Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 7 April 2008

Executive Committee Business:
Public Health (Amendment) Bill: Further Consideration Stage

Private Members’ Business:
Forkhill Military Site
Further Education Provision for Young People with Disabilities

Oral Answers to Questions:
Health, Social Services and Public Safety
Regional Development
Social Development

Private Notice Questions:
Post Office Closures
Mid-Ulster Hospital

Private Members’ Business:
Further Education Provision for Young People with Disabilities

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

Members observed two minutes’ silence.

Executive Committee Business

Public Health (Amendment) Bill

Further Consideration Stage

Mr Speaker: I remind Members that, under Standing Order 35(2), the Further Consideration Stage of the Bill is restricted to the debating of any amendments that have been tabled. As no amendments have been tabled, there will be no opportunity today to discuss the Bill. However, Members will be able to have a full debate during the Bill’s Final Stage.

The Further Consideration Stage of the Bill is, therefore, concluded. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker.

Private Members’ Business

Forkhill Military Site

Mr Speaker: Members will recall that this motion was on the Order Paper on Monday 31 March but could not be disposed of before the House adjourned.

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

Two amendments have been selected and published on the Marshalled List. The proposer of each amendment will have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes to make a winding-up speech. A valid petition of concern in respect of amendment No 2 was presented on 31 March. The effect of the petition of concern is that any vote on amendment No 2 will be decided on a cross-community basis.

Lord Morrow: I beg to move

That this Assembly notes with concern the role of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development in the redevelopment of the Forkhill Military Site, and believes that the Department for Social Development should consider taking the lead role in the matter.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to move the motion, which, as you said, Mr Speaker, has been carried over from a previous day as there was insufficient time to debate it then. I, therefore, welcome the opportunity to move the motion that stands in my name and in those of William McCrea and Trevor Clarke.

The motion does not state that nothing should happen at the Forkhill site; that is not what we are saying. However, we are mystified as to why the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) or its Minister should think that it is their duty or responsibility to develop military sites across Northern Ireland.

The listed responsibilities and functions of DARD tell a different story — that Department does not have responsibility for developing military sites in Northern Ireland. The DARD website states:

“DARD has responsibility for food, farming, and environmental policy and the development of the rural sector in Northern Ireland. It provides a business development service for farmers and growers, and a veterinary service with administration of animal health and welfare.”

It is difficult to reconcile those responsibilities with the development of a former army base or military site.

I see that the Minister is in her place, and I look forward to hearing her outline, in graphic detail, her plans for the site and how they will enhance the agriculture sector and bring confidence to it. Some Members are of the strong opinion that the Minister’s remit, energies and resources would be better channelled towards the agriculture industry, some sectors of which are having difficulty surviving. I have no doubt that, in a short time, she will come to the House with all the answers and put us all at ease by informing us about how she proposes to redevelop the site using her budget, among other resources. However, I will not pre-empt what she intends to say.

As I said at the outset, the motion does not state that there should be no redevelopment of the Forkhill army base. There are several former military sites across the Province, and they provide significant housing and employment opportunities for local people. Those opportunities must not be missed. However — and I will continue to emphasise this point — the remit of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development does not cover the provision of housing or the creation of jobs in the industry sector. The Minister will, therefore, find it difficult to justify her interference in those areas.

The Minister might contend that she has an interest in all things rural, but if that point were brought to its logical conclusion, she could claim responsibility for every area of Government that affects those who live in rural areas.

The proof that the development of the site should not lie within the responsibility of DARD is shown by the method by which the site was to be purchased. The public purse would not have had to pay once for the site; it would have been forced to pay twice for the pleasure of having DARD take the lead role in its development.

The responsibility for every other similar develop­ment has lain with the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) and the Department for Social Development (DSD). Given that those are the Departments that have statutory responsibility for that type of work, the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development should focus her attention on the problems that the agriculture industry faces. The proper advice for the Minister — and, perhaps, her officials might whisper this in her ear sometime — is to let OFMDFM and the Department for Social Development get on with what they are supposed to be doing. Indeed, she should be reminded that the role and function of the Agriculture Minister is to look after the agriculture industry. It is hoped that, as a result of today’s debate, that message will come out loud and clear and that the Minister will follow the advice of the Assembly.

DARD is in a rush to fast-track the development, regardless of its failings. One proposal seeks to establish business units on the site, despite the fact that Invest NI has not identified a need in that area. Other provisions would be developed on the site, regardless of need or whether they replicate similar services in other local villages or rural areas.

A list of problems and failings has been identified. However, the Minister, in her mad rush to progress the development, has not taken those problems on board. Many of my colleagues are members of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development and are mystified by the Minister’s headlong charge towards development, regardless of the problems or cost.

I am sure that the Minister and her party could not be attempting to score brownie points in the south Armagh area at the expense of another Minister and another political party. However, on examination of the handling of the development, many reasonable people may reach that conclusion.

Millions of pounds from DARD’s budget will be invested in a project that may benefit the Forkhill area. However, the agriculture industry is struggling to survive. Several million pounds could have a great impact if they were ploughed into the Department’s response to the Red Meat Industry Task Force. That would have an impact right across Northern Ireland rather than in only one village. Therefore, we ask the Minister to concentrate her efforts on the agriculture industry and leave those issues to others.

Similarly, pig farmers are hanging on to production by a thin thread. They lose money on every pig that they produce, yet their plight is met with stubborn inaction by DARD, compared with the “can’t wait, won’t wait” approach taken to the development of the Forkhill army base. Although the development, undoubtedly, has merits, the Minister must prioritise to ensure that the greatest good is delivered by her Department. If the Minister considers the plight of the pig industry, perhaps she will conclude that the millions of pounds allocated to this project — which is none of her business or concern — would be better deployed in that sector. The construction of a strategy to secure the future of beef farmers and sheep farmers must surely be a greater priority.

Similarly, the future of pig farmers in the Province might have been considered a more important use of several million pounds of public money. The establishment of a few industrial units in south Armagh may help farmers to leave the agriculture industry — a measure on which the Minister is keen — but it will not help a farming industry in crisis. The core of the debate is about the specific responsibilities of DARD. Seemingly, the Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development does not believe in farmers actually farming. Every policy tries to put farmers out to pasture and to move away from agriculture. Rural development must be a core aspect of DARD’s activities, but it must not be the only activity.

I urge the Minister to consider carefully the content of this debate, which I hope will encourage her to return to her roots and responsibilities and pour the Department’s resources, funding and energy into the agriculture industry — something for which she is directly responsible.

12.15 pm

Mr D Bradley: I beg to move amendment No 1: Leave out all after “notes” and insert

“the role of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development in the redevelopment of the Forkhill Military Site, and believes the department should continue to work with the Department for Social Development on it; and calls on the Department of Finance and Personnel to reconsider its position on this project to ensure that the best possible project is delivered for the people of Forkhill and the surrounding district.”

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Éirím leis an chéad leasú ar an rún a mholadh. The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development has an obvious lead role in, and a main responsibility for, what is clearly a rural development project, which will have benefits for the rural hinterland of south Armagh. The Department for Social Development also has a role to play, particularly in acquiring the land and providing social housing. The Minister for Social Development, Margaret Ritchie, has expressed her full support for the project and her willingness to work in co-operation with DARD to bring the project to fruition.

DARD’s primary role in the initiative is to provide the finance for the purchase of the site and to develop the business plan to present to the Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP). I note the unfounded allegations in the media that DSD had a role in frustrating the Forkhill project. According to my information, nothing could be further from the truth. DSD has been fully supportive of the project and has co-operated fully with DARD on the issue. Those who suggest otherwise are being mischievous and engaging in petty political point-scoring, which is of no benefit whatsoever to the future of the project. DSD and its Minister have a role in acquiring the site, the resources for which are to be provided by DARD, subject to the approval of DFP.

The motion has, to some extent, been overtaken by events, as, in the interim, the project has not received approval from DFP. However, that is not a reason why this innovative project should be allowed to sink into oblivion. DARD should re-examine the business case for the project and submit a revised plan to DFP, to ensure that the project becomes a reality.

The proposal is a worthy one, which deserves the support of the Executive. It is aimed at developing community facilities in Forkhill and the surrounding district, and will include business units, sporting and family recreational facilities, a community centre and much-needed social housing for the area.

The joint declaration by the British and Irish Governments of April 2003 promised vacated military sites to local people who have endured decades dominated by the Troubles:

“Many of the vacated military and police … sites might be made available … to ensure that the process of normalisation generates a new public asset base for those communities most directly affected by the security arrangements to date.”

There is no doubt that Forkhill is one such place.

I note also the First Minister’s answer to a question about the Lisanelly site during Question Time on 3 March:

“OFMDFM continues to press the British Government strongly about the transfer of Lisanelly and other military sites to the Executive. We are waiting for a response from the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. We recently met the Secretary of State to discuss that important issue, and we clearly set out our view that an MOD requirement for the Executive to purchase such sites at market value is a retraction from the joint declaration position. Furthermore, we pointed out the substantial impact that such an approach will have on our investment capacity, and we asked for the Secretary of State’s urgent personal intervention and support. Clearly, we want to see whether the Secretary of State is able to persuade his colleagues that the sites can be purchased at market value … We will press the issue again shortly — directly with the Prime Minister”. — [Official Report, Bound Volume 28, p137, col 1].

That is the response from the First Minister, the leader of Lord Morrow’s party.

In response to my question on the Forkhill military site during the same Question Time, the First Minister said:

“The principle must first be established that we will benefit, and we must put our hearts and minds to that. The promise that was made by the British Government must be fulfilled, and the people of Northern Ireland must benefit from what happens to those sites.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 28, p137, col 2].

I welcome the commitment of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to the acquisition of those sites, and I urge them to redouble their efforts to ensure that those sites are available to our people without further delay. I also commend the Forkhill community for the work that it has done in developing the proposal. As public representatives, the least that we can do is provide the resources to ensure that the community’s vision becomes a reality.

If devolution is to be meaningful to our citizens, we must be seen to deliver on projects such as the one that is under discussion today. We have heard much talk about a peace dividend, but, to date, we have seen little evidence of it. Communities that have suffered through decades of conflict deserve recognition, and the project proposed for Forkhill fits the bill perfectly in that respect.

Finally, I call on the Departments concerned — DARD and DFP, in co-operation with DSD — to work together to ensure that our people benefit from devolution and that the best possible project is delivered for the people of Forkhill and the surrounding district. Go raibh míle maith agat.

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

Mr Elliott: I beg to move amendment No 2: Leave out all after “Site” and insert

“and, inter alia, for the purposes of paragraph 1.4(f) of the Northern Ireland Ministerial Code, determines that the site shall not be acquired by, or on behalf of, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.”

I thank the Members who secured this debate today. I have never made any secret of my opposition to DARD’s taking the lead role in the project. That is not to say that I am against the development of Forkhill army base. As Dominic Bradley said, the project should be developed for the community. However, I am concerned about the prospect of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development taking the lead role in the project. I base my opinion on several factors that I have aired and highlighted in the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development, and I will reiterate them again.

The development of any former military base in the Province must be handled with care. Across Northern Ireland, the public would like redundant sites — whether they are army bases, former army bases or any other sites — to be developed so that they can deliver for local communities.

In fact, the Minister for Social Development, Margaret Ritchie, announced recently that a new eco-village will be built in my constituency — Fermanagh and South Tyrone — which is also the constituency of the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, on the site of the former Grosvenor army base in Enniskillen. That decision was broadly welcomed by all members of the community, and it is my sincere hope that the new homes will help to bring increased revenue into Enniskillen and release the ever-growing pressure on the Housing Executive to provide social and affordable housing in the area. I should be delighted to see something similar, with broader community support and development, on the Forkhill site. However, I do not believe that the Agriculture Minister or her Department are best placed to deliver on that.

The proposals for the development of the Forkhill barracks site include social housing, business units and community facilities, and are largely supported by members of my party and of other parties. However, my concern is that DARD will be the lead funder and administrator of the project: that should be the responsibility of other Departments. Where are the Departments of Social Development, Enterprise Trade and Investment, Education and Health, Social Services and Public Safety in the development? Surely bodies in those Departments should take the lead role. I, and others, ask the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development and her Department why they feel it necessary to branch into the development of buildings and dwellings, and other programmes that are clearly outside the remit of that Department. The building of social homes and community facilities is not the responsibility of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

The essence of the project is social, and that brings it outside the agriculture and rural development context. I know that departmental bodies work together throughout Northern Ireland, with a view to providing cohesive and efficient benefits for all the people of this Province. However we set a precedent if the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development takes the lead in such a project. Will that mean that every village and town with a population of under 4,500 will expect the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development to spend its money on projects in that area, and that the Department for Social Development and others will not have to do that? What does that say for other sites that are, at the moment, redundant? Will it mean that sites in the Minister’s constituency and mine, such as the old Duke of Westminster High School sites in Ballinamallard and Kesh —

Mr Hilditch: If the Member has had the opportunity to read the Department’s response to the question, he will, perhaps, have seen a section referring to the Department’s concern that the site will fall to a private developer to turn into a housing development, which would take the population of Forkhill to well over 4,500. Is it a concern of the Department that a private developer wishes to develop the site into housing?

Mr Elliott: Clearly the Department will have a view on that. If DARD is going to develop a site such as Forkhill, other sites should also be examined, including those old school sites that I mentioned, and one even closer to the Minister’s own home, in Granville. An old school there could be developed into something else, such as housing or business units. Is that under the remit of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development? Those issues must be examined, because we could set a very dangerous precedent for the Department. It will cause almost a leeching of money by the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development to fund issues that are no concern whatsoever of that Department.

The agricultural community in Northern Ireland — as Lord Morrow said earlier — wants to see more proactive work taking place regarding situations of countrywide importance, such as the promotion of local produce, addressing the continuing consolidation of farm land, and the huge crisis facing the pig industry. Some people say that agriculturally based families and workers want to be greedy, but that is not the case. They want to see rural development progress — and I want to make that absolutely clear. We want to see rural development go forward in Northern Ireland.

The difficulty is that large sections of the rural-development funding come from farmers; the farming community helps to support the rural communities and the rural development projects, because modulation funding has taken that money from farmers through their single farm payment. It is not fair for people to say that the whole farming community is interested only in farming. That is not the case.

Furthermore, I am concerned that, if DARD continues to lead and fund the project in the future, millions of pounds will be poured into it, but who will actually administer and run it? Will it be sustainable? The business case that I saw provides no such guarantees, nor did it fill me with confidence that the project will be run and developed positively for Northern Ireland or for the area in which it is to be located.

12.30 pm

The Northern Ireland agriculture industry requires investment, stimulation and general support, and the fundamental provider of such support is DARD, which is also responsible for rural development. As a rural citizen, and as a man with the agriculture industry at heart — and given the knowledge that so many ventures are going to the wall — how could I support DARD’s leadership role in the Forkhill project?

Undoubtedly, the project is much needed in the area, and, as we heard, it has the local community’s backing. I wish it success, but I do not wish DARD to be used in such a way. If the Department continues along that path, it will be making a huge mistake. My concern is that the proposal is political rather than departmental.

Rural development is a matter for everyone in Northern Ireland, and it must not be used as a conduit to build social housing and industrial units. Money for that could be better processed using other mechanisms.

I ask Members to support the Ulster Unionist Party’s amendment. Do not allow DARD to be dragged into areas that are not its business.

Mr Murphy: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Thus far, the message from the other side of the Chamber is that those Members simply do not want money to be spent on that project or in that area, and they are seeking every possible device to frustrate and prevent that happening. In many ways, the Ulster Unionist Party’s amendment is more honest than the DUP’s motion, which, in effect, seeks to do the same thing.

The project in that village is very much about rural development. For more than 30 years, those barracks — a huge, imposing structure covering more than 14 acres — dominated the small village from a height and were right smack in the centre of it. The movement in and out of that site impacted negatively on lives in the community to such an extent that the primary school found it necessary to develop plans to relocate away from the barracks.

When the military and the police decided to pull out of the site, there was much relief in the area, and the case has been made that the Ministry of Defence (MOD) should, in good faith, have handed over the site for development by the community. However, of course, the MOD has sought to generate every last shilling from the site for its war efforts elsewhere in the world.

The regeneration group — which has a proven track record in stimulating economic redevelopment projects in the village — came forward with a plan that includes social housing, childcare provision, retail and industrial units and open space comprising protected walking and lit walkways, and, in doing so, secured the support of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, the Department for Social Development, the local council and Invest NI, and involved community, sporting and cultural groups. Most importantly, the project also received an overwhelming mandate from the entire village, who wanted the site to be developed in such a fashion.

The case for the project was presented to the Departments in order to gain support. Mr Elliott and Maurice Morrow inferred that the current Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development’s decision was political; however, the interest expressed by both Departments predates the Assembly’s restoration; both were on board for the Forkhill project and both were working with the community and the local council long before last May, and I took community representatives to meet direct rule Ministers and officials from the relevant Departments and agencies.

The attempt by some, particularly the Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Develop­ment and several other Committee colleagues from his party and the Ulster Unionist Party, to portray the project as a politically motivated initiative by the Minister, betrays the hostility that the project has faced. Their assertion is untrue, and had those Committee members investigated the history of the project, they would know that. Both Departments, as well as all the agencies, supported the project long before the current Minister took office. The Minister has simply delivered what those Departments were in the process of doing.

Mr Elliott: Given the Member’s ministerial role, this may be a difficult question for him to answer, but has he read the business case for the project and seen the hypocrisy therein?

Mr Murphy: The Member’s use of the word hypocrisy betrays his political attitude towards the project and the area in which it is based. Not only have I have read the business case, I was part of the group that worked on it at the start, as were all the elected representatives from the area. That includes all members of the parties that held seats on Newry and Mourne District Council; indeed, the entire council supported the project.

I believe that the business case stacks up, and it has the support of many agencies, not just the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. The Member’s description of the business case betrays what is at the root of the motion. The irony is that the remote direct rule Ministers, who were not in touch with the feelings of the people and who were not reflecting the views on the ground, supported the project. Yet, when the institutions are returned, we find political hostility, not from Departments or the Civil Service, but from MLAs, including those who chair Committees. Those people have generated political hostility to the project.

The project will succeed. Maurice Morrow mentioned missed opportunities, and the opportunities presented by this project should not be missed. The irony was not lost that, in the same week that it was revealed that DFP had not offered funding for the project, the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and the MP for East Belfast visited a community project in that area that was funded by Government agencies. If the funding is not found, the project will be lost, and that would be a missed opportunity. Someone will build on the site, and cram —

A Member: Will the Member give way?

Mr Murphy: I will not; I have only seconds left.

Someone will cram houses on to that site, and that will be detrimental for the population and that area.

Political hostility is the real intention behind the Unionist motion and the Unionist amendment.

Mr Bresland: I welcome the opportunity to speak in support of the motion. The role of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development is twofold: first, to offer support to the agriculture industry; and secondly, to support sustainable rural development.

The European Union recognises rural development as the second pillar of the common agricultural policy, and, over several years, DARD has engaged in programmes that support rural development in Northern Ireland. DARD has engaged with stakeholders, including other Departments, strategic bodies, funding bodies, and, most importantly, the local community, to develop sustainable rural development projects.

DARD’s proposal to purchase the former military base from the Ministry of Defence and the PSNI takes the Department in a different direction in its promotion of sustainable rural development. Indeed, that fact was noted in the economic appraisal for the acquisition of the former Forkhill military base. That appraisal suggests that the proposals for Forkhill should be considered as a pilot scheme, given that a well-established community development infrastructure exists.

The economic appraisal leaves several simple questions unanswered. I am concerned about the process of purchasing the property from the MOD and the PSNI. There is no legal provision for DARD to purchase property; therefore, it proposes to ask the Department for Social Development to purchase the former military base and transfer the property back to DARD. Can the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development tell us how much the process to transfer the property between the various Departments will cost, in addition to the cost of the land?

When the economic appraisal was submitted to the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development, it became clear that it did not explain how the complex transfer process would work. The economic appraisal also failed to show value for money, the number of jobs that would be created, how the project would address deprivation, and many other basic principles with which an economic appraisal should deal.

The economic appraisal also mentions DARD’s plans for a community capital grant scheme, and suggests that the community group will apply to DARD for some £2,895,000. What is the community capital grant scheme? Can other community groups in Northern Ireland apply to that scheme?

For a number of years, the Department for Social Development has been involved in capital-development programmes, and has, in that time, developed consider­able expertise in that process. Such expertise should be compared to that of DARD. The economic appraisal recognises that the proposal is a pilot scheme for DARD.

DARD has a valuable role to play in supporting rural development and assisting local communities to improve society. However, this proposal is flawed and will create a precedent that will offer nothing to help to create sustainable rural development.

The first principle of rural development is to put people first. Rural-development projects must also develop capacity, skills and confidence and must offer economic opportunities for future generations. These proposals will potentially offer such opportunities. However, they will be best achieved through the well-tested methods that have been used by the Department for Social Development.

I support the motion.

Mr Brady: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I commend the group in Forkhill for identifying that the best use of the land is for a multi­faceted development and for submitting a comprehensive business plan. That business plan considers the whole idea of rural development, including business opportunities, housing and childcare. It will ensure sustainable development and sustainable communities, which will result in a vibrant way of life.

It has been suggested that this project does not offer value for money. However, funding has been granted to schemes that have had much smaller numbers of beneficiaries. Some 70% of people in rural areas are not farmers. Although they support farmers and will continue to do so, it is important to acknowledge that if rural communities are to survive, development outside the agriculture industry is required.

Forkhill has suffered at the hands of the British military establishment for the past 30 years. It appears that some Members would prefer to have a continued military presence. However, they have gone away, you know. The people of south Armagh, and specifically Forkhill in this instance, have the right to local sustainable development.

I commend the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development for embracing all aspects of her brief. This project is about joined-up Government, and it is for the Executive to decide on which Department or Departments are best qualified to deliver it.

