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northern Ireland assembly

Tuesday 1 April 2008

Executive Committee Business:
Commission for Victims and Survivors Bill: Second Stage

Private Members’ Business:
Combating Underage Drinking
International Development

Redevelopment of the lower Newtownards Road, Belfast

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

Members observed two minutes’ silence.

Executive Committee Business

Commission for Victims and Survivors Bill

Second Stage

Mr Speaker: I remind Members that the debate at Second Stage should be confined to the general principles of the Bill.

The First Minister (Rev Dr Ian Paisley): I beg to move

That the Second Stage of the Commission for Victims and Survivors Bill (NIA 12/07) be agreed.

Before I deal with the detail of the Bill, I should like to say a few words about how we have reached this point. Victims and survivors need and deserve the strongest possible voice. In making the decision to create a commission, we have taken a significant step that enables us to draw on a wide range of experience, expertise and commitment. We believe that that will ensure that the needs of victims and survivors are addressed fully: their needs are all-important to us.

I should say that at this stage there will be no attempt on the part of my office or that of my deputy — or of those who support us — to prevent a full debate on the issues in question. The debate today is not about the operation of the commission; it is about creating the commission in law so that it can do its work. Everything that is taken in hand and decided on will be subject to full and free debate in this Assembly, and all Members will be entitled to say what they desire to say.

Those who have set themselves up in opposition are entitled to oppose what is being done, but they are not entitled to blame us entirely for the way in which the Assembly conducts its business. A Business Committee exists on which all parties are represented, and they must make their voice heard on that Committee when the decision is being made as to whether debates such as these take place. Therefore, they are responsible for whether a matter comes to the House. Knowing the agility of the people who are on that Committee, instead of blaming those who are trying to deal with Assembly business, surely they can find a way in which to ensure that certain business reaches the Floor of the House.

Of course, the trouble with many people is that they have no experience of a debating chamber such as this. They think that they can behave just as they do in local councils. However, this is not a local council: this is a parliamentary forum, the rules of which we all have to abide by. All of us have had to learn in the hard school that there is a particular way to do a job and that we have to do it that way.

I am sorry that the Chairman of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister is not present, but I hope that the attempt to have an argument between the First Minister and the deputy First Minister — and those who support them on these issues — is a legitimate political argument and has not been arranged before they hear what we will ask of them. I hope that it was not arranged before the debate that certain people would vote against this particular issue. If that is the case, those people cannot then expect us to co-operate fully with them. I said at the beginning of the process that we want to have a good relationship with the Committee. We want to give its members all the information possible. That is what we have been doing, and it is what we will continue to do. However, if they continue to feel that it is their business to make a case against everything that we plan to do, that is too bad.

On behalf of the Administration, I am saying that we will all keep in mind the people who need our help: the victims and others. I want to make it perfectly clear that even if people want to adopt a certain line, we will not be deterred from carrying out the task that we have been set. In making the decision to create a victims’ commission, we have taken a significant step that enables us to draw on a wide range of experience, expertise and commitment. It is a step that will, I believe, ensure that the needs of victims and survivors are addressed fully.

I am amazed that in other realms, not a word of protest is said about the size of commissions or about the work that they do. However, on this all-important matter, about which people have said that something must be done, there seems to be an immediate desire to stop the House from making progress. That progress will not be stopped; it will proceed legitimately through the House. The deputy First Minister and myself, and those who support us in the Executive, will continue with this matter — we will not be stopped.

I say to the victims: we are your friends, we will help you, and we are determined to do what we promised to do. Addressing the needs of victims and survivors is one of the priorities of this Government; it is not a second-rate issue or something that is to be kicked like a football to score cheap political points. This is about people’s lives and futures, and it is about the healing process that this beloved Province of ours so badly needs. We will see that it will get it.

The victims are not going to be abandoned or their needs forgotten. The commission demonstrates the importance and pre-eminence of the needs of victims and survivors, which will always be prominent in this Administration.

The Bill will make only minimal changes to the Victims and Survivors (Northern Ireland) Order 2006. It will enable the appointment of a number of people to a commission for victims and survivors. The Bill provides for the appointment of such numbers of members to the commission as may be required. No other substantive policy changes are proposed. The functions of the commission will be the same as those envisaged in the 2006 Order. It is to facilitate those technical changes, which will underpin the work of the commission, that support for the Bill is being sought.

I appeal to Members to support the Bill today in order to allow us to get back to the Assembly with the proposals that people make to us. Those will come from Members of this House, from people further afield, from the commissioners themselves and from the various victims’ organisations that have been working on this matter for a long time. All of those voices will be heard, and I trust that the people of Ulster will be briefed properly so that they understand what we are attempting to do.

The provisions of the Victims and Survivors (Northern Ireland) Order 2006, as regards the status, the general powers, the constitution and terms of office of a commissioner, will apply to the new commission. Because the commission is made up of more than one member, all of whom have equal status, the Bill deals with how the commission may regulate its own proceedings. It also has provisions to ensure that the work of the commission can continue in situations which might arise where the number of members of the commission is reduced.

It must be remembered too that some of the commissioners were unable to take up their posts immediately owing to other work commitments. While we intimated to the House at the time that this Bill would be forthcoming, we had to wait until the commissioners could secede from their previous positions and take up their jobs full time.

As the deputy First Minister mentioned yesterday during the debate on accelerated passage for the Bill, in recognition of the difficulties surrounding the definition of “victim”, both of us will ask the proposed victims’ forum to examine urgently the definition of “victim” and to bring forward proposals for consideration. We must deal with and face up to the fact that there is a difference of opinion in the House about who is a victim, and that is what we are attempting to do. We cannot bury our heads in the sand; the matter must be out in the open. All Members must have their say, and we must use the instrument of democracy to allow that to happen.

The purpose of the Bill, as indicated by the long title, will be to achieve the single policy objective of replacing the commission for victims and survivors referred to in the Victims and Survivors (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 with a commission for victims and survivors for Northern Ireland.

I commend this short Bill to the House, and I hope that, when it is passed, the commission can swing into action and that we can proceed along the democratic way and ensure that people’s rights and needs are met under the terms of this legislation.

10.45 am

Mr Moutray: I welcome the remarks made by the First Minister this morning. As I have already stated in the Chamber, the four recently appointed commissioners represent a great opportunity for the innocent victims of the Troubles. Throughout the Province there are thousands of men, women and children who each day face the physical and mental scars of the Troubles. Those people demand our assistance, and I am glad that the House has been able to demonstrate a commitment to those innocent victims through the appointment of the commissioners. That is the type of practical —

Mr Ford: Will the Member give way?

Mr Moutray: No, I do not intend to. You will have an opportunity later. That is the practical —

Mr Ford: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Is it proper that the Member has already twice this morning referred to “commissioners”, as opposed to “commissioners designate”?

Mr Speaker: Point of order taken, Mr Ford. I ask the Member to be more accurate when he is speaking.

Mr Moutray: Thank you for that. I have been well chastised, but it is typical of the Alliance Party to indulge in party point-scoring, as it has done all along.

The First Minister: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Surely one is entitled to mention what is stated in the Bill. It refers to those people as they should be referred to if it becomes law. It cannot be a point of order, when we are debating a Bill, that one must not say, think or anticipate that the Bill is going to go through the House. I may say that the Member who brought up that point of order is not going to stop the Bill. His party tried it yesterday, and had no success. There is power in this House to ensure that the Bill is passed, and I can assure the people of this country that it will be passed.

Mr Speaker: I ask Members to keep, as far as possible, to the principles of the Bill. I am not trying to stifle debate on this very important issue, just reminding Members once again.

Mr Moutray: I am confident that much of the alienation experienced by many innocent victims and the groups who represent them will be addressed by the “commissioners designate”.

A Member: Say that again for him.

Mr Moutray: Happy, Mr Ford?

Throughout the political process spearheaded by the Ulster Unionist Party, and especially under the Belfast Agreement, the interests and concerns of the innocent victims of the Troubles were largely ignored. No one was more affected by the Troubles than the innocent victims and the security forces, yet those two groups were the most neglected by the Ulster Unionist Party when it led unionism. The UUP failed to deliver on matters of importance to victims, and still today it, along with others, is dragging its feet as others seek to deliver assistance to those who suffered most as a result of terrorism.

When my party took over the mantle for unionism, we made the issue of innocent victims a priority and ensured that they were given a voice through the establishment of a commission. We will not let the victims be forgotten.

The recent Budget announcement concerning victims is also to be welcomed. Over £30 million has been set aside for the ends of the victims. That is the largest ever Budget allocation for that purpose, and I trust that, in the very near future, innocent victims will see the practical benefits of that money. I trust that the House will join me and fully support the work of the commissioners as they seek to deliver for one of the most vulnerable groups in society.

Mr Molloy: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I support the Bill and agree with the First Minister about the good working relationship that we need between the Committee and the Ministers in order to develop the work and to progress as quickly as possible, not only on this issue but on many others that have come before us. The victims need to be given their place and the opportunity to have a forum and a commission to deal with the issues that they have wanted to see dealt with for a number of years.

If the Assembly is to mean anything to people, it is important that it, with its local knowledge and respons­ibility, responds to the needs of the victims and the community.

I hope that this short, clear-cut Bill that legislates for the establishment of a commission rather than one commissioner attracts unanimous support today. All parties have been crying out for the legislation to be enacted. Instead of yesterday’s party politicking, we must make progress as quickly as possible.

It is important that we get support for victims so that they can see that the Assembly is tackling the issues and that there is a commission to which they can talk. Victims will be able to highlight their needs, to which the Assembly can then respond.

I hope that the Bill can be progressed today and that the commissioners designate can be put in place. I look forward to the rebuilding of working relationships among members of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister.

Mr Elliott: As we debate the general principles of the Bill, I am pleased to hear that it is victims’ needs that should be addressed; I fully support that principle. I am also pleased to hear the First Minister say that Members will be allowed to express their views.

I seek clarification on a certain issue. During my contribution to yesterday’s debate, I was challenged to provide a Hansard record of what had been said by the First Minister at an evidence session of the Committee for the First Minister and deputy First Minister. I am happy to do so now. He said:

“The new Commissioner will not, of course, be bound by Mrs McDougall’s recommendations”.

For information, I will leave a copy of those minutes of evidence in the Library.

The First Minister: The Member’s point is not the source of the argument. I read the Hansard record carefully, and my argument with the Member is that he ought to bear in mind what was actually said rather than putting his spin on the words, which is what he did. How could any new commission be bound by the actions of the former Interim Victims’ Commissioner? That commissioner’s report has been published, but its recommendations cannot be considered until the new commission is in place. I am sure that the recommend­ations will be examined once that happens. I do not know what the Member’s argument is, but I welcome that fact that his heart has been regenerated and that he is prepared to help us rather than hinder us.

Mr Elliott: I thank the First Minister for his quite lengthy intervention. For the record, yesterday’s Hansard and the minutes of evidence for the Committee meeting of 20 June 2007 will clearly show what the First Minister and I said.

I was pleased to hear the junior Minister say that the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister is preparing a comprehensive strategy. That process is at an early stage, but I would be willing to listen to those proposals in the future, which should come via the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. Unfortunately, in the past, the Committee has not received the information that it should have.

The junior Minister (Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister) (Mr Donaldson): I assure the Member that the draft strategy will be brought to the Committee before it is published for general consultation. We have made a lot of progress, and many of the proposals will be familiar to the Member from Mrs McDougall’s report when he reads the draft strategy. The Member should also bear in mind that Mrs McDougall is one of the commissioners designate; no doubt, she will influence the working of the commission, because of her earlier report.

Mr Speaker: I remind the House that Members should speak on the principles of the Bill, and not on wider issues. I do not want to stifle debate but Members must only address the principles of the Bill.

Mr Elliott: Others Members have talked for longer than I have since I got up to speak so it is not my fault that we have strayed from the matter. I was trying to clarify what was said yesterday. I could have raised that issue in a point of order but I am keeping it simple by doing so now.

When did the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister take the decision to change the process from appointing a commissioner to appointing a commission? That issue must be dealt with, and Members need to hear about it in the Chamber. Members must be able to see that the process is moving forward in a positive manner that will help the real victims in this society. I am hugely concerned that this process is actually going to help people who are not the real victims.

I welcome the announcement of the enormous amount of funding for victims — which Mr Moutray referred to — but I want to know how that money is going to be spent. That may be revealed in the draft strategy, but I have doubts. How much will be swallowed up by statutory agencies and administration? How much will go to the real victims? How much will be swallowed up by the commission itself? Those questions have not been answered. Indeed, I am concerned that accelerated passage will mean that they will never be answered.

Mrs D Kelly: As a party that is well-documented as having supported and championed the needs of victims — and one that did not create any victims over the last 35 years — the SDLP welcomes the opportunity to speak about victims and the accelerated passage of the Bill.

At the outset, the First Minister said that the needs of the victims had been prioritised. Why, then, was the House told that a decision would be made before the summer recess last year? Why were Members told in September that it would be issued shortly, and why was the whole thing turned on its head by December?

There are now four commissioners designate rather than the single commissioner originally envisaged. The Committee has not had an opportunity to discuss in detail whether there is an upper limit on the number of commissioners designate that can be appointed, and I seek clarification from the First Minister on that point. The draft Bill, as sent to the Committee, contained no such upper or lower limit.

The First Minister referred to other commissions. However, I remind him that it has been proposed that the victims’ commissioners designate will each receive a salary of £65,000; a number of other commissions only receive up to a maximum of £5,000 per individual. That is a substantial difference in salary for what is, in essence, the same job as before.

It is my understanding from previous discussions — and certainly from Bertha McDougall’s report — that the victim’s forum is going to progress several issues that the commissioners are to address. Members need to know the distinction between the commission and the forum; and we need to tease out the thoughts of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister on the work of the forum vis-à-vis that of the commission.

The forum’s first piece of work should not be the divisive issue of the definition of a victim. Political parties have had little agreement on that point, and it would stymie the advantages for victims and survivors if the forum had to deal with it.

One of the big issues that we have heard about in meetings with many victims’ groups is truth-telling, and Bertha McDougall refers to that. It is an opportunity for victims to tell their story of how their lives were affected by their injuries or by the death of their loved ones.

11.00 am

I note that in an earlier debate in this House there was little support for the work emerging from the consultative process led by the Eames/Bradley group. How will that pan out? We have a legitimate interest in such questions and want to learn more. The integrity of the House was mentioned yesterday, and Hansard records the genuine concerns of many Members. Never mind all this bluster: we did not create the indecision and inactivity around the victims. OFMDFM did that, as it has done in respect of many other decisions. Matters have been kicked into the long grass, partly because Sinn Féin gave the DUP a triple veto in many decision-making processes. Shame on it for that.

I hope that the First Minister will respond to the points that I have raised. I have attempted to put them in the context of accelerated passage. This is not the way to do business. Had we really wanted to do justice by victims and survivors, this Bill would have been introduced last May.

Mr Ford: I begin by agreeing with the First Minister and the spokesmen for the DUP and Sinn Féin. This is certainly a small Bill — in fact, it is a grubby little Bill whose grubby little purpose is to cover over the complete inability of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister to agree on the appointment of a victims’ commissioner.

Dolores Kelly has reminded us that this appointment was to be a priority in May 2007. An appointment was to be made before the summer recess, and then there was to be action in the autumn. There was a flurry of activity in the few days before Christmas — an urgency to interview people so that an appointment would be made. What did we end up with in January? A fudge.

The First Minister and deputy First Minister cannot agree on what goes on, and the sole purpose of this Bill is to keep them together. All the bluster that we have heard from the First Minister, and the lectures on how to be in opposition — and I grant that his experience in that role is greater than mine — do nothing to conceal the fact that the reason for this Bill —

Some Members: Nonsense.

Mr Speaker: Order. The Member has the Floor.

Mr Ford: All the bluster does nothing to conceal the fact that the reason for this Bill is to cover over the complete failure of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister to put victims first, as they promised they would do when devolution was restored. They are the ones who failed and who made a complete mistake of things.

My colleagues and I believe that the needs of victims will be far better served by the original proposal, which the First Minister and deputy First Minister were working on until December 2007 — the appointment of a single victims’ commissioner, who could have taken a single unified approach and ensured that the Balkanisation referred to yesterday by Francie Molloy, with every victims’ group having someone to speak to, did not happen. An opportunity to bring together some of those victims’ concerns and to begin the healing process has been lost. To allow Balkanisation of the process of dealing with victims exacerbates the problems, and that is what this Bill will do. It is designed to do that to spare the embarrassment of OFMDFM.

The arguments produced by the First Minister today and the deputy First Minister yesterday might have had some credibility had they been brought forward in May 2007. They have no credibility whatsoever on April Fool’s Day 2008.

Mr Storey: I thank the Member for giving way. Several years ago — before I ever came into public life — the Alliance Party made another failed electoral attempt. One of its slogans was “Pulling together, not pulling apart”, and the picture showed two donkeys. I do not know whether they were members of the Alliance Party at that time. Will today’s party leader tell us what valid, viable and useful contribution the Alliance Party will make to this process, rather than being a continual hindrance, whether about finance or some other issue?

Mr Ford: I take great pride in being a hindrance to a process that promotes Balkanisation and division and continues to maintain segregation, and I thank the Member for giving me the opportunity to say so.

Mr Donaldson: Will the Member give way?

Mr Ford: Gosh, the Minister is very busy this morning.

Mr Donaldson: If the Alliance Party is opposed to Balkanisation and supports integration, why does it support a separate education system? Why will it not support the state education system as being the best means of integrating education in Northern Ireland? Why does the Alliance Party agree with Balkanising education?

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Mr Ford: Mr Speaker, before you tell me off for straying from the purpose of the debate, I must respond briefly. The Alliance Party was party neither to the Programme for Government that established those methods of education nor to the St Andrews Agreement, which cemented those methods. Therefore, it ill behoves members of Executive parties who established those arrangements to criticise others.

However, if I may return to my — [Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order, order. Members are straying from the principles of the debate and the Bill. I appreciate that the debate has many legs. However, I again remind Members, as far as possible, to debate the principles of the Bill.

Mr Ford: If DUP Members can restrain themselves from making generalised attacks on the Alliance Party, I will manage to stick to debating the principles of the Bill. [Laughter.]

Until the First Minister and deputy First Minister announced the plan to establish four commissioners designate and released those individuals’ names, they had not suggested that the concept of a single commissioner was flawed. Only when they failed to agree on one commissioner did they produce that argument. Similarly, since May 2007, the matter has not been considered urgent. Despite the Executive not working on it for 10 months, it is suddenly a matter of urgency. However, that change will brook little, if any, concern about amendments or proper consideration of the Bill.

I understand that the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister agreed that, although a resolution was urgent, it was more important to get it right. At the moment, the Bill gets it completely wrong. Although it is effectively a one-clause-plus-schedule Bill, the current proposals are flawed. Standing Orders require the four commissioners — by that stage, they will be commissioners — to agree unanimously. However, nowhere does it state how they are expected to achieve that agreement. There is talk of potential direction from the First Minister and deputy First Minister. However, given their inability to do their own job and run a Government, I suspect that having lectured the Alliance Party for providing an opposition, they will proceed to lecture the commission on how it should operate.

The First Minister and deputy First Minister will hand four coequal commissioners the responsibility of reaching consensus without providing any direction on how to achieve that, which will create problems and will be sensitive and difficult for the commission when it is established.

This debate has proved that the First Minister and deputy First Minister cannot agree on the definition of “victim” — moreover, they cannot even agree on the name of the region that they govern — yet they expect to delegate those difficult problems to four recently appointed commissioners. There are serious concerns over whether that model is workable. The First Minister criticised the number of people appointed to, for example, the Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission. However, those commissions employ a chief commissioner, a full-time member of staff who is paid a salary similar to that proposed for each of the victims’ commissioners, and a number of part-timers who are paid modest rates. That is more appropriate than the model —

The First Minister: I objected to the compositions of those bodies, which are totally unfair to the unionist population. If the Member is suggesting that unionists should not have a leading role, we do not want those bodies. That is a fact. The Member may rub his moustache again, but it means nothing.

Mr Ford: I shall not stray from discussing the Bill in order to respond to that completely irrelevant point.

The concept of having one full-time commissioner and a number of part-time commissioners would have been a credible way of amending the idea that a single commissioner would not have been practical. However, that is not what we have. We have four coequal commissioners, each of whom, apparently, has a veto. They hold that veto in much the same way that the First Minister and deputy First Minister hold vetoes over each other: and look at what that has achieved for us.

As Mrs Dolores Kelly pointed out, there is not even a cap on the number of commissioners who may be appointed. Will we be in the position, in four years’ time, in which six or eight commissioners have been appointed? Is that a realistic and sensible way to proceed? The Bill is defective in that respect, because even though I understand that that matter was raised in the Committee, the Bill stands as it was proposed originally. That is another example of where the First Minister and the deputy First Minister have simply failed to introduce a Bill that provides a workable and meaningful way of addressing victims’ needs.

I notice that none of the DUP or Sinn Féin members of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister contradicted the criticisms that Naomi Long made yesterday. That is a rather interesting statement, which shows that the Committee failed to get answers during that hurried, private session, when matters were not considered properly and when there was not even a fair consultation with the Committee at that point. Perhaps the speechwriters had not written the answers for the Back-Bench Members.

Mr Molloy: Will the Member give way?

Mr Ford: Even though Sinn Féin Members do not give way, I will do so.

Mr Molloy: I do, in fact, give way.

The Member may remember that I said yesterday that the First Minister, the deputy First Minister and the junior Ministers attended the Committee meeting and answered the questions that all members of the Committee asked. There was no time limit on the questions being asked, and the Committee discussed the issues for a fairly lengthy period of time. I made that point to Mrs Long yesterday. She covered a range of issues, and I do not think that it would be expected that Sinn Féin Members, or any other Members, would respond to every one of them. The Committee discussed the issues in detail in the meeting at which the Ministers were present.

Mr Ford: Given the absence of a record of that meeting, it is difficult to tell what happened. I have been given to understand that no substantive answers were given, and the fact that a letter followed, which also contained no substantive answers, indicates that the matter was not thought through fully.

Mrs D Kelly: Further to Mr Molloy’s intervention, as a member of the Committee who was present and who paid attention to what happened at that meeting, I know that many questions were left unanswered. I asked about the policy framework and the job descriptions of the commissioners, and no answers were given. Further­more, no advance notice was given to the Committee about asking for accelerated passage and, at the request of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister, the Committee meeting was held in closed session. That brings a new dimension to smoke-filled corridors.

Mr Ford: I thank the Member for her intervention, which backs up my second-hand understanding of what happened during the Committee meeting.

It is noteworthy that there was no detailed response yesterday, and, certainly, the Hansard report does not record any of those Members giving detailed responses to Mrs Long’s points. Perhaps the speechwriters had not written those responses; perhaps they are upstairs now busy scribbling in order that we will get them later in the debate. It shows the failure, at that point, of the matter being taken up properly by the Committee.

There are huge potential problems with the Bill. The danger of a commission being set up that does not function properly concerns me hugely. The needs of victims must be prioritised, and that would have been best achieved by implementing the Victims and Survivors (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 and by the First Minister and deputy First Minister agreeing on the appointment of a single commissioner.

I put it to the House that the example of Mrs Bertha McDougall’s work as Interim Victims’ Commissioner, in spite of the way in which she was appointed by the then Secretary of State, was a clear example of how one individual, regardless of personal circumstances and background, was able to reach out across the community and engage with victims’ groups from different sectors. Although we cannot agree the definition of a victim, to have the example of an individual who came from one particular grouping and who was able to engage with others seems to prove that the Bill is not only dangerous but unnecessary.

There should have been proper scrutiny of the Bill in Committee Stage, which has been refused. On that basis, and given the inadequacies of the Bill, my colleagues and I have no option but to oppose the Bill at Second Stage.

