education and the Executive to give appropriate priority to youth services during in-year monitoring. I ask Members to concentrate on what is the most pressing need for youth services at present — budgetary need.

Mr Butler: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the opportunity that the motion has presented to debate the provision of youth services. For too long, youth workers have not had the same profile or attention paid to them as education-sector workers. Youth services play an important role in the delivery of a full education service to all young people. The Assembly recognises the important role — often a hidden and unpublicised role — that youth services play in the community. The Education Committee has discussed youth services in the community and the work that is done by the voluntary sector in particular.

The first part of the two-part motion is outdated. The proposers of the motion, Sammy Wilson and Michelle McIlveen, will be aware of that because concerns were raised in the Education Committee that, under the draft Budget, cuts had been made in funding for youth services. Having listened to the Committee’s concerns, Caitríona Ruane later confirmed that in the final Budget, £4·6 million would be allocated to youth services for the next three years. Everyone in the Chamber is well aware of the great work that is done by many in the community and, therefore, they welcome the Minister’s confirmation of the allocation of that money.

In these modern times, it is not easy for young people as they mature through their teenage years. They are under much more pressure than many of us experienced when we were teenagers. Therefore, it must be made a priority that the maximum possible amount of financial resources and number of personnel are directed towards youth services in order to ensure that young adults are given the best possible assistance.

It is worth repeating that one of the Education Depart­ment’s key objectives is to facilitate the personal and social development of children and young people and to assist them to gain knowledge, skills and experience to reach their full potential as valued citizens. It goes without saying that if investment is made in young people’s education and development as citizens of their communities, they will make a valuable contribution to society.

The programme provided by the Youth Service is admirable: it casts a wide educational net and tries to provide the widest possible spectrum of activities for those participating in youth services.

As some members have mentioned, there are 165 youth clubs and 14 residential centres under the control of the education and library boards, which employ around 960 paid workers and 543 voluntary workers. In the voluntary sector, there are nearly 20,000 workers. That is an impressive record.

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What has been missing from the debate is the view of those who work in the voluntary and statutory sectors. Representatives of those sectors submitted evidence to the Committee and said that they wanted youth services to remain under the Department’s control. They said that youth work should remain in the Department’s control to allow for joined-up approaches to citizenship, employability, preparation for working life, personal and social education, and vocational development. We must listen to those who deliver youth services on this issue.

We will not decide, in a debate of one hour and 30 minutes, whether to transfer the entire youth budget to local government. I am a local district councillor and know that local district councils make cuts to budgets. There is no guarantee that, if local district councils controlled youth services, there would not be cuts. We must have a wider debate on whether youth services remain under the Department’s control. The review of public administration (RPA) did state that there was a role for local district councils; however, it also proposed that the education and skills authority and the Department should be in control of youth services. We do not know what capacity, roles, responsibilities or powers the new councils will have. I caution against having any debate on whether youth services should go —

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

Mr K Robinson: The key issue is the Youth Service budget. In the Minister’s hands, the Youth Service is as safe as our education service and our schools. Therefore, I understand the frustration felt by the proposers of the motion, who clearly believe that the only way to save the Youth Service is to remove it from the Education Minister’s grip.

The Youth Service plays a vital role in the daily war to save our youth from the perils that await them in a deteriorating society. On many occasions, I have spoken out against the knife culture that stalks our streets, and, after speaking out on that peril for four years, I can claim some small success in persuading the direct rule Administration to introduce tougher knife laws. Knife culture was claiming many young lives and devastating many of our homes. Since then, I have broadened my focus to opposing the growing gang culture, because it is the gang mentality that wields the knife.

The Youth Service is a bastion of normality and reaches out to our young people in the midst of a sea of bad influences that threaten to engulf them and waste their young lives. It supports and encourages young people to mature and reach their potential as valued individuals and responsible citizens. The policy aim of the Youth Service is:

“to ensure the provision of opportunities for children, young people and young adults to gain for themselves knowledge, skills and experience to reach their full potential as valued individuals; to encourage the development of mutual understanding and promote recognition of and respect for cultural diversity.”

Is that not the essence of what we are trying to achieve?

The Youth Service is composed of both the statutory and voluntary sectors. The statutory sector is under control of the education and library boards and has 165 youth clubs, 14 residential centres, employs almost 1,000 paid workers and benefits from the input of some 540 volunteers. The voluntary sector, which is much larger, is made up of a variety of organisations: some uniformed and some non-uniformed; some church-related and some secular; the headquarters and the umbrella organisations. There are over 2,000 voluntary groups with over 1,000 paid workers and almost 20,000 volunteers who are registered with the education and library boards for the receipt of grant aid. The Youth Service, therefore, is a major bulwark in society.

The reaction to the announcement in the draft Budget of an £8 million cut in the Youth Service’s budget merits examination. A Sinn Féin spokesman said that those from disadvantaged backgrounds would suffer most from the lack of mainstream funding. Sinn Féin had serious concerns about the proposed cuts to the Youth Service’s allocation in the draft Budget. However, when the final Budget confirmed a cut of £3·4 million to that sector, a Sinn Féin Minister accepted it. A cut is a cut is a cut, and Sinn Féin’s actions in Government do not equate with what it champions outside Government. The funding gap remains and, as is heard in the London Underground, “mind the gap”.

The Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People, our former colleague Patricia Lewsley, outlined her views on the situation:

“Those services have been underfunded for too long, and I hope that this budget will start to redress the balance.”

Perhaps we have made a start, but we are far from finished.

However, there are alternative models for the delivery of youth services. For instance, in England, the structures for youth services have usually been part of local government. The Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED) carries out inspections to monitor the quality and provision of youth services. Recently, a minority of local authorities failed to ensure the proper integration of youth services. However, that is an indictment of the English system rather than of council-run provision per se.

Therefore, although there are issues to consider, it is essential that the Youth Service be fully integrated into any plans that the proposed new councils may introduce to improve the lives of citizens. The Youth Service should be viewed as an arm of community welfare and support. As all other arms of community support lie within local government, the same should apply to the Youth Service. In advocating a new role for local government in the provision of youth services, I accept that the policy, training, standards and moderation of the service should be a regional function of the Depart­ment of Education or any such body that may be assigned that role.

The Ulster Unionist Party supports the transfer of the Youth Service, and, indeed, community relations, to local government. Under community planning, the councils should be tasked to develop programmes for community development, youth provision and community relations. Councils should co-ordinate the required programmes and projects and be responsible for ensuring their delivery. For councils to be the engines of change in the community, it is essential that the community planning function is enhanced as much as possible. Young people have a critical role to play in community development, and the disengagement of the Youth Service from the Department of Education might boost its status.

The service providers, the Youth Council for Northern Ireland, felt that several prerequisites would have to be met before councils should be put in charge of the Youth Service.

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

Mr Lunn: The Alliance Party welcomes the debate and congratulates Sammy Wilson for tabling the motion. We support the motion, because — [Interruption.]

I will come to that. We support the motion, because the provision of youth services is imperative. Of all the budgets that require reappraisal, this one deserves protection more than most.

Having said that, and having praised Sammy Wilson for raising the matter, I cannot resist taking the opportunity to highlight the inconsistency in the attitudes of the main parties in Government — again. Mr Wilson criticises a budgetary decision that his party and the Executive, led by his party, endorsed.

The Youth Service does a vital job by providing extra-curricular activities for children and young people. Many of those activities form a fundamental part of their overall education and help them to mature and realise their full potential as individuals and citizens. Therefore, it should be a funding priority for the Minister.

In the Programme for Government, the Executive pledged to increase the level of participation in youth services to 42%. No one opposed the pledge, and although it may not be sufficiently ambitious, it requires financial support, not a cut in its funding allocation.

The second part of the motion relates to the long-term security of the Youth Service should it be transferred to local councils. Subject to a sensible outcome from the review of public administration, the Alliance Party and its NILGA (Northern Ireland Local Government Association) representatives favour the transfer of the provision of youth services to the control of the enlarged local councils.

Much of what the Youth Service does is educational, but that does not mean that all its functions should be transferred. Rather, the local authorities should accord it a lead role in community planning and in allocating and prioritising resources for general youth services. Local representatives, by virtue of their closeness to communities, should, in most cases, provide the most efficient means of service delivery.

The Alliance Party cannot support the SDLP amendment, because it removes the reference to local council involvement. However, at least it mentions the Minister of Finance and Personnel, and I will talk about his role in a moment. The Alliance Party also believes that that funding is best left in the area of mainstream departmental funding.

I query whether the motion should refer to the Minister of Education, rather than the Minister of Finance and Personnel, who holds the purse strings. The education budget is tight, and there are many demands on it from all sides of the House. I notice that Sammy Wilson seemed to suggest that a cut in the budget for integrated education and Irish-medium schools could provide the necessary resources. However, those are both the subject of Government commitments, where there is parental demand. It is obvious that children will still need to be educated. Where is the saving?

I was glad that Mr Wilson mentioned the fact that a traffic jam caused this debate to be postponed a few weeks ago. I will certainly take his word for that, as he is an honourable man. It removes any doubt, or the feeling that might have been abroad in the House, that that was a contrived situation at a delicate time.

Mr S Wilson: That hurts.

Mr Lunn: I am giving the Member the benefit of the doubt. I accept his explanation absolutely. At least we are having the debate now — after the Budget and the Programme for Government have been agreed to.

Mr S Wilson: I assure the Member that no one was more angry about the situation than myself. Conor Murphy contrived a traffic jam on the M2 to stop me, and the Speaker did not allow the debate to be delayed.

The Member may have misunderstood me in respect of integrated education. I said that many people felt that giving the priority to opening schools with as few as 12 pupils in them was a waste of resources; not that money directed towards integrated education or Irish education, per se, was a waste of resources.