It is encouraging to hear that DSD is fully supportive of the project. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr T Clarke: I am more than disappointed that the project is still being discussed and led by the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. Although one can see the merits of the redevelopment of a disused site, I am amazed that it is being led by DARD.

Members have heard about the childcare facilities, the social housing and the various aspects of the project — much of which I still do not believe should be led by DARD.

If it were not for the recent Budget, one would almost believe that DARD has too much money and is looking for ways to spend it. If that is the case, maybe DARD officials should consider the recent Red Meat Industry Task Force report — the Department has given no help to the farmers who were discussed in that report.

There are also issues for the pig industry: farmers are producing and selling pigs for £27 less than they cost to produce. Perhaps DARD will help them. However, I do not think so. The farmer from north Antrim — on whose farm the first outbreak of bluetongue in the Province occurred — had his entire herd culled by the Department. Perhaps that farming family expected to receive help. However, it did not. In an answer to a question, the Minister said that she was not compelled to pay compensation. However, she now sees fit to provide industrial units in south Armagh.

What about the increasing prices of grain? Help should be made available to people affected by that. However, it is not. What about the ageing fleet of fishing boats in Northern Ireland? Perhaps DARD will help those in that industry. However, they have received no help either.

All of them come under the remit of the Department for Agriculture and Rural Development. Perhaps the Minister would prefer agriculture to be dropped from her remit. Perhaps she wants to be the Minister for rural development only. That will not be the case, and I will not be part of it.

12.45 pm

Farming is a key part of business in Northern Ireland, and it should not be forgotten that farming is a way of life for many people. Instead of interfering with the remits of other Departments, I suggest that the Minister should focus on her own remit and let others look after theirs.

Mr Savage: I support amendment No 2. Before talking about that, I will mention the background to the matter.

Forkhill military site became available following the announcement in July 2005 that, due to the improving security situation, a number of army posts would be demolished. Following consultations with the local community and sporting representatives, local politicians and various agencies decided to develop a practical vision for the use of the vacant site, Bernard Boyle of Forkhill and District Development Association outlined proposals in February 2007. He stated that the site would be used for retail and business units, an all day childcare facility, a playing field, a recreation area and an illuminated walkway.

At a meeting of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development on 9 October 2007, the Deputy Chairperson — my colleague Tom Elliott — proposed that, although the Committee supported the development of the Forkhill army site, DARD should not be the lead Department in the development or financing of it or any other military site.

That motion was carried, because we want to see the Forkhill site developed for the benefit of the people of the area. That can best be achieved under the auspices of the Department for Social Development. However, that is not to say that DARD will not have any input.

I have read about this matter and heard a number of Members in the Chamber saying that the number of Departments should be cut. Having done so, I have concluded that DARD should take over the Department for Social Development because we could do an equally good job. However, that is another matter for another day. [Laughter.]

Due to the geographical and demographical area on which the site exists, common sense dictates that DARD is well placed to have a consultative role on matters of rural poverty, and some input into DSD’s plans to ensure that rural development takes place. DETI would be involved in attracting businesses to new retail and business units.

It must be ensured that the job is not only done but done right. The Department for Social Development is best placed to carry the scheme forward. That Department has the necessary in-house experience, knowledge and past experience of delivering projects such as this.

DARD ought to be focusing on a number of other issues in order to protect and promote the farming community in Northern Ireland. I am sure that the Minister is fed up listening to Members but I want to reinforce to her my feelings about the other issues in need of address.

We must maintain our vigilance about bluetongue, especially coming into the summer, when the midge population is at its highest.

We must continue to be mindful of the plight of pig farmers. Indeed, there are many pig farmers in the Forkhill area. We must help, in any way that we can, to raise the price of pig meat in the short, medium and long term to ensure that the pig industry stays afloat.

Regarding the price of wheat, we must continue to ensure that our farmers have a more than adequate supply of feed for their animals between now and the next harvest. According to the BBC, there are only about 35 day’s supply of grain with which to feed the world. That figure is falling week by week and that fact must be taken in to account.

Those are three major issues but, rest assured, there are many more.

I am confused regarding the Forkhill military site. On 23 January 2008, in reply to a question for written answer from Tom Elliott, the Finance Minister stated:

“DARD intends to make a bid in the February Monitoring Round for the £4.5 million required for the purchase by DSD of the former Forkhill Military Base.”

The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development seems to be doing all the running on behalf of the Department for Social Development, which is why DARD should have a bigger role.

Surely the Department for Social Development is better placed to acquire the site, take ownership of it and develop it as it sees fit.

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

Mr P J Bradley: I support my colleague Dominic Bradley’s amendment, and I compliment him for including the key words:

“to ensure that the best possible project is delivered for the people of Forkhill and the surrounding district.”

I repeat the words of the Member for Newry and Armagh so that Members can give them serious consideration. We are here not only in the interests of those who voted us in but in the interest of the common good and the broader community. A responsible development committee is in situ in Forkhill. The members of the Forkhill and District Development Association are waiting for a bureaucratic wrangle to be sorted out so that they can proceed with their plans for the site, which can be activated right away. I question the size of the site; Conor Murphy said that it might be 14 acres, but I do not know whether it is as large as that. The site was vacated in 2005, and it is easy to understand the frustration of the project’s supporters at the lack of progress.

The Forkhill and District Development Association has the full support of Newry and Mourne District Council. Mr Tom Elliott expressed concern about the sustainability of the project. It should be noted that the Newry and Mourne Enterprise Agency also supports the proposal. The agency is interested in becoming involved in the Forkhill project. For the benefit of those Members who do not know that agency, it has an excellent track record in providing business units, of which I will name four: WIN Business Park in Newry; Warrenpoint Enterprise Centre; Kilkeel Enterprise Centre; and Flurrybridge Enterprise Centre. The interests of the agency should not be underestimated in any way. It is a key player in getting that area of Newry and Mourne back on its feet.

The Northern Ireland Housing Executive is interested in the assembly of lands within the site for the development of social and affordable housing, although the provision of residential dwellings is the responsibility of the designated Fold Housing Association.

It is also worth noting that the Forkhill site has been identified in the draft Banbridge, Newry and Mourne area plan for 2015 for mixed-use development. If the people of Forkhill and the surrounding district are to be allowed to benefit from the potential of the site in the near future, it is important — as the amendment states — for the Department of Finance and Personnel, the Department for Social Development, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and, perhaps, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to reach an agreement urgently that will benefit all the people. That could not happen soon enough.

Mr Doherty: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I support Mr Bradley’s amendment. The best that can be said about the negative motion, and the equally negative amendment No 2, is that they give us an opportunity to highlight some of the issues and to expose the wrong-headed thinking behind the motion and amendment No 2.

In April 2003, a joint declaration by the British and Irish Governments stated that all vacated military barracks should be gifted to a working Executive; it is critical that that is mentioned as many times as possible. That joint declaration has been cited several times in the Chamber, not least by the First Minister, the Rev Ian Paisley, and other Ministers as a key component in dealing with those vacated barracks sites.

DARD’s name and remit cover both agriculture and rural development.

It is no wonder that Maurice Morrow is mystified. When referring to the Minister, he called her the Minister of Agriculture two or three times. Let me clear that up for you, Maurice: she is the very able Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development.

There are four axes by which moneys can be drawn down from the rural development budget. All of those are open to farmers as well as to other rural dwellers, and I point out — [Interruption.]

It is quite clear that that is what you want, but the remit is agriculture and rural development.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. Members should make their remarks through the Chair.

Mr Doherty: Of those people living in rural areas, 70% are not farmers, and they have as much right as farmers to access funding for their various projects. There is a big challenge for the DUP and the UUP to get their thinking right on that issue. The remit of the Department covers rural development as well as agriculture, and there is nothing that those parties can do to change that.

Lord Morrow: I thank the Member for giving way. He is keen to quote me, and I do not retract anything that I said. Perhaps he will recall that I said that this motion does not oppose the development of the Forkhill site. The redevelopment of that site is essential, and we hope that similar sites will also be redeveloped. However, that project should not be funded from the budget of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. That is the task of another Department.

Mr Doherty: If Maurice Morrow is anxious that the Forkhill site be redeveloped, he should support amendment No 1, and not the ridiculous motion that he has tabled.

The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development (Ms Gildernew): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I am glad that Pat Doherty cleared up that last issue. I was going to offer Maurice Morrow a competition: what do the letters “R” and “D” stand for in the title of the Department? The Member should send his answers on a postcard.

I welcome the opportunity to debate the redevelopment of the former military site in Forkhill. This issue has been raised by Dr William McCrea through the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee on a number of occasions. It is something that he and his colleagues believe requires further clarification and discussion, particularly the matter of why my Department, rather than the Department for Social Development, takes the lead.

It is not a question of which Department leads the project. Acting on behalf of the Executive, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development is helping the various community groups to achieve their ambitions, and has taken ownership of the project to that extent. To provide that help effectively, it is required that I create a capital grants scheme. It requires DSD to provide the finance for and to build both social and affordable housing. While it is not the role of DARD to build houses, we are working with DSD on that matter. We are all required to prepare a business case that stands up to scrutiny. Therefore, this is not solely a DARD issue, but it is one that I am prepared to champion.

I feel that it would be helpful to set out my Department’s involvement in Forkhill, to date. As has been mentioned by the MP for the area, Conor Murphy, under the former direct rule Administration, several approaches were made to Ministers in respect of the redevelopment opportunities presented by redundant military sites. Those sites are owned by the Ministry of Defence, and its programme of disposals is based on the desire to realise receipts from the disposal of the bases as quickly as possible. In urban areas, the Department for Social Development is developing a number of those sites. My Department became involved in the Forkhill project following an approach, over two years ago, by the local MP, MLAs and councillors for the Forkhill area, to David Hanson, the then Social Development Minister.

That process has been ongoing for over two years — it is not a quick fix. Time has been taken to ensure that the project was viable and had the full support of the community.

1.00 pm

DARD has been working towards the creation of sustainable communities through its innovative rural development programmes of job creation, farm diversification, business opportunities and social enhancement projects. The Department became convinced that former military sites or abandoned public spaces in rural areas presented an additional excellent opportunity to help to bring about more holistic redevelopment, especially in areas in which social and economic progress had stagnated. Forkhill was considered particularly suitable to be taken forward as a pilot project because of its location, condition and the work that had already been undertaken by the local community group, the Forkhill and District Development Association. I add my comments to those of other Members in commending and congratulating that group for the work that it has done to date, which has produced, through widespread community consultation, a blueprint of suitable social and economic actions for the site.

An inter-agency steering group was formed to bring forward the proposals for the site, and a business case for its acquisition and development was prepared. The site covers a large area of ground in the centre of the village. The proposals have been cleared by the Ministry of Defence. It is proposed that the site will accommodate a mixed development to include social and affordable housing, which will be led by DSD. It will also include a number of business and workspace units, for which there is a demand. A range of community facilities will be included, such as a community hall, a crèche, changing rooms, a multi-purpose games area and an illuminated walkway for health-and-safety and visual-amenity reasons, along with the associated infrastructure.

Although it is not its core business, Invest NI supports the business units that are proposed for Forkhill, under the management of local economic development units. The rural development programme has created, and will continue to create, business units and jobs under the Department’s rural development programme.

DARD does not have the necessary legal powers to purchase the site, but, under the Social Need Order 1986, DSD has the power to do so. It has agreed to purchase the site on DARD’s behalf. It is intended that the acres that are set aside for housing will be acquired and developed by a housing association, with the approval and support of DSD. The remaining acres will be acquired and developed by the Forkhill and District Development Association, using a capital grant from my Department of around £2·9 million. Financial support will also come from Newry and Mourne District Council, along with other funding.

DARD’s involvement in the project fits clearly with the overall theme of its rural strategy for 2007 to 2013. That strategy aims to diversify the rural economy, protect the rural environment and sustain rural communities. It meets one of the key aims of that document and the Department’s strategic plan for 2006 to 2011, which is to strengthen the social and economic infrastructure of rural areas. The Department’s involvement also fits well with the Programme for Government, which was agreed by the Executive in January 2008. The Programme for Government charges DARD with helping rural communities to improve the physical, economic and social infrastructure of their areas. The development of former military sites and/or abandoned spaces fits squarely within that remit. Forkhill has a population of fewer than 3,000 people, so it is clearly a rural area.

The Forkhill project, and similar projects, also sits comfortably alongside the new rural development programme, which runs from 2007 to 2013. Axis 3 of that programme aims to improve the quality of life in rural areas and the diversification of the rural economy.

A number of Members referred to the challenges that face the agriculture sector; I am aware of those challenges. Under the rural development programme, a number of opportunities exist to help the beef and sheep sector. It has set aside £20 million for diversi­fication, £65 million for farmers and farm families and over £300 million for agrienvironment schemes. Over 70% of the rural development programme’s money will go directly to farmers and farm families, so farmers will do extremely well out of the programme.

The rural development programme clearly identifies the challenges of the agricultural community. From a strategic point of view, it is important that the Department is already involved in some redevelopment of rural areas through the rural development programme. It should also seek to complement those activities when specific unique opportunities are presented. As I said earlier, it is incumbent on all of us to progress the opportunity, utilising my Department’s capital grant, which will be a relatively modest, although important, contribution and DSD’s provision of housing. Local government is also firmly committed to the scheme and will provide financial support.

The business case that I mentioned earlier was submitted, as requested, to the Department of Finance and Personnel, but, regrettably, it was rejected last week. I am hugely disappointed at that decision, as are the people of Forkhill and their local representatives, all of whom have worked extremely hard to provide solid evidence to demonstrate the benefits that that exciting initiative would bring. I have instructed my officials to continue to explore with DFP ways in which this development opportunity can be exploited, and those discussions are urgent and ongoing.

It remains my clear belief that there is a strong case for the public sector to intervene in an area of deprivation such as Forkhill, which has had a particularly difficult history because of the major military base that was strategically placed in the centre of the village. That has impacted greatly on every aspect of local life in past years, as many of the local elected representatives have said. The proposal that my Department supports would send out a strong signal — not only to the local community, but across the North as a whole and to the private sector — that this Administration are prepared to commit themselves financially to a unique rural-development opportunity that will bring significant benefits to the local people and, I hope, attract some private investment too. It would help to bring back pride to the area, and it would help to create business opportunities and jobs. It would provide leisure facilities for young people, create opportunities for young mothers and fathers, reduce antisocial behaviour and encourage children to participate in healthy outdoor pursuits and sports. I wish that the Executive had more such projects, which can create real benefits for communities.

If it is allowed to proceed, the Forkhill project will help to create a new revitalised village centre for the people of Forkhill and the surrounding area. Of course, it will be evaluated and the benefits assessed so as to allow consideration of other projects in the future. This is a project on which my Department can take the lead, and I believe that it will be successful and make a genuine difference to the lives of the people in the area.

I am very concerned at the efforts being made to prevent the Executive from supporting robustly the development of specific programmes that will help to achieve our objective of sustaining rural communities. I hope that my response has given Members an assurance about the very positive steps that DARD and DSD have taken in taking forward the redevelopment of the former military site at Forkhill.

It is my belief that the proposed project for Forkhill sits squarely within my Department’s remit, and it is my intention that the Department should continue to work to achieve approval for the business case from DFP so that it can move forward with this project with the co-operation of the Department for Social Development. The people of Forkhill deserve the support of the Assembly. I hope that we can bring about the economic and social enhancement for which the area is crying out and for which it has asked. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Kennedy: Some Members, including the Member of Parliament for Newry and Armagh, an MLA for Newry and Armagh and a Minister of the Executive, have suggested that unionists are somehow opposed to the regeneration of the Forkhill site. I want to make it clear at the outset that nothing could be further from the truth. Through our amendment, my party and I have sought to clarify something that it appears even the SDLP has missed in the debate. In my view, this issue has started a turf war between DARD and DSD. It is not only a battle between two Departments, two political parties and two women; it is also a case of the SDLP having its eye wiped. If its members are not prepared to realise that, that is up to them.

I want to outline my unequivocal support for the future regeneration of the former army base at Forkhill. Its regeneration will be a significant milestone in the normalisation of society in Northern Ireland and will potentially bring great benefits to the people of south Armagh. However, as a local representative, I believe that the current situation — whereby the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development is taking the lead on this issue — has the potential to create a less than optimum project. It is clear that DARD is not the correct vehicle through which to deliver this particular project.

Therefore, I strongly support my party’s amendment, which lays out a commonsense opinion that for a more efficient and effective project, more rationalised Government, and the correct use of expertise and resources.

In a recent answer to an Assembly question, the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development stated that:

“It is intended that the site will be regenerated into a rural economic and social hub. It will provide a range of integrated services such as local enterprise units; light industrial units; community space; and childcare facilities”. — [Official Report, Vol 24, No 5, p225, col 2].

The Minister went on to outline that:

“Some social housing has also been provided for, and my Department is working with the Housing Executive on that aspect.” — [Official Report, Vol 24, No 5, p225, col 2].

Those are all extremely welcome elements. However, the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development is not the best-placed Minister to deliver them. Nor should the Department for Social Development have to spend £4.5 million of taxpayers’ money to allow a maverick Minister to stray from her rural development remit. DARD does not have on overly-impressive record when it comes to leading projects in south Armagh and other places.

The Department for Social Development is responsible for, and has extensive experience and expertise in, social housing, enterprise development, urban regeneration and community development. This project, as outlined, clearly encom­passes all of those aspects. Although the Minister’s responsibility for rural development is recognised, she will have to admit — and should admit — that that responsibility does not cover those areas in any meaningful way and is geared more towards agricultural diversification and development.

That will mean the potential waste of all the expertise and relationships that have built up between the Department for Social Development, the Housing Executive, developers and communities. At a time when we are asked to encourage the Executive to increase efficiency, rationalise procedures and review public administration, the decision by the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to seek the lead role in this project seems contradictory. There is no doubt that what is proposed for the Forkhill site does not fall under the immediate remit of DARD. Yes, DARD will have a role; other Departments will have a role; but the lead role should not be undertaken by DARD. Therefore, to get the best for the people of Forkhill and south Armagh, and to get the best use of taxpayers’ money, Government expertise and efficiency, it makes basic common sense for the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development to step aside on this project, yet to assist, wherever possible, the Department for Social Development in the development of that site. I commend the second amendment.

Mr D Bradley: Go raibh míle maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. One of the main points made during this debate was that the sole responsibility of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development is that of farming. There is no doubt that farming is one of the main responsibilities of that Department. However, it is not the only one. The Department’s very title clearly shows the range of its responsibilities. The project in Forkhill falls clearly into the Department’s remit under rural development. The project at the old military site is one that will serve not only the rural village of Forkhill but, in addition, its rural hinterland. If we wish to maintain a rural population, then we must provide the facilities and services needed by rural dwellers in rural hubs such as Forkhill. We have heard, clearly and properly, voices raised in unison from all sides of the House against the closure of rural post offices. We all agree that rural communities require rural services and rural facilities.

1.15 pm

The redevelopment project is about providing services and facilities to a local, rural community. Let me outline those services once again. They include: sporting and recreational facilities; support facilities for rural families; industrial units, which will help provide employment in the local rural and farming community; and social housing, which is greatly needed because, under stringent planning regulations, people in the rural area around Forkhill cannot build much-needed homes.

Forkhill is a small village, not a large town, as some Members on the opposite Benches seem to suggest. It is part of the rural community in which it is located — it is a hub for the surrounding rural community, and it makes good sense to provide much-needed services from such a hub.

As I said earlier, Members from all sides of the House have told the public that devolution is good and that it is better than direct rule or rule by civil servants. However, anyone listening to Members from the Benches opposite would doubt that argument very much. Instead of facilitating the plans of local communities, those Members seem to be hell-bent on frustrating rural development. People will ask themselves where the benefits of devolution are for them. Rural dwellers will wonder why members of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development, led by its Chairperson, are frustrating a rural development project. The debate may be about Forkhill today, but it could be about their communities tomorrow.

It is clear that the role of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development is to promote rural development. It is also the role of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development to promote such development, not to attempt to frustrate it. Amendment No 1 contains the sensible approach to the issue, which is that the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development should continue to co-operate with the Department for Social Development on the project and that the Department of Finance and Personnel should reconsider its position and ensure that the best possible project is delivered for the people of Forkhill and the surrounding district, who are the most important people at the heart of the debate. Go raibh maith agat arís, a LeasCheann Comhairle.

Dr W McCrea: I have listened to the debate with interest. Some Members raised substantive issues, and others waffled as usual. I suppose that they are allowed to do that in the name of debate. The issue is an important one that deserves debate, and it has been raised on several occasions in my Committee. The Committee made a decision on the matter, and it has reiterated that decision several times. The substance of the motion arose from the general tenor of the Committee’s decision and would be accepted, substantially, by members of that Committee.

We have listened to some of the issues that have been raised. Let me make it abundantly clear that many Members have tried to turn the debate into a political football by making it a sectarian issue. The truth is that there was absolutely no issue about the need to regenerate the site of the former Army base. However, there was a clear issue, and a clear challenge to be made, about which Department should be responsible for that regeneration.

Mr Kennedy said that there was a turf war going on between DARD and DSD. I doubt that somehow, because DSD is sitting back and allowing DARD to do all the work. Indeed, DSD is happy that DARD is spending all the money. Why should DSD spend any of its money when DARD believes that it has all that money to offer to the community? DSD is sitting pretty, and Minister Ritchie is rubbing her hands and saying, “we have a fool a day in the midst of the field.” Someone just wants to project himself or herself, as it were, and spend the money.

It would be different if the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development had plenty of money to spend. However, DARD has a limited budget, and Members must carefully consider the origin of some of the money for the redevelopment.

Speaking in support of the Minister’s position, Mr Brady said that the agriculture community makes up only a small part of the rural community. However, I remind Members that the money gained through the modulation of the single farm payment comes out of farmers’ pockets. It was acknowledged in Europe that that money should go into farmers’ pockets, but voluntary modulation removed it. Although the money belonged to the farmers, the modulation was not voluntary on their part: the Department is responsible for the voluntary modulation that results in that money going to others.