11.15 am

Mr O’Dowd: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. The principle that we are discussing today relates to the appointment of the victims’ commissioners. The Assembly has accepted that the Bill will be given accelerated passage; we are now discussing the Bill.

Some of the contributions from the parties who appear to be opposing the entire process are missing the point. It does not matter what the Alliance Party, the SDLP or indeed Sinn Féin think about the commiss­ioners; what matters is what the victims and survivors think of them. If the Bill is passed, then, over time, they will be able to judge whether the commissioners are carrying out their task well. The victims and survivors will judge that; not the parties in the Chamber. If they return with a strong voice to say that it is not working out, there will then be a duty on us as politicians to reconsider the matter.

Party politics is being played over the issue, and that should not be done. This is a debating Chamber, and it is natural that we politicians will have a go at each other over many different issues. However, it is a mistake to play with this issue. The proposal is for four commissioners instead of one, and it is better for the two leading parties in Assembly to have made that proposal, rather than having stalemate and deadlock. The people who would lose out because of such a stalemate would be the victims and survivors.

Mr Ford: Will the Member inform the House who has caused the stalemate and deadlock since May 2007?

Mr O’Dowd: The Alliance Party and the SDLP have said that the matter should have been sorted out last May. If it had been sorted out then, the Bill would have to have been passed by accelerated passage because the Assembly only came into being on 8 May 2007. Those parties wanted the Bill rushed through, but if it had been, the Committee would not have been consulted, the victims would not have been consulted and the interviews would not have taken place. Instead, discussion and debate has taken place on how to move forward this important and difficult matter.

Mr Ford, you are missing the point — through the Speaker. [Laughter.]

The difficulty for the Alliance Party is that the matter has been sorted out. The Alliance Party does not want the institutions to work. It cannot see a future for itself within institutions in which the two main political groupings on this part of the island work out an agreement. This Bill is an outworking of the work that has been carried out.

I am beginning to come to the opinion that one of the reasons that the Alliance Party is so vexed about the commissioners is because none of them are serving, or former, members of the Alliance Party. It used to be that Alliance Party members would retire and be put out to grass with public appointments: they would receive their fat salaries and be happy forever.

Mr McElduff: As a member of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, I want to point out that the closed session was agreed to by Committee members to allow serious examination of the issues and a full opportunity to raise all issues. Those issues are not even being raised this morning. Time and again, the Speaker has had to remind Members to address the principles of the Bill. Members have waffled all morning, but those principles must be addressed. It does no credit to the Committee that neither the Chairman nor the Alliance Party Deputy Chair could see fit to be here for the Second Stage consideration of the Bill.

Mr McNarry: That is a cheap shot.

Mr McElduff: When one of the commissioners designate appeared on television and said that they wanted to be enabled to carry on with their work, the SDLP Minister said on the same programme that the Executive would move heaven and earth to see that they could do so immediately. Let us allow them to get on with their work without any further delay.

Mr O’Dowd: I thank the Member for that contribution.

The Bill allows the commission to get on with its work of helping and assisting survivors and victims of the conflict. It is not about the party political differences that may exist between the two senior political parties in the Chamber or the other political parties in the Chamber. The Bill is about allowing the victims’ commission to move forward and carry out its duties, which every political party in the Chamber has demanded. I am disappointed that the Chamber split yesterday over the accelerated —

Mr McNarry: The cosy coalition.

Mr Speaker: Order. The Member has the Floor. Every other Member will have an opportunity to speak.

Mr O’Dowd: Thank you, Mr Speaker, but I was not listening to him anyhow. It was just a drone in the background.

It is disappointing that the House divided on the vote on the accelerated passage for the Bill because, as my colleague Mr McElduff said, public pronouncements on television programmes to move heaven and earth mean diddly-squat. Members must come forward in the House — the House has the power, not the studios of UTV or BBC1. The Chamber has the power to advance matters: it is where raising the hand to vote counts, where going through the Lobbies counts and where legislation is made. I urge Members to allow the legislation to progress unhindered, allow the victims’ commission to be established and allow the commiss­ioners to get on with their work.

Mr Shannon: It is important that the members of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister make the Assembly aware of the lengthy and vociferous discussions that took place on the accelerated passage to get the Bill to its current position. All of the Committee members asked questions and put forward their points of view.

Yesterday, Mr Ford mentioned the accelerated passage and referred to Standing Order 40(4). However, when an explanation was given, he was sitting on one of the soft seats at the back of the Chamber and did not listen to the explanation. Instead, he was yammering — which is the Ulster Scots word to describe what he was doing — to one of his colleagues.

Mr Speaker: I remind the Member that it is vitally important to try, if possible, to keep his remarks to the principles of the Bill. [Laughter.]

Mr Shannon: I will endeavour to do so. It was important to make that point — the Member was so vociferous yesterday that it was important to make everyone aware of what he was — or was not — doing. It is imperative that we support —

Mr Ford: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. As I have been named, do I get an opportunity to respond to that point?

I am not sure how good Mr Shannon’s hearing is, but I am perfectly aware of what happens in the Chamber. The deputy First Minister had failed to address my points in his proposing speech, which was the point of order that I had raised; moreover, I listened to him fail adequately to address them in his summation.

Mr Speaker: Order. The Member has already spoken, but he could ask for an intervention.

Mr Shannon: I can hear doves flying between half a mile and three quarters of a mile away, so I am well able to hear what the Member was up to at the back of the Chamber — nothing.

It is important to support the Bill. It is important to debate it in the Chamber and it is important that all Members wholeheartedly support it. We are here for one reason — to hear the voices of the innocent and the cries of the suffering. I support the Bill because I have listened to the people I represent, some of whom have lost loved ones. I urge Members to listen to those people, to support the Bill and not to thwart it.

Mrs D Kelly: As a fellow member of the Committee, will the Member acknowledge that, contrary to Mr O’Dowd’s comments, the reason that the Committee meeting was in closed session was a possible judicial review of the decision and the seeking of legal advice? That was the sole reason given to Committee members. Furthermore, we were not told in advance that we would have to make a decision.

Mr Shannon: There may be a slight difference of opinion. That was the Member’s opinion of what happened, and many of us had views on other issues. The important thing was that most of us realised that it was important to advance the issue, that it was important for the Bill to have accelerated passage, to have the debate in the Chamber today, and to respond to the victims. The people I represent have told me that they want the Bill to be passed as soon as possible.

I urge Members — including all the parties with questions about it — not to try to obstruct and thwart the Bill, but instead to support it. If Members want to help the victims and make their lives better, we must move forward. I urge Members to support the Bill.

Mr B McCrea: Once again, there is a political fudge.

The so-called senior parties seem to have sorted this matter out between themselves, and they appear to think that the rest of us therefore need not bother ourselves with it. That does not seem to be the right approach. If this is such an important topic, is it not right that we should have a proper debate on it? Is it not right that we should discuss the issues and be allowed to express our reservations? That is what UUP Members meant yesterday when we talked about the process. We opposed accelerated passage, not because we are in any way shy of supporting victims, but because we do not think that taking that course of action would do victims justice. If we are to do this, we must do it right. We must be inclusive and bring everybody around the table, and we must confront the past.

Mr O’Dowd: The Member says that he opposed accelerated passage on behalf of victims. Can he tell me which victims’ groups approached the Ulster Unionist Party and asked its Members to oppose accelerated passage?

Mr McNarry: We are talking to them right now — right this minute, upstairs.

Mr Speaker: Order. I must tell the Member that I will not warn him again. He has interrupted and tried to speak from a sedentary position. I simply want to warn the Member.

Mr B McCrea: My colleagues have talked about victims in general, but I will mention a particular constituent of mine. He was an RUC detective sergeant who was shot six times, but who is still alive. He had to relocate. He was informed through the HET of who shot him, and, according to this information — it has not been tried — the people who shot him have associations with people in the Assembly. What do those people have to say? There is a wide variety of information, and I am not trying to trivialise what has to be said. I accept that we must deal with the past and find a way forward. However, if some Members think that the two senior parties can get together and ram this Bill through without taking any cognisance of what the rest of us think, they are wrong. They may be able to carry the vote, but they will not be able to carry the people.

The UUP Members want there to be due process; it is our right to express our points of view and concerns and our absolute disdain about the definition of “victim”. Let me put on record that the Ulster Unionist Party is not happy about the definition of “victim”. We will table an amendment, through the proper channels and at the proper time, and that is why we are rejecting this motion. We will want to see what Members have to say when we come to discuss the victims. Are DUP Members really happy with the current definition of “victim”? Do they not want to change it? Have they not thought about that issue? Did they just forget about it?

Mr Donaldson: Yes, we did think about it. We voted against a proposal by the Member.

Mr Speaker: Order. The Member has the Floor.

Mr B McCrea: Did they just forget about it, or is it the truth that their cosy coalition with the Members opposite did not allow them to come up with a proper definition of “victim”? The First Minister took issue with me yesterday when I said that, as far as I am concerned, a “victim” is someone who was passive, who had something done to them through no fault of their own. Many innocent people suffered at the hands of others, and we have an obligation to sort that out. People may well want to discuss other issues and other people who have suffered. Fair enough; let us talk about that.

Mr Poots: Will the Member give way?

Mr B McCrea: I will give way, and I am interested to hear whether the Minister’s attitude today is different from his attitude last night.

Mr Poots: I thank the Member for giving way. We have heard a lot about the definition of “victim”, but can the Member remind us of the Ulster Unionist Party’s definition of “victim” when it held the office of First Minister? What did the party do for victims at that time? How much money did it apportion to victims? Please remind us of what the Ulster Unionist Party did then.

Mr Donaldson: Nothing; absolutely nothing.

Mr B McCrea: Well, I am very sorry —

Mr McNarry: We never gave the Provos an amnesty.

Mr B McCrea: I am very sorry —


Mr Speaker: Order, order. I have already warned Members not to speak from a sedentary position.

11.30 am

Mr B McCrea: I am disappointed that the Minister is not aware of the UUP definition of a victim. Perhaps if he had gone through the due process and taken this discussion through the Committee, he would have known. Instead, a spark of light has suddenly hit him, and he is now asking the question. Let us address the situation properly, confront it and talk about it. The Ulster Unionist Party is not afraid to take on those tough issues. The party will discuss the matter and find a solution.

Mr Durkan: The Member should remind the DUP that, when the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister was set up, there already was a victims unit in the Northern Ireland Office. Despite that, the then First Minister and deputy First Minister insisted on setting up a victims liaison unit, because they said that devolution could not simply shrug its shoulders because somebody else was dealing with those problems. Those Ministers also introduced, and had a full consultation on, a strategy for victims. Funding for victims was also provided not only in the Department but under European funding; it was a priority in the European Peace programme.

Mr B McCrea: I am grateful for the intervention from Mr Durkan.

People talk about stalemate, and one can see why, given that the issue has been going on for so long. There is stalemate because people cannot reach agreement. Until, and unless, the genuine concerns of all people are at least considered, we will not make progress. The Ulster Unionist Party will not support the Bill until it finds out what is happening about the definition of “victim”. If people do not like that, they should understand that inclusivity means exactly that.

Mr Moutray: Will the Member give way?

Mr Donaldson: Will the Member give way?

Mr B McCrea: I was just about to finish, but there is a queue of interventions.

Mr Moutray: Some Members find that Ulster Unionist Party opposition on this issue is rather half-hearted. In yesterday’s debate, exactly 50% of UUP Members bothered to turn up to oppose the motion.

Mr Donaldson: Earlier, the First Minister clearly stated what was being done about the definition of “victim”. Victims should have a say, and they will be consulted. The SDLP and the Ulster Unionist Party do not want to hear from the victims and do not want them to have a voice in this matter. However, we believe that victims should have a say. [Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order, order. The Member has the Floor.

Mr Donaldson: Victims should have a say on how “victim” is defined. It is a matter of regret if the Ulster Unionist Party opposes that. The commission needs to be put in place now; UUP opposition, while we wait for the response, is ridiculous.

Mr Speaker: Order. Members should be discussing the principles of the Bill. I remind Members that the definition of “victim” has nothing to do with the principles of the Bill.

Mr B McCrea: The fundamental point is that the definition of “victim” has a bearing on the appointment of four or more commissioners. Members accuse the UUP of not caring about, or listening to, victims. People who make those statements are not interested in what the victims have to say; they are interested only in their own statements. The DUP is interested only in what happens between it and Sinn Féin. This is shoddy work.

Mrs D Kelly: Does the Member share my recollection that during consultation with victims’ and survivors’ groups, many victims advocated that there should be more than one forum because they would have diffi­culties sharing one with the perpetrators of violence?

Mr B McCrea: I thank the Member for her inter­vention. I am well aware that Members on different sides of the House have different attitudes about whether victims should have to share forums with the perpetrators of the crimes that affected them. Frankly, to have to do so is a disgrace.

There is a critical issue about the responsibilities of commissioners. What is it that we want them to do? That is the issue that we want to get to the bottom of.

In conclusion, the Ulster Unionist Party has always stood by the victims. We did not create any victims — neither by action nor by words. We are trying to find a solution. If Members ramrod this legislation through without listening to wider society, they are doomed to failure, as is Northern Ireland. Therefore, the real message is: get real, we need to work this out and we need to talk about it openly.

Mr Durkan: I refute the point that was just made by junior Minister Jeffrey Donaldson about the SDLP having no wish to hear from victims. He said that in response to the issues about the victims’ forum. Mr Donaldson knows full well that the SDLP has long advocated having a victims’ and survivors’ forum. Furthermore, he knows full well that he and I had many conversations — both when he was in the UUP and the DUP — about the issue. During those conversations he explained that his difficulty with a victims’ and survivors’ forum was the definition of what constitutes a victim; who would be on the forum; and that victims would have difficulty sitting with perpetrators. Mr Donaldson now says that he sees a role for a victims’ forum. However, having come late to that concept, it is a bit much for him to accuse the rest of us of not wanting to hear from victims.

I made the point yesterday that when we were advocating having a victims’ forum, during negotiations in 2003 at Hillsborough before the joint declaration, we were told that the reason it got no more than consideration in the document that was produced by the two Governments was because the UUP — of which Mr Donaldson was then a member — and Sinn Féin objected to it. We were told that that was why more substantive progress on that issue was not made. Therefore, we are not going to take lectures from people who are in no position to give them.

Mrs Long: Does the Member agree that had the Bill gone through the normal Stages — including the Committee Stage — there would have been ample opportunity to hear the views of victims and their representatives? That would have enabled us to establish whether they are in favour of the Bill, or whether that assertion is simply spin being put on the issue by certain political parties for their own ends.

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for that point, which I was going to make during my remarks. Accelerated passage was granted yesterday owing to the Sinn Féin/DUP axis. The rest of us are now being told that by raising other issues or other considerations, we are trying to hinder progress on the issue and that we are against victims. However, we are simply trying to do the work of due diligence that is required from a proper legislative Assembly.

That is on a par with what happened in the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. We have been told that that Committee agreed to the accelerated passage of the Bill; however, the issue was not even on the agenda of that Committee meeting. The decision was taken in closed session. Taking a decision entirely in private about the public process of legislation is creating a dangerous precedent. It could well be that the reasons for accelerated passage had to be shared with the Committee in closed session, and I understand that there were legal sensitivities that Ministers wanted to share with the Committee in closed session. That is entirely legitimate and it was responsible of the Ministers to do that. However, it was not legitimate and responsible to insist that a decision had to be taken in closed session.

The First Minister: It was the prerogative of the Committee to say whether it would meet in closed session or not. The Member should not blame people who had no say in the matter. The Committee made the decision that it would be a closed meeting.

The Member is trying to tell us that an undercurrent ran beneath that decision. There was no such under­current. The Committee did not even tell us that it would not meet us in closed session. As the Member rightly points out, for legal reasons certain matters could not be discussed in open session.

Mr Durkan: The First Minister has completely missed the point. I raised no direct objection to the Ministers having asked the Committee to meet them in closed session; some of the issues that they wanted to discuss were matters of legal sensitivity and, therefore, legal jeopardy could have been an issue. That is the right and proper procedure to have followed. Obviously, the Committee made a reasoned and responsible decision to hear the Ministers in closed session. However, the insistence by the Sinn Féin/DUP axis that a decision about accelerated passage must be made, there and then in closed session, was neither reasoned nor responsible.

Mr Molloy: Does the Member accept that the Committee would have needed to agree to go into closed session and that a Committee member would have needed to propose that the meeting come out of closed session? No such proposal was made by any Committee member — not by a member of the SDLP or the Ulster Unionists — or by the Ulster Unionist Chairperson of the Committee. [Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order. Mr Durkan has the Floor.

Mr Durkan: There was a proposal at that meeting not to make a decision on accelerated passage during that meeting but to return to the matter at the Committee’s next meeting. The Sinn Féin/DUP axis voted that proposal down and forced a decision through that day.

Mr Molloy: I thank the Member for giving way again. The Member raised the issue of closed session. No proposal was made by the SDLP member of the Committee either for the meeting to be in public session or for it to come out of closed session before a decision on accelerated passage was made.

Mr Durkan: Clearly, the proposal was made not to make a decision on accelerated passage that day while the Committee was in closed session; it was decided that the Committee would return to it at a later meeting. That was the proposal that was made and the position that several members and parties adopted. That is a fact.

Clearly, a dangerous precedent has been set in which a decision on the public business of legislation — the question of whether to support accelerated passage — was taken during closed session. That is absolutely unprecedented.

Mr Poots: Does the Member agree that the fact that the First Minister and the deputy First Minister actually attended that meeting represents progress? During the previous dispensation, for some of which the Member was the deputy First Minister, the First Minister and the deputy First Minister attended the Committee of the Centre only once, regardless of whether its meetings were held in closed or open session.

Mr Durkan: I certainly attended the Committee of the Centre: as to who was with me is another matter. I never refused or made excuses about any request to attend that Committee; none whatever. That is the truth.

The Bill has been put before the House purely on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. That is wrong. The devolved Assembly certainly could have done better by its own spirit and responsibility, and it certainly could have done better by the victims. However, the SDLP recognises that there has been a long delay on the issue, both prior to and since devolution. My party does not want to create unnecessary further delays. If it believed that opposition to the Bill would create and guarantee a better outcome, it would be prepared to oppose it. However, it has no reason to believe that successful opposition to the Bill would lead to a better, more rational outcome that included, for example, Mr Ford’s suggestion of having one senior commissioner and other part-time commissioners.

My party wants to ensure that a commissioner or a commission exists to act on behalf of victims. The SDLP is not opposed to that concept. It believes that there could have been a much better outcome than the current proposal for a commission that comprises four commissioners.

The way in which that decision was made was questionable and wrong. However, to compound the delay and confusion would not be better for victims or for the reputation of the House. At least there is now a proposal, which may or may not work: it may work well; it may work not so well. The Assembly has a duty to ensure that the four commissioners will be in a position to do the best possible job.

11.45 am

Had the Bill been given full and proper consideration, the Assembly would have been in a position to ensure that the role of the commissioners would be better understood, supported and appreciated. Proper consid­eration would have allowed victims’ groups and others to give evidence to the Committee and raise issues and questions, and it would have ensured greater consid­eration and understanding of the remit and role of the commissioners. Using the proper legislative route would have been better for the proposed commission and helped to relieve many concerns and address many questions.

Furthermore, the Assembly would have had to face up to its responsibility in addressing some of the issues that it is ducking, such as the definition of “victim”. Had the Assembly been debating a more comprehensive Bill through a more complete procedure, Members would have been able to table amendments and take on board suggestions and evidence from others on how issues might be addressed.

People may have thought that the victims’ commission would deal with the definition of “victim”. Why should it not address that particular issue? Instead, when introducing the motion for accelerated passage yesterday, the deputy First Minister told the Assembly that the problem of defining “victim” would be left to the victims’ forum. Given that the definition is such a vexed issue — one about which Members have been sniping at each other — is it fair or responsible for the political parties in the Assembly and Executive to devolve to victims the most difficult issue of all?

Does the Assembly want to make a success of the victims’ and survivors’ forum? The forum has been handed the most difficult issue even through we do not know exactly how it will be run and the precise relationship between it and the commission is unclear. Yet the Assembly was simply told that that dangerous issue is to be left to the victims’ and survivors’ forum — that is absolutely irresponsible.

The First Minister: The honourable gentleman misunderstands what the deputy First Minister said yesterday and what I said today. Therefore, I will repeat what I said earlier: “As the deputy First Minister mentioned yesterday during the debate on accelerated passage for the Bill, in recognition of the difficulties surrounding the definition of “victim”, both of us will ask the proposed victims’ forum to examine urgently the definition of “victim” and to bring forward proposals for consideration.”

The forum will not make the decision: I have said, and will repeat, that the House will have the final say on all matters.

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for his intervention. I still do not believe that the matter is clear enough, and the First Minister’s words are at variance with the way in which the point about the definition of “victim” was made yesterday. Simply to hand the issue to the victims’ and survivors’ forum, particularly when it has been the subject of such vexed exchanges in the House, is to duck responsibility for the issue. It will cause some apprehension among those who may wish to serve on, or contribute to, the victims’ and survivors’ forum.

Had the Assembly considered the legislation through the normal procedures and processes, those issues would have been more fully explained and any fears and apprehensions better allayed, because the concerns would have been aired and shared more effectively and credibly.

The Bill provides an answer — although maybe not a good answer — to the long-standing demand to ensure that there is a victims’ commissioner: we now have commissioners in a commission. They have a very difficult job, not least because their jobs are not clear. Neither the Bill nor previous legislation makes the locus of the commission clear in respect of issues such as the victims’ funding package that we have been told about. A lot of emphasis has been placed on the fact that there is a funding package for victims, but it is not clear exactly what locus or oversight the victims’ commission will have on that. Will it be entirely up to Ministers, the Executive, the Departments, or whatever; will the commission have a serious oversight role, or will it just have the right to intervene if issues arise about individual spending decisions? None of that is clear.

The commission’s precise role in respect of the victims’ strategy is also not clear. Will it be developing or proofing the strategy, or will it be playing an inter­vening, regulating or adjusting role? It is not clear whether those responsibilities are for the Executive Ministers and what role the victims’ commission will play.

If there had been fuller consideration of the Bill, Members would have been able to explore the issues; relevant amendments could have been proposed, and assurances and explanations provided. This is a recipe for a lot more confusion. All we have been given is an answer to the problem of appointing a victims’ commissioner — we now have four commissioners appointed, and their precise role and remit is not clear. However, it is clear that it will be difficult.

Mrs D Kelly: For the record, Mr Speaker, when moving the motion for accelerated passage, the deputy First Minister said:

“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.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 29, p16, col 2].

Is the First Minister not aware of that?

Mr Durkan: I thank the Member for her point. I have already said that this will be a difficult issue to devolve to a victims’ and survivors’ forum, particularly by those who previously resisted the idea of such a forum and were very hostile to it, and that went back several years. It is not right or proper to hand the one issue that the Assembly has great difficulty with to the forum, without Members having considered the matter further. [Interruption.]

The junior Minister is saying that we are suggesting that we ignore the victims. We are not. The people who are ignoring the victims are those who want accelerated passage for a Bill that denies victims the right to have their say on an issue that is meant to be about them. Yesterday, we heard Sinn Féin and the DUP talk about the need to have a victim-centred approach and a victim-led approach — [Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order. The Member has the Floor.

Mr Durkan: We now have a means of legislation that does not even allow us to hear from victims and allows us to make no reference to victims whatsoever by way of taking evidence from them or receiving other considerations. The people who imposed accelerated passage are the people who do not want to hear from the victims. We are not even hearing from the victims’ commissioners — the people whom we are meant to be equipping and appointing — because of accelerated passage. We cannot hear about their ambitions, hopes, and sensitivities. That would have been helpful in ensuring wider confidence and consensus in the House, and it would have garnered greater confidence and support in the community at large. We have been denied that opportunity, and the victims have been denied that opportunity.

