Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 31 March 2008

Executive Committee Business:
Budget Bill: Royal Assent

Ministerial Statement:
Review of Public Administration

Executive Committee Business:
Commission for Victims and Survivors Bill: First Stage
Commission for Victims and Survivors Bill: Accelerated Passage

Oral Answers to Questions:
Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister
Finance and Personnel

Executive Committee Business:
Commission for Victims and Survivors Bill: Accelerated Passage
The Pneumoconiosis, Etc., (Workers’ Compensation) (Payment of Claims) (Amendment) Regulations
(Northern Ireland) 2008

Committee Business:
Salary for the Holder of the Office of Comptroller and Auditor General
Statutory Committee Membership

Private Members’ Business:
Carer’s Allowance Bill: First Stage
Varney Review

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

Members observed two minutes’ silence.

Executive Committee Business

Budget Bill

Royal Assent

Mr Speaker: I wish to inform Members that the Budget Bill has received Royal Assent. The Budget Act (Northern Ireland) 2008 became law on 12 March 2008.

Ministerial statement

Review of Public Administration

Mr Speaker: I have received notice from the Minister of the Environment that she wishes to make a statement regarding the review of public administration.

The Minister of the Environment (Mrs Foster): I welcome the opportunity to announce decisions on the future shape of local government. It has been a long, and sometimes difficult, journey since I launched the review of local government aspects of the review of public administration (RPA); however, the reform package agreed by the Executive on 13 March represents a solid foundation for the development of strong, effective local government that will deliver a broader range of services for all our citizens.

The review of public administration was set up by the Northern Ireland Executive in 2002 to deliver wide-ranging and comprehensive modernisation and reform to the public sector. The full range of RPA decisions was included in two announcements in November 2005 and March 2006. Following the restoration of devolved Government on 8 May 2007, the Executive reviewed the progress that had been made in implementing the RPA. An integral element of the process was the consideration of the strategic direction of the implementation programme. In that context, it was agreed that I would implement a review of the previous Administration’s decisions on local government. That review, to consider what we expect local government to deliver in the context of a fully functioning, devolved Assembly and Executive, and in the context of the strategic direction of the review of public administration, was launched on 6 July 2007.

The work of the review was supported by desk research undertaken by consultants last summer to establish the characteristics of local government in Northern Ireland, the other United Kingdom jurisdictions, the Republic of Ireland and further afield. The consultants facilitated several stakeholder interviews and events to test the findings of that research. In parallel, the Executive Committee’s subgroup comprising me and my ministerial colleagues from the Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP), the Department for Regional Development (DRD), the Department for Social Development (DSD) and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) met on three occasions to consider the structural reform of the sector. In addition, I held several bilateral meetings with Executive colleagues.

That work culminated in the emerging findings report published on 19 October 2007. The publication of the report was followed by a valuable process of stakeholder engagement, which provided the opportunity for representatives from councils and other organisations to engage in facilitated discussions on the initial proposals at one regional and four subregional events. Stakeholders also had the option of submitting written opinions, and the Department received 59 responses.

The views expressed in the written responses, those collated from the focused process of engagement, those expressed in the House during the take-note debate on 13 November 2007 and those of the Committee for the Environment were shared with relevant Executive colleagues and the Executive subcommittee. The consideration of those views facilitated further discussion of what the final recomm­endations of the subcommittee should be. The recomm­endations were agreed by the Executive at our meeting on 13 March 2008.

We recognise that it is important that local government should be closer to citizens and that a balance of responsibility between the Assembly and local government is necessary. Local government plays a clear role in providing strategic civic leadership and acting as a consistent advocate to ensure that local needs are met through more extensive engagement with the community in the planning of services; improvements in economic, environmental and social well-being, choice and customer service; and in the achievement of more sustainable development.

Therefore, our vision is of a strong, dynamic local government that creates vibrant, healthy, prosperous, safe and sustainable communities that have the needs of all citizens at their core. Central to that vision is the provision of high-quality, efficient services that respond to people’s needs and continuously improve over time. That vision resonates with the Executive’s Programme for Government and its strategic priorities. It also reflects the strong desire that central and local government should work in partnership to deliver the Programme for Government and the vision for local government.

Successful local councils must be effective local champions that respond to the aspirations and concerns of their communities and guide — in partnership with others — the future development of their area. Strong civic leadership must be at the heart of the new council arrangements. Effective, inclusive local democracy is an essential foundation for strong community leadership and improved service delivery. Elected councillors play a unique role in linking the delivery of services with local people’s needs and ambitions.

An effective, statute-based community planning process, led and facilitated by the new councils, will be critical to that delivery. Local government must be at the heart of the process and must operate as a junction box for public services in the locality. Community leadership exercised by elected representatives, acting in partnership with statutory bodies and a range of private-, voluntary- and community-sector agencies can breathe new life into local democracy and respond to the needs and aspirations of local communities. Councils will be required to consult all their constituents about issues that affect their lives and allow people to have a say on development in their area.

The local government task force has already produced a report on community planning, which has been agreed by the five main parties. During the implementation of the agreed reform package, I will introduce legislative proposals to embody that report’s recommendations. The legislative proposals will ensure that a clear statutory requirement is placed on other public bodies — including policing, health and education bodies — to participate in and support the community planning process. A clear duty will be placed on councils to engage with local communities to produce a community plan.

Councils will also have a new statutory power of well-being to assist them in the delivery of community planning. That new power will allow councils to take any action that is not already the responsibility of another agency, linked with the community plan, to improve the well-being of the local community or local area.

Such a power allows greater flexibility and, coupled with the additional functions that will transfer from other parts of the public services, will enable councils to respond creatively to local needs to ensure accessibility and people-focused services that will make a real difference to people’s lives. Our aim is to put community leadership at the heart of every council and in the hands of every councillor in order to bring together public agencies and key stakeholders to act in partnership to secure excellent and efficient services and to address local problems.

The overarching aim of the Executive’s Programme for Government is to build a peaceful, fair and prosperous society in Northern Ireland that has respect for the rule of law. We expect local government to help to deliver on that aim. A report on governance arrangements, agreed across the parties, has already been provided by the local government task force. That provides a starting point to develop new governance models. An integral and urgent part of the work of that task force will be to develop a range of models with appropriate checks and balances that can be piloted and evaluated. Those models will be designed to be mindful of the need to ensure effective and inclusive local democracy, to protect the rights of minorities, to prevent any direct or indirect discrimination and to promote the need of equality of opportunity. Those will include arrangements to allocate council chairs, deputy chairs and positions on council committees and to facilitate cross-community decision-making.

As I have indicated previously in the House, I intend to embody the new council governance arrangements in statute after their agreement by the Executive. That will ensure the protection of all rights of the people of Northern Ireland and also provide for fair, transparent and efficient decision-making.

In order to deliver the agreed vision for local government, the current configuration of 26 council areas will be rationalised to create 11 new council areas. In considering the three 11-council models on which views were canvassed in a further consultation on the review of public administration in March 2005, the Executive agreed that model 11b provides the optimal grouping of existing councils into an 11-council model. The ability of councils to connect with, and deliver for, their communities is central to our vision for local government. That number of councils strikes a balance between reducing some of the diversity among existing areas in terms of population characteristics and rating wealth, and promoting the ability of councils and their communities to identify and interact with one another.

In examining the structural reform of local government, we also considered the number of councillors that will be required under the new arrangements. We examined the need for appropriate representation against the background of a fully functioning Assembly and Executive, and the need to ensure efficient working and decision-making. We weighed those factors and came to the view that Belfast should retain an upper limit of around 60 councillors and that the remaining councils would have an upper limit of around 40 councillors. The determination of the precise number of councillors for each new local government district will be informed by the report from the independent local government boundaries commissioner on the number of wards in each new district.

Linked to the rationalisation of the number of councils and councillors, I will introduce a severance scheme in order to recognise the contribution of long-standing councillors who opt not to stand for re-election and to facilitate the modernisation and renewal of local government. The development of the detail of the scheme will be informed by the report and recommendations of the councillors’ remuneration working group, which reported in June 2006.

In addition, I intend to work with colleagues in the Northern Ireland Office in order to introduce legislative proposals to end the dual mandate of those councillors who are also Members of the Assembly and/or Parliament. In order to facilitate a smooth transition over a period of time, and in keeping with the desire that the review of public administration should result in savings, I will also work with colleagues in the Northern Ireland Office to introduce transitional legislative provisions to provide for any vacancies in local government that result from the ending of the dual mandate to be filled on the basis of co-option rather than by-election.

We acknowledge that the 11-council model presents challenges for the promotion of efficient and effective delivery of services and will not provide for 1:1 coterminosity with other major service providers such as health or education. It will require the development of innovative and creative models of service delivery that will promote modern and efficient practice in a way and on a scale hitherto unseen by grouping councils together for the delivery of significant services such as planning, regeneration, building control and environ­mental health. We propose that those groups should provide the basis for the development of coterminosity with other service providers. That will enable local government to play its part in achieving the Programme for Government strategic priority of delivering modern, high-quality and efficient public services.

While there is some evidence that local government has been willing to promote the efficient delivery of services, there is scope to do much more.

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Central Government will support the sector in driving towards that through the development, in partnership, of appropriate performance management systems, and by developing proposals for a modernisation challenge fund that will support innovative and efficient practice. The Budget announced by my colleague, the Minister of Finance and Personnel, on 22 January 2008, allocated all of the funds available to the Executive. Clearly, therefore, we will need to take into account the implic­ations for the amounts currently allocated to other public services when developing a modernisation challenge fund model.

Regarding each function that will transfer to local government, options for models of service delivery will be explored and developed, including the delivery by and to groups of councils, ensuring the efficient and effective delivery of such services. In addition, regional shared service arrangements will be developed to deliver common back-office services, such as ICT, accounting, payroll and procurement, across all of the 11 new councils.

It is recognised and accepted that, if local government is to begin to realise the potential of our shared vision and take on the role of leader and shaper of communities, it requires direct responsibility for a family of services.

The Executive have carefully considered the functions that should transfer from central to local government. On the one hand, emphasis has been placed on the key objectives of strengthening local government and developing the principle of subsidiarity that seeks to ensure that powers are delegated to the most local level possible. On the other hand, the need to ensure effective and efficient service delivery has also been an important consideration. However, it must be acknowledged that the strengthening of local government will be a process and not an event, the speed and extent of which can only be dictated by whatever secures excellence in service delivery. A balance has had to be struck.

In order for the new councils to fulfil their roles in place shaping, they will have responsibility for local development plan functions, development control and enforcement. Responsibility for regional spatial planning will remain with central Government. However, I will want to discuss with the Minister for Regional Development the roles of DOE and DRD in discharging that function at the centre, not only in the context of RPA implementation but also regarding planning reform.

Responsibility for the public-realm aspects of local roads functions will also transfer to local government. The local road public-realm responsibilities include Roads Service work in relation to: streetscaping; town and city centre environmental improvements; grass cutting and weed spraying; gully emptying; street lighting; off-street parking; pedestrian permits; maintenance of amenity areas; alley-gating, which involves making traffic regulation orders facilitating alley-gating to avoid antisocial behaviour; permitting local events to be held on roads; and the salting of footways.

Responsibility for mainstream local road functions will be retained by the Department for Regional Development. However, there will be a formal and direct input by new councils to decision-making on local roads, and an enhanced accountability framework, within which the Roads Service relationship with local government will operate. That could take the form of an appropriate statutory framework setting out the respective roles and responsibilities of Roads Service and the new councils. It is also proposed that Roads Service will implement structural arrangements to facilitate coterminosity with the new council boundaries.

Proposals about public transport responsibilities are being considered by the Regional Development Minister, in the light of the decision to retain responsibility for mainstream roads functions within DRD, and taking into account the undesirability of separating those responsibilities. As with the local roads functions, mechanisms for ensuring local government input to decision-making on public transport will be developed.

Linking back to our vision for local government, the urban regeneration and community development delivery functions due to transfer include: those associated with physical development, such as environmental improve­ment schemes, comprehensive development and urban development grants; area-based regeneration, such as neighbourhood renewal; some community development programmes; and support for the voluntary and community sector. Some of the Department for Social Development’s funding programmes for those functions are already delivered through councils. Possible methods of further strengthening partnership-working will be explored through pilot projects during the transitional phase in the run-up to the full transfer of those functions. That will provide a valuable learning experience, and inform and support the wider transfer. Those partnering arrangements can be used to test the feasibility of transferring some of those functions in advance of the establishment of the new councils.

The Northern Ireland Housing Executive will remain as the strategic housing authority. The Housing Council, which was to be abolished under the RPA proposals of the previous Administration, is to be retained. That will ensure that local government will have a continuing involvement in strategic housing issues.

Some housing functions will, however, transfer. These are the registration of houses in multiple occupation and housing unfitness responsibilities, including repair and demolition notices. Although the Housing Executive will maintain its statutory role as the home-energy conservation authority, the new councils will take the lead on energy conservation at a local level. They will also have responsibility for Travellers’ transit sites with the Housing Executive retaining responsibility for permanent housing, group housing and serviced sites for Travellers.

In order to facilitate local government in driving forward local economic development a number of functions will transfer from Invest NI. Those include Start a Business programme and enterprise shows, which are focused on supporting businesses that operate primarily in the local market; youth entrepreneurship such as the Prince’s Trust and Shell Livewire, activities that involve the promotion of entrepreneurship within the younger community; the social entrepreneurship programme; Investing in Women — a programme specifically targeting female entrepreneurship; and neighbourhood renewal funding relating to enterprise initiatives.

Also for transfer are the local tourism functions covering small-scale tourism accommodation development; local tourism marketing; local tourism product development; visitor servicing; providing business support including business start up advice along with training and delivery of customer-care schemes; and providing advice to developers on tourism policies and related issues.

Other new or enhanced functions for and responsi­bilities of local government are: the delivery of the EU rural development programme; the authority to spot list — that is, to issue a temporary building preservation notice — to enable councils to add a building to the statutory list on a temporary basis, subject to ratification by my Department; the authority to draw up local lists of buildings that are of architectural and/or historic interest; Armagh County Museum; local water recreational facilities; local sports; functions of the Northern Ireland Museum Council; local arts; local festivals, which was announced by the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure in this House on 4 December 2007; and Donaghadee harbour.

In addition, consideration is being given to proposals for the extension of local government responsibilities for civil contingency arrangements and to proposals to place an additional duty on councils to produce good relations plans and strategies.

In addition to the transfer of responsibility for the delivery of services, a number of my ministerial colleagues are also proposing to strengthen the relationship between their Departments and local government in delivering services. They are considering, or proposing to enhance, the involvement of local government elected members in the governance arrange­ments for bodies within their areas of responsibility.

Indeed, the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety has already announced in this House, on 4 February 2008, that his proposals for health and social care reform would ensure greater potential for democratisation with public representatives as members of local commissioning groups and on the board of a new regional public health agency, as well as having an active role within the future proposals for patient, client and carer representation. Those proposals are now the subject of public consultation, which will conclude on 12 May 2008.

Legislation is currently going through this House to establish a single library service for Northern Ireland under a new body, the library authority, which as a regional body will be accountable to the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, and to the Assembly. A proposed amendment to the legislation provides for reserved places on the board of the authority for elected members of district councils. Subject to the passage of the legislation, the library authority will come into effect in April 2009. To ensure that the library service reflects local needs, management responsibilities will be established on an area basis, and consultative arrangements will be established, involving chiefly councils but also other statutory and voluntary bodies. The consultative arrangements will apply until the community planning responsibilities of the new councils are in operation. The effectiveness of these liaison and consultative arrangements will be reviewed after a year of operation.

In education, legislation is currently being drafted to establish a single education and skills authority that, as a regional body, will be accountable to the Minister of Education and this House. The Minister of Education is currently considering whether to provide for reserved places on the board of the authority for elected members of district councils.

In addition, the Minister of Education is considering the arguments about the transfer of youth services to district councils. The informal education and development services that are provided by the Youth Service are an important and integral part of the education system as a whole. However, the Minister of Education proposes to establish in the education and skills authority regional structures that will be coterminous with the new council delivery groups. Mirroring the approach that has been suggested for library services, the Minister proposes to develop consultative arrangements that involve councils, as well as other statutory and voluntary bodies, to ensure that the services that are provided by the education and skills authority reflect local needs. Those arrangements will apply until district councils’ community planning responsibilities are in operation, and their effectiveness will be reviewed after one year.

It has been acknowledged that there is a need to make the Northern Ireland Fishery Harbour Authority more accountable to local government. The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development will, therefore, explore the options that are available in order to create a greater role for local government in fishery harbour management within existing structures.

The family of functions that will transfer to local government currently accounts for annual expenditure of some £116 million and involves about 1,070 staff. That constitutes a 25% increase in the budget of local government and an increase of almost 12% in its staff complement.

However, as I indicated, strengthening local government will be a process, not an event. Ongoing developments, such as the review of non-departmental public bodies and quangos, the outcome of the deliberations of the Assembly and Executive Review Committee and any implications that arise from the restructuring of Departments, will, clearly, have an impact on that process. Against that background, the Executive will review the functions that are to be delivered by local government 12 months after the new councils become operational and periodically thereafter.

Considerable challenges lie ahead in implementing the structural and functional changes to local govern­ment. As I said in the take-note debate on 13 November 2007, my aim is to implement the agreed structural reform package by 2011. That timescale is extremely challenging, and significant risks are attached to it. The full and active co-operation of our colleagues in the Assembly, local government, the Northern Ireland Office and the Electoral Commission is needed if that aim is to be achieved.

The immediate priority is the appointment of an independent local government boundaries commissioner to draw up the proposed boundaries for the 11 new local government districts. Therefore, as a matter of urgency, I will introduce a local government (boundaries) Bill to provide for that appointment. Given the tight timescale, if elections to the new councils are to be held in 2011, that Bill will need to be progressed by accelerated passage. When I meet the Environment Committee this week, I will outline in detail the reasoning for such an approach. I will also move quickly to establish detailed implementation structures, building on the work of the local government reform task force and the agreement that the previous Administration had with local government and the political parties on those structures. I do not propose to reinvent the wheel. The work of the subgroups of the previous Administration’s local government reform task force will be taken as our starting point. Where there was agreement between the parties and the previous Administration on how particular policy issues would be effected, such agreement will be the firm basis for implementing the reform package in question.

I also need to integrate our continuing work on modernising local government into the implementation arrangements to ensure that we drive forward that modernisation as an integral part of the process of reforming the sector structurally. Our focus will be on driving out inefficiencies and delivering to the public high-quality services that improve over time. Central to the implementation strategy will be the development of service-delivery structures that are efficient and appropriate. One priority will be a detailed analysis of the delivery options in order to ensure efficiency and best value. That analysis will be carried out in close co-operation with the sector, colleagues in the Department of Finance and Personnel and transferring function Departments.

The reform package is fundamentally different to that announced by the previous Administration, and the cost-and-benefit analysis that was prepared at that time is no longer relevant. My officials will, therefore, work closely with the Department of Finance and Personnel, the transferring function Departments and the sector to deliver a robust cost-benefit model for the programme.

Building the capacity of local government elected members and officers and preparing those in transferring functions for the transition to local government through the delivery of a comprehensive and effective capacity-building programme will be a critical part of the implementation programme.

We need to equip local government elected members, in particular, and officers with the skills that they will need to manage the change process and to deliver effectively the functions for which they will be responsible. The local government task force has been developing detailed proposals for a capacity-building programme for elected members and officers. It will require substantial invest­ment, both by central Government, subject to funding, and local government, and is integral to our work in developing a modernisation challenge fund.

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The Local Government Staff Commission will be a key part of the change process. I will shortly be initiating a review of the commission to ensure that it is resourced appropriately to provide much-needed support during the implementation of the decisions on the future shape of local government.

Whatever challenges lie ahead, central and local government are committed to working in partnership to deliver the change. That relationship has already been critical to delivering the outcomes of this review, with decisions being informed by an exchange of experience and information. Like all effective relation­ships, our partnership must be based on mutual trust, respect and confidence. We are committed to reinforcing and renewing the relationship in the years ahead, in pursuit of our shared goal of serving all the people of Northern Ireland and placing their needs at the heart of all that we do.

I recognise that our decisions on the future shape of local government may cause concern for people working in the sector and those working in the Northern Ireland Departments on functions that will be transferred. As we take forward the implementation of the reform and modernisation programme, every effort will be made to address these concerns. We will consult as appropriate with the relevant trade unions and staff associations and have due regard to the Public Service Commission’s guiding principles to ensure the smooth transfer of staff to new organisations. I will also wish to engage fully with the Environment Committee throughout the programme.

As I said at the beginning of my statement, it has been a long and sometimes difficult journey since I launched the review last July. I would not have been able to complete it without the support and co-operation of my ministerial colleagues on the subcommittee.

In closing, I want to quote Sir Winston Churchill:

“Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”


It is not the quote about fighting on the beaches.

To some, the review of local government aspect of the RPA has been a long time in gestation. At long last, we have truly begun, and I look forward to the functions that I have set out today creating strong, effective local government at the heart of vibrant, safe and sustainable communities delivering co-ordinated services for all our citizens.

The Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment (Mr McGlone): Go raibh maith agat. We recently met officials from the Department to discuss the review of public administration. I thank the Minister for presenting us with that detailed statement on the shape and form of local government to come; it has addressed some of the issues that were raised at that meeting. However, I am sure that the Minister will agree that it would be useful if there were an indicative timetable for the implementation of the changes that are likely to come before us.

The Minister touched on another issue that has come before the Committee, which is the concern about potential job losses in local government. There will have to be some movement on the issue soon to address that concern, as there is a lot of misinformation out there about what may or may not happen as a consequence of these changes.

Other issues that were mentioned in the Minister’s statement, and have also come before the Committee, include the need for legislative protection of the rights of minorities and individuals against discrimination. The Minister referred to the need for checks and balances to provide equality, particularly — but not exclusively, obviously — in regard to the issue of planning, which is likely to be transferred. It is vital that the excesses of the past are not visited on future generations.

The other issue that has come before the Committee is the need for some detail about a statutory code of conduct for councillors. Go raibh maith agat.

Mrs Foster: I thank the Committee Chairman for his comments. He and I had an opportunity to discuss the statement, briefly, before I released it today. It is appropriate that he began his remarks with a comment about staff, because people are listening to and watching what is going on today. It is important that we address those issues.

All staffing issues will be considered within the framework of the Public Service Commission’s guiding principles and consultation with staff representatives and staff commissions. A lack of certainty about the progression of the review of public administration is one of the issues that staff have been communicating to me for some time. However, we have now begun on a road, and the staff will thank us for that, but they will be concerned about their positions. We will work closely not only with the trade unions, but with the staff commissions, on that issue.

Mr McGlone also mentioned the need for equality. Equality issues have been an integral part of the review of public administration. We need to demonstrate equality in every decision, and the new council structure must reflect the needs of everyone in society. There will be a system of statutory safeguards to ensure fair and transparent decision-making and to protect the rights of minority groups.

Proportionality will be the touchstone of all that we are doing on equality, and we look forward to presenting that. Between now and 2011, we intend to run some pilot schemes on the different ways in which that can happen, with a view to introducing statutory safeguards for all councils in 2011.

The Chairman also mentioned that planning will become the responsibility of local councils. That will be welcomed by many of the councillors who complain about some of the decisions of the Planning Service; it is now over to them. However, we will ensure that the appropriate codes of conduct and best practice arrange­ments are in place. It is important to protect councillors and planning officers from unfounded allegations, but it is also important that the public be assured that the system is open, fair and transparent. The Department will work to ensure that those assurances will be made. I am working with officials to establish what planning safeguards will be put in place. The Department will retain a call-in power for cases that become particularly difficult.

The strategic leadership board has carried out some work on a statutory code of conduct for councillors. As I said in my statement, I do not propose to reinvent the wheel; where there is five-party support for an issue, I will take it forward in legislation.

Mr Weir: I declare an interest as a vice-president of the Northern Ireland Local Government Association, and in light of these proposals, I should, perhaps, say that, for the moment, I am a member of North Down Borough Council.

I thank the Minister for her lengthy and detailed statement. When I saw her 10-page, closely typed text, I thought that I had wandered into the wrong announce­ment. I thought that it was a statement from the Finance Minister, because such lengthy statements are more his forte — restricting himself to 10 pages is a difficulty for him.

I thank the Minister for what, I think, is one of the most important announcements to be brought before the Chamber. She mentioned governance arrangements and the protections that have been put in place. Can the Minister assure the House that the interests of nationalists in the east and north of the Province and of unionists in the west and south of the Province will be protected? In both cases, they are likely to find themselves in the minority.

Although there is, rightly, protection in place by way of proportionality and the requirement for cross-community decision-making and appropriate checks and balances, can the Minister confirm whether there is a commitment to any particular governance model, particularly d’Hondt or any form of mandatory coalition?

Mr Kennedy: Jim Allister wants to know that.

Mrs Foster: I should have thought that Danny would probably provide Mr Allister with an answer; he is good at that.

The statutory safeguards are for everybody in Northern Ireland. I am clear about that, and everybody in the House should be clear about that. Regardless of where one lives, it is right that everyone should have equality of opportunity and access.

There is no reference anywhere in the statement to d’Hondt: this is about proportionality being the touchstone. It is right that different models of proport­ionality be tried out through pilot schemes, which will be rolled out in the implementation plan in order to ascertain the best way forward to ensure statutory safeguards for everybody in Northern Ireland.

Mr A Maskey: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for her statement, which demonstrates clearly the complexity of the issues that must be dealt with. For too often and on too many occasions in the past, the number of councils seemed to be the most taxing issue for some people, including Members of this House. However, I thank the Minister for the commitments that she gave in the discussions leading up to this decision’s being made and for those that she made in the Chamber this morning.

Given her commitments on the need to have inclusive local democracy, will the Minister reaffirm that the governance arrangements, in particular, will be placed on a statutory basis? That is essential to support her commitment that the proposals for new local government arrangements will be based on principles of absolute fairness. Above all else, there must be fairness in this process, because whatever may be said about the number and functions of local councils, the manner of the governance arrangements of local government and the way in which they are delivered are central to the debate. I, therefore, ask the Minister to reaffirm that commitment, and I also declare an interest as a councillor.

Mrs Foster: I am happy to affirm that, because a statutory system of safeguards will be implemented when the new councils are elected in 2011. Between now and then, we will be rolling out different models and pilot schemes. The Member will be aware that proportionality arrangements already operate in various councils, and those will be examined to see how they are working and whether they have any gaps. There will most certainly be statutory safeguards to ensure fair and transparent decision-making, which I think the public will welcome.

Mr Armstrong: I welcome the Minister’s aspirations for her 11-council local government model; it will perhaps work in some way or other.

The review of public administration has been ongoing for nearly 10 years, and although I welcome the progress that has been made towards finding a solution, I am disappointed that the 15-council model has not been adopted. Outside Belfast, that model would have enabled councillors to be elected to councils in the same constituencies to which both MLAs at Stormont and MPs at Westminster are elected — 14 councils representing 14 parliamentary constituencies and one council representing the four Belfast parliamentary constituencies.

Will the Minister tell the House why the 15-council model was rejected in favour of the 11-council model? Had the 15-council model been adopted, the potential for voter confusion could have been minimised and boundaries that are already universally accepted and regarded as free from any hint of gerrymandering could have been used.

Mrs Foster: I thought that the Member was going to damn me by faint praise, but he did not.

The map of Northern Ireland meant that the issues that were discussed in reaching a decision on the option 11b model were complicated. Given that, the decision to select the option 11b model was made on the basis of the necessity to have an appropriate structure that met the need to reduce the range of variants that exist between councils, while maintaining the local and community connections that make councils so effective in providing services to meet local needs.

Although there has been a great deal of talk about coterminosity where parliamentary boundaries are concerned, we need to look further than just at those boundaries. If we consider services such as the Health Service, education, policing, housing and roads services, none is provided on the basis of parliamentary boundaries. People must realise that and look at the map of the provision of all those services to decide whether we want to be coterminous with parliamentary constituencies in order that we can have a more effective delivery system. That is what citizens would want us to do and what local government wants to do. That is why I am happy to endorse the option 11b model that was decided on and that the Executive took on board when they made their decision.

12.45 pm

Mr Ford: Like Mr Weir, I declare that I have, for the present, an interest as a member of Antrim Borough Council.

I thank the Minister for her statement, and also her officials, who attended the Committee during recess in order to give us some detail on the issue. These proposals transform the overall share of public expenditure administered by local councils by 1% upwards, and raise the question as to whether they genuinely produce strong, effective local government, or whether we could not have kept the existing model and given councils community planning as the only change.

The Minister has referred to coterminosity. However, she has not only ruled out one-to-one coterminosity with bodies such as health providers, but 1:2 and even 1:3 provision. All five health and social care trusts will have to deal with cross-boundary issues. That shows no attempt at producing joined-up government.

The Minister talked about governance; she referred to testing out potentially different models. Does she agree that the best form of governance is one in which, by local arrangement and negotiation, power and responsibility are shared equitably? Will she assure Members that legislation will be used as a backstop to ensure that that is the case, not as the first proviso in providing a rigid form, whatever that may be?

Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for his questions; I will answer the last question first.

Local arrangements are best, where they can be worked out. However, I do not believe that they can be. The best way to move forward is to run out a couple of these pilot schemes between now and 2011, see what difficulties arise and move forward.