Mr Lunn: I am sure that the Member means what he says, but it sounds — as it frequently does — as though he does not favour integrated education or Irish-medium education in any form whatsoever, and would like to see the end if it. I took that to mean that he saw that as a way of raising some money, which could be put to a very good cause. However, I am not arguing about that. We are debating the Youth Service today, and it is an important subject.

The Alliance Party will support the motion. Regrettably, for the reasons given, it cannot support the SDLP’s amendment.

Miss McIlveen: Last week, the Minister of Education’s new minder, John O’Dowd, leapt to her defence. He said:

“The duty of an opposition — whether upper or lower case — is to present alternatives.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 28, p20, col 1].

When he said that, I immediately thought of a boat stranded on the rocks — like the Minister’s policies. She is travelling without charts, a compass or sextant. She does not communicate with her crew, she has run the boat aground, and it is taking on water. Now she is looking for everyone else in the Chamber to help her refloat it. It is time that the admiralty at Sinn Féin took a long, hard look at the captain that it has appointed, and remove her command.

Today, we are debating her policy on the Youth Service, and the DUP is suggesting that the Youth Service should seek alternative transportation. No one should underestimate the positive impact that the Youth Service has had on society in Northern Ireland. Thousands of people in statutory and voluntary agencies are offering young people opportunities for social, intellectual, cultural and physical development.

The Youth Service deals with 180,000 young people, outside the formal education process. A failure to provide those services effectively will result in those young people not availing of what is on offer, feeling disenfranchised, and failing to achieve their potential to contribute meaningfully to society. The Youth Service is not just about our traditional concepts of educating; it can also be about learning through social interaction, which can ensure that young people feel that they belong to their community. It takes our young people off the streets and gives them focus without the necessity of feeling obliged to be there, as they would under formal processes. Indeed, if there are local disturbances or antisocial behaviour in an area, the first place that the local authorities will go to get a handle on the situation is the Youth Service.

In my area, I have seen evidence of Church-based schemes working in collaboration with the statutory agencies to provide activities such as midnight football and intergenerational schemes, which have proven to be highly successful.

The Minister initially proposed an 8% cut in the Youth Service budget, through the draft Budget. When the Minister is faced with a tight budget, the only area in which she looks to make real savings is the Youth Service. The Minister did not look anywhere else — she homed in on it, as she regards it as a minor part of the education budget. It has since been announced that a further £4·6 million will be allocated to education, and only then did the Minister see fit to allocate funding to youth services over the next three years. Unfortunately, that does not make up for the 8% cut, nor does it deal with the perception of those working in youth services that the area is underfunded and is not allowed to maximise its potential.

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Furthermore, we are still unaware of how those moneys will be allocated or how they have been prioritised within youth services. The House should also recognise that the additional funding was allocated to youth services as a result of the pressure applied by the Education Committee and youth service providers.

Not only is the future of the Youth Service threatened by lack of funding, it is also under threat from the new ESA structure. When Gavin Boyd spoke to the Education Committee, there was hardly any mention of youth services, and certainly no attention has been given to a Northern Ireland-wide service.

Youth services would have greater long-term security if they were administered by local councils. I am not suggesting that that should happen tomorrow, but we must picture the scenario where we have the ESA and 11 or 15 councils — it would be a completely different framework. We must ask ourselves whether youth services would be better served under potentially the largest education body in Europe. Would that reflect the current situation, in which the Youth Service is labelled the Cinderella service of the Department of Education? Cuts will inevitably come out of the Youth Service budget first, rather than its ugly sister, Irish-medium education.

The needs of communities are different throughout Northern Ireland. Therefore, it is necessary to retain the close contact with youth services that would be lost on the introduction of ESA, and that can be done best through local delivery mechanisms at local government level. Entrusting youth services —

Mrs Long: I am surprised to hear the Member speak about Irish-medium education in the way that she has done. Does she not agree that her own party signed up to a Programme for Government that said that it would promote a flourishing Irish-medium education system?

Miss McIlveen: Thank you for your intervention.

Entrusting youth services to local councils will also ensure a level of local accountability and scrutiny that will be absent from the ESA uber-quango. However, certain safeguards must be in place. The Department of Education must retain responsibility for setting Youth Service policy; the Youth Service liaison forum and the Youth Council must be retained; local strategies consistent with the delivery of youth work strategy must be developed and implemented; standards of entitlements to services must be established; and, most importantly, there must be ring-fenced budgets from the Department of Education.

We are currently facing huge restructuring of how the Government carry out their business in Northern Ireland. Constituents —

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. This fairy godmother has rung midnight.

Mr O’Dowd: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I congratulate Miss McIlveen on introducing some humour to her speeches. She is obviously learning from the old master Mr Wilson and if she keeps it up she might actually relax and enjoy a debate now and again.

As my colleague Paul Butler said, the motion is out of date. When researching for this debate I looked at Mr Wilson’s contribution to the final Budget debate — it is, as usual, one of Mr Wilson’s interesting, colourful, and humorous contributions. However, youth services are not mentioned anywhere in it. In fairness to him, he did say at the start of that debate that he was not speaking as Chairperson of the Education Committee, but, considering that he has now tabled this motion twice, one would have thought he would have raised the issue in the Budget debate, if he were so concerned.

Mr Wilson spent most of his time during the Budget debate attacking the SDLP and the Alliance Party, but his most interesting comments were his last words:

“I support the Budget and oppose the amendment.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 27, p123, col 2].

He supported the Budget, including the budget for the Department of Education, which included youth services. The reason why he supported it, I hope, is because the Minister had secured extra funding for youth services, which appeared in the draft Budget. I then looked at the Education Committee’s response to the draft Budget, which is a three- or four-page letter directed to the Chairperson of the Finance Committee and signed by Mr Wilson.

I scanned the response to see what Mr Wilson, Mr Bradley and the other Members who advocate more money for youth services had to say. I should point out that it is too late for further allocations, given that the Budget discussions are closed. Why were those concerns not expressed in the Budget debate? I came across half a sentence in the response, which said:

“The Committee would question why the bid for Maintenance of the School Estate might not be met”.

I assume that the phrase “might not be met” refers to the Department of Finance and Personnel. It is also reported in that response that:

“the Committee noted with concern that a specific bid to enhance the Youth Service may not be met.”

That was the sum total of the Chairperson of the Education Committee’s contribution on youth services. I cannot find any other contribution from Mr Wilson, the DUP, the SDLP, or the Alliance Party prior to the vote —

Mr K Robinson: Will the Member give way?

Mr O’Dowd: Let me finish this sentence. Prior to the Budget’s being agreed, I recall the Minister of Finance and Personnel scolding the Alliance Party for proposing amendments, and I remember the SDLP being politically and publicly ridiculed for proposing amendments. However, none of those amendments concerned youth services.

Mr K Robinson: That was a very long sentence, but I thank the Member for giving way. Will the Member confirm whether Sinn Féin members were present at the Committee meeting to which he refers?

Mr O’Dowd: In the Sinn Féin response to the draft Budget, my colleagues Paul Butler and Michelle O’Neill insisted that youth services be prioritised. That response is available to the public.

Youth services need more funding. The Minister was diligent in her task; she went to the Finance Minister and secured more funding. If the Education Committee had fallen in behind her and supported — instead of scrutinising — her, would yet more funding for youth services been secured? That is quite possible.

The motion states that the Minister should:

“redirect resources from within her budget”.

From where should that redirected funding come? Should she take it from special needs providers? Should she take it from the classroom assistants? Should she take it from school transport? Perhaps she should close a couple of rural schools. Neither the amendment nor any of the other parties’ contributions have suggested from where the extra funding should come. We can all agree that youth services are a vital component on the way forward.

It was a mistake to attach to this motion the issue of the transfer of youth services to the councils; that is a separate debate. There is nothing to stop the Education Committee from holding its own inquiry and producing its own report on the findings on the way forward for youth services. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr B McCrea: We have heard some colourful speeches so far. There have been all sorts of metaphors — there have been stormy seas to play with, or we could go down the Cinderella route. I am disappointed to discover that you, Mr Deputy Speaker, are the fairy godmother, because I thought that that was the Minister of Education. I was waiting for her to wave her magic wand.

The debate is strange, in that I both agree and disagree with numerous points that Members from all sides have made. Therefore, one could probably conclude that this is a matter that needs more debate. I am convinced that young people need to be empowered. Members who see me around the Assembly will have noticed that I usually have two or three youths with me, seeing what we do up here. It is important that we engage properly with young people.

As Members know, I have had difficulties with the Minister. I am sorry that she has disappeared, because I was going to say something nice. Perhaps somebody could pass on this message to her: we have an opportunity to use our imagination on this issue to make creative and visionary proposals. We could even make radical proposals that could be forward looking and youth orientated.

I agree that there are constraints on budgets; I have heard that from all sides. However, it is important that we find a way to invest in youth services.

I do not wish to demonise young people. Some of the finest people who I have met are the youth of today. However, there is no doubt that we live in changed times. Our prisons are full: what does that say about how society is going? The elderly are afraid, not necessarily that anything is going to happen but they see groups of young people and are fearful. There is also antisocial behaviour and criminal damage in all sorts of areas; and if we do not invest in our youth then we will end up paying for it in antisocial behaviour and criminal damage. Perhaps there is a budget at which Mr O’Dowd can have a look to see where he might find some money.

If I were to look at the real problem; namely adolescence — Minister, I am pleased to see you back because I was saying some good things but felt that maybe they fell on stony ground. Adolescence is a difficult time, a time when people move from being family orientated to peer orientated to, eventually, being independent. It is a time when, conversely, young people want their independence and yet they fear being isolated, left out or wrong-footed. That is a situation in which when families, schools and communities fail to offer consistent direction and positive goals, adolescents can drift into undesirable behaviour, perhaps tending to become confused and cynical and generally experience a diffused sense of self. That is why we have to see if we can help people.