Mr McElduff: Will the Member clarify whether the SDLP will support accelerated passage or will continue to oppose it?

Mr Durkan: To clarify for the Member: the decision on accelerated passage was taken yesterday. The Sinn Féin/DUP axis pushed accelerated passage through to ensure that Committees could not give the Bill proper consideration — [Interruption.] It seems that I have to tell the Teller — and to ensure that there would be no opportunity for victims to express their views on the legislation.

Mr O’Dowd: The Member’s colleague Mrs Kelly has been quoting from yesterday’s Hansard report, and my colleague Mr McElduff has intervened on the matter of accelerated passage. I shall refresh Mr Durkan’s memory on what he said yesterday:

“I do not go as far as advocating outright opposition to accelerated passage”. — [Official Report, Bound Volume 29, p20, col 1].

Mr Durkan: That is correct, but if the Member reads on, he will see that I asked the deputy First Minister to respond to several issues. Those were not addressed, and for that reason we voted against accelerated passage. The issues that we wanted Ministers to address in order that we could have assurances on them were very clear. Given the nature of the debate and the contributions that Sinn Féin and DUP Members made — particularly those that misrepresented the role and the record of other parties — we certainly felt that we had no choice but to vote against accelerated passage. If we had voted in favour of it, Members of both Sinn Féin and the DUP would misrepresent that vote, both now and in the future.

Now that a decision, with which we disagree, has been made in favour of accelerated passage, the SDLP as a party must decide whether it will oppose the Bill. I have already mentioned that we have concluded that we cannot oppose the Bill, because that would not necessarily guarantee any of the better outcomes that have been discussed. In theory, those better outcomes would be available; in theory they were available before the First Minister and deputy First Minister came to the House with the proposal to have four commissioners.

We want some certainty now, and we need some traction. I wish that we were in a position to have a better decision, a better outcome and a better Bill, with better consideration and better input from all Members, and, particularly, with a better hearing from victims. Unfortunately, we have been denied that because the issue was delayed for too long and has been scrambled.

However, I notify the House that the SDLP will consider tabling amendments to the Bill and will consider how to use the opportunity that the Bill presents to address practically and positively some of the issues that we and other parties have identified. Furthermore, we will consider fully whatever amendments other parties or other Ministers may table.

I understood from a comment that junior Minister Jeffery Donaldson made yesterday from a sedentary position that Ministers might address the fact that the Bill does not currently limit the number of commiss­ioners who may be appointed. At one point Mr Donaldson said that that matter will be addressed; we will wait and see whether that happens. It was pointed out yesterday that there is no cap on the number of commissioners that could be appointed and that their number would not necessarily be limited to four. Perhaps that is how the job-creation targets in the Programme for Government will be met. Perhaps there will be lots of commissioners for victims — it will be Northern Ireland’s biggest growth sector if we approach the role in that way. [Laughter.]

Just as Ministers may want to reflect on the desirability of some amendments, other Members may want to do the same. Unfortunately, we are unable to do that through the best possible legislative conditions, such as the Committee Stage, during which there is proper consideration of different issues. Therefore, parties will have to take their chances on amendments.

It might be that, as the other parties table amendments, the cosy alliance of the Sinn Féin/DUP axis will continue to drive things through. I ask Sinn Féin and the DUP to show greater respect for the role of the devolved Assembly and to show greater sensitivity to the diversity and complexity of victims’ issues. Those parties have no right to associate themselves with victims as though that association were a badge that belonged to them exclusively. Both parties have a record of ghettoising victims, and they have no right to come to the Assembly and patronise victims based on the claim that they are the only parties that are proposing the commissioners and driving through this proposal, thus concluding that only they care for victims.

That sends out a very dangerous signal. It is dangerous to argue that anybody who has any difference of view on the practicality of the legislation suddenly does not care about victims. We care about victims, and we care about our legislative responsibilities in the House. We want to do our job properly, and we want to ensure that the commissioners — who will inevitably be legally empowered as a result of the Bill — will be in a position to do a good job. The Assembly will have legislated the commission’s job into existence; however, the way in which Sinn Féin and the DUP have produced the legislation will not allow us to look the commissioners or victims in the face and say that we know what that job is. That is a poor bit of legislation.

12.00 noon

However, if that is all that will be done for victims, and if it is the best legislation that we will get — and that seems to be the case, because it is the best that those parties can come up with — the SDLP will not stand in its way.

Dr Farry: The Alliance Party opposes the Bill’s Second Stage, because it is a flawed Bill, which carries a major risk of providing a flawed solution to the problem of victims and survivors in society.

If the Bill does not go through, we will not let victims down, because the existing legislation will remain in place, and the challenge will go back to the First Minister and deputy First Minister to fulfil the task that they set themselves last spring of appointing a victims’ commis­sioner. We can move forward without the Bill; it is not necessary for addressing the issue on the way forward.

There is a major substantive issue for debate; the Bill is not simply a technical one that we should rubber-stamp in the way in which, for example, parity legislation has been granted accelerated passage in the past. The commission was an afterthought on the part of the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. Nothing has been said to challenge the Alliance Party’s theory that, instead of deciding that a commission, rather than a single commissioner, was the better way forward for victims in Northern Ireland, and consulting victims on that point, the First Minister and deputy First Minister — having argued and argued over the appointment of a single victims’ commissioner — decided to split the difference. They decided to appoint four commissioners as a means of covering up their inability to show leadership to society and to develop a shared way forward for dealing with the victims issue.

That, in itself, was a major let-down for victims in our society. However, beyond that, it is an example of an extremely bad approach to policy-making. Policy-making should be based upon strategic thinking, rather than on people dreaming up mechanisms to cover up their inability to agree. The First Minister lectures the Alliance Party on how to perform in opposition; however, perhaps, he will reflect on those realities in the next few minutes.

How will the commission work? Is it actually workable or feasible? Who will ensure that the commission will express a single, coherent view? Those are the key questions, and we have received no reassurances or details on them. There is a concern about open-ended membership and whether four commissioners will become six, or eight, or 20, or 70,000. We simply do not know the answer, and we have received no reassurance on that point.

The biggest concern for Members and the public in Northern Ireland is the potential emergence of a Balkanised approach to the issue of victims. Francie Molloy more or less confirmed yesterday that there would be a situation in which different victims’ groups would feel that they should approach different commissioners to address their particular concerns, as opposed to looking to a single body with a coherent perspective.

My comments are no reflection on the four individuals who have, so far, been designated as commissioners by the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. I have high regard for those individuals. I have no doubt that they are people of integrity, but they have been placed in a totally invidious situation. We should reflect on that in great detail.

There has also been much discussion about a victims’ forum and the definition of a victim. The Bill does not change the definition of a victim. It merely contains an amendment to the Victims and Survivors (Northern Ireland) Order 2006, which includes the definition of a victim. Therefore, that issue has been prejudged. Members of a victims’ forum will be there on the basis of the existing definition of a victim, and if they are asked to address that issue, it will already have been prejudged. The forum’s first task will be to revise the definition of a victim and, in practical terms, to decide who will have to leave the room as they will no longer fit the new agreed definition.

Mrs D Kelly: Does the Member agree that an absurd situation is being created? On what basis will the First Minister and deputy First Minister establish the forum, given that they have no agreed definition of a victim?

Dr Farry: It is a paradoxical situation. The only legal basis on which the victims’ forum can be created is through the existing provisions in the 2006 Order. Therefore, the definition of a victim remains, and it has been prejudged. The forum’s first act will be to decide who it will throw out of the room, and that is patently absurd. Furthermore, the forum will be granted what in rugby terms is deemed a “hospital pass” to deal with perhaps the most difficult issue facing society. Our political leaders should reach agreement on the issue, but they cannot, so they will pass it on to the forum to come up with a solution. There is a real risk that we will end up with several definitions of a victim, and that will further perpetuate a Balkanised way forward on victims’ issues. Again, that is not an ideal situation.

Those major issues would have benefited from the Bill having a proper Committee Stage, as it would have provided the opportunity for victims’ groups to give their views.

People are prejudging what victims’ groups actually want. There is an assumption that the First Minister and deputy First Minister are perpetuating the idea that victims’ groups are in favour of such a solution. That would take a long stretch of the imagination. It is important that we give victims the space to offer their comments if we are serious about having a victim-centred approach rather than an approach centred on overcoming the blushes of the First Minister and deputy First Minister because of their inability to agree.

I wish to refer to comments that were made by other Members — in particular, John O’Dowd. He said that the Alliance Party is raising this issue only because a member of the Alliance Party was not designated as one of the commissioners. David Ford paid a glowing tribute to the work of Bertha McDougall as a single victims’ commissioner, and, as far as I am aware, she has never been a member of the Alliance Party, so there we go. She is not a member of the Alliance Party, yet we have recognised that she has done good work.

Mrs D Kelly: Mr O’Dowd’s question requires an answer. Who are the Sinn Féin, UUP, DUP and SDLP members on the commission?

Dr Farry: That is quite right. There is a major fallacy in trying to attribute —

The First Minister: Will the Member give way?

Dr Farry: I will give way in a minute.

The First Minister: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Is it right to refer to the political parties of the nominees and to make the assertion that they belong to Sinn Féin, the DUP or other parties? Is that in order?

Mr Speaker: I remind Members that it is important to get back to the principles of the Bill.

Dr Farry: Thank you for that clarification. I was about to make the very point that the First Minister made had he allowed me to continue my remarks for a few more seconds before giving way.

It was not the Alliance Party who introduced comments about the political affiliations of the commissioners. In fact, I was about to make the point that that is a dangerous route to go down, and it is one that we should avoid at all costs.

As for how we have got to this stage, there has been a great deal of discussion about the procedures adopted by the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister and the nature of the closed session that it conducted. It is worth putting on record that the Committee’s decision to grant a closed session to the First Minister and the deputy First Minister was based on a request to discuss the nature of the appoint­ments of the commissioners designate and potential legal ramifications arising from that. The goalposts were shifted during that session when the new issue of accelerated passage was introduced. A number of parties have made the point that that second discussion on accelerated passage raised an important issue about transparency and accountability in the political system. That discussion should have taken place in public so that the people of Northern Ireland could hear exactly what was being said.

There are broader issues of transparency and account­ability for the Committee to consider. It is tasked with holding the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to account, but a majority of the members of that Committee belong to the same parties as the two top office-holders. Those members act effectively on a party basis, following the dictates of Ministers. That creates major difficulties for the role of the Committees, which is to hold Departments to account, and which was set up in the Good Friday Agreement and ratified by the St Andrews Agreement. All Members of the Assembly should reflect on that.

Mr O’Dowd said that the Alliance Party is here to oppose for opposition’s sake, and recited his usual mantra, which is to say to us, “How dare you oppose anything”, and declare that opposition in the House to what the Executive are doing undermines the institutions. What we are doing is clearly the opposite of that. The Alliance Party has worked for more than 35 years to build stable political institutions in Northern Ireland. Society was held back for 35 years by the parties that are currently in office.

We are here now: let me illustrate for Mr O’Dowd the importance of democracy. Democracy is not about Governments making decisions and having them rubber-stamped by legislators. It is about proper scrutiny, accountability and challenge. The Alliance Party will not be deflected from fulfilling the important role of opposition, which is integral to ensuring that we have stable political institutions. Let me nail that issue comprehensively.

Major issues of substance have been raised in this debate, not just by the Alliance Party, but also by the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP. These are important issues, and, unlike yesterday, when the spokespersons for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister failed to address the substantive issues and engaged in platitudes, it is important to have a detailed response from the First Minister to the detailed challenges that have been raised by Members in the House. That is the purpose of the Second Stage of a Bill. Simply saying that this is for the good of victims, that we have had enough delay, and other platitudes will not do.

The deputy First Minister said yesterday that we are all responsible for where we are in society. That will not do either. The Alliance Party is not responsible for anything bad that has happened in society. We have worked for progress, which is a lot more than can be said for the two parties that have come to the House today seeking a rush job to cover up their own inadequacies and failure to make progress in the past 10 months.

The First Minister: This has been a very interesting debate, although well wide of what we were supposed to be discussing. I have no intention of getting into the boglands occupied by those who oppose the Bill. I am only interested in heeding and harkening to the innocent victims. It is a disgrace for a Member of this House to suggest that our desire to consult with a victims’ forum is a betrayal of the House.

Mrs D Kelly: Will the Member give way?

The First Minister: No. In view of what you said about the affiliations of the people who have been appointed, I will not give way. As far as I am concerned, none of them were ever members of the Democratic Unionist Party. [Interruption.]

12.15 pm

Mr Speaker: Order. The First Minister has the floor. Every other Member has had an opportunity to speak.

The First Minister: The other parties will be able to make statements after they consider what the honourable lady has said. I do not believe that that matter should have been dragged into the debate. It is a bit late for the Alliance Party to be speaking about supporting, and coming to the assistance of, Mrs McDougall.

Mrs Long: Will the Member give way?

The First Minister: No, I will not give way. The Speaker told me that lunchtime is approaching, and I do not want the Member to die; I want her to live. I know that she does not believe that —

Dr Farry: On a point of order, given that the Alliance Party has supported Mrs McDougall from day one, is it appropriate for the First Minister to make completely false statements regarding that support?

Mr Speaker: Order. The First Minister shall continue.

The First Minister: Its members must have whispered their support. The matter before the House is whether we should proceed to establish the commission and go forward. All right-thinking people in Northern Ireland are saying yes; the time has come for real action in relation to that matter, and all the excuses and the baring and clapping of hands on breasts will have no effect. For years, people have suffered, and we want to react now and get the job done. As far as I am concerned, we are faced with a simple proposition: having achieved accelerated passage, should the Bill proceed?

The current course of action emerged from the Committee, which deliberated in secret, although it may as well not have bothered because we have heard everything that happened in that Committee. We have heard four versions of the Committee’s minute, and no Committee member who spoke agreed with everything that was said.

The last Member to speak appears to think that there is something wrong with a Committee if it fully represents the electorate’s wishes. The wish of the electorate is that the majority on a Committee, regardless of who is in office, reflects the majority in the House. The Member wants Committees to be set up in order that those who support the Government will not be heard although he will be heard. Of course, for many a long day, that has been an Alliance Party feat. Under direct rule, how many Committees were Alliance Party members appointed to? It had appointees on all the quangos —

Mr Ford: On a point of order, Mr Speaker; on several occasions you reminded Members about the importance of sticking to comments about the Bill. Some of us have been restrained and have not responded to entirely off-the-record attacks. Will you ask the First Minister to stick to the Bill?

Mr Speaker: I remind Members from all sides of the House that it is vitally important that, as far as possible, they stick to the principles of the Bill.

The First Minister: Those Members were calling on me to give answers and, when I start to give answers, they do not seem to like them.

Mr Ford: Will the Member give way?

The First Minister: No, I will not give way. The Alliance Party did well out of quangos; however, those days are over. Democracy has taken over, and democracy dictates that the House —

Mr Ford: On a point of order, Mr Speaker; on several occasions you have reminded all sides of the House about sticking to the Bill. Will you please now ask the First Minister to address the issue, because some of us came here to debate whether the Bill will provide for victims, and not the merits or demerits of the Alliance Party?

Mr Speaker: People following the debate know that I have given all Members some latitude. There is no Committee debate on this issue, and for that reason I am sympathetic to Members’ attempts to widen the debate as far as possible. As I said earlier, it is, unfortunately, inevitable that the debate will take on legs.

The First Minister: Those who maintain that we must get on with the job for the sake of the victims say that they have been lambasted, their position misrepresented and their very words — which are on record — dismissed. However, when an opportunity arises for comment on what they have said, they get angry. There have been many interruptions for bogus points of order, because I seek to deal with the issue. It is a sad day for the Assembly when it spends so much time on an issue that did not need any time devoted to it. We have heard eulogies on the characters of the four victims’ commissioners designate, who are great people who must be honoured, yet Members use the debate to oppose their appointments. [Interruption.]

Those Members do not like it because no Alliance Party member was appointed. [Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order. The Minister has the Floor.

The First Minister: All I say is that we must do the job. Who are we talking about but the victims: people who need a voice, deserve to be heard and who were largely forgotten in the last Assembly — no matter what the leader of the SDLP has said about his party. The victims’ case must be faced up to.

I appreciate that Members want to know what is happening, and they will be kept informed. Every decision that has to be taken will be brought to the House, and Members will have the opportunity to have their say. We are not trying to close down the debate: we are trying to have the real debate on the innocent victims, and we intend to do that.

I had nothing to do with the decision by the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to discuss the matter behind closed doors. Under the circumstances, I would have been happy to meet the Committee. I have responded to every invitation. When other parties ran the Executive, they were not so attentive; rather, they appointed two helpful, independent people to take over the issue, and full-time Ministers did not attend the meetings. The Chairman sits there; he knows that; and I have looked at the minutes of those meetings.

Ministers have attended Committee meetings, will attend others and are glad to do so. However, I do not want to attend Committee meetings to witness a repeat of this debate. We need to hit the ground running in our efforts to help these people — the victims. We believe that that will be done.

Question put

The Assembly divided: Ayes 49; Noes 15.


Mr Adams, Mr Boylan, Mr Brady, Mr Bresland, Mr Brolly, Mr Buchanan, Mr Butler, Mr T Clarke, Mr Craig, Mr Dodds, Mr Donaldson, Mr Easton, Mrs Foster, Mr Hamilton, Mr Irwin, Mr G Kelly, Ms J McCann, Mr McCartney, Mr McCausland, Mr I McCrea, Mr McElduff, Mrs McGill, Miss McIlveen, Mr McKay, Mr McLaughlin, Mr McQuillan, Mr A Maskey, Mr P Maskey, Mr Molloy, Mr Moutray, Mr Murphy, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O’Dowd, Mrs O’Neill, Rev Dr Ian Paisley, Mr Poots, Ms S Ramsey, Mr G Robinson, Mrs I Robinson, Mr P Robinson, Mr Ross, Ms Ruane, Mr Shannon, Mr Simpson, Mr Spratt, Mr Storey, Mr Weir, Mr Wells, Mr S Wilson.

Tellers for the Ayes: Mr McElduff and Mr Shannon.


Mr Beggs, Mr Cobain, Rev Dr Robert Coulter, Mr Cree, Mr Elliott, Dr Farry, Mr Ford, Mr Gardiner, Ms Lo, Mrs Long, Mr McCarthy, Mr McClarty, Mr B McCrea, Mr McNarry, Mr B Wilson.

Tellers for the Noes: Mrs Long and Mr McCarthy.

Question accordingly agreed to.


That the Second Stage of the Commission for Victims and Survivors Bill (NIA 12/07) be agreed.

Mr Speaker: That concludes the Second Stage of the Commission for Victims and Survivors Bill. The Business Committee has arranged to meet immediately upon the lunchtime suspension. I propose, therefore, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm.

The sitting was suspended at 12.36 pm.

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

2.00 pm

Private Members’ Business

Combating Underage Drinking

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 wish to speak will have five minutes. One amendment has been selected and published on the Marshalled List. The proposer of the amendment will have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes for the winding-up speech.

Ms J McCann: I beg to move

That this Assembly expresses concern at the levels of underage drinking and calls on the Minister for Social Development to introduce effective measures to help combat alcohol misuse, including the clear and identifiable marking of carrier bags provided by off-licences.

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. When this motion was first tabled, it was forwarded to the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS). We were advised subsequently that the matter was the Department for Social Development’s (DSD) responsibility. We do not want to divide the House on the motion or the amendment, so we want to assure Members that we intend to consult the ministerial subcommittee on children and young people anyway. We would like any proposal to be time bound, with action taken during this session of the Assembly. If that is the case, we do not have a problem with the amendment.

There has been a marked change in the patterns of drinking among young people over the past 10 years; statistics show that more and more of them are misusing alcohol. Indeed, health professionals and others have stated that children have started drinking at 11 and 12 years of age. Ireland, as a whole, has one of the highest levels of binge drinking among 15- to 16-year-olds in Europe. If we look at our streets at the weekend or over holiday periods, we can see the level of alcohol misuse, particularly among young people. That must concern us all.

Alcohol misuse can lead to a number of problems, both for the individuals concerned and for their families and the community in general. Young people are more vulnerable to suffering physical, emotional and social harm from drinking alcohol. Again, there is a relationship between the misuse of alcohol and drugs by young people and suicide. That is an important point to note.

The young people then become involved in antisocial activity, and, although it may start off as antisocial activity, I must point out that, in the past year, alcohol-related crime has increased by 26% in the North of Ireland. We know that that can lead to more serious crimes such as murder, rape and assaults on people and property. It is important to flag up that issue.

By tackling underage drinking and providing altern­atives for younger people, it is possible to prevent some of them becoming involved in antisocial activity and coming under the influence of more sinister elements that are involved in criminal activity. Often, particularly in my constituency, I see younger kids — 11-, 12- and 13-year-olds — standing on street corners drinking with 15-, 16- and 17-year-olds. The older ones give the younger ones drink to try for the first time. That is a very disturbing image.

There are a number of initiatives happening in local communities, with statutory bodies and political representatives working alongside community represent­atives. The community representatives, in particular, must be commended for the sterling work that they do.

It is clear that more needs to be done to tackle underage drinking: we need to use existing legislation more vigorously and introduce further legislation, where needed, to curb on-street drinking.

It has almost become socially acceptable in some areas for large crowds of young people to drink on the streets. There are a number of designated areas where it is illegal to drink on the street, but the law is very rarely enforced and does not seem to be working. We need to debate the possibility of a total ban on all on-street drinking. As some people have said, that might create a number of problems in relation to festivals and other social activities and events, but if we are innovative, and if we look at the legislation in the proper way, we can improve on the existing law and examine the possibility of banning on-street drinking.

There is evidence of a link between the number of outlets selling alcohol in a given area and the level of alcohol-related problems in that area. There is also a link between the price of alcohol and the level of consumption. There is a clear onus on off-licences and supermarkets that sell alcohol to do so in a responsible manner. That is the reason for proposing the motion today. One step we can take immediately is to ask off-licences and supermarkets that sell alcohol to label their carrier bags so that the sources of the alcohol being consumed by young people are identifiable and traceable. I am not claiming that those off-licences and supermarkets are selling alcohol to underage drinkers; other people are buying it for them. It would be easier to trace that if the bags were identi­fiable, because we see them lying on the streets — it is not as if the young people bring them home and dispose of them; they are left on the streets.

The Health Promotion Agency (HPA) must look at the way alcoholic drinks are promoted. Alcohol promotion needs to be more controlled so that, for example, large quantities of alcohol cannot be purchased by one person, as evidence shows that it can end up in the hands of the wrong people, particularly young people. When individuals buy vast quantities of alcohol in one go — and I have seen it myself — it is obvious to those selling the alcohol that those individuals are not buying it for themselves. They will perhaps visit the same off-licence three or four times. There must be some level of control over the promotion of alcoholic drinks and in the way that alcohol is purchased, whether through working with those who own the off-licences or through some other means. Until now, a voluntary code of practice has been agreed by some local off-sales and the local community. However, there must be a greater element of compulsion.

Adolescence is when young people begin to experiment with substances such as alcohol. Young people are very impressionable, and they are also influenced by their peers. We must help them through that period, because we must ensure that they realise that the choices that they will make will have a long-term impact on the rest of their lives. I know people who started drinking at a very young age and have continued to drink, and their lives have been totally destroyed.

Everybody has a responsibility with respect to on-street drinking, particularly parents, who have an important role to play. As a parent of three young children, I know that it is very important for parents to know where their children are and what they are doing. I have worked with community safety organisations in my local area. Sometimes we are out at midnight and beyond, and we see young kids of 11, 12, and 13 years of age roaming the streets drinking. The onus is on parents to act responsibly and to know where their children are.