This has been a successful engagement. The members of the strategic leadership board who sit in the House know that that body has engaged meaningfully on governance issues. We have moved ahead significantly in those matters.

With respect to functions, the budget for local govern­ment has been increased by 25%. I am disappointed that the Member made the comments that he did. Local government was last reformed in 1973. Some 35 years on, we are discussing giving local government a 25% budget increase and completely new powers for community planning and well-being. In return, we ask that the number of local government units be rationalised from 26 to 11. By anyone’s standards, that is a major change from the way that local government has been run in this country for 35 years.

Some Members see the glass not just half-empty but completely empty. We are moving forward into a partnership arrangement between this House and local government. I said repeatedly that this is the start of the process. I look forward to its development, as a Member of this House, and I will keep a close eye on it on that no matter where I am.

Mr T Clarke: I declare an interest as a member of Antrim Borough Council and I congratulate the Minister on her statement. She referred to a severance package for long-serving councillors. A colleague of mine will, by the end of this term, have served 28 years as a councillor. Will the Minister expand her remarks on that scheme?

Mrs Foster: It is appropriate that we acknowledge the contribution of long-standing councillors, who, during the past 35 years, were the only people — apart from MPs — to represent people at local level. I pay tribute to the work that has been done by local govern­ment over that period.

A severance scheme for long-standing councillors, who have served their communities well through difficult years but who do not want to stand at the next local government elections, is fully justified, both by the service given, and by the fact that the number of council seats available in the future has been reduced by the decisions that the Executive took on 13 March.

Provision of the severance scheme creates an opportunity to refresh the pool of councillors and to increase the current low levels of representation on councils of women and young people. Precise details of the scheme will be developed using, as a starting point, the report and recommendations of the councillors’ remuneration working group, which reported in June 2006. It will be a part of the implementation plan. In the near future, I hope to speak to NILGA and the National Association of Councillors to make progress on that issue.

Mr McKay: I declare an interest as a member of Ballymoney Borough Council. I thank the Minister for her comprehensive statement. I echo what my party colleague said in welcoming the announcement as regards equality checks and balances, which will be a radical departure from how councils here have been run in the past.

Given the negative social and economic impact of the border, especially on those communities living close to it, and given that the new councils will be similar in size and composition to the county councils in the Twenty-six Counties and that they will be given additional powers, will the Minister outline how she intends to deliver on the opportunities for cross-border co-operation through the new community-planning process?

Mrs Foster: The community-planning process is what it says on the tin — it is for the community and elected councillors in an area, and it will be up to them to determine how they will interact with councils in the Republic of Ireland and with their colleagues in the rest of the United Kingdom.

Mr Ross: I thank the Minister for her statement this afternoon. During her speech, she made reference to the urgent need to appoint a boundaries commissioner. Will she advise the House as to when she anticipates that that will happen, what his remit will be, and when he will report back?

Mrs Foster: I will be speaking to the Environment Committee this Thursday about the local government boundaries Bill. Due to the tight timescale that I indicated to the House, I am hoping that the Committee will understand the need for accelerated passage. If that happens, I hope to bring the Bill to the House soon. Thereafter, I hope that the local government boundaries commissioner will be able to take up his post and report back to me within a year.

As I said in my statement, the timescale is tight, and I will need the co-operation of the Environment Committee and the Northern Ireland Office and Electoral Commission to take matters forward in the time available.

Mr B McCrea: I declare an interest as a member of Lisburn City Council. Earlier, the Minister said that she was worried that she might be damned by faint praise from one of my colleagues — I assure Members that she will have no such concerns about me.

The particular issue that I would like clarification on is that this appears to be a political fudge that is designed to maintain the status quo. Unless the Minister can provide coherent answers to questions about the 11-council model, I am afraid that other people will be forced to agree with me.

She said:

“The ability of councils to connect with, and deliver for, their communities is central to our vision for local government.”

Will she explain why she thinks that the citizens of Castlereagh are more in tune with the citizens of Lisburn than they are with those of Belfast? Does that not show that this is a complete misunderstanding of the premise that local government should be about local people giving local services? Will the Minister please give me an answer to that question?

Mrs Foster: I, apparently, have a complete misunderstanding of local government. The Member will need to look at the local government boundaries Bill when it is published. I have shared its contents with the two Ministers in his party, and the Bill states that the local government boundaries commissioner could take in the whole of, or a major part of, that council area, which means that he will not be constrained when he is considering Belfast, Castlereagh or Lisburn. He will be able to go into other areas and decide whether they should be in Castlereagh, Belfast or wherever. Yet again, the Member is jumping the gun; and one wonders why he would do that apart from the fact that he is trying to create mischief in the House.

This is a good news story for local government, the Executive and the House. However, yet again, the Ulster Unionist Party cannot cope with good news for the House because that means that its Members are being left behind again.

Mr Gallagher: I commend the Minister for her statement and for her approach in taking the matter forward quickly. I also commend the Executive subcommittee’s work to which she referred.

I have two questions. First, will the Minister confirm whether, before making her announcement, she presented the contents of her statement to a meeting of the Executive subcommittee?

Secondly, the SDLP considers the protections and safeguards for minorities to be a key test of the proposals, and, in the future, it does not want any councils to be in the situation in which there are permanently trapped minorities. The Minister ended her statement with a reference to Churchill. As a nationalist, I ask the Minister to ensure that dreary drones in unionist-dominated regimes, such as Lisburn City Council and Castlereagh Borough Council, do not emerge in the future.

Mrs Foster: For a moment, I thought the Member was going to mention the dreary steeples of Fermanagh; but no, he spoke of the dreary drones of Lisburn and Castlereagh. The protections and safeguards are for everybody in the community, and it is rather tiresome to hear nationalists speak about this matter as if they were the only people to suffer as a result of past equality issues.

Edmund Burke said:

“You can never plan the future by the past.”

I have no intention of looking to the past, and I want the House to look to the future for the way forward in local government.

Concerning the Member’s technical point about meeting with the subcommittee before making my statement, it was impossible to get all the members together in one room. Therefore, I met each member individually in order that they would know what would be in my announcement.

Mr Molloy: Go raibh matih agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I welcome the Minister’s statement. As a member of Dungannon District Council, I must declare an interest. The Minister’s statement is an important step in dealing with matters relating to the number of councils and the required legislation and in getting on with the job in hand.

Will the Minister confirm that the power to deal with issues that are not the preserve of Departments will not limit councils to addressing problematic situations that, in the past, those Departments perhaps neglected?

In order to ensure strong local government, will the Minister encourage her party colleagues to transfer the maximum amount of functions, which must be followed by responsibility sharing? The carrying out of such functions must be tied to resources. The danger is that local government will have responsibilities, but will not have the resources to fulfil them.

I wish to re-emphasise the issues concerning checks and balances, which are there not just to protect minorities but to ensure that every councillor has the opportunity to come forward and play an important role. With that in mind, uniform standing orders might be one way to ensure that we do not end up with local arrangements similar to those in the past, which David Ford suggested consisted of nods and winks between people and which produced wrong solutions. We require legislation that is enforceable at local government level, and the Dungannon pilot scheme might be used in the future.

Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for his comments about this being an important step forward. In the course of discussions about reforms to local government, many people have missed the power of well-being, which is an important new statutory power that councils will have. Indeed, some chief executives are looking forward to exercising the power of well-being in order to progress matters that are not the preserve of any other agency.

Concerning the encouragement of other Ministers to transfer the maximum amount of functions to local government, I know that the Member will encourage his party colleagues, as I will continue to encourage mine —

Mr P Robinson: And yourself.

Mrs Foster: Myself? What does the Member mean? I have given everything away. I will continue to encourage my colleagues to transfer the maximum amount of resources and powers to local government.

I share the Member’s opinion that checks and balances do not just protect minorities, but also individual councillors — particularly in relation to the planning function that will be transferred — and I know that councillors will welcome that.

I hear what the Member is saying about uniform standing orders; as I said, I will listen to the opinion of the strategic leadership board on all those issues, and I know that the Member will want to make his points to that body.

1.00 pm

Mr I McCrea: I, too, welcome the Minister’s statement, and I declare an interest as a councillor on Cookstown District Council and as a member of NILGA. The Minister mentioned the functions that will be transferred from the Housing Executive to local government. Will she tell the House what functions that were originally to be transferred to local councils will not now be considered for transfer, and why?

Mrs Foster: The Minister for Social Development has been very helpful with the work that has been carried out since our debate on the emerging findings report and since I received the 59 written responses on the way forward. The Department for Social Development will retain certain elements for strategic reasons, and anything that can be delivered locally will be transferred to local councils. The responsibility for issues such as Travellers’ sites and local transit sites will fall to local councils, but the Department will retain strategic and statutory responsibility for permanent sites under the aegis of the Housing Executive. There has been a good relationship between our Departments, and, like other ministerial colleagues, the Minister for Social Develop­ment has said that she will revisit those issues after a period of time to see how they are progressing.

Mr O’Dowd: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I declare an interest as a member of Craigavon District Council, and my question to the Minister concerns the dual mandate. Most Members have had to declare an interest because of their dual mandate. I welcome the end of the dual mandate, on which the Minister concentrated in her statement. When will the legislation be in place that will allow MLAs such as me to stand down and co-options to take place in the councils?

Mrs Foster: Some of my colleagues are keen for me to encourage the Member to stand down as soon as he can. [Laughter.]

The dual mandate creates a conflict of interest with strong local government. The removal of the ability of individuals to be councillors and Members of the Assembly or the Westminster Parliament will address the issue. We should see that development as a positive way forward. It will allow us to bring new blood into the council system, help to build capacity, and allow us to increase the number of female and young councillors. That will be part of the implementation plan, and I know that NILGA will want to work with me closely on that; however, it will not happen overnight. The dual mandate creates capacity issues, and I am sure that the Member will acknowledge that. Many Assembly Members also serve as leaders of their council groupings throughout Northern Ireland. We must examine the capacity issue in order that we can deal sensibly with the dual mandate.

Mr McCausland: I declare an interest as a member of Belfast City Council. I thank the Minister for her statement and for indicating the timescale for the boundaries review, and I ask her as a matter of urgency to pass that information to Fred Cobain in order to settle his shattered nerves. [Laughter.]

I wish to make couple of specific points. The first concerns spot-listing powers. Will the Minister assure the House that the arrangements for spot-listing will enable councils to make a swift response to situations as they arise? Urgency is a key element of the power to spot-list. Secondly, will she clarify the relationship between the salting of footways and the salting of roads?

Mrs Foster: If needs be, we can get clarification from the Minister for Regional Development, but as I understand it, the salting of footpaths will become the responsibility of the councils, and the responsibility for the salting of roads will remain with the Department for Regional Development’s Roads Service.

I hear what the Member has said. However, part of the new structure between councils and DRD, the health and education bodies, among others, is that there will be a more focused local input. Indeed, DRD has indicated that it will reconfigure its local offices so that they will cover each of the 11 new council areas. One Member said that the new council areas do not directly map the boundaries of the health and education bodies. The police are also considering reconfiguring to fit in with the new council areas. We are also considering innovative ways of having shared services, and people will be quite excited about that.

I will finish by talking about the Belfast boundary. The Belfast council area could be expanded, and it probably should be expanded to recognise the natural growth of the city and its community boundaries in recent years. However, it will be a matter for the local boundaries commissioner to make recommendations on the council boundaries, and there will also be public consultation on the issue. The boundaries commissioner will be appointed in the near future, and we will be able to take the matter forward then.

Mr Kennedy: I thank the Minister for her statement. I declare an interest as a member of Newry and Mourne District Council. One of the major concerns in local government is whether the money will follow the new functions. The Minister said that local government budgets will rise by 25%. Will that be a permanent state of affairs? What are the projected savings and staffing implications from her proposals? Will the Minister be responsible for appointing an appropriate person to act as the local government boundaries commissioner? When does she hope to perform that task? What powers and responsibilities will that person have?

During the Minister’s discussions with NILGA and the National Association of Councillors in respect of packages for councillors who may not wish to stand in forthcoming elections, did she form any view about whether those with broken service will be entitled to a compensatory package?

Finally, I beg your indulgence, Mr Speaker — it was a Churchillian speech, so I must attempt to ask meaningful questions. The Minister said that she would work with the Northern Ireland Office to fill local government vacancies on the basis of co-option rather than by-election. Surely that decision would depend on the opinion of the political parties and the individuals who comprise the existing councils, rather than on the opinion of those in the Northern Ireland Office?

Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for his many and varied points. The local government budget will increase by 25%. That will not be a permanent state of affairs, as I hope to increase it. As the Executive and the Assembly bed in, I hope that more funds will be released to local government, especially in connection with the ongoing institutional Assembly and Executive review.

The projected savings will be at least £15 million a year, at a rough estimate. The figure will increase greatly, because that is a minimum estimate.

In relation to the cost of the proposals, officials are working closely with my ministerial colleagues and with the Department of Finance and Personnel on the transfer of functions from Departments. They must develop a fully costed implementation plan, and that exercise is already under way.

Like any public appointment, the post of local government boundaries commissioner will be filled in accordance with the public appointments procedures for Northern Ireland. As Minister of the sponsoring Department, I will have the final say on who will be appointed to the post.

The eligibility of councillors who have broken service for the severance scheme will be considered by the National Association of Councillors and NILGA, and their recommendations will be brought to me in relation to the councillors’ remuneration package.

Finally, with regard to the question about elections, by-elections and co-option, my comments were made in the context of the fact that the Northern Ireland Office retains the power over electoral law. That is why reference was made to the Northern Ireland Office. I must ask the Secretary of State to hold elections not in 2009, but in 2011, when we will hold new elections for the new councils. Having elections for the 26 councils would not be worthwhile at present. We should concen­trate instead on building the capacity of councillors and officers to move forward into the new situation.

Mr Durkan: I thank the Minister for her statement. Does she agree that although we have heard, rightly, about the interests of councillors and staff, we must ensure that we focus strongly on ratepayers’ interests as we progress these issues? We must consider the implications for ratepayers of the services that are to be provided and what they will be asked to pay for those services.

As Chairperson of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment, I wish to inform the Minister that that Committee will probably want to examine the implications of her proposals relating to social enterprise, business start-ups and youth enterprise, so that we do not end up with a rag-bag of approaches. We want to ensure that there is still a strong regional framework and that there is, at least, a coherent regional policy baseline for those matters and for tourism matters.

Will the Minister deal with one issue again? She said that:

“The consideration of those views facilitated further discussion of what the final recommendations of the subcommittee should be. The recommendations were agreed by the Executive at our meeting on 13 March 2008.”

That, and other comments in the Minister’s statement, might have given people the impression that the recommendations were endorsed by the Executive subcommittee. I understand that the subcommittee has not met since Christmas and that, even when members of that subcommittee had discussions with the Minister, no decisions were made on the number of councils — certainly in the case of at least one Minister. Will the Minister clarify those points so that there is no suggestion that she has misled the House?

Mrs Foster: I am happy to deal with the Member’s points. His first point was about the citizen being at the heart of the RPA: that is precisely why the RPA was first initiated. The RPA is not about cost; it is about making more efficient services available to citizens. People ought to remember that when examining the RPA and not always concentrate on the cost, although that must certainly be taken into account.

The Member’s comments on Invest NI and the programmes that the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) has agreed to transfer to local government demonstrate very clearly the balance that must be struck between retaining the strategy in this place and allowing service delivery at local government level. I am glad that the Member raised that issue, because sometimes people have — very unkindly — suggested that Ministers are trying to grab all the powers and keep them at Stormont. That is not what the proposals are about; they are about having the sort of high-level strategy to which the Member referred.

1.15 pm

With respect to the subcommittee; to be frank, I had some difficulty in getting all the Ministers into a room at the one time. Therefore, I took the view that the best way to proceed was to have separate meetings with each of the Ministers who was on the subcommittee — none of them can deny that I had those meetings with them individually. Indeed, the Minister for Social Development was kind enough to give me a letter indicating her views on the range of functions and on the proposed number of councils before 13 March so that I could go to the Executive meeting with a clear understanding of her position on the proposed number of councils.

Mr G Robinson: I declare an interest as a member of Limavady Borough Council. I thank the Minister and I congratulate her for bringing this statement on the RPA to the Chamber. How will the proposed new councils have a greater say in decision-making on local roads? I know that the Minister made some reference to the issue but will she perhaps provide some elaboration?

Mrs Foster: That matter will be developed between the Department for Regional Development and the implementation group that has been established. It is hoped that local councils, in their new configuration, will be able to determine the priorities regarding the local roads in their areas, and it will then be up to Roads Service to deliver on those local priorities. That is a very significant move, because in the past — and I have been sitting in council when it has actually happened — Roads Service officials “consulted” with local councils when, in effect, all they were doing was setting out their programme for the year ahead. That is going to change, and local councils are going to be involved more at the front end and take a proactive role in determining priorities regarding the roads in their particular areas.

Mr Neeson: I declare an interest as an elected member of Carrickfergus Borough Council. First, I congratulate the Minister in having the courage to reach a decision on the number of councils; that issue has dragged on for far too long. In her statement, the Minister said that it is:

“a process and not an event”.

I know that the local government task force, when it was looking at the issue, was considering the possibility that after the elections to the new councils, those councils would meet on an interim basis. Is the Minister considering that possibility? Secondly, will the Minister agree that having reduced the number of local councils, there is a need to reduce the number of Departments as well?

Mrs Foster: Absolutely. As I am reducing the number of councillors, obviously we will have to look at the number of Assembly Members as well. As regards what is normally called the shadow period or shadow council, there are advantages and disadvantages with that approach. One disadvantage, which was very clearly enunciated to me, was about the time that the Belfast Corporation became Belfast City Council. People said that they did not actually know who to go to during that period — whether they should go to the corporation or the new city council. People were uncertain as to who actually had the power at that particular time. I do not want that sort of situation arising with the new local council structures; that is something that is in the back of my mind.

However, we have not taken a definitive view in relation to shadow councils yet, and I am quite happy to listen to council colleagues in the Northern Ireland Local Government Association and the National Association of Councillors (NAC), and indeed to the Environment Committee and Members of this House, to hear what they have to say on the issue. I am concerned about the possibility of having a shadow period, but I think the Member is right: we need to prepare for that 2011 go-live date, and perhaps the way to do that is to have different pilot projects running throughout the country on different issues.

Mr Storey: I declare an interest as a member of the local government task force strategic leadership board, and Ballymoney Borough Council. I thank the Minister for her statement. The previous Member to speak asked the question that I wanted to pose to the Minister in relation to the shadow council and the period between 2009 and when the 11 councils will be established in 2011. I am glad that the honourable Member for Mid Ulster Mr Molloy is in the House today; no doubt he will be glad that it will be 11 councils and not seven, and he will obviously not be receiving a severance package from his own party in regard to that particular matter.

Will the Minister comment on the names of the new councils and on who will be responsible for naming them? That issue has been a bone of contention for some time. Some of the suggestions for the names for the new councils, which were envisaged under the RPA, were unacceptable.

Mrs Foster: I was going to suggest that the new council in the south-west would be known as greater Fermanagh, but that would be very mischievous of me. [Laughter.]

The names of the new councils will be a matter for the boundary commissioner, who will make recommen­dations, and I will take the final decision in consultation with the Committee for the Environment. The Member is absolutely right — some of the names mentioned in the last RPA were quite Orwellian and did not inspire any sort of local identity or a civic sense of ownership. That is precisely what we are trying to inspire, so perhaps it would be a good idea to call that council greater Fermanagh.

Mr Elliot: I thank the Minister for bringing this information to the House. Has she considered the current debts of some councils, and the high rates in some council areas compared to others? How will the merging of a council with high rates and a council with low rates actually operate? Will the councils’ funds all go into the one pot, with the citizens of one area having to pay for the debt and poor management of the other?

Secondly, the Minister mentioned a letter from the Minister for Social Development. Did that Minister indicate her preferred number of local council areas?

Mrs Foster: I recognise the Member’s point about poor management in some councils — something that is obviously reflected in the different levels of rates throughout Northern Ireland. I assure the Member that we will consider that issue proactively. Although many councils may have significant debt, I presume that they also have a significant asset base, and that issue will be considered by the implementation group.

It will be a matter for the Minister for Social Development as to whether she wishes to release to Members the letter that she sent to me. However, I believe I am correct in saying that — and the Minister will forgive me if I miss out a few words — although 15 was the SDLP’s preferred number of councils, she could understand why we had reached 11 as the number. She was happy with that, and felt that it was an improvement on seven. Furthermore, the Minister’s team were clear with me in previous meetings that they could work with either 11 or 15 councils, and could work very well with 11 councils.

Therefore, as Minister of the Environment, I find the Ulster Unionist Party line in relation to the number of councils unclear. Some people are happy enough with 11, others are — [Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order.

Mrs Foster: The truth hurts.

Some people are happy with 15, and a councillor in Fermanagh wanted 26. Therefore, I do not know what the Ulster Unionist party line is, but, then, neither do its Members.

Mr Speaker: Declan O’Loan is not in the House; therefore Roy Beggs will ask the next question.

Mr Beggs: I declare an interest as a member of Carrickfergus Borough Council.

Will the Minister explain why she seeks to pursue the enactment of this important Bill by accelerated passage? This afternoon, it is proposed that the commission for victims and survivors Bill will proceed by accelerated passage. The Bill to change local government boundaries proposes some of the most extensive changes to local government for over 35 years, and it is important to get the detail right. Will the Minister, therefore, explain why the Bill will be advanced in a time frame that will not meet the indicated 2011 deadline? Why was the Bill not introduced earlier? Why did delays prevent proper scrutiny of this important issue?

Secondly, the Minister indicated that there would be a reduction in the number of councillors, and that she would support a reduction in the number of MLAs. Given that it is impossible to be in two, or even three, places at once, and a future reduction in the number of councillors and MLAs, does the Minister believe that there should, moreover, be a ban on a dual mandate, preventing councillors or MLAs from serving as MPs?

Mrs Foster: I thought that I had made it clear that I was referring to membership of both the Assembly and Parliament. Perhaps the Member was not in the Chamber when I made that point.

I do not understand how I could introduce a piece of legislation in respect of the Boundary Commission if the Executive had not first agreed on the number of councils that would be —

Mr B McCrea: Why did it take so long?

Mrs Foster: Perhaps the Member should ask his own party why it took so long, bearing in mind that it was his party that started the process in 2002 with a statement at the Ulster Unionist Party conference. The Bill is being introduced under the accelerated passage procedure to ensure that we can go to the electorate in 2011, and that we will be able to provide the electorate with the new councils at that time. I will be attending a meeting of the Environment Committee this week, and the Ulster Unionist Party’s Committee members can ask me any questions that they wish about the detail of this short Bill.

Mr Cree: I remind the House that I am a member of North Down Borough Council. I thank the Minister for introducing the Bill and for getting the ball back in play. That has taken a long time, but not all the fault for that lies with the Ulster Unionist Party.

The Minister said that a process is under way. However, I have serious concerns about the 11b model. Will the Minister confirm that the Executive made a unanimous decision to go for that model? Were her partners on the Benches opposite of the same mind?

I had a question about the transfer of funds, but the Minister has already dealt with that matter. I assume that there is an assurance that those arrangements will be updated as time moves on.

What is the future of the Local Government Staff Commission, and what staff efficiency losses will there be? Has any decision been made on that significant point? Is there any likely date for the implementation of the MLA severance deal?

Mrs Foster: If some MLAs are looking for severance, I could suggest a few names. [Laughter.]

When the Executive considered the available range of council models and settled on 11 councils, we believed that that struck a good balance between reducing some of the diversity of population and rating income, and promoting and strengthening the links between councils and their communities. I was always told at the Institute of Professional Legal Studies not to ask a question to which I did not know the answer. The Member clearly knows the answer to the question about whether the Executive’s decision was unanimous because the information, including the fact that his two party colleagues felt that they could not support the Executive’s 11b model, has been in the public domain. However, everyone else was happy to go along with that.

As I said in my statement, I am initiating a review of the Local Government Staff Commission, and I hope to make progress on that soon. We will work with the Local Government Remuneration Committee, NIC and NILGA to introduce the most fair and appropriate severance package available.

Executive Committee Business

Commission for Victims and Survivors Bill

First Stage

The deputy First Minister (Mr M McGuinness): I beg to introduce the Commission for Victims and Survivors Bill [NIA 12/07], which is a Bill to replace the post of the Commissioner for Victims and Survivors for Northern Ireland, which was established by the Victims and Survivors (Northern Ireland) Order 2006, with a commission for victims and survivors for Northern Ireland.

Bill passed First Stage and ordered to be printed.

Mr Speaker: The Bill will be put on the list of future business until a date for its Second Stage is determined.

1.30 pm

Commission for Victims and Survivors Bill

Accelerated Passage

The deputy First Minister (Mr M McGuinness): I beg to move

That the Commission for Victims and Survivors Bill proceed under the accelerated passage procedure, in accordance with Standing Order 40(4).

I am grateful for the opportunity to address Members on this motion. I reiterate my commitment and that of the First Minister to meeting the needs and addressing the concerns of victims and survivors. Since the re-establish­ment of devolution on 8 May 2007, we have made it clear that we are determined to address that key issue, and we have expended much effort on considering how best to meet the needs of victims and survivors. We are finalising a comprehensive strategy and have secured £36 million over the next three years to meet their varied needs. We are putting together a structure to ensure that the voices and needs of victims and survivors will be able to shape future policy and practice.

The new commission will be a vital foundation for that work, and its speedy establishment will be a significant step towards meeting the urgent needs of victims and survivors. The decision to appoint four commissioners was taken after careful consideration. In reaching that decision, the First Minister and I have taken a step that enables us to draw on a wide range of experience, expertise and commitment. Our decision was also based on our recognition of the substantial body of work that must be undertaken, and I am pleased to report that the new commissioners designate are already in the early stages of developing a work plan and establishing an office for the commission.

We are keen that the work should continue as quickly as possible. One implication of our decision is that the Assembly must amend the existing legislation, namely the Victims and Survivors Order 2006, to allow for the replacement of a sole commissioner by a commission. The functions of the commission will be the same as those envisaged for the victims’ commissioner in the 2006 Order. The Bill makes provision for amendments to the 2006 Order to allow for the appointment of such number of individuals as may be considered appropriate.

The First Minister and I seek the Assembly’s support for accelerated passage for the Bill to establish the commission, because early legislative provision is necessary to expedite meeting the needs of victims and survivors. We realise that general concerns may arise about the use of accelerated passage for legislation. However, in this case it is of the utmost importance that the commission be underpinned without delay by a legislative framework.

I thank the Committee for recognising the need to expedite the process and for its support for accelerated passage. To engage in the normal legislative timescale would unduly delay addressing the needs of victims and survivors. Their needs have been unaddressed for far too long. The First Minister and I have put much effort and consideration into ensuring that appropriate structures are established to address the needs of victims and survivors. We recognise the difficult issues that surround the definition of “victim”. Victims and survivors should consider that issue. We will, therefore, request that the proposed victims’ forum makes it a priority to examine the definition of “victim” and brings forward its proposals.

We must start the required work, and the Bill makes the minimum changes required to the 2006 Order to enable a number of people to be appointed to a commis­sion. To facilitate the technical changes that will underpin the commission’s work, the First Minister and I seek the support of the Assembly for the accelerated passage of the Bill.

The Chairperson of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (Mr Kennedy): I thank the Minister for his statement. Standing Order 40(3) provides:

“Where, exceptionally, a Bill … is thought to require accelerated passage … the Member in charge of the Bill shall, before introduction of the Bill in the Assembly, explain to the appropriate Committee –

(a) the reason or reasons for accelerated passage;

(b) the consequences of accelerated passage not being granted; and, if appropriate,

(c) any steps he/she has taken to minimise the future used of the accelerated passage procedure.”

Therefore, I intend to place before the House the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister’s strictly factual position about the information that is relevant to the requirements of Standing Orders.

My Committee became aware of the fact that the legislation that is before the House would be required when the First Minister made a statement to the House on 28 January 2008, in which he announced that four of the candidates on the list of those who were considered appropriate for the post of commissioner for victims and survivors had indicated their willingness to act in a joint capacity as commissioners designate in a new commission for victims and survivors. In the First Minister’s statement, he advised that it would be necessary to introduce legislation to create the commission for victims and survivors. The Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister was not consulted in advance of the announcement that four commissioners would be appointed.

I became formally aware of the need to introduce legislation to establish a commission for victims and survivors on the morning of 28 January 2008, when the Deputy Chairperson of the Committee and I received a briefing from the First Minister and deputy First Minister on the planned ministerial statement. During that briefing, the Deputy Chairperson and I asked several questions on the decision to appoint four commissioners, the process leading up to that appointment and the implications of that decision. At the end of the briefing, the First Minister offered to attend the Committee to discuss the issues that were raised.

The First Minister and deputy First Minister attended the meeting of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister on 5 March 2008 in order to discuss victims’ and survivors’ issues, which included the draft Commission for Victims and Survivors Bill. On 4 March, Committee members received a letter from the First Minister and deputy First Minister, dated 3 March 2008, which advised that they intended to introduce a draft Bill to amend the Victims and Survivors (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 and that they would seek the Committee’s support for the Bill’s accelerated passage.

