NORTHERN IRELAND ASSEMBLY
Tuesday 8 April 2008
Executive Committee Business:
Private Members’ Business:
The Assembly met at 10.30 am (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes’ silence.
Commission for Victims and Survivors Bill
Mr Speaker: The Consideration Stage of the Commission for Victims and Survivors Bill — I call the junior Minister Mr Donaldson.
The junior Minister (Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister) (Mr Donaldson): The Consideration Stage of the Commission for Victims and Survivors Bill will not be moved today.
Mr Speaker: I confirm that the Consideration Stage of the Bill will not be moved today. Order, order.
Mr Ford: I appreciate the fact that the junior Minister has not moved the Consideration Stage of the Bill. Mr Speaker, will you explain, particularly in the context of the Bill’s having received accelerated passage, the timetabling implications for the remaining stages?
Mr Speaker: The junior Minister and the Executive will determine the subsequent stages of the Bill.
The Chairperson of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (Mr Kennedy): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Will the junior Minister detail the new timetabling arrangements?
Mr Speaker: Maybe the junior Minister is prepared to clarify the position for Mr Kennedy.
Mr Donaldson: The matter will be brought before the Business Committee at 12.30 pm.
Mr Kennedy: May I ask — and this is probably not a point of order — whether there are any plans to consult my Committee on the matter?
Mr Speaker: I have given some latitude to points of order, but that is not an issue for the Chamber. It is for the junior Minister, the Executive and the Business Committee to deal with.
Mrs D Kelly: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. This is an extraordinary event. I know that the timetable that Members have before them is indicative, but the decision not to debate the Committee Stage means that we move straight on to the next item of business. What latitude can you give to other Members of the House who are due to speak on today’s other motions?
Mr Speaker: I hear what the Member is saying, but we must move on to the next item of business. The debate on the Committee Stage has been withdrawn, and we should move on.
Mr S Wilson: Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I have been the victim of such a move in the past. [Laughter.]
Would it not be proper to adjourn for half an hour so that Members can be contacted? It is unfair for Members to have these things sprung on them.
Mr Speaker: I suggest that the House suspends for 10 minutes to allow Members to gather. We will reconvene at around 10.45 am.
Sitting suspended at 10.37 am.
On resuming (Mr Speaker in the Chair) —
The Minister of the Environment (Mrs Foster): I beg to move
That the Taxis Bill (NIA 4/07 do now pass.
Today, I want to draw attention to the purpose, aims and objectives of the Taxis Bill; thank the Environment Committee and other Members for their contribution to the Bill’s passage; and say something about looking forward to working with the Committee in developing the regulations that will be needed to give the Bill full effect.
To open, I will to introduce Members to a short poem that was written in 1961 by the Northern Ireland-born writer Louis MacNeice, whose centenary we celebrated last year. The poem is simply called ‘The Taxis’, and it has a surreal little verse with an odd “tra-la” refrain. I hope that the House will find it interesting. Bear with me while I read it.
“In the first taxi he was alone tra-la, No extras on the clock. He tipped ninepence But the cabby, while he thanked him, looked askance As though to suggest someone had bummed a ride.
In the second taxi he was alone tra-la But the clock showed sixpence extra; he tipped according And the cabby from out of his muffler said: ‘Make sure You have left nothing behind tra-la between you’.
In the third taxi he was alone tra-la But the tip-up seats were down and there was an extra Charge of one-and-sixpence and an odd Scent that reminded him of a trip to Cannes.
As for the fourth taxi, he was alone Tra-la when he hailed it but the cabby looked Through him and said: ‘I can’t tra-la well take So many people, not to speak of the dog.”
Although nearly 50 years have passed since that poem was written, somehow it all seems strangely familiar: shared taxis; extra charges; and refusing to carry a dog. Sadly, we must leave high culture to one side and return to the real business of today’s debate.
First, I remind Members of the purpose, aims and objectives of the Bill. It is enabling legislation, creating a new legal framework for taxi licensing. It is true that the Bill began life as an Order in Council, but, in every other sense of the word, this is home-grown legislation; the outcome of a comprehensive review of taxi regulation called for by a previous Assembly, drafted with skill by our Office of the Legislative Counsel and tailored to meet Northern Ireland’s particular circumstances.
The aims of the Bill are to improve the standard of taxi services, reduce illegal taxiing, and improve compliance. Its objectives are to promote road safety, improve accessibility for older people and people with a disability, and facilitate fairer competition for taxi services.
The Taxis Bill is the first Bill that I have introduced to the Assembly — I expect that it will be the first of many. I am proud that my first Bill deals with bread-and-butter issues such as taxis, which, every year, greet many of the one million-plus visitors who come to Northern Ireland; every week, make tens of thousands of trips to bring people to work or to their homes after a night out; and every day, take thousands of children with special needs to and from school. Taxis matter to people through making a small but important difference to their lives. Taxis make a rather greater difference to the lives of the licensed drivers and depot owners who rely on them for their living.
Remember also that for some people with a disability, being able to rely on a safe, affordable and accessible taxi service can be the difference between having, or not having, a good quality of life.
Those are the reasons why the Taxis Bill is needed and why I am proud to be asking Members to support it today.
Secondly, I take this opportunity to thank Members for their attention to the Taxis Bill, not least during the lengthy, but very worthwhile, Consideration Stage debate on the 73, mostly minor, amendments. I have been very pleased to see the level of consensus that the Bill has enjoyed in all parts of the House. I thank the Chairperson and members of the Environment Committee, in particular, for their considered evidence-taking and detailed scrutiny of the Bill, their useful suggestions for amendments, and their comprehensive report, which was published in November 2007.
Thirdly, and finally, this Bill as it stands to be voted on by the Assembly, shows how a Minister and a Committee, working together on legislation, can achieve very positive outcomes. I very much look forward to continuing that relationship as I consult with the Committee for the Environment on proposals for the Bill’s implementation and the consequent regulations.
I commend the Taxis Bill to the House.
The Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment (Mr McGlone): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. As I came in, I heard the Minister speaking poetically. Having spent well over an hour sitting in traffic at Sandyknowes, I confess that poetry was the last thing on my mind. Nor were taxis uppermost — a bicycle might have been more beneficial.
Nevertheless, I thank the Minister for moving the Final Stage of the Taxis Bill, which comprises 58 clauses and three schedules and sets out a new legal framework for the regulation of taxis and taxi services. It covers the licensing of taxi operators, drivers and vehicles; taxi fares; taximeters; the hiring of taxis at separate fares; and enforcement of penalties. Furthermore, the Bill introduces enabling powers to make regulations in areas such as taxis, taxi operators’ licences, and the hiring of taxis at separate fares. The Committee looks forward to receiving the policy proposals for regulations that may, in due course, result from the Bill, and that will be subject to scrutiny by the Committee.
The Committee’s consideration of the Taxis Bill commenced on 28 June 2007, following briefings in May, and continued over 17 meetings until November 2007. Evidence was taken from departmental officials on the purposes of the Bill and the need to enact it. I put on record the Committee’s thanks to those officials whose expertise was extremely beneficial and informative throughout the process, which worked well.
Moreover, the Committee took oral evidence from 14 taxi organisations and individuals. All interested parties who had provided the Committee with written submissions were given an opportunity to speak, and members welcomed their views.
Thereafter, the Committee conducted a detailed scrutiny of the Bill, and members were committed to proposing appropriate amendments and to engaging with officials of the Department of the Environment (DOE) to persuade them of the merits of those amendments. Our full and frank scrutiny resulted in many amendments being agreed by the Department, thereby contributing to the highest number of proposed amendments to a Bill — 73 — ever considered by this Assembly. The amendments covered areas such as the role of the General Consumer Council, the introduction of an informal appeal system, and enforcement.
In addition to amendments, the Committee, in its report, made four recommendations and seeks reassurance from the Minister that those will be addressed.
One recommendation was an increase in the enforcement officer numbers that were reported during the Bill’s Committee Stage. The Minister reported previously on that; perhaps she could now comment on the current levels.
Furthermore, the Committee took evidence on the experience of those with disabilities in the use of taxis, and learned of their particular problems and issues, some of which were traumatic. The Committee recommended that the Department engage with the major organisations for the disabled and the taxi industry to address those problems.
A recommendation was made to review and extend criminal record checks on licence applicants from the Republic of Ireland and other countries.
Lastly, the Committee took evidence from taxi drivers about the delay in the issuing of taxi licence plates when a driver changes his or her vehicle, which means that a driver cannot work, and can, therefore, lose income. The Committee recommended that a fast-track system be introduced for the issue of taxi licence plates.
Will the Minister provide a reassurance that those recommendations will be considered, and acted upon, by the Department?
Finally, on behalf of the Committee, I thank the Minister for agreeing to table its amendments. Once again, I put on record my thanks and appreciation to all the Committee staff, and to the officials from the Department, for their hard work in assisting the Committee’s scrutiny of the Bill. The result is improved legislation.
Mr Ford: It is appropriate that, as the Chairperson of the Committee has done, I thank the Minister from these Benches for her work on the Bill, both in introducing it as the first substantive Bill to be brought to the Assembly, and — with her advisers — in promoting it through that rather lengthy Committee Stage. I agree with the Minister and the Committee Chairperson that it shows the benefit of the Minister, her officials, the Committee and its staff and the stakeholders engaging together to produce a better Bill.
In light of this morning’s debacle over another Bill, I was pleased to hear the Minister praise the value of Committee engagement. Members have seen what happens when a Bill is rushed through under the accelerated passage procedure. Perhaps the Minister should have turned her irony indicator on a little sharper this morning. However, she is right in what she says about the Taxis Bill.
The Minister and the Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment have referred to the work that remains to be done, particularly on issues such as enforcement and on the needs of people with disabilities being properly served by the taxi industry. I have no doubt that disability organisations will keep us up to the mark if we fail to do that work. The Minister has given us the pleasant threat of secondary legislation in the future, which, no doubt, will ensure many happy Committee meetings over the coming weeks and months. I thank her for her work so far.
Mrs Foster: I thank both Members for their contributions to the debate, particularly the Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment for his comments on the issues that the Committee has raised with the Department: enforcement, disability issues, criminal record checks, taxi licence plates and the delay in dealing with them. Those matters are being addressed by the Department. I mentioned the increase in numbers to our enforcement teams at Consideration Stage, and I will keep that issue to the forefront of my mind.
The Taxis Bill is, primarily, an enabling Bill, and, therefore, the sons and daughters of the Bill will, as Mr Ford said, come before the Committee in due course — not to trouble the Committee but to allow it to scrutinise the regulations to ensure that they are as fit for purpose as the Bill.
The Chairperson set out the scrutiny that the Committee undertook — 17 meetings that took evidence from 14 taxi organisations and individuals. I join him in thanking the Committee staff and Adele Watters and her officials in the Department for the tremendous work that they did with the Committee. The Department will act on the issues that have been raised by the Committee. The Committee will want to raise those issues again when it examines the regulations.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Taxis Bill (NIA 4/07) do now pass.
Northern Corridor Railway Development
Mr Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members will have five minutes in which to speak.
Mr Dallat: I beg to move
That this Assembly notes with interest the report ‘Northern Corridor Railway Renaissance’ from the Northern Corridor Railways Group; welcomes its focus on embedding the development of the line in the wider development of the area it will serve; recognises the need for long-term thinking about rail services in the context of broader strategic plans for Northern Ireland and for local areas involved; accepts its arguments for the close involvement of the private sector; and endorses the need for the Railway Corridor Development Study which it proposes.