The Government, the Executive, the Assembly, schools, communities, the police and the drinks industry also have to ensure that the scourge of underage drinking is tackled, and that young people have positive influences when they are making life choices. We need to look at putting new initiatives in place, including the provision of more intervention projects, such as midnight soccer, and opening youth centres late in the evenings and at weekends, where trained people can be available for young people who need to talk about problems.

Not long ago, an Adjournment debate on midnight soccer took place in the Assembly. Its influence on taking young people off the streets is evident; putting their energies into something more productive and more positive brings results. Around 80% of the young people who were interviewed at one particular project said that they would be drinking on the streets, were it not for midnight soccer.

Young people who have addiction problems must also be considered and helped. No residential service is available to which young people can go, simply as young people. Those who start to drink at 11 and 12 years of age have a real chance of developing an addiction early in life. When those young people get older, it is important that a residential service be available to provide the help and support that they need for that addiction.

We must also be proactive and intervene with those young people when they need, and want, help. That means meeting them on the streets, which is a purposeful way of engaging with young people. It is important to see what they are doing and to understand their mindset. Not everyone suddenly becomes addicted to alcohol; it can be a process.

I shall finish in a moment, Mr Deputy Speaker.

Underage drinking has become acceptable, and it creates problems for the community in general. Passing the motion today would be a first good step towards combating it.

Mr B McCrea: I beg to move the following amendment: Leave out all after “on” and insert

“the Executive’s Ministerial Sub-Committee on Children and Young People to bring urgently before this Assembly proposals to combat underage drinking.”

I pay tribute to Ms McCann and Ms Ramsey for bringing this important motion to the Chamber. I know that that can sometimes be a trite means of opening a speech; however, I am genuine and sincere about that. Underage drinking is an issue that we can tackle collectively, and that will have a significant impact on the lives of everyone in Northern Ireland.

I understand the reasons that the proposer set out for directing the motion towards the Department for Social Development, but I am sure that the Minister will confirm that her powers to deal with underage drinking are somewhat limited. An overarching, all-embracing approach is required. Therefore, our amendment is sensible and I hope that it will command the support of the House.

It can be argued that the issue involves health, education, sport — which is the responsibility of the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL) — and the police. A range of agencies and people must be involved. We are not alone in having to challenge alcohol abuse among our young people. In America, where 21 is the age at which people are allowed to drink, there are significant problems. Earlier this year, the Surgeon General said:

“For the most part, parents and other adults underestimate the number of adolescents who use alcohol. They underestimate how early drinking begins, the amount of alcohol adolescents consume, the many risks that alcohol consumption creates”.

He went on to say that the first step in solving the public health problem of underage drinking comes with an examination of our own attitudes to alcohol. We must challenge the acceptance that it is part of a rite of passage — something that young people go through — and that it is OK. We have heard that some parents buy drink for young people; some people buy more than a little bit of drink.

People do not understand the real challenges that young people face. Those problems are not only on the physiological side. There are connections between alcohol and underage and inappropriate sex, and between drinking and drug and solvent abuse. There is even a direct link between drinking at an early age and smoking at an early age, which leads to other problems. When all those issues are brought together, a strong body of evidence suggests that people who are involved in underage drinking do not do particularly well at school and fail their exams. That causes problems.

It might give some idea of the size of the problem to know that, in the USA, 75% of sixth formers drink. Despite the USA’s having a legal drinking age of 21, 66% of O-level-age people drink. Unbelievably, 20% of youngsters who are in the American equivalent of our third form drink.

When young people drink, they drink to excess. If people drink before the age of 15, they are four times more likely to become alcohol dependent than if they do not start drinking until the age of 21. Frequent binge drinkers are also more likely to engage in risky behaviour.

2.15 pm

When one examines how this problem should be best addressed, the initial reaction is often that education provides the key. The assumption is that if people are educated on how bad the problem is, they would use common sense and stop drinking. Those approaches have been found to be unsuccessful. More advanced treatment, based on social-influence models, became important — norm-setting, addressing social pressure, learning to say no, and informing families. Parents’ ability to influence their children is well documented and is part of the solution that we must find.

In 2004, a Home Office survey indicated that there is a problem in the UK — it is not confined to America. It was found that England, Scotland and Wales had the highest levels of underage drinking in Europe: 88% of 16- and 17-year-olds had taken a drink, and 29% of 10- to 13-year-olds had taken a drink, mostly alcopops. The problem is that most of those children obtain alcohol from supposed friends, older people or parents.

Underage drinking leads to all sorts of unfortunate issues for society, such as criminal damage and theft. Some 14% of people who drank once a week or more committed 37% of crime. Conversely, the 45% who did not drink committed only 16% of offences. That demonstrates a link between petty crime — burglary, criminal damage, and so on — and alcohol.

The Scottish Government accept that underage drinking is a problem in Scotland, too. In 2003, their central research unit produced similar statistics about the early age of drinking. Most importantly, however, those statistics showed that there is a strong connection between the purchasing of alcohol and delinquent activity. The purchasing of alcohol is actually more significant than drinking lots of alcohol. People must go out to buy alcohol, and 25% of those young people who purchased alcohol were involved in a fight during the previous year.

There are other areas from which guidance can be sought, and that is one of the reasons that I recommended that the Executive subcommittee should assess this issue. In 2007, Stoke-on-Trent City Council examined how to deal with the supply of alcohol, including the issues that have been discussed — plastic bags, police-enforcement issues, working with schools, and so on. Interestingly, off-licences accounted for only 25% of the source of alcohol; 75% of it came from elsewhere.

Parents are the key to solving the problem. If they drink, their children are likely to drink too because it is regarded as acceptable behaviour. There is a similar link between advertising and television programmes, and how children behave. Those factors must be addressed.

The statistic that I found most striking was that 71% of young people said their parents or carers were aware that their children drink regularly. Underage drinking is not happening behind the scenes. Parents know that it is happening, but they do not realise its scale.

Liverpool John Moores University recently published a survey that produced a startling statistic: for very child aged between 15 and 16, three pints of beer were being drunk each week. Obviously not every child drinks, so some children are drinking an awful lot. The university concluded that there is no real guidance for parents or other adults about the acceptable level of alcohol consumption for young people.

From my understanding of the way in which such matters develop, there should be zero tolerance to underage drinking. I say that not because I am a killjoy or do not want people to go out and have a drink. However, people do not understand that alcohol is addictive and that young people who are aged between 14 and 16 years old face challenges with their emotions and hormones and have not developed all the adult safeguards that will allow them to make proper decisions. We must, therefore, find a way to sort that out.

I have recognised that other Members brought the issue to the attention of the House, and part of the reason that I was keen to speak to the motion is that a young man from my constituency called Aaron Montgomery was killed outside a nightclub about three or four weeks ago, through no fault of his own. It was a case of mistaken identity; he was standing outside the nightclub waiting for a taxi, someone identified him, and another young man hit him on the back of the head. He is now dead. That illustrates that many issues in our society are drink related, and we must find a way to deal with that.

Other Members will suggest solutions, which must all be considered, but a cross-cutting approach is required. We must consider the price of alcohol — is there any benefit in increasing it? We must consider advertising — is it acceptable that some billboards outside our schools advertise alcohol? How will we talk to people in the appropriate way in order that they listen? Sport, such as midnight soccer, and measures such as getting young people involved in leadership and youth activities, are also important. Those issues are all-encompassing. Most importantly, we must use peer pressure to ensure that young people are safe.

The Executive subcommittee has the teeth to deal with the issue. I agree with the proposer of the motion that the process should be time bound. I want that subcommittee to report, and I want us all to work together to show the people of Northern Ireland what we can do if we work together.

Miss McIlveen: Underage drinking has an impact on us all, not only because of the damage that it can do to the health of young people, but because of the violence, antisocial behaviour, littering and other petty crime that it can cause. The costs of such behaviour include policing costs, the cost of the administration of justice, loss to victims, healthcare costs and the creation of a society where people do not feel comfortable or safe walking the streets at night.

In general, drinkers are not criminals who are involved in sudden crime waves that sweep across Northern Ireland. However, if Members were to spend the day in a Magistrate’s Court, they would discover that, in a high proportion of criminal offences, the consumption of alcohol forms part of the plea in mitigation.

Given that young people are not generally drinking in their homes and are not served in bars, they find themselves drinking on the streets. That is of great concern because they are drinking unsupervised, often to excess.

The motion gives me the opportunity to be parochial and mention a scheme in my constituency of Strangford. The scheme is run by Ards Borough Council in conjunction with the police and the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. The Ards Anti-Social Behaviour team was formed in 2004 to tackle what was perceived to be a growing problem. That team operates out of Newtownards police station and carries out pre-planned patrols with the police during peak antisocial behaviour periods in areas that have been identified for attention. The scheme also has an educational element, which consists of making presentations to schools and youth groups in the Ards borough, and information campaigns, such as the publication of leaflets and advertising to raise awareness of antisocial behaviour, underage drinking and the negative effect that those have on the community. The team has established, and is maintaining, effective working partnerships with relevant bodies and organisations, including the Housing Executive, council departments, the Department of the Environment (DOE) and the police. Those partnerships assist the team in meeting its objectives.

Tackling antisocial behaviour, and underage drinking in particular, can happen only if all constituent parts of society work together. It cannot be done by different Departments working independently, nor can it be done without important stakeholders bearing their share of responsibility.

As part of the scheme, off-licences in the Ards borough were contacted and encouraged to sign up to a code of practice that outlines the legal responsibility of the owners and the impact that drinking can have on crime levels and health. Thirty out of 33 off-licences have signed up to that code of practice.

As part of the code, there are nine key principles — many of which were outlined by the proposer of the motion — which have been accepted by off-licences. Those principles are: staff will not sell alcohol to persons under the age of 18; staff will ask for formal identification from young adults; staff will question a person buying large amounts of alcohol on more than one occasion in one day; alcohol will not be sold to an intoxicated person; training should be provided to staff, including casual and part-time staff, on the details of the code of practice; within 12 months of signing up to the code of practice, the off-licence will ensure that all carrier bags are branded with the name of the off-licence; a door sticker and posters will be displayed in a prominent location in the sales area; staff will liaise and co-operate with local police about possible offenders; and staff will welcome visits to their premises by police and council officers as a deterrent for potential underage customers.

The scheme, in its current form, has been welcomed by people in the Ards borough, who have noticed an improvement. More than 75% of those surveyed have reported seeing “some” to a “very marked” improvement since the establishment of the team. Although they are limited by resources, I cannot commend the work of the Ards antisocial behaviour team and its partners enough. As a local representative, I have called on them to assist constituents, and I recommend that such a scheme be introduced across Northern Ireland.

With greater investment, including in manpower, and perhaps a greater obligation on off-licences — rather than simply allowing participation in the scheme to remain voluntary— further improvements could be made. Wider investment across Northern Ireland should not only aim to spend money but to save money, prevent crime, create a more comfortable society and, perhaps, save lives.

Mrs Hanna: Underage drinking is a crucial issue for our society. Unfortunately, it is widely recognised that young people are drinking larger amounts of alcohol and doing so more often. The Health Promotion Agency’s report on drinking behaviour among young people in Northern Ireland demonstrates that disturbing trends are emerging. Males and females as young as 11 drink excessively. Some young people are classified as regular drinkers at the ages of 14 and 15, and that is clearly a huge problem.

Young people drink for several reasons, including attempting to demonstrate maturity, being subjected to peer pressure and to rebel against their parents. However, most disturbing is the increasing number of young people who drink to escape their problems. Indeed, 40% of those surveyed cited that as a reason for their drinking, and most people would agree that that acts as a slippery slope to alcohol dependency and, in some unfortunate cases, mental-health problems.

Although the majority of people will not become dependent on alcohol, starting to drink at a young age sharply increases the chance of developing alcohol-related problems in later life. For young people, the short-term effects of drinking, or binge drinking, are demonstrated by severe intoxication and alcohol-related accidents, especially drink-driving incidents, which have, sadly, led to the loss of many young lives in road traffic accidents.

Every weekend, the negative consequences of underage drinking are visible in our accident and emergency departments, and alcohol abuse has a crippling impact on National Health Service resources. The detrimental effect of alcohol misuse is visible in schools through poor academic performance and young women dropping out as a result of becoming pregnant after engaging in sexual activity while intoxicated.

There is a link between alcohol, crime and antisocial behaviour, such as vandalism, carrying weapons, risky behaviour and drug and solvent experimentation, which go hand in hand with alcohol abuse. In my constituency of South Belfast, it is commonplace to see young people drinking in the evenings, during weekends and school holidays in local playing fields, parks or alleyways. Such spots are risky environments; they exist in all constit­uencies, and young people regularly drink on the streets. However, the closure of lanes and alley-gating schemes initiated by residents serve only to move the problem to another location.

2.30 pm

The safety of young people is jeopardised when they consume too much alcohol, but the safety of the wider community is also put at risk, especially that of older, more vulnerable people. Antisocial behaviour fuelled by alcohol is the plague of this society. I do not in any way seek to demonise young people who gather in groups. Young people have always congregated in groups, but they were not seen as a threat before this plague emerged.

Children’s attitudes and behaviour towards alcohol are shaped by their families and parents, who act directly as role models and indirectly provide varying levels of support, control and conflict, which are all related to underage drinking. Parents should know where their children are, and they should be able to notice quickly if a son or daughter comes home drunk at night. They must take responsibility, and, if they need support, it must be provided, whether it takes the form of addiction services or simply help in controlling their children.

Prevention is much better than cure, so we should aim to prevent this problem from arising in the first place. There should be robust ID checks, as that is a very important way to deter underage people from purchasing alcohol. Licensing laws and regulations should ensure that customers’ ages are verified. Illegal access to alcohol is rife across Northern Ireland.

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

Mrs Hanna: I support the motion, because we must get to grips with the problem of underage drinking.

Ms Lo: We are all concerned about the worrying drinking trends among young people, some of whom start drinking as young as 11, and many of whom are drinking to dangerous levels, according to the Health Promotion Agency. To follow on from Mr McCrea’s statistic, I will refer to some research that shows that Ireland, as a whole, has one of the highest levels in Europe of binge-drinking among the 15 to 16 age group. In a recent survey, one in four youths claims to have been drunk 20 times in the previous 30 days.

As we all know, drunkenness can lead to antisocial behaviour or even crime, which quite often occurs in South Belfast. I welcome this opportunity to discuss the issue, but the problem must be addressed through a joined-up approach that involves not only DSD, but other relevant Departments and agencies, including the PSNI. I therefore support the amendment, which calls for a holistic approach on the part of the ministerial subcommittee on children and young people.

Government alone cannot solve all our social problems. Parents, teachers, youth workers, the drinks industry and communities all have responsibility for addressing the issue of underage drinking. There must be more awareness-raising in schools, youth clubs, community settings and at home about the short- and long-term effects of alcohol on a young person’s mental and physical health.

As other Members have said, parental guidance and supervision must play a significant role in preventing underage drinking. Young people say that they drink because there is nothing to do or because they want to escape problems or feel confident. There should be more places where young people can meet to enjoy healthy pursuits and engage in sport or leisure activities, instead of hanging around drinking in parks. Building young people’s self-esteem and confidence may mean that they will rely less on alcohol to make themselves feel relaxed and confident.

DSD could look at best practice elsewhere. The London borough of Bexley has launched a ‘No Booze for Kids’ campaign. Off-licences premises in the Sidcup ward will be asked to agree to a code of conduct preventing the sale of alcohol to juveniles or to adults suspected of buying alcohol for underage people.

Shop staff are asked to report illicit attempts to buy alcohol to the local neighbourhood policing team. Some of our local councils already employ similar strategies, and that should be replicated throughout Northern Ireland.

More CCTV (closed-circuit television) provision is needed outside off-licences to show whether groups of young people are approaching adults to buy alcohol for them. It must be made clear that it is an offence — and unacceptable — for adults to buy alcohol for children. More PSNI community safety wardens are needed to patrol areas, move on troublemakers, and confiscate alcohol from youths who congregate near off-licences.

The placing of health warnings on alcopop containers should be considered, as well as curbing aggressive advertising that is aimed at young people. All efforts must be considered — and that should include input from young people — to address the growing problem of underage drinking, which can have a very negative social and economic impact on our society.

Mr Craig: The growing problem of underage drinking has sparked much debate — and not only in the Chamber today. Much of that debate concerns efforts to find the best strategy to counteract the problem. Alcohol is far too affordable for young people, and it is much too easy for them to purchase it. We have all seen the increase in the number of off-licences and the mass sales of alcohol in supermarkets. That has led to alcohol being far too accessible.

Some argue that changing lifestyles are to blame, and they cite society’s attitude to alcohol as a bad example for our young people. Social factors such as our attitude to excessive behaviour among young people, economic deprivation and family breakdown play major roles.

It is undeniable that a small minority of retailers — and I am being generous — make mistakes and sell alcohol to individuals who are underage. Such individuals or companies who continually break guidelines should be weeded out by the PSNI and prosecuted.

Those who say that nothing can be done about those issues should examine the positive results that have been achieved in Lancashire, where a recent police sting operation was designed to test whether retailers asked for identification. That has led to more retailers in Lancashire being prosecuted for serving under-18s than anywhere else in the UK. That has had a positive effect in that the level of underage drinking there has considerably decreased. That should be replicated in Northern Ireland.

Combating this major issue requires re-examining education and enforcement policies that apply to young people. Some young people commit offences due to drinking, and others are victims of alcohol abuse. It is important that both of those major issues be addressed and dealt with.

I support the Federation of the Retail Licensed Trade and its zero-tolerance approach to tackling the problem of the supply of alcohol to children. All MLAs should pledge their support to that welcome move.

Experience has shown that excessive consumption of alcohol by minors results in a host of health, social and economic problems. However, that is not just a problem for publicans and politicians — it is an issue that affects society as a whole. Many people have a role to play — most crucially parents.

I appeal to them to do all that they can to ensure that their children do not seek to obtain alcohol. We need to ensure that alcohol becomes less accessible to young people.

A recent police operation to tackle underage drinking in Lisburn and the surrounding areas revealed that some parents actually purchase alcohol for their underage children. Operation Marsham, which is part of a new Home Office initiative to tackle underage drinking in public areas, ran for three weekends and resulted in over 736 items of alcohol being confiscated. Assistant Chief Constable Duncan McCausland said that in many cases the alcohol was supplied by parents who bought the drink for their children to consume in local parks with older friends. That is a major issue that society must tackle.

Mr Ross: The Member referred to the responsibility of parents. Does he agree that that is the key factor in tackling the issue and that in countries where there is strong parental influence or strong family structures — such as France and the Netherlands — there is a much lesser degree of alcohol abuse or alcohol consumption by those under the age of 18?

Mr Craig: I fully concur with the honourable Member’s remarks. The breakdown of family structures in Northern Ireland is contributing to some of those issues.

The team of officers that operated, not only in Lisburn, but in Dunmurry, Moira, Glenavy, Antrim, Newtownabbey and Carrickfergus, cautioned 51 young people and referred them to youth diversion officers. Another 24 adults have been reported to local councils for further action. The operation detected children as young as 14 drinking illegally. I commend those officers for the work that they have done.

Underage drinking often leads to criminal damage.

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

Mr Craig: I thank you for your perseverance, Mr Deputy Speaker. I commend the motion and the amend­ment to the House.

Mr McLaughlin: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I also welcome the motion. I have been impressed by the range of opinions that have been voiced in support of the motion and the amendment. The social consequences of the abuse of alcohol have been amplified. Without question, we are living in a time in which there has been a change in the cultural mores regarding the consumption of alcohol.

Increasing numbers of young people now experiment with drink at a much earlier age and become involved in binge drinking. We have heard a litany of the consequences of such behaviour. Some have been traumatic and terrible for families as loved ones have been injured and, in some cases, killed. The root cause can be traced back to alcohol abuse. Indeed, some Members have highlighted the extent to which that line of defence has been deployed during court proceedings.

The motion calls on the Minister for Social Development, whose attendance I welcome, to take action on this issue, and the amendment calls on the ministerial subcommittee on children and young people to bring proposals to the Assembly. Both calls imply that a degree of study needs to be conducted in order to address the issue.

Rather than rehearse some of the arguments that have been made, I commend the scheme that has been deployed by Ards Borough Council, to which Michelle Mcllveen referred. Useful lessons could be learned from that scheme and deployed across every local government district in the North.

When someone goes into a supermarket to purchase groceries, those groceries will be packed into a bag that prominently displays the name of the supermarket and advertises its services; however, if he or she goes into the off-sales on the same premises, the alcohol will be put into a plain bag. An issue has been identified by the industry that must be addressed. I raise the issue in order to support calls by Members for identification on bags. If due cognisance is to be paid to the Assembly’s view on the use of plastic bags — that they should be replaced with degradable paper bags — the same principle should be applied to advertising the names of vendors.

2.45 pm

Jonathan Craig referred to the difficulty that some off-sales staff experience in trying to establish the age of a person who seeks to purchase alcohol. Although the practice is to challenge the individual and to ask him or her to produce proof of age, Members are aware that some young people manufacture fake ID cards to satisfy that requirement. I suggest that the Minister and the subcommittee commission a study on the benefits of raising the age limit for the purchase of alcohol in off-sales in order to avoid the problem of underage people purchasing alcohol with bogus ID cards and that of older people in the same peer group purchasing alcohol and supplying it to younger people. There may be benefits in conducting such a study and of making appropriate recommendations. I support the motion and the amendment.

Mr Simpson: On 25 June 2007, my colleague Iris Robinson received a written answer from the Health Minister that explained that during the previous year, 155 under-18-year-olds were treated for alcohol-related injuries or illnesses in Northern Ireland. That is a shocking figure that should serve as a wake-up call to everyone in the Chamber. Although that figure is exceptionally high, it is not the end of the story. When the age range is set a little higher to examine how drinking at a young age affects people as they get older, matters get far worse. On 28 November 2005, I received a written answer from Shaun Woodward MP in response to a parliamentary question about the number of under-30-year-olds in Northern Ireland who had been treated for alcohol-related illnesses. The figure was not 155, but a staggering 842. One lesson that has been learned in recent years is that the problem is not simply that people begin to drink alcohol at a young age, but that the pattern of binge drinking is established early and continues into adulthood.

Mr Shannon: The Health Promotion Agency has released figures that illustrate that point: young people in Northern Ireland are, on average, 11 years old when they take their first drink, and 24% of young people who are aged between 11 and 16 years drink at least once a month. I urge the Member and the Minister to take note of the Challenge 21 scheme, which is carried out by one supermarket in Northern Ireland — by the way, I believe that you will get a minute for my interjection, David, so please bear with me. The Challenge 21 system is clear: if a salesperson decides that someone who seeks to purchase alcohol is under 18 years of age, he or she will ask that person to show ID. It is an effective system that works in supermarkets. I urge the Member to agree that if the Challenge 21 scheme were introduced in all off-licences and stores that sell alcohol in Northern Ireland, it would be beneficial.

That should give you 60 seconds.

Mr Simpson: Mr Shannon chanced his arm; however, he managed to speak for a minute. I certainly agree with him. It is staggering that 842 people received medical treatment for alcohol-related illness.

However, it is important to stress that, in many cases, the pattern is set at an early age — frequently when the individual is under the legal drinking age. According to a 2003 Health Promotion Agency survey, from which my colleague Jim Shannon quoted, by the age of 16, only 19% of young people had never had a drink, and the mean age at which they had taken their first drink was between 11 and 12 years of age.

The same survey found that 24% of year 8 pupils, 38% of year 9 pupils, 51% of year 10 pupils, 62% of year 11 pupils and 72% of year 12 pupils reported being drunk at least once. The most frequently cited drink of choice was alcopops, and the venue of choice for those who had been drunk more than four times was outdoors.