On 22 February, the First Minister and deputy First Minister indicated in a press release that they would seek the Committee’s agreement for accelerated passage of the Commission for Victims and Survivors Bill. The letter that the Committee received on 4 March formally notified the Committee that accelerated passage was being sought. A copy of the draft Bill was also provided to Committee members on that date.

During the Committee meeting on 5 March, the First Minister and deputy First Minister provided information on future policy for victims and survivors, explained the reasons for seeking accelerated passage and sought the Committee’s support for accelerated passage. Ministers also responded to questions from Committee members on provisions in the draft Bill and agreed to respond in writing to questions that they were unable to deal with during the meeting. After discussions with the First Minister, the deputy First Minister and the junior Ministers, the Committee debated the Ministers’ request that the Committee support accelerated passage for the Commission for Victims and Survivors Bill. The Committee agreed on a majority vote to support accelerated passage for the Bill.

At its meeting on 12 March, the Committee noted correspondence from OFMDFM that provided written explanations on the matters that are contained in Standing Order 40. The letter also provided clarification that was requested by the Committee on the Bill’s scope and on the purpose of several provisions that are contained in schedule 1 to the Bill.

I trust that my explanation of the Committee’s consideration of the draft Commission for Victims and Survivors Bill will assist the House in its consideration of the motion for accelerated passage.

I now leave aside my responsibilities as the Chairperson of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister in order to speak as a representative of the Ulster Unionist Party. Although the deputy First Minister indicated in his statement that the victims’ commission will be charged with redefining, as a matter of urgency, what constitutes a victim, it is gravely disappointing that those in the House who have so loudly protested their unhappiness with the Victims and Survivors (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 have failed to take the opportunity presented by the Bill to change the flawed definition of what constitutes a victim in the 2006 Order.

The Ulster Unionist Party is not the Bill’s sponsor. However, although mindful of the technical and procedural difficulties that the Bill presents, we will seek to amend the flawed definition of what constitutes a victim. It is not only reasonable but morally right that a legislative definition of what constitutes a victim does not include those injured while undertaking criminal acts and/or those who were convicted of terrorist offences.

Mr Ford: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I draw your attention to Standing Order 40, especially to 40(4), which states:

“In moving the motion the Member shall explain to the Assembly-

“(a) the reason or reasons for accelerated passage;”.

Mr McGuinness certainly referred to the need to meet the needs of victims by instituting accelerated passage, although the timetable that we have just heard Mr Kennedy outline suggests that, so far, there has been a lack of urgency on the part of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister.

Standing Order 40(4) also states that the Member shall explain to the Assembly:

“(b) the consequences of accelerated passage not being granted;”.

The deputy First Minister has told us that the interim commissioners are already engaging in work. That suggests that there is little by way of consequence should accelerated passage not be granted.

Standing Order 40(4) also requires the deputy First Minister to explain to the Assembly:

“(c) any steps he/she has taken to minimise the future use of the accelerated passage procedure.”

The deputy First Minister — to whom I listened carefully — made no reference whatsoever to steps taken to minimise the use of such procedure in future. Therefore, I submit that he has failed to comply with Standing Order 40(4).

Mr Speaker: I understand what the Member has said. It is up to the deputy First Minister to decide how he explains himself. I am sure that he will deal with those points during his winding-up speech.

Mr Ford: With respect, Mr Speaker, Standing Order 40(4) states specifically:

“In moving the motion the Member shall explain to the Assembly”.

At this end of the Chamber, we did not hear Standing Order 40(4)(c) covered at all, nor did we hear Standing Order 40(4)(a) and (b) covered adequately.

Mr Speaker: I am sure that the deputy First Minister will correct himself during his winding-up speech.

Mr Ford: Therefore, he did not cover Standing Order 40(4)(c) when speaking to the motion?

Mr Speaker: I call Mr Stephen Moutray.

Mr Moutray: I support the motion. My colleagues and I believe that the Commission for Victims and Survivors Bill should be granted accelerated passage under Standing Order 40(4).

The appointment of the four-person victims’ commission in January 2008 to deal with the issues that affect victims was an important, positive and proactive development. It demonstrated to the people of the Province that the House is committed to providing support and help for the innocent victims who have gone unheard and unsupported for so long.

Unfortunately, the previous Administration neglected innocent victims’ needs. Although the failed Belfast Agreement delivered for terrorist prisoners, it did not address the needs of victims of violence. Rather, it pandered to the perpetrators and ignored the victims. Those unionists who advocated that deal should hang their heads in shame.

The motion for accelerated passage will set the wheels in motion to eradicate the current legal difficulties that prohibit the four-strong victims’ commission’s getting down to business. The commissioners will be protected, because the body will be given the proper legal status that it requires.

The Democratic Unionist Party has championed, and always will, the cause of innocent victims, who were, for many years, sidelined and ignored under the Belfast Agreement.

1.45 pm

Since 2003, this party has made progress on that front by calling for the introduction of a victims’ commissioner. In 2005, that call was met with the appointment of the Interim Victims’ Commissioner, Mrs Bertha McDougall, who carried out sterling work and created a good base upon which to build.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Mr Moutray: In the early part of this year, we spearheaded the appointment of the four-person team. The Minister of Finance, the Rt Hon Peter Robinson, has ensured that victims will have the largest-ever budget of £36 million. That is real progress.

The needs of innocent victims can never, ever be forgotten. As Northern Ireland seeks to move beyond the decades of terrorism and violence, providing for the needs of victims is vital. Such a motion will assist us in ensuring that that is the case. The ultimate aim of the DUP is to ensure that the voices and views of innocent victims are adhered to.

Along with my colleagues, I pledge that we will not let the case of victims be forgotten. Our duty is to ensure that they are provided for and safeguarded. I refer to true victims — not those who went out with the intent to murder and were apprehended in the act of doing so. I am clear in my mind what the definition of a victim is.

It goes without saying that innocent victims have suffered great personal loss over the years. The motion tabled today ensures that the four-person body can get down to work and deliver on the real issues that affect the victims in this Province. It will ensure that the commissioners can deal with the prevalent issues surrounding the victims and give factual, consolidated answers. Such a commission will allow victims and survivors to receive that to which they are entitled.

Throughout my constituency of Upper Bann, many have suffered at the hands of terrorist violence. Many innocent victims have struggled to make ends meet and to raise families in the most difficult of circumstances. Such an acceleration procedure will enable the four newly appointed commissioners to get down to business quickly and to deliver on the real issues affecting those who suffered over the decades of conflict, terror and strife.

Many of the victims who are getting on in years need assistance with simple matters, such as running a home. Those people are not looking for handouts — they need assistance to lead as normal a life as possible. They want the same quality of life as those who were less affected by the Troubles.

We fail to realise the impact that the Troubles have had on the social life of many of the victims. There are victims groups throughout this Province, and they do sterling work. I look forward to the commission working with those groups to deliver on matters of importance. It will enable greater flexibility in accessing and meeting the needs of individual victims and their families. It will enable them to provide support and help for all victims and survivors, bearing in mind that those are some of the most vulnerable people in the Province, who have suffered great personal loss.

Recently, in my Lurgan office, I met a number of victims. Their cry is that there is no support or assistance for those who have suffered at the hands of terrorists. That will no longer be the case.

I support the motion, knowing that such a procedure will put the wheels in motion for supporting and assisting the individuals who for so long have suffered alone.

Ms J McCann: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I support the motion. The legislation is being introduced to establish a commission for victims and survivors. A panel of commissioners will bring a mix of experience, expertise and skills. It will be more representative and reflective of the experiences of all victims and survivors in the important stages of shaping and delivering the services that they need.

It must be realised that the issue of victims and survivors of the conflict is a very sensitive and emotional one. We must always remember that we are talking about people who lost their lives, and, in particular, about their families and those who were injured. The survivors must live with the trauma of bereavement and injury every day of the week, and we must be very sensitive to that. Our priority should be to ensure that all relatives are treated with respect and dignity and that every effort is made to support them. The needs of all victims and survivors must be met as a matter of urgency.

The decades of political conflict have marked the lives of everyone in the North of Ireland. That legacy is evidenced today in the various experiences that were, and are, endured by victims and survivors: the bereaved, the injured, ex-political prisoners, former combatants — both state and non-state — and their wider family circles and communities. Irrespective of religious or political affiliation, any legislation that is introduced must recognise, acknowledge and support the ongoing efforts to ensure that an inclusive and meaningful process is established to deal with the legacy of the conflict. That process must be anchored around truth and justice for all and must address the varying needs and demands of all victims and survivors. Support for such a process — particularly through the delivery of programmes at local and community level — represents an important building block in developing a society that sustainably embodies due regard for the need to promote equality and good relations among everybody.

The ongoing grief and trauma experienced by survivors and victims of the conflict must be recognised and resourced on an equal and equitable basis. That is particularly important when addressing the legacy of the conflict through community initiatives, the provision of counselling and emotional support, and the delivery of training and development opportunities.

Therefore, when we undertake any initiatives to support victims and survivors, we should take our lead from victims and their families and endeavour to make a positive contribution to help them to come to terms with their circumstances. Any approach must be victim-centred. By building a society that is based on the foundations of equality and human rights, and by keeping the victims and survivors of the conflict at the centre of our initiatives, the long-term development of good relations and reconciliation can be achieved in the interests of all. If we are to move towards such a society, all victims and survivors and their families must be treated with dignity and respect, and there must never be a hierarchy of victims. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Durkan: Several Members have mentioned the background to the proposals for a victims’ commission, and the motion, which proposes to grant the legislation accelerated passage, would give standing to that commission.

The issue of victims and survivors is crucial. Promises were made to victims and survivors in the Good Friday Agreement back in 1998, but those promises have not been fulfilled. We should, as a matter of urgency, strive to reach a position whereby we can look victims in the eye and honestly tell them that we are meeting those promises, and we must ensure that we do so credibly and sensitively. For too long, those of us in the party-political system have engaged in the practice of patronising victims on the one hand while ghettoising them on the other. Perhaps there was a collective failure on the part of the political class to meet the promises in the agreement — perhaps the Governments were neglectful in their handling of some issues, or perhaps those involved in the political process failed to make good on the commitments that were made to victims and survivors. It is because of that failure that many victims and survivors simply do not have confidence that the Government, or the political process in general, will address their concerns and affirm their rights.

It was because the SDLP was conscious of that lack of confidence that, quite a number of years ago, in the assorted talks that took place during the various political breakdowns and attempts to resume the institutions, it strongly advocated the creation of a forum for victims and survivors.

I recall that the Alliance Party also strongly championed that proposal. During the all-party discussions at Hillsborough in early 2003, we made a strong case for the establishment of a forum for victims and survivors, and indicated the remit that it might have to advance issues that had been delayed. However, when a joint declaration was published by the British and Irish Governments in spring 2003, the only reference to such a forum was that it would be considered. We questioned why the commitment was not stronger and why the possible role and remit of a forum was not mentioned in that joint declaration. The two Governments told the SDLP that there was only a glancing reference to a forum for victims and survivors because the Ulster Unionist Party and Sinn Féin did not agree with it. That was the reason that we were given for the issue not progressing.

We are still only working towards a forum for victims and survivors to complement the important work that that the commission for victims and survivors will undertake. However, as other Members have already stated, in seeking accelerated passage, Ministers and the Executive must provide assurances and explanations to the House. I am worried that there is an emerging pattern whereby issues that have been long delayed, either in a Department or in the Executive, are subject to a scrambled outcome by Ministers and a scrambled legislative process in the House. Scrambling such important issues in the House is not the stuff of accountable devolution.

Given that it took such a long time to make decisions, and for Ministers and Departments to present proposals, Members have the right to ask for more time to consider them. The SDLP member of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister felt that the Committee was being bounced, not just on the question of accelerated passage, but by having to take a decision on the day on which the Committee was told about the proposals. The Committee was not allowed to return to that issue at later meetings.

Mr B McCrea: Does the Member agree that the DUP and Sinn Féin have the voting power to force anything through by accelerated passage, but that that will not solve the problems that we face as a society? Does he further agree that it is right and proper to discuss such delicate and sensitive issues openly and with transparency, and that invoking accelerated passage takes away that inalienable right?

Mr Durkan: I do not go as far as advocating outright opposition to accelerated passage in this case because there is urgency in respect of this issue. Although I want Members to be afforded the right to properly consider all the issues involved, including those issues that they feel should be involved that may not be covered by the Bill, I am careful not to immediately adhere to partisan divisions on how to move forward.

As well as taking up some of the points that were made by other Members, and further to what he has said about a victims’ and survivors’ forum and the definition of a victim, I ask the deputy First Minister to reflect on whether the proposal is well thought out. After the long delay in addressing the concept of a victims’ and survivors’ forum because of uncertainty over its functions and the difficulties surrounding it, devolving to it the most divisive issue of all — the definition of a victim — is an abdication of responsibility by those who should be prepared to address those issues. It is a bit much to have party point-scoring in the Chamber on the definition of a victim and for the parties to serve notice that they will maintain the luxury of sniping at the various definitions — and then for the decision to be made that that difficult and divisive issue be the one thing that is devolved.

One would almost think that the proposal is calculated to abort the potential success and work of the victims’ and survivors’ forum.

2.00 pm

We are being told that the proposed legislation for the victims’ and survivors’ commission is primarily to ensure that there can be a commission rather than a single commissioner, as is provided for in the current legislation. The deputy First Minister told the House that there will be few other changes. If this legislation were not being dealt with by way of accelerated passage, Members would have wanted to take the opportunity to improve the legislation. Members would possibly have wanted to give more weight to the commission’s remit.

Exchanges have already taken place today about the funding package for victims, to which Ministers have referred. However, the Bill gives no indication of there being any statutory role for the commission in relation to that funding package. Ministers have referred to the victims’ strategy, but the Executive have presented no clear-cut statutory role, remit of oversight or intervention for the commission in relation to that strategy. That raises fundamental issues. If we are in the business of legislating for a coherent and competent victims’ commission, some of us would have wanted those issues to have been addressed. If the Bill receives accelerated passage, it will be difficult to get a handle on those issues.

Given that the deputy First Minister has told the House that a number of other issues will be under consideration, I hope that he will be able to reassure Members that those will be considered without prejudice to the necessity to ensure that the commission can get up and running and be free from some of the legal question marks that are ricocheting around about its status.

Although the SDLP questions how the proposal for four victims’ commissioners came about, now that that is the outcome, we believe we must enable the commission to do the best possible job. We also want the Assembly, as a legislative body, to do the best possible job. If it cannot do so because this Bill proceeds under accelerated passage, then I hope that the Minister can assure us that he and his colleagues will take steps to ensure that the Assembly will have other opportunities and means to do so on behalf of victims and survivors.

Mrs Long: I oppose the motion seeking accelerated passage for the legislation. I recognise that the subject is emotive and sensitive, particularly given that four individuals have been put in an impossible situation because the House was not given the opportunity to discuss the concept of a commission before their names were made known publicly. That has hampered much of the discussion about the pros and cons of the creation of a commission rather than a commissioner.

The responsibility and fault for that lies with OMFDFM, which put the cart before the horse. Although Members have referred to a commission, there is currently no commission. There are four commissioners designate, because that is the only legal vehicle by which they can take their posts. Therefore, we must be careful when discussing this issue.

We are also in danger of straying into a much wider debate about victims’ issues, which is not the meat of the subject today. We are being asked to discuss specifically whether accelerated passage should proceed. There may well be other opportunities for a wider debate on victims’ issues. Perhaps on those occasions Mr Moutray will explain why, although he said that he is unhappy with the current definition of “victim”, his own party, through OFMDFM, brought forward the long title for the Bill that did not allow any amendment to it to deal with that specific issue. Clearly, the First Minister is a member of Mr Moutray’s party. Mr Moutray will have the opportunity to answer that question at another point.

Jennifer McCann referred to the need for a full range of experience, skills and expertise — and she will have to answer why, when this process was originally put in train, it was designed for an individual who would cover all of those bases. At no point have the First Minister and deputy First Minister suggested that the process was in any way flawed. Serious questions are, therefore, being raised about what people have said.

I shall stick to the specific issue of accelerated passage. No one in the House wants unnecessary delay in the creation of arrangements to address the needs of victims and survivors. Both in and out of Committee, I and others in the Chamber have repeatedly called for OFMDFM to expedite the appointment of commissioners. We are all acutely aware of the political failure of the entire process thus far to prioritise sufficiently the needs of victims, and we want that matter to be addressed urgently. In contrast to the urgency that has been expressed in the Chamber today, after devolution, and despite having been told repeatedly that the appointment was imminent, there have been protracted and unjustifiable delays at the hands of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister. The re-advertisement of the post was followed by further inactivity by OFMDFM. Four commissioners designate were then appointed with a view to creating a commission. The need for further legislation to provide for that commission created further delay.

That was clearly the case and, when concerns about delay were raised, the Committee was told by OFMDFM that, although a resolution was urgent, it was more important that the decision be got right. Despite that, OFMDFM is now unwilling to allow the Committee and the House any time to go through the due process to reassure themselves — and the public — that the decision has indeed been got right. That is the point of the process in which Committee members engage — to scrutinise and to ensure that things are got right. However, accelerated passage denies Committees that process.

Accelerated passage was requested at the Committee’s meeting on 5 March 2008. That meeting was held in closed session, so that discussion is not formally on record. That was a mistake; it would have been better had it been on record so that the issues that were aired would have been fully open to scrutiny before this debate. However, on making the appointments in the aftermath of Christmas, the Ministers said that they were aware of the need for legislative change. Therefore, they knowingly built that additional delay into their actions, and the pressure has been turned on this House to abandon its responsibilities and duties with regard to scrutiny, and to facilitate a process that has come about simply because OFMDFM has not, for more than nine months, fulfilled its obligations to expedite this matter.

It is possible for the Committee and the House to allow the passage of a Bill to proceed without undue delay. Accelerated passage is not, therefore, just an arrangement whereby agreement can be reached; it is more than that. It obliterates the Committee Stage of a Bill, and removes from the Committee proper scrutiny and the ability to take evidence from others who may wish to scrutinise a piece of legislation.

Standing Order 40 makes it clear that certain requirements should be met before accelerated passage is agreed. First, it is made clear that it should be exceptional for a Bill, other than a Budget Bill, to be in that position. Standing Order 40 requires that:

“the Member in charge of the Bill shall, before introduction of the Bill in the Assembly, explain to the appropriate Committee –

(a) the reason or reasons for accelerated passage;

(b) the consequences of accelerated passage not being granted; and, if appropriate,

(c) any steps he/she has taken to minimise the future use of the accelerated passage procedure.”

With regard to exceptionality —

Lord Morrow: I thank the Member for giving way. However, as she articulates her case, she is in danger of giving the impression that a precedent has been set, and I would like her to address that. Does she say that never, ever, is there an occasion on which to go for accelerated passage? Will she confirm that this is not a precedent, but that accelerated passage has, in fact, been used on many occasions, not only in this House but in other elected Houses?

Will she plainly tell the House what her true problems with the use of accelerated passage are?

Mrs Long: I thank the Member for his timely intervention, because I was about to outline the other occasions when the House has used accelerated passage and the particular circumstances pertaining to them.

The Member asked whether a precedent has been set. I believe that it has, because the deputy First Minister’s opening statement did not outline all of the requirements — as requested by Standing Order 40 — as to why accelerated passage should proceed. He is being permitted to do that in his concluding remarks if he so chooses. Therefore, a precedent has been created today.

Since devolution in 2000, 11 Bills have been granted accelerated passage by the House. Five of those were Budget Bills, and the Committee for Finance and Personnel expressed the view that there had been sufficient consultation on the Budget and that failure to agree the Budget would have resulted in the Assembly not being able to draw down money from Westminster. That would qualify as a significant consequence of not accepting accelerated passage.

Five of the Bills were parity legislation, specific to issues of social security and welfare reform. If accelerated passage had not been granted, specific deadlines would not have been met. That would have resulted in loss of benefits to individuals in Northern Ireland. Again, that could be considered a significant consequence of failing to grant accelerated passage.

The Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill was also granted accelerated passage. The Committee for Social Development expressed reluctance on that occasion, but accepted that it was unavoidable because there was a need for parity not to be broken. Therefore, even though it was unavoidable, the Committee did not simply roll over and play dead on the granting of accelerated passage.

The only other piece of legislation given accelerated passage was a two-clause Bill, the Children (Emergency Protection Orders) Bill, which was introduced to comply with a High Court ruling in order that we would not be in breach of the law. Again, that is a significant reason and an exceptional circumstance to justify the use of accelerated passage.

I am not opposed to the use of accelerated passage per se. [Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order. The Member has the Floor.

Mrs Long: However, as is outlined in Standing Order 40 — and if Members are unhappy that Standing Orders make requirements clearly in black and white before our eyes, that is their problem and not mine — certain requirements must be met. That is not the case with this Bill.

When the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister raised those issues with the First Minister, the deputy First Minister and the two junior Ministers, no reason was given during our meeting or in a subsequent letter to suggest that the circumstances were exceptional. The letter states:

“We fully appreciate that concerns may arise regarding the general use of accelerated passage for legislation but regard this as an exceptional case.”

I eagerly turned to the second page, only to find that it had moved to a different theme. The letter provided no reason why the case was exceptional. If delay and heel-dragging in the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister is being cited as exceptional, that is a weak argument. It causes me particular concern that yet another Minister intends to use accelerated passage and, therefore, again preclude a Committee from filling its proper role.

The junior Minister (Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister) (Mr Donaldson): Will the Member give way?

Mrs Long: No, I have given way already. The other issues —

Mr Donaldson: Does the Member not want a Minister to respond?

Mr Speaker: Order. The Member has the Floor.

Mrs Long: The Minister will have an opportunity to respond at the end of the debate, and I am happy for him to do so. OFMDFM has had adequate opportunity to answer the questions put to it by the Committee, but has failed to do so.

2.15 pm

Mr Donaldson: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. It was I as a junior Minister who attended that Committee meeting and gave exceptional reasons for accelerated passage being required. Is it in order for the Member to make an accusation that is untrue, impugn Ministers’ integrity and then not give them the opportunity to respond?

Mr Speaker: That is not a point of order. As Speaker, I am not involved in the business of Committees or how Ministers address Committees.

We now move on to Mr Jim Shannon. [Laughter.]

I am sorry; Mrs Long, please continue your speech.

Mrs Long: Thank you, Mr Speaker. My speech almost became accelerated, which would please some Members and not others.

I do not believe that substantive reasons were given for accelerated passage. After a commissioner designate made some comments on television, I pressed the junior Minister — he may wish to respond to my points when I finish — on whether there were difficulties in commissioners engaging with the public, drawing up action plans, undertaking the required range of duties, and so forth. Initially, OFMDFM refuted that and stated publicly that there was no impediment to the commissioners meeting victims and undertaking other functions; at the Committee meeting, the Ministers agreed with this. I pressed futher and asked what the commissioners would be unable to do in the context of the legislation not being expedited. The only example I was given verbally was that, in the absence of a legislative framework, they might not be able to issue grant funding.

Mr Donaldson: I recall that point being made, and it is a pity that the Committee meeting was not recorded. However, we gave exceptional reasons for the need for accelerated passage. In my opinion, the victims are an exceptional enough reason. However, there is a problem in that, legally, under the Data Protection Act 1998, the commissioners cannot collect information about victims in order to help them with individual issues. That was explained to the Committee, and it is a reason that accelerated passage is required, so that the commissioners can get on with the job that the people of Northern Ireland — and especially the victims — want them to do.

Mrs Long: It is a shame that the junior Minister did not include that impediment in the three-page letter that was sent to the Committee in response to its specific question. That point was not included in the press statement about impediments not existing. I also think that it is a pity that the Committee meeting was not recorded. However, the meeting took place behind closed doors at the request of the Department and the Ministers, not the Committee.

The Committee was told that there could be an issue.

Mr B McCrea: Will the Member give way?

Mrs Long: No, I will not give way; I want to finish my speech.

The Committee was told that there could be an issue. The only impediment that was brought to its attention, either verbally or in writing, was that of the distribution of funding. Given that, at present, no framework is in place for the commissioners to issue grant funding — after all, they have only been appointed — and there is no formal application process, I cannot see that the normal passage of the Bill would impede the commissioners, because a framework would be in place in time for them to undertake that role. The ability to fund was the only impediment mentioned, and the letter that was sent to the Committee by OFMDFM did not refer to it. The Committee asked serious questions, which were reiterated in writing, and I fail to see why this issue did not form part of OFMDFM’s written response.

My colleague Stephen Farry wrote to the First Minister and deputy First Minister asking what impact the decision to appoint multiple commissioners on 28 January 2008 would have on the delivery of the new strategy for victims and survivors and on the creation of a victims and survivors’ forum.

They said that, in their assessment, it would have no impact. In the evidence presented in writing — if there is dispute about the verbal communication — there is no indication of any impediment to the commissioners undertaking their role. If there were an impediment, I would not oppose accelerated passage for the Bill.

I also ask the Department to outline what steps will be taken to minimise the use of accelerated passage in the future. During this debate, some Members have suggested that to resist accelerated passage is merely a whimsy of the Alliance Party, the SDLP or the Ulster Unionist Party; that it is simply frustration. It is not; opposition to accelerated passage exists for a reason. Committees play an important role in the drafting of legislation, and they should be fully consulted in doing so. Despite the fact that it is stated in Standing Orders, I cannot understand why measures to avoid future use of accelerated passage were not outlined to the Committee or the House. That substantive point has not been addressed by the Ministers — neither in their letters nor in the deputy First Minister’s statement this morning.

It has been asserted on a number of occasions that the Bill is a technical piece of legislation in which one word will simply be replaced with another. I dispute that; it is a piece of enabling legislation that creates a commission of four equal commissioners on four equal full-time salaries. As those who have read the Bill will know, it also creates the legislative framework for any number of commissioners to be appointed; there is no cap on that. At a time when many small organisations that provide direct services to victims and survivors are going to the wall because of lack of funds, that should be of concern to the House.

This is a significant departure from what was originally envisaged — the post of one commissioner to act as a strong, unified, advocate voice for the entire sector. No doubt, those issues will be addressed at Second Stage.

It is important to assess whether we have addressed the requirements of Standing Order 40. The Committee received the Bill 24 hours before it was requested to agree to accelerated passage, and, given the answers that members had received, it was not reasonable for us to do so on that day.

I asked that a decision be deferred for one week to allow OFMDFM to respond fully to the Committee’s questions, to address fully the issues in Standing Order 40 and to report back to the Assembly. I had not originally ruled out the option of accelerated passage, as I have put on record during that Committee discussion. However, it was clear to those of us who are not members of the DUP or Sinn Féin that other Committee members came simply to do the will of OFMDFM, regardless of the issues raised. The Committee simply rolled over, and we had no opportunity to explore the issues further before making a decision.

This is a rather shameful saga for the Assembly, from beginning to end. I do not wish to interfere with the actions undertaken in good faith by the commissioners designate, and I do not wish to delay the process further. However, the House has a role, and the Executive must acknowledge that fact, once and for all. They must also accept that that role exists not only to enable Members to express their opinions but for the Committee to allow others to be canvassed, so that we have some idea of the views of the general public. The single point of agreement is that this is an important issue that has been badly handled by the Department.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Mr Speaker: Order. As Question Time for the First Minister and deputy First Minister commences at 2.30 pm, I suggest that the Assembly takes its ease until that time. This debate will continue at 4.00 pm with Mr Shannon.

The debate stood suspended.

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

2.30 pm

Oral Answers to Questions

Office Of The First Minister And Deputy First Minister

Northern Ireland Association  for Mental Health

1. Mr McElduff asked the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to provide details on its recent meeting with the Northern Ireland Association for Mental Health.        (AQO 2588/08)

The deputy First Minister (Mr M McGuinness): The Northern Ireland Association for Mental Health is one of the largest regional mental-health voluntary organisations in the North of Ireland. It was founded in 1959 and provides residential and day care services, and other support, for people with mental-health problems in the community. It has 13 beacon centres offering a range of rehabilitative activities and providing comprehensive advice and information on mental-health issues.

Junior Minister Kelly met with the Association for Mental Health on Thursday, 13 December 2007, to discuss important cross-cutting issues of health promotion in relation to mental health. The Executive, as part of their Programme for Government, acknowledged the need to promote physical and mental health. The junior Minister was able to assure the organisation of OFMDFM and the Executive’s commitment to tackling mental-health issues.

The association is also represented on the cross-sectoral steering group that was set up by the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, which oversees the implementation of the ‘Promoting Mental Health Strategy and Action Plan 2003-2008’. Cross-cutting issues, such as early-years intervention and the work of the suicide task force, were discussed, and in that context the organisation asked OFMDFM to continue to press for a co-ordinated approach across all relevant Departments. The junior Ministers and representatives of OFMDFM sit on the ministerial subgroup that deals with suicide prevention and have given that important issue their fullest attention.

The Association for Mental Health met with the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and had an agreed date to meet the Minister of Education to discuss the issues that fell under the responsibility of those Departments. An official from the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety was also present at the meeting with the junior Minister.

Mr McElduff: I thank the deputy First Minister for his comprehensive answer, and I welcome the fact that junior Minister Kelly met with the Association for Mental Health in mid December. I ask OFMDFM to focus its attention on the mental and physical situation of carers in society. Does the deputy First Minister agree that caring for someone can be physically, emotionally and financially draining? I hope that the implementation of a co-ordinated approach — that the deputy First Minister mentioned — will mean that senior citizens, for instance, who have to take on inappropriate levels of care for others will be supported in the future. I am asking for an Executive and an individual departmental commitment to support carers — not least those who are senior citizens.