It is easy and nice to give away other people’s money, but it must be acknowledged that Northern Ireland’s premier industry is farming. Whether some Members in the House like it or not, over the years farming has been the backbone of Northern Ireland, and we should give the industry credit for what it has achieved under harsh and difficult circumstances and in all types of weather. Even when times were bad for farming, the industry kept going and was the backbone of the Northern Ireland community. During times of economic difficulty and the Troubles, the farming industry held out and was regarded as the backbone of Northern Ireland’s prosperity.

Northern Ireland’s agriculture industry faces a crisis.

Mr Doherty: Will the Member give way?

Dr W McCrea: I am speaking. When the Member had the opportunity, he spoke for only a few moments, and, therefore, he should sit down.

Mr Doherty: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Will the Member clarify whether he is speaking on his own behalf or as Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development?

Dr W McCrea: The Member has the opportunity to go to another place, but he does not bother. Therefore, he knows little about democracy, and that must be taken into consideration. However, he knows that had I intended to speak as Chairman, Mr Deputy Speaker would have called me as such. I am not speaking as Chairman of the Committee, but as a proposer of the motion. Let me make it abundantly clear: I will defend the motion because it is right for the people of Forkhill and Northern Ireland.

The Minister wants to be known as more of a rural champion, but she wants to forget about agriculture and does more to destroy than to aid the industry. What is she doing about the crisis in the pig industry? Nothing. What was she willing to do about the crisis in the red meat industry? She wanted to do nothing. All she had to offer was an exodus from the industry: she suggested either diversification or getting out of the industry altogether, instead of keeping the —

Ms Gildernew: Will the Member give way?

Dr W McCrea: No, the Minister muffed her opportunity to speak. Her speech was useless, and, therefore, she will not take up any of my time. Let me make it abundantly clear that the Minister’s handling of the crisis in the red meat industry was absolutely useless; she had nothing to offer.

The Minister has forgotten that the fishing industry is part of her remit, and she did little to defend it when she went to Europe. She relied on the Irish Republic, and it put a knife into the back of the fishing industry. Ageing fleets and rising fuel costs have been mentioned, but the Minister has done nothing. What does she want to do now? She wants to offer money to someone else.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. Please stick to the motion.

Dr W McCrea: With the greatest respect, Mr Deputy Speaker, if you check the Hansard report, you will find that everyone else who took part, including the Minister, was allowed to cover all the agriculture industries. This is important: in the light of all the issues about which the Minister seems able to do nothing, what did she select to form part of the Programme for Government? She chose the development at Forkhill as an inescapable bid. Why did she do that?

Remember that that was an inescapable bid, which means that the Minister prioritised it above any other matter. Therefore, the red-meat, pig and the fishing industries can just go to the wall — instead, her inescapable bid is for redevelopment of the Forkhill Army base. One must ask why that is the case. I can tell Members that it has nothing to do with saving Forkhill; it has more to do with the Minister’s political ideology and party interest than any effort to bring benefits to the community.

Let us test the Minister’s claim that redevelopment of the Forkhill Army base will benefit the community through the development of housing and industry. Housing is not the Agriculture Minister’s responsibility. Is the Minister suggesting that DSD is no longer necessary because she will take over responsibility for housing? If that is the case, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) is not necessary either, because she will also take over responsibility for industry. She is not able to do her own job, never mind that of any other Department. Let her get on with the job for which she is paid — to defend the farming industry and the rural community of Northern Ireland.

The Committee has asked 57 questions, some of which, perhaps, Mr Doherty might be interested. Has he read the answers?

With respect to housing, the Committee has still not received answers to the enquiries that it continues to make on the number of units that are required. The Committee has been told that that is because the Department is unable to provide them. A departmental paper dated 4 April states that the documentary evidence and information required to answer the Committee’s query will take a little more time to obtain and that the information will be passed to the Committee. [Interruption.]

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

Dr W McCrea: The Members opposite do not like to hear the truth, because it hurts. The Department’s response on the matter of jobs is that the jobs created and the cost per job have not currently been addressed in the business case. The Minister says that she is surprised that the Department of Finance and Personnel has not agreed with her. She has not even provided DFP with the necessary information. That is a total and absolute disgrace.

The Minister has the idea — which Sinn Féin has held throughout the years — that if she makes demands, we will give her what she wants. However, she has discovered that the unionist Members are not willing to bow to Sinn Féin’s every whim and demand. We are prepared to stand up to the Minister and to scrutinise the business case, which has been rejected twice because it does not stand up to scrutiny. That is why I ask the House to turn down the SDLP’s amendment. I ask my friends in the Ulster Unionist Party to consider their amendment. I ask the House to give its wholehearted support to the proposal that I have put forward with Lord Morrow and Mr Trevor Clarke.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Before I put the Question on amendment No 1, I advise Members that if amendment No 1 is made, amendment No 2 will fall and I will proceed to put the Question on the motion as amended.

Question put, That amendment No 1 be made.

The Assembly divided: Ayes 41; Noes 44.


Mr Adams, Ms Anderson, Mr Attwood, Mr Boylan, Mr D Bradley, Mrs M Bradley, Mr P J Bradley, Mr Brady, Mr Brolly, Mr Burns, Mr Butler, Mr W Clarke, Mr Doherty, Mr Durkan, Mr Ford, Mr Gallagher, Ms Gildernew, Mrs D Kelly, Mr G Kelly, Ms Lo, Mrs Long, Mr A Maginness, Mr A Maskey, Mr P Maskey, Mr F McCann, Mr McCarthy, Mr McCartney, Dr McDonnell, Mr McElduff, Mrs McGill, Mr McGlone, Mr McKay, Mr McLaughlin, Mr Molloy, Mr Murphy, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O’Dowd, Mr O’Loan, Mrs O’Neill, Ms S Ramsey, Ms Ruane.

Tellers for the Ayes: Mr P J Bradley and Mr Burns.


Mr Beggs, Mr Bresland, Lord Browne, Mr Burnside, Mr Campbell, Mr T Clarke, Mr Craig, Mr Cree, Mr Donaldson, Mr Easton, Mr Elliott, Sir Reg Empey, Mrs Foster, Mr Gardiner, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Irwin, Mr Kennedy, Mr McCallister, Mr McCausland, Mr McClarty, Mr B McCrea, Mr I McCrea, Dr W McCrea, Mr McFarland, Mr McGimpsey, Miss McIlveen, Mr McNarry, Mr McQuillan, Lord Morrow, Mr Moutray, Mr Newton, Mr Poots, Mr G Robinson, Mrs I Robinson, Mr K Robinson, Mr Ross, Mr Savage, Mr Shannon, Mr Simpson, Mr Spratt, Mr Storey, Mr Weir, Mr Wells.

Tellers for the Noes: Mr T Clarke and Mr Irwin.

Question accordingly negatived.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Before I put the question on amendment No 2, I remind Members that a valid petition of concern has been received in respect of this amendment and that the Question must be decided on a cross-community basis.

Question put, That amendment No 2 be made.

The Assembly divided: Ayes 46; Noes 42.



Mr Beggs, Mr Bresland, Lord Browne, Mr Burnside, Mr Campbell, Mr T Clarke, Mr Cobain, Mr Craig, Mr Cree, Mr Donaldson, Mr Easton, Mr Elliott, Sir Reg Empey, Mrs Foster, Mr Gardiner, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Irwin, Mr Kennedy, Mr McCallister, Mr McCausland, Mr McClarty, Mr B McCrea, Mr I McCrea, Dr W McCrea, Mr McFarland, Mr McGimpsey, Miss McIlveen, Mr McNarry, Mr McQuillan, Lord Morrow, Mr Moutray, Mr Newton, Mr Poots, Mr G Robinson, Mrs I Robinson, Mr K Robinson, Mr Ross, Mr Savage, Mr Shannon, Mr Simpson, Mr Spratt, Mr Storey, Mr Weir, Mr Wells, Mr S Wilson.

Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Kennedy and Mr McCallister.



Mr Adams, Ms Anderson, Mr Attwood, Mr Boylan, Mr D Bradley, Mrs M Bradley, Mr P J Bradley, Mr Brady, Mr Brolly, Mr Burns, Mr Butler, Mr W Clarke, Mr Doherty, Mr Durkan, Mr Gallagher, Ms Gildernew, Mrs D Kelly, Mr G Kelly, Mr A Maginness, Mr A Maskey, Mr P Maskey, Mr F McCann, Mr McCartney, Dr McDonnell, Mr McElduff, Mrs McGill, Mr McGlone, Mr McKay, Mr McLaughlin, Mr Molloy, Mr Murphy, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O’Dowd, Mr O’Loan, Mrs O’Neill, Ms S Ramsey, Ms Ritchie, Ms Ruane.


Mr Ford, Ms Lo, Mrs Long, Mr McCarthy.

Tellers for the Noes: Mr Boylan and Ms S Ramsey.

Total votes        88   Total Ayes      46          [52.3%]

Nationalist Votes 38  Nationalist Ayes 0         [0.0%]

Unionist Votes   46   Unionist Ayes 46          [100.0%]

Other Votes        4   Other Ayes       0          [0.0%]

Question accordingly negatived (cross-community vote).

Main Question put.

The Assembly divided: Ayes 46; Noes 43.


Mr Beggs, Mr Bresland, Lord Browne, Mr Burnside, Mr Campbell, Mr T Clarke, Mr Cobain, Mr Craig, Mr Cree, Mr Donaldson, Mr Easton, Mr Elliott, Sir Reg Empey, Mrs Foster, Mr Gardiner, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Irwin, Mr Kennedy, Mr McCallister, Mr McCausland, Mr McClarty, Mr B McCrea, Mr I McCrea, Dr W McCrea, Mr McFarland, Mr McGimpsey, Miss McIlveen, Mr McNarry, Mr McQuillan, Lord Morrow, Mr Moutray, Mr Newton, Mr Poots, Mr G Robinson, Mrs I Robinson, Mr K Robinson, Mr Ross, Mr Savage, Mr Shannon, Mr Simpson, Mr Spratt, Mr Storey, Mr Weir, Mr Wells, Mr S Wilson.

Tellers for the Ayes: Mr T Clarke and Mr Irwin.


Mr Adams, Ms Anderson, Mr Attwood, Mr Boylan, Mr D Bradley, Mrs M Bradley, Mr P J Bradley, Mr Brady, Mr Brolly, Mr Burns, Mr Butler, Mr W Clarke, Mr Doherty, Mr Durkan, Mr Ford, Mr Gallagher, Ms Gildernew, Mrs D Kelly, Mr G Kelly, Ms Lo, Mrs Long, Mr A Maginness, Mr A Maskey, Mr P Maskey, Mr F McCann, Mr McCarthy, Mr McCartney, Dr McDonnell, Mr McElduff, Mrs McGill, Mr McGlone, Mr McKay, Mr McLaughlin, Mr Molloy, Mr Murphy, Mr Neeson, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O’Dowd, Mr O’Loan, Mrs O’Neill, Ms S Ramsey, Ms Ritchie, Ms Ruane.

Tellers for the Noes: Mr Burns and Mr McElduff.

Main Question accordingly agreed to.


That this Assembly notes with concern the role of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development in the redevelopment of the Forkhill Military Site, and believes that the Department for Social Development should consider taking the lead role in the matter.

Further Education Provision for Young People with Disabilities

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.

Mrs O’Neill: I beg to move

That this Assembly expresses concern at the lack of further education courses specifically targeted at young people with learning and physical disabilities; recognises the lack of provision for disabled young people over the age of 19; and calls on the Minister for Employment and Learning to provide sufficient further educational opportunities to ensure that these young people achieve their full potential.

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I am delighted that the motion has been selected for debate, and I commend the Business Committee for choosing it. Since the motion was selected last week, I have been contacted by a number of families who relayed personal accounts of their experiences due to the lack of provision of further education for young people with disabilities, and I wish to place on the record my thanks for their support and advice in preparing for the debate. I hope that much-needed changes will take place as a consequence of the debate.

I am proposing the motion because provision throughout the North is piecemeal. Some colleges proactively address the needs of people with a disability; however, others offer only limited or low-quality provision. Vulnerable individuals, such as those with a disability, are already marginalised and face further barriers in their attempts to access further education opportunities.

In October 2007, my colleague proposed a similar motion and, as a consequence, we were promised that there would be a review of the services offered. However, six months on, there has been no response as regards that review. That is why I am concerned about the UUP amendment, which strikes me as being a fudge on the issue. When will we see real changes that affect the lives of young, disabled people? The amendment calls on Members to await the outcome of the review. However, the motion in October called for immediate, urgent action. I am not interested in paying lip service to this matter or in protecting the Minister, which, I suspect, is the UUP’s motive in tabling the amendment. Six months for the review’s outcome is far too long to wait. Nevertheless, I await with interest the UUP’s contributions to the debate.

Although the motion refers only to further education opportunities, I must point out that there is also a requirement for more supported employment opportunities for young, disabled people.

Any provision of supported employment and/or further education must be based on the principles of equality and inclusion. That is because disabled children and adults have the same rights to equality of access to all services, including education, training and employment.

Whenever I meet disabled young people, their families and representative groups, the issue of transition is raised consistently. That is the process by which a young person moves from childhood into young adulthood. It is a time of many changes for all young people and their families, and it involves making many important decisions, including life decisions and life choices on further education, training or employment, citizenship, and independent living. However, research has shown that that period is more difficult for a young disabled person. At the age of 16, young disabled people have the same career hopes and aspirations as their non-disabled peers. However, in early adulthood, the experiences of the disabled and non-disabled young people diverge with regard to education, training and employment. That inequality must be addressed.

Services must be developed for young people that will support their transition into adult life and that will actively promote social inclusion, challenge discrimin­ation, promote personal control and choice, and encourage inter-agency partnership and collaboration. It is important to take a holistic approach to that transition period. Disabled young adults are entitled to the same educational opportunities as their peers. However, that does not seem to be happening at present. I have spoken to many families who have been left without support and direction and who have felt that there were no opportunities for them when their children reached a certain age. Given that several agencies have a remit for dealing with young people in transition, I accept that this is a cross-departmental issue, not one just for the Department for Employment and Learning (DEL). Therefore, a multi-disciplinary approach to supporting young people during the transition period is needed.

Parents are being left in limbo about what is next for their children when those children reach the age of either 16 or 19. Children with a moderate learning disability will be offered compulsory education only up to the age of 16, and those with a severe learning disability will be offered it until the age of 19. After that, the young person and their family face a minefield.

Children who have attended schools in mainstream education, perhaps with the aid of a classroom assistant, are expected to leave school at 16 years of age. No provision is made for those who are unable to participate in further education or cope in the real world by finding employment. Those attending special-education schools are expected to leave at the age of 19, and no provision is made for suitable follow-up services that promote life skills and independent living. Those young adults are expected to go to day-care facilities that have been established for the elderly, stroke patients and dementia sufferers, even though those facilities are not age appropriate or conducive to an individual’s continued development.

Parents have told me that that situation often leads to their children losing their spark for life, forcing them to become old and withdrawn before their time. One parent has told me that most parents of children with disabilities are heartbroken. That lady has battled continually for access to services across the board ever since she had her son, who is 19 years old and who has a severe learning disability. She feels that as the Government have not made the education and training of young disabled people a compulsory provision, they do not value it. She suggested that, if provision were more suitable, were regarded as an automatic follow-up to special education and were considered to be a right, more people would avail themselves of it.

The Department for Employment and Learning wrote to that parent explaining that it was keen to ensure that its colleges play a full role in developing the skills of people with a learning disability but that it is the responsibility of colleges to determine what courses are offered, subject to the level of demand. The Department may state its policy — that it is committed to ensuring access to education — but if that is not followed through by making such access compulsory, I believe that the Department’s policy is contradictory. As I said in my opening remarks, young disabled adults must be encouraged into supported employment, as many of them want to move into such employment and become economically active in their own community.

The Northern Ireland Union of Supported Employment and several other voluntary agencies do a lot of good work in that field by promoting employment for people with disabilities. In a recent launch in the Long Gallery, the union reported its findings on a cost-benefit analysis of employment for people with disabilities. One of the key findings was that people with disabilities who have engaged with supported-employment programmes have reported that they are not just financially better off, they also have an improved quality of life.

Another key finding was that, for every £1 that is invested in supported employment, there was a return of £6·17 over a five-year period, thus proving that that investment is also economically good.

I am interested to hear the Minister’s comments on what his Department is doing, and I expect him to talk about the additional support fund, among other elements. However, I hope that he will take on board my concerns and those that I hope others will make when contributing to the debate.

2.15 pm

More needs to be done immediately to address those inequalities. On the face of it, it appears that all further education courses are accessible and open to all. However, the Further Education Means Business strategy results in funding being directed towards courses that are pitched at level 2. The majority of young people with disabilities are entering education at pre-entry level or at level 1.

Community education courses would have been a crucial starting place for many young people with disabilities through recreational courses and pre-entry courses. However, the budget for such courses is all but gone, which means that those who are already experiencing difficulty with learning will end up being further marginalised because they need more time and support.

Reasonable adjustment and a greater degree of flexibility is required to allow people with disabilities to access the appropriate provisions. That would provide them with positive outcomes, but it would not necessarily provide them with recognised qualifications in all cases.

I call on all Members to support this important motion. I want to see an improved provision and more support, as of right, for those young people with disabilities. Go raibh maith agat.

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

“its continued commitment to securing training and employment opportunities where appropriate for young people with disabilities; and awaits the outcome of the review of such provision undertaken by the Minister for Employment and Learning.”

In proposing the amendment, the Ulster Unionist Party is not in defensive mode. In fact, I ask Members to consider how we can find a responsible way in which to deal with this important issue.

The proposer of the motion outlined her concerns. I will also outline my concerns and make suggestions as to how they can be addressed. I recently had the privilege of meeting people in Aghalee and Dunmurry who have severe learning disabilities. I also attended a fund-raising event at Musgrave Park Hospital for young people with disabilities that raised £70,000 for new equipment. By meeting such people, it is possible to understand the challenges that they face in their everyday lives.

Through the Assembly’s excellent Education Service, I have also been fortunate in being able to speak to Mencap and the young people whom its representatives brought to the Assembly. Those young people explained eloquently and in great detail why they want jobs and what they want to do. Due to the success of that meeting, I invited them back to the Assembly, and they visited again last week. We talked about the difficulties that they face and about employers’ attitudes. I said that I am willing to provide an opportunity for someone with learning disabilities to work in my two offices in an attempt to set an example in progressing this issue. Such matters must be addressed, and it is important to understand that there is always more that can be done. It is almost like trying to boil an ocean.

During my meetings, I became aware that people did not appreciate that those with learning disabilities are not a burden; rather, they provide an opportunity. If people with learning disabilities are given the right skills and support, they can contribute not only to the enrichment of their own lives but to society as a whole. I am keen to find out how those skills and that support can be provided.

Why is it necessary to table the motion at this time? Other channels exist through which the issue can be addressed. The Member who proposed the motion, and, I assume, the Member who will make the winding-up speech serve on the Committee for Employment and Learning. That provides ample opportunities to discuss the issue with departmental officials and with the Minister. Regardless of that, it is right that questions are asked.

Mrs O’Neill: For clarification, I am not a member of the Committee for Employment and Learning. Furthermore, I have taken the opportunity to table a number of questions to the Minister, as have other Members.

Mr B McCrea: I stand corrected. Someone who looks awfully like Mrs O’Neill was a member of that Committee at one stage.

Ms S Ramsey: The Member to whom Mr McCrea is referring is older.

Mr B McCrea: I get confused. Mrs O’Neill serves with me on the Committee for Education.

My point is that it is possible to discuss such issues with the Minister or departmental officials in Committee in order to find out what is going on. Had that happened, the Members would be aware that the position is positive. Although no one is denying that there is a difficulty with the number of people with learning or other disabilities who are in full-time education, the situation is improving.

This Minister for Employment and Learning will be unable to address the issue alone. He will be able to give us the facts. However, to my knowledge, he is fully committed to resolving the issue.

The last time that we held a similar debate, the Minister announced that there would be a review. That review is ongoing and the Minister will, no doubt, inform us of the details shortly. Rather than pre-empting that review and having the discussion now, it might have been better to wait for its outcome.

There is concern that other Ministers’ Departments take a long time to take decisions and get things done. That has been apparent in discussions on the Maze and other matters. The Minister for Employment and Learning cannot be accused of that, and certainly not on this issue. The Minister is producing the goods. I hope that the House will unite on this subject, rather than turn it into a political football. We should gather the relevant information and make progress on implementation. I hope that that is taken in the manner in which it was intended and that we can secure the necessary support.

The range of further education courses that is offered is extensive. More can always be done, but good provision is available. Records for the latest academic year show that there were 1,338 enrolments. Of those, 650 were on discrete courses, an increase on the figure from a couple of years ago. The situation is vibrant, with all the figures heading in the right direction.

Adult day centres account for 11% of further education provision for young people with disabilities. As has been discussed in relation to respite care, etc, we must examine the placing together of people of different ages in adult day centres. That is one of the issues that will the review will address. Funding for the sector has increased, and was a major part of the Programme for Government and the Budget. That financial commitment will be met.

Significantly, the relationship with the voluntary sector is strong. We must all work together. Nobody has all of the answers and it is incumbent on all of us to listen carefully to those who have to care for young people with disabilities for the whole of their life, not just during the working day. We want to help parents, children and young people, and ensure that those people have access to gainful employment.

Helping young people with disabilities is not restricted to the provision of further education. The Department can also help by providing vocational training and supported employment. Along with other Members, I witnessed the making of bedspreads, and was very encouraged to see how people dealt with that.

It is important to recognise that one size does not fit all — a range of challenges and a range of support can be provided. We must try to offer all of the right support to all of the right people, in the most appropriate way possible. The most important measure that the Department can take is to engender a positive attitude. The Department has an advisory service and an action plan to help to do that.