Who is to do the helping? The single, most important factor in the upbringing of any young person is family. The second most important factor is school because that is where young people form a lot of friendships — which are, incidentally, just as important as the education that they receive. Young people want to be a part of strong, safe communities that foster trust, individual well-being and self-worth, and which encourage social responsibility. The problem is that there are some young people who do not get any of that from their family or their school. The pressure on people to stay on at school while living in, for example, single-parent families or families in which both parents work — that is quite a challenge. If it were not for the voluntary sector we would be in dire straits.

I have the deepest admiration for people who, day in day out, try to look after young people. However, the truth of the matter is that they feel abandoned and unloved; they feel at the bottom of the list of priorities. When we talk about cuts, the fear is that we will see those cuts in front-line services and not in headquarters staff or in desk-bound social workers. Therefore, there is an issue whenever an attempt is made to resolve this matter: where will we find more money? I am looking at the Minister and saying that this is an opportunity to do some good; we would be keen to work together; this is a matter that needs a more appropriate discussion and I would be keen to work with all those Members present.

Mrs M Bradley: We are all aware how youth services have always struggled down the years to provide services. Had it not been for the volunteers working with youth leaders, then the good work that they do could not have been achieved.

If the Youth Service is to receive cuts, it will be a devastating blow and those who will suffer will be the most vulnerable. The cuts will mean that youth services cannot develop, and we should remember that, over the years, most youth clubs have limped along with one leader. However, such a blow will obliterate some youth clubs and possibly obliterate the others. The youth of Northern Ireland need help and direction. They have potential; however, the implications of the proposed cuts will deal yet another blow to an already impoverished service.

I am also concerned that there are areas that receive at little as 10 hours of youth service work. I am fearful that they will be the sufferers from any cuts in services. I support the amendment.

Mrs Long: I declare an interest as a member of the steering panel of the East Belfast Area Youth Project, as an adult and unit guider with Girlguiding UK, and as a member of Belfast City Council because I believe that the issue being discussed has an impact on all three areas. I welcome the motion although I am surprised by its source. The Member for East Antrim Sammy Wilson is always, to say the least, energetic in his opposition or his support. Certainly, I often feel exhausted listening to him.

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He was very enthusiastic about the Budget and the Programme for Government; I was quite concerned for his blood pressure at one point. He characterised the Alliance Party as seeming:

“to think that the role of the opposition is to find fault where there is no fault; to be negative when there is no need to be negative, and to cry about problems when there are none.”—[Official Report, Bound Volume 27, p43, col 2].

He has clearly had time to read the documents and to study the consequences; perhaps that is what kept him late last time. It is clear that the situation was not perfect and that there were problems.

My problem with the motion is that we are dealing today with the consequences of the Budget. It is fine to talk about those consequences, but they are not solely the responsibility of the Minister of Education: they are also the responsibility of the Minister of Finance and his ministerial colleagues in the Executive. It is unfair that only the Minister of Education is mentioned in the motion.

There is some agreement on the substantial issue: the effect that a lack of secure funding and funding fluctuations have on the Youth Service — and we are all aware that fluctuations, cuts and uncertainties damage staff morale. For example, hundreds of staff in the education and library boards were placed on protective notice during the debate that led to the agreement of the Budget. They also undermine staff development and make it difficult to retain and to attract new people into the service, particularly in the statutory sector. Jobs in that sector are not necessarily highly valued, and funding uncertainties mean that there is also very little job security. All those factors are damaging, but, most important, they undermine the consistency of provision.

Intervention with some of our most marginalised young people, particularly through detached youth workers, is not a one-off event; it requires relationship building, determination and long-term intervention. The danger that qualified, trained youth workers will leave the service because they fear for their jobs creates huge difficulties in recruiting people of similar calibre, who have to start from scratch with the young people in rebuilding relationships. That is a serious issue. I cannot support the amendment, as I do not believe that either special funds or in-year monitoring rounds is a solution, because neither provides the long-term security that is required for strategic planning.

By contrast, ring-fencing funding has merit as a means of ensuring that that funding is spent on the right things.

Mr D Bradley: The amendment calls for in-year monitoring to be used to close the gap in funding. Does the Member not agree that, under present circumstances, that is the best solution to the funding difficulties faced by the Youth Service?

Mrs Long: I agree that it is perhaps the only short-term solution, but I do not believe that it is a solution to the long-term problem of funding the Youth Service. Several Members said that the Youth Service is regarded as a Cinderella service; however, we must get away from that perception so that we appreciate the service’s long-term value. Ring-fencing funds for young people, whether in Departments or transferred to councils, would be a wise move, as it would ensure that such funding was not absorbed into other areas.

I also want to highlight the implications for our Budget way down the line, because it is likely that policing and justice will be devolved at some point. Some of the very young people that the Youth Service will be failing through lack of finance will inevitably end up involved in the youth justice system; that has been shown by a great deal of research. Although we do not have the budget line for that today, we will in future and it will affect what we are doing.

Transferring youth services to local councils can be managed. If it is any consolation to the Minister, the Alliance Party’s policy of transferring youth services to local councils predates her taking on her role. It is not taking the Youth Service away from a Minister who cannot control it; it is simply our belief that local services are best provided by local councils. We recognise that a major function of the Youth Service is educational, and we also recognise that that would not necessarily mean a transfer of all its functions; however, we want local authorities to take a lead role in community planning and the prioritising of resources. We hope that that will be a constructive way forward.

Mr Gallagher: I support the amendment and welcome the debate. Although the motion provides an opportunity for discussion, I do not agree with its thrust, which proposes to place our Youth Service elsewhere. That particular point warrants a more detailed debate.

For the moment, I am in no doubt that the Youth Service should sit close to the education and library boards, because of the strong links that exist between those two services. The Youth Service has been a part of the education and library boards for more than 30 years. That said, it has often been the poor relation in that setting. Funding pressures have meant that front-line services, such as classroom services, have been prioritised ahead of it. Nevertheless, the Youth Service plays a very important role in developing the character of our young people during their difficult transition from youth to adulthood.

The Youth Service has more than 20,000 volunteers, many of whom regularly provide an excellent service to Northern Ireland’s 2,000, or more, voluntary groups. As I have said, the link between the education and library boards and the Youth Service is crucial. Various experiences have shown how the Youth Service can bring young people together, whether for sports events, meetings or trips away. It has provided many young people with an opportunity to meet young people from different backgrounds.

Our amendment also highlights the need for a fund for children and young people — a glaring omission from the Budget. Contrary to Naomi Long’s claims, a fund for children and young people cannot be described as a short-term measure, because it would make an important contribution to the development of the youth services.

The provision of youth workers is one of the biggest costs in the youth budget across all the education boards, whether in urban or rural settings. In recent years, those youth workers increasingly work in stronger partnerships with local schools. That is evident, for example, in the delivery of personal and social education, which is a particularly important part of the curriculum, and another good reason why we must think more carefully about where the Youth Service is placed. The curriculum also includes the teaching of citizenship, which is another vital dimension of the Youth Service. Citizenship helps young people to understand better their duties, rights and responsibilities as citizens. Through integrating youth work with the formal education system, citizenship also provides an opportunity to maximise our young people’s potential.

The additional money that has been put into the system since the motion was tabled is welcome. However, how are we to spend it? How will it be distributed equitably across urban and rural areas? It is important that those funds be distributed under the assessment-of-relative-needs exercise (ARNE). For the reasons that I have stated, the Youth Service is important. Its work is particularly important and well recognised, not least in those areas of high social deprivation, where facilities are lacking. I support the call for more funding for the Youth Service.

The Minister of Education (Ms Ruane): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I recognise the vital role that youth services play in ensuring that young people have access to a range of positive activities that contribute to their individual learning and achievement. Therefore, I have ensured that the budget for youth services, after taking account of inflation, has been restored in 2008-09 to a level consistent with that of 2007-08.

There is not a decrease in the budget, as Members have suggested. An extra £1·059 million is allocated in 2008-09; an extra £0·3 million in 2009-10; and an extra £0·1 million in 2010-11. The budget will increase, in real terms, by 2·27% in 2008-09, 1·45% in 2009-10 and 1·93% in 2010-11. Of course, I would love those increases to be greater, and the Department recognises the need to put money into youth services, but it has competing priorities and a budget to consider.

Members have lobbied me on various issues — the primary-school system, preschool provision, youth services, classroom assistants — and I am sure that that lobbying will continue. Although the Department has had budgetary constraints to contend with, it has listened to people and allocated that amount of money. The Department held consultations on the budget in three different parts of the North and listened carefully to people’s views. Young people made strong cases, and I applaud that; fair play to them. We went into communities, where we spoke to primary school and pre-school principals and listened to people’s views. I made significant changes to the budget that was presented to me, for which I make no apology.

I want to put on record my appreciation for the work undertaken by youth-sector workers on behalf of young people. Members know that Contact Youth Counselling Services won the tender for the counselling service. The Department introduced the counselling service for post-primary schools in September 2007, and Members will now know — I have stated it often enough in the House — that there has been a 95% or 98% uptake, which proves the points that other Members made about adolescents. However, I found resources to extend the counselling service to primary and special schools, and that is recognition of the difficulties that young people face and evidence that early intervention is important.

There is no doubt about the value of youth work, and my commitment to youth services is evidenced by the additional resources made available to the sector and the fact that I have listened and responded to the various groups.