I am grateful for the opportunity to debate this issue. The ‘Northern Corridor Railway Renaissance’ report is exactly what it says: a renaissance — a new beginning, a reawakening and a revival of a railway service that refused to die. It is the blueprint for the regeneration and recovery of a service that can contribute so much to the social and economic well-being of the north-west, all the areas that it serves and well beyond.
The fact that the Northern Corridor Railways Group that published the report comprises the seven councils through which the railway runs is an indication that Antrim Borough Council, Ballymena Borough Council, Ballymoney Borough Council, Coleraine Borough Council, Derry City Council, Limavady Borough Council and Moyle Borough Council all expect their areas to benefit from a modern intercity service that has the potential to link the remainder of the island’s railway network when the last missing link between Derry and Sligo is filled in.
It is eight years since the Northern Corridor Railways Group was set up to facilitate wider strategic thinking on the role and vision for the railway network in Northern Ireland. The group represents approximately 400,000 people who will benefit from investment and long-term planning for the service. From the beginning, the group argued that the Belfast to Derry railway had a key strategic role to play in the region for balanced and sustainable regional development, the integration of land use and transportation, social inclusion, tourism, economic development and regeneration.
December 2000 marked a significant date in the calendar of events: the Assembly announced that £102 million would be provided to buy new trains in the Budget period covering the next three years. One condition of the deal was that the new trains would operate on the Belfast to Derry line — an indication of the Assembly’s commitment to the north-west. That would prove that the public would use the railway network more frequently if that network was invested in; something that was argued in the Booz Allen Hamilton report.
Passenger numbers, which have been in decline for many years, have been reversed, and for the first time in decades, more than one million passengers use the service each year. That is highly significant, and it is sufficient to dispel any notion that that line is non-core, or lesser-used — two phrases offensively used by the Department in the past to earmark the line for closure.
Various reports in the interim period have been useful in developing a new approach to the future of the railways. For that reason, the group believed that it was appropriate to publish the report being debated today. Today’s debate is highly significant, and, hopefully, marks a new beginning in accepting that the railways make a huge contribution to the future social and economic development of the areas that they serve.
It is clear that the Northern Corridor Railways Group fully endorsed the context for railways set out in the terms of reference for the Railways Review Group, which stated:
“the shared understanding of the review group is that the future of railways cannot be examined in isolation from the strategic policy context pertaining to the future form and function of transportation in Northern Ireland, or solely in the context of short-term financial considerations. Rail should not be assessed as an isolated form of transport, but rather as a key component of a broader framework including integrated transport, land-use planning, economic development and tourism, and other related areas of social policy.”
It would, therefore, be crazy to close any section of the railway, as suggested by some departmental officials in the past. They lacked the vision to understand the above principles, never mind implement them.
Having accepted the contribution that the railways can make to the development and regeneration of the region, it is necessary to begin long-term planning over the next twenty years or more. That is critical to avoid falling back into the dreadful situation that existed at the beginning of this decade, when the Dr Beechings of this world advocated closure. For those who are too young to remember, he influenced the closure of many railways in England in the 1960s. It is interesting to note that several of those lines have re-opened in recent years, and there are vibrant campaigns to re-open others — the most recent that I am aware of is the Corby to London line.
Developing a long-term strategy does not mean putting everything on the long finger. That is a concern for this Assembly. Trains do not reach Derry before 9.00 am, a situation that must be put right sooner rather than later. If commuters, students and other travellers are to be attracted away from the roads, a service that gets people to their respective destinations before 9.00 am at least must be in place. Translink is having discussions with the Ministry of Defence about land for a passing loop at Ballykelly, and I welcome that. The outcomes must be successful if new timetables relevant to the needs of passengers are to be developed.
At Ballykelly, 423 former army homes will shortly become available. It would be clever if a new halt was built to allow the new residents to take advantage of a clean, modern rail service that would take them to their destinations in any of the council areas that supported the report.
It is also necessary to improve access to airports, and it seems strange that, although the railway runs through the grounds of City of Derry Airport, there is no halt. A railway also runs past Belfast International Airport, and, recently, when the Committee for Regional Development met the management of that airport, the big question was to do with the lack of infrastructure.
The long-term future of the railways must be planned. The Northern Corridor Railways Group proposes that a railway corridor development study be commissioned for the northern rail corridor and that the guiding principles should, as always, be the function of the railway within current and future land use and transport systems and its role in supporting economic and wider development objectives. If that is done, I have every confidence that future generations will have a comprehensive rail network in the north-west that is appropriate to the needs of all rail users. By then, those users will be joined by thousands of others who are currently sitting in traffic jams on overcrowded roads.
It was rather interesting that the Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment had that experience this morning. [Interruption.]
My advice to those who were sitting at the Sandyknowes roundabout is that they should have been on a train.
Let today be the beginning of a renaissance, when the Assembly says yes to the railways and means it; the day when our people get the message loud and clear that the railways are here to stay and to play a strategic role in the future development of the social and economic infrastructure. Let the renaissance begin.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Regional Development (Mr Cobain): I welcome this debate. It is the view of the Committee that the final Budget allocations to the Department for Regional Development (DRD) remain insufficient to meet the infrastructural needs of Northern Ireland. Of the £426·5 million of capital funding that was bid for, only £196 million was allocated in the draft Budget, including £137 million for rail and £45 million for buses. The investment in buses and trains in recent years has made public transport a more attractive option and has helped to generate increased passenger journeys.
Investment in public transport does not have to mean a choice between bus and rail; recent investment has resulted in increased passenger numbers on both modes of transport. However, research has indicated that Northern Ireland has a poor record of investment in railways. In the five years from 2001-06, Northern Ireland’s total expenditure on rail was the lowest per capita in the United Kingdom. Wales spent approximately £463 per head of population; Northern Ireland spent a paltry £16 per head.
The Belfast to Derry/Londonderry rail line is a cause of significant concern to the Committee. The Committee has met a number of groups to discuss the issue. On 24 October 2007, it met the Northern Corridor Railways Group and heard evidence on public safety issues and on speed restrictions of as low as 10 mph on the track. Despite that, the number of passenger journeys on the line has reached the one million mark. The Committee is concerned that those issues have remained unaddressed in the past and is pleased to note that although there is no provision for capital works in the budget, there is provision for preparatory work. The Committee was concerned to note that the application for funding from EU sources could not proceed until the project was in place.
I will now speak as an MLA. Elements of the motion are important and timely. I refer specifically to the need for long-term thinking about the rail service in the context of a broader strategic plan for Northern Ireland. We should focus on the wider infrastructure issues that confront us, rather than confine the motion to the north-west. The lack of infrastructural investment in Northern Ireland, which stretches back over decades, is a serious blight on economic development and will be a serious inhibitor on the search for inward investment and job creation.
Infrastructural investment is not an add-on or an optional extra; it is essential and is intrinsic to the economic success of the Province. Modern logistics require that businesses have access to fast, efficient travel, and we especially need to mitigate our relative geographical isolation.
Nowhere is the truth about infrastructural planning more self-evident than in the railway system in Northern Ireland. In the Thatcherite drive for the great car culture — and, before that, in the Beeching era — railways were progressively abandoned and entire tracks disappeared, and with them, key economic networks. Freight took to the roads, adding to mounting congestion. That deconstruction of the railway network was not only short-sighted, it was deeply at odds with the growing awareness of the need to reduce carbon footprints and emissions. Rather than design and provide a truly integrated road and rail network, we have sacrificed rail on the altar of road transport. That was a needless sacrifice that will no doubt have long-term economic consequences.
Lack of planning has always been a particular problem for this country. The muddle-through-and-mend approach that underpins the thinking behind the lack of investment in infrastructure is no longer adequate in contemporary economic circumstances. Somehow, official thinking has come to equate lack of planning with economic freedom.
There is little point in saying that the rail network has suffered at the expense of the roads. Has anyone seen the state of our roads lately? The Assembly must revisit the entire infrastructure of the Province as a first-line priority. We need a rail system that is capable of carrying freight and easing the strain on the roads. We need new trains, a more comprehensive rail system and better integrated road and rail transport. We need more park-and-ride provision, not just one park-and-ride facility for Belfast that is situated south of Lisburn. We need trains that stop at, and connect with, destinations at which people actually live. We must have proper motorways that underpin a modern industrial framework rather than rely on an endless patch-up job of dualling. Although such dual carriageways are an improvement on single-track roads, they nonetheless fall short of what a modern economy needs.
I know that Translink has made a start by improving rolling stock and buying new trains.
Mr Speaker: The Member’s time is almost up. I ask him to conclude his remarks.
Mr Cobain: Translink hopes to provide a faster Enterprise train service to Dublin. The problem is that that is only the beginning. I fear that the First Minister’s failure to extract a peace dividend that is sufficient to address the infrastructural underinvestment of 40 years of direct rule neglect means that the recipe before the Assembly is short on the basic ingredients —
Mr Speaker: The Member’s time is up.
Mr Storey: I support the motion, and I thank the Members who brought this issue to the Assembly. We all greatly value such an important rail link, particularly those of us who live in areas in which the line is prevalent and in the council areas to which reference is made in the ‘Northern Corridor Railway Renaissance’ report. Although a number of years ago, there were doubts and concerns about the future of the railway, we now welcome the fact that we are looking to that future. As Mr Dallat said in his concluding remarks, let the renaissance begin. We must build on that.
We all remember the time when we visited Cookstown a number of years ago. I trust that the former direct rule Minister Mr Spellar, who has long since gone, will be forgotten because his contribution to the railway network was absolutely nil. I am glad that he took the slow boat out of Northern Ireland.
I pay tribute to my party colleague Mr Robinson for securing the funding for the new trains when he was the Minister for Regional Development. Any of us who has used the rail network appreciates the fact that those trains were brought on board. Therefore, the proposals for additional trains are to be welcomed.
Indeed, some very influential and important individuals have commented on the importance of the line. For example, in the past, the well-travelled expert Michael Palin has supported the retention of the network. The 66-mile stretch of railway line in question brings passengers through the most spectacular scenery in Northern Ireland. Anyone who leaves the city of Belfast to travel to the city of Londonderry will be impressed by what he or she sees on the journey.
The Ballymena to Londonderry line was opened in 1852, and included the two oldest rail tunnels on the island, bored through the basalt cliffs overlooking the beach at Downhill on the northwest tip of Northern Ireland, in the East Londonderry constituency of my colleagues to my right: Mr Adrian McQuillan and Mr George Robinson. I am sure that it will be of interest to them that it was there, in July 1953, that Her Majesty the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, travelling by train to Londonderry, were so overwhelmed by the view of the windswept Magilligan Point and the dreamy mountains of County Donegal that they decided to pause for lunch to prolong their enjoyment. We again extend to Her Gracious Majesty the invitation to undertake such a journey in the not-too-distant future.
Mention has been made of investment. If an average was taken over the past number of years, some commentators estimate that we have invested about £16,363 per mile compared to £100,000 per mile in the rest of the UK. Therefore, there is, obviously, a huge amount of work to be done on investment in the line.
I also want to raise an issue that causes me grave concern and which I have raised on a number of occasions with the Minister. Although we welcome the works that have been carried out at the halt at Cullybackey, and additional works in Ballymena and Coleraine, I remain gravely concerned about the state of the railway station at Ballymoney. One travel commentator — and I sought this morning to get the precise quote but could not find it in my wonderful filing system — took the train from Belfast to Londonderry some years ago. When he came to Ballymoney station, he said that it should have been called “Bally-no-money” because it was clear from the state of the station that it was still in the Elizabethan age.