After talking to my friends and colleagues in Mencap, I have been struck by their feeling that the biggest issue that they face is that many people do not properly understand the position. One side of Mencap is the fundraising and campaigning that they do so well. Another side to their work is the quest to find companies to take young people with disabilities on board. Some of the bigger companies, such as Tesco, have taken people on board. However, there are many opportunities in other areas, and often people are simply unaware of the very positive role that people with a learning disability can play.

There is a danger of appearing trite in respect of young people with disabilities. However, I was completely bowled over by the young people who told me about what they wanted to do. The challenge for us all is to get those young people into the appropriate level of training or education. Surely, that is one of the useful things that the House can achieve.

I intend to bring those young people back to the Long Gallery and I hope that other Members will join me in talking to them.

Mr S Wilson: I thank the Member for giving way. He will get an extra minute, so he is using my intervention strategically.

One group of people has not been mentioned and has almost been silent. It is the people who leave school — sometimes special-needs schools — and have no further education provision made for them. Does the Member agree that the needs of that group of young people should be addressed urgently? Further education colleges wash their hands of them, and no provision is made for them in the special needs sector.

Mr B McCrea: The Deputy Speaker will, no doubt, clarify that I do not have an extra minute. However, it was still worth Mr Wilson putting his point forward. I am coming to the conclusion of my speech. I look forward to the Member’s contribution, and he will have my support. I urge all Members to take a holistic view of the issue. The Minister is delivering results, and we will see a proper review, be able to scrutinise it and ensure that it is right. I thank the Members on the Benches opposite for tabling the motion. However, I ask them to consider accepting the amendment.

Mr Deputy Speaker: As Question Time commences at 2.30 pm, I suggest that the House takes its ease until that time. This debate will continue after Question Time, when the next Member to speak will be Mr Jimmy Spratt.

The debate stood suspended.

2.30 pm

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

Oral Answers to Questions

Health, Social Services And Public Safety

Impact of the Internet on Suicide Prevention

1. Mr K Robinson asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to detail the discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues throughout the United Kingdom on the impact of the Internet in the area of suicide prevention, and whether he plans to meet with Internet providers again.        (AQO 2734/08)

The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Mr McGimpsey): In July 2007, I met Home Office Minister Vernon Coker and key Internet providers to outline my concerns regarding the damaging impact that harmful Internet content can have on vulnerable people. I have also raised the issue at North/South Ministerial Council and British-Irish Council meetings, and, more recently, with my ministerial colleagues in Scotland and Wales.

In addition, I met Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State Ivan Lewis to discuss the impact that the Internet can have on health-related issues such as suicide and self-harm. We agreed to host a further joint meeting with key Internet providers following the publication of the Byron Report on harmful material on the Internet and in video games.

Mr K Robinson: I thank the Minister for his comprehensive and encouraging response. I commend him for the work that he has done in this area and his proactive approach to this very serious problem.

Does the Minister agree that the social networking and chat room providers need to take this issue much more seriously than they have done up to now? That industry is potentially profitable, but its social responsibility must be looked at seriously. To that end, does the Minister agree that the Byron Report is a useful publication? Will the Minister take all steps to ensure that the measures contained in the report are implemented in Northern Ireland as soon as possible?

Mr McGimpsey: I met Dr Byron while she was preparing her report. It was specially commissioned by the Prime Minister, and I agree with much of what I have seen of the report. Certain websites and chat rooms undoubtedly encourage people to take their own lives. Those websites can have undue influence over vulnerable people, particularly the young. It is not sufficient for Internet providers to say that they are merely conduits and that the content of those websites is not their responsibility.

This issue is a reserved matter because of the law. Therefore, more robust legislation is needed to ensure that Internet providers take responsibility for the information that is provided.

Mr Adams: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the Minister’s remarks. In January, he wrote to me about these issues, and I thank him for his letter.

Will the Minister propose that suicide prevention become an area of priority under the tutelage of the North/South Ministerial Council? What arrangements have been made to provide dedicated resources for west Belfast, particularly the Shankill area? The Reaching Across to Reduce your Risk of Suicide and Self-Harm (RAYS) project is in considerable financial difficulty, and I raised that with the Minister some time ago. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr McGimpsey: Suicide prevention is an area of priority. I have had discussions with my counterpart in the Republic, Mary Harney, and I have raised it at North/South Ministerial Council and British-Irish Council meetings. Other Health Ministers agreed that the issue was important. That was the tenor of my discussion in Edinburgh last week with Ministers from Scotland and Wales.

Funding streams have been set aside for this issue. Provision has been made for community groups and others who are active in this area. I cannot be specific regarding the breakdown of funding in west Belfast, nor can I be specific as far as the RAYS project is concerned. The Member knows well that north and west Belfast are areas of great pressure regarding the incidence of suicide. They, therefore, receive support and funding.

Mr A Maginness: I thank the Minister for his reply to the various questions, and I welcome what he said. Does he agree that it is essential that Internet providers should be made to restrict access to potentially harmful websites, especially social-networking sites, which are a great source of potential harm, particularly to young people? Will the Minister make progress on restricting access to those sites?

Mr McGimpsey: I agree wholeheartedly with Mr Maginness on the need for restricted access to social-networking websites, and robust legislation is needed. The responsibility for that legislation lies, in the first instance, with the Home Office. I have had discussions with the Home Office, and I will have further discussions.

The substance of the Byron Report is about harmful content on the Internet and in video games. I anticipate that it will produce a response from the Government, and I look forward to seeing that response.

One of the responses will be to set up a council for the UK. I anticipate that all the regions will be represented on that council to take the matter forward. Internet providers are international, multi-billion-dollar organisations that are mostly based outside the UK, and the ability to reach them from regional Administrations in Belfast, Wales, Dublin or Scotland is limited because of our critical mass. Working together, particularly given the interest that the Prime Minister has shown, will give us the critical mass to allow us to influence Internet providers to ensure that they take their responsibilities seriously. However, robust legislation is needed.

Regional Public Health Authority

2. Mr Bresland asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to outline the role a future regional public health authority will have as part of the review of public administration.            (AQO 2730/08)

Mr McGimpsey: The new multi-professional regional public health agency will give renewed and enhanced focus to achieving public health goals and will ensure better co-ordination and delivery of interventions to protect and improve health. It will also ensure public health input to the commissioning and design of services. In addition, it will offer support to, and work in partnership with, local government, the education sector and others in achieving improved health and well-being across Northern Ireland.

Mr Bresland: I thank the Minister for his response. Will he outline his plans regarding the location of the original public health authority and the various other health bodies that are to be established under the review of public administration? Does he intend to locate any of those bodies in the west of the Province?

Mr McGimpsey: Although it is early days for me to start to give assurances, I can tell Mr Bresland and other Members that there is potential to locate bodies throughout the Province. There is a need for strong local representation and influence in public health, particularly around commissioning. Therefore, it follows that there is a need for locations across Northern Ireland. That will also apply to the common services organisation, which will create an organisation to deal with the back office jobs that are not necessarily particular to health but without which the Health Service could not function. The Bain Report, which is due in July, has been especially commissioned on the location of Government jobs, and the Department will also bear that in mind.

Mr Gardiner: I thank the Minister for his insistence that public health is at the centre of reform — that is much appreciated. Will he tell me whether the public health authority will work closely with local government in the future? If so, will local government be represented on the authority?

Mr McGimpsey: I see a very strong correlation between the work that local government does and the work that the regional public health agency will do. I plan for the agency to have representation from local government. I plan for the commissioning groups in the regional health and social care boards to have such representation, too.

The agency will play a key role in the provision of healthcare in Northern Ireland, and it will be involved in public-health matters, health improvement, health protection and service development. It will deal with health inequalities, promote positive health and well-being and provide the local population with the ability to take responsibility for its own health. Local government will play a vital role in all that delivery.

Dr Deeny: I would like the Minister to provide some more detail about the regional public health agency. How many people will it employ, and what will be the ratio of health professionals to civil servants? Will GPs be involved? Finally, will the new regional public health agency work along the same lines as the Health Promotion Agency?

Mr McGimpsey: Dr Deeny is aware that, under the old direct rule model of a single health authority, the Health Promotion Agency was to be abolished and its functions were to disappear into that giant body. I saw that as being a retrograde step; it would have moved the service in exactly the opposite direction to which I wanted it to go. I have, therefore, proposed the creation of a regional public health agency, which will have much greater powers than the current Health Promotion Agency. I envisage it not only taking on the functions of the Health Promotion Agency, but those public-health functions that are held by boards and trusts. I anticipate that around 300 staff will be employed in the new agency, and that they will have expertise in public-health medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, nursing, infectious disease specialisms, health promotion, partnership working, community development and health education. Thus, a whole range of expertise will come together in that key area.

As Members are aware, I have said that the future of the Health Service depends on three elements: it requires investment, it must be efficient and it must engage with the local population. Each one of those elements is of equal value and importance. The Health Promotion Agency will deal with the third element.

Mental-Health Facility:  Craigavon Area Hospital

3. Mr Molloy asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to confirm if the new mental-health facility at Craigavon Area Hospital will cater for the entire Southern Health and Social Care Trust area.        (AQO 2698/08)

Mr McGimpsey: The new psychiatric unit at Craigavon Area Hospital, which is scheduled to open in May, will provide 74 inpatient beds, an outpatient unit and a day hospital. Of those 74 beds, 20 will accommodate patients from across the Southern Trust area and will cater for older people experiencing functional mental illness. The remaining 54 beds will be for general adult psychiatry, providing for the Newry and Mourne, Banbridge and Craigavon districts.

Mr Molloy: I thank the Minister for his answer. I emphasise the importance of maintaining and properly resourcing the service. The disruption in mental-health services in the Southern Trust area over the past years has caused tremendous trauma for patients at different times, and they need some certainty about the future of the service. We do not want patients to arrive at Craigavon Area Hospital only to find that the services are not available, like the patients who arrived at the accident and emergency department of the Mid Ulster Hospital on Friday. Will the Minister give an assurance that services will be maintained and resourced properly?

Mr McGimpsey: That is exactly the type of assurance that I am happy to give. I have just mentioned the new psychiatric unit that will open in Craigavon, and a similar facility will play a key role in the new enhanced hospital in Omagh. In addition, a new day centre will open in Dungannon, and St Luke’s Hospital in Armagh will continue to provide general adult psychiatric beds, intensive care beds, dementia assessment beds and addiction unit beds.

2.45 pm

We are aware that, as far as mental health is concerned, the direction of travel is very much in accordance with the recommendations of the Bamford Review. The key principle of the review was for treatment to be carried out, as far as possible, in the community, rather than in institutions. Such an approach leads to enhanced quality of care, shorter hospital admission times, more rapid discharge and access to home treatment packages. We are taking that direction, and, as a result of the final Budget settlement, extra moneys have been earmarked and ring-fenced for mental health.

Mrs I Robinson: The Minister may be aware that the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety visited Craigavon and Altnagelvin hospitals to look at the new facilities. One of those is open, and the other is due to open in May 2008. The Committee felt that the facilities were excellent, and that much thought had gone into their layout and user-friendly design. Will the Minister, therefore, agree that it is an equality issue of much importance that we should see those models replicated at all acute hospital sites? I speak especially of the Ulster Hospital, given the dire conditions that exist at Ards psychiatric nursing unit, which we both visited some time ago, and certainly not the planned model of beds located in the main hospital? Does the Minister agree that that is not the best use of money or the best location and the beds should be on site?

Mr McGimpsey: As far as provision is concerned, I repeat that we are moving in the direction of the Bamford Review, whose recommendations will take 10 to 15 years to roll out and will require considerable investment. The basic principle of the Bamford Review is that community placement is preferable to hospital placement; nevertheless, we will never get away from the need for hospitals.

Mrs Robinson illustrated an issue in Newtownards, and I agree with her on the matter of provision. However, the difficulty surrounding the Ulster Hospital rests with the capital provision. For example, Ulster phase B of the hospital’s redevelopment programme requires about £340 million. That money is not in the capital budget at present. `However, I am looking hard to find that money because, as an equality issue, people in north Down who attend the Ulster Hospital are entitled to the same provision as they would receive were they visiting Omagh or Craigavon.

Mrs D Kelly: I, too, took the opportunity to visit the new hospital in Craigavon; it is exciting and of the future. The Minister spoke of the need to keep patients at home as much as possible and not to have admissions to hospitals. What additional resources will, therefore, be put into community care? The Minister spoke of a day centre but preventative treatment and care require much more than that.

Mr McGimpsey: The Bamford Review estimated that the level of additional investment needed over the next 10 to 15 years will be £300-£400 million. We have made a good start as far as the Budget is concerned with a 12.5% increase. Over the next three years, the allocation will be £12·3 million, £14·2 million and £26·6 million. That provides us with a good start and allows us to move the recommendations of the Bamford Review, particularly in and around community placement, and treatment and away from institutionalising those who have mental-health needs.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Questions 4 and 5 have been withdrawn.

Reallocation of Finance Staff

6. Mr Storey asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to detail the implications of the reallocation of finance staff of the Northern Health and Social Care Trust from Ballymoney to Ballymena.     (AQO 2704/08)

Mr McGimpsey: The establishment of the Northern Health and Social Care Trust, under the review of public administration, replaced three former legacy trusts, namely Causeway, Homefirst and United Hospitals health and social services trusts. The rationalisation of common-service functions, such as finance, is an essential element of the review of public administration process to maximise the potential for efficiency savings for redeployment in the front-line services.

In relation to certain finance functions, I understand that the Northern Health and Social Care Trust is consulting local staff representatives and that no decision has been taken on the relocation of those staff.

Mr Storey: There is grave concern in my constituency, particularly among staff employed in Ballymoney, that, despite what the Minister has said, advanced discussions have taken place. In fact, decisions on the relocation of staff took effect on 1 April 2008. Therefore, will the Minister assure the House that there will be no relocation of jobs from Ballymoney to any other location until the Bain Report, to which he referred previously, is published in July?

Will the Minister meet me and other representatives to deal with the issue and to ensure that a Health Service presence will remain in Ballymoney, which has suffered greatly over recent years with job losses?

Mr McGimpsey: I never refuse any Member a meeting. However, in the first instance, that matter is a local trust management issue, and the Member should direct his concerns to the local trust.

As far as that matter is concerned, everyone is aware of the need to be efficient in the Health Service and to provide the required savings under the review of public administration. I have said over and over again that I would find those savings, and the reduction of 1,700 administrative jobs, which will save £54 million a year and which was planned before the amalgamation of the 19 trusts into six, is part of that. That work is progressing, and I understand that reducing the finance jobs from 185 to 161 will eliminate duplication, and so on. However, I can assure the Member that those reductions will not result in any permanent member of staff losing his or her job. Staff will be properly supported throughout the whole process of change. I have said repeatedly that most of the savings have been earmarked through the rationalisation of the trusts and that I will aim at a target of no compulsory redundancies, and I repeat that aim today.

Mr Beggs: It is strange that a DUP Member should complain about efficiency savings, given that his Minister required them.

Will the Minister guarantee that staff will be fully consulted to ensure that their views are fully known and considered by the trusts’ senior management? Furthermore, will he accept that it is preferable that front-line health staff, rather than administrative staff, remain in locations that are easily accessible to the public?

Mr McGimpsey: The 1,700 jobs in question are all administrative jobs. The £54 million that will be saved will be reinvested in front-line services. As far as the reduction process is concerned, we undertake to do that through the human-resources framework. Discussions with staff and trade union side are continuing, and, by using a variety of measures, such as vacancy control, voluntary early retirement and voluntary redundancies, we anticipate that no permanent member of staff will lose his or her job.

Mr O’Loan: I was going to ask the Minister to confirm that there will be no compulsory redundancies and no reduction in permanent staff — because vacancies already exist — and that the savings that will be made will be directed into enhancing the number and quality of front-line medical services, however, as he has already done so, I welcome his statements.

As he moves to the next stage of shared services, will the Minister assure the House that his decisions on locations will be made in a context that recognises the distribution of all public-sector jobs in Northern Ireland and ensures fair and equitable distribution throughout the region?

Mr McGimpsey: I welcome Mr O’Loan’s clear understanding of the RPA process. The next stage will be the creation of common services organisations, which will generate opportunities to spread jobs around the Province. My Department will be governed in that by the Bain Report and by the DFP framework. The need for strong local representation on, and input to, commissioning, the public health agency and shared and common services organisations will be the guiding principle that will impel my Department to ensure that the jobs are properly distributed.

Recruitment of Midwives/Maternity Staff

7. Mr O’Dowd asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to detail the measures being taken to recruit midwives and maternity staff for Craigavon Area Hospital.       (AQO 2766/08)

Mr McGimpsey: Although recruitment is a matter for the trusts, the Southern Health and Social Care Trust has advised me that all possible steps, including placing additional advertisements in the relevant press and exploring potential return-to-practice initiatives are being taken to fill the vacancies in Craigavon Area Hospital. The trust has also initiated a review of maternity services.

For the academic year 2008-09, my Department is commissioning an additional midwifery cohort of 12 places at Queen’s University, specifically for the Southern Health and Social Care Trust. On successful completion of an 18-month training programme, those trainee midwives will be eligible to apply for posts in the trust.

Mr O’Dowd: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his answer. I am aware that the trusts are responsible for recruiting midwives, but anyone who has recently been in the maternity wards at Craigavon Area Hospital, will be acutely aware of how much pressure the staff are under. It is only through their professionalism and dedication to their jobs that those wards are surviving.

I am concerned by the proposals to increase the number of births at Craigavon Area Hospital by transferring patients from Lagan Valley Hospital. I urge the Minister to do everything in his power to address that situation. Has he considered offering employment packages or financial incentives to midwives who have retired early, or increasing the funding to the Southern Health and Social Care Trust to allow it to recruit midwives from whatever source?

Mr McGimpsey: There are six vacancies for midwives in Craigavon Area Hospital and 20 vacancies regionally. The Southern Health and Social Care Trust has undertaken a review of maternity services with the aim of devising a plan to manage capacity, demand, and staffing issues.

The Member made a point about retired midwives. The trust has placed adverts in the relevant press, and it has written to midwives who have retired or who are on maternity leave to offer them the opportunity to return to work.

No expectant mother has been referred elsewhere due to pressures at Craigavon Area Hospital, and the number of mothers who request to be transferred there from the other three board areas is increasing. Therefore, there is confidence in the maternity unit at Craigavon Area Hospital, and as the trust and management look to the future, they are taking on board the points that the Member has made.

Mr B McCrea: Will the Minister tell the House whether a final decision has been taken to close the maternity unit at Lagan Valley Hospital? Its closure would put additional pressure on the maternity unit at Craigavon Area Hospital. Is he prepared to consider increasing the number of training places for midwives in Northern Ireland?

Mr McGimpsey: There are no proposals on my desk to close the maternity unit at Lagan Valley Hospital. I am aware of press reports on the subject, but I am not dealing with any such proposal. I anticipate that I will have to do so; at which point, I will be in a position to make a decision.

As part of its review, the trust is considering how changes to services at Lagan Valley Hospital might increase the pressure on the maternity unit at Craigavon Area Hospital. The trust is basing its plans on a birth rate of between 6,000 and 6,500 per annum in its area.

That is the result of a large increase in the number of births in the trust area, which has risen from 2,691 births in 2002-03 to 3,588 births in 2006-07. Therefore, although the birth rate has risen throughout Northern Ireland, it has risen faster in Craigavon. The Southern Health and Social Care Trust has taken that on board. The Department is offering extra training places and will continue to do so to deal with the demand.

3.00 pm

Regional Development

Dualling of the A26

1. Mr McKay asked the Minister for Regional Development to provide an update on the proposed dualling of the A26 to the Drones Road.         (AQO 2759/08)

The Minister for Regional Development (Mr Murphy): The Department’s Roads Service is progressing plans for the provision of a 7 km stretch of dual carriageway on the A26 between Glarryford crossroads and the junction with the A44 Drones Road at the Ballycastle fork. Detailed assessment of the five route corridors that are under consideration is ongoing. After a number of popular consultation days, the second stage of the three-stage assessment process is expected to be completed by June 2008. The process will conclude with the selection of a preferred route, which I hope to announce publicly around mid-2008.

Mr McKay: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. It is an understatement to say that the choice of route for the new dualling between those two points could have a massive impact on people who live on, and close to, Frosses Road. If the Department chooses one of the two eastern routes that have been proposed, that will have a massive social and economic impact, particularly for agriculture. Does the Minister agree that any decision in favour of one of the two eastern routes will have a serious detrimental impact on existing farm businesses?

Mr Murphy: The Member has highlighted the process that must be undertaken when decisions are made on major road schemes. Sometimes, Members get frustrated that the statutory processes take so long. However, when a major road project is planned to be built on farmland or any other type of land, that will affect farmers and the environment. Therefore, time must be taken to consider the options and to carry out proper consultation to examine all the effects.

With regard to the eastern routes to which the Member refers, the Department has employed an agricultural consultant to assess the expected impact of all five route corridors on affected farm businesses. The impact of each of the route options on land use will form part of the stage-two assessment and will inform the decision-making process.

Mr Gardiner: Will the Minister indicate what criteria his Department has used to establish a Province-wide prioritised list for road improvements? What mechanisms exist for introducing flexibility into the system?

Mr Murphy: The criteria for prioritisation of projects are well established and are available. I will ensure that the Department sends a copy of that information to the Member. There are projects that are of key strategic importance; there are projects that are important to economic development; and there are projects, such as the one under discussion, where the road has an unfortunate history of accidents, and there is strong local demand for road improvements in the area. Sometimes, priorities compete. Nonetheless, there are established criteria to assess roads and options, and, in doing so for route corridors, to determine the best options. That is in line with my previous answer.

A detailed manual for assessing such matters is available, and I will ensure that a copy is sent to the Member.

Mr Dallat: The Minister will be aware of the enormous disappointment of people who live on the other main route to the north-west, the Glenshane Pass — in particular, the people of Dungiven. Will he assure the House that a bypass for the most polluted town on these islands is now, without a shadow of doubt, his number one priority?