I want to thank my officials in the Department of Education. Assembly Members will know how busy they are, as my Department is one of those that receives the greatest numbers of questions for oral and written answer. Despite that, at my instigation, my officials took time to consult local people in various areas of the North. They returned energised, and strongly advised that I should consider youth services. Officials do not get thanked very often, and it is important that they receive recognition.

As Members know, it was not a case of simply getting more resources; I had to critically evaluate my budget and make tough decisions. I allocated resources to maintain the important outreach and child-protection work that is required in the sector. That money was previously available from the children and young people funding package, and I secured resources to maintain such activity. However, that money will not necessarily be used in the same way, because the money for detached work and outreach work will be targeted specifically at meeting the needs of young people who are marginalised. I want to ensure that those resources are allocated according to need and that we deliver on our equality duties right across the North.

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The statutory and voluntary youth sector will have access to funding that will allow those important initiatives to continue. It will be up to them, as delivery agencies, to assure the Department that the resources are allocated according to a fair and transparent assessment of need across the North. On that basis, I have written to each education and library board to ask them to ensure that allocations will be subject to equality impact assessments. Furthermore, I have asked them to ensure that their statutory duties in relation to Irish-medium education are met.

I was disappointed to hear some of the comments about the Irish-medium sector. I thought that Members had moved away from those debates. Irrespective of whether they learn through English or Irish, children have rights, and I make no apology for ensuring that the Irish-medium sector gets its fair share of resources. I thank Naomi Long and Trevor Lunn for their positive comments in relation to that. Members must stop making Irish language a political football; we have to move away from that and move into new times.

I have instructed my officials that all departmental policies must be subject to the equality impact process, and they have a statutory duty to ensure that that happens.

The Department of Education has allocated approximately £35 million to youth and community relations in 2008-09. The sector is fortunate to have such strong community support through its volunteer base, and that is to be commended.

The Department supports 165 statutory youth clubs, 14 residential centres and more than 2,071 voluntary youth units. There are approximately 517,000 young people in the North of Ireland, aged between four and 25, and we estimate that approximately 38% use the youth service. That is a high figure.

The motion refers to a reduction in the youth services budget for 2008-09, and, as I said previously, I have restored that shortfall, thereforeI have dealt with those issues. I have listened to the youth sector and those who lobbied on its behalf, and I have made available additional resources. I have turned a potentially negative situation into a positive outcome for the youth budget, and work to develop allocations across the sector is almost complete.

There are difficult decisions to be made in allocating resources across all education and youth services. There will always be more resources needed than it is possible to provide, and, with my colleagues in the Executive, I will continue to raise the profile of youth services.

In-year monitoring is, primarily, a process to deal with the merging in-year pressures and easements. In that context, I will continue to bid for resources, where necessary, for those services for which I am responsible. Decisions on allocations will be a matter for the Executive in the context of competing priorities, but youth will be an area in which we will ensure that money is invested.

The future of the youth sector in the remit of the Department of Education is important. To date, I have seen no evidence to suggest that youth services would have greater stability with local councils. I have not been presented with any arguments that can demonstrate that the interests of children and young people would be better served in local councils, but I am listening carefully. Naomi Long made some interesting arguments in her contribution, and I will consider taking them on board.

The Department of Education is responsible for children and young people from preschool through to primary and post-primary education. It is also responsible for the youth services that are available to the same young people from the age of four to 24. I do not have a closed mind on that; I will listen to all views. However, responses to the review of public administration papers on youth and education welcomed the fact that youth will remain part of the education system.

In recent weeks, I received correspondence that stressed the need for youth services to remain the responsibility of the Department of Education to ensure joint working at governmental level to improve outcomes for young people. Others share that view.

In 2004, the education and library boards consulted with a range of sectoral partners, including youth organisations, youth workers and young people. The review demonstrated that the service, its educational base and its staff were highly valued by young people. The review also highlighted the core aim of youth work as the personal and social education of children and young people, and stressed that work with young people is only youth work when it is educationally based.

The 2004-2006 report of the chief inspector of the Education and Training Inspectorate stated that:

“The Youth Service makes an important contribution to the personal and social development of many young people... youth work makes a distinctive and valuable contribution to helping young people overcome barriers to learning and achievement”.

The Department of Education’s youth work strategy recommends that one of the key priorities for the service should be to develop and implement a strategy for the development of youth work practice in the formal education sector. It is essential that the Youth Service forges greater links with the formal education sector. We are already working on that, not least through some area-based inspections completed by the Education and Training Inspectorate.

Youth work should be fun and enjoyable, but it is about educating young people to participate, to respect and value difference, and to test their own values and beliefs. Citizenship is taught in schools, but it is experienced and lived out in the Youth Service. The personal and social education of young people is just as important as academic achievement. I have heard that from organisations such as the Confederation of British Industry, and I know that as a former director of Féile an Phobail — the West Belfast Community Festival. I always read through CVs, looking for some mention of volunteering, because it is very important.

For some young people, youth work is a way of achieving accreditation or training, or it can act as a springboard into employment.

Caithfidh an t-oideachas neamhfhoirmiúil an t-oideachas foirmiúil a chomhlánú ar chaoi straitéiseach phleanáilte. Non-formal education must complement formal education in a strategic and planned way. The Youth Service budget, albeit a small percentage of the overall education budget, is ring-fenced and protected when it is allocated. That ensures that the Youth Service budget cannot be used to bolster budgets elsewhere. The value of that budget can be maximised when the formal and non-formal education sectors work more closely together. An obvious example of working more closely together is to share resources, accommodation and buildings.

The Department wants to better utilise the resources that we have tied up in the formal education sector, which are often closed to local young people after a certain time of day. Officials are working on area planning models that include the youth sector. I will return to that point later. Another example is the contribution made to formal education outcomes by wrap-around services that are provided in areas, such as after-school activities, sport, health-related activities and other services provided by significant adults, such as youth workers in schools who act as role models for young people.

Of the factors affecting school achievement, families and communities have considerable influence in helping young people to develop self-discipline, teamwork, self-belief and good physical and mental health. If any other decision were taken in relation to youth work, there would be a huge lobby from the MLAs, because the extended schools are working well and they are offering breakfast clubs and after-school activities, and the youth clubs are part of that.

The Youth Service can be a good bridge between schools and the community, and we must work harder at exploiting the full benefits of that. The Youth Service can and does work with schools and communities. It can be linked to after-school activities and to providing access to sport, which contributes to fit futures and, in turn, to tackling obesity issues. Youth work provides important opportunities for civic participation, which is essentially the link with the local communities that schools need if we are to draw in parents more.

Schools are making stronger links with the communities. The Youth Service’s working with schools and communities can help to foster young people’s active involvement. The Education and Training Inspectorate inspects the Youth Service as well as the formal education sector. The latest chief inspector’s report stresses the need for connecting better for learners. That important concept of the needs of learners reflects the emphasis placed by the inspectorate on the ability of the Youth Service to meet the learning needs of many people. The inspectorate has also been developing an area-based planning inspection, which examines provision in local communities. That inspection is developing to examine the quality and adequacy of provision and the coherence of that provision for young people. Would that important element of education inspection and continuous improvement not be lost in any transfer to local government?

Formal education is changing. Citizenship is now part of the curriculum, and employers are telling us that young people who are achieving some of the highest levels of educational attainment are not prepared for the world of work.

The world of work is changing, and the entire emphasis is now centred around building skills, enabling young people to fulfil their potential and helping them to play an active role in a diverse and rapidly changing society. The North of Ireland is changing.

We have a 30-year legacy of conflict; dark days to which no one wants to return, but which we must never forget.

As a result of the arrival of new members of our society, our communities are changing. Migrant workers bring their families to live here, and these young people are to be found in early-years settings, schools and youth services. We are also building new relations between communities in the North and the South and with England, Scotland and Wales.

Since youth work is curriculum-based and centred on respect for diversity —

Mr Deputy Speaker: Minister, your time is up. I remind Mr Bradley that he has five minutes in which to make his winding-up speech.

Mr D Bradley: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Cúig bhomaite, mar sin. In today’s speeches, there were many areas of agreement about the Youth Service, and that is welcome. Many Members agreed with me about the cuts to the Youth Service’s budget and about the fact that it provides excellent value for money — each pound invested is increased tenfold. First-class services are provided to 180,000 young people, and, through voluntary work, the sector self-invests £50 million per annum. Few other sectors can boast of such value for money.

Mr Sammy Wilson said that he was doubtful about whether in-year monitoring would be helpful in making good the deficit in the Youth Service budget. However, as my amendment points out, if the children and young people’s fund had not been abandoned, we would have had a ready-made resource from which to draw. In the SDLP’s amendment to the Budget motion, it warned against the abandonment of that fund.

The most pressing need faced by the Youth Service is budgetary. The uniformed organisations and others are already aware that their regional funds will be reduced and that that reduction will, in all likelihood, be passed on to local groups.

Members referred to the Youth Service’s valuable role in augmenting more formal educational settings by dealing with young people who have become disengaged from education. Without the Youth Service, those young people might cost society much more.

Trevor Lunn said that he could not support the SDLP amendment “for the reasons given”. However, other than saying that the Alliance Party’s NILGA representatives had expressed a preference for the responsibility for the Youth Service to go to councils, he did not give any reasons. The SDLP amendment does not state where that responsibility should be located — that is a debate for another day. In the future, I hope to have the opportunity to debate that matter in the House. When the time is right, I will relish the occasion. In the meantime, the SDLP amendment seeks to focus on the reduction in Youth Service resources throughout the Budget period.

John O’Dowd’s research facilities seem to be rather restricted. Had he bothered to read my contribution to the Programme for Government debate, he would have seen that I clearly highlighted the reduction in the Youth Service’s budget. The SDLP amendment suggests that that money should be found in in-year monitoring. No one has suggested any other source, and, although that may not be the ideal solution, it is certainly a practical way to close the funding gap faced by the Youth Service. Indeed, the Minister said that she would seek to identify further Youth Service funding through that method.