I call on the Minister, as a matter of urgency, to look at the state of the railway station at Ballymoney; it is not fit for purpose. I appreciate the effort that has been made to secure additional funding; however, we always have tension between two elements of the public transport system, namely the bus system and the railway system —
Mr Speaker: The Member’s time is almost up.
Mr Storey: Will the Minister consider an urgent upgrading of Ballymoney railway station?
Mr McCartney: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Éirím le tacaíocht a thabhairt don rún.
I support the motion and, in particular, the need for a railway corridor development study, which the Northern Corridor Railways Group proposes in its report. There is, however, one aspect of the motion that needs clarity: the close involvement of the private sector. I listened to Mr John Dallat when he proposed the motion and he did not provide any detail about what he or the report mean by private sector involvement. Perhaps other supporters of the motion will enlighten us as to what they mean by private sector involvement.
There is no doubt that there is a need for long-term thinking on rail services, and where they fit into public transport provision. More people need to be got out of their cars and onto public transport. The wider issues of sustainable development and environmental impact also need to be considered. I welcome the presence of the Minister for Regional Development at this debate, and I hope that he will take this opportunity to spell out once more his vision for the rail network.
Obviously, we in the north-west place a particular focus on, and pay particular attention to, the Derry line. Too often the prevailing attitude was that the Derry line was being run down. Phrases such as “non-core” and “lesser-used” dominated Government thinking and, in turn, the public consciousness, which created an air of negativity about the whole project. One has only to look at the moneys sought and provided for that part of the rail network — statistics which, in themselves, are revealing. They confirm why an air of negativity always surrounded that section of the line. It is now a matter of public record that decisions were taken that prevented and restricted investment in the line. We all have to work to ensure that such thinking never again prevails.
The ‘Northern Corridor Railway Renaissance’ report is well presented and provides an excellent analysis of the needs of the northern corridor. It is framed in the context:
“Rail should not be assessed as an isolated form of transport, but rather as a key component of a broader framework including integrated transport”.
Mr K Robinson: I am a little disappointed that all the discussion seems to focus on Londonderry and the northern section of the line. Members have totally omitted to mention the role played by Newtownabbey Borough Council in the fight to reinstate the Bleach Green line. When I took public office in 1985, I was involved in pushing and pushing for that section of line to be reopened. If it were not for that section of line, this debate would not be taking place. I ask Members who speak in the debate from now on to remember that there is a vital section of line from Bleach Green to Mossley West, which has shown that rail travel can be turned around. There is a park-and-ride facility there, and there is the potential to open another one at Templepatrick. Unless we look at the line in totality, we will miss a great opportunity.
Mr McCartney: I welcome that intervention. Members from other constituencies will focus on particular aspects, but it is difficult to talk about every section of the line in five minutes.
To return to the report, it states clearly that the northern corridor — from Derry right through to Belfast — has considerable potential and requires investment. The report says:
“The first requirement, however, is for confirmation of the long term future of the line.”
When the report was being written, the long-term future of the line had not been confirmed. That gives us an excellent insight into the inherent failures of past investment. Therefore, I welcome and support the Minister’s taking immediate action to overturn the decision to make no investment and to provide a strategic plan that not only guarantees the future of the Derry line — by which I mean the line from Derry all the way to Belfast — but creates the potential for the further devolvement that was suggested in the ‘Northern Corridor Railway Renaissance’ report.
I agree with Mr Ken Robinson’s point, and the report looks at the entire line. However, opening particular sections will create the potential for opening other sections. I look forward to hearing the Minister outline his plan to realise that potential, which is necessary for the growth of rail use throughout the island of Ireland.
I cannot overstate the importance of ensuring that regional imbalance is addressed, and addressing infrastructure needs will play a major role in tackling other areas of social and economic imbalance. The Minister’s decisions will provide evidence that the Assembly can have an impact on people’s lives, create new opportunities, and bring about change in people’s social and economic circumstances.
Proper provision of public transport, with a modern, efficient rail network throughout the Six Counties and across the island, is a proven route to dismantling regional disparity and peripherality. Therefore, I support the motion. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr Ford: First, I declare an interest as a member of Antrim Borough Council and its occasional representative on the Northern Corridor Railways Group. I congratulate John Dallat and his colleagues on securing this debate, which is of significant interest to people who live along the line from Belfast to Derry. Naturally, I will concentrate on the southern end of the line.
I agree with a point made by Mervyn Storey — if that does not embarrass him — because it is right that we should reflect on the fact that had we not had a working Assembly seven and eight years ago, there would be no railway by now; there would certainly be no new trains and probably no old ones either. Mervyn will probably expect me to acknowledge that that was down to the DUP Minister at the time, although, no doubt, others would say that the SDLP Finance Minister provided the money for it.
If we had not had that Assembly, we would not have a railway system, and we should be grateful for that. However, that illustrates the need to keep the focus on the railway and not continually get caught up in short-term ideas, such as looking to roads to provide a fix to the sort of transport problem s that I see most in South Antrim, which are issues about commuting into Belfast, rather than the long-term strategic future of the line.
Fred Cobain talked about the lack of investment over many years. One might suggest that that has been the case since the Ulster Transport Authority favoured buses over railways as far back as 40 or 50 years ago.
Now, the unfortunate situation is that although new, high-quality rolling stock was secured a few years ago, it is restricted to travelling at 20 mph, particularly in and around Ballymoney. Translink staff have told me that the rolling stock has been damaged due to the poor quality of some sections of track. Suitable track must be provided to meet the needs of modern rolling stock.
Significant action is still required on the infrastructure of the line. Stations must be improved so that people will want to wait in them — the idea of a heated waiting room will be quite novel to some passengers. Improvements to the quality of the track are required along almost all its length, certainly north of Antrim, and passing loops that could facilitate improvements to timetables are required.
Further work must be done to increase the provision of rolling stock. Some of the new trains are being allocated to improve the frequency of the service on the Portadown to Bangor line, which is the route most used by commuters, and others will be allocated to meet the incredible need on the Larne line, which uses stock that is years out of date and verges on being unsafe. Few trains will be left to make the drastically needed changes to the Belfast to Derry line.
The commuting problem to Belfast requires a significant increase in the frequency of the timetable from Antrim and Mossley into the city, and possibly from as far as Ballymena. That is the key commuter range, although no doubt Members whose constituencies are further up the line will make the case for their areas.
Anyone who tries to travel to work in Northern Ireland’s second city cannot get to Londonderry before 9.00 am. I cannot work out how that kind of timetable is supposed to encourage commuters to use trains.
For people who travel from Antrim and points further north to Whiteabbey, either because they want to go to the Whiteabbey area or because they are students who should be encouraged to use trains to commute to Jordanstown, there is only one train a day in each direction that stops at Whiteabbey. My daughter uses that line to commute to Whiteabbey, and it is great when it works. However, if she happens to leave work 10 minutes late, the only way that she can travel north from Whiteabbey is by going to Belfast Central and changing trains. That is not a sensible way to run a railway, but such problems are due to the inadequate supply of rolling stock, and that must be addressed. With adequate rolling stock, Translink could be expected to improve the timetable.
As Ken Robinson said, there are issues about how to use the railway to reduce the number of people who commute by car. Specifically, why is the Northern Ireland Transport Holding Company, despite being in possession of a site at Ballymartin beside the M2 at Templepatrick, unable to attract the necessary finance to progress the building of a park-and-ride facility there? The Airbus, some of the Goldline services and the railway could remove many commuters from the M2. That would be of considerable benefit to people in the area, who suffer from the poor air quality created by too many cars travelling through Sandyknowes roundabout to the city.
Mr Storey: Will the Member give way? He will get an extra minute to speak.
Mr Ford: I thank the Member for that.
Mr Storey: To follow on from what Mr Ford said, a key element in any new integrated service, and one that is missing from the current provision of public transport, is an integrated ticketing system. The current antiquated system prohibits passengers from buying a ticket in Ballymoney to travel by train and then bus, even to this Building.
Mr Speaker: The Member has an extra minute to speak.
Mr Ford: The Member makes a valid point, and one that I raised with Translink at a meeting of Antrim Borough Council only last week. Why are people from north Down particularly privileged in having a dual ticketing system for bus and rail when the rest of us cannot travel one way by bus and return by train? Ideally, there should be a system similar to London’s Oyster card that could be used on all forms of public transport across Northern Ireland. That is the way to make real progress and to encourage people to use public transport.
The report sets out a strong and positive way forward, and I hope to hear from the Minister that its recommendations will be fully implemented at an early date.
Mr G Robinson: I am pleased to be able to speak today in support of the motion. The development of the Ballymena to Londonderry railway line is an essential part of the regional development and strategic plans for the area. Thanks to two past Regional Development Ministers, my colleagues Gregory Campbell and Peter Robinson, free travel for pensioners was introduced and the decision to purchase new rolling stock taken. The Assembly must not overlook the importance of those two factors in increasing the number of passengers on the route.
As the Minister of Finance and Personnel, Peter Robinson has ensured that money has been made available to the Department for Regional Development to extend the provision of free transport to people who are 60 years of age and over, to purchase new rolling stock, and to undertake the long overdue and desperately needed relaying of the line between Ballymena and Londonderry.
Dr W McCrea: Although all the lines that are provided are welcome, a line from Belfast International Airport into the centre of Belfast is essential.
Mr G Robinson: I will touch on that matter later in my contribution.
The very fact that passenger numbers have already increased by 87% since 2003-04 is proof that measures that were implemented by previous Ministers have been beneficial. The Assembly must not, however, overlook the importance of investment in the rail network in the development of the tourist industry.
Northern Ireland has enjoyed a global goodwill dividend, on which it must capitalise on every occasion and in every way. The journey along the coast from Coleraine to Londonderry is one of the most scenic railway journeys in the world. Therefore, it has great potential for exploitation as a tourist attraction. Reinstatement of a halt at Limavady, or provision of a new one at Ballykelly, would give commuters from the town of Limavady and its hinterland more choice.
With new trains and higher costs in running private vehicles, there must also be the potential for utilisation of the intercity link for commuters. A great benefit of that would be less congestion and pollution in towns and city centres. One commuter to whom I have spoken told me that it is great to have a wee rest on her way to and from work, which she could not do if she were driving. She is also delivered right into the heart of Belfast and does not have to bother to find a parking space. Perhaps there is potential for early morning and evening services to run specifically for commuters with stops only at hub stations. The increase in passenger numbers shows that, so far, the railway’s renaissance has had tangible results. After all, trains are run for passengers.
Tourists and commuters are only two of the many complicated reasons that the rail network must be supported. Derry City Airport and Belfast International Airport should be serviced with direct rail links. Trains run right past Derry City Airport, although, as yet, no provision has been made for a stop there. That is a preposterous situation. If the Assembly truly wants to develop further tourist and business traffic, surely it is as important to provide a railway stop at Derry City Airport as it is to extend its runway. There is also potential for an easily accessible halt at Belfast International Airport, as my honourable friend the Rev McCrea has pointed out.
Mr Storey: I appreciate the Member’s concern. I also support the call for a halt at Belfast International Airport. The Member also referred to Derry City Airport. Does he agree that it is unfortunate that there is no halt at the Causeway Hospital, which serves my constituency as well as his? Members will be aware of discussions about the provision of a new regional college at Watt’s Town, which is in the same locality as the Causeway Hospital. I urge the Minister to ensure that, in any proposed plan for a new regional college in the area, provision must be made for a halt that would facilitate the college and also take into consideration the needs of people who use the hospital.
Mr G Robinson: I accept the Member’s point.