The deputy First Minister: There is no doubt that people who care for those with mental-health problems are entitled to as much support as we can muster for them. I have no doubt that the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety — under the aegis of Michael McGimpsey — recognises the importance of having a comprehensive approach to ensuring that those with mental-health problems receive the greatest care possible under the circumstances.

Mr Kennedy: I thank the Minister for his initial answer. Given the overarching responsibilities of the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, will the deputy First Minister give special attention to the stress management aspects of mental health — particularly at this time of uncertainty in the housing market, which is producing high levels of stress, worry and concern among homeowners, prospective homeowners and pensioners and people approaching pension age. Will he ensure that appropriate steps are taken to ensure that support services are widely known about and used?

The deputy First Minister: I accept that there are many pressures on people, not least financial ones. We need to address all the issues that have been highlighted by Members by putting together the comprehensive interdepartmental approach that I described earlier. We must ensure that we support all those who are afflicted by mental-health problems.

Mr G Robinson: Will the deputy First Minister indicate whether services for epilepsy were discussed at the meeting? Such services are funded from the mental-health budget.

The deputy First Minister: I am not aware whether epilepsy was discussed. However, I will find that out and send the Member a written reply.

Children’s Play: Support

2. Ms S Ramsey asked the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to detail how support for children’s play is co-ordinated by the Executive. (AQO 2581/08)

The deputy First Minister: The benefits of play are manifold. Good play and leisure opportunities can help to improve children’s quality of life and safety in neighbourhoods, tackle obesity, promote children’s health and well-being, support their development and build community cohesion.

There have been several key developments relating to play, including the establishment of an interdepartmental group and collaborative work with the Commissioner for Children and Young People and key stakeholders to map existing play provision and to develop a play and leisure policy for the North.

Ministerial colleagues will shortly be asked to approve the policy statement for publication. Prior to that approval, the draft policy statement will be sent to the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister so that Committee members may express their views. Members will note the revised title ‘Play and Leisure Policy’. Use of the term “play policy” in the consultation seemed to confuse the public and promote the false idea that the policy was for younger children only. The revised title reflects the fact that the policy is for all children and young people up to the age of 18.

It is important that the Executive be seen to be in the lead on current issues and, therefore, the policy highlights the fact that, although OFMDFM takes the lead on the issue of play, all Departments are signed up to the development and implementation of a policy. We also look forward to working closely with our many partners in the voluntary, community and statutory sectors on the development of the implementation plans that will follow the policy statement.

In recognition of the different needs of age groups, we will draw up two implementation plans: one for children up to the age of 11, and another for those aged between 12 and 18. Work on those will begin this year, with a view to having implementation plans agreed by spring 2009. Membership of those groups will be drawn from a wide range of stakeholders.

Ms S Ramsey: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the deputy First Minister for his answer. How does he see the play policy interacting with the 10-year children’s strategy? What oversight mechanisms will be employed?

The deputy First Minister: The document has considerable links with the six high-level outcomes in the 10-year strategy for children and young people and will show how play and leisure will contribute to achievement of those outcomes.

The benefits that play brings to the development of children are well documented, and we are committed to promoting them.

Mrs M Bradley: Will the Minister provide a report on the first meeting of the ministerial subcommittee on children and young people, which was held this month?

The deputy First Minister: There is tremendous focus on this important work. The issues of children in society, their protection and ensuring that proper services are available to them are matters of great importance for the Executive and the various departmental authorities. It is clear to us all that we must adopt a joined-up approach. Meetings, at which reports are presented, are held on a regular basis. Those who are responsible for the stewardship of those meetings must make accurate assessments and plans for making progress on an issue that is of tremendous importance to all our constituents.

Mr Cree: What is OFMDFM’s strategy for expanding children’s play facilities and opportunities throughout the Province? Given the demands of the testing culture in schools and the Internet’s pervasiveness in children’s lives, does OFMDFM agree that play is important in developing their mental health?

The deputy First Minister: We are all conscious of the pressures on children and young people. In the Assembly, there have been several important debates about matters related to testing and about how that impacts on the mental health and well-being of many children. Many parts of the North have experienced tragedies, and it is difficult to assess precisely why such situations arise. However, as we move forward, we are conscious that approaches and strategies must be put in place in order to make life better for young people. Efforts to expand services will always be dictated by budgetary pressures, and we have had huge debates in relation to the Programme for Government, the Budget and the 10-year investment strategy. Nevertheless, we all recognise the importance of adequate facilities.

When young people — particularly those in socially deprived communities — are interviewed about the activities in which they engage, we hear the age-old expression, “There is nothing for us; there are no facilities.” Close to where I live in the Bogside area of Derry, there was, until recently, a poor play park called Bull Park. It has now been refurbished by the council, and I have never seen a play park used as much. People come to it from many parts of the city. However, to me, that highlights the inadequacy of play facilities in other areas of Derry city, and I am sure that that applies to counties Armagh, Tyrone, Fermanagh, Antrim and Down.

There is a big challenge for us all, and we ignore at our peril the pressures that young people are under. In line with budgetary considerations — and we are committing big funds to this area — we must ensure that we progress in a way that meets the needs of children and parents.

Executive Subcommittees

3. Mr Storey asked the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to outline its role in relation to establishing Executive subcommittees.            (AQO 2558/08)

The deputy First Minister: From time to time, the Executive may decide to set up subcommittees, as we already have in relation to water and sewerage services; local government modernisation and reform; children and young people; and rural planning. Normally, it is for the relevant Minister to propose the establishment of a subcommittee; however, the Executive must collectively agree on its establishment, composition and remit.

Mr Storey: The Education Minister has said that her discussions with stakeholders are confidential. Will the deputy First Minister confirm whether the Executive’s deliberations about establishing an education subgroup in order to examine post-primary transfer are also confidential? Furthermore, will he give the House details of his row in the Executive with the Education Minister concerning that matter? What steps do the Executive plan to take to ensure that the Education Minister sets up a subgroup to deal with the important issue of post-primary transfer?

The deputy First Minister: When the Member suggests that there was a row between me and the Minister of Education, he is 100% wrong. There was no such row, or anything that remotely resembled one. The Minister of Education has clearly indicated that, in due course, she will bring proposals to the Assembly, the Education Committee and the Executive.

2.45 pm

We are all conscious that this is a difficult issue. This is a time of change in education. There is common ground, even among people who disagree about what that change should consist of, or about the need for change. People recognise, for example, that the 11-plus is an outdated exam. We must move forward sensibly. Yes, confidentiality is applied to the running of the Executive in certain matters, but we are all conscious of our responsibility to try to make progress on issues in a way in which our young people’s needs are met. The central focus of our efforts must be on the children and on how we can improve our education system. The First Minister and I, and other members of the Executive, await with as much interest as the Member the proposals that the Minister of Education will introduce — hopefully sooner rather than later.

Mr Deputy Speaker: It is always good to know that there are no rows.

Mr Gallagher: Whether matters are debated at subcommittee level or at full Executive level, the deputy First Minister will recognise the importance of openness and transparency and the need to adhere to proper procedures. Although I do not wish to single out any particular Ministers, Members have become aware that, despite the fact that some subcommittees are already in place, Ministers will make statements without first providing them to the relevant subcommittee. Does the deputy First Minister agree that that situation should be examined? When such statements are made, the Minister concerned should either indicate that the matter has been brought to the subcommittee for consideration or that it has not.

The deputy First Minister: I have already outlined a number of areas in which subcommittees exist to deal with different aspects of government. All those who participate in those subcommittees have a responsibility to ensure that government is working properly. That leads to far better working relationships and to situations in which we can provide the proper governmental institutions that our people want. Although Members can point to instances in which they felt that things were not handled as well as they should have been, all Ministers have a duty and a responsibility to ensure that, as we progress, we treat each other with proper respect. Government decisions are huge matters, which affect the lives of the people whom we represent, and it is important that we represent them in a way in which their needs are delivered consistently.

Mr Cobain: Will the deputy First Minister tell the House whether a permanent Executive subcommittee on the eradication of child poverty has been created? After all, that is a major, publicly declared Executive target. The situation is a public disgrace and an indictment of the Executive’s lack of adequate focus on poverty issues.

The deputy First Minister: It is absolutely clear from the Budget and the Programme for Government, which the Assembly agreed, that the Executive regard the eradication of poverty as a priority. A great deal of funding has been invested to ensure that progress will be made over the next few years. The only way in which we can deliver in a manner that builds confidence is to do so over time. The institutions have been in place for only 10 months, and we are moving forward in a way that focuses on the need to ensure that we deliver properly for the people whom we represent.

Poverty has existed on this island for a very long time. The responsibility of politicians in the Assembly, and on the Executive that represents it, is to ensure that we face up to the huge challenges that exist. The remit of the subcommittee on children and young people, jointly chaired by junior Ministers Kelly and Donaldson, is to improve the lives of our children and young people.

Through the workings of the subcommittee, the six objectives contained in the 10-year strategy for children and young people will be placed at the heart of the Government’s agenda.

Tackling Racism

4. Mr O’Dowd asked the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to outline the steps it is taking to tackle racism. (AQO 2597/08)

The deputy First Minister: The First Minister and I, along with the rest of the Executive, are determined to stamp out racism, sectarianism and intolerance. They mar our reputation, blight our economic prospects and have a corrosive effect on our society. In the Budget announced by the Executive on 28 January, we allocated significant new resources to tackle those scourges. Expenditure on good race relations in the past three years has been approximately £21 million. The Budget will increase that investment by almost £7·5 million over the next three years to ensure continued improvement in relationships and to address the challenges facing new and host communities. Total investment between 2008-09 and 2010-11 will therefore be approximately £29 million, taking account of efficiencies over the period, to meet the public service agreement target of building a shared and better future for all.

The Programme for Government reflects our determination to address the divisions in our society and to achieve measurable reductions in sectarianism, racism and hate crime through a programme of cohesion, sharing and integration for a shared and better future. Work on developing the programme of cohesion, sharing and integration is at an advanced stage, and we intend to introduce it for discussion with the Committee and the Assembly in two to three months.

We have already launched a call for applications for funding under the funding scheme for minority ethnic communities. A key element of that scheme is tackling racism in its many manifestations. The many strong applications that we have received and that will be awarded funding will build on examples of best practice previously funded by OFMDFM. In the longer term, the funding will form an important part of our proposals for a programme of cohesion, sharing and integration.

Mr O’Dowd: Go raibh míle maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the deputy First Minister for his full answer. There was a sectarian incident in Belfast at the weekend which has left a young man fighting for his life. Does the deputy First Minister agree that it is everyone’s responsibility — individually and collectively — to stand up to racism and sectarianism and to stamp it out wherever it occurs?

The deputy First Minister: I agree that there is a responsibility on all of us. I think that I can say without fear of contradiction that everyone in the Assembly supports the efforts of the First Minister and me to stamp out sectarianism and racism in our society. I wish to take this opportunity to condemn totally and absolutely whoever was responsible for the horrendous injuries suffered by that young man in the centre of Belfast.

I also heard on the local north-west news this morning that a car belonging to an eastern European family was burnt out. Although there are now low levels of attacks and tension in our society, now and again there will be incidents that will bring shame on the perpetrators. I believe that I speak for everyone in the Assembly when I say that we wish all those who have been attacked and injured recently — be it physically or psychologically — well in the future.

The best example that we can set is to continue with the work that we are engaged in here, because if we are seen to be working together and to be facing up to the issues, that will bear down on the Neanderthals in our society who think that attacking other people is the right way to go. It is the wrong way to go; it is unacceptable, and I think that every Member of the House will join with me in condemning those responsible for such attacks.

Mr Durkan: I join with the deputy First Minister in condemning the weekend attack on a Romanian family in my constituency of Foyle. It is the second attack that that family has suffered. I welcome the deputy First Minister’s efforts to ensure that all Departments work to arrest some of the misapprehensions about the new diversity in our society and the role of people of diverse ethnic backgrounds.

Will he ensure that the Executive affirm that immig­ration makes a positive contribution to the compet­itiveness and growth of this region, and that the new ethnic communities add to the diversity of our society? Will he make it clear that people of different ethnic backgrounds offer no offence or threat to our society, and that those who attack them offer that threat and offence?

The deputy First Minister: I agree with every word that the Member has just uttered. The first joint engagement that the First Minister and I were involved in was to welcome a huge turnout of people from all over the world to an event in the Great Hall on 9 May 2007. We made it clear, on behalf of the whole Executive, that we very much value the contribution that those people — some of whom have been here for some four or five decades — have made to our society.

I agree absolutely that those who attempt to destabilise our society by attacking defenceless, innocent people who make a worthwhile contribution are entitled only to our total and utter condemnation. However, condemnation alone will not be enough to ensure that we deal with those situations. There is a responsibility to ensure that the Police Service has the will and desire to bear down on those who are responsible for such attacks. The Police Service is led by people who are determined to do that, and we must give them as much support as possible. However, where there are deficiencies, we must face up to the challenges that clearly exist.

There is also a mighty responsibility on everyone in society, no matter who they are, to give information to the police so that the thugs and scoundrels who are involved in such activity can be arrested and brought before the courts.

Mr Shannon: I thank the deputy First Minister for his response concerning the strategy and moneys. He will be well aware of the issue of language. Given the strategy and the moneys available, what steps is he taking to address language difficulties, not only in the community but for people who have contact with Government bodies, the PSNI and elected representatives? It is important that people are integrated into our society, and I welcome that, but we must do more to ensure that it happens.

The deputy First Minister: The Member has made a very important point. We all understand that if there are difficulties as a result of people coming from another part of the world, a language barrier can further alienate those people. All of us have a duty and responsibility to do everything in our power to address the communication deficit that clearly exists.

I saw a very interesting programme on RTÉ about a woman from County Meath who went out of her way to embrace new immigrants who arrived in her community. She established a school, and, together with other elderly people in the community, she set up language classes for immigrants. Language is crucial.

Another crucial factor is children’s education. Our schools are becoming more diverse than ever, and that represents a challenge for our education system and for the Department of Education, but they consistently rise to that challenge.

Equality Impact Assessments: Training

5. Mr Brady asked the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to outline the training that all levels of the Civil Service must go through to familiarise themselves with, and enable them to carry out, equality impact assessments effectively.          (AQO 2579/08)

The deputy First Minister: With the introduction of section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, an extensive programme of training for all grades of staff was provided across the Civil Service, including familiarisation training for all staff, and in-depth training for policy-makers on how to complete an equality impact assessment. Since then, new members of staff joining the Civil Service undertake an induction programme, which includes an overview of section 75 and equality impact assessments.

3.00 pm

For staff who are directly involved in policy develop­ment or in undertaking equality impact assessments, specific OFMDFM-approved training is provided through the Centre for Applied Learning. That training covers how to conduct an equality impact assessment, and it complies fully with section 75 of the 1998 Act and with the Equality Commission’s guidance on good practice. In addition, each Department has an equality unit that provides advice and guidance to staff on the correct process to follow in undertaking an equality impact assessment.


Climate Change

1. Mr McGlone asked the Minister of the Environment for her assessment of the performance of Northern Ireland in contributing to United Kingdom targets to counter climate change.     (AQO 2605/08)

The Minister of the Environment (Mrs Foster): The current UK target for emission reductions emanates from the Kyoto protocol and is for a 12·5% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by 2008-12. That is an overall UK target, with no specific targets for regions or sectors. The latest information that is available on Northern Ireland emissions relates to 2005 and shows a decrease of 6% from 1990 levels. The Programme for Government has committed to a 25% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by 2025.

There has been considerable variation in the trends identified for Northern Ireland in the greenhouse gas inventories. That is because the methodologies and data sources that are used at a UK level to calculate emissions do not translate easily when applied to Northern Ireland, which accounts for only 3·2% of overall UK emissions.

Two pieces of research are being undertaken by my Department and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment. That research will be published soon and should help to inform the position. The Member will understand that there will always be differences between the UK regions and between different sectors of the economy. Given that, it is never easy to be definitive when assessing relative performance in emission reductions; for example, our relatively dispersed rural population and associated economy will necessitate more car use for economic and social reasons than will be the case in an urban setting that is more the norm in England. Hence, it will be understood generally that transport emissions will be higher here than elsewhere.

As the Member knows, the future assessment of performance will be informed by the independent Committee on Climate Change, which is to be established through the UK Climate Change Bill. The Committee is already up and running in shadow form, and Members will know that Lord Adair Turner and his team have visited Northern Ireland to outline their role and to get feedback on the Northern Ireland position.

Mr McGlone: I thank the Minister for her response. On the broader environmental remit, what intention does she have to advance the report from the review of environmental governance (REGNI)?

Mrs Foster: The Member knows that I hope to be able to speak to the House about environmental governance before the end of May. He knows that I received a report — last June, I think — which is commonly known as the REGNI report, from a review group that was set up under direct rule. I have been considering the issues that were raised by that report, and next week, my Department will launch its first ‘State of the Environment’ report, of which the Member will be aware. Indeed, the production of such a document was one of the recommendations of the REGNI report. We are also looking at the October 2007 Criminal Justice Inspectorate report and at the impact of environmental crime. We are assessing the views of all the NGOs, and all the other interested stakeholders, such as the Ulster Farmers’ Union. As I have indicated previously, I will come to the Member’s Committee in the near future, and to the House, to discuss environmental governance.

Mr Gardiner: What action has the Minister taken to address the situation that was revealed on 23 November 2007 when the Energy Saving Trust (EST) placed 18 council areas in the Province in the top 20 of the worst carbon wasters in the United Kingdom?

Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for his question. I support efforts to improve energy efficiency; however, it is unfortunate that the Energy Saving Trust identified several council areas, not least my own, as being the least receptive to the energy-efficiency agenda. I have already said in my answer to the substantive question that there are huge differences between areas in Northern Ireland and areas in England, for example, as to how we use our energy.

I understand that the survey was conducted online. I do not believe that that is the best way to measure the responsiveness of a rural population — far from it. The survey also identifies some actions in relation to car use, which, as I have already said, will be much higher in rural areas of Northern Ireland than it will be in, for example, cities in mainland UK. However, as the Minister of the Environment, I encourage all Northern Ireland’s population to save energy and to commit to some of the pledges identified by the EST. Saving energy is a matter that Members must take on board, and be aware of always — as I am sure the members of the Committee for the Environment are — of the need to send out positive messages about it. I know that that view is shared by my ministerial colleague in DETI.

Dr Farry: Will the Minister update the House on what consideration she has given to Northern Ireland’s signing up to a tougher target for carbon reductions, in line with our counterparts in Scotland and Wales, who are both opting for an 80% target, as opposed to the UK-wide target of 60%? Both Scotland and Wales have rural-based populations, similar to our own.

Mrs Foster: The Member knows that I have said that I remain open-minded in relation to the higher target. Indeed, I indicated to his colleague the Member for South Antrim that we will be watching keenly what happens in Wales in relation to the Climate Change Commission that has been set up there, and I recently received a report from an official who attended its last meeting.

The idea behind setting up the Committee on Climate Change, which is chaired by Lord Adair Turner, is for it to assess whether we need to move to that higher target. The committee members will, through their academic and industrial experience, be able to bring that information to us. I am very impressed by the way in which they have tackled their work to date. They have been over in Northern Ireland — unfortunately, I was unable to meet them as I was ill that day, as many Members will know — but I will be meeting them in the near future and emphasising that they need to be responsive to Northern Ireland’s agenda for climate change, as well as for that of the whole of the UK.

Supporting Rural Development

2. Mr McElduff asked the Minister of the Environ­ment to detail the changes to be made to the planning system to support economic development in rural areas.            (AQO 2572/08)

Mrs Foster: In the context of the review of draft PPS 14, we are considering some relaxation of farm divers­ification planning policy to more effectively complement the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development’s policy. In addition, work is well advanced on a final version of PPS 4, which is entitled ‘Planning and Economic Development’. I expect to publish that in the summer. Work on a new planning policy statement on tourism will be progressed later in the year.

Mr McElduff: I thank the Minister for her answer and for locating these policies in two particular planning policy statements. I want to emphasise the importance of the Planning Service becoming more flexible in order to enable businesses, contractors and engineering firms located in rural communities to expand their on-site operations, when those businesses are established and growing.

I want to take this opportunity to ask the Minister whether, if it were followed up in writing, she might accept an invitation to meet with a number of local businesses in the Omagh and west Tyrone area to discuss how the Planning Service may have been obstructive to their growth.

Mrs Foster: It is nice to receive invitations on the Floor of the House. Certainly, if the Member contacts my private office, we will consider the invitation. I look forward to that as I have not been to Omagh District Council yet. I have been to other councils but have not had the opportunity to visit Omagh so I am quite happy to go there — it is a short route home from Omagh to Fermanagh.

The policies include the potential for the adaptation of redundant agricultural and non-agricultural buildings in the countryside to be reused for economic development purposes. There is also scope for the expansion and redevelopment of existing rural enterprises, subject to environmental and other criteria being met.

However, as I understand the Member’s question, he is actually talking about a culture in the Planning Service as opposed to a policy. That very culture is going to be addressed in the planning reform that, I know, he and others are looking forward to being started before the summer.

Mr Simpson: What steps has the Minister’s Depart­ment taken, and what progress has been made, to reduce the backlog in planning applications across the Province, particularly in my area of Craigavon?

Mrs Foster: All politics is local. The Member knows that when I came into office there was a bad backlog in the Craigavon office. I am pleased to say that the divisional support team, which I put in place, went into the Craigavon office last summer and has made good progress. I visited that office a couple of months ago to see how matters were progressing. The divisional support team has helped to reduce the number of planning applications in that office. Since June 2007, it has dealt with 1,800 applications, and approximately 1,100 decisions have been issued: approximately 600 in Newry and Mourne, 400 in Armagh and, more recently, up to 100 in Banbridge.

I am pleased to say that the Craigavon divisional office issued 5,200 decisions between 1 April 2007 and 29 February this year. That is approximately 1,200 more decisions issued than the number of applications received. We are now on the right side of the issue.

Although the number of applications received by the Planning Service up to the end of February has increased by 4·5% to more than 25,000 compared to the same period last year, the number of live applications in the system is just under 19,000, compared to more than 22,000 at 31 March 2007.

Mr Burnside: The Minister has proposals for the development of small rural communities known as clachans, which, at present, are restricted to 14 houses. There is a strong argument that that number is not enough to develop local self-contained businesses, and certainly not enough to maintain the presence of small, local primary schools. Will she look again at that number? Fourteen houses are not enough for those small local communities.

Mrs Foster: The Member is referring to dispersed rural communities and to setting up social and affordable housing in the countryside. That currently stands at eight houses. During discussions at the Executive subcommittee, it was felt that that number could be increased from eight to 14. That would take into account issues such as the infrastructure for sewerage. From an environmental point of view, it would be difficult to increase the number of houses from eight to 14. Indeed, some people have expressed concern about the move from eight to 14. However, as with everything else, a balance must be struck.

The Member referred to sustaining local primary schools — that was never the idea behind clachans. The idea was to provide homes for people who needed to live in the countryside, and if that helped to support local services such as schools, post offices, etc, it would be an additional benefit that we would support. However, that must be put in the context of the reason for clachans, which was to provide more social housing in the countryside. The Social Development Minister had the Semple Review in mind when, in the Executive subcommittee, she spoke in favour of increasing the number of houses from eight to 14.

Armagh Observatory: Light Pollution

3. Mr Brady asked the Minister of the Environment to provide an update on her Department’s plans to address the issue of light pollution in the vicinity of the Armagh Observatory.        (AQO 2577/08)

Mrs Foster: The use of lighting has increased over the past decade. Complaints have been made about light pollution, whether it is the glare from security lights — and many people are familiar with the problems caused by neighbours’ security lights shining on to their properties — or the obliteration of the night sky by urban lights. From my Department’s perspective, light pollution is one of several local environmental quality issues. My officials have considered the issue under the cleaner neighbourhoods agenda, which aims to introduce stronger and more effective legislation and guidance to improve the environmental quality of our towns, cities and public spaces throughout Northern Ireland.

Mr Brady: Does the Minister agree that the Armagh Observatory is an important research and educational facility, and will she take this opportunity to put on record her commitment to its continuing work?

Mrs Foster: Absolutely. My officials have been in contact recently with Professor Mark Bailey, the director of Armagh Observatory, who is of the view that light pollution is making it increasingly difficult to carry out new observational programmes from the observatory’s site. I have responded recently to the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution in respect of a study that it is undertaking on the impact of artificial light on the environment. I will continue to work with the Royal Commission, Armagh City and District Council and the observatory in dealing with the problems that persist in the city of Armagh.

3.15 pm

Mr Ford: I thank the Minister for her response to Mr Brady. She referred to towns, cities and public spaces — is she not also concerned about the effects of light pollution in rural areas, on Armagh Observatory, astronomers and wildlife? Does the Department propose to address that problem?

Mrs Foster: The Member is absolutely right. I mentioned security lighting, which is becoming more of a phenomenon — and problem — in the countryside than in well-lit towns. The Department views security lighting as a nuisance and wants to address it and other issues, such as fly-posting, as part of its clean neighbour­hoods agenda. However, resources would have to be found to introduce an Act similar to the Clean Neighbour­hoods and Environment Act 2005 in England and Wales. My officials and I are considering carefully whether specific measures from that Act should be introduced individually and those that the Department considers to be priorities should be expedited.

Mr D Bradley: Go raibh míle maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for her response to Mr Brady. I put the same question to Professor Bailey at a recent meeting of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure in Armagh. To what extent does the Minister’s Department benefit from information and research provided by the Armagh Observatory? Is she aware that the observatory is underfunded, and will she raise that issue with her Executive colleague the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure?

Mrs Foster: If the Member writes to me, I am prepared to consider both issues. I will raise the issue of funding with my colleague. I am unaware of how my Department benefits from Armagh Observatory’s work, but I will follow that up with the Member at a later date.

School Bus Safety

4. Mr Molloy asked the Minister of the Environment, further to the recent tragic accident on the Ballygawley Road, what action she is taking to review the safety of school buses, and in particular, the provision of a high bumper to reinforce the rear of buses.     (AQO 2574/08)

Mrs Foster: My Department is working in partnership with DRD and the Department of Education to implement a series of measures that were announced in 2006 aimed at improving the safety of school bus transport. We have ended the practice of allowing three children to share a double seat, reduced the number of children standing on school buses, designed a new warning signs and lights system, and increased the number of buses with seat belts on designated school services.

Over the next two years, we intend to end all standing on school buses and to introduce regulations to allow, and eventually require, the use of new signs and lights. Although I have no specific plans to introduce a requirement for high bumpers on school buses, my Department will continue to investigate any new initiatives or technologies that may increase the safety of children travelling to and from school.

Following the accident on the Ballygawley Road, I met the Minister for Regional Development and the Police Service of Northern Ireland to discuss how safety on the A4 might be improved before the construction of the new dual carriageway. Several interim measures that could be taken immediately have been identified, including additional signage and increased patrolling. My Department is also considering the use of radio advertising to encourage drivers to behave more responsibly in the kind of situations that occur on that and similar stretches of road.

Mr Molloy: I thank the Minister for her answer, and I am glad to hear that some issues are being addressed. However, I am surprised to see that the rear panels of most school buses and Ulsterbus and Translink buses are made of fibreglass and give no protection to the rear-seat passengers. That is why I asked about the high bumpers. Another possible provision would be the introduction of crumple zones, or airbags such as are found in cars.

I am surprised that the rear and side impact zones of buses offer no protection, which leads to danger if one bus runs into another, or the recurrence of that accident in which a child was killed when a lorry crashed into a school bus. Perhaps the Minister will undertake to examine the existing conditions and how the specific­ations for the rear of school buses compare with European standards and, particularly, with Canada and the United States.

Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for making those points, and I am happy to take them on board. The Member will know that the Department recently carried out an enforcement exercise at the King’s Hall to check the condition of buses carrying children of school age.

The Department was alarmed to find that it must deal with a huge number of defects on those buses. It is a good-news story, however, because the Department must, therefore, continually examine and enforce improvements to buses that carry schoolchildren.

A terrible tragedy occurred on the Ballygawley Road. The House must bear in mind that during the 2007-08 academic year, 91,651 pupils are eligible for home-to-school transport assistance. Of those pupils, 85,224 travel by bus, and the remainder by taxis, for example. Buses remain the safest way to get to school. I must pay tribute to Mr Mallon for his words after his child was involved in such a tragic accident. Indeed, his family has been the model of how people should react in such a situation.

Mr Gallagher: I agree that all the measures that have been mentioned deserve most serious consideration, including that of Mr Molloy, who suggested that the rear of buses be reinforced and, therefore, better protected.

With regard to the particular case on the Ballygawley Road, the Minister has mentioned measures and policy implications that the Department is considering. I am sure that the Minister is aware that at that accident point — which Mr Molloy and I pass regularly, as do others in the Chamber — the primary school is located on a minor road that is close to a main road. A warning sign is situated only on the minor road. The school, which has more than 200 pupils, is located at a busy junction where buses pull in to allow pupils to disembark and other children to board for St Ciaran’s High School in Ballygawley. Despite that, there is no warning sign on the main road to alert drivers to the schoolchildren. Can the Minister tell the House whether the Department will consider the matter of that school and any others where similar situations pertain?

Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for his question. I believe that that matter will be dealt with soon by the Department of Education and the Department for Regional Development. Additional signage will be erected on that road. I am sorry that Nicola Murray’s tragic death occurred in the way that it did, and that she will no longer be present on the bus. The Department must now deal with the situation and take proactive measures on that stretch of the road. Although a new dual carriageway will be built, my Department is determined to put in place as many road-safety measures as possible in the area during the interim period.

Mr McCarthy: I welcome the Minister’s response to the question. To what extent has her Department considered the recommendations that resulted from an in-depth inquiry by the previous Assembly to provide extra safety on school buses, particularly when they are stopped to let children disembark? It was recommended that traffic coming behind and towards a bus should stop until the bus had dropped off its passengers and had moved on. Is the Minister considering such an approach?

Mrs Foster: The previous Environment Committee carried out that important piece of research. My Department will revise ‘The Highway Code’ in the near future. The Department will certainly examine how motorists react to a bus that has stopped in front of them. It will also deal with the requirement that all children wear their seat belts. The Member will recognise the difficulty in ensuring that children keep their seat belts on for the duration of their journey. The thorny issue is the question of who is responsible for ensuring that children wear their seat belts: is it the bus driver or the school? Who will be in charge? At present, the Department is working its way through that issue.

Waste Management Targets

5. Mr O’Dowd asked the Minister of the Environment what action her Department is taking to ensure that all local councils reach their waste-management targets.         (AQO 2587/08)

Mrs Foster: My officials have been working closely with the three waste management groups and the Strategic Investment Board in order to ensure that all district councils can meet their targets. I have secured £196·7 million for capital works in the 2008 Budget to assist the district councils with the cost of delivering the strategic-waste infrastructure that is required to meet the targets that are set out in The Landfill Allowances Scheme (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2004, which are known as the NILAS regulations.

That fund will be administered through the governance structures that have been agreed with the waste management groups, which include a waste infrastructure programme board.

My Department has established a programme delivery support unit in partnership with the Strategic Investment Board to provide professional and technical support to local government and to help with the procurement of that infrastructure. Guidance and advice to district councils is provided through the NILAS implementation steering group, which is chaired by the Department. That group also monitors and reviews NILAS.

My Department also provides funding to the waste and resources action programme, which supports and provides guidance to district councils on a number of issues, including landfill diversion.

Mr O’Dowd: I thank the Minister for her answer. I am aware of the support that the Department offers to district councils on this matter. The process is a logistical nightmare, as much as anything else.

Is the Minister in a position to confirm that councils will achieve their targets, or is the process still being planned?

Mrs Foster: As I understand it, different waste management groups are at different stages of their planning processes, and some are more advanced than others. The Member is right to say that the Department is working closely with those groups. We are keeping a close eye on them for two reasons: we know that we have to push them to meet those targets, but we want to support them in doing so and help them with technical issues such as procurement, which will have to be open and transparent.

Mr Shannon: I thank the Minister for her response. Many district councils are concerned about the penalties that they could incur if they do not meet the targets. Will the Minister confirm whether councils will incur fines if they fail to meet the Northern Ireland landfill allowance scheme targets? Furthermore, what help will be given to councils to help them to try to achieve those targets?

Mrs Foster: The allocation of allowances as set out under NILAS is an essential element of my Department’s strategy to meet our obligations under the EU landfill directive to reduce the amount of biodegradable municipal waste going to landfill. The regulations provide for fines to be imposed should the individual district councils exceed their allowances in any given year. Councils may be fined £150 per ton of waste over their allowances. However, my Department has indicated that only in exceptional circumstances would a penalty be imposed on a council before 2009. As I indicated in my answer to the substantive question, we want to work in partnership with the councils, and that is the way in which the issue has been progressing. Similar to the RPA, we are working to a challenging time frame, but I believe that we can achieve it.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Question 6 has been withdrawn.

Indigenous Species and Habitats

7. Mr Elliott asked the Minister of the Environment to outline her plans for working with landowners to halt the loss of indigenous species and habitats by 2015, as laid out in the Programme for Government.  (AQO 2520/08)

Mrs Foster: Biodiversity delivery groups have been established, in conjunction with the Northern Ireland Biodiversity Group, to help to deliver the conservation measures that are required to halt and reverse the loss of priority habitats and species by 2016. Key groups of landowners, including Government, farming, forestry, fisheries, industry and conservation organisations, are working in partnership to develop and deliver the work programmes agreed by those groups.

With regard to the Government estate, various Departments with responsibility for development and land management have established biodiversity implementation plans, many of which include actions not only for halting the loss but conserving and, where appropriate, enhancing our local biodiversity.

The Environment and Heritage Service (EHS) is responsible for working directly with landowners to ensure that native species and habitats are maintained in favourable condition on designated nature conservation sites such as areas of special scientific interest. That involves the establishment of conservation objectives and views about management as a basis for continuing close liaisons with landowners. In addition, EHS provides a grant-aid programme, which is available for landowners to manage land for biodiversity.

Mr Elliott: Does the Minister accept that in the past — and even currently — her Department has a poor record when dealing and working with some owners of environmentally sensitive sites in the Province? What, if any, progress has been made between her Department and those landowners to improve relationships?

Mrs Foster: I do not accept that. Working with landowners to halt the loss of biodiversity is not confined to my Department; we work closely with the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, which has an important role in working directly with farmers to halt the loss of native biodiversity, particularly through the delivery of agrienvironment schemes such as the new countryside management scheme.

There is a range of other Government incentives and regulations affecting land owners, who will also benefit from biodiversity during the period up to 2016. Those incentives include grant aid for conservation from the Environment and Heritage Service (EHS), for the creation and management of woodland from the Forest Service, for the management of water courses from the Rivers Agency, for water quality from the EHS, and for development from the Planning Service.

3.30 pm

Most land in Northern Ireland is farmed, and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) has a critical role to play. My Department works very closely with DARD on that issue. As the Member knows, we are trying to cut down on regulation through the better regulation and simplification review. My Department is very much looking forward to that review, and we hope to bring it to a conclusion very soon.

Finance And Personnel

Land and Property Services

1. Mr Attwood asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel to confirm that the capital provided for Land and Property Services is sufficient to ensure its efficient running and modernisation.        (AQO 2643/08)

The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr P Robinson): The £5 million capital provided for Land and Property Services for the comprehensive spending review (CSR) period 2008-2011 is sufficient to ensure its efficient running and modernisation. Land and Property Services will prioritise business improvements in line with the capital allocation to ensure the full realisation of the efficiencies arising from the merger at the earliest opportunity.

Land and Property Services has recognised the need to operate within its CSR capital allocation while ensuring that it continues to deliver and modernise its services. The agency has therefore established a business improvement and modernisation committee, chaired at director level, to prioritise and monitor ongoing and new capital projects in its capital allocation. However, the CSR capital allocation does not cover any additional capital expenditure that may be required to further develop its rating IT systems and processes to support the effective and efficient delivery of new rating reforms.

Mr Attwood: I thank the Minister for his reply, and I note his last comment about new rating reforms. Given that rates arrears are increasing year on year — up 65% last year, to around £140 million — is the Minister not concerned that, in the event of the introduction of a new rating regime, the profile of debt will increase, especially for those who are vulnerable? In those circumstances, what is the risk to the future operations of Land and Property Services, including its rates division?

In all of those circumstances, is the Minister satisfied that there is sufficient capital and recurrent expenditure to meet the potential new developments?

Mr P Robinson: The Member’s question specifically referred to capital allocations, and it was to that that I initially responded. If there are requirements for further capital allocations, the Department would make a bid as part of the in-year processes at a monitoring round. The same would go for any revenue costs that would arise.

I am acutely aware of the inherited position in relation to backlogs, and I have asked for a thorough review in the Department, to be satisfied that all the necessary steps are being taken. In some areas of Land and Property Services’ activity, the backlog has been reduced significantly. In one case, a backlog of 70,000 was reduced to 17,000 — at the beginning of this month it was down to 17,000. I am promised that — by the end of today — that will be down to 12,000.

Progress is being made, but it requires a particular focus and the right systems to be in place. In many cases, that will not require an additional capital cost — some of it will be achieved by simply altering programmes.

Mr Storey: I thank the Minister for the information that he has given to the House on this issue. How is the problem of the backlog in in-year billing adjustments being addressed?

Mr P Robinson: If there are changes to the valuation list, ratepayers’ addresses, or the closure of rates accounts, an adjustment can be made to the rates bill as a result.

There has been considerable system development in the agency, and it has dealt with the functionality to process change in valuation. That was what led to the significant backlog. The agency redeployed 30 staff to concentrate solely on the backlog, and, by doing so, it has reduced the figures to those that I set out earlier for the Member for West Belfast, Mr Attwood.

Mr Beggs: First, when does the Minister think that the backlogs will be cleared? When will there be sufficient staff and resources to deal with the ratings adjustments that regularly occur? Those delays affect finances, leaving individuals and companies with large bills that they did not expect.

Secondly, is the Minister confident that Land and Property Services will be capable of administering effectively the new rates reliefs for qualifying pensioners over the age of 70?

Mr P Robinson: In response to the second question, we would need to be satisfied that the agency will be capable of administering the new rates reliefs in time before we move in that direction, and I am satisfied of the agency’s ability to do that. A significant backlog developed because of the considerable additional work that the agency was asked to do and the difficulty that it had with some of the computer programmes. However, the agency has reduced the backlog significantly. I was trying to work out the mathematics in my head as the Member asked his question: if the figure has been reduced from 17,000 to 12,000 in one month, I presume that the backlog should be reduced almost entirely in another two months. However, because of the nature of the work, there will always be some backlog. Never­theless, the agency’s efforts will reduce the backlog to manageable proportions so that there will be no significant delays, and it will deal with the issue of the significant amount of money that could be outstanding.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Question No 2 has been withdrawn.

Pleural Plaques Legislation

3. Miss McIlveen asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel in light of the House of Lords decision in the case of Rothwell v Chemical and Insulating Company Ltd and conjoined cases, whether or not he intends to introduce legislation to assist those in Northern Ireland who suffer from pleural plaques.           (AQO 2628/08)

Mr P Robinson: In October 2007, the House of Lords ruled in the case of Rothwell v Chemical and Insulating Company Ltd and three related cases that damages are no longer available for symptomless pleural plaques caused by negligent exposure to asbestos. However, the House of Lords left open the option of a claim in contract, which would not require proof of damage, and the possibility of a claim where the pleural plaques are accompanied by physical symptoms, although that is rare.

The ruling has generated significant debate throughout the United Kingdom, and there have been calls for amending legislation to overturn the decision. The Scottish Government have agreed to do just that, and they are aiming, subject to parliamentary timetabling, to introduce the required Bill before their summer recess, which commences on 28 June. The United Kingdom Government have not committed to legislative change; however, the Prime Minister recently said that he wishes to examine the issues and that a consultation paper will be published shortly.

I have carefully considered the implications of the ruling for those in Northern Ireland who have been exposed to asbestos and who have subsequently developed or been diagnosed with pleural plaques. Before making any decision on the preferred way forward, I wish to ensure that I have thoroughly explored all the options and have accessed as much information as possible. With those twin aims in mind, I have concluded that a consultation exercise should also be initiated in this jurisdiction, and I have asked my officials to make the necessary arrangements.

Miss McIlveen: I thank the Minister for his answer. Would it be possible for Northern Ireland to be included in any Westminster legislation on the issue?

Mr P Robinson: Of course, it is possible for Northern Ireland to be included in such legislation — several elements of legislation going through the House of Commons could include Northern Ireland.

Under the Sewell Convention, the permission of the Assembly is required if the UK Government want to do that. Before that, we would consider the matter at an Executive level and discuss it with the Committee.

Social Segregation: Savings

4. Mr Burns asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel to give his assessment of the potential to realise revenue savings from a reduction in social segregation.           (AQO 2641/08)

Mr P Robinson: Social segregation imposes significant costs on the people of Northern Ireland, not only in the general quality of life, but through the additional cost of providing public services. That is particularly the case in the provision of social housing and educational services.

The 2007 report on the cost of division by Deloitte for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister suggested an upper limit of £1·5 billion as the cost of social segregation or division in Northern Ireland, which is excessive. In addition, although the Executive are taking steps to reduce the cost of division, for example through greater collaboration between schools, eradicating such costs may not be possible in the short term.

Mr Burns: Does the Minister agree that the economic cost of division is ridiculous, and that the economy that maintains that division is not sustainable in the long term?

Mr P Robinson: First, we must be able to assess and quantify the cost of division. In my initial response, I said that the suggested £1·5 billion figure was excessive — slightly more than £500 million of that figure is what Deloitte views as additional money spent on policing. Anyone who looks at our policing budget knows that that represents 50% of that budget, 75% of which is spent on manpower costs. Therefore, to suggest that the policing budget in Northern Ireland could be reduced by 50% takes no account of the realities in Northern Ireland. The figures on the economic cost of division are almost outlandish and are based on what happens in an area of comparable size in Great Britain, and do not take into account a number of factors, not least need and demographics.

Any money that is wasted on division could be used for more beneficial purposes, and it is up to each Department to investigate where money can be saved. Departments are encouraged to do that through the 3% efficiency savings because, if Ministers are faced with the proposition of cutting costs, they should do so where they see the greatest waste.

Mr Butler: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a fhreagra. Does the Minister agree that there is value and profit in reducin social segregation, and that any assessment of the worth of a project should include that as a criterion? Further­more, does he agree that social segregation will be much reduced if the proposed national stadium is built at the Maze/Long Kesh site, because it will realise our shared and equal future? Go raibh maith agat.

Mr P Robinson: Each Department must take decisions that reflect the need to encourage moving away from the type of division that there has been in our society.

I will not go into detail on the Maze stadium issue. The business case for the stadium is before my Department and will be analysed in accordance with the financial issues that are involved. It will then be up to the Executive to state the value that they put on any other factors, including that of shared space. The shared-space factor is a little overrated in relation to the Maze prison: shared space is people sharing the same space at the same time, not sharing the same space at different times.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Question 5 has been withdrawn.

Performance and Efficiency Delivery Unit

6. Mr McCausland asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel to detail the areas that will form the initial focus of the performance and efficiency delivery unit.  (AQO 2656/08)

3.45 pm

Mr P Robinson: The Programme for Government and the Budget set out a twin agenda for the performance and efficiency delivery unit (PEDU) — to examine the scope for Departments to deliver higher levels of cash-releasing efficiencies, and to work with Departments over the coming years in specific areas to ensure that the funds that are allocated by the Executive deliver significant improvements in outcomes.

The unit will take a close interest in the efficiency-delivery plans of Departments, which are aimed at ensuring delivery against efficiency targets, as published in the final Budget. Quality of future performance against those plans will also provide important sources of data for new initiatives to drive even higher levels of efficiency in the system. I also envisage that, in its early stages, the new unit will take a close interest in the systems that are being put in place to monitor departmental delivery against the priorities and commitments specified by the Executive in the Programme for Government.

With that in mind, I intend to bring proposals to the Executive on PEDU during early April. After I have taken my proposals to the Executive, I will make a statement to the Assembly.

Mr McCausland: I thank the Minister for his answer. Will he indicate whether the performance and efficiency delivery unit might consider areas of Government that are inhibiting economic growth in Northern Ireland?

Mr P Robinson: No areas of departmental activity should be ruled out of the scope of PEDU. The Executive’s priority is to grow a dynamic and innovative economy and they will look to PEDU to give assistance to each Minister and each Department in order to achieve the objectives and targets that they have set out. No Department or Minister would want to do anything other than co-operate with PEDU in its desire to improve efficiency and delivery in the public sector.

Mr O’Loan: I thank the Minister of Finance and Personnel for his answer. Has he identified any areas of departmental responsibility that would be particularly suited to action by PEDU and has he had discussion with Ministers about those areas? Can he give the House any indication of his thinking on the composition and membership of the body?

Mr P Robinson: The answer to the first question is yes, but the Member was looking for a bit more than that. I have some ideas, but it would be wrong for me to introduce those to the House before I have had the opportunity to bring them to the Executive.

The Member for North Belfast Mr McCausland asked whether any areas should be excluded, with particular reference to economic growth. An obvious candidate in that area is the Planning Service. Having listened to Department of the Environment Question Time, it is clear that DOE’s Planning Service can be a significant aid to economic growth. The Minister of the Environment has challenging targets under the Programme for Government and, if she were to seek support in reaching those targets, PEDU would capable of providing that.

I have identified several people who would be perfect as panel members, who would give advice and direction to the unit. I have also identified key members of DFP staff who would be the right people to have in post. We have already set up the early part of that structure in the Department of Finance and Personnel. That team is housed at my offices at Craigantlet Buildings and is starting its work while it waits for other colleagues to join, for the panel to be put in place and for the Executive and the Assembly to be given the final details of its composition and purpose.

Mr Cree: Will the Minister confirm that the unit is being modelled on the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit (PMDU)? Will it follow similar protocols to assist Departments on request? Will he advise when the operational protocols will be published?

Mr P Robinson: The Member is only half right. Aspects of the unit’s work will be similar to that carried out by the PMDU. Essentially, the PMDU ensured that Departments met manifesto commitments made by the Labour Party during the election campaign and commitments made by Ministers thereafter.

Although delivery is an important element, the unit that the Department of Finance and Personnel will establish will go beyond that and attempt to increase efficiency and performance standards across the public sector by making savings and getting the same job done for less, or alternatively, a better job done for the same amount.

I hope to be able to establish protocols within the next fortnight.


7. Mr Shannon asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel to identify the Department with the lowest rate of absenteeism.   (AQO 2521/08)

Mr P Robinson: In the 2006-07 financial year, the Department for Regional Development had the lowest rate of absence with an average of 9·2 days lost per staff year. The latest published figures, based on current financial year-to-date trends, estimate that in the 2007-08 financial year, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment will have the lowest absence rate, currently estimated at 7·4 days lost per staff year.

Mr Shannon: I thank the Minister for his response; progress is afoot. Will the Minister indicate whether departmental absence rates are due to grade profile or other factors? How do the absentee rates for similar groups differ among Departments?

Mr P Robinson: There are several factors that affect the level of absenteeism in the civil service. Gender and grade levels are factors, but I suspect that the most important factor is management control. The permanent secretary who is in charge of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment this year was in charge of the Department for Regional Development during the 2006-07 financial year. Perhaps that provides a reason for the figures. That is a lesson for us all.

Ms J McCann: Go raibh maith agat. The Minister stated that gender is a factor in absenteeism. Given the high percentage of women who are absent due to sickness unrelated to pregnancy, has there been any further consultation with Departments to discover why more women than men in Departments are on the sick?

Mr P Robinson: I am not sure the figures are unrelated to pregnancy because they do not take into account maternity leave. A significant number of women tend to extend their period of absence when their maternity leave ends. Therefore, it is not unconnected. At a recent event I attended, the trade unions considered it dreadful that I should attempt to reduce sickness levels. There seems to be a view among some people that work is toxic. It is not. Work is good for you.

Mr Spratt: It certainly is.

Mr P Robinson: Yes, you should try it some time. [Laughter.]

I agree with the general principle of well notes rather than sick notes so that doctors can tell us what an individual patient can do rather than what they cannot do. I see that I am getting something approaching a nod of the head from a doctor across the Chamber.

Surplus Land for Disposal

8. Mr Campbell asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel to detail which Departments have identified surplus land that could be considered for disposal over the course of the next financial year.            (AQO 2525/08)

Mr P Robinson: The 2008 Budget sets out plans for Departments to realise £486 million in capital receipts in 2008-09, which will allow capital investment to rise to over £1·8 billion over the next financial year. An important source of capital receipts will be the disposal of surplus land, and the DHSSPS, the Department of Education, DSD, Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL) and DFP all plan to sell surplus land in 2008-09. In addition, the capital realisation task force has identified the potential for further disposals over the next three years, but more work needs to be done before we can be precise as to the specific assets and the amounts concerned in the next financial year.

Mr Campbell: I thank the Minister for his reply; it seems that some progress is being made in the disposal of surplus land. When will the capital realisation task force report?

Mr P Robinson: The capital realisation task force has reported to the Executive. Some of my colleagues have said that it is taking the Executive longer to agree the report than it took the task force to write it. I am impatient to get the report through the Executive processes. However, the Executive have considered the main findings of the report, and further work is ongoing to clarify some of the details of the structures and protocols that will be used in the future.

Dr McDonnell: I thank the Minister for his answers to the questions so far. Considering the weakness of the property market, would it not be better, or possible, for some of the land to be released for affordable housing development, where appropriate? Furthermore, what incentives exist for Departments to release land or admit to having land?

Mr P Robinson: It is difficult to know who might have put the Member up to asking that question. He will know that the distinction between the draft Budget allocation to housing and that in the final Budget came about directly as a result of the work of the capital realisation task force. As I think I mentioned in a previous debate in the Assembly, the capital realisation task force identified a further £290 million of assets that would be available, and £200 million has been allocated from that. We did not allocate it all, for the very reason that the Member mentioned: there is a lack of certainty in the land and property market, and that requires us to be cautious.

Mr Deputy Speaker: One never knows who is plotting.

Mr Burnside: I preface my remarks by congratulating the Finance Minister on the speed and detail with which he answers questions here; he deserves praise. If and when he becomes First Minister, he might get the deputy First Minister into a training session to cut out some of the platitudinous waffle that we heard from him earlier this afternoon.

As someone who believes in the sale of as many public assets as possible — transfers from the public sector to the private sector — may I add my voice to the note of caution about the property market? The commercial property markets in the United Kingdom, Europe and the United States are more depressed than they have been for almost 20 years. The credit markets have almost closed in the City of London; one cannot do big commercial deals. If the Assembly and the Executive were to sell commercial property from the public sector in the foreseeable future — the next one or two years — they would be giving away state assets at the wrong price.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. Question please.

Mr Burnside: It would be as big a mistake as the Chancellor made when he sold gold at the wrong price, so I urge the Finance Minister to be cautious.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Was that a question?

4.00 pm

Mr P Robinson: I think that there was, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am aware of the real difficulties in the property market at present. Indeed, putting a lot of land and property on the market could have a very detrimental effect on the market. However, in schemes such as Workplace 2010, for example, which is the biggest single element of the portfolio at which we are looking, the two main bidders will not be looking solely at how things stand today but on a much more long-term basis over the 20 years of the contract. Therefore, there are certain matters with which we can proceed without any downside to the Assembly and the Executive. However, he is right to urge caution about putting anything out to the market in its present depressed state.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. Question Time is over, and we now resume the debate on accelerated passage for the Commission for Victims and Survivors Bill.

Executive Committee Business

Commission for Victims and Survivors Bill

Accelerated Passage

Debate resumed on motion:

That the Commission for Victims and Survivors Bill proceed under the accelerated passage procedure, in accordance with Standing Order 40(4).

Mr Shannon: I am glad to return to the issue of the Commission for Victims and Survivors Bill. As a member of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, and as a member of the DUP, I can say that this issue is close to the heart of my party. That being the case, I am in wholehearted support of ensuring that the issue of victims is no longer shunted to one side — and, more importantly, that the victims receive the recognition and assistance that have for too long been denied them.

There are few in this Chamber — indeed, there are few in this Province — who can say that they have no idea of the pain caused by terrorist violence. The sad reality is that almost everyone over the age of 21 can point to some stage in their lives when the reality of the Troubles hit them in a personal way. Many of us have lost loved ones and friends, who will never be forgotten.

There are those, however, who are suffering the effects of the Troubles as much today as they were some 20 years ago: wives taking care of husbands who were injured physically and who are still struggling to make ends meet as they try to bring up a family along with the pressure of being carers. Too many families have been torn apart by not only the death of a parent as a result of the Troubles but by the associated problems of raising a family single-handedly. Women are bringing up children on a small wage, trying to put them through school and even university with their income halved. I know of young people who lost a parent due to the Troubles some years ago and who are still paying off their student loans because their single parent could not afford to put them through university. I welcome the £36 million that has been set aside for the victims and which will go some way to addressing their financial needs.

The awful fact is that very little was done at the time to help those families. For too long we have sorrowed with them without helping practically, which is so often what is needed and which is needed today. My cousin, who had been married for just three months, and his friend were murdered on the Tyrone border some 30 years ago. He and his friend, a Roman Catholic, served in the Ulster Defence Regiment. They were murdered side by side. The Northern Ireland Office at the time made a paltry sum available to my cousin’s friend, who had three children, one of whom was disabled — £3,500. That was all that was left to her to raise that family.

Living on a shoestring does not come close to what so many similar families had to do to survive. That scenario, in varying degrees, was multiplied thousands of times across the Province. As well as having to deal with the pain of having loved ones ripped away, there was also the financial worry. As well as having to care for a now-disabled spouse or child or mother or father, there was now the worry of having to survive without that wage coming in. There are those who might cynically say that giving money now will not make any difference to the pain and struggles of 20 and 30 years ago. That is simply not true. There are many families still paying off mortgages; many people who, were their partners still with them, would have been able to retire at the proper age; many children who would not still be paying off a student loan had their dad been working and able to help them financially. I know of young people who have just finished university courses — indeed, some of them are in work — and they are still paying off student loans.

Those people still feel the effects of the Troubles. The moneys that were set aside for victims must be allocated retrospectively, enabling those people to rise above their experiences and gain at least a little financial freedom, if not emotional freedom.

I know who the victims are. The people whom I represent and who speak to me know who the victims are. We also know who perpetrated the terrorist violence over the years. I am aware of many families who are still affected by the mental scars of events witnessed during the Troubles: partners and children who are coping with mood swings, afraid of banging the door, or making other sudden noises, lest they bring back difficult memories for their partners, fathers or mothers. Many men and women worked hard, and yet they are now unable to work at all due to psychological problems caused by the atrocities of the Troubles.

Those people paid the ultimate sacrifice, and that cost is still being met. It is past time that that was recognised and addressed. My party, and OFMDFM, are pushing for accelerated passage in an attempt to take those first steps that should have been taken so many years ago. The longer that proper recognition and support is held back, the longer those men and women will continue to struggle emotionally, physically and financially, without the support that they should be receiving from their community.

“We will remember them” is an oft-used phrase. However, that is not merely a phrase — it means more than that: it is a promise. When uttered, it is a promise to do more than just think of the victims once a year. It is a promise to remember and care for their families and to acknowledge the mental scars and psychological battles that some of them still fight today, some 30 years later. It is a promise that I have uttered and will do all in my power to fulfil. I hope that other Members of a like mind will do the same.

I support the Bill to show my support for the victims of the Troubles: physical victims, emotional victims, the bereaved, and those who live every day in the knowledge that something is missing from their lives — something stolen. That sense of loss can never be replaced by money, but it can be lessened if they receive the support that they should have had for many years. I support accelerated passage and I urge the rest of the Assembly to do so. In doing so, they will show their support for the real victims of the Troubles.

Mr Molloy: Go raibh maith agat. I support accelerated passage, as I did in the meeting of the OFMDFM Committee. We have reached an important stage in respect of the particular role of the commissioners. At the time of the announcement of the appointments, everybody spoke of that role, of the importance of moving on, and said that at least the victims’ commissioners designate had been appointed. It was stated at that time that legislation would be required to bring the commission into effect.

It was also accepted by most as important that the four commissioners would represent different strands; that they could each reflect the views of their respective communities. The commissioners each operate in different ways, and victims would perhaps feel more comfortable dealing with someone that they knew, or who represented their own point of view — that would be the variation.

Mrs Long: What the Member has said causes me some concern. Throughout this process, we have been assured that there would be no attempt to Balkanise or pigeonhole the individual appointees in any way. We were assured that they would represent the needs of all the victims and survivors in a united and collective manner. I am concerned, therefore, by what the Member seems to be suggesting now. It is not necessarily in the best interests of those individuals who have been appointed to the designate roles to be expected to serve particular groupings. I urge the Member to clarify his comments.

Mr Molloy: If the Member had listened, she would have heard me say that the system will allow the victims to talk to someone who understands their personal situation, but that each of the victims’ commissioners designate would deal with the issue as a whole. I was trying to highlight how victims would view and approach the commissioners.

Each brings his or her skills to the job so that four different experiences will be applied. It is important that that role has been given to the victims’ commissioners designate and that they can get on with the job as quickly as possible. This has become urgent because of the delays that have occurred and because, under direct rule, there was insufficient progress. However, now that the Assembly is operating, we can respond more quickly.

During the meeting of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister on 5 March 2008, there was lengthy discussion of the issues raised — indeed, the Ministers and junior Ministers who attended took quite a while to get through it all. The Committee met in closed session so that members could ask questions and deal with issues that they considered relevant without having to worry about how the media reported them. One of the problems that has dogged us all along is how the media has presented the issue. Therefore it was important that Committee members could ask questions and that the Ministers could responded in as much detail as possible. Most Committee members supported accelerated passage for the Bill because they were keen for the commissioners to get down to work.

As a Member said earlier, one of the victims’ commissioners designate had complained on a television programme a few nights earlier that he could not get on with the job because the legislation was not in place. At least one Minister said on that programme said that she would move heaven and earth to ensure that the necessary legislation was enacted for the commissioners. She said that she would get to work the next day to ensure that there would be no further delay and that she was surprised that the legislation was not in place. That was said in a very public domain, and we expected that all parties would support the legislation and enact it as soon as possible.