Naomi Long agreed with me when I intervened in her speech, and I agree with her that long-term funding must be secured. However, in the interim, in-year monitoring is probably the best solution to the problem.

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The Minister agreed with all the Members who spoke about the role of Youth Service, but she was at odds with the figures that were available to others. As I understand it, there is a decrease of 1·3% in 2009-10 and 2·1% in 2010-11. Perhaps the Minister is unaware of the effects of inflation. As I said earlier, the Minister said that she would seek to find extra funding through in-year monitoring, and I welcome that.

Nothing that I have heard so far convinces me to change my mind. I retain my view that the SDLP amendment represents the best practical solution to the difficulties faced by the Youth Service, and I urge other Members to support it. Go raibh céad maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.

Mr S Wilson: I thank everyone who contributed to the debate. The issue is important and I am pleased to have a second bite at the cherry, despite the cynicism of Mr Lunn, who, for some reason, thought I was running away from the debate.

The first argument advanced by some of the Members who oppose the motion is that it is out of date because changes made following the issue of the draft Budget have been included in the final Budget. Some Members may have difficulty with numeracy; and perhaps Mr O’Dowd might need to enrol in one of the account for success courses, which the Minister runs in schools.

However, the fact remains that the inflation rate this year is either 2·5% — in the Government’s view — or 4%, as appears from the retail price index. As the increase in the budget for the Youth Services is 2·2%, then using anyone’s mathematics, that amounts to a real cut. That real cut gets worse in the following year, because, assuming that there will be a constant rate of inflation, the increase will fall to 1·2%. That real cut gets even greater in the third year. The motion is not out of date: it is still relevant. There will be a real cut, and it will impact on the Youth Service budget.

The second argument put forward was that I should not complain because I supported the Budget — Mr Lunn and Naomi Long made that point: so too did all the Sinn Féin Members. I did support the Budget, but was allocating £9·4 billion. Only the most naive of Members would believe that, given a Budget of such size, there would not be one Member who would not have some concern about some line or aspect in that Budget. When one supports £9·4 billion of expenditure, it means that one is supporting general allocations; it does not mean that one is supporting every part of the Budget. If that were the case, I would be unable to open my mouth on any subject for the rest of the year.

Mrs Long: Some may welcome the situation in which the Member would be unable to open his mouth on any subject for the rest of the year. However, that aside; did he not make the point about me finding fault where there was “no fault”. When one makes statements such as that, one can expect to be called to account later on. The Member made the outrageous statement in the first place.

Mr S Wilson: Of course, and I accept —

Mr McElduff: Will the Member give way?

Mr S Wilson: Let me deal with this intervention, for goodness sake, before I move on.

Mr S Wilson: When we debated the Budget, which the Alliance Party opposed, it rubbished the whole thing. It said that there was no merit in a Budget that was going totally in the wrong direction. At that stage I said, and I still contend, that one cannot find fault with the broad thrust of the Budget or its broad allocations. The Alliance Party was seeking to manufacture faults.

Mr McElduff: Will the Member give way?

Mr S Wilson: I am sorry, I do not get extra time for taking interventions otherwise I would love to give way.

Mr O’Dowd said that there was so little concern from the Committee for Education that it never raised any objections to the Youth Service budget. If Mr O’Dowd’s numeracy is bad, his literacy is also bad. If he had read the report, which was provided to Members by the Library in the information pack, he would know that the Committee referred to the Youth Service budget in two paragraphs. Departmental officials also attended a Committee meeting to give a presentation on the budget and to answer questions. I am sure that other members of the Committee can confirm that the Youth Service was raised during that meeting. Mr O’Dowd is totally incorrect to say that no concern was raised by the Committee or by me on behalf of the Committee. Perhaps, after he has learned to count, he will also learn to read, and that will help him.

Mr Kennedy: It worked for you.

Mr S Wilson: Yes, it worked for me. [Laughter.]

Dominic Bradley said that in-year monitoring could solve the problem. It is clear from my conversations with people from the Youth Service that they do not want short-term solutions. They do not want a sticking plaster with a bit of money thrown at them. They want long-term strategic planning, but in-year monitoring does not allow that. The money often does not become available until halfway or three quarters through the year, and it may be of no use at that point. Mr Bradley also said that the issue of where youth services should be located is a debate for another day. The short-term financial problem and the long-term problem of how the budget can be secured with local input are inextricably linked. The only way to do that is for the Youth Service to be put into local councils.

I will comment on some of the Minister’s points. It is surprising that few Sinn Féin Members defended her position on where the long-term provision of the Youth Service should be. Perhaps they did not have enough time to get round to the figures in the five minutes of speaking time that were available. The only Sinn Féin Member to talk about the long term was Paul Butler. He said that provision for the Youth Service should not go to councils because they would also cut budgets; that was the only defence. I made the point that, when the Minister cut the budget, she would not even talk to anyone from the youth services. It is inconceivable that, if a council cut a budget in a local area, those who were affected would not have some access to those who made the decision. That is where the safeguard would lie. I accept that councils have to consider budgets, but at least there is accessibility to the councils and the decision-makers.

The Minister also said that the education and library boards, the Education and Training Inspectorate and the Department of Education youth work strategy all gave evidence in support of youth services staying with the Department. I would have been amazed if they had not supported that. Those bodies all have a vested interest; the Youth Service is part of the bureaucracy. Around 65% of every pound that is available to the Youth Service is absorbed by the bureaucratic structures inside the Department of Education and the education and library boards. Of course they will not want to give that up — that is the whole point. Moving away from a body that is essentially bureaucratic and which absorbs all that money, would, I hope, result in more money percolating down to the people who work on the ground, the volunteers who give their time and the services that are available locally.

Mr D Bradley: Will the Member give way?

Mr S Wilson: I did not give way to the Member for West Tyrone Mr McElduff, so if were to do so now I would be accused of being sectarian and biased. I would love to give way, but I have only a moment or two left.

In its submission to the review of public administration, the Youth Council for Northern Ireland, which does not have a vested interest, did not rule out services going to local councils. They merely asked for the kinds of safeguards to which Naomi Long, Basil McCrea and I referred.

The Youth Council for Northern Ireland simply said that if those services are to go to local councils, certain measures should be taken. Therefore, there is no conclusive evidence that those who are involved in the Youth Service wanted to stay with the Department of Education — there is only the evidence presented by the bureaucrats and those who have a vested interest in maintaining the current educational structures.

In conclusion, I am gravely concerned by what I have seen of ESA and its treatment of the Youth Service. I am worried that, in the long term, that Cinderella service will become even more so. Therefore, I ask the Assembly to support my motion and oppose the amendment so that, in the short term, the funding of the Youth Service can be safeguarded, and, in the long term, its future can be safeguarded by placing it with local councils.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Thank you, Mr Wilson. We do not want Mrs Long to be too exhausted from listening to you.

Question, That the amendment be made, put and negatived.

Main Question put and agreed to.


That this Assembly expresses its concern at the eight per cent reduction of the Youth Services budget for the year 2008-09; calls on the Minister of Education to redirect resources from within her budget to make good the cuts; and believes that Youth Services would have greater long term security with local councils, after the Review of Public Administration.

Motion made:

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


Plans for an Educational Campus at the Lisanelly Site, Omagh

Mr Deputy Speaker: I remind Members that the proposer of the debate will have 15 minutes to speak. All other Members who wish to speak will have approximately six minutes.

5.30 pm

Mr McElduff: Thank you, a LeasCheann Comhairle. For clarification, do I have six minutes or more than six minutes?

Mr Deputy Speaker: The Member has 15 minutes.

Mr McElduff: Thanks very much, David, you are a very generous man. I am pleased that a lot of Members are leaving the Chamber.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. The Member should take his seat until order has been resumed.

Mr McElduff: Thank you for assisting in bringing order to the House. I am pleased to have the opportunity to discuss plans for an education campus at, or on, the Lisanelly site in Omagh. My purpose in proposing this topic was to serve as a helping hand to the project, the educationalists and others based in Omagh who are progressing the project. It is appropriate to have this debate on the day that the Minister of Education made a significant statement on the development of area-based planning for post-primary education. It is coincidental and positive that that connection is made today.

The Minister will know that this proposal is a reflection of area-based planning, and has been undertaken by educationalists working in close collaboration with each other. The proposal is pioneering and visionary, and is perhaps digging channels in which others might follow.

I applaud the efforts of the educationalists who have committed to the project — not least school principals in the area; Monsignor Donnelly, Rev Robert Herron, and the chief executive of the Western Education and Library Board, Mr Barry Mulholland. I applaud others who have been involved, including local government officials, people from the business community, local political parties and, particularly, the MP for West Tyrone, Pat Doherty, for taking the lead on this matter. I am grateful, too, for the active support of other MLAs, including Tom Buchanan.

George Bain would be proud of the proposal. The terms of reference for Mr Bain and his review team were:

“To examine funding of the education system, in particular the strategic planning and organisation of the schools’ estate, taking account of the curriculum changes, including the wider provision for 14-19 year olds, and also demographic trends.”

The Bain Report championed an area-based approach to planning the schools’ estate, which is exactly what the proposal will do. I was pleased that, in the Chamber yesterday, the First Minister indicated the serious intent of the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to assist the project in whatever way it can. Earlier today, the Minister of Education cited the proposal as a model of best practice. Members will, today, have received lobbying information on this issue in their pigeonholes.

Schools in the Omagh area are preparing themselves for current and future challenges and are adopting a long-term strategic plan to provide the best educational provision for pupils in the future.