Drinking that commences at such tender years is a ticking time bomb for individuals’ lives and for society as a whole. Unless underage drinking is tackled, the trends will persist, and hundreds of young people under the age of 30 will continue to be treated for alcohol-related conditions. That cannot be allowed to continue.

In my constituency, groups of young people, some of them underage, have traditionally used public spaces such as Solitude Park in Banbridge, Lurgan Park in the south of the town, and the Bann Boulevard and People’s Park in Portadown for drinking alcohol. Recently, Ennis Green in Lurgan’s Kilwilkee estate has been plagued by underage drinking. That and similar situations must be tackled in order that residents across the Province might live in peace.

Underage drinking impacts on many young lives, on the Health Service, on the delivery of government, on tourism and on shared public spaces. Something must be done, and I call on the Minister for Social Development to take action. I do not want to lay all the responsibility at her door, but I ask her to enlist her Executive colleagues so that everyone can work together.

Mr Beggs: I thank Ms Ramsey and Ms McCann for tabling this important motion. I am pleased that many Members have supported the UUP’s amendment, which widens the range of issues that must be addressed in order to tackle the problem.

Alcohol abuse and the resulting antisocial behaviour are not the responsibility of one Department: the problems affect our entire society, and, therefore, the responsibility for tackling them crosses Departments. The amendment calls on the Executive’s subcommittee on children and young people to add the matter to its agenda and to address it using a multi-departmental approach. The subcommittee is in a unique position, in that it can focus on a range of issues rather than solely on licensing or on the introduction of identifiable plastic bags. I acknowledge, however, that those remain important issues.

Have children been educated on the adverse effects of alcohol on their physical and mental health? A policing issue also arises, and there is merit in the subcommittee’s including a representative from the Northern Ireland Office, because that allows a degree of continuity across a range of areas.

It is important not only that the subcommittee deals with the issue but that there is a tangible outcome. I welcome the thoughts of other Members who said that the process of tackling underage drinking should be time bound. Action must be taken: the issue must not be buried in a subcommittee, because it is important to provide outcomes for young people.

Is education in schools on the subject of alcohol appropriate? The Assembly should try to find out which schools employ best practice and ensure that it is made more widely available. Are teachers, youth workers or specialist providers best placed to educate young children about the dangers of alcohol abuse?

In my constituency of East Antrim, the Carrickfergus Community Drug and Alcohol Advisory Group had an outreach programme. It worked in post-primary schools and was well received by the young people and the teachers. It was funded from community safety funds, which, sadly, have come to an end. Who will carry on that important work? Voids are being left in some locations.

Our young people are not aware of the dangers of binge drinking and how it adversely affects the liver. More and more young people are presenting to our hospitals with chronic liver diseases, which costs the Health Service and the individuals concerned. As I said earlier, there are costs to people’s mental health.

Recently, I took part in a consultation with the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People. I met a group of teenagers, and I was shocked to hear some of the children present, who were between 12 and 15 years of age, say that they drank regularly — several times a month. It is astonishing that young people have access to drink and that they and their parents do not know the dangers that they are inflicting on themselves.

In 2007, I shadowed a police patrol on an evening weekend shift. Every 999 telephone call was related to alcohol or drug abuse. It is a huge societal problem. If children and young people start off on a bad track, that is where they will end up. On that night, sadly, one young man had collapsed on the street. Anything could have happened to him, and he would have been unaware of it. That vulnerable young person on his own could have been attacked, mugged or robbed.

The ministerial subcommittee is well placed to progress the issue. ID could also be considered. I advocate a greater use of electoral registration cards. Too many forms of ID are easy to duplicate with high-technology scanners and colour printers. Why not use something that is free? We should also encourage young people to act responsibly by registering for electoral registration cards.

A range of subjects could progress the matter, and the ministerial subcommittee is best placed to benefit our young people.

Mrs M Bradley: I have been approached on more than one occasion by people who have been asked by youths to buy alcohol for them, but who have refused. Undoubtedly, those young people succeed in convincing some people to do just that. Adults must think about their actions, and so must we, as elected representatives. We need to think long and hard about what we can do to help our young people to make better use of their lives.

Our schools need help to impress on their students the dangers involved, and that must be reinforced at home. Doubling the price of alcohol may make it more difficult for younger members of our communities to buy it, but they will do what they can to ensure that they get the money.

If permitted, young people can be wild at heart and quick to act. They are also vulnerable, although their youthfulness would not allow them to admit to that. It is obvious in today’s society that a lack of direction and, in some cases, a lack of parenting — and, unfortunately, a very strong urge to live a life of drug and alcohol misuse — is all too common. We can implore parents to act as parents and not as buddies, and to carry out their natural duty, which is to guide and direct their young people, and to impress on them the dangers of alcohol and drug misuse.

The sad, hard facts of the matter are that the number of underage drinkers is increasing, and it will continue to increase if allowed to do so without strict guidelines and severe consequences being introduced by the Departments and statutory bodies that have a responsib­ility to control the enablers. Regardless of how small that role may be, it is, and will be, an important role in the endgame.

We have seen medical staff abused and injured in transit to hospital and in hospitals. I spoke to one of my GPs, Dr Tom Black, who is the deputy chairperson of the Northern Ireland general practitioners’ committee of the British Medical Association in Northern Ireland. He was very vocal about the dangers of alcohol abuse. He said that it is a genuine worry about our young people, which will not go away without urgent and extreme intervention.

3.00 pm

Although I welcome the motion, it does not go far enough. A comprehensive strategy must involve Departments other than just DSD. The Department of Education (DE) has a leading role to play in educating our young people about the responsible use of alcohol. The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety has a role to play in promoting a healthy lifestyle, and DCAL can also contribute through the promotion of sport and healthy living recreation activities.

I support the amendment, and I support its being given to the ministerial subcommittee for consideration. However, the work of that subcommittee must involve all Departments.

The Minister for Social Development (Ms Ritchie): I am grateful to Sue Ramsey and Jennifer McCann for providing the Assembly with the opportunity to discuss this very important topic. I am also grateful to Basil McCrea and Roy Beggs for tabling the amendment.

It was intended that the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, who is responsible for strategies to tackle drug and alcohol abuse, would respond to the motion. However, as a result of his absence and the inventiveness of the Business Committee, I am delighted to respond to the motion and to welcome the amendment.

I understand that the ministerial subcommittee on children and young people will meet next week to discuss its key priorities for the coming months. If the motion is agreed to and full consideration is given to the amendment, I will be happy to present them to the subcommittee for discussion.

The scourge of alcohol abuse is one of the most pressing problems that faces our society. If we were to read the newspapers any day, watch television any evening, take a walk around our town or city centres any weekend, we would see the most obvious effects of that problem. Alcohol abuse can also lead to several social problems, which, although less immediately obvious, are certainly no less serious. Those can include damaged health, shortened life expectancy, depression, domestic violence, or perhaps even a criminal conviction.

Alcohol abuse is not confined to Northern Ireland — we, along with our neighbours in the South of Ireland and Great Britain, have the dubious distinction of having some of the highest per capita rates of alcohol consumption in the world, and we face all the damaging consequences that that can cause. The problem is not confined to any community or age group. It seems to be endemic to these islands and is on the increase. It is no surprise that many of our young people reflect that culture in their behaviour. They are doing what young people everywhere have done since time began — learning from their elders, absorbing the good with the bad, rebelling against restrictions, and using their initiative to get around those restrictions. The dilemma is clear. As a society, we are trying to control underage drinking — that is, alcohol abuse by the young — by telling them to do as we say, not as we do. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that many young people drink to excess.

I take on board Mr McCrea’s point about parental influence, because although any serious attempt to tackle alcohol abuse must involve legislation, such legislation is not an answer on its own. A strategy to tackle alcohol abuse must range across areas such as parenting, education, child protection, community safety, and above all, enforcement. All contributors today reflected that point.

I am responding to the motion by virtue of my responsibility for liquor licensing and for licensing legislation; that is my only responsibility in respect of the motion. However, the motion relates to the respons­ibilities of many of my Executive colleagues, as well as the Secretary of State, who has final responsibility for enforcement. Therefore, I am pleased to note the Ulster Unionist amendment, which recognises those cross-departmental responsibilities, and I thank my colleague Mrs Bradley for stressing them.

It is important that there is collective responsibility across all Departments and among all Ministers in the subcommittee to address the problem.

I assure the Assembly that policy development on liquor-licensing legislation will reflect the spirit of the amendment and will not take place in isolation. Any reform of the law will take account of the respons­ibilities of my Executive colleagues and the practicalities of the real world in which the law must operate. I have stated that I intend to take time to consider all the issues arising from my predecessor David Hanson’s review of liquor licensing, which includes underage drinking and to take the views of the Committee for Social Development and my Executive colleagues before making decisions on the way forward, and that remains my position.

Although I do not necessarily endorse or reject David Hanson’s proposals, I recognise that his review was comprehensive and thorough and that the methodology employed, involving a partnership approach, research, wide consultation and a health and social impact assess­ment, was robust. Therefore, it provides a useful infor­mation base from which to proceed.

The review examined liquor licensing in the round, drawing on expertise from my Department, the Depart­ment of Health, Social Services and Public Safety’s drug and alcohol strategy team, the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Court Service, and the Northern Ireland Office community safety unit. Those bodies represented the key areas in the matter — health, public order and public safety.

The review’s findings were based on evidence from many studies that were carried out in GB and Ireland, as well as international studies and local discussions. However, the evidence is not always clear-cut, and we must be cautious in applying the results directly to Northern Ireland. Many of the findings apply to both underage and adult drinking, but I draw Members’ attention to some findings that are particularly relevant to underage drinking.

Evidence suggests that lowering the age at which people can drink in licensed premises can reduce the likelihood of them drinking in unsupervised, unsafe locations. However, there is also evidence that lowering the age can increase levels of male juvenile crime. Alternatively, raising the age can reduce alcohol-related car crashes and fatalities.

Better training for staff who sell alcohol, particularly when backed by management, reinforced and used to enforce legislation, is seen as helping to prevent and deal with crime and disorder, including underage drinking. I take on board and reflect what Ms McCann said about that with particular reference to supermarkets and off-licences.

High-profile policing and enforcement of the law on underage drinking have been linked to reduced numbers of crimes and arrests. Proof-of-age schemes are perceived to be valuable, and evidence also suggests that prohibiting drinking in public places helps to reduce crime and disorder. More recent European research from 2006 endorses many of those findings and adds to them.

I will consider carefully all the findings along with other information, including the details provided today, and I will bring all the information to the ministerial subcommittee in formulating proposals on the way forward on alcohol abuse and underage drinking. Furthermore, I am examining options for stricter enforcement of the law, which is a matter for the police, the Northern Ireland Office and the Northern Ireland Court Service. Among the proposals are penalty points for offences, the most serious of which would include underage sales.

Jim Shannon referred to the Challenge 21 initiative. I am happy to support Challenge 21, which is a joint trade and Electoral Office initiative to encourage licensees to demand robust proof of age from customers who look younger than 21.

Carrier bags were the substance of the motion proposed by Ms McCann and Ms Ramsey, which recommended that:

“the clear and identifiable marking of carrier bags provided by off-licences”

should be introduced as a means of combating underage sales. The Ad Hoc Committee that examined the provisions on drinking in public in the draft Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland) Order 2007, which reported to the Assembly some months ago, recommended that my Department, together with the Police Service, should consider the feasibility of schemes that are used elsewhere for tracking sales of alcohol to minors.

In response to correspondence from Minister of State Paul Goggins on the full range of drinking-in-public provisions, I stated that my officials had examined the issue in the context of my predecessor’s review of liquor licensing. I also stated that I was considering the way forward in respect of liquor licensing generally and that I would ensure that the topic was revisited in that context.

Members may be interested to note some pertinent facts. For instance, most supermarkets and local off-licence chains already supply branded carrier bags. Therefore, the likely targets of such a move would be the smaller stand-alone off-licences, which some would say are declining in number. Much activity takes place to promote voluntary codes of conduct for bars, clubs and off-licences in the Belfast area. Initial discussions with some of those involved indicate that there is a general feeling that the branding of bags would not be as effective as ongoing initiatives designed to make pubs and off-licences more aware of their responsibilities.

Wider research has so far failed to identify use of a similar legislative provision elsewhere. It has also failed to identify evidence to support the effectiveness of introducing such a provision in Northern Ireland. The South of Ireland’s Intoxicating Liquor Act 2003 provided for the responsible Minister there to have the power to make regulations for:

“particulars, to be affixed to any container in which intoxicating liquor is sold for consumption off licensed premises, which are adequate to enable the licensee and licensed premises concerned to be identified.”

Contravention of the regulations was to be punishable by a fine of up to €2,000. In the event, the regulations were not made, as they were judged to constitute a breach of European Union regulations on the grounds that it would be necessary in most instances, for reasons of equity, to have the container marked at source; that is, before delivery to the licensed retail outlet. That would have placed an unacceptable burden on the product suppliers.

My officials are exploring the possibility that similar considerations might be a factor in proposals to mark carrier bags. They will also consider whether there may be issues relating to rules of evidence in the courts. Of course, I would welcome any further infor­mation that Members may wish to provide on this issue.

In conclusion, since taking up office, I have considered carefully the range of complex issues, competing agendas and conflicting opinions that dominate the alcohol and licensing debate. I have studied the available evidence, taken views from the major stakeholders and noted recent developments in Great Britain and elsewhere, including the review of the England and Wales Licensing Act 2003 and the provisions of the Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005.

I value my Department’s links with counterparts in the South of Ireland and am keen to explore the potential for greater co-operation with them, particularly in the area of liquor licensing, where our legislative codes with their pre-partition roots aim to address common historic and current issues and concerns. I have, therefore, scheduled a meeting with my counterpart Minister, Brian Lenihan. Coincidentally, I spoke to him in Dublin last Sunday to discuss our shared interests and, in particular, the findings of the advisory group on alcohol, which reported to him at the end of March, and his wider plans for comprehensive legislative reform. I have asked my officials to explore various policy options and to obtain further information to enable me to better formulate proposals to take to the Committee for Social Development for its views.

I am committed to maximising the contribution that liquor-licensing legislation, in conjunction with other initiatives, can make to tackling underage alcohol abuse, and I welcome the cross-party support of the Assembly for that work. Progress is well advanced, and I hope to bring proposals to the Social Development Committee in the summer.

On a final point, young people frequently receive a bad press, particularly in relation to alcohol and its abuse. I do not believe for an instant that those negative images reflect the full and true picture of our young people. An Irish proverb says, “Praise youth and it will flourish”. I subscribe firmly to that philosophy; however, we must not only praise, but protect when needed.

3.15 pm

Combating underage drinking is a cross-cutting issue, which I am pleased to bring to the cross-departmental ministerial subcommittee that will meet next week. Underage drinking has an impact on education, health, social development and a plethora of other areas. All those matters must be taken in the round — hence the need for a holistic approach to the problem of alcohol abuse.

Mr McCallister: I thank the proposers of the motion and all those Members who contributed to the debate. It has been a worthwhile exercise, and has shown that the Assembly can lay down a marker about what must be done, and can hold the Executive to account on such an important issue.

Many themes emerged. Ms McCann opened the debate by talking about control, enforcement and purchasing powers. A common theme was parental responsibility; several Members spoke about that, and about parents knowing where their children are. They made the point that everyone has a role to play. My colleague Basil McCrea introduced our amendment, which encourages an all-embracing approach. That theme was picked up by Members throughout the debate and by the Minister, who said that underage drinking had an impact on health and education, and required the involvement of the Police Service and the Department for Social Development, as well as parents, volunteers and wider Government. Everyone has to work together; failure to address the issue will cause us further problems.

Increasing numbers of young people present to the National Health Service with alcohol problems, which are compounded by smoking, crime and antisocial behaviour; moreover, they come into contact with the criminal justice system at a younger age. Other related problems, such as unprotected sex — leading to unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections — cost society, and the individuals involved, dearly. Basil McCrea mentioned failing educational standards and the resulting low self-esteem, while other Members drew our attention to mental-health issues.

There have been some success stories, which is good news. Mr Shannon mentioned Challenge 21, and Miss McIlveen talked about some of the work done by Ards Borough Council. All those initiatives are important, and it is important to replicate successful ventures throughout Northern Ireland and to learn from them.

Members referred to the difficult statistics on binge drinking and its effects across the board. Mr Beggs made an important point, and the Minister touched on it, that whatever the ministerial subcommittee comes up with must be time bound, and we must see outcomes and action. We cannot have just another worthy debate in which Members rehearse all the right words and phrases.

It is important that the ministerial subcommittee gets to grips with this serious problem. Members must ensure that there is follow-up; the relevant Committees must be consulted and must receive feedback, and action must be taken.

Mrs Bradley mentioned the absence of, and lack of direction concerning, parenting skills, which, of course, can play a major role, and she has the support of Members from these Benches on that matter.

The Minister spoke strongly. I suspect that she was wondering why it fell to her to tackle this subject on behalf of the whole Executive. This time, she just got lucky. Nevertheless, she spoke about the scourge of alcohol — I note that I am almost out of time — and quoted the poignant proverb that we should praise our young people and they will flourish. Therefore, I thank her and other Members for supporting the Ulster Unionist Party amendment.

Ms S Ramsey: Go raibh maith agat. I thank all the Members who participated in the debate, which has been sensible and measured. Furthermore, given the levels of antisocial behaviour affecting our communities — fuelled mostly by young people under the influence of drink and, in some instances, drugs — the debate is timely and important.

Several issues were raised during the debate. The Minister for Social Development stated that a review of liqueur licensing was conducted in 2004. That review considered key elements — particularly health and public-order implications — and produced recommendations aimed at striking a balance between facilitating the sale of alcohol and public safety and public interests.

As the Minister said, the outworkings of the review were due to be implemented in October 2007. However, I have been informed, and the Minister confirmed earlier, that she has taken time to consider the issues. Therefore, I ask the Minister to write to me with a time frame for the rollout of the review, because, after all, although I am aware that a different Minister was previously involved, we have been waiting since 2004, and it would be useful to get an idea of the positive and negative recommendations of the review.

Basil McCrea rightly informed Members that the Department for Social Development’s powers are limited, and, as Jennifer McCann said, when she and I originally tabled the motion, we targeted it at the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety because we wanted some of the issues to be addressed through the ‘New Strategic Direction for Alcohol and Drugs 2006-2011’. We were advised that responsibility for some of the issues was with the Department for Social Development; therefore, we took that on board and targeted that Department.

Nevertheless, I would be happy for the Health Department to have the lead role, although I agree and accept that DSD, DCAL, DEL and, indeed, the Depart­ment of Education also have roles and responsibilities in relation to these matters. However, we took the advice that the Department for Social Development is the lead Department on some of the issues.

I am genuinely concerned about the ministerial subcommittee on children and young people. Every week in the Assembly, many debates and questions cover subjects ranging from poverty to education, health, buses and other matters that are relevant to children and young people. As my party’s spokesperson on that subject, and as someone who sits on the Bill of Rights Forum’s children’s working group, I appreciate that all those issues will be directed towards the ministerial subcommittee, and that we might be left with nothing.

I am concerned because the subcommittee has no powers and is only able to make recommendations and suggestions. Although ideas may be directed to the subcommittee, we must live in the real world and accept that it is the Minister for Social Development who has the sole responsibility and who can take the lead on such matters. Therefore, part of me accepts that although we should ask the ministerial subcommittee to consider the matter, the Minister who can make key changes on some of the issues affecting alcohol and liquor licences is here now. Some of those issues, including that of enforcing off-sales —

Mr B McCrea: I accept that a Minister is present, and she has said quite strongly that she will look at the various issues. As we have discussed, in tackling this issue, there are roles for the police and the Departments of Education; Employment and Learning; Culture, Arts and Leisure; and Finance and Personnel. I take the point that, perhaps, too many other matters are left to the Executive, but this is clearly a cross-cutting issue on which we must work together. We should all talk to our respective Ministers to encourage them to work together on this issue and deliver results.

Ms S Ramsey: I accept that, and it is one of the reasons why Sinn Féin accepted the amendment tabled by the Ulster Unionist Party. The key issue — and part of the original motion — is that the Minister for Social Development can change the legislation to ensure that off-licences are obliged to print their names on their carrier bags. We need to start somewhere, and that is a key issue.

I am glad that Basil has made that point. In the useful research packs that we received from the Assembly’s Research and Library Services — and for which we are grateful — there is a press release, dated 4 January 2003, about an initiative carried out by the PSNI in Coleraine that involved the use of colour-coded carrier bags as part of a counter-attack on underage drinking. Different coloured bags were issued to off-licences in Coleraine to help the police to trace where young offenders had obtained their alcohol. That is a key issue; it is something that the Minister can take on board now and make progress with — whatever recommendations emerge from the ministerial subcommittee. We are making positive changes, and we will see them implemented before the silly season, for the good weather is coming.

Several Members — Michelle McIlveen, Jennifer McCann, Jonathan Craig and Mitchel McLaughlin — mentioned the good work being done in their constituencies. We need to commend councils, community and voluntary organisations and other agencies because they are producing such work. However, they need help, and they are crying out for it.

I am concerned that, although legislation exists to restrict on-street drinking, residents are asking why restrictions are imposed in some places and not in others. We need to push councils to enforce by-laws, and to ensure a collective approach between Ministers and councils. Ministers should not be let off the hook of their individual responsibilities. If each does his or her bit, the jigsaw will be completed.

Supermarkets also have a part to play. There is concern about the discounting of alcohol. We need to challenge that and to end sponsorship by the makers of alcoholic drinks of sporting and entertainment events that draw a young audience. I do not want to mention the names of alcopops. We all know the meanings of some of them. We talk about WKD: that is what the kids on the street drink. That name was not thought up overnight; it was carefully chosen to target the young people on our streets.

Jim Shannon says that good work is being done by the Challenge 21 campaign, and I agree with him. We need to introduce that. As he said, positive work is being done; we need to commend that. However, it is not being put in legislation. We are faced by forward-thinking off-licences and supermarkets. Community and voluntary groups are also forward-thinking, but we need to ensure that that approach is adopted across the board. There may be good work being carried out in Twinbrook, Poleglass and in other parts of Lagan Valley; the Member for Lagan Valley may know of it. However, kids from those areas can jump on a bus and get their carry-outs from places where the Challenge 21 campaign does not operate.

David Simpson provided health statistics relating to alcohol-related incidents. It is serious when one estimate of the annual total social cost of alcohol misuse exceeds £770 million. That is a substantial sum.

Mitchel McLaughlin and others raised the issue of the age limit for off-sales of alcohol. I agree that we need to consider that, commission research and start the debate on the age limit for access to alcohol from off-licences. That is something that the Minister for Social Development can do now. She does not have to wait for a recommendation from the ministerial subcommittee on children and young people. Let DSD commission that research now, and let us debate the issue of the age at which people can access drink from off-licences.

I am happy that the Assembly can be seen to be doing something positive and proactive, but I am disappointed that the Minister has stated that she will not legislate for the need for names on plastic bags. Why will she not do that? A pilot programme that was held in Coleraine proves that it works. From what are we hiding? People might consider names on plastic bags as free advertising. It is as well that it is not Easter week, or I could say:

“Who fears to speak of Easter week?”

However, who fears to put names on carrier bags so that we can see who is making money on the backs of our communities, and we can challenge them to ensure that they are not selling alcohol to underage drinkers.

3.30 pm

I agree with the Minister that alcohol misuse in the North is not unique; nobody is saying that it is. However, we should make the names on the bags unique: let us be proactive, take the lead and set the agenda.

Question, That the amendment be made, put and agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.


That this Assembly expresses concern at the levels of underage drinking and calls on the Executive’s Ministerial Sub-Committee on Children and Young People to bring urgently before this Assembly proposals to combat underage drinking.