Mr Murphy: Last week, I visited Limavady Borough Council, and I took the opportunity to meet people in Dungiven.

I have no doubt that there is congestion and that those who live along Main Street in Dungiven suffer also from the pollution caused by the congestion. I have assured them that that road, and the Dungiven portion of it in particular, is of the highest priority for me, and they seemed reasonably satisfied with the meeting. I intend to deliver on that.

Development Control Section,  Roads Service

2. Mr S Wilson asked the Minister for Regional Development to detail the average response time by the development control section of the Roads Service to requests from the Planning Service.     (AQO 2691/08)

Mr Murphy: Roads Service does not maintain records that will enable calculation of an overall average response time by its development control sections to consultation requests from Planning Service. In addition, the range, scale and complexity of planning applications mean that the calculation of an average response time across all application types would not give a meaningful indication of performance.

However, I confirm that Roads Service meets its target of returning 70% of planning consultations to the relevant divisional planning office within 15 working days from date of receipt. In the period from 1 April 2007 to the end of February 2008, Roads Service received 30,694 planning consultations, of which 76% were responded to within the 15-working-day target. Bearing in mind the significant number of applications received, I believe that to be a very a good performance.

Each year, Roads Service and Planning Service sign up to a service-level agreement, which sets out the basis on which each delivers services to the other. It defines the nature and quality of the required outputs to be delivered by each agency, along with associated performance targets. Although the service-level agreement is not legally binding, both services act in accordance with it.

Members are aware that Roads Service’s role as a consultee in the planning process is to provide advice to the Planning Service on applications that may affect the public-road network. Typically, Roads Service’s assessment will examine road safety and traffic-progression issues. However, applications related to larger developments may also require consideration in the context of relevant development plans, and transport assessments may be required from the developer to demonstrate the impact of the development on the roads network. In general, each application is assessed against the relevant policies, design standards and guidance documents.

Mr S Wilson: I thank the Minister for his answer. Perhaps it is as well that no detailed records are kept by the Roads Service as to the length of time that it takes to respond to some planning applications. The Minister indicated that 25% of applications are not responded to within the 15-day period that he mentioned. Many of those are major planning applications and have economic significance for local areas and for Northern Ireland in general. There is great frustration that Roads Service does not deliver that well. Will the Minister tell us what steps he will take to remedy that?

Mr Murphy: I understand where the Member is coming from. We want to ensure that there is no undue delay. Many of the larger applications, which take a longer time, have significant economic benefits riding on the decision. It is the Executive’s intention to streamline the planning system as far as possible, and the Minister of the Environment shares that goal. We must bear in mind, however, that projects must be developed correctly and have no detrimental impact on the roads network, or any other facet of public life.

The scale and complexity of some projects mean that decisions on them take longer. I am keen that the process is as smooth as possible; however, Roads Service advises me that much of the delay is caused by the need to refer back to applicants to seek further information. Not all the information is provided in the first instance. Developers, architects and planning consultants should be able to anticipate what is required for a major application and ensure that all the information is delivered to Roads Service at the start. Much delay is caused by the toing and froing between the Planning Service, and the developers and their consultants in seeking further information.

Nonetheless, I share the Member’s interest in ensuring that these projects are dealt with as quickly as possible.

Mr Burnside: The Member for East Antrim raises the issue of the effectiveness and efficiency of the planning system. Does the Minister agree that an unreal distinction is made between the regional planning function in his Department and the local planning function in the Department of the Environment (DOE)? That is a major problem. Will he initiate discussions with the Minister of the Environment? The two Departments should merge as soon as possible. Prior to that, those two planning functions, regional and local, should be put together in a single, new, efficient department. That would speed up the efficiency and effectiveness of the planning process.

Mr Murphy: My Department is responsible for the regional development strategy, and planning issues, per se, rest with the Department of the Environment. As a consequence of the court case on draft PPS 14, many planning policy issues have been transferred from my Department to the Department of the Environment in the past six months — that might have the streamlining effect that the Member mentioned.

The Minister of the Environment is considering ways to speed up the planning process. Roads Service is a consultee to the planning process, and we want to ensure that it plays its part as efficiently as it can. However, my Department is responsible for setting the overarching policy for the regional development strategy, which will affect various Departments, not just DOE. That remains the responsibility of my Department, but planning policy statement issues have been transferred to DOE in the past six months.

Mrs Long: I want to return to development control. The Minister of the Environment recently circulated advice to her Department on the cumulative effects of development. Does Roads Service also consider the cumulative effects of road traffic and parking when examining applications, particularly if they are one of a series in a neighbourhood?

Mr Murphy: When dealing with a series of applications in the same neighbourhood, there is an immediate question on how the developments would affect the road on which they are being built. Roads Service is conscious of the development potential that has been unleashed in the past 10 years, and there is quite a bit of cumulative development.

I had a discussion with Roads Service officials, among others, in west Belfast where a great deal of development is planned for the Glenmona area. Roads Service told the planners that it wants transport infrastructure built across planning developments in the area instead of in a piecemeal fashion. Roads Service is conscious of the cumulative effects of development.

Planning approvals are a matter for DOE, but Roads Service wants to assert that proper transport provision is increasingly a feature of planning applications. The cumulative effects of planning applications transcends the number of applications.

Public Transport: Student Use

3. Ms S Ramsey asked the Minister for Regional Development what action he is taking to encourage students to use public transport when travelling to and from college or university.            (AQO 2745/08)

Mr Murphy: Students will benefit from the full range of steps that are being taken to improve public transport. In addition, Translink has advised me that it offers a student discount card that provides access to reduced fares on bus and rail services. Translink also organises an annual series of roadshows at universities to distribute promotional material and information on services, fares and promotions.

Ms S Ramsey: Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Minister for his response. I am keen to get more detail. What discounts can students expect?

Mr Murphy: Students in full-time education can obtain up to 13 months’ discounted travel with a Translink student discount card, which costs £7; reductions are also available on cross-border services. Discounts include special student single and return fares on many Ulsterbus routes; a discount of up to 15% on standard adult fares of £2 or more; a discount of up to 33% on Northern Ireland Railways adult single fares; and student day-return tickets that cost twice the student single fare.

Mr Shannon: The Minister mentioned the 15% discount as one of the proposals that he is considering. However, he will be aware, as are many Members, that students spend up to £500 on books — I am aware of one book that costs £38. Since students are under financial pressure, will the Minister consider increasing the discounts that are available to them? Increasing discounts would go a long way to help students through their courses at university.

Mr Murphy: There is an issue of the student discounts that are provided by the Translink promotions, and there is also an issue of concessionary fares. The Department bid for money for concessionary fares in the budgetary process. The Member is aware that some people with disabilities do not qualify for full concess­ionary fares. The Department bid for money so that children between 16 and 18 years old who stay in school would qualify for more than the half fare, but we were not successful.

I appreciate the Member’s concern about the financial problems that students face. However, various interest groups have made a strong case for receiving concess­ionary fares, and the Department is trying to accommodate them as best it can. One of those groups represents students, but I cannot guarantee that it will have any more advantage.

3.15 pm

Mrs M Bradley: Is the Minister concerned that students who travel by rail to the University of Ulster’s Magee campus in Derry cannot get there in time for morning lectures? Derry must be the only city in Europe in which that happens. What has the Minister done, or what does he intend to do, to improve the situation?

Mr Murphy: I was not aware that students there were arriving late for lectures. I am happy to raise the issue with Translink, and if there is a problem with the Translink timetable, it can be altered to ensure that students arrive on time. I know that Derry students are conscientious and will want to be at their lectures in time. I am more than happy to raise the issue with Translink to try to get a result.

European Funding: Scotland

4. Mr Beggs asked the Minister for Regional Development to detail the discussions he has had with his counterpart in Scotland, in relation to the £220 million of European funding given to Scotland to boost links with Northern Ireland.            (AQO 2676/08)

Mr Murphy: I am delighted that the territorial co-operation programme for Northern Ireland, the border region of Ireland and western Scotland, which aims to promote greater territorial cohesion, has been approved by the European Commission. The programme will bring a welcome €192 million EU investment from the total budget of around €256 million. I have not had any discussions with my counterpart in Scotland about the European funding that is available.

Mr Beggs: Considering that Northern Ireland is taking the lead on transport in the British-Irish Council, does the Minister agree that it is important that he has discussions about how that money might be spent? Does he accept that improved and upgraded transport links at Larne harbour and Cairnryan would enhance travel between Northern Ireland and Scotland and encourage tourism? Furthermore, does he accept that improvements to the road from Stranraer to Carlisle and to the road northwards from Cairnryan to Ayr would improve road safety and encourage more people to travel and stay in Northern Ireland?

Mr Murphy: There are two issues in the Member’s question. He mentioned transport links between the North and Scotland and some of the links beyond. Following a discussion with some of the East Antrim MLAs, I have arranged a meeting with Scotland’s Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change to discuss some of those issues, and I think that that meeting is due to take place at the end of this month.

The funding that has been made available from the European Union, to which the Member referred, is funding between member states. It will, therefore, involve Scotland, here and the South; it is a three-way arrangement. We are looking at themes and areas that are available for funding under that arrangement, and I will be happy to discuss those with my Irish counterpart, Noel Dempsey, and the Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change in Scotland, when the propositions are ready to be advanced.

Mr O’Loan: The Minister will be aware of current active discussions in relation to the Ballycastle to Campbeltown ferry. Will the European funding contribute to that project? If it does, in what way will it contribute? Subject to the outcome of the study on the ferry route, will the Minister state whether he is supportive, in principle, of the reinstatement of the ferry?

Mr Murphy: The Ballycastle to Campbeltown ferry service is not my responsibility; it is the responsibility of DETI. I am supportive of the reinstatement of the ferry. However, the projects and the availability of finance to which the Member referred must involve not only a linkage between Scotland and the North, but with the border region of the Twenty-six Counties. It is a three-way arrangement; it is between member states. I would that we were a separate member state from Scotland and the rest of Britain, but that is another day’s work. As things stand, that funding will only be available if a project involves the border counties region on the southern side of the border. We are examining what opportunities might lie in that. The Ballycastle to Campbeltown ferry is an issue for DETI, and I am sure that the Member will raise it with the relevant Minister.

Mr Neeson: I endorse the reopening of the Campbeltown to Ballycastle ferry route. Will the Minister assure me that he and his counterpart in Scotland will consider the high ferry fares between Scotland and Northern Ireland? They are 50% per mile higher than those on ferry routes between England and France and internal Scandinavian ferry routes.

Mr Murphy: The Member will be aware that a private company runs the ferry service between here and Scotland. Road difficulties on the other side — in Scotland — were brought to my attention by East Antrim MLAs as well as by that company, which is in talks with the Scottish Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change. I am not sure what influence the Assembly can have on the company’s prices, but we are nonetheless committed to improving access to and from the ports here and in Britain. I will discuss that matter with the Scottish Minister at the end of the month.

Hillhall Road

5. Mr Craig asked the Minister for Regional Development to outline the steps he is taking to (i) reduce tailbacks on the Hillhall Road between Lisburn and Purdysburn; and (ii) investigate the causes of flooding during heavy rains, which results in closure of this road and subsequent long delays.    (AQO 2701/08)

Mr Murphy: Roads Service has made several improvements to address tailbacks on the Hillhall Road, Ballylesson Road and Purdsyburn Hill; the most recent, which was completed in November 2006, being at the junction of Glen Road and Hillhall Road. A recent review of the previous route study identified areas for further improvement. Those schemes will include realigning the bend between 218 and 224 Hillhall Road, and they will be considered for inclusion in Roads Service’s minor works programme for the Lisburn area.

However, those route studies are for feasibility purposes only, and no proposal is guaranteed to be implemented, as they depend on the availability of land and funding and must compete against all other minor roadworks proposals in Roads Service’s eastern division area.

I am sure that Members are aware that the Hillhall Road is used as an alternative diversionary route during the ongoing works on the M1 motorway and the Westlink. The underpass at Broadway is due to be opened to traffic this summer, and full completion of the Westlink works is due by spring 2009. Therefore, traffic volumes on the Hillhall Road are expected to reduce as that work progresses.

On average, the Hillhall Road closes completely due to flooding once a year. However, after heavy rain, it is liable to pond in places. Roads Service endeavours to limit the problem and, on receipt of severe weather warnings, takes proactive steps such as checking road-gully gratings and removing any debris that may cause flooding. Roads Service carries out regular maintenance activities such as gully cleaning and road sweeping. All planned maintenance operations on the Hillhall Road are undertaken outside morning and evening peak traffic periods. However, Roads Service has no proposals to renew or provide additional drainage systems on the road between Lisburn and Purdysburn.

Mr Craig: Given that the Hillhall Road has already been closed once this year, perhaps the Department should revise its figures on flooding incidents. That aside, I welcome what the Minister has said about the new works on that road.

However, given that the road is being used as an alternative route due to work on the Westlink, reassurances were given that no major works would be carried out on the road —

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. The Member is well aware that this is Question Time, not Members’ statement time, so will he please ask a question.

Mr Craig: Certainly. Does the Minister agree that such an agreement was made? Does he also agree that the heavy traffic on that road cannot be tolerated for much longer?

Mr Murphy: I hope that the heavy traffic on that road will not have to be tolerated for much longer. We expect the Broadway underpass to be open by the summertime. That will, hopefully, remove a substantial amount of traffic.

I use the Hillhall Road regularly to get here, and I know that it can be difficult. Roads Service is trying to keep any substantial work to a minimum but, in instances such as flooding, it will have to take remedial action.

I hope that the Westlink scheme will be substantially advanced by the summertime and fully opened by this time next year. That will reduce the traffic on the Hillhall Road. Some minor works will be submitted to Lisburn City Council as part of the minor works programme for that area.

Mr Butler: Go raibh maith agat. Given that Roads Service’s maintenance of gullies has been criticised in the past, does the Minister have plans to increase the frequency of the clearance of gullies on rural roads?

Mr Murphy: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Where necessary, Roads Service aims to inspect and clean all gullies in urban areas twice a year and gullies in rural areas once a year. That is line with the road-maintenance guidelines that apply across all council areas. That policy ensures that a reasonable level of maintenance to drainage systems is carried out, taking account of the Department’s finite funding and staff resource levels.

In addition to the scheduled operation, further cleaning is carried out to deal with blocked gullies, especially at locations where fallen leaves create an ongoing problem at certain times of the year, or where gullies have a history of blockage for other reasons. Where an area has a history of flooding, Roads Service will pay particular attention to that, particularly in advance of severe weather warnings.

Mr K Robinson: Unfortunately, the problem of flooding on the Hillhall Road is not unique. Will the Minister provide the House with details of any assessment that he has made of the state of storm drainage across the Province? What impact does the ever-increasing area under tarmac in housing and commercial developments have on reducing the capacity of surface water to drain away, thereby increasing the frequency and intensity of flooding incidents?

Mr Murphy: It appears from anecdotal evidence — although I would like to see a scientific study — that we have experienced more flooding in recent years. Some people will attribute that to more tarmac-surfaced areas, which create a greater run-off of water. Others attribute it to more severe weather patterns, and I am aware that serious problems have been created by heavy flash-flooding incidents. It is difficult to create the type of service that will accommodate those types of storms, which are rare, even though they appear to have been more frequent in recent years.

The type of drainage system that would be required to deal with heavy flash-flooding would be above and beyond the means of this institution, or perhaps any institution. Under the current standards and guidance that have been adopted, Roads Service endeavours to clear urban gullies twice a year, and rural gullies once a year. However, Roads Service will pay particular attention to areas in which there are likelihoods of flooding or other instances that would cause the blockage of gullies.

Cycling Trips

6. Mr Cree asked the Minister for Regional Develop­ment whether the number of cycling trips are on target to be quadrupled between levels in 2000 and 2015.            (AQO 2678/08)

Mr Murphy: The targets that are set out in the regional transportation strategy 2000-2012 are to double cycling trips between 2000 and 2005, and to quadruple them between 2005 and 2015. To date, cycle usage has not met those challenging targets.

Roads Service measures cycle usage with a series of fixed cycle counters across the North. Cycle usage increased by 57% in Belfast between 2000 and 2006, and the average increase across all locations was 26·3%. Although cycling infrastructure has been provided, persuading the public to abandon the car in substantial numbers has yet to be achieved. Based on the current trend, it is unlikely that the number of cycle trips will be quadrupled between 2000 and 2015.

Mr Cree: I thank the Minister for his answer. What plans does he have to increase the cycle-track network so that more people can avail themselves of such an environ­mentally acceptable mode of transport?

Mr Murphy: There are several ways to promote sustainable transport, one of which is to expand the cycle network, and Roads Service has been involved in doing just that. The targets that were set were challenging; nonetheless, it is disappointing that they are unlikely to be met by 2015.

The cycle network has been expanded, particularly in and around Belfast. The Department has made it a requirement that cycling infrastructure be included in roads networks around major developments. The Department also promotes a range of activities such as the Bike 2 Work scheme, the Safer Routes to School initiative and the walking maps networks. The Department launched a walking map of Belfast, and walking maps are also available for routes in various towns across the North. Although cyclists have had several opportunities to meet some of the relevant organisations since I came into office, I am keen to see much more being done. We are trying to do as much as we can to promote cycling and other forms of sustainable transport.

Mr McElduff: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. The Minister has addressed ways of promoting sustainable transport. I ask the Minister to take seriously the need for footpath provision in many villages and towns where there are established evening and weekend walking routes. Will the Minister provide details of any current thinking in that regard?

Mr Murphy: It is interesting that we had trouble in securing support during an earlier debate for walking provision in a community project. Nevertheless, we are keen to establish safer places for people to walk. The issue of footpaths in rural areas is difficult to solve. It is a matter of targeting resources towards making walking routes as safe as possible. Matching the level of expectation that exists across rural communities for footpaths and other amenities is an ongoing struggle.

Nonetheless, we are trying, within our resources, to work out the most beneficial scheme for rural areas, and we are liaising closely with councils and elected representatives to ensure that we target the areas that have the greatest footfall and that present the greatest danger to pedestrians.

3.30 pm

Mr Deputy Speaker: Time is up for questions to the Minister for Regional Development.

Social Development

Social Housing Projects: Foyle

1. Ms Anderson asked the Minister for Social Development to detail the additional social housing projects she has planned for the Foyle constituency given her enhanced budget and the acute need for social housing in the area.            (AQO 2699/08)

The Minister for Social Development (Ms Ritchie): I thank the Member for recognising that I negotiated a considerable increase in the draft Budget. However, it gives me nothing more than the realistic budget that I sought in the first place, so there is not much scope for many new projects over and above the level being planned by the Housing Executive. However, I am committed to achieving or bettering the Govern­ment’s target of 1,500, 1,750 and 2,000 new social housing starts. That represents a steady increase over recent years, and I will ensure that the Foyle constituency receives its fair share.

Ms Anderson: Go raibh maith agat. I remind the Minister that she told the House on 26 February that:

“I have been given the money, and I am building the houses.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 28, p61, col 1].

Now we are being told that she did not get enough money.

In the context of the acute need for social housing in Derry, will the Minister confirm whether all privately-rented properties in the Derry area and beyond, where the tenant is in receipt of housing benefits, are inspected to ensure that they are fit for habitation?

Ms Ritchie: Obviously the Member did not listen to what I said. In October 2007, I clearly indicated that the budget that was allocated for my Department was inadequate. Even though some Members to my right said that I should stop whingeing and get on with it, I decided to continue the analysis and negotiation until I achieved a much enhanced budget. In fact, in my original answer to the Member, I thanked her for recognising that fact.

There is a requirement for 1,081 units of accommo­dation in Foyle over the next five financial years. The social housing development programme, which I have approved, provides for 1,136 dwellings to be built. I have taken on board what the Member said about privately-rented properties, and I will ensure that inspections take place.

Mr Burnside: I know that the Minister has a problem in getting a decent budget from the DUP and Sinn Féin, and I have sympathy for her. I realise that she is trying to meet social housing targets for new houses, but will she consider initiating a scheme to refurbish disused properties? The cost would be lower, and she could produce more social housing for the marketplace by implementing a strategy for refurbishing disused, empty houses, rather than simply opting for new housing.

Ms Ritchie: In May 2007, I instructed the Housing Executive to carry out an empty homes survey. The research indicated that there are 39,000 empty homes in the public and private sectors. Of those, approximately 5,000 houses could be refurbished, which would not cost a great deal of money. Research into the ownership of those houses is ongoing, and I will receive a report on those findings shortly. I hope that I can bring some of those houses back into the allocation category, so that they will be available for people to live in, thereby easing the housing crisis.

Mr Durkan: I welcome the Minister’s indication that the north-west will receive its fair share of the housing allocation that has been made available in the Budget. However, does the Minister recognise that Derry bears an unfair share of acute housing need and that the fair response has to be proportionate to that? In making progress on those matters, the key issue will be delivery. Will the Minister use her influence with the Environment Minister to ensure that land that would be available to provide new housing developments alongside existing developments will be brought into the planning zone?

Ms Ritchie: I thank Mr Durkan for his question. I will be happy to talk to my ministerial colleague the Minister of the Environment about planning issues in order to ensure that land is properly zoned to reflect housing need in the Foyle constituency. The current social-housing development programme that I have approved contains enough new builds to meet the current assessed need. However, as I said to Ms Anderson, I want to see whether those plans can be surpassed. One idea that has been suggested by the Member of Parliament for Foyle was to convene a special housing seminar involving all stakeholders in the Foyle constituency, with a view to identifying priorities for action. I wish to assure the House that I shall proceed with such a move in the very near future.