The Lisanelly site, which was vacated by the British Army, provides Omagh and the wider north-west region with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make plans for schools for the future.

The site covers 47·7 hectares or 117·8 acres of mixed-use land. The size and nature of the site lends itself well to an education campus because it has natural, identifiable areas, which would ensure that schools have their own zones while benefiting from a campus-style development and shared services.

Page 8 of the document ‘Omagh Educational Campus Concept Outline’ details a full-service facility that includes an arts and media centre to complement Omagh’s new Strule Arts Centre; leisure, sports and swimming-pool facilities; hydrotherapy pool; youth centre; library and Internet cafe facilities; specialist teaching and learning facilities — the list goes on as to the full-service facility that the Lisanelly site campus can become.

The schools that have been involved in working up the project include Arvalee School and Resource Centre, which requires a new school building; Sacred Heart College and Omagh High School, which both require new school buildings; and Omagh Christian Brothers Grammar School and Omagh Academy, which both operate on limited sites with playing fields that are located off site. Their buildings have been extended and refurbished during the past 15 years. However, capital investment will be required in the future because the buildings are far from the required standard.

Individual proposals that have been submitted to the Department by the aforementioned schools have highlighted the lack of greenfield sites in Omagh. The Lisanelly site has acted as a catalyst that will bring all the sectors together in one campus. The trick is that they will each retain their own individual ethos while they share services.

I commend the Department of Education’s input in the project. It has helped to co-ordinate local discussion and to widen the project’s appeal. The Department of Education must further take note — as, indeed, must the Department of Finance and Personnel and the wider Executive — that the proposal also majors on the modernisation agenda, and the effective and efficient delivery of services. It will provide efficiency savings from the provision of shared facilities, such as playing fields, computer and library suites; the potential to share staff, including cleaning, catering and administrative support staff; the sharing of facilities and resources among young people; and the opportunity to develop a sustainable and safe transport network for routes to schools — a cycle path and walkway, for example. It will also serve as a catalyst for further urban regeneration of Omagh and the west of the Bann region. Ultimately, key primary sites in the town of Omagh will thereby be freed up that will enable other economic and social projects.

The project has the wider community’s support. Therefore, it is well worth study by the Executive in order to determine whether they should enable it to happen. It has generated considerable enthusiasm, even excitement, in the area. The proximity of the site to the Omagh campus of the South West College will optimise the use of educational accommodation and resources and will ensure that all pupils’ educational needs will be met.

Local business leaders, including the Omagh Chamber of Commerce and Industry, are supportive of the project. The chamber considers the project to be a major initiative that will deliver the education and skills that are required to underpin the socio-economic regeneration of Omagh, the entire west of the Bann region and the north-west.

Page 6 and 7 of the concept outline lists the project’s education benefits. Ultimately, when one speaks of children’s education to the Minister, educational benefits will come first in any discussion.

Anyone who walks up Market Street, High Street, John Street or Scarffes Entry in Omagh at about 3.30 pm on a weekday will see thousands of post-primary pupils. I often wonder if there will be enough jobs to meet the requirements of those pupils. I marvel at the huge number of young people in Omagh and how neatly the project fits the town.

The campus will adopt a new approach to the provision of education in the Omagh area; provide accommodation for special and post-primary education; enhance collaboration; improve the quality of opportunities and experiences for pupils through the curriculum, learning, teaching, personal growth and social development; broaden the subject choice; enrich provision and capitalise on the expertise that already exist in schools; and harmonise education policies. We often hear that there is much change happening in education in areas such as the curriculum, extended schools, special-needs provision, youth provision, transport and the broader educational provision in the local community. All those education policies can be brought together and harmonised on the campus site.

There are more educational positives and benefits to the project, which other Members can elaborate on. Without hesitation, I commend the project to the Assembly and to the Minister of Education, who is actively involved, both personally and through her officials. I hope that the vision of educationalists in Omagh will be rewarded through the delivery of a major project of this kind.

Mr Deputy Speaker: I thank the Member for his gratitude towards me for allowing him to speak for 15 minutes. That decision was not mine.

Mr Buchanan: The importance of the transfer of the Lisanelly and St Lucia sites to the Northern Ireland Executive cannot be overemphasised. We recognise the enormous potential of the sites for the social and economic development not only of Omagh town and district but of the wider western region.

It is important to remember and to reflect on the history of the two sites. St Lucia barracks has a long and distinguished history dating back to the 1880s. Some of Omagh’s finest listed buildings are on the St Lucia site; therefore any development should respect that. Similarly, the Lisanelly Army base provided a base for the soldiers who protected the community of West Tyrone for many years. It is vital to remember that many local people lost their jobs when the Lisanelly and St Lucia sites closed. We must also pay tribute to those members of the Army, and particularly the UDR and RIR members, who served from those bases — the community in West Tyrone is very proud of what those people achieved and is thankful for the safety and security that they provided.

However, we recognise the need to develop the schools estate in Omagh. In particular, Omagh High School desperately requires new accommodation and its governors are being told to wait for the develop­ment of the school campus on the Lisanelly site.

As the Member who spoke previously stated, Omagh District Council, along with other bodies, has worked hard to engage with schools, and other interested parties, to advance the proposal for an educational campus. The proposal to locate a shared-schools campus on the former military lands at Lisanelly, Omagh is in keeping with the Executive’s commitment to the modernisation agenda, which is about the delivery of better results and a more responsive and high-quality service that matches the requirements of the public — especially in West Tyrone. However, questions remain over the enthusiasm of all the participants in the process.

5.45 pm

Much of the focus will be on the Ministry of Defence, which seems intent on selling the site on the open market. However, the Department of Education’s commitment to the project is also open to question. If the Minister is determined to progress the concept of an educational campus, she must present a strong vision for the site. Will the Minister detail any bids that she has made for the concept, her level of commitment to it, and where it sits on her priority list? If the project is to progress, and as Members debate the matter, it is important to have those answers.

A huge question remains about whether, if the site were handed over to the Department of Education in the morning, it could advance the site’s development. Everyone is looking to the future of the site and, should the development of an educational campus not go ahead, questions will be asked. The first will be a request to the Minister to provide new accommodation for Omagh High School to replace the existing crumbling structure. Anyone from west Tyrone who is familiar with the school knows that it desperately needs a new building, as do other schools in the area that have been mentioned, such as the Arvalee School and Resource Centre. I understand that it is in line for a new building, and perhaps money has been ring-fenced for that and other schools.

It is important that we receive clear information as soon as possible on the future of the site. The idea of an educational campus has much merit, and it would release land adjacent to Omagh town centre for economic development, retail outlets, council offices, inward investment, the development of infrastructure and the strengthening of the town’s economic core.

Therefore, it is important to know whether that is achievable, and the many questions that are hanging in the air must be answered, such as whether the site will be made available. I encourage the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to continue to lobby for the transfer of the site to the Executive for the benefit of the people of Northern Ireland, and I will support any efforts to achieve that. During yesterday’s Question Time, I was encouraged, like the last Member, by the First Minister’s response to a question on the Lisanelly site.

It is important to push ahead in an attempt to secure the future use of the site for the people of Northern Ireland. However, there must be some degree of realism and practicality. The Department of Education cannot abdicate its responsibility —

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

Mr Buchanan: The Department of Education cannot abdicate its responsibility to post-primary schools in Omagh: it must ensure that buildings of a high standard are provided, whether this development proceeds or not.

Mr Deputy Speaker: There must be an echo in the Chamber.

Mr B McCrea: I trust that Mr Buchanan’s extra minute will not be deducted from my allotted time.

Mr Deputy Speaker: No, it will not.

Mr B McCrea: I was born in Omagh, so I have some connection that lets me stand up and talk about these things.

I am struck by the wider questions to which the debate gives rise. I have spoken to many of the key members of the Western Education and Library Board in Fermanagh about their region-wide plans to bring people together. The general point is that one size does not fit all. Rather, it is about where there is agreement, and where people come together and decide the most appropriate form of education for their children. That is a good thing. I am aware of the informed debate in Omagh. People started off holding particular points of view, but the various options were explained to them. At the end of the day, all parents simply want a good education for their children. Who delivers that and where it is delivered are important, but secondary, considerations.

I am struck by the opportunity that the land at the barracks presents. We could examine whether the Dickson plan, which operates in Craigavon, could be replicated in a larger area. However, problems could arise if we were to start to build new schools on a greenfield site. What could be done, were that the case?

Our educational requirements change over time. We have considered the demographics, but who knows what is in store for the price of oil, transportation costs and advances in information technology. It is conceivable that people would laugh at us if we were to bring everything to one site. In future, everything could be distributed, so small, decentralised educational establish­ments may be preferable.

However, the issue raises interesting opportunities. I have had representations from all sections of the community in the Omagh area, and they are particularly interested in seeing what can be achieved. It is worth saying that, although the consensus may be to bring services together, existing investments cannot be removed. Members will be aware that the Omagh campus of the South West College — a fine building — has recently been completed. I have visited it, and it is unlikely that anyone would want to move it. Therefore, it will be a matter of developing close links.

The Ulster Unionist Party’s key points are that it openly supports local schools coming together in imaginative and visionary ways; that no central template should come from the Department; and that local communities should produce organic and flexible local solutions.

As Mr McElduff said, it is interesting that we are having this debate in the light of the Minister’s statement earlier about area planning. If the right people got around a table with a willing attitude, area planning could be sorted out in a weekend. One looks at developments and at who will work together. However, when we get into the detail, all sorts of issues crop up that must be worked through. Therefore, it will be an iterative process.

When proposals are introduced, there is a danger that someone will come up with reasons why they should not be acted on. I am more inclined to say that we should work out what can be done and find out what potential opportunities offer.