International Development

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

Mrs Hanna: I beg to move

That this Assembly: recognises its responsibility to reflect Northern Ireland’s concerns about, and charity towards, the developing world; acknowledges the international support afforded to help resolve Northern Ireland’s problems; commits, in line with the United Kingdom and Irish Governments, the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, to embedding support for the principles of international development into devolved government, and to supporting the work of Northern Ireland-based organisations involved in the area of international development; notes the report and implementation plan produced in 2003 by the Assembly’s All-party Group on International Development; endorses the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, and the United Kingdom and Irish Governments’ commitments to meet 0·7% Gross National Income contributions to achieving these goals in an agreed timeframe; calls for ethical and fair-trade policies in respect of purchasing by the Assembly Commission, Government departments and agencies, and other public sector bodies; resolves, including through the All-party Group on International Development, to work in partnership with relevant organisations to support long-term international development objectives, including the eradication of poverty, the promotion of conflict resolution, and economic and technical development; and further resolves to promote a strategy for development education that integrates a global dimension into the school curriculum.

Mr Wells: The Member’s five minutes are up. [Laughter.]

Mrs Hanna: I thank the co-proposers of the motion, each of whom, I am sure, will bring their perspective to the debate. It is my hope that the motion will receive the widest possible support. I also thank the Coalition of Aid and Development Agencies in Northern Ireland for its help in drafting the motion, which covers the major aims of the Assembly’s all-party group on international development that was established in 1999.

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

Until recently, Northern Ireland was a byword to the rest of the world for community division and strife; it was shorthand for a place in which people seemed to be unable to live together in friendship and harmony. Members know that that was never a full or fair picture. The great Omagh writer Benedict Kiely wrote movingly about the bonds of civility, neighbourliness, sharing of resources, small courtesies, common humanity and kindly instincts that embraced the majority of people, even during the darkest days of the Troubles.

Members also know that the rest of the world — the nations of the European Union; eminent and wise states­men and influential figures from the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and other places; and bodies such as the International Fund for Ireland, which supported us financially — came to our moral and material aid when we were mired in a seemingly intractable and insoluble impasse.

The truth is that, in our very small corner of the world, we started down the road of a resolution of our centuries-old differences by widening the context of our problems and starting to look outwards. As a society and a community, it is now our turn to give something back to those who are in a worse situation than we are. In other words, it is payback time.

In these early years of a new millennium, as we move into the mainstream of a global economy, we must play our part in tackling those challenges that face the rest of the world: poverty, injustice and inequality, free and fair trade, climate change, global warming and sustainable energy development. Even as we look outwards to the rest of the world, we cannot forget where we came from and how far we have come. Little more than a century and a half ago, this island — including significant parts of what is now Northern Ireland — were racked by famine. Perhaps that collective race memory has encoded in us an instinctive sympathy with those in developing countries who are much worse off than we are. The warmth and generosity of Northern Ireland people and their concerns for the spiritual and material welfare of their fellow human beings has never been challenged. It is a fact that the generosity and kind-heartedness of the population puts Northern Ireland at the top, or near the top, of any table of charitable donations.

International development may be a reserved matter, but education and raising awareness about international development are within the scope of the devolved bodies, whether in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. The all-party group on international development has received nothing but goodwill and encouragement from successive Secretaries of State for International Development. That goodwill and encouragement from the Department for International Development has been mirrored by Irish Aid, the international and overseas development arm of the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs.

We recognise the budgetary constraints and that there is limited scope for funding from the Executive’s Programme for Government. However, even a very small resource allocation would send out the message that international development is a priority for us. Nonetheless, expertise and know-how are often as important as money; and although any local expenditure on international development must be economical, efficient and effective, I hope that we can secure modest funding from the UK and Irish governments to implement the work-plan set out by the all-party group in its detailed plan that was published in March 2003 and which is encompassed in this motion. In doing so, I pay tribute to the decades of work and fundraising by the network of international development agencies, whose expertise and knowledge are unrivalled. We have an obligation and an opportunity to work constructively with them.

I want to mention, briefly, the millennium development goals — targets agreed by the United Nations to identify the major causes of extreme poverty in the world and which should underpin all poverty-reduction policies and activities. In summary, the goals are to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger; achieve universal primary education; promote gender equality and empower women; reduce child mortality; improve maternal health; combat HIV/Aids, malaria and other diseases; ensure environmental sustainability; and to develop a global partnership for development.

The goals and detailed targets set out by the United Nations enable their achievement to be measured and will provide the context in which our priority efforts could be decided. Those include education, health, agriculture, food security, water, sanitation, infrastructure and roads, trade and good governance. The contribution that we make to any sector will address a core cause of poverty. However, as the causes of poverty are so interlinked that one cannot be tackled in isolation, a comprehensive and cross-sectoral approach is vital if a real and sustainable reduction in poverty is to be effected.

There are many successful and innovative projects; indeed, the all-party group has met several of them, and Members will certainly be aware of the Corporate Goat, of international aid for people with disabilities, of the Fields of Life project, and many others. Registering all that good work, we can share best and innovative practice, and perhaps working together with the Assembly and the aid agencies we could add value and set new standards in excellence.

Members have been very helpful in ensuring that Fairtrade products such as tea and coffee are used in this Building, but we have to widen that throughout the whole public service into ethical procurement policies in respect of purchasing by the Assembly Commission, Government Departments and agencies, and other public-sector bodies. That is one practical step that we can make in our own backyard. We can do it quickly, and by doing so, we can give leadership and encourage the private sector to do the same. However, if another motion in similar terms comes before the Assembly in the foreseeable future, it will be a sign that we have failed and that all we have done is indulge in pious platitudes.

Development education is not just a matter for the school curriculum; it means taking on board one of the great challenges of the twenty-first century, and important issues such as global warming, climate change and accessing sustainable development sources. It means mainstreaming the thinking on international development into every decision that we take as Assembly Members, whether at Executive or Committee level. I am confident about the commitment of Members now present in the Chamber; I thank them for that commitment, while acknowledging that I am preaching to the converted. It is a matter of spreading the message to the rest of the 108 Members and beyond, into the 11 new councils and our administrative structures. We cannot do it on our own, and we have got to recruit support from other bodies.

We need to recognise and acknowledge the things that we are really good at such as certain aspects of our education and training systems; grassland management; growing potatoes; fattening beef cattle; excellent dairy produce; design manufacture; and pharmaceuticals. We must be generous with our expertise and share it with people who will never be our competitors. Thousands of people have religious and humanitarian instincts to do the best that they can to help their fellow human beings. Development education means putting human-resource policies in place that encourage and facilitate people to take time out to spend in the developing world, and to bring home the enthusiasm and the inspiration for the rest of us. I ask Members to support the motion.

Mr Hamilton: I commend Mrs Hanna and her co-sponsors, but particularly Mrs Hanna, on securing the debate today. I praise her for her long-standing commitment to the issue of international development, which is on show for all to see and hear today.

Some people, perhaps even some Members of this institution, will say that we should not be debating this issue today, or, indeed, ever; that we should devote our time in the Assembly to issues that affect solely Northern Ireland and its people. Certainly, as representatives of the people of Northern Ireland, there is a lot for us to do for people here at home. However, I believe that it would be wrong to adopt such a narrow view, and I am sure that many Members of the Assembly, and others, would agree with that. It is entirely appropriate that from time to time we lift our gaze and look beyond our shores at the world around us, especially where the problems others are experiencing make ours, and some of the things that we do here daily, pale in comparison.

There are many reasons why we should look to issues such as international development, and the other issues that have been raised in the debate. One of those reasons is that our own so-called Troubles over the past three-and-a-bit decades have caused us to become parochial. It is understandable sometimes, when one is feted by Prime Ministers and Presidents in the way that we have been, that one starts to think that Northern Ireland is the centre of the universe and that there is nothing beyond these shores. I am waiting for an intervention from Mr Wells, perhaps declaring some part of South Down as the centre of the universe. It is perhaps not quite there, but it is close to it — I think that it is in Strangford.

3.45 pm

Sometimes, as elected representatives and as a country, we are far too insular. As Mrs Hanna said, the world has taken an interest in Northern Ireland’s problems over the years. Perhaps that interest has sometimes been malign and not for the best. However, many well-meaning individuals, organi­sations and countries took in an interest in our small corner of the world. They offered help, encouragement and goodwill — and even finances — to help us.

Sometimes the issue of international development is considered in a traditional way as requiring monetary or material assistance. In Northern Ireland, as we move out of a period of sustained conflict, perhaps we have learned some lessons that we can share with other people around the world. That is as important to international development as anything monetary or material that we could offer. Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting a senior delegation of Sri Lankan parliament­arians, who have their own development, including political, problems. We can offer something on the political development front as well.

The main reason that we should show an interest in a subject such as that that has been outlined in the motion is because people in Northern Ireland are further ahead of their political representatives on the issue. They have had a long-standing interest in the issues of international development in various guises. The all-party group works closely with the Coalition of Aid and Development Agencies (CADA), which represents 19 agencies and has 150,000 active financial or campaigning supporters. That represents nearly one in 10 people in Northern Ireland. Indeed, many other formal and less-formal organisations work on the matter. There is a well-recognised generosity among the people of Northern Ireland generally, especially in emergencies. Each year, hundreds upon hundreds of people go to less-well-off countries around the world to offer their skills and expertise. The people of Northern Ireland have shown a daily interest in the subject.

Although international development is a reserved matter, the other devolved regions of the United Kingdom already support international development in the ways that their devolved settlements allow. Scotland has an international development fund that focuses on Malawi, and a similar, smaller fund that has had some informal links with Lesotho has been set up in Wales. There may be an opportunity for Northern Ireland to do something similar to other UK regions. That may not happen immediately, but it could be developed over time. I notice that Wales’s engagement has only happened in recent years as it has become more settled in its own devolved structure. I support the establishment of a twinning arrangement akin to that of Scotland, which was described in the previous report of the all-party group.

Above all, supporting international development is the right thing to do. It is good for our country to get involved in such issues, to show an interest and to do what we can to resolve some of the problems that have seemed so intractable over the years.

Mr McCartney: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom labhairt i bhfabhar an rúin. Ba mhaith liom fosta mo chomhghairdeas a dhéanamh le Cathaoirleach an ghrúpa as an ábhar seo a thógáil sa Tionól inniu.

I support the motion. As a member of the all-party group on international development, I thank its Chairperson and other members for bringing this important issue to the House. It is an important issue that deserves the full attention of the Assembly. I was unable to attend the meeting at which the motion was agreed, but I acknowledge the fact that the Chairperson informed me of the motion and asked me to sign it. It went to the Business Committee more quickly than I thought it would, so I was unable to sign it, and I apologise for that.

Sinn Féin totally supports this comprehensive and detailed motion. It reflects well the ethos of the all-party group, the Assembly and the Irish people’s recognition of and contribution to international development work. All Members are aware of the many groups that carry out such valuable work in the field; the motion recognises that contribution and commits us to ongoing support. Indeed, a number of those groups have already made presentations to the all-party group, and their work is impressive. In particular, I commend the many individuals who volunteer for that type of work, often in difficult circumstances, which takes them away from their families for long periods.

The Assembly should support and promote interna­tional development work in whatever way possible. That can be demonstrated in a practical way through the North/South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council by ensuring that the commitments that have been made by the Irish and British Governments to the United Nations millennium development goals are achieved within an agreed time frame.

On a practical level — and the motion touches on this — we should support the Assembly Commission in promoting ethical and Fairtrade options. Carmel Hanna mentioned that matter, and I support her views. Derry City Council’s catering facilities have adopted fair-trade purchasing policies recently. MLAs, particularly those who also represent district councils, should ask that our facilities follow the examples set by Derry City Council and the Assembly Commission.

I support the motion’s call for development education to be included in the school curriculum. The Education Minister was personally involved in development work in Latin America, so I have no doubt that she will support us in adding that to the curriculum.

International support was critical to our political process. Carmel Hanna touched on that issue, and the motion acknowledges it. We now know that our experience has been of benefit to other people. We should support all aspects of international development. We should afford ourselves every opportunity to put our good intentions into action. Sinn Féin supports the motion. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Kennedy: I join others in welcoming this important debate. In particular, I pay tribute to the Member for South Belfast Mrs Hanna for her long-standing interest in these issues, and for continually reminding the House of our obligations to other nations of the world.

The people of Northern Ireland have for many years shown considerable generosity to the developing world. The 2005 report ‘Is it worth more than small change?’ outlined that giving to overseas aid or disaster funds was the third most popular form of giving in Northern Ireland.

As a devolved Assembly, it is our duty to mirror our people’s generosity to the developing world. During turbulent times in the past, Northern Ireland benefited significantly from grants, special funds, and from the European Union. In many ways, we are a legacy of the benefits of international support. As such, now that our situation has improved, we should provide help and support to countries that face direr circumstances than we ever did.

Any commitment to international development should not be taken lightly — it is a daunting task because the issues are so broad. It requires a commitment to take people out of poverty — often in countries where poverty is the norm — and providing them with aid, if that is the most appropriate way of improving their lives. Trade links also must be strengthened if a country is to develop its independence.

We take so much for granted. Improvements can always be made — and we have significant problems of our own — but we no longer live in the midst of violent conflict. Our children have an excellent education system, and we are able to access healthcare of a high standard when we require it. We have access to basic amenities, such as water, sewerage and transport. However, access to those commodities is denied to millions of people throughout the world.

There are a number of methods that we can employ to address international development. As Simon Hamilton has outlined, we can follow the example of other devolved institutions in the United Kingdom, which I congratulate on their clear commitment to international development.

There are good local examples, such as Coleraine Borough Council’s development of important links with the people of Malawi. We should encourage that sort of local government activity. Those financial contributions have shown a commitment, in real terms, to dealing with the problems that face the developing world. As an Assembly, and through the all-party group, various strategies are available.

The Assembly has a duty to show a commitment to those goals which aim to provide people throughout the world with the basic entitlements that we take for granted. We must help on issues such as the eradication of poverty, education provision, equality, and reducing child mortality.

There are simple things that we can achieve easily in the Assembly. For example, we have increased our use of Fairtrade products. However, through the all-party group, we must develop meaningful partnerships with relevant organisations that can deliver implentementable strategies — I am not sure how Hansard will make sense of that — to support long-term international development objectives.

Today, I had a productive meeting with representatives from NI-CO, which provides technical assistance to developing countries throughout the world. We should be looking towards that type of transfer of skills and expertise. NI-CO has already invented a wheel that we could use. Equally, in Northern Ireland we must look at what we can offer other countries and their people that is unique to us and beneficial.

We must take the first step on this issue, and I commend the motion to the House.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Thank you, Mr Kennedy. Implementable is easy enough for you to say.

Mr B Wilson: I also thank Carmel Hanna for giving Members the opportunity to discuss this important issue.

People in Northern Ireland have a long record of support for aid organisations and their appeals, from the famine in Ethiopia to the droughts in India and the floods in Bangladesh. Traditionally, we have regarded such disasters as acts of God, over which we have no control. However, in recent years such disasters have increased in intensity and frequency. Scientists suggest that that is because of climate change, for which we have some responsibility.

Many local aid organisations recognise that respons­ibility: this year, Trócaire’s Lenten campaign focused on the effects of climate change on people in the developing world. As part of that campaign, I hosted a meeting in Stormont that highlighted the Trócaire report, ‘Tackling Climate Injustice’. The guest speakers at the meeting, an economist from El Salvador and a scientist from Kenya, outlined the impact that climate change was having on peoples’ lives.

In Kenya, farmers are suffering because nothing happens when it is supposed to — traditional rainy seasons are no longer predictable, and the number of droughts has doubled since the late 1970s. When the rains come, they come in torrents, and that is having a disastrous effect on food security. As crops fail and livestock die, increasing numbers of people are becoming reliant on food aid.

The experience in El Salvador is similar with extended periods of drought in the dry season and more intense and prolonged rain in the rainy season. There has been an increase in tropical-cyclone activity in the north Atlantic over the past 30 years. In the past decade, there have been three times as many disasters as there were in the 1970s. Those disasters directly impact on peoples’ lives by causing death, destroying homes and crops and polluting water sources.

The World Health Organization estimates that climate change in developing countries is responsible for 150,000 deaths each year because of the increases in the number of cases of diarrhoea, malaria and malnutrition. People in developing countries are more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change because that is where the most extreme changes are taking place. The majority of the world’s poorest people live in rural areas and rely on agriculture, which means that they rely heavily on the weather. Even the smallest change in the weather can make poor people more vulnerable because of the impact on basic resources.

In addition, the existing levels of poverty mean that those communities are less able to cope with the impact of changes. People in many of the poorest countries have to adapt their lives to extreme change in climate and require large-scale investment in adaptation projects or face a large-scale loss of life. In a recent report, Oxfam warned that £25 billion was required to fund adaptation projects in poor countries. It added that developing countries cannot, and should not, be expected to:

“foot the bill for the impact of rich countries’ emissions.”

The Green Party believes that the polluter must pay; the countries responsible for the emissions should provide additional financial assistance.

4.00 pm

The population of Northern Ireland has a record of giving generously to aid organisations. However, we also have one of the highest levels of carbon emissions — 35% higher than the rest of the UK. The average person in Ireland emits 100 times more carbon dioxide than the average person in Uganda, but it is the Ugandan who suffers the effects of climate change. Our generous donations are, to a considerable extent, undermined by our high levels of carbon emissions.

Although the Assembly does not play a direct role in supplying international aid, we should use our influence to press the developed world to accept its responsibility. We must reduce our own carbon emissions to below 80% of the 1990 levels by 2050, and must ensure that funding for adaptation projects is additional and not taken from the existing aid budget.

I support the motion.

Mr Shannon: The wording of the motion takes the biscuit for being probably the longest ever in the Chamber. It took the clerk almost five minutes to introduce it. However, the fact that it is wordy does not detract from the fact that it is worthy.

As a child, in reference to those less fortunate than ourselves, my parents instilled in me the importance of the adage:

“To whom much is given, much is expected.”

That saying sums up Northern Ireland’s current position. We have had problems with child poverty, rates, and fuel poverty among the elderly; however, when compared with other countries, our problems are minimal. That puts a responsibility on our shoulders to help as much as is practicable.

This is tha soart o’ wae ithers tuk whun they gien help tae oor sma’ kintra in tiems o’ need.

Indeed ther er kintra’s laer Ameriky whau oarganise changing wi yung yins fae puir femelies.

En ther flichts paid tae gaun tae Americky whor they er takkin caer o’ by femelies whau wush tae gie theim tha simmer o’ ther lives.

Whun we er tha thank fu fowk an benefits fae these femelies iver mony years, thro peece fundin etc, shud we no pass oan tha benefits whu we er abel tae dae sie.

Other countries adopted that attitude when they helped our small country in times of need, and countries such as America still organise exchanges with Northern Ireland whereby children from poorer families have their flights paid for and are taken care of by families who want to give those children the summer of their lives. We are grateful recipients of such largesse and have received many years of Peace funding. Should we not, therefore, pass our own benefits on, now that we are in a position to do so?

We have all heard the statistics and have seen the heartbreaking adverts on television that portray the awful lives of children and adults throughout the world. For example, a child dies every five seconds. To put that in perspective, during this five-minute speech, 60 children will die because they do not have enough food to survive. That shocking statistic leaves no doubt in my mind that something can and must be done, and not only by the generous people whose hearts break a little more each time they watch ‘Children in Need’ or ‘Comic Relief’, and who put their hands in their pockets to make a difference. The Assembly can do something, too.

In February 2008 my colleague Sammy Wilson tabled a question, and the written answer showed that the Department for Regional Development had spent approximately £60,000 a year on good, clean, bottled water. Across all the Departments, that amounts to a massive amount of money simply to provide employees with bottled water.

What difference could that money make? In a project in Malawi, run by the Elim International Missions department in Newtownards, a donation of £15 per month will feed, clothe and educate an orphan at a boarding school. Malawi has been mentioned once or twice during the debate. That £60,000 bottled-water bill has the potential to save more than 3,500 lives per year and break the cycle of poverty by ensuring that those children receive an education and subsequently gain employment. That is one example of how Govern­ment Departments can make a difference — by not drinking bottled water.

It is incumbent on us all to support the motion, step up and ensure that we play our part on the international stage. Northern Ireland is well known as a small country with a big heart, renowned for its charitable giving. Not many people here could turn their back and not give to a starving child. It is past time that the Assembly reflected the views of the people that it represents. Small things can make a big difference, as the charities tell us. For example, instead of drinking a can of Coke that costs 50p per day, a person could give that money to a charity to provide the £15 a month that it takes to save the life of a child in Malawi.

The Assembly must set an example and play its part, and the first step would be the recognition of our role on the international humanitarian stage. Government bodies can begin to make a difference by ensuring that the coffee supplied is Fairtrade and is bought at a reasonable price. We must not waste our natural resources by using bottled water. We can and must be a catalyst for change and make what difference we can.

There is a saying that is often used in the Assembly, and I will say it again:

“It is a fool who does nothing because he cannot do everything.”

Let us not be foolish at the expense of the countries and their inhabitants who need our help and support. Join with the proposer and us all in supporting the motion.

Mr Attwood: I join my colleagues in welcoming the debate. It might be a useful rule of thumb if, in future, the party Whips agreed to ensure that international motions are regularly debated in the House so that we can attend to international issues in the way in which we attend to local and domestic issues. I congratulate Carmel Hanna and her colleagues on tabling the motion. I am sure that they would agree that the bigger acknow­ledgement should be given to those in the Public Gallery and in other places who bring these issues to our attention day in and day out.

I want to address one aspect of the motion in particular. The motion states that the Assembly resolves:

“to work in partnership with relevant organisations to support… the promotion of conflict resolution”.

Several decades ago, the late Frank Wright gave a lecture at Queen’s University — Jim Wells and people of my vintage will remember him. He said in one of his books that national conflicts, when they are fully developed, revolve around issues of law, order and justice. Consequently, in order to resolve national conflicts fully, they must be resolved around issues of law, order and justice. When we apply that thesis to our conflict and other conflicts, we see the truth of it. At any one time in the past 30 or 40 years, the conflict in this part of Ireland was defined by unjust laws, kangaroo courts, the killing of innocent people or other examples of a lack of law, order and justice.

The thesis is further proven by the fact that, over and above the institutional architecture of the Good Friday Agreement, the agreement outlined five sectors or areas in which resolution was necessary to resolve our conflict. Policing was dealt with by the Patton Commission; criminal justice was dealt with through a review; an Equality Commission was established; a Human Rights Commission was established; and mechanisms were put in place for the release of prisoners. That demonstrated to all of us, and to other parts of the world, that if we deal with issues of law, order and justice, we can resolve conflict.

That is why it is so important that that motion states that the all-party group should work with relevant organisations to support the promotion of conflict resolution in other parts of the world. If we have learnt anything from what we have done over the past 10 years to resolve our conflict of the past 40 years, it should be that issues of law, order and justice have to be resolved. We must apply those lessons, where relevant, to other parts of the world that are in conflict.

That was proved when Mary Robinson came to Belfast in December 2000. At a trade union conference, she said that the elements of the Good Friday Agreement that were of most interest to the international world were those that dealt with human rights.

This week, of all weeks, when proposals for our own bill of rights have caused division, I hope that we can revisit the issue in the spirit of what Mary Robinson said on that occasion. At one stage, in recent times, the world looked to the North to see what could be learned from our experiences of issues such as human rights and to see how those experiences might be applicable to other conflicts.

The real measure of the motion will be how it is brought into mainstream government practice and political conduct. It is how we in the Assembly should judge ourselves, and should be judged, over the coming years. The First Minister and the deputy First Minister should bring a paper to the next Executive meeting that asks Ministers to direct their permanent secretaries to identify opportunities for making the motion’s intentions central to how each Department conducts itself. This most important issue should be dealt with by applying the ethos of the motion to departmental policy, staff, training, equipment and other resources.