The Antrim to Lisburn railway line remains closed. However, when track renewal was being carried out on the Antrim to Belfast section of the track, the Lisburn line was utilised. Yet again, it would cost a vast amount of money to provide new halts. Perhaps the private sector might like to build the halts, and Northern Ireland Railways could supply the trains.
In the case of Belfast International Airport, the airport’s management had offered to assist the development of that facility. Many small measures could be taken to improve the services that are available to locals and tourists alike. They should be undertaken as priorities, so that the statutory authorities can have plans ready for implementation as soon as possible. Those small developments could pay huge dividends for everyone and could play an essential part in the development of the railway’s role in Northern Ireland’s prosperity.
Such developments would enable people to get to and from their destinations with ease and in comfort. Perhaps, most importantly, they would ensure that railways continue to be a credit to Northern Ireland and an impressive first sight for visitors to our wee country. They would also benefit the economies of towns and cities with easy commuter and shopping journeys.
To get there will take vision, money, hard work and, most of all, time. Let us steam ahead now, on a track that will enhance our wee country.
Mr McKay: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. The northern railway corridor is a vital arterial route for public transport, serving not only Derry and Belfast, but large rural parts of Counties Derry and Antrim, where, compared to more urbanised areas of the North, the standard of public transport has traditionally fallen short.
Sinn Féin agrees fully that the future of the northern railway corridor cannot be examined in isolation, but only as part of a broader framework, including integrated transport, economic development and tourism. Much damage has been done by direct rule Ministers through underinvestment in the line; that is being addressed and the benefits of sustained investment are being recognised.
The railway is an undervalued and underused asset; however, that is in no way the fault of the public. It has been shown that more investment equals more passengers. The Minister for Regional Development has announced an investment of £12 million for track-life extension works north of Ballymena, and the start of a £64 million major track-relay project between Coleraine and Derry. The Minister’s decision, last year, to lift restriction on investment in the Derry line north of Ballymena was correct. The more that is done to develop the railway network across the North, the more demand on the road network will reduce, and hence emissions of carbon, the reduction of which is crucial in meeting climate-change targets set by the Executive.
As highlighted by the Into the West rail lobby, trains are cleaner and greener. Upgrading that railway will cut the amount of carbon dioxide produced by road vehicles annually by 20,000 tonnes. The northern railway’s development must be matched by development of an integrated transport system, which maximises the use of public transport and minimises commuters’ need to use private vehicles. We must also market the northern railway to attract tourists and to ensure that it is used as a gateway to the wealth of tourist attractions on the north coast and in Derry.
It is vital that regional disparities in public transport, which were established by local government in the North many years ago, are addressed. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr McCallister: I thank and congratulate the Members who secured this important debate.
Northern Ireland has a long history of railway infrastructure, and it is regrettable that what was once considered the second-most developed railway network in the world is now a shadow of its former self.
Improvements and further developments in our railways will benefit Northern Ireland in many ways. Increasing commuter timetables and frequency of trains will boost our economy. The increased number of trains, and their speed and quality of services, will facilitate more tourists and improve our economy, as they will provide better links between our attractions and economic hubs. Equally, the more people who travel by railway, the fewer will travel by road, which means less congestion. Rail travel is much better for the environment.
For those reasons, I welcome the debate and the ‘Northern Corridor Railway Renaissance’ report. Historically, the northern corridor between Belfast and Londonderry — our two biggest cities — has suffered underinvestment by comparison with the eastern lines. However, the investment that has taken place, namely the introduction of new trains, has seen great success. Passenger numbers on this line have reached record numbers; over one million passengers used it in 2007. Yet, as the report shows, future development is hampered by lack of line capacity, and will be improved only by increasing investment in both infrastructure and rolling stock.
I am very pleased that the Minister for Regional Development was able to secure an extra £12 million for track-life extension works north of Ballymena and £64 million for the major track relay project between Coleraine and Londonderry. However, I take the opportunity to press him for more detail on what the schemes entail, and on what improvements they will bring to the service. For example, will the £64 million, set aside for track improvements between Londonderry and Coleraine include provision of crossing points? They are sorely needed to improve the frequency and speed of journeys and, without them, there is little room for major improvement to the commuter services.
The Northern Corridor Railways Group report highlights the many difficulties that are faced in attempts to improve and enhance services on the line. Rather than a lack of interest and desire from the public, it is the capacity of the trains and the limited infrastructure that are hindering the development of the line. I agree with one of the report’s conclusions:
“Further growth will require timetable changes to produce a more regular and faster service and this, in turn, will require investment in both infrastructure and rolling stock.”
Although I welcome the money that the Minister secured, it is obvious that further investment is required to get the service that we need.
I also welcome the call from the Northern Corridor Railways Group for a northern corridor development study. To ensure that there is the correct level of investment, it is important to work to a strategy — the more comprehensive the strategy, the better any investment will be and the more likely it will be that we reach our targets.
Development planning is changing, and we must begin to integrate our transport infrastructure with our economic and sustainability goals as well as our land use and social strategies.
Mr K Robinson: Does the Member agree that, as the public mood favours sustainable transport and the protection of the environment, there will never be a better time to create a sustainable transport network? Does he also agree that if we do not invest in our rail infrastructure now, we will miss a golden opportunity that will never come round again?
Northern Ireland will not attract many tourists if, after getting off a boat at Larne, they get onto a 30-year-old train that may — or may not — reach Belfast. Modern rolling stock is required throughout the system.
Mr Speaker: The Member has an extra minute to speak.
Mr McCallister: Thank you, Mr Speaker.
I agree wholeheartedly with my honourable friend. I mentioned development and planning, and our system, network and rolling stock all require large investment. It is only when such investment is planned that we can link our ports and airports — as other Members have mentioned — so that when people want to use the transport system, they can buy a ticket and move from bus to train or vice versa. The Minister for Regional Development has an important role in developing that strategy.
There should be two additions to the debate. First, any long-term study should incorporate the entire railway network in Northern Ireland. Although it is accepted that the northern corridor requires increased investment, it would be counterproductive to concentrate so much effort on one section of the line.
Secondly, we must remember that Northern Ireland is not comprehensively covered by the railway system and that large parts of Northern Ireland rely on the road network infrastructure. Any investment in the railway infrastructure must be matched by equal investment in —
Mr Speaker: The Member’s time is up.
Mr Durkan: The motion refers to the report by the Northern Corridor Railways Group, and it is important that Members do justice to the findings of that report. Many important and valid points have been made in the debate — as in other debates — about the need for improvement in timetables; the need for better integration among the different modes of public transport; the need to service our airports directly, particularly when railway lines pass close to the airports; and there has been a major emphasis on the importance placed by passengers on having a well-organised and well-run railway service.
However, it is important to examine wider issues as well as the questions on passenger services. For example, the role that freight can — and should — play if the railway network is properly utilised. If our railway network was used more extensively for freight, there would be implications for the locations of businesses and industries that are close to our railway lines.
When we start to think in those terms, the concept of the development of the railway corridor will begin to add up.
With regard to the report, the motion states that the Assembly:
“welcomes its focus on embedding the development of the line in the wider development of the area it will serve; recognises the need for long-term thinking about rail services in the context of broader strategic plans for Northern Ireland and for local areas involved;”
That is why the motion states that there is also a need to have proper engagement of the private sector. The motion does not relate solely to the line as it lies. We are talking about how to get better and healthier development along it and in the areas that it serves and about how to create appropriate clusters of development on the line so that real multipliers are created from the desired investment in infrastructure.
If eco-villages are to be developed in the context of sustainable housing, it would be appropriate to locate them in areas that are well served by a railway line, thus reducing the need for car ownership and use. Such a consideration should also be built in to the case for the development of the railway corridor. That is the sort of area that we must think about; we should think holistically rather than engage in the usual run-ins with Translink and DRD about what they are doing about the line.
Reference has been made to some past investment. In the previous period of devolution, I, as Finance Minister, received in the Budget bids a bid for new train sets. DRD and the Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP) officials made it clear that if I was going to recommend to the Executive that such money be spent, it should be done so on the basis that the network be reduced to a core network, as they described it. I refused to do that, and the Executive endorsed my thinking when they agreed the allocation of £80 million for new train sets. That allocation was granted on the basis that there would be no reduction to a core network and that those trains would serve the entire existing network.
That was not merely an understanding between myself and civil servants, or the Executive; it was understood and expressed in the Chamber, contrary to what the Minister and others said when they stated that the investment in the trains was linked to reduction in the core network. That allocation was not. It is what was requested by DRD officials and recommended by DFP officials, but it was not what was decided in the Chamber.
Gregory Campbell, who became Minister for Regional Development after Peter Robinson — who was Minister when the allocation was made — has stated that there was a hankering in the Department for the reduction to a core network when he took up office. Considering that devolution was in place at that time, we thankfully avoided that situation.
It has been said that investment was denied at other times. A small token bid was made at one time that would have achieved little, and other moneys had not been spent — in fact, moneys that were bid for and allocated since were not spent on the line, as promised. At that time, the Executive decided to wait for the Strategic Investment Board, in the context of the reinvestment and reform initiative, to present proposals for significant investment along the whole of the railway network. That is the history of the matter.
Ms Anderson: Go raibh maith agat. Éirím le tacaíocht a thabhairt don rún.
As many Members will be aware, the development of quality transport infrastructure for the north-west is one of the key demands in the Stand up for Derry campaign. For too long, the north-west has been treated as the poor sister when it comes to investment. It has been marginalised and ignored. An entire region was allowed to stagnate when investment was skewed to already affluent areas. Therefore, I support the motion and welcome the opportunity to debate it in the Chamber.
The report rightly recognises the need to view rail services in a long-term, strategic manner. We will never achieve the goals of the Programme for Government if, for example, infrastructure development is carried out in a piecemeal manner — as has been the case in the past — without any recognition of the needs of areas such as Derry.
I welcome the support of my colleague and fellow MLA Mark Durkan. Despite the version of history that he outlined, we all know what actually happened and, in particular, how that impacted on Derry. During Mr Durkan’s period as deputy First Minister and as Minister of Finance and Personnel, restrictions were imposed that prevented the development of —
Mr Durkan: Will the Member give way?
Ms Anderson: No, I will not give way. [Interruption.]
Mr Durkan: The Member will —
Ms Anderson: I will not give way. Suigh síos. I will not give way. Mr Durkan talked about a Sinn Féin Minister.
Mr Speaker: Order. The Member will decide whether she wishes to give way, and other Members should not persist.
Ms Anderson: During Mr Durkan’s period as deputy First Minister and as Minister of Finance and Personnel, restrictions were imposed that prevented the development of any stretch of the Derry to Belfast line, north of Ballymena —
Mr Durkan: The Member is deliberately making statements that are not true. There is absolutely no factual basis for that statement.
Mr Speaker: Order. I assume that the Member has not given way?
Ms Anderson: No, I have not.
Mr Speaker: The SDLP — specifically Mr O’Loan — will have an opportunity to wind on the debate.
Ms Anderson: Go raibh maith agat. People were protesting, rightly, but without any knowledge of the restrictions on the line. Mark, and others, were aware of those restrictions and should have made the people aware of them. Those restrictions ruled out — [Interruption.]
Mr Durkan: Mr Speaker, the Member is —
Mr Speaker: Order.
Mr Durkan: Mr Speaker, I cannot sit here and listen to those falsehoods being repeated under the cover of —
Mr Speaker: Order. Martina Anderson has the Floor. I have already told the Member that Mr O’Loan will have an opportunity to address the issues during the winding-up speech.