It is dangerous to play party politics with the issue in order to cause delay. I realise that the Alliance Party considers itself as the opposition, even though it was vocal in trying to get the Assembly up and running. However, it should not see its role solely as one of opposition. When a beneficial measure — such as accelerated passage for this Bill — will deliver what the Alliance Party asked for in the first place, that party should facilitate that measure and assist in progressing it. An opposition does not have to oppose everything merely on principle.

Let us move forward. Accelerated passage will put the commissioners in place: they will report to the First Minister and the deputy First Minister; and the Office of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister will respond to the Committee. This is not a single event: it is an ongoing process. When the commissioners are up and running, they will want to make changes and variations.

Victims, too, will want to raise issues and it is important that we respond to them. The process should be victim-led. In the past, one of the difficulties was that such structures were set up without victim capacity. It is important that victims can work with the commiss­ioners and deal with the issues. Families should have a forum in which they can become involved; they should have a voice that they feel is listened to and responded to.

We should have no further delay. Accelerated passage is the correct way to deal with this issue. As was said before, accelerated passage has often been used in less urgent situations. When I was Chairperson of the Finance Committee, we dealt with five Budget Bills — I had not realised that it was so many — that had been a year in the planning but which still needed accelerated passage to ensure their progress through the Assembly, despite the Committee’s reservations.

Accelerated passage should be used only in urgent cases. The Victims and Survivors Bill is urgent, as we need to give the commissioners the legislation to enable them to get on with their work. We should all get behind the process to ensure that victims have their cases heard and to get the necessary response.

4.15 pm

Mr Elliott: I find myself in an unexpected position, because I did not envisage, almost a year after the restoration of the Assembly, discussing whether we should have a victims’ commission rather than a commissioner. I had envisaged discussing victims’ issues, many of which we should be debating and on which are missing out due to the process that we are now undertaking. We could have been discussing the funding’s administration and who should draw down on it; for example, how much of it should go to statutory agencies and how much should go to the real victims in the Province. Furthermore, we could have been discussing the appointments’ process, which, because it is the subject of a possible legal case, we are therefore bound not to discuss in great detail. Nevertheless, related questions must be answered.

On several occasions in the past year, members of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister were told that the appointment of a commissioner was imminent. Then, all of a sudden, we found out through media channels that commissioners were to be appointed. As far as I am aware, unless the Chairperson and the Deputy Chairperson know something different, that proposal was never brought before the Committee. Since restoration, the point has been reached at which the public — and the victims — have become totally frustrated with the process, and that is why, in one sense, I am glad that the matter is coming to a head and that some degree of progress is being made. It is not the progress that I had anticipated, but at least we are moving forward.

Bertha McDougall’s work has been recognised here, among the wider public and among many of the victims. The difficulty is that no progress has been made on Bertha McDougall’s recommendations, and the new commission has no responsibility to advance any of the proposals contained in her report.

The junior Minister (Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister) (Mr Donaldson): That is categorically not the case. OFMDFM is currently engaged in preparing a comprehensive strategy that will incorporate many, if not all, of the recommendations. That strategy will then be put out to consultation. There have been discussions with victims’ groups about that strategy, and those discussions will continue. OFMDFM is committed to proceeding with Mrs McDougall’s recommendations and will do so.

Mr Elliott: I thank the junior Minister for that clarification. Obviously, the situation has changed since the First Minister and the deputy First Minister gave evidence to the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, where its members were told that any new commissioner would have no responsibility whatsoever to progress any proposals from Bertha McDougall’s report. I hope, therefore, that we shall now make some progress. Those evidence sessions were recorded by Hansard.

The First Minister (Rev Dr Ian Paisley): On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Is it right for a Member, deliberately and persistently, to make statements that do not stand up to scrutiny? The Member should get the minutes of his Committee’s meetings, read them, and show me where what he claims was said happened. It did not happen, as he knows well.

Mr Deputy Speaker: That is not a point of order, but the First Minister has made his point.

Mr Elliott: I thank the First Minister for his intervention. Although I do not have the minutes of evidence with me, I will be happy to provide the requested clarification.

Some victims are also concerned about the appointment of the commissioners. Let us be clear: one of those commissioners has been described as being the sister of an IRA volunteer. I recall one Member saying earlier that a commissioner should not deal with one group or another. However, it is clear that that will be the way of it. Some victims and victims’ groups will not have any dealings with one of those commissioners. That is the reality as we proceed, and it is an issue that concerns me greatly.

The appointment of that person raises several questions about the definition of a victim and of how that will be dealt with. Mr Moutray raised that issue earlier, saying that in his mind he was well aware of how a victim should be defined. I am also quite clear about that definition. I know in my own mind what a victim is, or what I believe a victim to be. The difficulty is that it is not defined in the proposed legislation. The definition that is accepted by Mr Moutray and others may be different to that which is contained in the legislation, and I have huge concerns about that.

I, and many others in the constituency that I represent, are concerned that the innocent victims and the real victims in the Province will be considered to be on the same level as the perpetrators of violence and those who created many victims in Northern Ireland. I therefore have a huge concern about that aspect of the Bill. When we were presenting the legislation, and the amendments to it, why did we not go the full way and define a victim properly?

Mr B McCrea: I have several concerns about this matter. First and foremost is that we are in danger of treating victims as though they are some kind of political football, and we must avoid that if possible.

We must also be careful not to use accelerated passage at the drop of a hat. If it were used repeatedly, it would show complete disrespect for the Assembly, its Committees and its structures. There are reasons why we have First and Second Stages and why we ask Committees to examine the details of any Bill. It is also anti-democratic to rush matters through the House in such a fashion. The debate has raised a number of issues, and several Members have informed the discussion. We have not yet addressed some issues that we should have, such as grants and how and by whom funds are drawn down.

I was unaware previously of issues to do with the number of commissioners. Apparently, the proposed legislation imposes no limit on the number of commissioners that can be appointed. We have not had a proper discussion about whether there should be four or five, or one or two — the commitment is open-ended.

The problem that is fundamental to the debate is the definition of a victim. Even those who wish to broaden the discussion accept that there are genuine victims — people who had absolutely nothing to do with anything, or who were the victims of mistaken identity. Surely they are in a different category to people who were involved in some way. We ought to look after those victims differently.

If this were the only time that we used accelerated passage, the situation might have been different. However, we are getting to the stage where it is being used repeatedly. Naomi Long raised that issue, and she said that accelerated passage had been used before and would undoubtedly be used again. I stress that I would be most unhappy with setting such a principle.

The final point that was made was that it is not necessary for us to proceed at this speed. It is not that we are against accelerated passage; rather, it concerns whether we need to use such a procedure on our first day back. We have taken a long time to make up our minds about certain issues, so we could have discussed it for another week or so, and involved everyone in the process.

I come back to the point about the issue being used as a political football. Some Members seem to be ambivalent about the issue of victims. Some have said that victims must simply get used to the idea of living alongside those who perpetrated the crimes. Other people around here have said that the families of the Omagh bomb victims do not represent real people, as they have a vested interest. The whole of society expects us — this Assembly and these politicians — to deal with those issues. An attempt is being made to sanitise the past and to put a whitewash over it, so that we can — ostensibly — move forward. Everyone is using their own brand of political disinfectant, and that is a fudge.

Mr Donaldson: Early release? Open the gates?

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

Mr B McCrea: I am happy to take a formal intervention from Mr Donaldson if he wishes to make a comment. He does not have to do so from a sedentary position — he is quite capable of getting up on his hind legs and speaking for himself. I will take him on about Glenties or any other issues. What is being said now is fudge and hypocrisy. The issue is that people are trying to move things forward.

Mr Donaldson: Will the Member give way?

Mr B McCrea: Of course I will give way, but you will have to ask the Deputy Speaker.

Mr Donaldson: I thank the Member for giving way. When it comes to hypocrisy, no one can match that of the Members on the Ulster Unionist Benches. When they had the opportunity through the Belfast Agreement, they failed the victims miserably. When they were in Government, they failed to do anything about a victims’ commission, and they failed to introduce any proposals to help the victims of terrorist violence. Therefore, they should not point the finger at this party and at others who are doing something to help the victims. Some of us were actually involved in politics during the conflict — we are not johnnies-come-lately.

Mr B McCrea: I recognise that that intervention was made by someone who is something of an expert in hypocrisy, so I am grateful to him for his advice. The Member also talked about relative newcomers to this process. On reflection, what did the people who were involved for a long time actually achieve? Nothing. When the matter comes up now, and we talk about nothing — [Interruption.]

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order.

Mr B McCrea: While we are on the subject, nothing shows the failure of this Assembly more than the fact that we cannot agree on whether we need one commis­sioner or four. We spent ages trying to work out what we were going to do, and we could not agree on a candidate. Agreement cannot happen with just one party — it happens when we all discuss the matter. It is about inclusivity, and not about some sordid backroom deal that is agreed in Portugal or wherever. Agreement can be reached when all parties can participate in the discussion.

By the way, that deal was done in Lisbon, Portugal and not Lisburn, Lambeg. We cannot even agree on the definition of a victim, and we should not pass it on to others to think about. I accept that it is a delicate and sensitive issue, as Members across the way said; however, it is something that we should confront and discuss. We should not leave it to others, no matter how well intentioned. We should not deal with the issue in a back room, or put it on the long finger and hope that it will go away.

It is the proper business of the Assembly to talk about such matters, to confront the issue and to provide the leadership that our society so badly needs. It is up to all politicians to deal with the issue. That is why accelerated passage is not the best way to deal with the legislation. We should have discussed the matter before now. We should have discussed it in Committee, and we should certainly be allowed to put our views forward in this forum.

4.30 pm

We must have openness and transparency. Mr Durkan kindly took an intervention in which I said that I accept that the DUP/Sinn Féin axis can push through anything that it wants because of its voting power. However, it will not fix our problems and address the issues of the past. If we are to move forward, we must talk the problem through and ask: who is a victim and who is not; what are we going to do about it; how are we going to look after those people; and how are we going to move forward?

We failed to grasp the opportunity that was presented by the Maze site, in its totality, to put the past behind us and to sit and ask why we cannot have a conflict transformation centre. If we are going to keep the H-blocks, why can we not display them in all their detail with the stench and all such issues? That is an important issue to confront. Why can we not have a garden of reflection or remembrance that represents all the people who were murdered and others who were targeted? Why can we not get such issues out in the open and let the people of Northern Ireland see that we are prepared to confront the past because we never want to go through such events again?

Why can we not do what the Germans do at Auschwitz, where children are shown around interpretative centres and told, “Look what man was allowed to do to man — let us not do it again”? Only if we are honest and start to confront the issues can society really move forward. That is why I am so disappointed that the two major parties are doing some sort of back-room deal on the matter. We should all be involved, because we must all take responsibility for moving forward.

In conclusion, it is not enough for us to hide behind weasel words when we talk about a victim. As far as I am concerned, victimhood is passive; it is something that others impose on a person, and that person is not involved. I have heard the argument — although I do not agree with it — that the war was a war and that the war is over. If it was a war, people were combatants — not victims; they were involved. People cannot have it both ways. There are people who genuinely, through no fault of their own, were caught up, and their lives were ruined. The whole country was ruined. We owe it to those people to find a way to move forward, and we should confront the issue, not whitewash it.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Before we move on, for Members’ information on the question of hypocrites, it may be acceptable, in parliamentary terms, to refer to the hypocrisy of various parties’ positions, but it is unacceptable, in parliamentary terms, to refer to other Members as hypocrites.

Mr Spratt: I had not intended to speak in this debate, but, as someone who served for 30 years throughout what is now known as “the Troubles”, and having seen many victims from different areas across the entire Province, I feel sad that victims are being politicised in the House. Victims have also been politicised over time in the Committee, because it is obvious that tactics were employed to delay further the appointment of the commissioners.

I have had close involvement with several victims’ groups throughout the Troubles and during my previous employment. I still have close contact with some of those groups, the vast majority of which welcome the appointment of commissioners, because they saw that the previous Interim Victims’ Commissioner — who did a fantastic job, as folks from all sides of the House have said — was dogged by being seen as being from one side of the community.

The victims’ groups that I have spoken to have certainly welcomed the appointment of the commissioners. What I and other colleagues on the OFMDFM Committee were trying to do in proposing accelerated passage for the Bill, following the appointment of the four commissioners designate, was to get them down to work as soon as possible so that they could start their work for victims.

It is sad to hear the Member for Lagan Valley Basil McCrea talking about a political football; it is he who is making a political football out of victims. He is being disrespectful — which is another word that he used — to many victims in the Province. For once, we should join together and agree that this Bill should be given accelerated passage, because the issue was raised by one of the commissioners designate, and it has been pointed out by a number of Members earlier today —

Mr B McCrea: Will the Member give way?

Mr Spratt: No, I will not give way, I have heard enough from that Member.

Mr B McCrea: Will the Member give way?

Mr Spratt: No. I have heard enough from that Member today. I am not giving way. What I do want to say —

The First Minister: We have heard the honourable gentleman who wants to speak actually blackening every police officer and army officer: they were combatants, and combatants should not be condemned if they are fighting to give me my freedom.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Mr Spratt: I agree fully with what the First Minister has said, and certainly, during my 30 years of service, it was not a war that I was fighting. I was fighting to preserve this Province from anarchy on many occasions.

The issue was raised by one of the commissioners designate on a television programme, as has been pointed out by a number of folk in the House today, that in fact what the commissioners want to do is get down to work as quickly as possible. That is the reason behind the proposal for accelerated passage of the Bill. Members could argue for days about definitions and about the work of the commissioners. It is the commissioners who should be making much of the proposals, and I am sure that they will be looking for changes and amendments to the legislation to allow them to progress their work — the sooner that that is allowed to happen, the better. I support the accelerated passage of the Bill through the House.

Dr Farry: The real reason that we are having the debate today is to clear up a mess that is entirely the making of the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. There are issues of accountability concerning the reasons why we are in this mess, and it is right that the Assembly is given an opportunity to discuss those issues.

There are also proper accountability issues relating to how Members take forward legislation in this House and ensure that there has been proper scrutiny. Today’s debate has probably been more like the equivalent of a Second Stage of a Bill — a debate that will most likely be happening tomorrow — rather than one on the merits, as the case may be, of accelerated passage.

There has been quite a lot of discussion today about delays over the issue of the appointment of a victims’ commissioner, or commissioners, and the importance of moving ahead on that. The reason for the delays has been the inability of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to take decisions. Let us not be under any illusions about that. They have been in office, wrestling over these important issues, for more than 10 months. We were promised decisions time after time, and each time we were promised, what we got instead was more and more delay.

Mr Donaldson: You are delaying it.

Dr Farry: I think there has been plenty of delay; you are the experts on it. There have been 35 years of delay in this country, through the actions of some parties in this Chamber, whenever there have been opportunities to move ahead with self-government.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order.

Dr Farry: The second reason for this mess is that, rather than agreeing to appoint one individual, the First Minister and deputy First Minister could not agree on whom to appoint. Rather than showing leadership and demonstrating to the people of Northern Ireland the ability of the two main traditions here to come together and bridge their differences in the interests of good governance, what we see is a fudge, whereby instead of appointing one individual, we appoint four. In doing so, an almighty bit of confusion was created, which we are now struggling to deal with. That confusion has spread to such an extend that we have members of the parties of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister referring to a commission, when no commission actually exists, because the Assembly has not passed the legislation creating the commission. All that we have is four commissioners designate — the commission is still to come.

Similarly, we have had an almighty row in the Chamber today over the issue of the definition of what a victim actually is. I make a prediction — with a heavy heart — that, rather than having a single definition of what a victim is, thereby allowing our society to move forward, we are going to end up with four different definitions, if not more, given the precedent that has been set so far.

My colleague Naomi Long has set out the basis under which accelerated passage is supposed to be considered. Looking at what has happened in the past, we can see examples of the appropriate use of accelerated passage, mainly for Budget Bills and parity legislation, where there are genuine consequences if the Assembly does not follow suit. Policy issues may arise with some pieces of legislation, but the Assembly’s overriding policy is to try to ensure that social-security issues in Northern Ireland are kept on a par with the situation in the rest of the United Kingdom and that funding proceeds on that basis. That has been a fundamental principle for 60 years. In those instances, there is not a huge policy issue at stake.

Accelerated passage is not meant to be used for matters involving fundamental issues of public concern. People may argue that this is simply a tidying-up exercise and we should go along with accelerated passage because there are not any fundamental issues to discuss. I beg to differ — there are fundamental issues that have to be discussed in respect of how the commission is going to be established.

First of all, the commission involves a major change from how consideration of such appointments happened previously, and we need to take that on board. We now have a situation where, unlike other commissions such as the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland or the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, which have a full-time chief commissioner and other commissioners on a part-time salary, we are now going to have four co-equal commissioners on similar salaries. There is a lack of clarity in respect of how that commission is going to operate in practice. Those are major issues that need to be discussed.

There are also issues regarding the budget for the commission, and whether that money would be better spent on meeting the actual needs of victims and providing services to them, as opposed to being spent on ever more administrative costs. I thought the Assembly was trying to cut down on administrative costs.

Perhaps the most fundamental issue of all — Francie Molloy let the cat out of the bag — is the fear of the Balkanisation of the commission. The people of Northern Ireland expect a coherent response from the commission to the needs of victims, so that the commission pushes in the one direction and all victims’ groups react to a single commission. If we have a situation in which different groups — whether as a result of perception or of reality — see particular commissioners as appealing to their constituency, we will have a disaster on our hands. That is the fundamental question that needs to be analysed. I maintain that having a proper Committee Stage creates the opportunity for those issues to be discussed.

The deputy First Minister today failed to comply with the terms of Standing Orders in providing the rationale for accelerated passage. Indeed, we have had confirmation that there are no real consequences of delaying the Bill — the only real consequence being in relation to the distribution of funds, and the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister is not yet in a position to do that in any event.

It was suggested that one reason that this matter must be progressed is because of comments that were made on a television programme by one of the commissioners designate. However, that matter was addressed the following day in a statement from the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, which stated that there was not actually a problem.

I do not know why the Back-Bench Members of those parties are still banging on about an issue that their ministerial colleagues have already addressed. Perhaps they need to look at their internal co-ordination.

4.45 pm

Mr Donaldson: In response to Dr Farry’s colleague Naomi Long, I made it absolutely clear that there are problems. The OFMDFM statement said that there was nothing to stop the commissioners from talking to victims. However, there are a lot of other things that they are unable to do, which we clarified to the Committee, and which, unfortunately, Ms Long has forgotten about. We made it clear why we are asking for accelerated passage, and one reason is the Data Protection Act 1998. However, there are other issues, and that is why we need the support of the House to move the matter forward quickly. Apart from that, do the victims not deserve it? Why is the Alliance Party prepared to delay the matter further, when it called for a decision to be made? It is delaying the issue, not us.

Dr Farry: If the victims of Northern Ireland are as deserving as Mr Donaldson says — and I accept that they are — why have we had a 10-month delay and 10 months of fudge? Why have we had 10 months of inability to make decisions?

Mr T Clarke: Why do you want longer?

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order.

Dr Farry: The Alliance Party believes that the House and the Committee of the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister deserve the opportunity for a proper discussion because major issues must be resolved. There has been a major shift in the goalposts. We have moved from a single commissioner to a commission made up of four individuals. There are concerns right across society as to how that will operate. The First Minister and the deputy First Minister do not grasp the cynicism with which large chunks of the population of Northern Ireland greeted their decision to appoint four individuals, rather than one individual. Many victims’ groups are cynical about that. They view it as — yet again — a cause for delay and a diversion of resources, rather than addressing the fundamental issues at stake.

If we are to argue that this is an exceptional case, there is one aspect of “exceptional” that could be considered — the inability of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister to agree, instead presenting us with a mess. In that office up until now, there has been a failure to do anything other than find the lowest common denominator of agreement, and this is not in any way exceptional. That office has failed to address the issue of what measures it will take to avoid such situations.

Mr Durkan was concerned that the issue may well be a precedent for the future. Departments may take so long to address policy issues that they will come running to the Assembly looking for it to rubber-stamp decisions, and that is not what the Assembly is here for. It is a body of elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland to provide proper scrutiny and accountability for decisions that are taken. It is about time that the Executive realise and respect the role of the Assembly in important issues.

The Committee Stage for any Bill takes around six weeks, with the option for an extension — that is six weeks for proper scrutiny. If we had started the scrutiny process when the announcement was made in January, the bill would be through the Committee Stage by now. Instead, it took almost six weeks from the announcement of the commission until legislation was produced. That situation only confirms that the decision to move from a commissioner to a commission was made on the hoof, and was not a long-term strategic decision. It was a reflection of a failure to agree, and a decision to bridge the difference and move forward on that basis. That is the reality of the situation, and the Assembly should not be party to covering up the mess in the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Before I call the deputy First Minister to make his winding-up speech, I will address the point of order raised by Mr Ford. The deputy First Minister may wish to address the issues required by Standing Order 40(4). Other Members also raised the same issue.

The deputy First Minister: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I listened with great interest to the debate. It was appropriate to end with a contribution from Stephen Farry, who talked about the ongoing consistent failure of the First Minister and me to agree on anything. He would not be sitting in his seat today if the First Minister and I, and others, had not agreed to put the institutions in place.

Lo and behold, not only did we do that but we managed to agree a Budget and a Programme for Government.

Dr Farry: Did the First Minister and deputy First Minister agree on a definition of victims?

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order.

The deputy First Minister: We have agreed an investment strategy for the next 10 years that involves up to £20 billion.

Dr Farry: Will the Minister give way?

The deputy First Minister: No, the Minister will not give way because the Assembly has heard enough from the Member today.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

The deputy First Minister: The Assembly has heard enough nonsense from the Member today. The First Minister and I also agreed the review of public administration, which was one of the biggest decisions of the past 10 months. While the Member was eating his Christmas pudding, the First Minister and I were at Stormont Castle deciding on a way forward for victims and survivors. It does not behove the Alliance Party to tell Members about the cynicism of the people of the North of Ireland. They voted for Sinn Féin and the DUP, and it grates on the Alliance Party that not enough people voted for it to put it in a position to make decisions.

It is important that early legislation underpins the work of the commission. Members who spoke today agreed that progress on work in that area is of the utmost importance. Therefore, the legislation must proceed without further delay. Important work must be done, and I urge the Assembly to support the motion for accelerated passage. The strong panel of commissioners must be supported in their work as advocates of victims and survivors. Their views are needed to shape services and to improve the delivery of support to victims and survivors.

The commissioners designate can undertake only preparatory work. The commission must be able to operate fully as a matter of priority. Go raibh maith agat.

I also wish to address Mr Ford’s point of order on the requirements of Standing Order 40, to which Naomi Long also referred. As required by Standing Orders 40(4)(a) and 40(4)(b), I set out in my opening remarks the reasons for accelerated passage and the consequences of that not being granted. Standing Order 40(4)(c) requires Members “if appropriate” to explain:

“any steps … taken to minimise the future use of the accelerated passage procedure.”

It was implicit in the case for accelerated passage in this instance that the First Minister and I do not wish to use that procedure as a matter of routine for legislation on victims and survivors, or more generally. The Bill is a narrow piece of legislation, with one substantive clause and one purpose: to replace a commissioner with a commission that will have the same powers and functions. It does not introduce any other policy change, and it is not part of a wider programme of legislation on victims and survivors. Therefore, I argue that it is not one of the cases envisaged in Standing Order 40(4)(c) for which it would be appropriate to explain steps:

“to minimise the future use of … accelerated passage”.

However, to dispel any doubt, I am happy to confirm that the First Minister and I will take any steps necessary to avoid coming back to the House to seek accelerated passage for legislation on victims and survivors. I reiterate that we do not request accelerated passage lightly. However, the process to make the largely technical changes to the legislation must be expedited. The exceptional nature of the issue was recognised by the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, which supported the use of accelerated passage for the Bill.

Basil McCrea talked about decisions being made behind closed doors. The First Minister and I expect to be able to discuss the detail of our draft strategy with the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister soon. That will mark the beginning of the consultation process, and we will also discuss the strategy with the commissioners designate. Therefore, there is no question of decisions being made behind closed doors.

Tom Elliott and others raised a wide range of issues that I do not intend to address today, because the debate is on accelerated passage. Members will undoubtedly take the opportunity to decide on matters relating to the commission when the Bill is debated. I do not, therefore, propose to deal with the substance of those issues today.

The establishment of the commission will be a good start, and the needs of victims and survivors must be met as a matter of urgency.

Of course, some issues touch a raw nerve with many Members, and those issues will, undoubtedly, be discussed further during the process that brings the matter to a conclusion. We must respect one another’s positions. I understand how painful the process is for many people in the unionist community and for their political representatives. However, my party also represents human beings — people who have also been hurt for a long time. We have all been hurt and we have all hurt one another. We must do precisely what Basil McCrea suggested during his contribution —

Mr McCarthy: Will the Minister give way?

The deputy First Minister: No, I will not give way.

Basil McCrea pointed out that Members should not try to score political points as the Bill moves through its legislative stages. I agree; it is too important an issue for that. I appeal to everyone in the House not only to recognise the emotion that surrounds the issue but to recognise that the commission offers the only way in which to get to grips with it. As Mark Durkan rightly pointed out in his contribution, the inability to deal with victims and the past has been one of the peace process’s great failures thus far. It has been everybody’s failure. If the Assembly is prepared to recognise that collective failure, all Members have a responsibility to work together positively and constructively to find solutions to those problems. I am in favour of finding solutions. I believe that the vast majority of Members are of the same mindset. I hope that the motion will be supported.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Before we proceed to the Question, I remind Members that the motion requires cross-community support.

Question put,

The Assembly divided: Ayes 54; Noes 28.



Mr Adams, Mr Brady, Mr Brolly, Mr Butler, Mr Doherty, Ms Gildernew, Mr A Maskey, Mr P Maskey, Ms J McCann, Mr McCartney, Mr McElduff, Mrs McGill, Mr M McGuinness, Mr McKay, Mr McLaughlin, Mr Molloy, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O’Dowd, Mrs O’Neill, Ms S Ramsey, Ms Ruane.


Mr Bresland, Lord Browne, Mr Buchanan, Mr Campbell, Mr T Clarke, Mr Craig, Mr Dodds, Mr Donaldson, Mr Easton, Mrs Foster, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Irwin, Mr McCausland, Mr I McCrea, Miss McIlveen, Mr McQuillan, Lord Morrow, Mr Moutray, Mr Newton, Mr Paisley Jnr, Rev Dr Ian Paisley, Mr Poots, Mr G Robinson, Mrs I Robinson, Mr P Robinson, Mr Ross, Mr Shannon, Mr Simpson, Mr Spratt, Mr Storey, Mr Weir, Mr S Wilson.

Tellers for the Ayes: Mr McElduff and Mr Shannon.



Mr Attwood, Mr D Bradley, Mrs M Bradley, Mr P J Bradley, Mr Burns, Mr Durkan, Mr Gallagher, Mrs D Kelly, Mr A Maginness, Dr McDonnell, Mr McGlone, Mr O’Loan.


Mr Beggs, Mr Cree, Mr Elliott, Mr Gardiner, Mr Kennedy, Mr McCallister, Mr B McCrea, Mr McNarry, Mr Savage.


Dr Farry, Mr Ford, Ms Lo, Mrs Long, Mr McCarthy, Mr Neeson, Mr B Wilson.

Tellers for the Noes: Mr Ford and Mr McCarthy.

Total votes   82        Total Ayes       54 [65.9%]

Nationalist Votes 33 Nationalist Ayes           21 [63.6%]

Unionist Votes 42     Unionist Ayes   33 [78.6%]

Other Votes 7          Other Ayes      0 [0.0%]

Question accordingly agreed to.

Resolved (with cross-community support):

That the Commission for Victims and Survivors Bill proceed under the accelerated passage procedure, in accordance with Standing Order 40(4).

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

The Pneumoconiosis, Etc., (Workers’ Compensation) (Payment of Claims) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2008

The Minister for Social Development (Ms Ritchie): I beg to move

That the Pneumoconiosis, Etc., (Workers’ Compensation) (Payment of Claims) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2008 be affirmed.

These regulations were made under the Pneumo­coniosis, etc., (Workers’ Compensation) (Northern Ireland) Order 1979, and they increase by 3·9% the compensation that is payable under the Order to those who satisfy the conditions of entitlement on and after 1 April 2008 — namely tomorrow. The increase in the amounts that are payable under the Order maintains parity with the corresponding scheme operating in Great Britain and is in line with the annual uprating of social security benefits.

I will briefly outline the purpose of the Order. An employer can be sued by someone suffering from an industrial disease, if that disease had been contracted as a result of working for that employer. However, the diseases that are covered by the Order can take a long time to develop, and they may not be diagnosed until 20 or 40 years — or longer — after exposure to the dust. By that time, the employer or employers responsible may no longer be in business, and, consequently, sufferers and their dependants can experience great difficulty in obtaining compensation.

The scheme was introduced in 1979 to help those who have no realistic chance of success in suing through the courts, as their employers are no longer in business, and it provides for a lump-sum payment for sufferers. Payments are in addition to any award of weekly industrial injuries disablement benefit for the same disease. A claim can also be made by the dependants after the death of the sufferer.