Ms Purvis: I thank Carmel Hanna for bringing the motion to the House. Like Mr Attwood did, I also thank all those organisations that are involved in international development work.

One in 10 boys and girls in our world dies before his or her third birthday — many from totally preventable diseases. Some 850 million people go to bed hungry every night. Do we care? I think that we do, but to care is not enough. Concern must be followed by action.

I recently had the opportunity to visit South Africa, which is a country rebuilding itself after decades under an apartheid regime. That legacy presents the country with massive challenges. Poverty and housing are among the biggest challenges that it faces. I visited a farming area in a wine region where coloured farm workers were paid in tots — alcohol — not in cash or food. As a result of that, alcoholism is endemic among the region’s men and women. Children there are born with fetal alcohol syndrome. Domestic violence is viewed as being the norm. Children in those communities witness and suffer horrendous violence. They lose parents in violent circumstances and are often left to fend for themselves, without food and with little or no access to school.

Charitable work helps to tackle poverty and other issues that those children and their families endure. I visited the Lynedoch Sustainability Institute near Stellenbosch. That is an example of a programme that works. Through charitable donations and the building of an educational institution for international students, it has introduced sustainable energy production and recycling of waste, and it grows its own produce. The institute has opened a school for the children of the farm workers, and those children receive much more than an education. They receive two meals a day and are taught by educational psychologists, who help to deal with the trauma that they have experienced in their lives.

I met one young boy whose mother killed his father because she was in an abusive relationship. His mother then started a relationship with another man, who then killed her. That boy was 13 years old, and he alone looked after his younger brothers and sisters. He had the opportunity to go to school, at which he studied film making. It proved tremendous for him. He went to Norway and won an award for his work. All that was possible because of his schooling at the institute.

Healthcare is provided for each child at the school, but key to the institute is its sustainable development strategy. That is just one example of international development’s working in partnership with a local community to alleviate poverty and associated issues.

Many organisations in Northern Ireland are doing great work, and the Assembly should support and facilitate that work. Our community is one of the most generous in the UK, and the Assembly needs to play its part.

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The Scottish Parliament has dedicated £3 million a year to Malawi. It has set up Scotland-Malawi trade fairs and is forging links in order to address issues affecting Malawi. The National Assembly for Wales has introduced a programme called Wales for Africa, which supports organisations working in international development. It is creating links between communities in Wales and those in sub-Saharan Africa. It is also aiming to make Wales the first Fairtrade country in the world.

Where does the Northern Ireland Assembly stand on international development? We have an all-party group on international development, and I thank Carmel Hanna for heading that group and for her work in previous years on international development. That group should co-ordinate the Assembly’s commitment to alleviate extreme poverty and world hunger. Active groups are also working on that issue and could support the all-party group.

International development is a cross-departmental issue, and the Assembly has a key role to play. Alex Attwood talked about mainstreaming issues in the motion across all Departments, which would include the Depart­ment of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and the Department for Employment and Learning. We could help optimise opportunities to enable the business community to play its part. We should identify ways to influence Westminster and other Governments to meet their com­mitments to achieve the millennium development goals.

I support the motion.

Mr Dallat: Mr Deputy Speaker, I am sure that it has not escaped your notice that Malawi has been mentioned a few times today — I recall with fondness you and I setting off to go to Zomba. Danny Kennedy quite rightly identified Zomba as a working model for linkages between the local councils of both countries. A presentation was made in the Long Gallery some time ago, and I hope that Members examine that linkage because it is a good model of practice.

The University of Ulster at Coleraine is linked with a university in Malawi. The Causeway Hospital — which sometimes gets bad publicity, but is an excellent hospital — is conducting marvellous work with one of Zomba’s hospitals. Local schools are linked, as are farming organisations and community groups. Members of the Fire and Rescue Service from Coleraine went there last year and trained local firemen on health and safety issues. I think that they also bought them a transistor radio so that they would not get bored because they have nothing else.

You will recall, Mr Deputy Speaker, that the schools there had no pens, paper, desks, or glass in the window frames. Today, thanks to the linkage between Coleraine and Malawi, those schools are now fully equipped.

I am sure that you will also remember that the children were no different to our children; their ambitions were exactly the same. The one difference was that they spoke two languages, which was in spite of the fact that their education conditions were appalling. I have fond memories of that place. I am proud that my wife is going out there in June for the third year running, and she will help to build a school and an orphanage for children who never get to attend school. They are called bush-children. Thanks to the generosity of local people, those children will get an education and escape from the extreme poverty that they live in.

It is opportune that the Assembly is debating this issue. When you and I went to Malawi, Mr Deputy Speaker, the Assembly was suspended. Indeed, during suspension, the only group that met was the all-party group on international development. I applaud Carmel Hanna for insisting that that work continued. I also commend her for proposing what Jim Shannon said was one of the longest motions ever to come before the Assembly.

We have emerged from the suffering of the past. It is opportune that we now stretch out the hand of friendship to other parts of the world.

Although Malawi, the “warm heart of Africa”, has been mentioned many times, today we are focused on events in the neighbouring country of Zimbabwe. Please God let its true election results be honoured so that Robert Mugabe will be nothing but a bad memory. Because of his dictatorship, cruelty and barbarity, Zimbabwe is probably now registered as one of the poorest countries in the world, despite the fact that 20 years ago it had significant natural wealth.

It is important that the motion is not just for Hansard, but that it is the foundation block upon which the Assembly builds its worldwide reputation for how it deals with international — I was about to use the word “aid” but I am glad that I did not — because international development, which is a better word, is a two-way process. If the Assembly simply believes that it is giving aid to other countries, it has failed, because it has not recognised the enormous benefits that it will receive in return. Sometimes we must search to discover what they are — respect for the environment, a recognition of differences in culture and language, and other matters that can help to create a global community — all of which are important. I hope and pray that the Assembly will continue to do what it has been doing so well. Derry City Council was one of the first councils in Northern Ireland to make a formal arrangement through its twinning with Kebele 37 in Addis Ababa. I am not sure if that still exists. However, I can tell the House that the Zomba project has brought enormous benefits.

I am surprised, Mr Deputy Speaker, that you are about to call time on me, given that you were very much part of that endeavour. [Laughter.]

Mr Deputy Speaker: There should be no surprise there, Mr Dallat.

The junior Minister (Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister) (Mr G Kelly): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Tá áthas an domhain orm a labhairt ar an ábhar tábhachtach seo inniu.

I am glad that the Assembly has the opportunity to debate this comprehensive motion. Before I respond to Members’ points, I want to add my endorsement that the Executive and the Assembly has a role to play in enabling and supporting international development. The Programme for Government recognises that the Assembly will develop mutually beneficial and practical co-operation with the British and Irish Governments in tackling major issues that confront us all. International development presents such an opportunity. Indeed, the First Minister acknowledged that in response to a question from Mrs Hanna in the Assembly on 4 February 2008.

At the outset, I want to join other Members in welcoming the hard-working people who are present in the Gallery today who have been daily involved in international development work for a long time.

There has always been a close affinity between people here and the developing world. That affinity is evidenced by the support of non-governmental organisations in providing direct assistance through disaster relief; humanitarian-aid activities and development. Indeed, a measure of any society is the support that it offers to the wider international community and, more specifically, that which it offers to countries that are in poverty or that are experiencing conflict. That wider global vision complements our own growth and development and is exemplified by the contribution that the international community has made to our peace and prosperity, to which several Members have referred.

Although international development is a reserved matter, under the Good Friday Agreement the First Minister and the deputy First Minister are responsible for dealing with and co-ordinating the work of the Executive on external relations.

Níor chóir dúinn muid féin a scaradh ónar gcuid freagrachtaí idirnáisiúnta; ach caithfimid a bheith réadúil faoi cad é atá indéanta. Caithfimid a aithint conas agus cá huair a thig linn cuidiú go héifeachtach leis an fhorbairt idirnáisiúnta agus sinn ag roinnt ár n-eolais.

The Assembly must not insulate itself from its international responsibilities. It must be realistic about what is achievable and must identify how and when it can be effective in aiding development and sharing its experience. The activities of the Executive and the Assembly on the international stage must be underpinned by a strategic overview. It is in that context and the Executive’s strategic priorities that international development will be taken forward.

The motion proposes that the Assembly:

“recognises its responsibility to reflect Northern Ireland’s concerns about, and charity towards, the developing world;”.

Mar fhocal scoir, tacaím leis an rún agus cuirim fáilte roimh obair an ghrúpa uile-pháirtí ar an fhorbairt idirnáisiúnta.

The Members who tabled the motion rightly state that the Assembly has a responsibility to reflect concerns about the developing world. As members of a fully inclusive democratic society, we must be willing to play our part in promoting the better well-being of the wider international community. The Executive and Assembly support the work that is being undertaken by Departments, Government agencies and other bodies that are involved in providing support and assistance to other countries. The Assembly should also recognise the importance of developing informed public support for, and understanding of, the reduction of poverty and increased overseas development.

The motion further proposes that the Assembly:

“acknowledges the international support afforded to help resolve Northern Ireland’s problems;”.

Although great strides have been taken to resolve political, economic and social problems, there is no doubt that the significant international support from around the world has been of benefit. Carmel Hanna highlighted the United States and the European Union as deserving particular mention. I wish to add that much inspiration came from South Africa — a nation with a troubled history and a high level of poverty — when it took time out to support political developments here.

The motion continues by proposing that the Assembly:

“commits, in line with the United Kingdom and Irish Governments, the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, to embedding support for the principles of international development into devolved government, and to supporting the work of Northern Ireland-based organisations involved in the area of international development;”.

Although Westminster retains responsibility for international relations, there is scope for the Executive and Assembly to play a role in the international community. It must be remembered that our Scottish and Welsh colleagues have several years’ experience of progressing their international development strategies, but it is worth noting that several Departments provide support for international development. For example, and as has been mentioned, NI-CO, in partnership with several Departments, provides support and assistance to several emerging countries on a multitude of projects. Several locally based and highly professional NGOs are world leaders in international development. The Executive and Assembly will take their international responsibilities seriously and support the work on international development.

At meetings with the Department for International Development in Britain and the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin, both expressed their willingness to embark on a joint working relationship with OFMDFM and the Executive, and we will continue down that road.

The four Members who tabled the motion also propose that the Assembly:

“notes the report and implementation plan produced in 2003 by the Assembly’s All-party Group on International Development;”.

I welcome that report, which illustrates the good work that can be done when parties work together towards a common goal. The benefits to Northern Ireland of supporting developing countries, as outlined in that report, highlight the importance of continued involvement.

The motion further proposes that the Assembly:

“endorses the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, and the United Kingdom and Irish Governments’ commitments to meet 0·7% Gross National Income contributions to achieving these goals in an agreed timeframe;”.

The eight millennium development goals (MDGs) range from halving extreme poverty to halting the spread of HIV/AIDS and providing universal primary education — all by the target date of 2015 — and they form a blueprint agreed by every country and all the world’s leading development institutions. It is right and fitting for the Assembly to endorse those goals and support the actions of the British and Irish Governments in their attempts to achieve them by 2015. In addition to the direct decisions of the British and Irish Governments, progress towards the MDGs will be affected by several policies that the Assembly can influence; for example, the policy on trade and sustainable development can contribute. Ministers and Departments should be mindful of the impact that any of their decisions may have on achieving the MDGs.

The motion also proposes that the Assembly:

“calls for ethical and fair-trade policies in respect of purchasing by the Assembly Commission, Government departments and agencies, and other public sector bodies;”.

Last month, I had the privilege of meeting a delegation that included farmers who benefit from free-trade arrangements. I strongly support the notion and practice of free trade and the ending of exploitation.

4.30 pm

I support the motion. From March 2006, guidance on procurement of ethical and Fairtrade products has been in place for Departments under Department of Finance and Personnel procurement guidance note 02/06, which provides guidance on how that approach can be implemented in procurement practice under the EU procurement rules and policy, with the aim of promoting fair and ethical trading through public-sector procurement.

Members also proposed that the Assembly and the all-party group on international development resolve to work in partnership with relevant organisations to support long-term international development objectives, including the eradication of poverty, the promotion of conflict resolution and economic and technical development.

I said at the outset of my remarks that the Executive and the Assembly have a role to play in international development. It is inevitable — and it makes sense — that the Executive and the Assembly work in partnership to develop the aims and objectives of international development.

As for the specific objectives that have been mentioned, the Assembly has a responsibility to support the eradication of poverty and to support economic and technical development. There is no doubt that we can have a direct influence on the promotion of conflict resolution. Several Members have assisted internationally in that sphere, and that has been recognised and welcomed. I am proud of the efforts of Members to share experiences and end conflicts in areas such as Palestine and Israel, Spain and the Basque nations, Iraq and Sri Lanka. We will continue to play an increasing role in that area of work, and we are actively considering options to take the matter forward.

Members also proposed that the Assembly resolve to promote a strategy for the development of education that integrates a global dimension into the school curriculum. In supporting the motion, I am advised by the Department of Education that a revised curriculum is being introduced into schools on a phased basis. Citizenship and global issues are key parts of the revised curriculum, and a full programme of training and guidance materials will be provided to teachers to support them in delivery. The revised curriculum aims to prepare young people for life and work in the twenty-first century. Within that revised curriculum, citizenship education aims to develop the capacity of all young people to participate positively and effectively in society, to influence democratic processes and to make informed and responsible decisions throughout their lives as local and global citizens.

The Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment worked on the global dimension during the curriculum review, and its input is reflected in the statutory minimum content and guidance materials for local and global citizenship at primary and post-primary levels.

Mar fhocal scoir, tacaím leis an rún agus cuirim fáilte roimh obair an ghrúpa uile-pháirtí ar an fhorbairt idirnáisiúnta.

I support the motion and welcome the further work of the all-party group on international development. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Wells: I thank all the Members who contributed to the debate on this extremely important issue. It would be remiss of me not to pay tribute to the chairperson of the all-party group who has been — I was going to say a Boadicea, but that may not be the appropriate term — a Trojan in driving forward efforts to address this important issue. Without her enthusiasm and drive, we would not be debating the issue, and the all-party group would not have achieved anything without her hard work.

I also pay tribute to the work of the Coalition of Aid and Development Agencies in Northern Ireland. A very active, far-seeing and hard-working group of voluntary agencies in Northern Ireland are members of CADA. Other groups such as Church organisations and Fields of Life play an equally important role.

It is also appropriate that we are debating this issue this week, because on Thursday we welcome our fifth head of state to the Assembly. We have had a visit from Her Majesty The Queen, the Prime Minister of the Irish Republic, the President of Croatia, the President of the United States of America on two occasions and, on Thursday, we will host a visit from the President of Burundi.

He is a gentleman who will be of considerable interest to many in this Chamber, because he was formerly involved in terrorist activity and is now pursuing a genuinely peaceful role in trying to rebuild his country. Therefore, he has a very interesting story to tell, and I urge MLAs who have been invited to the various functions to attend them and to hear his presentation. I have not attempted to pronounce his name because I think that I would do him a disservice —

Mr Weir: Mr President.

Mr Wells: Mr President — yes, I think that is as far as I can go. We are all looking forward to that visit with great interest.

My own personal experience on this issue is largely based on the influence of my daughters, who have worked with aid agencies such as Tearfund in countries such as Burkino Faso, Chad, Mexico and Malawi, which my eldest daughter will be visiting this summer. I have visited some of the poorest areas of Kenya. I am told that, in African terms, Kenya is a relatively wealthy country. However, some of what I observed there was, frankly, soul-destroying. It was absolute, grim poverty, to an extent that no one in Northern Ireland can really appreciate.

I am on the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, ably chaired by Mr Kennedy, and we have recently considered the issue of child poverty. Although Northern Ireland has children who are genuinely living in poor households, when one sees real child poverty in Africa, the situation here is nothing compared to what our fellow human beings have to survive in sub-Saharan Africa.

Mr Shannon made the very pertinent point that one child dies every five seconds in sub-Saharan Africa. That means that, during the time that this debate has been going on, 721 children will have died — or should I say 722, or 723. That is an indication of what is happening there. Out there, in the real world, there are people dying in abject poverty — as Ms Purvis said, 850 million people go to bed at night hungry. That is an absolutely intolerable situation.

A recurring theme in Members’ comments was a sense of frustration that the Assembly seems unable to do something about that situation, to reach out to others and do something positive. I am envious of the work being done by the Scottish Parliament, which has a twinning arrangement with Malawi that seems to be successful. I note with interest what the National Assembly for Wales is doing in places such as Lesotho, and yet we are told that, as an Assembly, our role is extremely limited.

If nothing else, if this debate at least enables us to explore what the Assembly can do to assist with international development, it will have been a tremendous success. I listened with great interest to the Member for East Londonderry Mr Dallat — it is unfortunate that he is not here, because I am about to make history by praising him. What has he done wrong? [Laughter.] Get him back in the Chamber very quickly. The lead role that Coleraine Borough Council has taken — and I know that you will not interrupt me on this, Mr Deputy Speaker — has been an example to local government in Northern Ireland, given what it has achieved through the Zomba project.

Mr Weir: A cross-party delegation from the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA) connected with the Zomba project visited Malawi last year. It operated at both officer and member level. It certainly brought home to those involved with that project the significant need for western involvement. Obviously that connection was initiated in the Coleraine area, but I am glad to see that it now extends beyond that area.

Mr Wells: I am grateful for that intervention because it has allowed the honourable Member for East London­derry to return, so that I can continue to praise him and his council for the excellent work that they are doing in Malawi through the Zomba project. I know that NILGA has been very supportive of that, so perhaps other councils can follow that lead.

A wide range of comments were made during the debate. The chairman of our all-party group, Carmel Hanna, introduced the motion and highlighted the issues of global poverty, climate change and inequality. Those were recurring themes throughout the debate. She also reminded us of the famine, which afflicted not only the Irish Republic, but parts of what is now Northern Ireland. So we as a community have suffered, and perhaps that is one of the reasons why we are so keen to assist when there are disasters throughout the world, and so positive in our support of various aid agencies.

Mrs Hanna also highlighted the work of Fields of Life and the importance of spreading the message, not only to the converted who are in the Chamber — because anyone who has sat through the debate will have some commitment to overseas development — but to the greater mass of politicians in Northern Ireland, who may not be quite so interested in the subject.

Simon Hamilton said that it was entirely appropriate that we look beyond our shores and that the world does not revolve around the centre of the universe, which is, of course, South Down. We should look well beyond that at the needs of others. He brought up the interesting point that the Coalition of Aid and Development Agencies in Northern Ireland has 150,000 supporters. Therefore, if only for purely personal reasons, we should look after those people, because they are voters who have concerns about this issue.

Mr McCartney highlighted the work of all-Ireland aid agencies. Some very important agencies, such as Trócaire, are involved in such work north and south of the border. There are variations on that theme, because Northern Ireland, all-Ireland and UK-based agencies are working together harmoniously on the important issue of international development.

It was important that Mr Kennedy had an opportunity to speak as Chairperson of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, and he emphasised the need for access to basic services. He, too, spoke highly of the work of Coleraine Borough Council and the Zomba project, but he was the first Member to mention the importance of Fairtrade. The most basic thing that we, as a Province, should do is ensure that, given the billions of pounds that are spent on products from overseas, there is a Fairtrade policy for all Government procurement. That would do an enormous amount to benefit those who are less fortunate.

I expected Brian Wilson to highlight environmental issues, and he did not disappoint me. He brought up the extremely important issue of climate change and the fact that we use over 100 times more of the world’s resources than people use in other parts of the world. Northern Ireland’s 1·7 million people have a greater demand on the world’s resources than most west African countries. It is not that those countries use few resources, but that we use so many. If everyone in the world wished to consume the world’s resources at the rate at which we do in Northern Ireland, they would require four planets. Mr Wilson was absolutely right to raise that issue.

Jim Shannon’s comments were particularly appropriate. Departments are spending £60,000 on bottled water. If we scrapped that, how many children could we support at £15 a month? That was an excellent point. He also raised the crucial issue about a child dying every five seconds, which is a terrible indictment of society.

Alex Attwood’s contribution went over my head. He went into deep constitutional political issues, which were not particularly relevant. Fortunately, Ms Purvis brought us back down to earth, as it were, by recounting her experiences in South Africa, which I found very useful.

Finally, Mr Dallat gave the House an in-depth description of the work that has been carried out in Coleraine. I am sure that the Deputy Speaker will not stop me from praising Coleraine Borough Council and saying that that was a very useful contribution — well done, Coleraine.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Given your praise of Mr Dallat, I regret very much that the clocks changed the other night, because it means that it will be several hours before we can see the blue moon. [Laughter.]

Question put and agreed to.


That this Assembly: recognises its responsibility to reflect Northern Ireland’s concerns about, and charity towards, the developing world; acknowledges the international support afforded to help resolve Northern Ireland’s problems; commits, in line with the United Kingdom and Irish Governments, the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, to embedding support for the principles of international development into devolved government, and to supporting the work of Northern Ireland-based organisations involved in the area of international development; notes the report and implementation plan produced in 2003 by the Assembly’s All-party Group on International Development; endorses the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, and the United Kingdom and Irish Governments’ commitments to meet 0·7% Gross National Income contributions to achieving these goals in an agreed timeframe; calls for ethical and fair-trade policies in respect of purchasing by the Assembly Commission, Government departments and agencies, and other public sector bodies; resolves, including through the All-party Group on International Development, to work in partnership with relevant organisations to support long-term international development objectives, including the eradication of poverty, the promotion of conflict resolution, and economic and technical development; and further resolves to promote a strategy for development education that integrates a global dimension into the school curriculum.

Motion made:

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


Redevelopment of the Lower  Newtownards Road, Belfast

Mr Deputy Speaker: I remind Members that the proposer of the debate will have 15 minutes in which to speak. All other Members who are called to speak will have approximately 12 minutes.

Mr Newton: I thank the Business Committee for recognising the importance of this matter and for allowing this debate to take place. I want to put on record my gratitude to the staff and members of the East Belfast Partnership, especially the volunteer members, who have done so much to publicise the need for this project to be delivered. I will come to that aspect later.

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It would be remiss of me not to thank officials from the Department for Social Development’s Belfast Regeneration Office, because they have suffered the same frustration as many of us in attempting to get projects under way. That frustration has not been caused by a lack of due diligence or professionalism.

The Newtownards Road is a main entry point into East Belfast. It is situated on one of Belfast’s busiest intersections — the junction of the Short Strand, Bridge End, the M3 and the Sydenham bypass access. From those main thoroughfares, the lower Newtownards Road carries commuters to and from the city and beyond, serving not only the east of the city but Holywood, Bangor, Newtownards and even this Building.

In the east of the city, the Newtownards Road is known locally as “the road”. If one asks people where they are going, and they say that they are going down the road, locals know that they are not going down the Cregagh Road, the Woodstock Road or the Ravenhill Road — they know that they are going down the Newtownards Road. The road has suffered dereliction as a result of the Troubles, and it has been blighted by empty buildings. That has been exacerbated by the vacation of some public buildings near the Newtownards Road, including the recent closure of the former Belfast Institute of Futher and Higher Education (BIFHE) campus. It closed and took with it some of the life and local jobs from the road.

Along the main arterial route, the retail offer, which was once a thriving shopping road, is weakened by rows of empty shops and a poor streetscape environment. The lack of open space in the adjoining area helps to contribute to that overall poor physical environment.

The area’s housing stock to support the vibrancy of the main arterial route is poor in places. Indeed, the deficient physical setting leads to the demand for social housing in the area being greatly reduced. In fact, its potential is much less than it logically should be. Redevelopment of some housing stock has taken place, but it has been largely private-sector-led investment.

In its heyday, the Newtownards Road typified East Belfast in many ways. It was the place where the bulk of the area’s population lived and worked, where all sorts of businesses plied their trade and where a lively level of social activity existed. Although it is true to say that people were not wealthy, they exhibited a prosperity associated with a thriving neighbourhood, and there was always an excellent community spirit. People have been proud to say that they came from, or lived on, the Newtownards Road.