Ms Anderson: Go raibh maith agat. The Member is a bit touchy — the truth obviously hurts.
Those restrictions ruled out the possibility of accessing EU funding for the line. Indeed, between 1999 and 2002, only £1·5 million was invested in the line. Thankfully, the Minister for Regional Development, Conor Murphy, has now lifted those restrictions and has paved the way for a complete and substantial upgrade of the line from Belfast to Derry. He is committed to finding £64 million for development of that line.
Provision has been made for two additional trains to facilitate the delivery of an enhanced service level that will substantially reduce journey times from Derry to Belfast and ensure that commuter services, for the first time ever, will arrive before 9.00 am — almost revolutionary in Derry.
Mr Brolly: Will the Member give way?
Mr Durkan: She does not give way. [Laughter.]
Mr Speaker: Order. As I stated previously; it is up to each Member to decide whether to give way.
Mr Brolly: I appreciate that the Member is giving way given that she has already lost speaking time. Perhaps the Speaker will consider that point.
Although the railway has a functional use, anyone who lives in the area — such as George Robinson and me — appreciates the beauty of the scenery along the track from Lough Foyle to Coleraine. I look forward to it becoming a very important part of the tourism industry, which I hope will expand in the next few years. The area is neglected, and will be dependent on its beauty and the resulting tourism possibilities.
Mr Speaker: The Member has an extra minute to speak.
Ms Anderson: Go raibh míle maith agat. I agree with the Member.
There should be a Derry to Coleraine commuter line linking the two universities, with an appropriate stop, perhaps, at Ballykelly, to cover the East Derry constituency.
Of course, all the developments will cost millions of pounds, but the Minister is committed to securing the necessary resources, and we should applaud him for demonstrating the political will and leadership that the people deserve; it has often been lacking in the past.
The people of Derry want the first-class services to which they are entitled. They do not want to hear Ministers bleat about a lack of money. Although he could have done that, too, Conor Murphy, the Minister for Regional Development, chose not to do so. He recognises that there is a fundamental need for investment in Derry’s infrastructure. He knows that if the north-west is to prosper, and if it is to compete for inward investment and exploit the huge tourism potential on our doorstep, a proper railway network is essential.
The Minister is committed to turning those aspirations into reality. I have absolutely no doubt that he will deliver on that. If he does not, he will be challenged by MLAs such as Raymond McCartney and me, because we are committed to the Stand Up for Derry campaign, a key element of which is the development of a quality transport infrastructure. Go raibh míle maith agat.
Mr Campbell: I welcome the debate and congratulate the Members who were responsible for securing it. I also wish to acknowledge the excellent work done over the years by the Northern Corridor Railways Group. It has successfully endeavoured to draw the attention of public representatives and the Department for Regional Development (DRD) to the development of the railway network, and this motion is in keeping with those sentiments.
The general issue of transport in Northern Ireland over the next decade will be absolutely crucial to economic development in the Province. It is estimated that, year on year, car ownership is increasing by about 4%. That will mean that in 10 years’ time, the delays at Sandyknowes mentioned this morning by the Chairman of the Environment Committee, in which I was also caught up, will be 50% worse than they are currently. That is the case no matter where we refer to.
The honourable Member for East Antrim Mr Ken Robinson made the relevant point — often lost in debates such as this one — that this is not just an issue about one small geographical part of Northern Ireland, despite the worst efforts of some people to make it so. The issue is comparable to that of the gas pipeline, which runs along a similar route to the northern corridor. The railway line along that northern corridor benefits communities in Antrim, Moyle, Ballymena, Ballymoney, Coleraine, Limavady and Londonderry. The Bleach Green line is a relevant point in that geographical spread.
This is not just a matter of trying to develop and assist transport links for 105,000 people who live in Londonderry. It is about trying to develop a key transport link for 350,000 people who live along the northern corridor line. The fact that it would serve 20% of the entire population of the country means that it is a key infrastructural necessity.
The thing that annoys me about the whole transport debate is this: we have seen that when investment is made in rail links — on the Enterprise, for example — the numbers of people using that service go up. The numbers of people using the Belfast to Londonderry line go up when investment is made in that part of the network. The upgrading of the roads network at the Westlink is a necessary development, as is the work being done at Sandyknowes. Let no one be under any illusion: if a third lane is provided at either of those locations we will need a fourth lane in three or four years’ time; and if we provide a fourth lane, we will need a fifth lane. We must encourage people to make the switch from private transport to public transport.
Many people will argue that it is a chicken-and-egg situation. Most people will concede to my argument that, given a cost-effective and reliable public-transport system that meets the needs of the community, there will be a switch away from private transport. However, it will not happen if motorists are penalised or are faced with the prospect of moving to an ineffective and second-class public-transport system. We must have an effective public-transport system, and the rail network is an essential part of that.
In the minute that I have left, I wish to draw attention to a couple of points that the Minister should address. Several basic necessities are lacking on the Londonderry to Belfast line, one of which is a catering facility.
It is bad enough having no catering facilities on a train when the journey takes an hour and a half, which is the length of time that it is supposed to take. However, the journey takes three hours; therefore, the lack of catering facilities is ludicrous, and the issue must be addressed.
The other issue that I have raised several times with the Minister and the Department is the requirement for a passing loop at Ballykelly. It would be expensive, but, in any case, there should be a stop at Eglinton for Londonderry airport.
Mr Durkan: Will the Member give way?
Mr Campbell: I will give way if I am given an extra minute.
Mr Durkan: When the Member was Minister for Regional Development, did he work under a restriction from the Executive banning any proposed investment on the stretch of line from Derry to Coleraine?
Mr Campbell: I thank the Member for the intervention. I can confirm that I did not work under any such restriction. Anyone who declares that I did is blatantly telling lies, but that would not be the first time, nor would it be the first crime that they had committed.
To get back to a more relevant point, there is a requirement for a passing loop. It would not take a massive leap of imagination to suggest that a passing loop could be installed near Eglinton airport. A stop could also be installed there, as it is required anyway, to facilitate passengers using the airport. That could potentially double the number of patrons using the lines, but I would expect that it would take more than a year for that to happen. Only one train can operate on the line between Coleraine and Londonderry because there is no passing loop. I hope that the Minister will address that issue.
Mr Speaker: Before I call the Minister for Regional Development to respond, I remind Members that it is unparliamentary to accuse other Members of telling lies. I must make that position absolutely clear.
The Minister for Regional Development (Mr Murphy): Thank you, a Cheann Comhairle. I will be careful about how I refer to Members.
I thank the Members who tabled the motion. I also thank the Northern Corridor Railways Group for its work in producing the report. When we discuss the provision of railways in the North, I am always heartened that Members on all Benches show an interest in the subject. It reflects my own interest in the topic. I am always heartened that the Assembly is so supportive of investment in the railways.
The future of the Belfast to Derry railway line has attracted interest and provoked much debate, not just today, but for several years. Furthermore, the uncertainty about its future has caused much concern. I appreciate the importance of the railway line between Belfast and Derry to the whole of the north-west, and I would like it to be upgraded so that people living there receive the same level of service as elsewhere on the railway network.
Before going into detail about future investment, I would like to look back on the history of investment or underinvestment in the line to date, without any of the revision.
In September 2000, the railway task force, which was set up to consider the future of the rail network, produced a report promoting what was described as a consolidation option for the railways. That distinguished between the heavily used lines around Belfast and the lesser-used lines north of Ballymena and Whitehead, which were sometimes referred to as non-core lines. The consolidation option envisaged modernisation of the heavily used line, continuation of services on the lesser-used lines, without major investment, and the replacement of the old Class 80 rolling stock with a fleet of new trains.
The Budget of 2000 provided £102 million additional funding for the consolidation option. Following on from the regional development strategy published in 2001, the 10-year regional transportation strategy produced in July 2002 acknowledged that addressing the transportation deficit would be a long-term challenge. It envisaged that progress could be made over the next 10 years if resources were available.
The Budget of 2002 provided a further £40 million to allow the consolidation option to be completed. Against that background, investment in the Derry line has been very limited. From 1999 to 2002, the Department bid £4·5 million for work on the line north of Ballymena, but only £1·5 million was actually invested. The regional transportation strategy proposed no investment in the lesser-used lines until the outcome of investment in the core network was evaluated.
However, it became apparent that more investment was needed in order to keep the Belfast to Derry line operational and that that could not wait until the evaluation was ready to proceed. As a result, a railways review group was established in 2003 to consider the immediate investment needs of the network and, in particular, those of the lesser-used lines. Following consideration of the review group’s report, direct rule Ministers agreed to provide total funding of £23·6 million for the lesser-used lines, including capital of £17·2 million, over a five-year period beginning in 2005-06. That investment was restricted to maintaining services at existing levels and to preventing further deterioration in standard on those lines.
On coming into office, I lifted the restriction on investment on the line from Ballymena to Derry. That followed a positive evaluation contained in an economic appraisal that considered the various options for the railway network here. As a result, references to lesser-used or non-core lines are redundant and should no longer be used. My decision allows Translink to prepare a business case for a substantial upgrade to the Coleraine to Derry line. The latest Budget and investment strategy include provision for the cost of that upgrade, which is currently estimated at £64 million.
Members will understand that improvements cannot be made overnight, given that certain processes must occur prior to commencement of the work. The preparatory work, for example, could not be undertaken until the strategic decision to invest on the Derry line had been made. The steps that Translink must now take to progress the upgrade include: the production of a project-initiation document; the recruitment of a feasibility team; and the completion of a feasibility study that considers issues such as track layout, design, speed, signalling, the work needed on the user-work crossings on the line, structures, Derry station, and environmental issues. Translink must also: produce and approve a business case; recruit design teams; produce track and signal designs; and recruit contractors. Each of those steps can take considerable time, but they are expected to be completed by 2011, allowing work to commence on the ground at that stage.
Translink is at pains to emphasise that it is at an early stage of planning the project and that timings may be subject to change. It is also important to note that the Public Accounts Committee heavily criticised the Department and Translink for the poor preparation and scoping of the Belfast to Bangor relay project, which resulted in an overspend of some £12 million. It is essential that all future infrastructure projects are planned properly and that risks are minimised and managed. Although I appreciate that rail travellers in the north-west wish to see an upgraded line as soon as possible, it is important that we do not cut corners and that the project is undertaken professionally so that we can optimise the impact that such a substantial investment in our railways will have.
It is envisaged that the project will entail a complete relay of the track between Coleraine and Derry, together with the provision of new signalling works and a new passing loop. Translink envisages that the project should be completed by 2013. In the meantime, some £12 million has been earmarked to fund a major project that is designed to extend the track life of the line, focused mainly on the stretch between Ballymena and Coleraine. Currently, sections of the line between Ballymoney and Coleraine and between Coleraine and Derry allow trains to run at a general 60 mph, with specific temporary speed restrictions at various locations. The track-life extension project on the Ballymena to Coleraine section should enable an increase to 70 mph and the removal of the majority of the temporary speed restrictions.
By 2013, when the upgrade of the line from Coleraine to Derry will have been completed, the line will have been improved sufficiently to facilitate a reduction of approximately 30 minutes in journey times between Belfast and Derry. At that time, it is also proposed to introduce a further two new train sets to the route in order to facilitate a more frequent timetable and to allow commuter train arrivals in Derry before 9.00 am. I trust that Members will agree that that will represent a substantial enhancement of rail services to the north-west.