Warm Homes Scheme

2. Mr Craig asked the Minister for Social Develop­ment to detail how much was budgeted for the warm homes scheme in (i) 2005-2006; and (ii) 2006-2007, and how much has been allocated under this scheme for 2007-2008.            (AQO 2700/08)

15. Mr Hilditch asked the Minister for Social Development to detail her plans to take forward the warm homes scheme.           (AQO 2789/08)

Ms Ritchie: With your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will answer question 2 and question 15 together. The warm homes scheme has been very successful, and it will continue. I have increased my Department’s allocation to the scheme from £16·85 million in 2007-08 to £21·4 million in 2008-09, and I will be looking for additional funding in-year. I will also examine the delivery of the scheme, and look at introducing prioritisation of applications to ensure that people in greatest need get help first.

It may be helpful to provide some statistics about the scheme. My Department’s warm homes scheme budget for the last three years was as follows: £11·85 million in 2005-06; £15·85 million in 2006-07; and £16·85 million in 2007-08. Funding for the scheme has remained relatively constant over the past two years, due to funding from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, through the environment and energy fund. That fund came to an end at the end of the fiscal year last week, but, in order to offset that loss of funding, I have increased my Department’s budget for the warm homes scheme to £21·4 million for the current financial year. I will also be looking to the in-year monitoring process to provide additional resources for that important work.

Mr Craig: I thank the Minister for that answer, and for her commitment to that element of social deprivation. However, given the fact that there will be an almost 10% increase in the number of people who are eligible for the fuel-poverty scheme, is the Minister happy that the additional budgetary increase will be enough?

Ms Ritchie: I have heard those expressions of concern about the warm homes scheme, so I welcome the opportunity to set the record straight. Funding for the scheme has increased from £3 million in 2001 to £16·25 million in 2007-08 — the fiscal year that has just ended. That represents a major percentage increase on last year’s DSD funding, which in itself was a record for any one year. I remain totally committed to the warm homes scheme, which, since it commenced, has impacted on the lives of 60,000 people throughout Northern Ireland. I have instructed my officials to ensure that the warm homes scheme is prioritised and targeted at those who are most in need to ensure that it has the best possible impact, and provides the best deal for the people of Northern Ireland, particularly those who are at disadvantage.

Mr Hilditch: I welcome the Minister’s answer and her commitment to the warm homes scheme. Will she also acknowledge the positive contribution that that scheme has made not only in improving the quality of life of our constituents but its unexpected role in helping the benefit uptake campaign by successfully identifying people who were missing out on other benefits?

Ms Ritchie: I agree with Mr Hilditch’s analysis, and, at the end of the month, I intend to announce the benefit uptake campaign for older people and those who suffer from mental ill health or disability, for this financial year.

Mr Cobain: Further to that point, the Minister has contact details for all individuals who receive pension credits or attendance allowance. Will she assure the House that those people will be contacted directly to ensure that they are apprised of their entitlement under the warm homes scheme?

Ms Ritchie: I can assure Mr Cobain that I will instruct my officials to ensure that that happens. It has always been my intention to ensure that benefits are targeted towards those who are in need of, and entitled to, them.

Mr McCarthy: I thank the Minister for her answers, and I wish to take this opportunity to express my gratitude for the work by those who administer the warm homes scheme through Eaga plc. My questions have been answered, and the Minister clearly stated her intentions for future years; however, one important fact is that the people most in need of the warm homes scheme must be targeted —

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. We are not here to get facts from you; we are here to ask questions. Given that the Minister has already answered the question, we will move on.

Housing Contracts

3. Mr S Wilson asked the Minister for Social Development to detail (i) the number of housing contracts that were started in 2007/2008; and (ii) the number of those contracts that were signed on 31 March 2008.    (AQO 2692/08)

Ms Ritchie: In the last financial year, the social-housing development programme faced a funding shortfall; however, I made successful bids in the October and December monitoring rounds, and that enabled the budget to be restored to the full amount required to deliver in excess of the target of 1,500 new-housing starts.

As of 31 March 2008, 189 social-housing development programme contracts had been started in 2007-08. Those schemes comprise 1,595 accommodation units and, as of 31 March 2008, 22 contracts had been signed.

Mr S Wilson: The Minister’s answer illustrates one of the failures of the social-housing programme. Many contracts that should be signed throughout the year are not signed until the last minute, which delays the availability of houses for the incoming year. Will the Minister indicate what steps she is taking to up the game, and improve the performance, of housing associations, which consistently wait until the last day of the financial year before signing contracts?

Ms Ritchie: I am sure that Mr Wilson is well aware of the fact that, in the last financial year, when I took up ministerial office, only 600 new-housing starts were planned. As a result of successful negotiations with the Finance Minister in the October and December monitoring rounds, I was able to secure additional funding that enabled me to increase that figure to 1,595. That happened near the end of the year, which explains the late signing of contracts. Nevertheless, I take on board what the Member said, and I hope that, with greater planning, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive — which is the strategic housing authority for Northern Ireland — my Department and others that are involved in delivery, such as the Strategic Investment Board, can ensure that better targets are put in place and that houses are built. We want delivery in order to offset the disadvantage felt by many people throughout Northern Ireland.

3.45 pm

Mrs McGill: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Will the Minister detail any discussions that her Department has had with other Departments about joining-up the promotion of household energy efficiency measures with the promotion of the adoption of sustainable energy appliances, which will make homes warmer and more cost-efficient for households in the long run? Go raibh maith agat.

Ms Ritchie: Until recently, my Department was in contact with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment constantly, because that Department part-funded the warm homes scheme. Obviously, I have also written to the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment about some grants that have now ended, asking if it is possible to restore them.

Mr A Maginness: I thank the Minister for her previous replies. Given the importance of tackling the housing backlog in Northern Ireland, will the Minister assure the House that her social and affordable housing programme will attempt to deliver more starts than have been achieved in previous years and that it will result in significantly reduced waiting lists?

Ms Ritchie: I assure the Member and the House that I intend to deliver the house starts that were set out in the Programme for Government; that is, to provide 1,500, 1,750 and 2,000 new homes over the next three years. That represents a steady increase on the level of new social-house building in recent years. In the fiscal year just completed, we pushed up the level of house starts from a target of 600, when I took up ministerial responsibility, to 1,595 new house starts as of 31 March 2008. Therefore, I assure the House that we are always trying to raise the bar.

I am hopeful that the new housing agenda will have a positive impact on waiting lists, but I am pragmatic enough to know that the number of people on those lists is determined by factors outside my control and outside the control of my Department, such as demographic change, immigration, household formation and other social trends.

Mandatory Tenancy Deposit Scheme

4. Mr Kennedy asked the Minister for Social Development what plans she has to introduce a mandatory tenancy deposit scheme for shorthold tenancy agreements, similar to provisions in England and Wales.        (AQO 2711/08)

Ms Ritchie: I have no immediate plans to introduce a mandatory tenancy deposit scheme. However, such a scheme will be considered in my assessment of the impact of the Private Tenancies (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 and in a new strategy for the private rented sector in Northern Ireland. If legislation is required for such a scheme then provisions could be included in a future housing Bill. The strategy will include the positive consideration of measures that give added protection to landlords and tenants, which is an issue that I understand the Member is particularly concerned about.

Mr Kennedy: I welcome the Minister’s initial answer. Does she agree that we need improvements in standards in Northern Ireland and increased confidence in our private rented sector, and that the introduction of a scheme, such as that which exists in England and Wales, would be a good first step in protecting tenants from rogue landlords while promoting confidence in the sector?

Ms Ritchie: First, I assure the Member that I will be considering the issue in the new housing Bill, which I hope to bring to the Assembly. I also advise the Member and the House that I recently met with representatives of the Landlords’ Association of Northern Ireland and gave them a commitment that my housing officials will engage with them on my behalf and, if possible, attend future meetings. That will enable landlords to present their views on issue relating to the private rented sector.

I am conscious that the private-rented sector provides a proportion of houses in the social-rented sector and that some measure of protection for tenants and landlords is required. Therefore, I shall be taking those measures and what the Member has said into account.

Disability Living Allowance: Epilepsy

5. Mr G Robinson asked the Minister for Social Development what plans she has to review the criteria used to assess disability living allowance claims in respect people suffering from epilepsy.    (AQO 2671/08)

Ms Ritchie: People with epilepsy are entitled to disability living allowance (DLA) on the same basis as anyone else with a severe disability. They qualify if they meet the entitlement conditions for the benefit, which depend on the effects that a severe physical or mental disability has on a person’s need for personal care and/or their ability to walk. People do not qualify for the benefit based on particular disabilities or diagnoses. That ensures that all claims from people with disabilities are treated equitably. To consider separate criteria for specific disabilities would make the decision-making process unnecessarily complicated and possibly unfair.

I know that the Member and one of his colleagues tabled questions for written answer about disability living allowance in the recent past, which were no doubt precipitated by many cases that they have become aware of through their constituency work.

Mr G Robinson: The Minister has already answered my supplementary question. I thank her for doing so.

Mr Brady: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Decisions assessing a person’s medical condition and, as a result, their entitlement to DLA, are currently made by decision-makers who are not medically trained. Does the Minister think that that provides the best method for ensuring that people who are entitled to that benefit actually receive it?

Ms Ritchie: I recall that Mr Brady raised that concern in June 2007 during the debates on the Second Stage and Consideration Stage of the Welfare Reform Bill. I said at that time that the people who assess the information do so based on the best possible medical information that is available to them. If he has any details concerning particular cases that he is not content with, perhaps he will write to me or have a word with me about them.

It is important to remember that the rules that govern entitlement to disability living allowance are complex. Eligibility is based not on a person’s particular illness or medical condition, but on the impact that the illness has on a person’s daily living. Decisions on entitlement involve a high degree of judgement and interpretation of detailed medical evidence. I have no doubt that the people employed in the Social Security Agency are qualified to do that job.

Mr K Robinson: I have listened to the Minister’s convoluted explanation of various entitlements. Will she look into the simplification of the bureaucratic processes for those suffering from epilepsy who are seeking travel concessions? Will she examine the cost of providing free public transport, as happens in other parts of the UK, as opposed to the half-priced fares that are currently available in Northern Ireland?

Ms Ritchie: Mr Robinson has strayed into the responsibilities of another Minister. I am content to write to the Minister for Regional Development about that issue, and I encourage Mr Robinson to do likewise.

The Member referred to the convoluted arrangements for social security benefits. I listened to one of my officials discussing the particular circumstances of disability living allowance and the complex arrangements on ‘The Stephen Nolan Show’ this morning. I have regular contact with my ministerial counterpart in the Department for Work and Pensions — the governing body for the issue — about that benefit and about the complex arrangements of other benefits. In light of the comments made here today, I am happy to discuss the simplification of the process the next time I meet the Minister for Work and Pensions.

Environmental Improvement

6. Mr Brolly asked the Minister for Social Develop­ment to detail the funding available for environmental improvement schemes in older housing estates.         (AQO 2810/08)

Ms Ritchie: Some £2·6 million was spent on such environmental improvement work in 2007-08. Environmental-improvement works are undertaken as part of renewal work in older Northern Ireland Housing Executive estates.

In addition to the funding that is provided by the Housing Executive, my Department is carrying out a range of environmental-improvement works in our cities and towns, in neighbourhood renewal areas, and along arterial routes. Much of that investment will benefit those who live in older housing estates.

Mr Brolly: Does the Minister agree that the design of most of those older estates — with their dark alleyways and communal backyards and car parks — encourages so-called antisocial behaviour? Does she accept that a progressive and comprehensive programme of alley-gating would contribute to the establishment of better order and peace for the residents of those estates; and of the general neighbourhood in which those estates are located? Will she seek to initiate such a programme? Alley-gating is strongly favoured by Housing Executive officers in my constituency.

Ms Ritchie: I thank Mr Brolly for his supplementary question. All of the relevant offices are already actively pursuing alley-gating on my behalf. That it is the case whether it is done through the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, the regional-development offices — as an element of urban regeneration — the Belfast Regeneration Office, or the North-West Development Office in Derry.

Alley-gating has already been undertaken in areas of West Belfast and — and as the Member suggested — that has contributed, in no small measure, to a reduction in antisocial behaviour.

Alley-gating is a programme that I will continue to encourage and it is one in which we are already directly involved, whether through the Department’s urban regeneration, or the Northern Ireland Housing Executive.

Mr Shannon: I thank the Minister for her response. It is important that environmental schemes are in place for sufficient parking, planting and traffic management. We also need a better plan for homes to provide not just concrete, but greenery, in the true sense of the word.

In my constituency of Strangford, the Minister has ensured that the excellent West Winds scheme has gone ahead. However, there are three other estates in the Newtownards which have not yet benefited from any such schemes.

When does the Minister hope to implement schemes for the Glen, Bowtown and Scrabo estates? Improve­ments to those estates have been delayed many times and it is therefore important that they are dealt with as a matter of urgency.

Ms Ritchie: I thank Mr Shannon for his question. I am happy to examine those issues and respond to him in writing.

On 13 November 2007, I announced that the Scrabo area had been designated as an area at risk. That means that it was viewed to have a considerable level of disadvantage and that funding would be provided for projects in that area. Therefore, measures have already been taken to help the Scrabo area.

I was pleased to visit Newtownards at Mr Shannon’s invitation, and to see the estates that he mentioned. I saw for myself the need for neighbourhood renewal, urban regeneration and revitalisation in those areas. I take on board what the Member has said and will respond to him in writing.

All-Island Policy: Disadvantaged Areas

7. Mrs M Bradley asked the Minister for Social Development what consideration she has given to an all-island policy dimension to community development and Government support for disadvantaged areas.      (AQO 2797/08)

Ms Ritchie: I have visited Dublin several times to meet a number of Ministers who hold responsibility for policy areas that are similar to those of my Department: Batt O’Keeffe, Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government with special responsibility for housing, urban renewal and developing areas; Éamon Ó Cuív, Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; and Pat Carey, Minister of State at the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs with special responsibility for drug strategy and community affairs.

We share common interests in the issues of tackling disadvantage and promoting the social and physical regeneration of communities, while operating in different policy and legislative contexts. I will be working closely with my Southern counterparts to examine how we achieve best practice in housing and regeneration of communities North and South, and we can learn much from each other. I will be addressing the all-island housing conference in Cork in two weeks’ time, along with Mr Ó Cuív.

4.00 pm

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)

Private Notice Questions

Post Office Closures

Mr Attwood asked the Office of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister, in light of the announced six-week consultation period on proposed post office closures and the impact on rural and urban communities and disadvantaged and vulnerable groups, to detail what representations it will make to the Post Office and to the Secretary of State.

The junior Minister (Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister) (Mr Donaldson): I thank the Member for West Belfast Mr Attwood for tabling the question. As a constituency MLA, I had a meeting last week with the National Federation of SubPostmasters in Northern Ireland to hear directly about its concerns on the recent announcement by the Post Office, which reflects the position of the UK Government and is not a devolved matter.

The Post Office has issued those proposals for consultation, and the Office of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister will consider, with other interested Departments, what representations or action would be appropriate on what is now a matter of implementation rather than of policy development. In the meantime, we urge all Members to consider carefully the proposals with the communities that they represent and to make their views known to the Post Office.

Mr Attwood: I thank the Speaker for accepting the emergency question, and I thank the junior Minister for his attendance.

Will the junior Minister ask the Office of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister to put the matter on the agenda for Thursday’s Executive meeting as a matter of emergency? Will he concur, given that the matter was decided by the British Government and the Post Office before restoration, that it would be reasonable to have a long period of consultation — certainly more than six weeks — to determine the right approach for post office provision in the North? Will he agree, given the higher social, economic, and community disadvantage in the North compared to other parts of these islands, that there is a need to ensure that services are locally provided so that vulnerable people have access to them? Will the junior Minister also consider the model adopted by Essex County Council, where a local council provider is getting involved in the provision of post office services? Is there not something in that model that could be usefully adopted in the North and in any future conversations that OFMDFM has with the British Government and the Post Office?

Mr Donaldson: Mr Attwood asked whether OFMDFM could put the matter on the agenda as an urgent issue to be discussed at the Executive’s meeting this Thursday, and I will consult with colleagues in OFMDFM to see whether that can be done at this stage.

The Member also mentioned the issue of a longer consultation period. It is true that the six-week consultation period has met with some criticism with regard to the Post Office’s proposals. Under the code of practice on post office closures and relocations agreed in November 2005 between Post Office Ltd and Postwatch, six weeks is the standard consultation period and was announced by the UK Government last year in their response to the public consultation on the future of the network.

The UK Government have indicated that it is important to minimise further uncertainty for customers and sub-postmasters. The purpose of the area consultation is not about the principle of network change, but how best to implement closures and new outreach operations. Nevertheless, the Member made a valid point, which has been echoed by others publicly. It is a matter that OFMDFM can consider with its departmental colleagues as it prepares a response to the Post Office. I will ensure that that is included in the context of his request for the Executive to consider the matter on Thursday.

The Member also raised issues concerning access, social disadvantage and vulnerable groups in Northern Ireland. The Department of Trade and Industry, which initiated this review of the post office network, was advised of the requirements of section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 when it was developing its change strategy. At that stage, individual closures were not specified.

The UK Government have accepted that there is a need to support the network beyond 2011, and they claim that the new access criteria provide a framework to ensure that vulnerable consumers in deprived urban, rural and remote areas are protected. Post Office Ltd stated that steps are being taken to modernise the network, and it is examining innovative ways to deliver cost-effective services. However, the points that the Member made on access and vulnerable groups can be considered and responded to in the consultation process.

The Member mentioned the model used by Essex County Council, where services have been developed through a local provider. That is a model that can be considered, but I stress that those are not issues for the devolved Administration; they are issues for the Westminster Department and Post Office Ltd. However, suggestions concerning Northern Ireland can be made in the context of any responses that Departments make to the consultation.

The Chairperson of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (Mr Kennedy): I am grateful to Mr Attwood for bringing this important issue to the Assembly and for the attendance of the junior Minister. In the junior Minister’s initial answers, he appears to accept that those who will be most affected by the changes and closures are elderly people.

In light of the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister’s cross-cutting responsibilities for older people, and for tackling poverty and social exclusion, will the junior Minister advise the House whether he has received any information from the Post Office or the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland that gives him confidence that the interests of elderly and vulnerable people have been adequately taken into account?

Given that many older people entrust the Post Office with their savings and are reluctant to place them with any other institution, does the junior Minister agree that it is important that the Post Office assures the public that it continues to be committed to providing safe, accessible, local opportunities for older people to save and manage their finances?

Mr Donaldson: I thank the Committee Chairperson for his comments and questions. In the Member’s constituency of Newry and Armagh, there are eight urban branches and 38 rural branches. It is proposed that two will close, and eight will be replaced by outreach services. In Mr Attwood’s constituency of West Belfast, two branches are proposed for closure. The closure of the Blacks Road branch is perhaps the most controversial, and the Member has spoken about that publicly.

The Chairperson of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister raised pertinent points about the impact that those proposals will have on older people. The Department has a responsibility to work with that sector, and it has been developing a strategy with many of the groups and organisations that represent older citizens.

There are concerns about the impact that those closures will have on elderly people, particularly those who live in rural communities, where the greatest impact could be felt. Older citizens rely on the Post Office for their savings, the payment of utility bills, and so on. Beyond the proposals that have been published, no further proposals or assurances have been given that address the impact of the closures on elderly people or a commitment to safe and accessible Post Office services.

I accept that it is a generalisation, but over 99% of people who live in the UK will still live within one mile of a post office. However, that does not offer much comfort to people in rural communities who are losing their local sub-post office. In response to the request from the Member for West Belfast Mr Attwood for the Executive to consider the issue, we will take on board what the Member has said.

Any discussions that take place between the Department and the other Departments will consider the impact on elderly people with regard to safety and accessibility. Our response to the Post Office will ensure that those issues are highlighted and that the concerns that both Members have raised are brought to its attention. As I said earlier, I encourage all Members to take up the invitation to respond to the consultation. It is important that communities have a voice in the process; Members are well placed to ensure that that voice is exercised.

Mid-Ulster Hospital

Mrs O’Neill asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to detail (i) how the decision to reduce healthcare in the Mid-Ulster Hospital from 11.00 pm to 5.00 pm was equality impact assessed and (ii) the measures he will implement to ensure that staff shortages are addressed as a matter of urgency.

The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Mr McGimpsey): Over the weekend, services at the accident and emergency department at the Mid-Ulster Hospital were reduced. The department closed at 5.00 pm on Friday, Saturday and Sunday due to a lack of appropriate medical cover. I understand the views of Members and the local community that that is an unacceptable position. The Northern Health and Social Care Trust has apologised and has advised me that it was an exceptional circumstance and one that left the trust with no alternative but to reduce the opening hours of the accident and emergency department. Later today, I will meet the trust’s chief executive, and I will seek her assurance that such an unacceptable situation will not arise again.

I understand that the decision that was taken at the weekend was an operational decision, and an equality impact assessment was not appropriate in those circumstances. The trust’s measures were to address an immediate issue of patient safety, and they do not signal a change in the normal opening hours of the accident and emergency department at the Mid-Ulster Hospital. To address staff shortages, the trust has recently completed a recruitment exercise for staff-grade doctors in accident and emergency. It expects one additional doctor to commence work in April, with a further two commencing work in August.

Mrs O’Neill: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. The situation is disgraceful. The Minister said that it was an “exceptional circumstance” and that he intends to meet the Northern Trust to seek assurances that it will not happen again. This morning, I spoke to the Northern Trust, and it cannot guarantee that it will not happen again. It cannot guarantee that it will have doctors this evening, tomorrow evening or for the rest of the week. That is totally unacceptable, and I ask the Minister for assurances about what he can do, and to outline to the House what work he will undertake to ensure that this does not happen again.

Does the Minister agree that it is a management problem, and not a staff problem? The staff at the Mid-Ulster Hospital continue to do very good work daily, but this is a problem of poor management. No doctors were on call to serve a rural population; that could have led to a death in mid Ulster at the weekend. That cannot possibly be allowed to happen again. It is not good enough, and Members should not accept that there is no guarantee that it will not happen again.