The levels of vacancy and dereliction on the road warranted its being identified as a priority by Belfast City Council in its arterial routes programme, which assessed the condition of the arterial routes in Belfast in 2001.

The decline of the area has been fairly rapid, affected by the continuing downturn in the fortunes of heavy industry, people moving out of the area and changes in retail patterns, with the development of shopping centres, and so on. The proposed action to be taken involved working on a multi-agency basis, but, in 2005, there was enough concern about the lack of visible action that James Brown — a business sector member of the East Belfast Partnership — decided to establish a steering group to inject some impetus into the process.

It would be appropriate to pay tribute to James Brown. He has given generously of his time and speaks passion­ately about the Newtownards Road and the need to re-establish it as a thriving arterial route. Indeed, it was James who fired my enthusiasm to see something done.

When the steering group was brought together, it updated the audit of the buildings on the road, established their use and ownership and set a number of objectives, the first of which was to obtain special designation of the Newtownards Road as a development zone. Quite rightly, the group wanted to create a partnership ethos — we all recognise that that is the way to go. The Department for Social Development, Belfast City Council and the East Belfast Partnership committed specifically to the regeneration of the Newtownards Road. The group wanted to secure funding to develop a shared vision and an action plan. It wanted to secure investment and commitment to deliver the action plan, and to identify early wins as funds became available to make the environmental improvements on the road.

The key challenges for the delivery of development on arterial routes are fragmented ownership and different agendas that are not necessarily focused on any common outcome. There is a great deal of disparate thinking on any of the arterial routes. There is also a requirement that key stakeholders, particularly those in Government, work together to deliver quickly. The co-operation of the Planning Service and Roads Service is paramount in that regard.

The group is known as the Newtownards Road 2012 group. It has just completed a Newtownards Road strategic action plan, which has been forwarded to the Minister for Social Development. The 2012 group, again demonstrating its partnership ethos, obtained private- and public-sector investment from Cherton, the George Best Belfast City Airport and Titanic Quarter Ltd. The strategic action plan sets out the appropriate actions that need to be taken to regenerate vacant, derelict and underused sites and buildings along the road.

Addressing the dereliction on the road is also a key priority in the neighbourhood renewal action plan for inner East Belfast, and has been formally recognised as one of the five priorities of the East Belfast strategic regeneration framework, which was produced in January 2007.

Several factors continue to add to existing pressure. An increasing number of houses are being built outside Belfast, although in many ways, one can only welcome that. The development of key sites such as Titanic Quarter, Sirocco Quays and Victoria Square, while one would not want to see them left undeveloped, have brought with them a level of prosperity, which, if the dereliction on the Newtownards Road is not tackled, will create a “them” with prosperity and an “us” with dereliction. The development of the Titanic Quarter is to be welcomed, but the dereliction on the Newtownards Road must also be addressed.

There has been an increase in the number of city centre workers on the road, who have added to the volume of traffic using the arterial routes. I also welcome the proposed rapid-transport system for Belfast, but it must be used as an opportunity to secure wider regeneration. I welcome all those improvements, because in the greater context of the development of Belfast as a modern city, they will make a positive contribution to Belfast as a whole and to East Belfast in particular.

However, as I have already attempted to say, we must achieve a balance that will enable the Newtownards Road to service the communities who live, work and bring up their families in that area, as well as continuing to provide radial access to the city centre for increasing volumes of traffic.

All the studies that have been undertaken recognise the importance of the Newtownards Road as a barometer of success. Its continued neglect signifies a lack of interest, and, when one talks to people from the area, there is a sense that it has taken so long that they have heard it all before. Various studies have been announced, but they have all come and gone. That continued neglect signifies a lack of interest and concern from the authorities, and any initiatives that have been undertaken have been fairly low impact.

The failure to tackle dereliction on the Newtownards Road not only obliges people to tolerate an unacceptable physical environment, but inhibits progress in the area in relation to building community cohesion and improving health and well-being. The costs of such neglect are borne throughout public services, and they are evidenced by high levels of poor health, educational underachieve­ment and antisocial behaviour in the area. I will not quote statistics, but the area is recognised, according to the Noble index, as an area of deprivation.

It is important to note that the Newtownards Road 2012 group was established as a self-help initiative, and it has managed to secure impressive levels of support across the private and public sectors from the sources that I have already named. The Government now have an opportunity to respond positively to that initiative by ensuring that the following recommendations receive widespread support.

Steps must be taken to ensure a flexible, responsive approach by the Planning Service to the opportunities that are being presented. For example, action is required on the continued blight at the Holywood Arches, which has been evident for nigh on 20 years and is caused by the road protection lines.

I pay tribute to the East Belfast Partnership, and we are all aware of the £23·5 million that it recently secured from the Big Lottery Fund in order to regenerate the Connswater River. The area of blight sits adjacent to that project. There is a clear opportunity to add value to that £23·5 million investment.

DSD must employ a more active role in supporting regeneration. There has been some activity in purchasing derelict sites, but DSD could do more to exert influence in Government and the private sector.

Where a case for intervention has been consistently made, it is important that appropriate resources be provided and that the relevant Departments work together with local initiatives in order to deliver results.

This debate is not about coming with a begging-bowl attitude, and it is not about highlighting levels of deprivation in the area, depressing as they are. It is a call for Government at various levels to get their act together and to invest in the area. It is about Government being positive in order to secure the future of this once prosperous area, and returning the district to its former glory. In return, the Government will receive benefits much greater than the required financial investment through having made a huge contribution towards addressing the area’s social needs.

Mrs Long: As someone who grew up on the Newtownards Road, I remember when it was a bustling commercial area where there was plenty of activity. It is depressing to see the decline that has encroached on it over the last 30 to 40 years.

Complex factors have affected that area. Robin Newton was correct to identify that the decline in heavy industry has had an impact on local people’s disposable income. Changed shopping patterns have also been a key factor — the building of Connswater shopping centre clearly damaged the business of commercial units along the road. Now, however, that shopping centre is a vital part of the jigsaw that we must piece together for that area’s regeneration, because it is a major employer and resource in the community.

5.00 pm

The decline in the community around the area happened in two phases. In the 1960s and 1970s, there was a flight to the suburbs as people migrated from inner east Belfast to outlying estates. In the 1990s and 2000s, regeneration efforts in the area had a two-fold impact. During those processes, there was inevitable displacement of the local population, as total rebuilds progressed. However, that was a slow process, and the community was never able to rebuild itself. The result was housing of better quality, but of much less density than that which it replaced. Put-back rates were often less than 20%. That matter has been raised previously with the Minister for Social Development. That removed a critical mass of population from the area and placed businesses under pressure. It also removed many of the local service providers and other community facilities, such as churches and other organisations.

Other attempts at general regeneration have moved incredibly slowly and in a piecemeal manner. When I have raised this matter previously, the blame for the malaise has often been left at the door of the people in the area. We have been told that there is too much division about future outcomes in the area for Government agencies to deliver cohesively. However, insufficient effort and emphasis has been placed on engaging with local people and on building consensus and capacity in those neighbourhoods.

We have ended up with a top-down approach, which was always going to be frustrating. That has been proven to be the case. The leadership that has been shown by the East Belfast Partnership in respect of the Connswater Community Greenway project emphasised the importance of engagement, managed to deliver cohesion and coherence, and secured a productive outcome. That is important in deciding how the process should go forward.

Political tensions and paramilitary activity, although not unique to the Newtownards Road, blighted a number of urban areas and created a lack of confidence in the private sector, restricting investment. That created a chill factor for people who would otherwise have used the amenities on the road. Work is ongoing in the area to address that problem, but that requires support from central Government and local government if it is to be successful. As a result of the Troubles, the area was made less permeable. The disconnection of the Newtownards Road from the city centre was clearly a product of trying to find a structural solution to a community-based problem.

In the last few years, the severance of the Newtownards Road from the Upper Newtownards Road, engendered by poor transport links, has contributed to difficulties. At the break point — the Albertbridge Road junction — the majority of bus transit goes down the Albertbridge Road rather than the Newtownards Road. That creates a degree of severance that did not previously exist.

Those are the negatives — the historical factors. In this debate, we are trying to find a way forward and to look for the positives. The challenge is to regenerate this key arterial route. In the context of the massive regeneration of East Belfast, including the Titanic Quarter and the Sirocco Works site, the Newtownards Road has a key contribution to make to overall regeneration objectives. As Robin Newton has rightly stated, it is a key gateway to the city. The road can potentially benefit from that wider redevelopment, particularly where it addresses the severance of the east of the city from the rest of it at Bridge End. However, I cannot emphasise enough that it cannot be assumed that that benefit will be felt. In the past, that has not been the experience of people who live in the area.

Robin has already highlighted examples where redevelopment has happened and will happen: the Skainos project, East Belfast Enterprise Park, the health centre at the Holywood Arches, which is already in place, and the Ballymac Centre, work on which is in train. The East Belfast Partnership has regenerated two crucial sites on the Newtownards Road: its previous headquarters on the Irvine shoe shop site at Bloomfield Avenue, and its new centre at Dee Street. That has made a difference to the street frontage along the road.

It is also true to say that individual members of the partnership board — including James Brown, to whom special tribute must be paid — have made commitments within their businesses to the regeneration of the site and upkeep of the area so that it will look vibrant and provide good prospects for anyone who is considering investing there.

However, a more cohesive approach is required. I do not want to reiterate everything that Robin said about the processes that led to the formation of the 2012 group, because that is now on the record. Rather, I will focus on a couple of issues that are crucial to the delivery of some of the projects.

Robin referred to the situation around the lower part of the Holywood Arches — specifically at the Connswater Street junction. That is one of the main sites on the Newtownards Road, and a road scheme proposed for the area has been causing blight for a protracted time. I believe that that scheme would create further community severance and, therefore, I am not a fan of it.

I also think that the road scheme would conflict with the ambitious scheme for the Connswater Community Greenway, as it would result in the culverting of the river at one of the main sections. The road scheme, therefore, does not have a lot of legs, and the uncertainty surrounding it has continued for such a long time that the site is now in an appalling state of dereliction. It is difficult to see how the rest of the road can be regenerated if that site is not adequately addressed.

There has been significant regeneration and revitalisation of that portion of the road beyond that site and up towards the Holywood Arches. My office is above the Holywood Arches, and I have noticed that there has been a trickle-down effect on to the Upper Newtownards Road and Holywood Road at that junction. However, the site at Connswater Road has acted as a barrier to any benefits moving further down the Newtownards Road. Until that problem is dealt with, it will be difficult to deal with the wider regeneration issues. I know that the Minister for Social Development is responding to the Adjournment debate, but I hope that she and the Minister for Regional Development — both of whom I have corresponded with — will try to work together to address that barrier.

The lack of cohesion and the piecemeal approach that has been taken to date also act as barriers. The 2012 group has come up with a cohesive way forward. It is looking for an overall plan that deals with community confidence, because people feel that the redevelopment of the Newtownards Road has been a long time in coming, and they have low expectations of the outcome of such processes. It would be beneficial to have a master plan, or a blueprint project, so that people could see what the road would look like in 2012 and feel that there is something to aim towards. It would, therefore, be possible to get the quick wins but also have a long term strategy.

It is unfortunate, therefore, that when the group approached the Planning Service, it got a negative reaction to that notion of having some kind of a strategic blueprint for the area that would have any statutory basis and which would be a material consideration in planning applications. The result of that is that people are concerned that planning will continue on a piecemeal and reactive basis. That does not provide the sense of certainty that is needed if we are to attract inward investment from business people, or if we are to build a confidence in the community that the redevelopment is for the people who live in the area and that it is they who will benefit from it. That is critical. In other countries, and in many inner city areas of GB, it has been demonstrated that some sort of master-plan approach to planning, the physical infrastructure and the social regeneration is required.

It is hoped that there will be community planning as part of the review of public administration and that it, as well as the power of well-being, will be piloted on this stretch of road.

The appearance of the road is a major disincentive to people. Robin has highlighted the extensive dereliction that there is on the road, and it will take someone with a great deal of imagination and courage to see an opportunity in the face of such deprivation. The opportunities are there, but there are ways that we — through the Assembly and local Ministers — could start to build that confidence.

A number of sites along the road are publicly-owned or publicly-controlled. If we were able to do something with those sites, confidence would be engendered in private site owners who, for instance, have planning applications in the system or have had recent planning approval but are wary of committing resources to development. There are ways to boost that.

Living Over The Shop schemes and environmental improvements are also being discussed; such schemes would be welcome as they would reanimate the space, create the urban density that has been lacking and provide sustainability. There is a gap, so to speak, between the first floor and the pavement — the shop frontages. Will the Minister for Social Development consider shop frontage schemes? Such schemes have been operational in other places but not on the Newtownards Road as part of the arterial routes regeneration; they seem to be out of favour at present for whatever reason. For businesses in the area that have reached a plateau and are stable but not lucrative, such a scheme would be a worthwhile investment, giving them the confidence and courage to invest, bearing in mind that the turnover of many of them means that they cannot readily consider major capital investment.

In the short term, shop frontage enhancement could make a huge difference to people’s view of the road and their perspective on the future. I hope that this will not be another long chapter in the discussions on the matter, as we need to get to grips with the issue: the people of the lower Newtownards Road have waited long enough, and the time is right to deliver.

Ms Purvis: I thank Mr Robin Newton for securing the debate. Rather than rehearse what has already been said, I associate myself with the detailed comments of Mr Newton and Mrs Long.

I commend the Newtownards Road 2012 group, which works with the East Belfast Partnership board and the community in trying to regenerate the lower Newtownards Road. The area is one of the more isolated and excluded in East Belfast, as has been mentioned. It is a key arterial route but, like the surrounding community, has suffered years of neglect. The plan is to ensure that derelict or unused properties on the road are replaced with developments that make a positive social and economic difference to the community. That cannot happen without the support of the Department.

The Newtownards Road was once thriving and busy, with numerous businesses: bicycle shops, clothes shops, fruit shops — a cinema at one point, would you believe — butchers and bakeries. The road was the backbone of the community and represented its strong spirit. Numerous developments are taking place, which have been mentioned by Mrs Long and Mr Newton. However, from Bridge End and Pitt Park right up to the Arches and Connswater Street, the road is peppered with derelict buildings, sites full of rusting corrugated iron and buildings sprouting weeds. My own office is on that part of the road, but it is not rusting corrugated iron and weeds growing out of it — just my big “bake” on the front of it. [Laughter]

Although some development is happening and some is in the pipeline, such as the Skainos project of the East Belfast Mission and others, and some improvements are evident, the area needs more than a facelift. I agree that shop frontage enhancement would help. I meet many people on the road or they come into my office and they talk about the state of the road and they ask why work has been done to the shop fronts of the Shankill — new painted signs and new windows and shutters — while their road has been left in such a state. I do not have an answer for them.

Some of the derelict properties on the road were bought as retirement investments by people who have done very well in the area, thank you very much, but who have decided to let their properties sit and rot in the hope that their value will increase; some have added planning permission to the sites in order to boost their value. The issue needs to be sorted out. If they need to be vested, vest them, and let us develop the area because that is what the it needs. It is not an attractive area in which to live. Any regeneration must take account of existing businesses and community.

5.15 pm

That regeneration must have community input, and it needs to be integrated. Some cynics in the community believe that the plans to regenerate the front of the Newtownards Road are really about hiding the working-class community behind nice new buildings. That will not work. Someone has told me that in South Africa, walls are being built around the townships to prevent visitors who are there for the World Cup seeing the blight of the townships and what goes on there. Such work is not an answer. We need to involve the community and to ensure that the regeneration of the Newtownards Road is a sustainable development; in other words, the community must be able to buy into it, businesses that will remain there must be involved, and people must have a buy-in and say in what happens.

The people on the road want to see it developed. As has been mentioned previously, Ballymacarrett suffers from some of the worst deprivation in Northern Ireland, with high unemployment rates, low educational attainment, high levels of poverty and ill health. Regeneration of the Newtownards Road should benefit the community, because we all know the effects that improving one’s environment can have and the massive impact that it can have on people’s life chances, health, and employment prospects.

The key to the development of the Newtownards Road is to tie it in with the other major areas that will be developed in East Belfast over the next two decades: Sirocco Quays and the Titanic Quarter. The development of the Newtownards Road can help the communities that live in and around those areas to maximise the opportunities that can be gained from those developments. It is important that those who are most excluded are able to avail themselves of those opportunities as they present themselves.

I am glad that the Minister is here, and I look forward to her contribution. The redevelopment of the Newtownards Road could play a big part in addressing the existing inequalities by affording new opportunities to the people of that road.

The Minister for Social Development (Ms Ritchie): I thank Robin Newton for giving the Assembly the opportunity to discuss the redevelopment needs of the Newtownards Road, and I also thank Mrs Long and Ms Purvis for their contributions.

The outlook for our cities and towns is better now than it has been for generations. There are more economic opportunities, and we are now in a much stronger position to tackle the problems of dereliction, social division and safety.

Whether working, shopping or socialising, the people of Northern Ireland now expect a great deal more from their towns than they have at any time in the recent past. Now is the time to build on that foundation by creating initiatives that improve the environment, support a buoyant economy, provide job opportunities and, ultimately, deliver a Northern Ireland that is fit for the twenty-first century. All sectors — public, private, voluntary and community — are working together to deliver physical and economic regeneration in our most disadvantaged urban neighbourhoods. As many Members know, neighbourhood renewal is the Government’s main vehicle in the drive to tackle disadvantage. Along with my ministerial colleagues, I am determined to focus funds on actions that will help to deal with the causes, as well as the symptoms, of deprivation. There clearly has to be a buy-in from my ministerial colleagues, and there must be collective responsibility for the issue.

Local neighbourhood action plans have now been established that will make a real difference to the people of Northern Ireland. The Newtownards Road will benefit from the neighbourhood renewal action plan for the area. My Department is also playing a leading role in two other initiatives that will have an impact on the area: the East Belfast strategic regeneration framework and the inner east action plan, both of which are due for completion by summer 2008. The strategic framework will guide the sustainable regeneration and development of East Belfast as a contributor to the social and economic success of Belfast. That will also set an overall context for the various Government initiatives that are operating in the area. There is a real opportunity to align all those initiatives to maximise the potential social and economic benefits. The inner east action plan will provide a vehicle to co-ordinate public-sector investment and lever in private-sector moneys to address the major dereliction that exists on the Newtownards Road.

I have referred to the importance of partnership arrangements in achieving success. I have been most impressed by the partnership model that has been set up to progress the Newtownards Road redevelopment project. Notwithstanding the contributions that have been made by Members this afternoon about the level of dereliction, the partnership process is the way in which to take forward the road’s redevelopment. I commend the work of East Belfast Partnership and the Newtownards Road 2012 group in publishing their strategic plan. Both the strategic regeneration framework and the inner east action plan are aligned with that strategic plan and will take full account of the 2012 report.

It is positive that the East Belfast Partnership is taking a lead in making things happen. The public sector, community and voluntary representatives, and a wide range of stakeholders and contacts are all working together actively and constructively for the good of the area. The model of a local partnership that is actively participating in facilitating local development is crucial to regenerating that main arterial route.

I assure the Assembly that, where possible, my Department will support that partnership approach. Where there is vacant, underused or surplus public-sector land, DSD will do what it can to deliver regener­ation benefits. Only last week, I visited the Newtownards Road, where I saw the level of dereliction and the potential for certain sites. I have talked to Robin and Naomi about those matters. The former Kwik Fit site is an example of the active role that my Department plays in the area, facilitating East Belfast Enterprise’s search for land to develop its new business incubation centre.

Later this year, my Department will deliver an environmental improvement scheme, costing in excess of £1·3 million, on the Newtownards Road. The scheme will include footpath upgrading, road resurfacing, enhanced street lighting, and tree planting and landscaping along the road.

Last week, I announced a major funding contribution of more than £5 million for the Skainos project, which will deliver an iconic, state-of-the-art, mixed-use development, with a new civic square fronting the Newtownards Road. Importantly, that project provides for new housing in the form of a replacement hostel, social apartments and private apartments. Work on the new hostel, which will contain 26 units, is programmed to start this year. Work on nine apartments is programmed to start next year. That innovative scheme will provide a major boost for the area and, when complete, will revitalise that part of the Newtownards Road.

My Department is also working towards developing a £3 million funding contribution to the Connswater Community Greenway, which is a £30 million environmental-improvement project that is supported by Belfast City Council and the Big Lottery Fund. It represents a significant opportunity to transform the face of east Belfast.

There is no doubt that housing is important to the regeneration of the Newtownards Road. Part of the reason for the area’s decline was a reduction in population as a result of a loss of housing some years ago. I want to assure Mr Newton and his East Belfast colleagues, as well as the House, that the Newtownards Road and its people will be part of the new housing agenda that I announced on 25 February.

I am pleased to say that there has already been considerable newbuild in the area — conditions have improved dramatically in recent years. Some fine social housing can be found around Dee Street and Templemore Avenue. At the lower end of the Newtownards Road, the Housing Executive demolished unpopular and difficult-to-let flats at Harland Walk several years ago. The local housing association, Connswater Homes, provided new replacement homes on a part of the site and has just started on a second phase, which will contain 18 homes on the part of the site that faces directly on to the Newtownards Road.

The Newtownards Road may also provide a location for a Living over the Shop (LOTS) initiative. The LOTS scheme is based on the concept of bringing the vacant upper floors of town-centre or urban properties into residential use, using grant aid. The scale of Belfast city centre, not to mention the size of the buildings, means that current LOTS projects tend not to work economically.

However, that concept may be appropriate for some parts of the city, especially arterial routes. The possibility of developing such a scheme in the area from Templemore Avenue to Holywood Arches is under consideration. Therefore, I assure the Members present that housing issues in the area will continue to maintain a high profile.

With the limited time remaining, I will address some of the issues raised by Members.

Robin Newton questioned whether I fully appreciated the problems regarding the Newtownards Road. I understand the difficulties in that area of Belfast. It has close proximity to Belfast city centre; it is a major arterial route; and it is offered potential by the development of Titanic Quarter, as referred to by Ms Purvis. Despite those factors, significant areas of the Newtownards Road are blighted by vacant properties and dereliction. I assure Members that I want that problem comprehensively addressed.

Naomi Long wrote to me at some length last week, and I will ensure that she receives a substantive response to her questions. Furthermore, I will discuss those issues with the Minister of the Environment Mrs Foster and the Minister for Regional Development Mr Murphy.

Robin Newton asked about the preparation for studies. When is the community going to see the real change on the ground? That is the crucial issue that everyone asks about. My officials and I are fully committed to making a real difference on the ground on the Newtownards Road, and I have referred to the Kwik Fit site in that respect.

Robin raised the issue of the derelict sites on the road-protection line, across from the Albertbridge Road junction, that he feels act as a barrier to the Upper Newtownards Road. I share the Member’s concerns about the positive-negative impact that those derelict properties have on that part of the Newtownards Road. The future is dependent on the outcome of the Belfast Metropolitan Area Plan inquiry, and I await that with interest. I am happy to discuss that with Mrs Foster and Mr Murphy.

Mr Newton referred to the length of time that the Newtownards Road has been left, and that that has been worsened by the private sector market. Mrs Long also raised that point. Members will appreciate that my Department’s budget is limited —

Mr Deputy Speaker: I ask the Minister to bring her remarks to a close.

Ms Ritchie: In my short presentation, I have not been able to answer all the queries raised by Members. However, I am happy to write to them on all of the issues that they have raised individually.

I thank the Members for their contribution today. I assure them of my continued support for the regeneration of the Newtownards Road, since it is one of the arterial routes into the city of Belfast, and from Belfast to the east.

Adjourned at 5.26 pm.

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