Other major projects on the Belfast to Derry line have been completed already. Mr Robinson referred to the Antrim to Bleach Green section, which was upgraded and reopened to a passenger service in June 2001 at a cost of £17·5 million. Several of the 23 new CAF trains, which cost almost £82 million, are deployed on the Belfast to Derry line. Other smaller projects have been completed in recent years, such as the new passenger terminal at Coleraine. I am also pleased to record that the passenger numbers on the Derry line increased by 16·7% in 2006-07 compared with the previous year. For 2007-08, the numbers have increased by a further 11·5%. Those increases can be credited to the deployment of the new trains on the line, demonstrating how well-placed capital investment is achieving results, with benefits to commuters, the wider community, and the environment.
However, funding of railway transport is expensive. Over the past four years, the Department has provided capital funding of £121 million for capital projects across the railways network and revenue of some £87 million to meet public-service obligation requirements. That further demonstrates the Government’s commitment to rail services and shows how important it is to carefully plan improvements.
As the motion rightly states, the long-term need for rail services must be recognised in the context of broader strategic plans for the North. It is therefore important that we ensure, as far as possible, that the region maximises the benefits that will flow from that expenditure, and that we consider the contributions that might be made by other stakeholders that stand to benefit from the investment.
I am also keen that we consider other examples of best practice in order to determine what works and what does not. That debate must happen. Therefore, I am happy to explore how a study might address the wider social, land-use-development, economic-regeneration and environmental considerations. The aim of such a study would be to ensure that this important infrastructure investment would support wider growth and policy objectives. I also intend to raise the matter at the next North/South Ministerial Council transport sectoral meeting in order to ascertain whether the South has any interest in participating in such a study.
I support the motion, and I am happy to advance the Northern Corridor Railways Group’s proposal for a railway corridor development study. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr O’Loan: The debate has been interesting and useful, and I thank the 11 Members and the Minister who spoke and other Members who intervened. For the most part, those contributions were constructive.
Plans for the railway’s future illustrate the difference between direct rule and the devolved Assembly: they read the situation in quite different ways. Although the outcomes of decisions taken by direct rule Ministers gave the impression of malevolence, they were not necessarily so. However, they did not have the same feel for the situation as local politicians. As John Dallat said, we consider the matter in the round. Similarly, as the Northern Corridor Railways Group’s report says, we see the railway as part of a broad framework for development in the area in which it serves. Hence, all aspects of an integrated approach to transport — the fit with the regional development strategy; economic development, including the role of the private sector; and other areas of social policy, including a commitment to vibrant rural communities — factor into our thinking. An investment in the railway is not just an end in itself; it is a contribution towards a greater goal.
That report is rightly called ‘Northern Corridor Railway Renaissance’, because it discusses the rebirth of the railway. It is important that the Assembly make its intentions clear, and, by dismissing the rail network’s division into core and non-core activities and its spending only on maintenance, I believe that it has done so.
Given modern thinking about sustainability, what logic could there be in dismantling such public-transport infrastructure? In terms of balanced regional development, it would be an act of madness to remove the railway line between the two largest conurbations in the northern part of this island. Today, we must confirm the long-term future of the Belfast to Derry line, and I believe that the Assembly has made its views clear. I am confident that investment in that infrastructure will be the catalyst for further development along the line.
Having decided to retain the line, as the Assembly is minded to do, we must recognise that it is unsustainable to operate it at its current low level. That is why the further study — based on the wider context that I described — that is proposed in ‘Railway Renaissance’ is necessary.
It is abundantly clear that investment in the line will immediately yield returns in terms of greater use. Since 2003-04, the introduction of new trains has resulted in passenger numbers increasing by 87% to more than one million, well ahead of targets. We now want to reduce journey times and increase service frequency.
I welcome the Minister’s announcement, which he has repeated today, of £12 million for essential track remediation — note that that is merely remediation — to the north of Ballymena and £64 million for a track-relaying project between Coleraine and Derry, which will start in 2011. As the Minister said, that will reduce Derry to Belfast journey times by 30 minutes. He also referred to the provision of two extra trains, which will bring commuter services into Derry before 9.00 am, although not until 2013. The Assembly should inform the Minister that all those activities must be brought forward with the utmost urgency. I note that, in answer to a question yesterday, he referred to attempts to introduce that commuter service to Derry at an earlier date.
Along that line, people want more service. A petition signed by more than 800 people demands the reinstatement of the Dunloy railway halt, and that request will shortly find its way to the Minister.
Since the Northern Corridor Railways Group published its report, it has made a further submission to the Minister in which it highlighted the value of the rail corridor as a regional and cross-border asset.
It links the rail corridor to the intergovernmental study on the all-Ireland economy, and the high-level spatial strategies, North and South. The group asks that the railway corridor development study be considered in the context of the wider collaborative framework and in the cross-border regional context. It has requested that the Minister proposes the undertaking of a joint cross-border railway study to the North/South Ministerial Council. That is the right suggestion: such a major development of the infrastructure can contribute to the sustainable economic development of the whole of the north and west of the island. I hope that the Minister will support such a study.
Fred Cobain and Mervyn Storey raised the point of relatively low investment in our railway infrastructure. Ken Robinson, John McCallister and William McCrea strongly emphasised the point that we do not simply talk about a railway line from Ballymena to Derry, we refer also to a Belfast to Derry railway line, to the whole railway network in Northern Ireland and, as the SDLP argues, to the railway network throughout the island. Moreover, William McCrea referred to an airport link. Those are all important points.
There is no difference of opinion. Although I argue strongly in favour of regional development, there is no real tension between the development of Belfast as a city and the development of the rest of the region. In fact, the two contribute to each other, and that is what proper development is about. Good transport infrastructure plays a vital role in that.
Raymond McCartney made a curious point about the involvement of the private sector that was mentioned in the report. His point revealed the influence of Karl Marx and, perhaps, even Sinn Féin’s voodoo economics. We do not talk just about an iron way; but about substantial economic development along the corridor, of which the railway will be a part and a catalyst. Undoubtedly, that will involve private sector development. There may be private sector contributions to infrastructure along that railway line: I imagine that such schemes have happened elsewhere.
Mr McCartney: Even the report is not clear about what is meant by close involvement. I hoped that either Mr O’Loan or one of the other Members speaking in the debate would enlighten me; however, that has not yet happened.
Mr O’Loan: I am glad that the Member asked the question because I have just outlined that very point, so — clearly — he is ignorant of those basic points of economics. I suggest that, since the Member obviously did not take in what I said, he reads the Hansard report carefully tomorrow to see what I am saying.
David Ford and Ken Robinson made good points about sustainable transport and sustainable development, and emphasised the wider issue of sustainability. Mark Durkan made an excellent point about the potential development of the eco-village concept. Furthermore, he referred to getting freight onto the railway — a concept which has not been developed here at all.
The contribution from Martina Anderson was singularly unfortunate. She enhanced neither the debate nor the public perception of her party’s standing. Ms Anderson said that there were restrictions on spending during devolution, decisions supporting consolidation going towards the non-core network. That is absolutely false. It is clear that spending on trains was predicated on the rejection of the non-core concept and of further investment along the line. That was the clearly expressed view of the Assembly, of the Minister who spoke, of the Minister of Finance at the time, of the Committee for Regional Development, and of the Executive, which included Ministers from the Member’s party. Therefore, what Ms Anderson said was false and made no useful contribution to the debate.
Mr Durkan: I wish to make a point of information, as Mr O’Loan was not a Member of the Assembly during devolution. This issue was not just discussed at the Executive; certainly, I assure Sinn Féin Members that Martin McGuinness and Bairbre de Brún did not support the consolidation option when they backed investment in the railways, because the Executive did not buy that option. The two Ministers for Regional Development at the time told the Assembly that they were not working to the consolidation option: it is recorded in the Hansard reports that, in this Assembly, two Ministers said that they did not accept the option that had been generated by the Railway Review Group.
Furthermore, that had also been made clear during Budget discussions, including, as the Member rightly touched on, by the Committee for Regional Development at that time, which was satisfied that that was not the case.
Mr O’Loan: I thank the Member for his intervention; it is important to put such matters on the record. It is regrettable that that episode was mentioned during the debate. I hope that it can now be put aside and that the Assembly can focus on the main point, which is the endorsement of the report and our statement to the Minister that the matter should be taken forward. That has been the clearly expressed view of those who contributed to the debate.
Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly notes with interest the report ‘Northern Corridor Railway Renaissance’ from the Northern Corridor Railways Group; welcomes its focus on embedding the development of the line in the wider development of the area it will serve; recognises the need for long-term thinking about rail services in the context of broader strategic plans for Northern Ireland and for local areas involved; accepts its arguments for the close involvement of the private sector; and endorses the need for the Railway Corridor Development Study which it proposes.
Mr Speaker: The Business Committee has arranged to meet immediately upon the lunchtime suspension. I propose, therefore, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm. The first item of business after the lunchtime suspension will be the motion on the bill of rights and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission.
The sitting was suspended at 12.26 pm.
On resuming (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Dallat] in the Chair) —
Bill of Rights and Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to two hours for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes 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.
Mr Kennedy: I beg to move
That this Assembly expresses its grave concern at the lack of cross-community support for the recommendations contained in the Report of the Bill of Rights Forum; and strongly urges the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission to ensure cross-community support for its advice to the Secretary of State.
This is a very important debate that I hope will attract attention and contribution from Members of the House.
At the initial meeting of the Bill of Rights Forum on 18 December 2006, the Ulster Unionist Party stated:
“A heavy responsibility is placed on this Forum — on both the representatives of political parties and of various sectors within civil society — to determine rights supplemental to the ECHR, reflecting the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland. If the Forum is to produce agreed recommendations to this end, consensus must characterise its workings and conclusions — both consensus across the various sectors of civil society and consensus amongst the political parties”.
From the outset of the forum’s work, my party emphasised the need to build cross-community political support for any recommendations that emerged from the forum’s deliberations. One would have thought that necessity to be self-evident. Some rights — often those particular to the circumstances of Northern Ireland — are contested in our society. Our conflicts and disputes have often been couched in terms of competing rights.
Therefore, is it not reasonable, startlingly obvious even, that any statement of rights — supplementary to those of the European Convention on Human Rights — particular to the circumstances of Northern Ireland must have cross-community support? Without that support, such a statement of rights would increase, rather than ameliorate, the divisions in our society.
The final report of the Bill of Rights Forum has now been published, one year and four months later. Among all the points of dispute within that report, one matter cannot be disputed — there is no cross-community political support for the maximalist bill of rights in the recommendations debated and discussed by the forum. The report of the Bill of Rights Forum demonstrates that in the most categorical and explicit terms.
Whatever else might be said about the final report, whatever criticisms will be aired in this debate — and there are very many justifiable grounds for criticism — the report has done useful and necessary work in that respect. The report has explicitly and categorically demonstrated to the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission that the model of a maximalist bill of rights — supported by some in the forum and, indeed, by the previous Human Rights Commission — does not have cross-community political support.
Some Members in the House will, of course, attempt to divert attention from that complete absence of cross-community political support. They will tell us that a bill of rights should be imposed on the people of Northern Ireland — over the head of the Assembly — despite the absence of cross-community political support.
Ironically, among their number will be those who stated loudly in the House yesterday that cross-community political support was necessary to determine which Department should have responsibility for the regeneration of a former military base. The regeneration of a former military base is no small matter. However, neither is a bill of rights; neither is the ordering of a proper relationship between a democratically elected legislator and the courts; neither is the proposal of some members of the forum to transfer decisions about public expenditure from the House to the courts.
However, I understand why some who support a bill of rights that transfers power from a democratically elected Assembly to the courts are anxious to downplay the necessity of cross-community political support.