In order to receive a payment under the scheme, a person must have been awarded industrial injuries disablement benefit. Two further conditions must be met before any payment can be made. First, there must be no relevant employer who can be sued, and, secondly, court action must not have been brought, nor any compensation received, for any of the diseases for which a person is claiming.

The scheme covers five respiratory diseases, most of which are directly related to asbestos exposure. Those diseases are: diffuse mesothelioma; diffuse pleural thick­ening; primary carcinoma of the lung; bisinosis; and pneumoconiosis, which includes asbestosis. The amount to be paid is based on a simple calculation that cross-references the age of the sufferer and the level of disability. The higher amounts are paid to people with higher levels of disability and to those whose disability arises at an early age. The average payment to sufferers is around £18,000. Lower amounts are payable to dependants who claim after the sufferer has sadly passed away.

The regulations help to ensure that the compensation that is provided maintains its value in line with the rate of inflation. I am sure that Members know many people who may suffer from varying degrees of asbestosis as a result of industrial-related diseases and who will warmly welcome the regulations.

The Chairperson of the Committee for Social Development (Mr Campbell): The Committee for Social Development considered the departmental proposal to make the Pneumoconiosis, Etc., (Workers’ Compen­sation) (Payment of Claims) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2008 at its meeting on 14 February 2008, and it considered the statutory rule at its meeting on 13 March 2008.

As the Minister has outlined, those regulations will increase the amounts payable to sufferers of certain dust­-related diseases or their dependants, who have been unable to claim damages from the relevant employers because the employers are no longer in business or there is no realistic prospect of obtaining damages from them.

5.15 pm

As we are all only too well aware, dust-related diseases can take a long time to develop and may not be diagnosed for a considerable number of years after exposure. I imagine that the scenario is quite common. Although no amount of money can compensate for the misery and suffering caused by diseases such as pneumoconiosis, the amounts payable offer some assistance to sufferers and their dependants. Therefore, it is important that there are increases and that the amounts payable keep pace with inflation. The Committee for Social Development recom­mends that the statutory rule be affirmed by the Assembly.

Mr Brady: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Having had two relatives die from asbestos-related illness, I understand the problems of the families of those who suffer from such illnesses. As Mr Campbell stated, the Committee for Social Development has accepted the regulations as outlined by the Minister. Go raibh maith agat.

Ms Ritchie: I am pleased with the consensus of support across the Assembly for the regulations. I thank Mr Campbell and the Social Development Committee for the positive manner in which they dealt with the regul­ations. I also thank Mr Brady, who has had first-hand experience of the matter through relatives with asbestos-related illnesses and disabilities. All Members will want to ensure that the value of compensation under the 1979 Order is not eroded by inflation — the regulations will ensure that that does not happen. I commend the motion to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


That the Pneumoconiosis, Etc., (Workers’ Compensation) (Payment of Claims) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2008 be affirmed.

Committee Business

Salary for the Holder of the Office of Comptroller and Auditor General

The Chairperson of the Audit Committee (Mr Newton): I beg to move

That this Assembly determines that the salary to be paid, under Article 4(1) of the Audit (Northern Ireland) Order 1987, to the holder of the office of Comptroller and Auditor General from 1 April 2008 to 31 March 2009, shall be the amount recommended by the Review Body on Senior Salaries as payable for that year to the judiciary at salary Group 5.

On 12 February 2008, the Assembly agreed an amendment to Standing Order 53, which enabled the Audit Committee to table a motion in the Assembly on the salary of the holder of the post of Comptroller and Auditor General. Prior to the amendment, the motion was brought by the Department of Finance and Personnel. In my speech on 12 February 2008, I outlined why the Audit Committee decided to take on that function.

The Audit Committee is now, for the first time, exercising the function conferred on it by the Assembly. As noted in my speech on 12 February, the governing legislation for the salary of Comptroller and Auditor General is the Audit (Northern Ireland) Order 1987, and specifically article 4(1). To comply with that article, and to avoid the issue of retrospective pay, the salary for the Comptroller and Auditor General must be agreed by the Assembly by 1 April each year. The governing legislation makes the issue of retrospective pay very difficult.

During suspension, the salary was linked, by mutual agreement between the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Department of Finance and Personnel, to that recommended by the Review Body on Senior Salaries as payable to the judiciary at salary group 5. I stress that the review body is independent.

The body provides advice to the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Office on remuneration for a number of types of posts, including the judiciary. The review body does not specifically examine or make a recommendation for the remuneration of the post of Comptroller and Auditor General. It is an Audit Committee recommendation that the Assembly continue to apply to that post the level of pay that is awarded by the body to the judiciary at salary group 5.

In coming to that recommendation, the Audit Committee examined the agreement that was put in place during suspension of the Assembly for the salary of the Comptroller and Auditor General, which was introduced in 2003. The Committee has considered its outworkings on a year-by-year basis and is content for the link to remain in place. The Committee is therefore satisfied both with the link between the report of the review body for the judiciary at salary group 5 and the salary of the Comptroller and Auditor General. It is satisfied that the link has been implemented exactly each year since 2003. The Committee has consulted with all relevant parties, including the Department of Finance and Personnel and the Northern Ireland Audit Office, which have stated that they are satisfied with the link and its outworkings.

I ask Members to note that, if the Committee were to decide in the future that it was not content with the link to the Review Body on Senior Salaries report, the Committee would begin discussions with all relevant stakeholders on a new linkage. However, such a theoretical discussion would take time and, until such discussions were completed, the existing arrangement would have to remain in place. That is not the case; the Audit Committee is satisfied and happy to recommend the motion to the Assembly. Members should also note that, under section 65(6) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, the Assembly cannot reduce the salary that is payable to the person holding the post of Comptroller and Auditor General.

The review body report for 2008 is not yet available. Nevertheless, the Audit Committee recommends to the Assembly that the annual salary of the Comptroller and Auditor General for the period from 1 April 2008 to 31 March 2009 is, as recommended for the judiciary, at group 5 in the report of the Review Body on Senior Salaries. I have outlined the rationale that has enabled the Committee to come to the Assembly with that recommendation.

Mr Gardiner: I support the motion that has been moved by the Chairperson of the Audit Committee. I compliment him on the way that he presented it to the House. The Audit Committee examined the matter in great detail and unanimously agreed to make this recommendation to the House. I hope that the House sees fit to support the motion.

Question put and agreed to.


That this Assembly determines that the salary to be paid, under Article 4(1) of the Audit (Northern Ireland) Order 1987, to the holder of the office of Comptroller and Auditor General from 1 April 2008 to 31 March 2009, shall be the amount recommended by the Review Body on Senior Salaries as payable for that year to the judiciary at salary Group 5.

Statutory Committee Membership

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


That Mr Nelson McCausland replace Rt Hon Jeffrey Donaldson as a member of the Committee for Education. — [Lord Morrow.]

Private Members’ Business

Carer’s Allowance Bill

First Stage

Mr McNarry: I beg to introduce the Carer’s Allowance Bill [NIA 13/07], which is a Bill to make provision preventing the adjustment of carer’s allowance by reference to retirement pension.

Bill passed First Stage and ordered to be printed.

Mr Deputy Speaker: The Bill will be put on the list of future business until a date for its Second Stage is determined.

Varney Review

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.

Mr Neeson: I beg to move

That this Assembly expresses its deep concern at the conclusions of Sir David Varney’s Review of Tax Policy in Northern Ireland; maintains that it is flawed in not sufficiently recognising the particular economic and geographical circumstances of this region; and calls on the Executive to bring forward a detailed Regional Economic Strategy that will address the economic and financial dependency of Northern Ireland, and facilitate a step-change in the Northern Ireland economy, in terms of closing the productivity gap with the rest of the United Kingdom.

I express my gratitude to the Assembly Research and Library Service for producing a detailed information pack on this issue that reflects the importance of today’s debate.

The motion calls on the Executive to deliver a proper challenge to the Varney Review of Tax Policy and to develop a new, more ambitious regional economic strategy in time for the investment conference in May. It is unfortunate that so much time has already been lost. The Varney Review of Tax Policy — Varney I — contained some useful analysis, but it essentially confirmed the UK Government’s regional economic strategy, which focuses wealth creation in the south-east of England, leaving Northern Ireland on the periphery.

Our regional economic strategy — delivered under direct rule — also follows that pattern. However, that pattern is not good enough for those of us with true ambitions for Northern Ireland. What is the point of devolution if decisions made by the Assembly are dependent on the whim of a London Government whose priorities may differ greatly from ours?

The Executive have given up on differential tax rates, but Ministers should know that Northern Ireland’s businesses have not. It is not enough for the Executive to provide a tame written response to Varney I. Ministers should have been banging down doors to challenge it and demand explanations. Unionist parties cannot bring themselves to support calls for tax-varying powers in line with those in Scotland, so afraid are they of accepting real responsibility. That sends out the message that they are not serious about a different corporation tax rate or the serious fiscal reform required to deliver the investment that we need in health, education and infrastructure without hammering the ratepayer.

However, that is in the past. The objective of today’s debate is to learn from those mistakes, to facilitate a proper debate on Varney II and to develop a home-made regional economic strategy for Northern Ireland on behalf of the people whom we represent.

First, we cannot continue to accept the basic UK Government policy, which leaves nine of the 12 economic regions dependent on subvention from London. Northern Ireland is the extreme case, but that arrange­ment is not economically or environmentally sustainable for any of the nine regions — or for the whole country.

Secondly, we cannot compare ourselves only to the worst UK regions. That will leave us ever-reliant on the Barnett formula or a replacement over which we have no control, or, in other words, reliant on the whims of a Chancellor of the Exchequer who has no direct mandate here. That would render us more peripheral than ever with no say in our future — the complete opposite of devolution’s intended effect. We must be ambitious and target the best — including the south-east of England.

Thirdly, Varney has thus far omitted to consider what is now for many sectors — not solely tourism, energy and finance — an all-island economy. We must deliver the tools to our people, our workers and our businesses to enable them to remove the competitive disadvantages that they suffer and to play a full role in the development of a prosperous, all-island economy with the potential to benefit everyone.

That is why the scope of Varney II is not sufficient, and the Executive should be shouting that from the rooftops. The review must take account of the need for sustainability as a core public policy; the need to close the gap with all UK regions — including the greater south-east; and the need for analysis of the tools that we need to play our part in the all-island economy.

5.30 pm

The overall objective of our economic strategy must be to make Northern Ireland sustainable, not only environmentally, but economically. Differential taxes, particularly corporate taxes, are only a means to an end. We must also identify the key industries to prioritise, the main inward investment markets to promote and the means to promote our companies in developing export markets. Without that, there is no point in investment conferences or the like.

It is unfortunate that the Executive’s sole economic priority seems to be a one-off investment conference. The timing could not be worse: the United States is accepted to be in recession; investors will have no clarity about our economic policies; and there is no apparent targeting of specific industries or sectors. However, it is important to say that the Alliance Party is supportive of the investment conference. Collectively, we are prepared to play our part in trying to make the investment conference a success.

We did not pin our hopes on corporation tax. We made recommendations to the Government and to businesses about the costs of division and social division, and they were accepted by business organisations but ignored, apparently, by the Executive. We did not pin all our hopes on a begging-bowl approach, but preferred to identify key industrial sectors and to push the corporation-tax issue before devolution — something on which the Executive parties failed to deliver. Furthermore, we did not remove the most successful UK regions from our comparators. The Alliance Party is ambitious for Northern Ireland, and we wish to be compared with the best — not with the most mediocre.

Mr Durkan: Will the Member inform the House whether business organisations support the Alliance Party’s call for a three-pence-in-the-pound increase in income tax, which would only add to the social costs that businesses here face and do nothing for our competitiveness?

Mr Neeson: I thank the Member for his intervention, but I wish that he had read the Alliance Party manifesto. That is not our policy, and I do not know where he got the idea from.

Mr Durkan: Will the Member clarify —

Mr Neeson: I have only a limited amount of time.

This motion should have been tabled long ago by the Executive parties, and it is telling that it has been left to the opposition to move it. We have been trying for months to have this debate on the Floor. It is past time that the Executive challenged a regional policy that leaves Northern Ireland on the sidelines and an economic policy that deprives us of the basic tools that we need to make devolution and democracy work. Furthermore, it is past time that the Executive challenged the views that do not reflect our economic and geogra­phical position as part not only of the UK economy, but of a growing all-island economy.

The Executive have a unique opportunity to make some of the tough decisions that are required to deliver a step change in our economy and which would close the productivity and wealth gap, and so move us away from being solely dependent on the goodwill of politicians who do not seek election here.

One reason for this issue’s being discussed today is that, prior to the restoration of devolution, the Committee on the Programme for Government’s Subgroup on Economic Issues discussed a package that was to be part of the peace process. Representatives went to Downing Street, met Gordon Brown and made a strong case for reform. However, as Chancellor of the Exchequer and as Prime Minister, Gordon Brown has, unfortunately, let down the people of Northern Ireland.

The challenge remains, and we still have to address Varney II. The Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee and the Finance and Personnel Committee have a dual responsibility, and both have co-operated in bringing forward relevant ideas. It is important that we move soon; certainly before the investment conference in May.

Mr McQuillan: It is disappointing that the Alliance Party sees fit to continue its negative attitude in the Assembly. That attitude is not the best one to be giving to people who will potentially invest in Northern Ireland. The Alliance Party’s attitude is similar to terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport — designed with all sorts of fantastic ideas that in reality do not work and would cause chaos.

On 17 December 2007, the Minister of Finance and Personnel expressed his disappointment at the outcome of the Varney Review. That was doubtless an understate­ment of his true feelings. Since he does not have a magic purse from which he can produce money when he wants it; he must use the moneys at his disposal in the most effective and prudent manner possible.

In the Programme for Government, supported by a well-crafted Budget, the emphasis was on economic development and growth. The First Minister said on 28 January 2008:

“We will secure value-added inward-investment commitments creating a minimum of 6,500 jobs — 85% of which will be above the Northern Ireland private-sector median wage”. — [Official Report, Bound Volume 27, Part 1, p11, col 1].

Do the sponsors of the motion not realise that that is the regional development strategy that they are mentioning in this motion? Dr Farry even admitted on 21 January 2007 that the Barnett formula was:

“perpetuating the financial penalty on the rest of the UK”. — [Official Report, Bound Volume 26, p295, col 2].

Where do the signatories to the motion think that the money that they want to spend will come from?

To facilitate a step change in the Northern Ireland economy that addresses the economic dependency of Northern Ireland, the Minister of Finance and Personnel, in his Budget, concentrated on the Departments that help to build and drive the economy — the Department for Employment and Learning, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, the Department of Education, and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development — during the current comprehensive spending review (CSR) period, and provided over and above the block grant average of 3·6%. The Department for Employment and Learning will benefit from a 3·9% increase; the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment will receive a 4·8% increase; the Department of Education will have a rise of 4·3%; and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development will have a whopping 6·5% increase.

The Minister, therefore, addressed the shortfalls in those budgets for the essential economy builders and economic drivers that have been wasted in coping with a terrorist campaign over 30 years. The skills and infrastructure that Northern Ireland needs in order to attract multinational companies; create well-paid sustainable employment; benefit the entire population; give our economy a boost, and reduce reliance on the public sector have all been addressed. Is that not a regional economic strategy?

The geographical location of Northern Ireland puts us in a special-case situation. We have a neighbouring state that taxes companies at a lower level, which results in a distinct disadvantage for Northern Ireland when attracting multinationals. The Varney Review apparently failed to accurately appreciate the impact that that has on Northern Ireland. No other part of the UK has a land border with a foreign state.

We also have short-term requirements that are different to the rest of the UK due to the fact that we are coming out of long-term conflict. The current global economic slowdown only makes these problems in more need of urgent resolution. However, there is global goodwill towards Northern Ireland, and we must capitalise on that.

Varney II can help to level the playing field by immediately reducing the rate of corporation tax. That is just one of a number of measures that Varney II could recommend, but it is the one measure that will deliver by far the greatest boost to the Assembly’s efforts to attract and retain the employment required for economic growth. I urge Sir David Varney to recognise those priorities and to support our cause as a matter of urgency. He has no excuse for non-delivery since Northern Ireland officials have been involved throughout Varney II. He could also examine the cost of fuel on both sides of the border.

The Minister of Finance and Personnel said that he cannot control the Treasury. However, the aspects that he does control have been managed with complete professionalism: that should be congratulated. It is a pity that he cannot control the Alliance Party and its terminal-5 approach to fiscal policy in Northern Ireland.

Mr McLaughlin: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. There is a lot of common ground between the parties in relation to the commitment to growing the local economy and developing a more productive, competitive position.

There is also significant agreement about the outcome of Varney I. It is evident that that review is, in many ways, a prisoner of the Treasury’s orthodoxy, with its one-size-fits-all approach, despite comprehensive and indisputable evidence that the policy of convergence has not, and cannot, work in this economic region.

The outcome of Varney I was predetermined. That review concluded that present economic policies give us a competitive edge, but it ignored the consensus among the parties and the business community on the need for flexibility on fiscal and taxation policy. It ignored the strong, positive lessons that emerged from the flexibility that exists south of the border and the clear evidence, sustained over the best part of a decade and a half, of increased revenue flows into the taxation coffers. Benefits all round were ignored, and an opportunity was missed.

The motion, which addresses that, is worthy of support, and its criticisms of Varney I are fair. I am concerned that the motion ignores the fact that we have a revision of the regional economic strategy to which we are committed and which is already underway. The actions which the motion calls for are already in the process of being delivered. The aspiration to close the productivity gap with the rest of the United Kingdom is not as positive or ambitious as it should and could be in relation to our economic prospects. If Varney I is a prisoner of Treasury orthodoxy; we should not be prisoners of the status quo here with respect to looking for the best opportunities.

Sinn Féin believes that the motion can be supported, even though it is flawed in some respects. Although Sinn Féin certainly does not share the same economic analysis as the Alliance Party, we can work together to create a different set of outcomes, given the dreary predictability of working within the straitjacket that Whitehall and the Treasury are imposing on us.

Sinn Féin takes the approach that, if we are looking for a step change, we must close the competitiveness and productivity gap with the Southern economy. We should take an all-island approach for the benefit of all the people who live on the island, and particularly for those of us who live in the north-west region, where the economy is attempting to deal, not just with the consequences of limited resource, but with the consequences of emerging from decades of conflict and division.

If we take a broad approach, we can see that, on this tiny island, to have the amount of duplication involved in two systems of government, two economies, two health systems, two education systems and so on, is a nonsense. That degree of co-operation and harmonisation, leaving the constitutional question in its proper place and for its proper time, will allow for significant opportunities for expansion, development and growing the economy in a way in which we all wish for. Go raibh míle maith agat.

Mr Beggs: I, too, am generally content with the wording of the motion. However, I disagree with the comments made to try to support it by some of the Members who have already spoken.

5.45 pm

I consider the motion to have two parts: the first indicates concern about Sir David Varney’s review of tax policy in Northern Ireland and its failure to significantly recognise Northern Ireland’s economic circumstances, and the second is a call for a detailed regional economic strategy to help kick-start the economy.

I shall put the debate in context: at St Andrews, the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin failed to get the Prime Minister to agree to a financial package, and it appears that, at that stage, some side-deals were made, although not for economic assistance for Northern Ireland. That is evident from the recent difficult budgetary process that we went through, and we hear of bodies and groups that are struggling as a result. In addition, each Department is having difficulty in achieving its efficiency savings, which might endanger services, and it is important that we ensure that that does not happen.

Following St Andrews, the first Varney Review was announced. The report was published in December 2007, and it stated that a clear and unambiguous case for a 12·5% rate of corporation tax cannot be made.

Recently, during a meeting of the Committee for Finance and Personnel, representatives of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in Ireland made it clear how significant low corporation tax had been in convincing foreign direct investment to come to the Republic of Ireland. I was aware that low corporation tax had been important, but, after that presentation, I better understood its significance in encouraging inward investment. With significant capital would come more jobs and increased individual productivity and regional gross value added (GDA) — a series of benefits would flow.

However, the report did not major on what I suspect would be a key consideration for the Chancellor if he were to grant Northern Ireland a lower corporation tax rate: how would the Scottish, Welsh and English Labour Parties react if Northern Ireland’s attractiveness to foreign direct investment increased in comparison to other United Kingdom regions? If such a corporation tax rate were to have been granted, the time was at St Andrews, when there would have been a political reason and momentum to deliver it. Sadly, that did not happen.

The earlier report suggested that lower corporation tax could produce an additional 184,000 private-sector jobs by 2030, and an increase in GDA of 5% per annum. It is unfortunate that that potential has not been delivered. There were potential problems with “brass plating”; however, it is thought that such problems could have been addressed by commensurate-activity taxation. Of course, economists rarely agree, and this seems to be yet another case of that. However, no one doubts that lower corporation tax would have brought more jobs to Northern Ireland.

Unfortunately, since St Andrews, taxation changes have actually resulted in increased taxation for Northern Ireland. Although last year’s Budget highlighted a reduction in higher-rate corporation tax, that masked the fact that lower corporation tax levels were increased from 19% to 21%, and, of course, 96% of Northern Ireland companies pay the lower rate. Corporation tax in Northern Ireland has increased, rather than decreased, since St Andrews.

The proposer of the motion advocated taxation powers to solve our woes. However, I did not hear — and it would be helpful if the Alliance Party would explain — how that would be financed. By how much does that party propose to increase income tax on working families and individuals to enable corporation tax to be lower? The process is much more complicated, and there has been no indication of that.

Mr O’Loan: Like other Members, I shall give assent to the motion. The issue is important, but I am not so sure that this debate will be important. Beyond Members stating that growing our economy is important and that they disagree with the Varney Review on corporation tax and still want it to be lowered, I wonder how much substance will come out of this afternoon’s speeches. However, I shall leave that for others to judge.

I will now turn to the motion, and to the conclusions reached by Sir David Varney’s review. Unlike Varney, I remain of the view that a low rate of corporation tax was central to the economic success of the Republic of Ireland, although it was not the only element. There is no doubt that reduced corporation tax has to be built in to a range of economic drivers; I guess that we all agree on that. Indeed, I do not think that Sir David Varney thought that a reduction in corporation tax would not work. I believe that he thought that it would work but that it would have repercussions elsewhere — in Scotland, in particular. That raises fundamental questions about UK regional policy, which is prepared to subsidise weak regional performance.

The opinion of informed economic observers is that corporation tax reduction was a vital contribution to the Celtic tiger. We should note the continuing success of the Republic of Ireland in attracting foreign direct investment. A recent editorial in ‘The Irish Times’ stated that Northern Ireland received almost $1 billion in foreign direct investment last year, but in that same year, the Republic of Ireland received foreign direct investment worth $27 billion. The difference is absolutely massive. Global foreign direct investment totalled $947 billion last year. We should note two things: the huge potential; and the remarkable success of a small nation such as the Republic of Ireland in getting such a slice of the action.

I note that Sir David Fell ruled out the possibility of gaining the corporation tax reduction; he said:

“the search should go on for a carefully tailored fiscal incentive for Northern Ireland that might find favour with the Treasury.”

We should not rule out supplementary measures, but our primary focus should remain on corporation tax equivalence with the rest of the island. To that end, I welcome the fact that the Committee for Finance and Personnel has asked the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee to continue to examine the matter, and I look forward to the Minister outlining the exact steps that he proposes in maintaining that campaign.

I will now turn to the development of the new regional economic strategy, which is being conducted in conjunction with Varney II. The matters addressed by Varney II are not fiscal ones; they are fundamentally devolved matters, and I have real concerns that devolved matters about the development of our economy are now back with the Treasury. For us to take full responsibility for our problems is fundamental to resolving them, and, psychologically, it is bad for us to look to London once again for a solution.

I wish to put some emphasis on the all-island aspect of our economic strategy. The Varney Report, although cautious, supports that strongly, and states:

“there is scope to go even further”.

My party has produced important documents on the all-island economy: ‘North South Makes Sense’ and ‘Shaping an All-Island Economy’. Those documents have been very influential with the Irish Government, and they have said so. The documents were instrumental in leading to contributions of £400 million to our roads programme and €60 million to the innovation fund. Under direct rule, a North/South intergovernmental document — ‘Comprehensive Study on the All-Island Economy’ — was produced, which I recommend to all.

I ask the Executive to produce a new document on the all-island economy, moving all those matters to the stage of practical implementation and giving full Assembly approval to it. There is scope to do much more; without that, the economy here will languish. It is vital to treat this island as an economic unit.

Alan Gillespie, the chairman of the Ulster Bank, recently proposed the merger of Invest Northern Ireland and the Industrial Development Agency (IDA). He cited the IDA as a world-class body, and it clearly has a record of great success. Other independent non-political analysts who also have our interests at heart have suggested other approaches, and I ask that we address the issue rationally and objectively and put it on the table and discuss it.

Mr Weir: The previous Member to speak expressed a concern — or perhaps he was simply making an observation — that nothing of any significance had been, or would be, said during the debate. I will therefore try my best not to disillusion him by continuing that pattern.

When I read the motion, I had a brief moment of hope. However, there is nothing particularly novel in it. Indeed, even the Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel said that parts of the motion, particularly those that referred to the regional economic strategy, have been overtaken by events somewhat. Perhaps we can excuse the Alliance Party for that; to be fair, the motion has been kicking around the Business Committee for a long time, as Mr Neeson said.

I had a brief flicker of hope when I read the Alliance Party’s motion, which expressed its concerns at the Varney Review, particularly following that party’s attempts during the budgetary process to push constantly for higher taxation and for raising the regional and other rates. Indeed, Che Farry tried to bring us into some sort of latter-day Cuba. I thought that the motion would be an attempt by that party to retreat to the proper ground of low taxation to ensure that the economy was properly stimulated. Unfortunately, however, we have not really heard that today; indeed, the Alliance Party has come out with the same old mantra.

There has been nothing particularly novel in this debate. Understandably and for their own reasons, the SDLP and Sinn Féin have been competing over which of them is most in favour of an all-Ireland economy and over the supposed advantages of harmonisation. The Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel talked about the dangers that are involved in having two education systems, and he suggested harmonising them into one. That might be a useful step for us in Northern Ireland to take — that is if we could reduce our education systems to two. We have to deal with the economies of scale before we consider trying to harmonise our system with that of the South.

In proposing the motion, the Alliance Party Member for East Antrim was so downbeat about the Northern Ireland economy that I am surprised that he is still in the Chamber; I thought that he might have gone to phone the Samaritans to get some consolation, given that he painted such a black picture of the economy.

No matter how many times Mr Beggs is told, he consistently reiterates that no money supposedly came into the economy, when, in fact, a £2 billion package has been injected through additional capital and other sources of revenue.

Mr Beggs: Will the Member give way?

Mr Weir: No, I will not; I have fewer than two minutes left. The Member has been told often enough that there has been an injection of £2 billion, which is £2 billion more than the party opposite got through the Belfast Agreement.

There is disillusionment with the Varney process. To be fair, the Executive, the Committee for Finance and Personnel and others produced a constructive case that dealt with all the technical issues. The Department also put forward a strong case that overcame some of the issues that were raised about gold-plating, the Azores ruling, and a range of other issues. Whether it is as a result of Treasury orthodoxy or whether the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is concerned about the implications for other parts of the United Kingdom, Varney was undoubtedly disappointing, principally for political reasons that came from London.

However, we must look at the matter positively. Varney II is an opportunity to examine our economic policies and the way in which we deliver them. Given the expertise that exists and that unlike the Varney Review, there is direct input from the Northern Ireland Civil Service and Northern Ireland officials can bring a level of local expertise to the process. I am hopeful that we will see results from that.

It was mentioned in the Budget debate that the aim of Varney II is to feed into the regional economic strategy and to be ahead of the game on the investment conference. All these things must work in tandem, and that is the proper route.

6.00 pm

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

The business on the Order Paper has not been disposed of by 6.00 pm. Therefore, in accordance with Standing Order 10(3), I will allow business to continue until 7.00 pm or until it is completed.

Ms J McCann: Like my colleague, I have some sympathy with the sentiments expressed in the motion. The Varney Review was undertaken to examine current and future tax policy in the North. There are several major obstacles to the progressive development and delivery by the Executive of a new social, economic and political reality that recognises that economic sovereignty, prosperity and economic equality are linked. Perhaps the biggest obstacle is the fact that taxation and public-expenditure policy are set in London.

As republicans — although I do not know how green we are according to Peter Weir — we in Sinn Féin believe that the only context that will truly deliver the sustainable economic and social progress to which the people of the North are entitled is that of a united Ireland. However, in the immediate future, we are faced with the challenge of achieving the best possible outcomes within the economic and political realities here and now, so that is what we are dealing with.

Despite several submissions to the Varney Review from stakeholders and Departments recommending a differential rate of corporation tax in the North, as well as several other business tax incentives, Varney ruled out any cut in corporation tax. He said that the case was not proven that it would encourage foreign direct investment, despite the fact that a strong case was made to suggest that lowering corporation tax would be a positive step towards encouraging potential investors to come to the North and towards developing a strong and balanced economy.