The proposals are to be commended. I am aware that the Western Education and Library Board came in for some criticism from parents when other proposals were put forward. People think that whatever is suggested is predestined and the only option. It is important to say that that is not the case and to emphasise that it is an opportunity that we must investigate and try to work out together. Our overriding objective is to educate our children.

Dr McDonnell: Like other Members, I welcome the opportunity to participate in the debate. Although I do not live in Omagh, was not born in Omagh and cannot claim to have spent a night in Omagh, I have spent many a day there and have received many a warm welcome. I have the highest regard for the people that I met in Omagh, whether they agree or disagree with me politically.

This concept of having an educational campus on the Lisanelly site has been around for a while, and I am warmly enthusiastic about it. The issue will dictate the success and prosperity of Omagh for the next generation, and perhaps the generation after that.

Rather than looking at the educational campus only, I will take a wider view of the project, because I see the campus as the core element of the redevelopment of Lisanelly and St Lucia. Comparing it to Belfast, the development would be similar to combining Laganside and the Titanic Quarter. That would create all sorts of possibilities, such as land being released, and schools being moved. It allows for a new vision and, indeed, the opportunity to redesign the town of Omagh in the context of the twenty-first century.

I feel particular empathy for the people of Omagh, who have suffered a lot over the last 40 years; however, two particular instances stand out —the horrific bomb attack that happened there almost 10 years ago, in which 31 people were killed; and the loss of the acute hospital, and the psychological damage and depression that that has created. It is time that the town of Omagh and its people were given something back, and the development of Lisanelly barracks is an opportunity to do that. That development presents the perfect opportunity to give that meaningful gift to the people of Omagh.

The Assembly needs to unite behind a development agenda for the site. That agenda needs to encompass more than the educational campus, and although I see the campus as being the core of the development — the anchor tenant, for want of a better term — I believe that the wider opportunity for development is just as important, and that makes great sense. Omagh Chamber of Commerce and Industry has done an excellent job — as has the local district council — of lobbying for and promoting the redevelopment of the site, particularly the concept of creating an educational campus.

I endorse that visionary concept, on behalf of the SDLP. I urge those involved to take whatever steps that they can to make the development happen. I believe that, like Laganside and various other projects, some type of development trust, involving all the stake­holders, needs to be created for that site, in order to provide a vehicle for delivering on all the potential opportunities — not just educational, but economic and social. The project could end up creating an unbelievably successful integrated campus, with a number of schools sharing facilities and resources, and coming together for subjects that could not be delivered elsewhere, or could not normally be delivered in a single school.

I have no doubt that opportunities exist on the margins of the site for several enterprise units that could facilitate local businesses. As I said earlier, the sites of the crumbling schools that are going to have to close would offer the perfect opportunity for even greater development. My friend the Member for West Tyrone Mr Buchanan suggested earlier that the whole town of Omagh could be opened up and changed.

The proposed education village would probably represent the biggest renovation project in Northern Ireland for a long time to come. It affords us the opportunity to show just how innovative we can be in our thinking and planning.

I want to commend Omagh Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Western Education and Library Board, and Omagh District Council for the considerable amount of time and effort that they have put into the project. The development could bring tremendous benefits for Omagh, but could also reinstate Omagh as the hub of County Tyrone.

Having spoken to Margaret Ritchie, the Minister for Social Development, I know that she is keen to work with the Minister of Education, and others, to ensure that any social development interests in the development of the site are fully brought to fruition, and she has made it very clear that she want to get a stake in the ownership of the site in order to kick-start that development.

6.00 pm

There is a great deal of good will on this matter. From my own experience, through the Omagh Chamber of Commerce lobbying me, I have had discussions with the Secretary of State for Defence in London. Those discussions are difficult, and perhaps the issues will be difficult to sort out regarding the site, but there is a large amount of goodwill — not just here in Belfast, but in Dublin and London as well — to get this project off the ground.

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

Dr McDonnell: We need to build on that goodwill, and we need to create the momentum that will be necessary to fulfil the opportunity that Lisanelly presents.

Dr Deeny: I welcome the opportunity to speak on this very exciting project, and I thank the previous Members who have spoken of their support for it. Omagh is my county town — it has been for almost 22 years. Like the proposer of the motion, I live 11 miles from Omagh, but it is my county town. This is a wonderful opportunity: it has just come at a unique time, and we simply must not miss it. The entire education campus embraces the spirit of collaboration, sharing, tolerance, inclusion and promotion of mutual respect — exactly the way it should be, after 30 years of conflict.

As Dr McDonnell said, this is an extremely innovative project. It embraces and meets the aspirations of a shared future. I have always liked Omagh, and the way its people have risen following their devastation — and I do not mean any disrespect to other towns.

The campus is the way forward for Northern Ireland. It is inspirational; and it is how we should educate our children in the future. It will provide a state-of-the-art learning environment for up to 3,500 pupils. As Mr McElduff and Mr Buchanan said; up to six local schools will relocate to the site, with each school maintaining its individuality and ethos. Two schools need new buildings quickly and another two have problems, which Mr McElduff mentioned. The education campus in Omagh would also meet the recommendations of the Bain Report, with regard to sustainability and collaboration.

This wonderful project is being supported by virtually the entire community, school principals, governors, trustees, the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools, the Western Education and Library Board, local business leaders, the Rev Robert Herron and Monsignor Joseph Donnelly. I highly commend this collective vision: it is one of enhancement of collaboration and co-operation between schools.

This is a wonderful and unique opportunity to augment community and social cohesion — it is not just about getting exam results. It is an opportunity for the local community to take the lead in education in the area for the benefit of all of our pupils. Both of the area’s special schools, as well as the primary, high and grammar schools will be located on the site. I was interested to hear that Mr McCrea was born in Omagh — I did not know that.

As someone who has been through the education system all the way, I know that education — and the Minister is looking at me — is not just about getting good exam results. Of course, good exam results are important, but many other things are needed too. We need to learn; and hopefully we will learn quickly in Northern Ireland.

Social skills; better human relationships; under­standing other views, traditions, cultures, and an overall feeling of happiness in the community all come from good education. This is not just about educational benefits, but I will name a few of them in the time remaining. This project will incorporate inter-sectoral, cross-sectoral and cross-community involvement, and it will improve the quality of individual opportunities and experiences. As Mr McElduff said, it will provide for the establishment of specialist provision on the site. It will broaden pupils’ subject choices; harmonise education policies; encourage social integration and appreciation of other traditions; facilitate transport planning for pupils in the area, and facilitate and sustain regeneration of the greater Omagh area.

Of interest to me is that this project is described as a full-service facility. That is a unique and exciting concept. The campus will incorporate facilities for health and social services, adult education, youth provision, sports, arts, recreation and community regeneration and development.

The opportunity also exists for the sustainable development of the flood plain for leisure and sporting purposes. It is also important to repeat that land adjacent to Omagh town centre will be released for economic development, retail and office space, council development, inward investment and infrastructure if existing schools move out to the new campus site, thus strengthening the town’s economic core.

As with all great and exciting projects, there is, unsurprisingly, a degree of urgency that relates to finance. People who have lobbied me have said that the money is required by 1 April. Perhaps the Minister of Education can use her influence in the Executive and ask the Minister for Social Development whether her Department has given a commitment to purchase the Lisanelly site on behalf of the Department of Education. Will she also ask the Minister of Finance and Personnel to request an extension of the 1 April deadline from the Ministry of Defence on the purchase of the former Lisanelly army site?

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

Dr Deeny: Just to finish —

Mr Deputy Speaker: Time. Order. Time.

Dr Deeny: This is an opportunity that we must not miss.

Mr Doherty: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. This topic was tabled by my constituency and party colleague Barry McElduff, and I thank him for that. I hope that the proposal will secure the same cross-party backing in the Assembly that it has received in Omagh.

This pioneering project would see each school in the campus having its own independent environment and retaining its unique ethos. However, each school would share common state-of-the-art facilities and take part in common activities such as sports and science.

In response to Barry McElduff during yesterday’s Question Time, the First Minister, the Rev Ian Paisley, made six key points. He said that he was in corres­pondence with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and in dialogue with the Secretary of State, Shaun Woodward, on the issue. He cited the joint British-Irish declaration of April 2003, and I will return to that later. He also stressed the impact that the Lisanelly site — and other sites — would have on the investment strategy, and he said that he was pressing the issue with the British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown. The First Minister also said that Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, had promised to gift the sites.

Subsequently, he made the core point in answer to a supplementary question. He said that there is an absolute need to establish the principle of gifting on this issue. That comment relates to a joint communiqué that was issued by the British and Irish Governments following talks between them in 2003, which intimated that the British Government would transfer additional Ministry of Defence sites to the Executive of a re-established local Administration. That is core to the issue.

In pursuance of that, I have been in correspondence with the Prime Minister, the Treasury and the Ministry of Defence. I have had numerous meetings, but the only negative meeting was with the Ministry of Defence; it was a brutal meeting with Des Browne. He said that he did not care whether he got his money from the Executive, the open market, or the Treasury — but he wanted his money. He would not budge on the issue. Members must bear that in mind; we have a battle on our hands.

I have met Owen Paterson, the Conservative Party’s spokesperson on the North. He has been to Omagh twice and visited the site. He supports the whole concept, as does Alistair Carmichael, the Liberal Democrat spokesperson.

The Omagh educational campus group is the core driver of the project. It comprises Rev Robert Herron, who is a Presbyterian minister, Monsignor Joseph Donnelly, the Catholic parish priest in the area, and Barry Mulholland, who is the chief executive of the Western Education and Library Board. They are driving the project, and they have the total support of the chief executive of Omagh District Council and of the Omagh Chamber of Commerce and Industry. We had a useful meeting with Shaun Woodward, the British Secretary of State, who said that he wanted to help make the project a reality. Indeed, he expressed a wish to visit the site. We also met with Patrick Cormack, who is chairperson of the Select Committee on the North, and with officials from the Department of the Taoiseach in Dublin.