The final report of the Bill of Rights Forum demonstrates why —
Mr Weir: Some may argue that a bill of rights should be imposed without cross-community support. One of the recommendations of the Bill of Rights Forum report, which will be lauded by some Members, is that before a bill of rights is presented to the House of Commons, it should require cross-community support in the Assembly. Those who argue that it should go straight to the House of Commons would be arguing against the report that they will laud in another direction.
Mr Kennedy: I am grateful to the honourable Member for that well made and important point.
There is a case to be made for rights supplementary to the European Convention addressing the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland. It is important to remember that “particular circumstances” is not an empty phrase that can mean anything that we want it to mean. It has been defined carefully by the Belfast Agreement, which refers to:
“the principles of mutual respect for the identity and ethos of both communities and parity of esteem”.
That emphasises the significance of cross-community political support. How can any proposed bill of rights adhere to the principles of mutual respect for the identity and ethos of both communities and parity of esteem if it lacks cross-community political support entirely? It cannot.
That brings me back to the final report of the Bill of Rights Forum. I trust that it will be read carefully by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, and that it will note carefully the levels of support recorded with regard to each recommendation in the report. If those levels of support are to be the outcome of the advice that the commission provides to the Secretary of State in December, the commission will have fundamentally failed and fundamentally compromised its standing in society in Northern Ireland.
What would encourage cross-community political support for any proposed supplementary rights? The answer is three key principles. First, it must be recognised that supplementary rights are just that — supplementary. They must not be an exercise in the rewriting of the Human Rights Act 1998. In the final report, an Alliance Party submission states support for:
“the maintenance of a common basic human rights regime throughout the United Kingdom”
That statement reflects accurately the wording and the intention of the Belfast Agreement.
Secondly, any proposal for the incorporation of justifiable social and economic rights contravenes a key constitutional principle laid down in the Green Paper of July 2007 ‘The Governance of Britain’, which states:
“some have argued for the incorporation of economic and social rights into British law. But this would involve a significant shift from Parliament to the judiciary in making decisions about public spending and, at least implicitly, levels of taxation.”
Finally, in addressing issues of parity of esteem and mutual respect, any proposals must give expression to both the rights and duties contained in the framework convention for the protection of national minorities.
The final report of the Bill of Rights Forum demonstrates beyond any doubt the absence of cross-community support for the vast majority of the recommendations discussed by the forum. It is now the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission to ensure that its deliberations and advice do not repeat that mistake and failure.
Mr A Maginness: I beg to move the following amendment: Leave out all after “Assembly” and insert
“welcomes the level of constructive engagement between the political parties and the social partners in the Bill of Rights Forum which reported on 31 March 2008; believes that the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, in developing its advice to the Secretary of State, must act independently to produce that advice based on human rights principles; and calls for the development of a comprehensive and progressive Bill of Rights that can promote and protect the rights of all, set out common values in our divided society, and act as common ground upon which we can build a shared future.”
As a member of the Bill of Rights Forum, which lasted for the past 15 months, I commend all those who participated in it — the five political parties and all those representatives of civic society who gave considerable time, energy and effort to the process.
All the contributions from civic society and the political parties were extremely constructive. It was a most interesting and valuable process, and the synthesis between the political elements in our society and those in civic society was enriching for everybody involved.
I listened very carefully to Mr Kennedy’s speech. What it amounted to was an endorsement of the Bill of Rights Forum. What was the necessity for that forum? Why did we not simply work on a bill of rights in the Assembly? The reason was that the political parties could not reach a consensus on the shape, form and content of a bill of rights. Therefore, a separate, parallel process, in which people sought to reach agreement on a bill of rights, was required. That is why this debate is taking place.
A bill of rights has been a demand for many people in politics for many years. It long preceded the Good Friday Agreement. Its genesis, in relation to the current process, was very clearly enunciated in the Good Friday Agreement, as a commitment to a bill of rights is contained in that agreement.
We celebrate the tenth anniversary of that agreement this week, on 10 April. It was agreed by all the people of Ireland, North and South, with concurrent majorities. There was cross-community support for the Good Friday Agreement, and it contained a commitment to a bill of rights.
The shape, form and content of that bill of rights can be talked about, but the commitment to that remains. It is part and parcel of the Good Friday Agreement. The St Andrews Agreement contained a further commitment to a bill of rights, because all the parties agreed that there should be a forum to explore a bill of rights.
Another aspect of the commitment in the Good Friday Agreement was that the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission would ultimately advise the Government on a bill of rights. That was because the parties involved in the Good Friday Agreement saw the obvious difficulties in reaching agreement in relation to the content, shape and form of a bill of rights.
The final advice that was to be given to the Government would not come from the Assembly or the political parties — who clearly could not reach agreement on it — but from the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. That is its mandate, and that is what it will do. Through the deliberations of the forum, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission will seek to construct a document to advise the British Government on a bill of rights.
It is the function of Westminster to pass that bill of rights.
Mr Kennedy: Does the Member accept that it is absolutely crucial and imperative that any proposed bill of rights has the popular support, endorsement and confidence of the Assembly? Does he accept that, in the deliberations thus far, it has been clearly demonstrated that that is not there?
Mr A Maginness: Clearly, Mr Kennedy has not listened to a word that I have said. The forum was set up because political agreement could not be reached. It is clear that we cannot reach political agreement over the shape and content of the bill of rights, and that is why that process is in place. It is also why the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission has been mandated to produce a draft to go to Westminster. That is why Westminster, and not the Assembly, will legislate. Westminster will entrench the bill of rights for all the people of Northern Ireland. That process is needed because of political disagreement. If we had political agreement — which no one denies is desirable — there would be no need for the processes that have been gone through. Therefore, the British Government, the Irish Government and all the political parties agreed to the process that has just taken place.
Even prior to the forum, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission conducted extensive consultation on a bill of rights. In 2001, it published a consultation document, ‘Making a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland’. In April 2004, it published ‘Progressing a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland: An Update’. Those documents got no further because of the lack of political agreement and the lack of political buy-in, particularly from the unionist parties. Therefore, the process stalled, and we have now reached the current point.
The SDLP wishes to see an extensive bill of rights because of the Troubles, which emerged in the 1970s and continued through the 1980s and 1990s. The Troubles arose out of the abuse — indeed, the absence — of human and civil rights. The principle of one man, one vote was denied. Massive discrimination took place in employment. There was internment without trial. Massive abuses of human rights took place.
A bill of rights is needed to guarantee the peace that we have now and to ensure that those abuses will never happen again and that people will have the confidence to buy in to the new system of government and the new political arrangements. A bill of rights will guarantee the peace that we have now established; it will not threaten that peace. Rights will not threaten anyone in the House or outside of it. Rights will not threaten unionist people, nationalist people or people who have no political allegiance to those two traditions. Rights will guarantee freedom and a peaceful future. That is why a bill of rights is so important to our society, and I appeal to all Members to support the process of drafting it.
I have little time in which to talk about the content of the bill of rights, and it is not necessary to do so. It is necessary to say that rights will create common values that we can all cherish and share. Ultimately, that will allow the creation of a society in which everyone can share, and in which everyone can live in peace. That is the importance of the bill of rights.
Mr McCausland: The process that we have come to know as the Bill of Rights Forum was a long process that lasted about 16 months, from the end of 2006 to March 2008. As a member of the forum, I was present throughout the process, from the first meeting to the last. I was also convenor of one of the working groups.
The forum was given a very specific remit: to produce a report on a possible bill of rights, taking account of the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland. The working group of which I was the convenor covered culture, identity and language. It was quite clear that that area falls very much within the remit of the Bill of Rights Forum. We had some good discussions that explored some very difficult issues in depth. In passing, I pay tribute to the group’s legal adviser, Dr Elizabeth Craig, who ensured that our debate was well informed.
Issues such as culture, identity and language get to the heart of matters in Northern Ireland, whether it is in relation to parades, minority languages or denominational education. They are particularly relevant to the individual circumstances of Northern Ireland, and we made good progress on a number of them; but, in the end, the process was rushed, and the opportunity for greater agreement was lost, especially as regards minority languages and the right of peaceful assembly.
Regrettably, I must say that I believe that it was a flawed process that produced a flawed product. It was flawed in a number of ways. First, significant sectors of our society were not invited to the table, and, secondly, too many areas were considered that did not fall within the forum’s remit. Instead of the forum sticking to the remit that it was given, it devoted a lot of time to considering a wide range of issues.
Mr A Maginness: Will the Member agree that there was a tremendous openness within the forum and that many groups that were not formally represented were invited to the forum? Furthermore, an extensive outreach process was also engaged in.
Mr McCausland: Alban Maginness asked me if I agree with him. The answer is no, I do not agree, because there is a big difference between being at the table —
Mr A Maginness: The Member is just factually wrong.
Mr McCausland: Perhaps if Alban Maginness would listen he might discover that he is wrong. My point is that there is a big difference between being at the table and being allowed to sit there and observe. There are people who should have been at the table from the start, but who were not.
Instead of sticking to the forum’s remit, too many areas were considered, and, therefore, insufficient time was given to issues that should have been very much at the heart of our debate. The process was also flawed in that there were exaggerated — and, I believe, groundless —claims made about the process. I note another one today; Alban Maginness told us that a bill of rights would “guarantee” peace. It is not possible for anybody to give a positive 100% categorical guarantee of anything. The advertisements that were placed in Belfast — and further afield, I am sure — told us that poverty, sickness and virtually everything that is wrong with society would be made right. Those sorts of exaggerated claims are unhelpful.
In the end, a document was produced in which there was a marked absence of cross-community agreement. There were several hundred proposals, yet barely a handful achieved cross-community support, and I believe that none was unanimously agreed.
If a bill or rights is to contribute to a shared and better future in Northern Ireland, and if it is to be a positive and cohesive force rather than a divisive one, it must secure cross-community support and endorsement in the Assembly. The maximalist approach that was taken would, if implemented, disempower the democratic process. I fear that decisions would be made in the courts rather than in the Assembly and Parliament, and that lawyers would make a fortune at the same time — which might, of course, please Alban Maginness.
However, if it is to be a positive influence and cohesive, it must have cross-community support, which must be demonstrated in the Assembly through cross-community endorsement.
Ms Anderson: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I oppose the motion, but I wish to speak in favour of the amendment. Some time ago, the DUP and the UUP criticised what they called the “lack of unionist representation” on the Bill of Rights Forum. I echo those concerns. I agree wholeheartedly that huge swathes of the unionist population have not been adequately represented on that forum. However, that is not because of a lack of representation; it is because of the abject failure of the DUP and the UUP to stand up for the rights of the unionist working classes. The evidence is there for all to see in the forum’s reports.
The DUP and the UUP opposed the right to a decent standard of living, including adequate food, water, fuel and clothing. Both parties also voted against —
Mr Ross: Will the Member give way?
Ms Anderson: No, I will not give way. Suigh síos.
The DUP and the UUP also voted against the right to the highest possible standard of health and social care. They opposed the right to a decent home that is safe and affordable, and they voted against the right to work and to enjoy a fair wage and proper conditions. The DUP and the UUP opposed —
Mr Beggs: Will the Member give way?
Ms Anderson: Suigh síos. I am not giving way.
The DUP and the UUP opposed the right to be free from slavery and forced labour. They could not accept the right to a sustainable, healthy and safe environment or the right to adequate social security and pensions. In fact, the parties opposed the vast majority of the report’s proposals, but not all of them.