The North of Ireland’s economic performance has been, and continues to be, poor in comparison with the rest of Ireland and with Britain. The local economy has an imbalance in the contributions of the public and private sectors to economic activity, inward investment is sluggish and the growth of local business is low-key. Employment is concentrated in the service sector, which has many low-paid, low-skilled and low-security jobs.

Public spending is responsible for 63% of our gross domestic product, so economic output here is about 20% below the British average, and it has been falling steadily behind that of the Twenty-six Counties as well. Low unemployment figures of 4% conceal the fact that the levels of economic inactivity are much higher, and the number of people in receipt of incapacity benefit is 74% higher than average. The North has the highest proportion of people who are economically inactive, and almost 100,000 children here live in poverty.

Through various submissions to Varney, arguments were made that the North of Ireland has particular circumstances when compared to Scotland, England and Wales and that the differences in corporation tax and excise duties between the North and South constrain our competitiveness.

The argument was also strongly made that political instability in the North has stifled its economic growth and development. However, it is not only the political instability and the deep divisions created during 30 years of conflict that have resulted in the lack of economic development. There are other problems, and they are exacerbated by an artificial border, which is a major obstacle to the progressive development and delivery of a strong, vibrant economy.

Although there can be no doubt that the lowering of corporation tax is important to the economy and that having a level playing field on the island of Ireland would go a long way towards attracting and sustaining foreign direct investment, we need to do much more to deliver investment in people, skills and infrastructure.

The absence of economic sovereignty is the biggest single obstacle facing the economy in the North. Fiscal policy, taxation and public expenditure are all set in London, which presents problems. Consequently, the North is excluded from the economic advantages experienced by the Twenty-six Counties and lumped in with the rest of the so-called UK, where it tops the list on practically every deprivation indicator, yet no special provision is made for a society that is just emerging from conflict, with all the attendant social and economic disadvantages.

Partition is wasteful and inefficient and duplicates government and public-service structures; it imposes an unnecessary administrative burden on those wishing to do business in both jurisdictions, and it creates barriers to economies of scale. Each jurisdiction on the island of Ireland is competing with the other for economic investment as well as with the rest of the world. An all-island approach would eliminate this.

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

Mr Simpson: I express my general support for the broad concerns of the motion, and I begin in that way because I believe that the wording of the motion could have been better. It is in Northern Ireland’s interests to reach as much agreement as possible on those matters. I intend, therefore, to express general support for the motion, despite its shortcomings. It has been tabled not by one, or two, but three Alliance Party MLAs; it is an official, formal Alliance Party motion that has been agreed by that party’s Members.

It is an Alliance Party motion that refers to Northern Ireland’s economic circumstances and financial dependence and which calls for a step change in Northern Ireland’s economy. Those concerns have been raised at different times in different ways by different political parties. The irony in the motion is that those calls are now being made by the very same Alliance Party that believes that the best response to Northern Ireland’s economic challenges is to shackle our economy to a high-tax regime. It is a bit like Heather Mills McCartney offering marriage guidance.

If the Alliance Party is serious about our economy, it should develop serious policies; to date, it has done the exact opposite. I hope that over the coming weeks and months, the Alliance Party will mature and come into the real world and propose valid solutions and policies for the challenges that the Province faces.

Nevertheless, even though the motion comes from the high-tax Alliance Party — and anticipating a step change in Alliance Party policy — I can accept the motion. However, I suspect that the party that will have the greatest difficulty with the motion and its outworkings will be the very Alliance Party that tabled it; but that is a problem for its Members.

Economic growth, productivity, unemployment, the economically inactive, public-sector dependency, research and development levels, and the relationship between business and Government have been a cause of concern over many years. The findings of the Varney Review were disappointing, if not unexpected. There are issues that the Province has to tackle. I have mentioned some of them: improving the skills base and reducing economic inactivity; public-sector efficiency; innovation promotion; and promoting trade and investment. Those are issues that the Executive are addressing through the Budget and the Programme for Government.

We need the correct balance of skills and an environment conducive to science and innovation. We should be able to offer enhanced tax credits for training and for expenditure on research and development that would make Northern Ireland an attractive location in which to invest.

My time is almost up, and there is more that could be said, but time does not permit it.

Northern Ireland has come a long way but has a long way yet to go, and I urge the Executive to lead it on that journey.

Mr Cree: I say at the outset that the Varney Review was not just disappointing but failed miserably to offer Northern Ireland any constructive help whatsoever. It recommended a set of policies that were almost identical to those already set out in our Programme for Govern­ment and in the draft regional economic strategy.

The Varney Review failed to address the evidence presented by those who advocated a lower rate of corporation tax and who demonstrated how the resulting £300 million revenue loss could be absorbed. He failed to consider the dynamic effects that lowering corporation tax in Northern Ireland would have on levels of foreign direct investment. His concern was that, if Northern Ireland were to be given a favourable rate of corporation tax, that could open the door for other UK regions to demand similar benefits, and why would they not?

High business taxation must be avoided in order to compete in today’s economy. Northern Ireland is the only UK region that has a land frontier with the euro zone. Northern Ireland is the only UK region that suffers the distorting effects of the Republic’s tax system, not just when it comes to paying corporation tax but for excise duties and aggregate tax, and so on.

Those tax differences place real constraints on our economy’s competitiveness and are experienced more acutely here than in any other part of the kingdom. The case for treating tax differently in Northern Ireland rests on the fact that existing measures have failed because they are inadequate for attracting substantial, high-value foreign direct investment. In turn, we have failed to develop true economic convergence with the rest of the United Kingdom.

One can argue that that is the responsibility of the UK Government, whose regional economic policies have failed to bring about the planned convergence. However, we are where we are. A reduced rate of corporation tax would enable growth-oriented SMEs to undertake investments that would not have been possible at a higher rate of taxation, and they could, therefore, increase their output performance. Invest Northern Ireland’s FDI package, which mainly produces lower-wage, lower-value jobs from overseas, is proof of that.

What can we hope for from Varney’s second report? Last December, the Prime Minister stated:

“I have said to people in Northern Ireland that I want them to get all the advantages that are available ... in the Republic”.

I say to Mr Varney that his second report must amount to a great deal more than regurgitated policies and aspirations; it must be about more than R&D tax credits. We need to be able to compete on the world stage, and we must be ready for May’s investment conference.

I thank the Alliance Party for tabling the motion. We all know that the Alliance Party is a vocal supporter of tax-varying powers, which really means tax-increasing powers. I will not support any motion from that party that would increase the tax burden on business in Northern Ireland, and I trust that that is not the case in this instance. Therefore, I am happy to support the motion and sincerely hope that Varney II will deliver.

Mr McElduff: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I want to introduce to the debate the experiences of petrol retailers in border communities. I have raised that matter previously in the presence of the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment.

I listen to the people in my constituency and try to convey to the House what they say. I refer to places on this side of the border corridor, such as Castlederg, Strabane and Clady. Differences in excise duties have meant that, for decades, petrol retailers in those areas have experienced terrible disadvantage when doing business. Why would people not travel to Lifford, in the case of those from west Tyrone, or to Emyvale, in the case of those from south Tyrone, to get cheaper petrol or diesel?

6.15 pm

When I raised the matter previously, Members on the Benches opposite immediately mentioned fuel smuggling. The standard knee-jerk response is to ask about all the fuel smuggling that takes place. I have a wonderful idea as to how we can eradicate that problem: harmonise taxation and duties for businesses such as petrol retailers. Forgive me for raising the issue, but I am listening to the people who elected me — business people in West Tyrone who have a point to make.

I would like to think that the Minister of Finance and Personnel is listening and that he can factor that point into any future discussions with the British Treasury, as that is how it should be done. If we are going to make a difference — and we have often said that local political institutions will make a difference — then I ask the Minister of Finance and Personnel to listen to that point.

Recently, I had a meeting with a large group of construction workers in Omagh. We talked about incentives to attract business to the area, and about the disincentives — the corporation tax differential was mentioned throughout the meeting. I ask the Minister of Finance and Personnel to listen to what people living in the border corridor are saying and to remember that he is their Minister, too. In their contributions to the debate, Mitchel McLaughlin and Jennifer McCann emphasised the particular circumstances of that society.

I am pleased to note that the Alliance Party’s motion refers to:

“recognising the particular economic and geographical circumstances of this region”.

I take issue, however, with the fact that yet another motion emanating from the Alliance Party suffers from short-sightedness in relation to North/South possibilities. When we debated arts funding, the Alliance Party saw it merely in an east-west context, when investment in arts in the Twenty-six Counties would be best practice. The Alliance Party should look at the North/South possibilities for developing the situation, as well as focusing on the east-west aspect.

Mr Hamilton: I welcome the opportunity to discuss the Varney Review — as I welcome any opportunity to discuss matters relating to the development of the economy in Northern Ireland. I support the motion generally, although perhaps not the way in which it was moved.

It has often been said — and it is worth repeating — that the economy is the Executive’s number one priority. That has been well illustrated by the Programme for Government, backed up by the Budget. It is clear from those documents and from others that it is not the case, as the proposer of the motion said, that we are pinning our hopes on the US/NI investment conference in May. We are not simply pinning our hopes on a two- or three-day conference in May; it is a much wider, longer and more detailed strategy than that.

If, as Mr Neeson said, he and his party do support that conference, they could perhaps reflect on the comments that he made in the Chamber today and be a little more optimistic and upbeat about economic prospects in Northern Ireland.

As the motion points out, the Varney Review was a flawed process and, therefore, produced a flawed outcome. A strong and convincing case was presented to Sir David by the Executive, various Assembly Committees, Northern Ireland business and its various representative groups. There was always some doubt and concern about the outcome that Sir David would reach, and he did not let us down by trotting out, ultimately, Treasury orthodoxy. However, one of the good things to come out of the first review — if anything good could come out of it — is that the supposed legal barriers that were being thrown up as to why corporation tax could not be lowered in Northern Ireland, apart from other regions in the United Kingdom, have been well and truly shot down. Clearly, the reasons that the decision is not being taken are purely political — not political reasons pertaining to Northern Ireland, but rather to other regions of the United Kingdom.

Some of the well-highlighted and documented flaws pertain generally to the estimated £1 billion cost over a decade of cutting the rate of corporation tax in Northern Ireland. Sir David paid no heed to the Economic Research Institute of Northern Ireland’s suggestion that banks or public utilities be exempted from any derogation from a lower rate of corporation tax, thus significantly reducing that cost. Given the likely increase in FDI that would come from such a cut, it is absurd that he assumed historical trends of FDI flow into Northern Ireland.

Another flaw was the lack of sustained local input throughout the review. I hope that Varney II, as it has become known, will follow in the tradition of sequels such as ‘The Godfather: Part II’ rather than other movie sequels, in that it is better than the original. At least DFP officials are intimately involved with Varney II, and I am optimistic, if not completely confident, about it.

Mr Weir: Based on your film analogy, should Members hope that there will not be a Varney III?


Mr Hamilton: It could go on for years, like the ‘Rocky’ franchise.

Mr McElduff: On a point of order, Mr Weir should speak through the Chair.


Mr Hamilton: Members are drifting away from the subject of the debate and making Mr O’Loan’s point for him.

I fear that, important as they are, there has been too much focus on tax incentives at times. Many measures that are required to turn the economy around — to close the productivity gap, incentivise the private sector to grow, and improve the efficiency of the public sector — lie in the Assembly’s hands and competencies. One such measure is the allocation of more resources to key Departments, such as the Budget provided for DETI, DEL and DRD. Other measures include the investment strategy, which provides £18 million, and the correction of problems, such as making the Planning Service more fit for purpose.

As alluring and potentially transforming as a cut in corporation tax may be, other essential building blocks must be put in place. If there are not sufficient people with the requisite skills, or the infrastructure is not in place, there is little point in achieving a cut in corporation tax to incentivise people to invest in Northern Ireland.

We should not concentrate so much on Varney and on continuing to plug away at trying to achieve a cut in corporation tax that we take our eyes off the work must be done in the Assembly.

Mr B McCrea: The motion is fairly superficial, and it misses the point. I do not want to be harsh on people who are doing their best, but we must focus on other issues.

I want to talk about financial dependency, targeted intervention and the vision for the future. First, on financial dependency, the correct figures are that Northern Ireland raises £9 billion in tax and pays out £18 billion. It would be quite a stretch to reach that figure of £18 billion, and it will not happen any time soon. Apart from London, only two regions are net contributors and everywhere else in the United Kingdom takes money out, and those fiscal arrangements provide many benefits to Northern Ireland.

There is more to productivity than simply raising money through taxes. Productivity is good because it tends to get people into better jobs in which they earn more. Increased productivity means healthier people, less poverty, and so forth. It is not simply about tax: it is about creating a positive environment in which people want to live.

There is much talk about the productivity gap, but the main issue is that, with an unemployment rate of only 3·2%, most people in Northern Ireland are fully employed. As the Assembly tries to attract foreign investment, where will the people come from to take the resultant jobs?

The argument about corporation tax and what a cut in the rate did for the Republic of Ireland is old hat: that was then and this is now. Twenty years ago, when America first sought to outsource its manufacturing, it looked around and Ireland seemed to be a good base, and the guys there did a great job.

However, places such as Estonia now offer 0% corporation tax. The real reason it worked in the South was because at that time, there was 17% unemployment and 40% economic inactivity. After de Valera, the Southern economy had huge problems: tremendous slack had to be taken up. Those conditions do not apply now.

When I was in Washington recently, I was encouraged by people’s positive attitudes. They told me that what they value most is Ministers, with whom they can have a chat and sort matters out quickly. It is worth telling those Members who seek inward investment that they also told me that they were £1 trillion only in debt. I do not know what £1 trillion is in real money; however, it seems to be an awful lot. There are serious issues over there that will affect not only Northern Ireland’s economy, but others across the whole of western Europe. A crunch is coming. People will have serious problems. There will be job losses; firms will go to the wall and there will be devastation in the construction industry. What did the Fed do about it? It cut rates aggressively. What does the Assembly do about it? It simply has another debate. The issue is what will happen in the future.

I am glad that Barry McElduff has come back into the Chamber, because I want to tell him that, although I share his concerns about fuel, the £250 million could be generated through the introduction of toll charges on vehicles that come from the South, use Northern Ireland’s roads, but do not pay taxes. I suggest to Mr McElduff — through you, Mr Deputy Speaker — that that would be a good means of raising the money. There are, therefore, ways that the Assembly could deal with those matters creatively.

In America, people stress that the most important measure is follow-up. If the Assembly is serious about getting the economy in order, there needs to be targeted intervention, not the blunderbuss approach of corporation tax. Lowering the rate of corporation tax is not going to happen and will not do any good. There are, however, many measures that the Assembly can take, including bringing people home. That is Northern Ireland’s big challenge. The number of good people who have left the country during the past 30 years is astronomical. If the right jobs, education and incentives are offered, those people will return and make Northern Ireland better.

In conclusion, I concur with others, such as Mr Simpson, who said that the Assembly must take a collective approach. We must join together and speak with one voice; that is the future of Northern Ireland.

The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr P Robinson): Thank you for the opportunity to respond to Members’ comments, Mr Deputy Speaker. I have listened carefully and with interest to the debate. Although much of it has been constructive and helpful, I must admit to being a little dismayed at some of the points that have been made on economic policy and the dynamics of Northern Ireland’s economy. At times, those particular points displayed a naïve understanding of economics, finance and Northern Ireland’s constitutional funding mechanisms. I will deal with those specific issues shortly.

I shall begin by saying that these are certainly challenging times for any economy. All the major economies of the world are struggling to control market volatility. It is clear that a small, open economy, such as that of Northern Ireland, has little or no control over the prevailing financial environment in which citizens must live. The key issue for the Executive is to ensure that we create a policy environment that will facilitate economic growth and development in Northern Ireland. That growth and development will be achieved only by delivering the economic vision of an outward-looking, export-orientated, innovative, wealth-generating economy.

I make no apologies for reiterating what I have said many times before in the Assembly: a domestic market of 1·7 million people will not provide the basis for higher growth and productivity. Northern Ireland’s private sector, with a few notable exceptions, is too insular and reliant on local demand. That must change.

One obvious way to transform the local private sector is to encourage and facilitate foreign investment in Northern Ireland. The role of foreign direct investment in transforming the Republic of Ireland’s economy highlights how significantly higher levels of economic growth can be generated. Northern Ireland needs to make a concerted effort to market itself as an investment location.

6.30 pm

I have listened to the references that have been made during the debate to corporation tax and to the first Varney Report. Let us be absolutely clear: a lower rate of corporation tax would have been great; we should not — and the Executive will not — give up on that objective. If and when the circumstances become more conducive to the argument for a lower rate of corporation tax, we will be ready.

However, anyone will recognise that putting the same case to the same people within a few months of them having rejected it will lead to the same result. Therefore, we will wait until the appropriate time to again take up the argument for lowering corporation tax rates with whichever party may be in power at the time. In the meantime, we have a responsibility to get the best deal for the people of Northern Ireland. If there are further advantages that we can get from the Treasury, we should do so.

The Varney Review was never going to provide a panacea for all the ills of our local economy. Multinational companies are efficient at managing their tax exposure around the world; therefore, a decision on whether to establish themselves here was never going to be determined by the prevailing UK rate of corporation tax alone.

Potential investors consider a portfolio of factors, and Northern Ireland already scores well on many of those: we use the English language — or a variant of it; we have a well-established regulatory and legal framework; we are located in the EU single market; we have relatively low labour costs by EU standards; and we have a large pool of young and well-educated labour. I could go on, but those are the factors that influence investment decisions, and those are factors that we need to present at the forthcoming US investment conference.

That conference will provide an ideal opportunity to market all that Northern Ireland has to offer. We now have a Programme for Government that stresses the importance that the Executive place on economic development. I remind Members that the Executive have primary responsibility for transforming our economy, not the Treasury in London. Although many economic variables are outside our control, and, indeed, the control of any Government, the decisions that the Executive will take over the next few years will be of critical importance in helping to shape our economic fortunes.

I must confess that I was unsurprised at the outcome of the first Varney Review. Our key focus must not be to apportion blame or to wonder why, but to find out what we can achieve ourselves. I repeatedly urged people to be cautious in their expectations of corporation tax being lowered as I judged that Sir David Varney was always going to be concerned about the wider UK repercussions of granting a regional dispensation on corporation tax.

Northern Ireland is unique in its proximity to a country with a more attractive tax regime, and, indeed, because it has come through decades of instability and conflict. However, it is difficult to ignore the Treasury’s view that Northern Ireland’s other economic character­istics are not unique. The headline statistics on unemployment, employment and GVA show that other UK regions are in a worse position than we are.

The second Varney Review should be welcomed as a constructive and objective assessment of the current state of the Northern Ireland economy. It can only be helpful to have someone such as Sir David, assisted by the full analytical resources of the Treasury, undertake a critique of Northern Ireland’s current economic policy suite.

The findings of the second Varney Review will assist us in preparing the new regional economic strategy. I remind Members that that will be the Executive’s strategy — unlike the draft strategy, it will not be a legacy of direct rule. That strategy will set out the range of policies that we can implement to assist and facilitate economic growth.

However, it must be tempered by realism. It will only reflect policies and programmes that lie within the gift of this Executive. Some Members seem to have difficulty in differentiating between what is and what is not within the gift of the Executive. Members have raised the need for local fiscal powers, but we need to appreciate that that is a double-edged sword. The Alliance Party has consistently argued that we should have more control over such fiscal matters, but increasing the tax take in Northern Ireland will generate additional public expenditure — possibly at the expense of constraining regional competitiveness and making us a high-cost region to operate in. We could decide to lower certain taxes, but that would reduce available public expenditure, impacting directly on the public services that many in this Assembly have lobbied for so vociferously.

Today’s motion refers to fiscal deficit. At around £7 billion per year, I do not think that Her Majesty’s Treasury envisages allowing lower tax rates to apply in Northern Ireland. That would increase the size of the deficit.

I will touch on some of the issues raised by Members around the Chamber, dealing first with the issues that came from the Sinn Féin Benches. Ms McCann attempted to suggest that if we were to move towards a united Ireland, things would be much easier; that the separate structures’ being combined would make it much more viable. That sounds like a very good argument for the Republic of Ireland to come back into the United Kingdom, and I am pretty sure that that is what she was really advocating.

In his remarks about fuel duty and the fuel differential, Mr McElduff was concerned about the loss of revenue to the British Treasury. One other method that he might want to advocate to his constituents is to have tighter border controls to ensure that there is no smuggling across that border.

I warn Roy Beggs, as best and in as friendly a tone as I can, that he needs to watch that he does not appear on every occasion to be a one-trick pony — especially as the trick does not work. He again raised the issue of the financial package. There was never a financial package dealing with revenue matters — it was always a financial package dealing with capital expenditure. The argument that was advanced was in relation to the infrastructure loss that there had been over a long period of time.

At present levels, about £2 billion will come to the Northern Ireland economy as a result of that package, in addition to the £100 million that we received in cash to deal with water and the innovation funding. That was on top of the very helpful changes in the reinvestment and reform initiative, where we were able to correct the errors of the Ulster Unionist Party and therefore hold rates for the next three years. The Ulster Unionist Party’s changes had caused rates to go up by 62% over the last five years.

Those are all advantages to the Northern Ireland economy, and indicate that — while the Ulster Unionists produced nothing at the time of the Belfast Agreement — a financial package was gained in the St Andrews negotiations to the benefit of the Northern Ireland economy. Perhaps, even yet we can go further, and I have not even touched on our getting the front-loading of EYF.

I indicate to the Alliance Party — and also to Mr McElduff — that I wrote to the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the issue of fuel duty. I did so before the UK Budget was announced, and I am pleased that the Chancellor postponed the 2p increase in duty that was planned for this month, which would have made matters much worse. As a Member of the Northern Ireland Select Committee, I pushed for the Treasury to deal with the differential in aggregates duty as well as the differential in fuel duty.

Those are matters that need to be resolved, whether they are resolved by the Republic putting its duties up, or the United Kingdom putting its down. That has to be dealt with, either through the differential being reduced or through HMRC taking proper measures to discover those who are involved in fuel smuggling.

Fuel smuggling occurs across Northern Ireland. In my constituency of East Belfast, some garages are selling smuggled fuel. The problem is endemic in Northern Ireland and must be dealt with.

My colleague Simon Hamilton mentioned that Sir David Varney had ignored the ERINI suggestion that local banks and utilities should be excluded from a lower rate of corporation tax. I can tell him that I have written to Sir David on behalf of the Executive registering our concern at that specific element of his report.

In conclusion, I ask Members to consider carefully the strengths and weaknesses of our economy. Many are too easily inclined to focus on the negatives. I feel that the region has much to offer potential investors, and that is the message that must be conveyed at the upcoming investment conference. We must become better at marketing Northern Ireland, rather than making a pitch to the US, the EU or elsewhere that the situation is so bad here that we need their assistance. In short, it is time that Members stopped whingeing and started promoting Northern Ireland.

Dr Farry: I welcome the fact that we are having a debate on the Varney Review. However, I feel that we are on the graveyard shift following the earlier debates in the Assembly. This is the first opportunity that Members have had to discuss the outcome of Varney I in the Chamber — an issue that was supposed to be very important to Northern Ireland. Although David Simpson may criticise the motion for being an Alliance Party motion, the reason that it is such is because the Executive have not come to the Chamber to facilitate a debate on Varney I, never mind provide a comprehensive rebuttal to it. Therefore, it has fallen to the opposition to bring this issue to the Chamber today.

There is a perception in the wider community and in the business community, in particular, that the Executive have given up on corporation tax. That perception remains in the wider community even though the Minister said today that the battle goes on and that he will raise the issue again when the opportunity arises.

In particular, Varney I badly neglected a number of issues, and the Executive have not addressed those properly either. I will focus on three particular issues, which others have touched on in the debate. The first is that the report is very much centred on London and the south-east of England. The UK is seen as a single economy, and the perception is that what is good for London and the south-east is good for the economy as a whole.

That approach is not good enough; it creates major difficulties for sustainability. That is not just an issue for Northern Ireland; it creates difficulty for the other nine dependent regions too. We simply happen to be the region that is in the most extreme situation.

There is also the issue of the all-island economy. Varney — and it is important to make this distinction — made a lot of comments about what is happening in Northern Ireland and then compared that with what is happening in the Republic of Ireland. At no stage did he recognise that, in many respects, we have an all-island economy; nor did he recognise Northern Ireland’s unique geographical situation and that we are competing with the rest of the island, which has a different local taxation regime.

Perhaps most fundamentally, the Varney Report does not envisage any meaningful conversions in terms of GVA — in other words, productivity. It does not believe that the Northern Ireland economy will see a step change in its relations with the rest of the UK. In essence, Varney sees Northern Ireland as a glorified county council. He seems to be quite satisfied that London and the south-east can be the driver of the UK economy, and that Northern Ireland and other regions will benefit from the Barnett formula as regards expenditure.

That is not good enough, and it creates a political challenge for the Assembly because the people of Northern Ireland have expectations of devolved government and the difference that Members can make.

Corporation tax has been discussed, and Ulster Unionist Members, in particular, have downplayed its significance. Corporation tax is important and is a means to an end; that end makes the economy sustainable through public expenditure, the public sector share of GDP and productivity.

6.45 pm

Mr B McCrea: Will the Member produce a paper that shows how we can make up the £9 billion gap by decreasing taxes? He admitted that we are part of a bigger picture and cannot do that. The Member is focusing on the wrong issues, but if he has a plan, he should tell us the numbers so that we can see how to close the gap.

Dr Farry: I will happily address that matter, and corporation tax is one of the key issues.

Mr Basil McCrea decided to give Members an economics lesson and talked about how corporation tax does not make much of a difference to the economy. He says that he is a friend of business, but the business community regard corporation tax as an important issue. He also said that, because we have a relatively high rate of employment, it is not a big deal. However, it is important for us to move from being a society with low-productivity industries to one with higher-productivity industries, which is reflected in the Programme for Government. In doing that, we must increase the level of exports from the local economy, which to an extent can be done through local businesses. However, the big change will come from a greater share of foreign direct investment.

Declan O’Loan made a point about the nature of the volume of FDI in the two parts of the island of Ireland. Volume is one aspect, but there is also an issue about the quality of that FDI. We rely on a strategy of offering grants for investment to come in through selective financial assistance, so the investment that we receive is less productive in comparison with that in the Republic of Ireland. That must also be challenged fundamentally.

Although Varney II is something over which we can exercise more control because our officials are central to the process, it is narrower in its scope because it deals with what lies in the control of the Assembly. In essence, it is a lesson for our officials from HM Treasury, but it does not challenge the underlying macroeconomic policy in the wider UK. The Minister said that the Assembly is the driver of the local economy, which is true only to a certain extent; we are in control of economic levers that are set elsewhere and can only influence the economy in the context that HM Treasury sets for us. That context is flawed, which is the wider point of which we should not lose sight in the challenges that we seek to make.

Adrian McQuillan spoke about the Programme for Government being the regional economic strategy. He should know that there is a specific regional economic strategy to be proposed. We are aware that the regional economic strategy is a work in progress, but it is important to recognise that our motion was drafted in early January 2008 in the aftermath of Varney I. Therefore, it has taken a while for the motion to get to the Floor and has, to a certain extent, been overtaken by events.

Mr McLaughlin acknowledged the flaws in wider UK regional policy, with which I agree.

Roy Beggs went into the background of the situation, and spoke of the St Andrews Agreement and promises over peace packages and financial packages. I concur with the thrust of that, but I am not interested in playing the blame game and looking backwards. If blame is being apportioned, it must be recognised that the boat was as much missed in 1998 as it was in 2006. Therefore, the problem of missed opportunities applies across the board.

Declan O’Loan spoke about the importance of the all-island economy.

Peter Weir said that the Alliance Party has a high taxation policy and constantly banged on about Cuba, with which he has a fascination.

The Alliance Party is not a party of high taxation; we are a party of effective taxation. We are also a party that wants to fund public services properly. [Interruption.]

The Minister referred to local fiscal powers and said that those powers could go one of two ways — it would result either in the Alliance Party’s raising taxes or in its lowering taxes and having to find money from elsewhere to make up the difference. However, there is a third alternative, which involves consideration of the balance of the overall tax cake. A lower rate of corporation tax could make a big difference to our economy. The Executive have not made provision in the current three-year Budget to allow for a differential rate of corporation tax if the ability to lower it were to come before the Assembly.

Simon Hamilton referred to the ‘Godfather’ movies and I have no doubt that, at some stage, he will tell us who he thinks the godfather is in Northern Ireland.

The debate has flagged up Members’ concerns about the Treasury’s response to Varney I. On behalf of the business community and the wider community in Northern Ireland, we must urge the Executive to do more to ensure that this important fight goes on because it will make a difference.

Question put and agreed to.


That this Assembly expresses its deep concern at the conclusions of Sir David Varney’s Review of Tax Policy in Northern Ireland; maintains that it is flawed in not sufficiently recognising the particular economic and geographical circumstances of this region; and calls on the Executive to bring forward a detailed Regional Economic Strategy that will address the economic and financial dependency of Northern Ireland, and facilitate a step-change in the Northern Ireland economy, in terms of closing the productivity gap with the rest of the United Kingdom.

Mr Deputy Speaker: In accordance with Standing Order 10(3), the remainder of the business on the Order Paper, which is the motion on Forkhill military site, has been postponed until such time as the Business Committee determines.

Adjourned at 6.52 pm.

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