Will the Minister confirm whether that action is an indirect attempt to run down services at the Mid-Ulster Hospital, as was the case when the South Tyrone Hospital was closed? For a number of years, a direct attempt was made to run down services at that hospital. I want assurances that that will not happen again and that the people of mid Ulster will not be put at such risk this weekend or any time in the future.

Mr McGimpsey: The accident and emergency department at the Mid-Ulster Hospital is a type-2 department, with attendances of just over 20,000 per annum. It operates from 9.00 am until 11.00 pm, seven days a week. It was forced to shut last Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 5.00 pm, but that was an exceptional circumstance, and it will not happen again. I will seek those assurances, and I will report back to Mrs O’Neill in due course.

4.15 pm

As I said, this does not signal a plan to change the services that are currently provided at the Mid-Ulster Hospital. The decision taken at the weekend does not reflect any intention to do that. Normal accident and emergency hours have resumed, and the accident and emergency department will continue to provide services.

Mrs O’Neill says that the problem is one of management. In fact, the accident and emergency department requires four doctors, and it has a complement of two doctors at the moment. On Friday, Saturday and Sunday, the department did not have the staff to cover the accident and emergency hours. It needs staff-grade doctors with the appropriate skills who are capable of dealing the responsibilities involved, but those doctors were not available.

As I said, I will raise the issue in my discussions with the trust’s chief executive, and when I meet the trust’s board tomorrow night. It is disgraceful that an accident and emergency unit was shut at such short notice, and I would not want a repeat of that situation. I assure the Member that this event does not signal any attempt to change the normal opening hours at the Mid-Ulster Hospital.

The Chairperson of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Mrs I Robinson): I agree wholeheartedly with my Deputy Chairperson on this matter. It beggars belief that such an unacceptable and appalling situation could arise in the twenty-first century. I also agree that the blame falls fairly and squarely on management. If management knows that four doctors are needed to cover accident and emergency services over a weekend, then surely it should know that those doctors should be in attendance.

What contingency plans are in place to deal with the situation in the two hospitals that were primarily used, the Causeway Hospital in Coleraine and the Antrim Area Hospital? Does the Minister understand the frustration and the potential fallout for those patients who had to bypass the Mid-Ulster hospital and travel to the other hospitals? I am just thankful that there were no fatalities. I too would like a firm reassurance that, in future, the Mid-Ulster Hospital will have four doctors in place to provide the service that is needed for that widespread rural area.

Mr McGimpsey: I am advised that the Antrim Area Hospital and the Causeway Hospital were able to manage the extra patients as part of their normal business, and that the reports that 20 or 30 people had to wait on trolleys at Antrim Area Hospital are not true.

As far as recruitment is concerned, we need staff-grade doctors. Some 20 accident and emergency departments operate in Northern Ireland, and recruitment is difficult in the smaller accident and emergencys. That is a fact; I am in no way using that as an excuse for what happened at the Mid-Ulster Hospital this weekend. The Royal College of Surgeons has advised that an accident and emergency department that has less than 40,000 attendances cannot be sustained. That is the advice that we have received. However, a number of accident and emergency departments operate with well below 40,000 attendances, and that requires the recruitment of staff — and persuading them to stay in post — when they would do much better in a busy accident and emergency that could offer them the challenges that they expect in their career. Staff who have to sit around, as it were, and who are not fully employed rapidly deskill. However, those who work in a busy accident and emergency department — such as those at the Craigavon Area Hospital and the Royal Victoria Hospital, which have over 70,000 visits a year — experience the full range of challenges that they expect from their job.

As I said, I will meet the trust’s chief executive, and I will explore that issue with her and with the trust’s board. If an accident and emergency department is in operation and the opening hours appear on the door, then we expect those hours to be maintained.

The accident and emergency department provides a valuable service, but not the full service: it does not have emergency medicine; it does not have emergency surgical services; it does not deal with adult trauma; it does not deal with head injuries; it does not deal with paediatric emergencies, nor does the hospital have in-patient paediatric services.

Nevertheless, the department provides an important service to the area and it is a service that people in the area expect to be available at a particular time. They understand that it closes at 11.00 pm and, therefore, do not attempt to visit after those hours. What I find difficult to comprehend fully is the particularly short notice of the closure that was given and that is a matter that I will be exploring with the management of the trust in due course.

Private Members’ Business

Further Education Provision for Young People with Disabilities

Debate resumed on amendment to motion:

That this Assembly expresses concern at the lack of further education courses specifically targeted at young people with learning and physical disabilities; recognises the lack of provision for disabled young people over the age of 19; and calls on the Minister for Employment and Learning to provide sufficient further educational opportunities to ensure that these young people achieve their full potential. –— [Mrs O’Neill.]

Which amendment was: Leave out all after “expresses” and insert

“its continued commitment to securing training and employment opportunities where appropriate for young people with disabilities; and awaits the outcome of the review of such provision undertaken by the Minister for Employment and Learning.” — [Mr B McCrea.]

Mr Spratt: I thank the proposer of the motion. I also know that a review is in place. I hope that, given what Mr Basil McCrea said earlier, there will not be any division in the House at the end of the debate because this issue is too important for those with disabilities for that to happen. I hope that people will reflect and be able to accept the motion and not divide the House.

When the motion is dissected, there is nothing in it that anyone could oppose. It is about opportunity and young people being afforded the opportunity to fulfil their potential. It is up to the House to ensure that the right opportunities are in place for young people with disabilities in order that their potential is reached.

Disability should not be a hindrance to education, and I admire anyone who wants to further their education in order to maximise their potential. If Northern Ireland is to become an area of economic prosperity, we must ensure that everyone has the opportunity to contribute.

About 100 young people with learning difficulties or a disability leave special schools in Northern Ireland each year. That is a significant number with significant potential. Unfortunately, there is a perception — indeed, perhaps more than a perception — that there is little opportunity for that group and no accessible route to further education.

Article 13(1) of the Further Education (Northern Ireland) Order 1997 requires governing bodies of further education institutions to have regard to the needs of students who are over compulsory school age and who have a disability. Furthermore, the Special Educational Needs and Disability (Northern Ireland) Order 2005 requires colleges to make their premises and curriculum accessible to those with disabilities. An additional support fund ensures that financial resources are in place for colleges and students. Those are positive moves, but are they enough? At times I fear that the approach of Government is to throw money at areas such as this without any real consideration of how that money is best spent.

Colleges have raised various issues as problems: have colleges got the capacity to provide for students with learning difficulties and disabilities; are college staff appropriately trained to provide the level of service that students need; are the progressive routes that are required and suitable accreditations in place? Those issues still have to be addressed adequately by the Department for Employment and Learning. The issue is not about just money: it is about targeting resources; providing the necessary environment; giving the right opportunities, and targeting spending in those areas where it is most needed. The needs of students must always be at the forefront of the decision-making process and the strategy adopted.

I understand that the Department for Employment and Learning is reviewing the nature and extent of the provision of further education opportunities for those with special needs. The Department must act in light of the fact that 10% of people aged 18 to 30 have a disability, yet no more than 5% of students in further education have a disability. That disparity must be redressed, but it can be redressed only when the obstacles that prevent young people who have disabilities from entering further education are removed.

I am glad that the Minister has been present in the House throughout the entire debate, and I urge him to take the issues that I have raised into consideration as part of the review. We want to provide the opportunities that young people with disabilities are crying out for. I hope that the Minister will assure the House that the amendment takes nothing away from the wording of the original motion. I reiterate the hope from this side of the House that there will be no Division on the matter, because it is too important.

Mr Attwood: I welcome the second opportunity in recent months to debate this matter. It is worth debating for two reasons. First, there are the reasons that Members have outlined — namely that the group of young people that we are discussing is under stress and is particularly vulnerable. If the Assembly is to measure up to expectations, it must demonstrate the benefits of devolution to those individuals and their families in the way in which it addresses this matter.

However, this matter has returned to the House because of a structural flaw. It is not necessarily a comment on the Minister for Employment and Learning, but in the six months since the matter was first aired in the House, the Department has made no substantive report to the Committee on the progress of the review. Departments must provide stocktaking reports to their Committees on the progress that they make in implementing the will of the Assembly, as expressed in its resolutions. I hope that, in that respect, we can learn something from this matter.

Secondly, we must know precisely what stage the review is at; what issues it is addressing; and what the time frame is for its completion. I invite the Minister to confirm whether the following matters will be addressed during the review. In opening the debate, Mrs O’Neill referred to transition provision. Probably no need is more acute than that for transition provision, given that the young person is moving from a situation in which he or she has been surrounded for many years by the architecture of schooling, social services and health provision to a new situation with a different architecture. We need to hear more about whether that transition can be better managed so that the young person has all the support and provision that he or she needs in order to move successfully from childhood to adulthood.

Will the Minister comment on the issue that was referred to by his colleague Mr Basil McCrea, namely day care, or daily care and support? As Mr McCrea said, not only are young people in day care with a wide range of other age groups, but there will be greater demand on day-care services as our population ages. Consequently, some families are beginning to discover that their young people are receiving fewer hours of day care than they might have received previously. Given that we have an increasing older population, we must know whether there will be increased day-care provision to ensure that those young people receive the daily care and support that they require throughout their lives.

4.30 pm

Thirdly, I want to talk about supported learning, which has also been mentioned. I acknowledge that the Minister was in correspondence recently on how Invest NI may or may not, for example, support Ulster Supported Employment Ltd (USEL). The project, based in the upper Shankill, has been highly successful and requires a great deal of support. The SDLP needs to know how such initiatives will obtain additional resources, from bodies that include Invest NI, to ensure their continued provision of dedicated training for people, whether young or old, with particular needs.

The fourth matter that I want to flag up is the Minister’s ongoing review of the Training for Success programme. The Minister said that any aspect of Training for Success that is not working must be fixed. That applies to the part of the programme that caters for students with particular needs, whether they are part time, over 25 years old or young people.

I invite the Minister to respond to those four points, because they will all influence how the SDLP votes on the motion and thereby whether the House supports it.

Mr Speaker: The Member’s time is up.

Ms Lo: I thank Mrs O’Neill for proposing the motion.

There is a legislative framework for the protection of young people who wish to exercise their right to be educated. The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 aims to protect disabled people from all forms of discrimination and to integrate them in the life of the community. However, as the Act requires major changes to employment practices and the provision of services, including education, it is being phased in over several years. The Act ensures that the needs of disabled people who wish to study are recognised and that comprehensive information on disability issues is provided to students and their parents or guardians.

In addition, the Special Educational Needs and Disability (Northern Ireland) Order 2005 developed the right of children with special educational needs to attend mainstream schools. It made discrimination on the grounds of disability unlawful in schools, further and higher education institutions and qualifications bodies.

Official statistics show that approximately 100 young people with disabilities and/or learning difficulties leave special schools in Northern Ireland every year. Of those, about 20% are classed as having complex and multiple disabilities and those young people have no option other than day-care provision. Disabled people are twice as likely to have no qualifications as their non-disabled peers.

The solution is not to set up courses specifically for disabled people for which existing legislation mandates, because that would remove them from mainstream society. The solution is to improve access to existing courses. Disability Action’s stance is that, where possible, disabled people should be part of mainstream education but with the necessary support to ensure their full participation.

In general, the voluntary and community sector is extremely concerned at the economic focus of the FE Means Business strategy. Non-NVQ provisions receive only 5% of the budget for further education, and colleges tend to prioritise level-2 and level-3 courses, which attract weighted funding. Although it is important for colleges to meet employers’ needs to upskill the workforce, a balance must be struck to ensure that that is not done to the detriment of disadvantaged communities that need education to give them a second chance.

Often, level-1 provision is not considered a priority. However, the vast majority of disabled people who have learning disabilities access provision at level 1 or below. Disability Action is concerned about the Department’s systematic reduction of the amount of provision that is available at level 1 and below. The option to participate in further education will be reduced dramatically for that group of people, thus marginalising them further in society.

The Programme for Government advocates a shared and better future for all. Therefore, economic development cannot be the Assembly’s only concern. Building a fair and inclusive society must be the basis for a future in which people are not prevented from reaching their full potential simply because of their disability.

I support the amendment and look forward to the Department’s review and to a holistic approach being taken towards employment, training and education opportunities for all.

Mr Newton: I agree with my colleague Jimmy Spratt’s remarks on the matter. I hope that all Members agree that the matter is of such serious concern that the House must not divide on the issue. There is no need for it to divide. I concur with the remarks of Alex Attwood, who has just left the Chamber, on the transition from school to further education and, particularly, on USEL. When the organisation attended the Committee for Employment and Learning, members were impressed by the work that it does for disabled people.

All local politicians have a responsibility to support the personal development of the most vulnerable people in society, regardless of their background, physical or mental needs, age or gender. A society that cannot accept the basic principle to support the people who are in greatest need does not deserve to be described as progressive.

Some Members have quoted statistics and figures; no doubt others who speak after me will do the same. I do not want to discuss statistics, specifics and essentials. It would not be possible for me to cover the whole story in the time that I have been allocated. However, I want to address the supporting principles that the Assembly must adopt — guidelines that should underpin all that it does if it is to improve the circumstances and well-being, not only of the group of people that we are discussing, but of everyone.

There is a great need for the Assembly to listen to people who have learning difficulties. To some extent, the Assembly has engaged, through pilot studies, with school pupils who have disabilities and has attempted to deal with their identified needs. However, that must be extended and expanded in order to take note of needs in further education areas. The Assembly must speak up for people who have needs, not just when an opportunity, such as this debate, arises, but through an ongoing and unremitting campaign that articulates the specific needs of those young people, who often have complex and multiple disabilities.

There is a need to provide support and to ensure that the necessary infrastructure that Alex Attwood talked about is available during the transition in order to help teachers, lecturers and students and to guarantee the best learning experience. Young disabled people need to feel safe. Their learning experience must be satisfying and rewarding and must provide them with increased confidence as part of their holistic development.

However, that cannot be a one-way process, nor should we expect it to be. We need to challenge the students to make choices about their lives and careers. We need to provide all the support that we can, but we also need students to make choices and decisions. We should help to stretch them to achieve their dreams and aspirations. We need to help them take their rightful places in society, ensure that they have the opportunity to contribute to the community in a positive manner, and fully value their contributions.

Moving from school — we have been talking mainly about special schools — to further education can be a traumatic experience for those with learning difficulties and disabilities. They need support at that challenging time, as they make the transition, but they also need encouragement and assistance to empower them to make their own choices about post-school provision and to allow them the opportunity to avoid care centres or intensive-support units. As many as possible should enjoy a fully empowered and comprehensive life, and the opportunity to make a full contribution to society.

This matter is important. A society that ignores people is not progressive. I hope that the House will not divide on this issue, and that those who seek support from us will receive it from a united Assembly.

Mr Butler: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I welcome the debate and broadly support what other Members, particularly the members of the Employment and Learning Committee, have said. After 12 years of primary and post-primary education, many young people who suffer disabilities and learning difficulties are denied the opportunity to enter further education — an opportunity given to so many others.

Research shows that in Northern Ireland, a lower percentage of young people with disabilities or learning difficulties than in Britain participate in further education programmes and courses. Statistics also show that approximately 100 of them leave special schools in the North every year. Of those, 20% are classified as having complex or multiple disabilities. Most of those kids have no choice but to go into day care. They have no opportunity to access further education courses. The debate needs to reflect that, and we must do something about it.

We should also acknowledge the good work that goes on in further education colleges. In Belfast Metropolitan College, many courses are provided for young people with disabilities and learning difficulties. Many young people have been enabled by that college to progress into employment or to acquire skills.

The motion is aimed at offering educational opportunities to young people with disabilities. Further education colleges are at the heart of lifelong learning in our communities; they enhance social cohesion and advance the skills and learning of individuals. For many years, further education colleges have provided a second opportunity for people to gain qualifications and, consequently, employment opportunities. The vast majority of full-time students in further education are drawn from the 16-to-18 age group. The sector has close historical links with our secondary schools. Further education colleges attract 27% of all school leavers, and almost one in three of all 16- and 17-year-old school leavers. Some 170,000 students attend such colleges every year.

Further education colleges are at the heart of our community; there are roughly 400 out centres, 47 campuses and, in 2007, our 16 colleges merged to form six super colleges.

In accordance with equality legislation, the Department for Employment and Learning has produced a disability action plan to address existing problems, and £1·5 million has been put into an additional support fund. I know, from my experience with Belfast Metropolitan College, that capital funding has been allocated to make buildings more accessible for people with disabilities.

4.45 pm

One area that has not been covered in the debate are the universities, because the motion focuses on further education colleges. We must examine the concerns about the ability of people with disabilities to access university courses.

Anna Lo mentioned the FE Means Business strategy, which was raised in the Committee for Employment and Learning. The Committee accepts the main thrust of the strategy that there should be more focus on young people gaining qualifications. However, that undermines the community dimension at many colleges, where people with learning difficulties —

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

Mr Butler: The requirements of people with learning difficulties have not been addressed by the strategy, which I ask the Minister to examine. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Ross: The DUP has stated that it is content with the thrust of the motion, but that it will not unnecessarily divide the House.

Education is the building block of life and should be available to all, irrespective of social background, age or disability. As the Member for Lagan Valley Paul Butler said, the problem of education provision for young people with disabilities exists in further education colleges and in universities. We must ensure that young people with disabilities can not only receive education and training, but get a good job afterwards.

As some Members stated, the Committee for Employment and Learning visited the factory of Ulster Supported Employment Ltd, which employs disabled people in their competitive commercial premises and receives support from the Department. USEL is a good example of disabled people getting jobs — in that factory and in the wider community. Therefore, when debating this subject, Members must bear in mind that there are wider issues involved, particularly in employment, which has been referred to by the proposer of the motion and other Members who spoke.

Specific mention is made in the motion about courses that are exclusively for disabled people, which are necessary for those who are severely disabled. In an intervention earlier, my colleague Sammy Wilson highlighted the lack of options in further education for those students who leave special schools. In that sense, I disagree with what Ms Lo said, although we should aim to help disabled people progress to, and gain qualifications from, mainstream accredited courses where that is suitable.

A disability should not be an obstacle to learning; unfortunately, however, many people who live with a disability do not feel that they have the same access to educational courses as able-bodied people. Unfort­unately, having a disability has proved to be a hurdle in life — fewer people with disabilities have good qualifications, and a higher percentage face poverty in later life.

Along with many Members, I have asked questions on widening access to courses and was informed that, in 2006, students at further education colleges included 488 blind or partially sighted people and 839 who were deaf or had hearing impediments. Those are people who can go into mainstream courses if certain provisions are made. Therefore, it is imperative that access to mainstream courses is made easier and that the requirements of disabled people are met. Some measures are simple, such as making physical access easier, much of which is already covered in legislation. My colleague Mr Spratt referred to a range of legislation that exists in that field.

There are practical difficulties for people with disabilities who, on entering further- or higher-education courses, should perhaps be individually assessed to evaluate their specific learning requirements. It is also important that the tools for learning are available, such as DAISY — digital accessible information system — technology or Braille, scribes or note takers, or the provision of individual assistants for some students.

One of the most important elements of that — and it has been mentioned by a number of Members — is ensuring that further education lecturers and support staff have the relevant training to deal with and teach people who have different needs than the average able-bodied learner. That may be particularly relevant to part-time staff.

It is also important that people with disabilities receive careers advice. I have mentioned USEL; some other companies have the right support mechanisms in place for those with disabilities. The further education colleges should be working to build up relationships with employers in that area.

Additional funding has been made available to help colleges with the extra costs associated with specialised courses that mainstream education cannot deliver. Money has been given to colleges to widen access, and legislation has been passed to ensure that college premises are more suitable for people with disabilities. The Department has taken a number of steps to widen participation in recent years, and that is to be commended.

A review of the provision of further education opportunities for those with special needs is under way. Mr Attwood said that the Committee has not been kept up to date on how that review is progressing. It would be useful if Members could hear how the review is progressing and be informed of when that review will be complete. I hope that support for the amendment will not mean that Members will allow the Department to take its eye off the ball, and that it will continue to work to deliver choices and opportunities for those with disabilities.

Mrs M Bradley: Members are aware of the problems that families and young people with learning and physical disabilities face. Although I welcome the debate, the responsibility for solving the problems of these young people is on more than one Department. It is important that the Department of Health and Social Services and Public Safety, the Department of Education and the Department for Employment and Learning are involved and that they plan for the needs of the young people. That planning should start when children are14 years old so that their individual needs can be met. Individual needs are crucial to the motion; only if an individual is considered on his or her own circumstances will his or her needs be resolved. A one-size response will not fit all.

The last action plan, which, I think, was published in 2006 or 2005, was weak, so we must get this one right. If all Departments play their part, and if a time frame and budget are imposed in which to address individual needs, we can do that.

I ask the Minister for Employment and Learning to table the issue at the ministerial subcommittee on children. I also support Mr Ross’s comments about the importance of including young people with disabilities in mainstream education.

I support the amendment. I hope that all Departments get involved and that we receive a report on this as soon as possible.

Mr Shannon: I support the motion and the amendment. This issue has come to my attention through my constituency office and the people with whom I have engaged, as is the case, I am sure, with other Members. There are many levels of disability, ranging from one scale to another, and the broad spectrum makes it difficult to cater to all. I understand that. However, that is no excuse for a system that appears to be failing some of those who need the most help to reach their potential.

Members are not alone in that concern. The Education and Training Inspectorate report of 2003-04 published the results of a survey carried out over five further education college campuses. It found that there was a marked improvement in the provision of education for students with learning difficulties and disabilities. However, three of those five colleges were concerned that the demand for community classes was greater than their ability to supply. The colleges were also concerned that there were no suitable accreditation and progression routes for students with severe learning disabilities.

It is not just the public’s concerns that are being aired by its representatives in the Chamber today — the colleges are acknowledging that something must be done to help students, because there is a gap in the provision. That is why the motion and the amendment are before the House.

The Education and Training Inspectorate report also stated that colleges considered that there was a limited availability of courses with appropriate and nationally recognised accreditation for students with more severe learning disabilities. The need is outlined in the report, and it is based on the opinions of the colleges. The Minister must acknowledge that.