More locally, we have had useful meetings with Ministers Peter Robinson, Margaret Ritchie and Martin McGuinness. We have also had numerous meetings with the Minister of Education, Caitríona Ruane. If the proposal proceeds, it will become an anchor project.

Lisanelly is a massive site comprising over 170 acres, 120 of which are available at Lisanelly and 50 of which are available at St Lucia. However, the focus at this point is on the Lisanelly site. The campaign has been pursued actively. The other major negative is the lack of response to a freedom of information request that we submitted to the MOD and the NIO on 7 December 2007 asking what the site cost in the first place. Three months later, they have refused to respond to that request, because we know that it cost very little or, indeed, nothing. Yet, they want to claim millions of pounds from our Executive.

I am stating all the positives and some of the negatives to highlight the extent of the campaign that we have on our hands and to stress the importance of working collectively to pursue the project. It will be a real litmus test of whether the British Government were earnest in their commitment when they signed that joint communiqué, or whether they were merely trying to bluff us. That is the core point.

Mr D Bradley: Go raibh míle maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Caithfidh mé a rá go bhfuil an-áthas orm deis a bheith agam páirt a ghlacadh sa díospóireacht tábhachtach seo. Gabhaim buíochas lenár gcomhghleacaí Barra Mac Giolla Duibh as an ábhar tábhachtach seo a thabhairt faoi bhráid an Tionóil.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to participate in the debate, and I thank our colleague Barry McElduff for securing the Adjournment debate.

This morning we heard from the Minister of Education about her plans for area-based planning. At the bottom of the structural pyramid is the specific area group. Although it is at the bottom of the organisational pyramid, it is the most important aspect, because it is a local group and will therefore ensure that local needs are met.

The Lisanelly schools working group provides the nucleus for a specific area group in the Omagh area. The Omagh educational campus offers an ideal opportunity for schools in that area to meet all the challenges that face the education sector, such as the provision of the entitlement framework on a common basis to sharing buildings, facilities and staff, while at the same time allowing each of the schools that are involved to maintain their individuality and ethos on a single campus. That will be coupled with a holistic approach to teaching and learning through collaboration, co-operation and interdependency. The campus meets the aspirations of a shared future through the co-operation of the controlled, maintained and voluntary sectors.

There is a strong, local buy-in to the shared campus, and that in itself is an important element. The educational campus at Lisanelly, Omagh, has the potential to lead the way and be an example to other areas.

6.15 pm

The joint declaration by the British and Irish Governments promised vacated military sites to local people, and I hope that the powers that be in the Ministry of Defence will live up to that undertaking. Mr Deputy Speaker, forgive me for referring to Forkhill Barracks in my constituency, but that site also offers great potential to provide an integrated project for the local community in the village and beyond.

Opportunities presented by vacated military sites should be part of the peace dividend. In the past, we heard much about that; however, recently, we have heard little, and to date our communities have not seen much of that dividend. The Lisanelly project is an opportunity to provide those communities with at least part of it.

In the Assembly and the Government institutions here, we are, I hope, in the process of transforming our society through the normalisation of relationships. What better way could there be to advance that process than by transforming past symbols of conflict into beacons of hope for sharing, collaboration, co-operation and future interdependence. We should all work together in order to ensure that the Omagh campus vision becomes a reality for the people of that area.

The Minister of Education (Ms Ruane): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. This debate is important, and I wish to commend my colleague Barry McElduff for providing the opportunity to debate the prospects for transforming the former military base in Omagh into a new educational campus. I also wish to thank all the parties, because there is clearly cross-party support, and I wish to reiterate Pat Doherty’s words, by which he outlined the results of the various meetings that he attended. He clearly understands the difficulties that we face, and we must follow the lead taken by the educationalists in Omagh and put all our shoulders to the wheel in order to secure that military site and the costs to maintain it. That educational campus must be built.

I welcome the fact that the First Minister and deputy First Minister have also attempted to secure the gifting of the sites with British Government Ministers, and we await the outcome of those endeavours. I welcome the fact that Tom Buchanan’s party leader, the First Minister, continues to press the British Government strongly, and I was delighted to hear yesterday’s responses to questions for oral answer.

Although I cannot discuss Executive business, we have also been considering the gifting of military sites — Michelle Gildernew in relation to Forkhill, and Margaret Ritchie and other Ministers in relation to other sites.

Such projects are the way forward for education. This morning, I made a statement about area-based planning, which Members have mentioned, and this project ticks all the boxes: area-based planning; collaboration; every school must be a good school; the curriculum’s broad base; the enriched curriculum; the entitlement framework in relation to choices for ages 14, post-14 and post-16; access to choices; and sustainable schools.

As mar Aire Oideachais — as Minister of Education — I believe that this site presents a unique opportunity for education in Omagh and to turn a former symbol of conflict into a new source of hope and achievement for the future. We have the real prospect of a shared educational campus, in which schools will be co-located and be able to collaborate. All options can be envisaged — controlled and maintained, grammar and non-grammar and special schools.

Nothing is beyond the realm of possibility in respect of the project. It offers possibilities for new ways of sharing facilities — and the further-education college is also adjacent to the site, as Barry McElduff said. That is the way in which we should plan education in the future.

Throughout the North, we can learn through the project: Belfast, Derry — everywhere can learn from Omagh. I am sure that the people of Omagh will love to hear that because, sometimes, the cities believe that only they can lead, whereas, in this case, Omagh will lead. That is fitting. The project represents an exciting prospect, which is shared by many who are involved in education in Omagh. We have a unique opportunity, and we cannot afford to lose it.

Recently, I met a group that was drawn from across the education sectors in Omagh, which was led by Rev Robert Herron and Monsignor Joseph Donnelly, co-chairpersons of the Lisanelly Schools Working Group. That group was accompanied by representatives of Arvalee School and Resource Centre, Omagh Academy, Omagh High School, Sacred Heart College and the Western Education and Library Board. They explained their views and aspirations for an educational campus at Lisanelly, which could, potentially, provide for more than 3,000 pupils, utilising perhaps 70 acres of the 170 acres that are available.

That meeting was held during a time when many Members hosted young people on work experience, and two young people were with me that week: one from the South, and one from the North. One was from Downpatrick, where Kieran Deeny is originally from. I brought them along to that meeting, where various people put forward their views in support of the project. What really struck me afterwards was that the two young students from Downpatrick and Louth said to me how brilliant it was, how glad they were to be at the meeting and how, when the project gets up and running, they want to be invited to the opening. That provided a real sense of hope.

We must find a way to make the project happen. We cannot start by finding problems: we must develop a can-do attitude, as Pat Doherty said. We know one thing: we will not gain anything without fighting for it. We must get into campaign mode for this endeavour.

I know from talking to all the different educational sectors that they are aware that they have to fight for the campus, and they want to fight for it. They are enthusiastic about the benefits that the proposed campus will bring to Omagh. I am tremendously impressed with their commitment — and fair play to them. They led the way when others did not.

Executive Committee support for an educational campus on the Lisanelly site would be the signal for a detailed master-planning exercise. A master plan will help to determine the potential usage, identify areas for attention or disposal, and examine the quality of the housing stock and other buildings. That could lead to the development of a shared educational campus.

All the schools that have expressed an interest will need investment and, for some, there may be no alternative to staying at their present sites. Members have referred to the land that they occupy in Omagh town centre. Lisanelly offers the exciting prospect of being able to plan buildings in a more co-ordinated and effective way than is normally possible, so that school projects are developed and delivered together, and facilities are planned in a way that allows schools to collaborate and share in delivering education.

There are educational, social and economic benefits from pursuing an education campus together. The relocation of existing schools to Lisanelly will also free up important regeneration sites in other parts of Omagh. I welcome the interest of the Chamber of Commerce as well: its role will obviously be very important.

On previous occasions, I have made it clear that we must develop a more flexible and agile post-primary school system and take account of the full, progressive, education reform agenda that is already being pursued in the North.

I have made it clear I do not advocate a “one size fits all” approach: the campus is an example for which that approach will not work. Rather, I seek to devise an education system whereby children will enjoy access to a range of high-quality choices at critical junctures in their educational development, the most significant of which is at age 14.

The particular way in which young people will access their post-14 pathway will be determined by the planning of education in their local areas. The potential for an education campus at Lisanelly provides a wonderful opportunity for education provision in the greater Omagh area to be shaped to suit the needs of all young people in the community in an innovative way.

The schools are keen to be involved in the future planning of the project. The project can and will feed into the structures that I outlined today, although Irish-medium provision must also be considered. I am sure that that can be brought on board on any future campus.

Members will also be aware of the interest across all sections of the community in Omagh in the acquisition of the former barracks site for education and social and economic regeneration. There is a strong consensus across local political representatives, educational interests and the business and wider community that the development of the site offers enormous potential to transform Omagh for the better. It would require a cross-departmental and cross-agency approach to deliver a unique multifaceted education campus that was linked to further and higher education, health, social regeneration and the local economy. Such opportunities such do not arise often, so they must be fully explored.

As I said, the education budget could not cover the costs of the project. Even with the gifting of the site to the Executive, which is being pursued by the Office of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister, costs would be involved in maintaining and developing it. The Executive must consider how that work would be resourced, and I will bring a paper to the Executive for discussion on the matter because we cannot lose this opportunity. The project ticks all the boxes, and we must all put our shoulder to the wheel. I thank all the parties for their support for that wonderful project. Go raibh míle maith agat.

Adjourned at 6.26 pm.

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