I am aware that the Minister for Employment and Learning has set aside a further £1·5 million to further entice colleges to cater for more students with learning difficulties and/or disabilities. This is good and necessary.

However, it does not go far enough. Much of the funding is for support and not for the establishment of courses that would improve the lives of young people with disabilities. It would be prudent to set aside a dedicated fund to ensure that colleges can offer a full prospectus to students with disabilities rather than a couple of courses of little practical help.

Although funding is crucial, a strategy must be devised to train teachers and to ensure that resources are used for the benefit of students. Statistics released by the National Bureau for Students with Disabilities show that about 100 young people with disabilities and/or learning difficulties leave special schools in Northern Ireland each year. About 20% of those are classed as having complex and multiple disabilities, and for those young people, there is often no option other than day-care provision. There are few opportunities and too few support systems to enable them to enter further education.

The £1·5 million additional funding should be distributed equally across all colleges. However, the South Eastern Regional College, which is represented in Strangford, includes the former North Down, Lisburn and East Down campuses, and yet its share of the pot is only £138,861 — less than one tenth of what it should be. How can the South Eastern Regional College provide education for those young people when the budget is too small for practical support, never mind the administration of courses?

I visited the South Eastern Regional College campus in Newtownards last week and met some of the people who participated in the excellent Prince’s Trust scheme, in which colleges should increase participation. Those people are educationally disadvantaged and, as elected representatives, we must ensure that they have the opportunity to get a foot on the ladder, find work, have ambition and move forward.

I know a 16-year-old girl with slight Down’s syndrome problems, yet no provision is made for people with that disability who want to stay at school and learn.

It is difficult for any child to make his or her way in the world and find success and happiness, but that task is much more difficult when no provision addresses the needs of those with disabilities, despite their needing extra help. I implore the Minister to devise a dedicated strategy to address the issues raised by Members and to begin a process that will change the future for many vulnerable people in the Province. I support the motion and the amendment.

Mrs I Robinson: It is difficult, at this late stage in the debate, to raise an issue that has not already been mentioned; nevertheless, I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate. I share the concern that young people with physical or learning disabilities do not benefit from further educational opportunities, and I share my colleague’s concern that the available funding does not appear to be spread equally across the boards, particularly for the South Eastern Regional College in the heart of our constituency. Will the Minister clarify why there appears to be an inequality in funding prospects for constituents in Strangford? Of course, I realise that this is a cross-cutting issue that involves the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety as well as the Department for Employment and Learning.

Strangford has a high rate of young people with special needs, and I would like to pay tribute to a charity-based project at Daisies Café in Ards Community Hospital, which trains young people with learning disabilities, particularly Down’s syndrome.

It is an absolute delight to see those young people feeling valued and looking forward to going to work, and to see the buzz that they get from feeling that they are in control. Even if they are only cleaning tables, they can feel that they have some value and some contribution to make to society. Anyone who wants a very good lunch with good-quality food at a very good price should go there.

5.00 pm

Mr Shannon: I ate all their meringue pie. [Laughter.]

Mrs I Robinson: It is a killer, but it is lovely. The food is excellent, and I pay tribute to those who are involved in that wonderful work. However, it should not always be down to the voluntary sector alone. Everyone has a part to play.

The challenges faced by an individual should not spell the end of his or her further education or a promising career. As local representatives, we cannot stand by and let any sort of discrimination occur. Thankfully, much has been done to provide more opportunities for young people with disabilities. DEL has played an important role, and I do not wish to take away from that; however, we must encourage the Minister to have more input into funding.

It is always easy to blame the lack of funding, and other options could be considered. Although it is important to secure funding to provide long-term resources, equipment and qualified teaching staff, other options must be made available to further education colleges. For example, colleges should co-operate and collaborate, share best practice and offer teacher training. Nevertheless, it is important that not all of the emphasis is put on the colleges alone to come up with all of the answers. They, too, need our support.

Students with learning or physical disabilities should be encouraged, without differentiation from their peers, to pursue their further education and career plans. First, however, the colleges must be prepared for the intake of students with particular needs. Extra staff and resources must be accounted for so that the demand for classes is met in colleges that are accessible to young adults with disabilities.

The transfer to further education should be made as fluid as possible, with the appropriate carers advice having been offered alongside a broad range of suitable courses. Work experience and placement should also be considered as viable options, and, where possible, young people with disabilities should be afforded exactly the same opportunities as their peers. They should be able to enjoy learning in the same mixed classes.

More can always be done to ensure, first, that further education is marketed effectively, regardless of the student’s individual needs.

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

Mrs I Robinson: Secondly, applications for places on courses must be considered without bias or discrimination.

The Minister for Employment and Learning (Sir Reg Empey): It is in debates such as this that the Assembly is at its best, Mr Speaker. Although we have already discussed this subject in the past six months, the fact that it is on the agenda again so soon indicates the clear commitment and concern of many Members from all sides of the House. I welcome the opportunity to speak on these issues, and I will address as many of them as I can in the time available.

I assure the House that my Department is committed to the provision of educational training and employment opportunities for all disabled young people and adults. It is, however, important to note that further education is only one of a number of options for young people with disabilities and/or learning difficulties. In addition to further education courses, training places are provided under my Department’s Training for Success programme. Furthermore, the Department’s disability advisory service provides a range of vocational and pre-vocational programmes to meet needs of disabled people whatever their age.

The motion refers to:

“the lack of further education courses specifically targeted at young people with learning and physical disabilities”.

In the academic year 2006-07, some 16,856 students who enrolled in further education colleges declared a disability. That represents 8·2% of total further education college enrolments; the Member for West Belfast Mr Butler raised the issue of the percentages. That is an increase from 2005-06, when the percentage was 6·6%, and from 2004-05, when it was 5·9%. Clearly, it is a growing issue. I suspect that more people are declaring that they have a disability, which covers all sorts of difficulties, including dyslexia.

In addition, colleges are obliged to have regard to the needs of students who are over the compulsory school age and who have learning difficulties. All colleges offer discrete provision for students who cannot access mainstream courses. Through the college development plan process, colleges regularly examine and improve the provision for students with special needs.

Over the next year, the Department will work with colleges to introduce an individual learner programme for every young person entering further education. It will be a personalised programme of learning, which will be agreed with every young person, and it will take account of their aspirations and potential. It will be particularly valuable to young people with disabilities and learning difficulties.

To support the enrolment of students with learning difficulties and/or disabilities, the Department provides funding through the further education funding mechanism. It ensures that colleges can meet the costs of students with a disability who may require specific help or assistance. As part of the Further Education Means Business review of funding, the Department, after consultation with the sector, has agreed to ring-fence funds to ensure the continued provision of discrete courses for students with learning disabilities. Some £1·5 million has been set aside for that purpose for the current academic year. An additional support fund is also available, and that will provide £1·5 million this year.

The motion refers to the lack of provision for young people over the age of 19, and there is a particular concern about that. Members on all sides raised that issue, so I will come back to it.

Further education colleges cannot always provide the attention, nursing or other personal care that some young people with disabilities require. However, colleges fully collaborate with Health Service day centres to provide training and development opportunities for people over 19 years of age who have left special schools or who might benefit from targeted further educational provision in a suitable setting.

In 2006-07, some 1,338 students between the ages of 19 and 25 who have learning difficulties and/or disabilities enrolled in further education colleges. It is important to concentrate on some of the specific points that were made, because it is obvious that many people are concerned.

During a debate in October 2007, I indicated that the Department was going to conduct a review, and Mr Attwood was keen to know the timeline for it. We will go through that stage by stage. We engaged with the Education and Training Inspectorate and invited it to carry out a review, which has already taken place. In the past few weeks, the inspectorate presented an early draft to the Department, and we are now going through it. We are also engaging with the Association of Northern Ireland Colleges.

The final phase of the review will involve engagement with third parties — that is, the community and voluntary sector, many of whom have already engaged. The review will be completed by June. I wish to make the timescale absolutely clear — it is not open-ended. We are now in the final phase of the review, which involves engagement with third parties. We did not employ outside consultants to conduct the review; it was carried out internally. Having said that, I think that there is much expertise in the Chamber, on the Committee, in the Department for Employment and Learning and other Departments, and if outside consultants had conducted the review, it would probably have taken even longer.

We all know our own local areas as well as anybody else, and we all know the experiences of individual constituents who bring their cases to us. I see no reason why we cannot carry out some of those tasks ourselves. I am confident that the Education and Training Inspectorate is highly regarded throughout the public service, and I have no doubt that Members will, when they are acquainted with the detail of the issue, be at least able to make their own judgements.

Something that is worrying many people is the interface between those students who have significant learning disabilities and the statutory sector, that is, further education institutions or DHSSPS-run day-centres. In proposing the motion, Mrs O’Neill asked whether it was appropriate for people of different ages to be grouped together, because young people were mixing with people suffering from dementia and other difficulties. She used a phrase that caught me when she said that such young people were:

“old and withdrawn before their time.”

We can all understand that. The further education sector is urged, and, indeed legally required, by the Department to provide facilities for people with physical difficulties. That requirement is laid down in the Special Educational Needs and Disability (Northern Ireland) Order 2005 — the SENDO legislation — which has been mentioned. Something between £16 million and £18 million has been spent on that provision in recent years, and more is available.

At that interface stage each student has to be assessed individually; one cannot paint on a broad canvas. Each individual has their own requirements, and two are rarely the same. I understand fully that it is difficult to put a young person in a day centre with a group of older clients, many of whom may be suffering from dementia and other problems. However, people need to understand that it is not always possible for a further education college to cope with a young person who perhaps requires significant nursing facilities all day.

We face a dilemma. It is not a pass-the-parcel situation, because the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety is aware of that transitional issue; indeed, I have spoken to the Minister about it. The fact is that individual students have such needs and face such barriers to learning that in some cases the only thing a college may be able to do is provide some form of intellectual stimulation. Some students perhaps have needs that are so profound that a further education college setting is not always the most appropriate solution for them.

Given that, I think that my Department and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety have to examine that particular issue. That interface is the one matter that is causing a great deal of concern and, in some cases, distress to different families who are desperately anxious to ensure that the young person involved is given every possible hope of learning and of being able to have a life as best as can be arranged, given their particular learning difficulties.

Therefore, my Department is conscious that we should not get into a situation of claiming that the problem is for another Department and not ours. It is a collective responsibility for everybody and for the Assembly; otherwise, there is no point in having an Assembly. If we cannot discuss those issues and do something about them to make a difference, we would all be better out of here. I make the point clearly that we take the issue seriously, but I must say that it is a huge matter. We can push the statutory sector as far as we can where further education colleges are concerned. We do that already, and we have put a lot of money into dealing with the issue. All the funds that I have considered are increasing in every single category. For example, we have already discussed the additional support fund of £1·5 million and the discrete provision of £1·5 million.

For 2007-08, we have a further support fund of £2·8 million, which will enable colleges to help students to participate in further education. The fact that colleges may be inhibited by financial considerations has not been mentioned in the debate.

5.15 pm

Since April 2001, DEL has spent £18 million on capital funding; and, in the four years from 2003-04 to 2006-07, a further £16·7 million has been allocated to further education colleges so that that they can provide additional auxiliary aids and services for students with disabilities. Money is going into the system, but, sometimes, problems are above and beyond money.

Parents — many of whom are in deep distress — have written, lobbied and spoken to Members, and we all want to offer solutions; however, all I can say is that the review is being completed as quickly as possible, and its findings will be available by June 2008. The Assembly and the Committee will then be able to progress to the decision stage. The problem is not just a matter of money, and I get no sense from the Department that there is a shortage of money; the problem is in knowing exactly what to do.

Mr Shannon and Mrs Robinson asked about funding for the South Eastern Regional College. Unfortunately, I cannot answer their questions — I do not know why the division is as it is — but I will deal with those points by writing to them. Nevertheless, the Department is concerned to ensure that it does everything in its power.

Mr Ross and Mr Attwood raised the matter of Ulster Supported Employment Ltd, which I have supported. I wrote to the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, Mr Dodds, and I await a reply in order to ascertain how we can deal with that matter.

Earlier, Mr Spratt mentioned the percentage of disabled students who are in further education; however, the figure is higher than he realises.

We must progress together on this subject. We have a background of divisions about a range of issues, but this is an area in which we can show the community real leadership. We have the ability to do something about the problem; but, inevitably, there are some difficult cases, and the only way to tackle them is through individual, personal assessments.

I do not dispute that there are instances in which young people have been unable to arrange off-campus teaching at a third-party location, such as a day centre. However, such arrangements can be provided and would at least provide those young people with an opportunity for specific teaching, which would allow them some separation from those who are suffering from other concerns. That is possible: it happens, and colleges are prepared to help teachers with their training, which can be done off-site.

I assure Members that the Department will pursue the inquiry and the review as quickly as possible, and I will report back in due course.

Mr McClarty: I thank all Members who took part in the debate, and I thank the Minister for his encouraging response. I echo Mr Spratt’s appeal that there should not be division on this issue. Whether Members spoke about the motion or the amendment, we are all working towards the same goal.

People with learning or physical disabilities face many difficulties in today’s society, and we should not underestimate the hurdles that they and their families face. Although I again thank the Members who took part in the debate, I share the concerns expressed by my colleague who proposed the amendment. As always, more can, and should, be done. Statistics show that throughout the UK there are a significant number of disabled young people who are neither in full-time employment nor in further education.

However, there appears to be something slightly dubious about the motion. At the moment, the situation is improving with regard to the provision of access to further education for young people with disabilities and helping young people with disabilities into employment. On top of that, the Minister is clearly committed to achieving better outcomes for those young people. The Minister has undertaken a review into his Department’s provision of further education opportunities for people with special needs in co-operation with the Association of Northern Ireland Colleges and the Education and Training Inspectorate. I agree with my colleague that it may have been better to wait until that report had been published before tabling the motion.

The Ulster Unionist Party is by no means opposed to the principle of the original motion, but I am concerned that the pre-empting of any departmental report with critical motions could set a dangerous precedent in the Assembly. When the review is published, we will be in a position to scrutinise its findings and to make recommendations and suggestions to the Minister. As the Minister outlined in his response, the Department for Employment and Learning has already taken numerous steps in the right direction towards improving the services and opportunities that are available to young people with disabilities, both in further education and in helping them to gain access to employment opportunities.

I particularly welcome the news that, in recent years, there has been increased funding to support young people with special needs who go through further education, and I hope that the Minister will pursue additional funds for that in the future. The figures showing an increase of 8·2% in total enrolment highlight that the extra money and support is beginning to work. I hope that the ongoing review will ensure further improvements in that provision.

I am also encouraged by the services that the Department currently provides to help young people with special needs to get into employment. The work of the Disablement Advisory Service should be commended, and I welcome the role of Training for Success, because it provides flexible training to facilitate personal and social needs, as well as providing essential skills training.

In tabling our amendment, the Ulster Unionist Party is not suggesting that the Minister should not be held to account. The Assembly should drive him to achieve the best possible outcomes. However, we are concerned that a dangerous precedent is being set in the House — of picking fights where there is no fight to be had. There is also a danger of dividing the Assembly, even though it is evident that all parties, and the Minister, seek the same outcome. As my colleague Basil McCrea has suggested, there are plenty of examples of intransigence in this Executive, but I do not believe that, with regard to this issue, the Minister is guilty of that. Instead of seeking confrontation, we should be seeking collective results. Of course we should scrutinise the Minister’s work and make recommend­ations, and the publication of the Department’s review will provide a basis for doing exactly that. I urge all Members to support the amendment.

Ms S Ramsey: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Members who took part in the debate and I also thank the Minister for attending. I am happy to wind up the debate on behalf of my party, because the motion — in my view, and as others have stated — is a worthy one, which recognises the inequality in further education provision and supported-employment opportunities.

As the Member who proposed the motion stated earlier, I brought a similar motion to the Assembly six months ago that raised issues, concerns and stories that were similar to those that have been highlighted by the majority of Members who spoke in today’s debate. During that previous debate, the Ulster Unionist Party tabled an amendment calling for a review of services. I accepted that amendment because I did not want to divide the Assembly on such an important issue, and I wanted to give the Minister the opportunity — and the Department time — to make a difference on this important issue.

At that time, the Minister told us that the Department agreed to ring-fence funds as part of the Further Education Means Business review of funding. We welcome that, because we have been fighting for a long time for funds to be ring-fenced, to ensure that those funds benefit the most vulnerable people in our society.

However, in correspondence with Sinn Féin, a Mencap representative said that the Further Education Means Business strategy:

“does not recognise the need to develop targeted initiatives to address the exclusion and disadvantage experienced by people with a learning disability when accessing FE provision. The priorities set by the government in the Programme for Government and the criteria in place to provide financial assistance for students can disadvantage young people with a learning disability.”

The Mencap representative went on to highlight other issues, including the:

“failure, at strategic and operational levels, to take account of the distinct needs and interests of young people with a learning disability.”

David McClarty said that there was something “dubious” about the motion. The motion was tabled for one purpose only, which was to scrutinise the Minister and the Department. As an MLA, that is my job. Most Members who contributed to the debate, with the exception of those from the Ulster Unionist Party, welcomed the fact that the motion was brought to the House. Six months have passed since the issue was discussed, and I am glad that the Minister has been given the opportunity to outline what stage the review is at.

During the debate on the motion on 16 October 2007, the Minister told us that:

“The Department, in co-operation with the…Colleges, is currently undertaking a review of the nature and extent of special-needs provision throughout the further education network to determine how provision might best be improved”. — [Official Report, Bound Volume 24, p381, col 2].

The Minister highlighted that again today. There is a concern about the issue of colleges deciding on the courses that they offer. The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Employment and Learning, Jimmy Spratt, outlined some of those concerns, and I will not go over all of them again. Given the recent mergers, industrial disputes and the issue of early retirement, one of the main concerns is whether the colleges are up to the challenge of delivering such important courses to young people with disabilities. We are entitled to ask questions about such issues, and we are entitled to get answers to those questions.

When proposing the amendment, my colleague from the Committee for Employment and Learning Basil McCrea informed us that the Minister is fully committed to addressing this issue. I have no problem in accepting that; I know that the Minister is committed to many issues. However, it is six months since the issue was last debated, it affects vulnerable people in our society, and we have a duty to send them and their families the clear message that we are trying to make a difference.

Basil went on to tell us that there are ways of addressing the issue without bringing it to the Floor of the House, and he appealed to us not to turn the issue into a political football, which is fair enough. Had there been any progress on the issue, we would not have felt the need to bring it back to the Floor of the House. Basil’s party leader commended us for doing so; therefore, I think that Basil has an issue. The purpose of the Assembly is to enable us to table motions in the Chamber. We have a duty to debate issues that affect our community. Basil, being Basil, tabled a motion about the classroom assistants’ dispute. Was he simply point-scoring on that issue? It is a case of swings and roundabouts.

Research undertaken by Barnardo’s in 2007 with the further education colleges, training providers and disabled young people found that disadvantage and discrimination was multilayered, as was mentioned during various contributions. Mary Bradley said that this is a cross-departmental issue. I do not dispute that, but the Department for Employment and Learning has a duty to take the lead. If that results in the Minister for Employment and Learning encouraging the involvement of other Departments on the issue, it is up to us to support him.

Some of the young people who were surveyed by Barnardo’s indicated that, at age 20, they found themselves spending their time in a day centre, even though they would have been capable of attending further education colleges. Others simply found themselves sitting at home all day. A number of young people described the experience as feeling as though they had been left in a corner and ignored. We cannot get away from the fact that that is what the young people are telling us.

As I said earlier, the Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Employment and Learning outlined some of the key issues facing young people with disabilities, and he called on the Department to act. I support that call.

I agree with Alex Attwood — I am sorry that he is not in the Chamber as it is not that often that we agree on anything — that the Assembly should be seen to be making a difference to people’s lives, especially the most vulnerable in our community.

I will touch on some of the issues that the Minister mentioned. It is important that he took the opportunity to outline to us what stage the review has reached, and he said that it will be completed by June, which leads me to ask some other questions. I am conscious that I will not be provided with the answers today, but I would appreciate it if the Minister could provide the answers at some point.

5.30 pm

I look forward to the outcome of that review. I ask the Minister whether there is an associated action plan that will be implemented in the aftermath. Will he indicate a time frame for the review’s completion? Perhaps June would be a good time, since it is before the September intake of some of colleges.

Will the Minister give me a list of the community and voluntary groups that provide such training and employment and outline their involvement in the review?

I am not being critical. However, it is important that Members have an idea of the nature of community and voluntary sector involvement.

Sir Reg Empey: I assure the Member on both those issues. There would be little point in having a review if there was no plan to follow it up. That is unless, of course, the review found everything to be perfect — which I am sure it will not.

The community groups will be dealt with in the third phase of the review. We are happy to identify those groups — some of which are already engaged — to the Member. Indeed, we are happy to talk to any group that can bring some value to the table. I will provide the Member and the Committee with details of the groups that we will engage with.

Ms S Ramsey: I thank the Minister. It is important that we get as much information as possible. All Members who spoke recognised — and indeed expressed concern about — the lack of provision. That is not necessarily a criticism of the Minister, but it is a genuine concern that must be addressed.

In order not to divide the House on such an important issue — and having heard the Minister’s speech and the assurances that he has just given me — Sinn Féin accepts the amendment. We do so with the caveat — and this is not a threat — that our party will monitor the Department and the Minister to ensure that we get the outcomes that we have been promised; I am sure other Members will do the same.

Mr Shannon: We will be back.

Ms S Ramsey: Yes, we will be back. Hasta la vista.

Our disabled young people deserve no less. I support the amendment.

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

Main question, as amended, put and agreed to.


That this Assembly expresses its continued commitment to securing training and employment opportunities where appropriate for young people with disabilities; and awaits the outcome of the review of such provision undertaken by the Minister for Employment and Learning.

Adjourned at 5.32 pm.

< previous / next >