The DUP and UUP motion criticises the lack of cross-community support for the forum’s recommendations. Perhaps both parties would like to take this opportunity to explain to their community why they failed to support those recommendations. Why did they fail to support the right of their people to enjoy decent wages, a decent home and to raise their children in a safe and secure environment? I fully expected them to oppose issues such as recognition for the Irish language. However, I am stunned by the massive disservice that they are doing to their people by continuing to rally against many of the extremely progressive principles in the report.
A strong bill of rights would provide a powerful tool to make a huge difference to the lives of our people. Remember: poverty, hunger, fear and exploitation are real issues across the social spectrum. Hungry children are hungry children whether they live on the Falls, the Shankill or in the Bogside or the Fountain.
Mr Weir: Will the Member give way?
Ms Anderson: No, I will not give way. Go raibh maith agat. The Member can comment when he speaks.
Mr Speaker: Order. It is clear that the Member does not want to give way, and she does that at her discretion.
Ms Anderson: This issue is not about republican, nationalist, unionist or loyalist rights; it is about the rights of all. The bill of rights, if implemented, will compel Government to take whatever positive steps they can in order to address the economic and social problems that face our people. The Government of the day will have to legislate and provide whatever resources they can to turn the aspirations of a bill of rights into reality. If the Government fail to do so, they will have to explain why and demonstrate when they will take appropriate action.
What do the DUP and the UUP fear about that? Do they not want their people to have equality, prosperity and a better future? They must answer those questions themselves, and they will get an opportunity to do so here. For Sinn Féin’s part, it will continue to champion the rights of all. Therefore, at the risk of sounding like a unionist member of the Bill of Rights Forum, I oppose the motion but support the amendment.
Not only is a bill of rights a fundamental part of the Good Friday Agreement and a commitment of the St Andrews Agreement, it represents an incredible opportunity to make a real and positive difference to the lives of our people, and to squander that opportunity would be the greatest human-rights abuse of all. Go raibh maith agat.
Dr Farry: I support the motion. I agree entirely with the sentiments of the amendment, but, sadly, I cannot support it, because it ducks the fundamental issue that we face: introducing a bill of rights without cross-community support. We must reflect seriously on that issue. Members can take it as read that the principles of international law and working towards a shared future are very close to the heart of the Alliance Party. However, we recognise the political realities of our society making progress.
The Alliance Party has supported a bill of rights for Northern Ireland for many years. Indeed, it was one of my predecessors, Sheelagh Murnaghan, who first proposed a Northern Ireland bill of rights, in this very Chamber in 1962. A bill of rights must build upon the European Convention on Human Rights and the Human Rights Act 1998, rather than rip them up and start again. We have had a tortuous process since the Good Friday Agreement. I welcome the report of the Bill of Rights Forum in so far as it sets out a comprehensive collection of proposals and positions of different parties. However, I am disappointed that it was unable to move the debate further on.
I pay tribute to the work of the Bill of Rights Forum’s chairperson, Chris Sidoti, and his staff. However, I fear that the nature and format of the forum meant that it could not do much more than state the positions of various parties. Full agreement was not going to be possible, given that it was not the end of the process and parties would never show their final hands. Having a series of votes on individual proposals, basically, would have been death by a thousand cuts. In essence, the stating of positions was, frankly, the only way in which the forum could keep everyone around the table and avoid a walkout — it was that serious.
The Bill of Rights Forum was established to overcome the problem of lack of political support and buy-in for what was happening. We have simply repeated the arguments that have been voiced over the years, without moving the debate on very much. The outcome of the forum is polarised, with huge chasms on fundamental issues rather than simple matters of detail. During the life of the forum, little effort was made to bridge the gaps between parties. It is deeply regrettable that, as far as I can see, too many parties and sectors pursued a maximalist agenda, rather than seeking to find common ground with their colleagues. The Alliance Party highlighted that on numerous occasions throughout the process.
There are many stages on the way forward: the Human Rights Commission will examine the report; it will go to the Secretary of State, who, in turn, will conduct public consultation; and the results of the consultation will go back to the Northern Ireland Office and then to Westminster. Therefore, the report must be robust and capable of going down those different avenues. At any stage the Assembly can have its say on the report, or any aspect of it, through a motion. Fundamentally, the Assembly will eventually be asked to give its support, through a cross-community vote, to provide entrenchment.
Frankly, there is no point in starting with a report that is doomed to failure further down the line. It must be capable of making the journey. We cannot bury our heads in the sand and ignore the lack of political buy-in. Frankly, it is ludicrous to think of a situation in which a bill of rights would be imposed on Northern Ireland over the head of the Assembly.
There was a disjunction between the people around the table in the forum and the political balance of power in Northern Ireland. It must also be acknowledged that the three main newspapers in Northern Ireland are currently editorialising against what is happening. There is huge cynicism among the public. I speak with a heavy heart, as someone who wants to see a strong, robust bill of rights in Northern Ireland. We have a mountain to climb, and we must acknowledge the difficulties that we are having in that respect.
The Alliance Party is not here to endorse the perspective of either unionist party. It has its own perspective and comes at issues differently. It found itself able to back many more of the proposals that were brought forward than either of the unionist parties. Having said that, there were matters on which we shared common ground and concerns about the path that was being taken, particularly in respect of the scope of some matters.
Looking at the way ahead, we must build upon the European Convention on Human Rights, rather than seek to rip it up and start again.
A common basis to human rights law is required, not only throughout the UK but across the island of Ireland.
Mr A Maginness: The Member referred to a chasm of opinion in the forum. However, does he agree that, despite a formal failure by unionist parties to buy in to a bill of rights, there was wide-ranging agreement? At numerous points, the two unionist parties said that they agreed in principle with many proposals put forward by representatives of civic society. Was that not an important and constructive step?
Dr Farry: The engagement was constructive, and positions are now more clearly set out. However, several forum members, including those from the Alliance Party on some occasions, agreed to some points on principle but considered that they would be better addressed as matters of policy or on a UK-wide level. Some matters, such as rights to social security, simply cannot be introduced solely to Northern Ireland. Social security is, de facto, a UK-wide issue. A bill of rights cannot dictate that Northern Ireland have a different social security regime from the rest of the UK, because that would create huge anomalies.
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Member’s time is up.
Dr Farry: I thought that I was allowed an extra minute.
Mr Deputy Speaker: I generously gave you an extra three quarters of a minute.
Dr Farry: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. If a Member allows an intervention, the convention is that he or she is allowed an extra full minute to speak. That has already been applied today.
Mr Deputy Speaker: I remind the Member that the convention allows for up to one additional minute and I was, as I said, generous.
Dr Farry: I hope that the convention will be consistently applied throughout the debate.
Mr Deputy Speaker: I advise Members that the Speaker is in control.
Mr Hamilton: If Mr Deputy Speaker carries on in that vein, I fear that he may deny Dr Farry his rights.
I have still not worked out what I did wrong to be appointed a member of the Bill of Rights Forum, for from my first meeting I realised that the process was doomed to fail. For the first couple of hours, the forum debated ad infinitum, as it had previously and has done thereafter, how to reach agreement. Members could not agree on how to agree.
Without such basics in place, it was evident that the process would not end well, and that led to sustained criticism of the forum. Throughout its lifetime, the forum was criticised for its unrepresentative membership, as has been mentioned today, and about the strange ideas that emanated from its working groups.
In defence of the Bill of Rights Forum, its chairman, Chris Sidoti, issued a statement outlining five reasons why Northern Ireland needs a bill of rights. I will touch on a couple of those and consider why, by the chairman’s barometer, the forum failed in its work. The final reason for a bill of rights, as outlined by Chris Sidoti, was:
“To protect the rights of everyone, equally”
In a previous debate, many Members condemned my colleague Michelle McIlveen for calling into question the impartiality and political leanings of certain members of the forum who were drawn from so-called civic society; some sought even to curtail her right to free speech in the Assembly. However, when the cookie crumbled and with the passage of time —
Mr A Maginness: Does the Member acknowledge that it was the Secretary of State who appointed representatives of civic society to the forum? It was his judgement call, and, in the main, he got it right.
Mr Hamilton: I thank the Member for his intervention — he has helped to make my point. As Secretary of State, Peter Hain made those appointments. However, his judgement on that, and on several other matters, has regularly been called into question.
When the cookie crumbled and with the passage of time, Miss McIlveen’s judgement was shown to be correct. When unionist parties adopted a different stance from nationalist parties in the forum, those members representing civic society were more than 50 times more likely to vote with the nationalist, rather than unionist, parties. That proves her point. Such an example is contained in the report’s section on the right to communicate:
“Everyone has the right to communicate with any public authority and receive a response in Irish.”
Ulster Scots and other languages are excluded. In that instance, the same people who cried out for parity of esteem, fairness and equality denied them to others. Even had the proposal included a reference to Ulster Scots, the DUP would not have supported it, because it would place too onerous and punitive a burden on public bodies in Northern Ireland. What about protecting “the rights of everyone, equally” in that instance?
What about Ulster Scots and other minority languages? As one would expect, the clause was supported by the SDLP and Sinn Féin. However, it was also supported by the children’s sector; the disability sector; ethnic minorities; human-rights non-governmental orgainsations; sexual orientation groups; trade unions and the women’s sector. Do all women have a homogenous view on the issue? Patently, they do not. Do all trade unionists agree with the clause? I seriously doubt that. Why did the representatives of those sectors endorse the clause? They did so because they do not reflect the views of the society that they were supposedly appointed to represent.
The second argument that the chairman put forward was that a bill of rights would deal with the legacy of the conflict. In that respect, it fails spectacularly. Inadequate attention has been given to its specific remit of:
“the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland”.
Scant attention was given throughout the process to issues such as parading, culture, language and identity, which go to the heart of the problem. Instead, clause after clause was dedicated to issues that, although worthy pursuits, should be dealt with in the proper forum of the Assembly, through policy decisions. Issues such as outlawing, condemning and abolishing slavery were included, and inordinate amounts of time spent on those clauses, even though slavery was abolished in this part of the world 200 years ago.
Finally, forum members were called upon to support a bill of rights because it would cement peace. However, because there is no unity in respect of what has been proposed — and this is a warning to the Human Rights Commission, the Northern Ireland Office and the Secretary of State — any attempt to legislate for a bill of rights on the basis of the Bill of Rights Forum’s report would far from cement peace. Due to the nature of the country and its conflict, and where it is going at present, the enactment into law of any bill of rights that is based on the forum’s report would be counterproductive and a backward step.
Miss McIlveen: The last time that I rose to speak on the bill of rights, I was accused of playing the man — or more accurately, the woman — and not the ball. Perhaps it is not good that I be so gender-specific, given the politically correct document that has now been published. Perhaps I should talk about playing the person, and not the inflated sphere of non-specific material. Today, Mr Attwood, wherever he may be, can rest easy in his seat, because my contribution to the debate will concentrate on the consultation document, rather than on the framers. However, I cannot resist an “I told you so.” The report reads a little bit like the Communist manifesto, although it does not criticise religion as expressly.
My main concern with the consultation document is that it takes an extremely liberal interpretation — I am being kind when I describe it in that way — of:
“the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland”.
As some Members may have gathered from my previous speech on this topic, I am unconvinced of the need for a bill of rights that is particular to Northern Ireland. Certainly, the document has not, in any way, assuaged those doubts.
I was drawn to the section on youth justice. I must say that I read the working group’s recommendations —
Mr A Maginness: Will the Member give way?
Miss McIlveen: I will give way. However, I do not have much time.
Mr A Maginness: I thank the Member for giving way. Does she agree that there is a clear commitment to a bill of rights in the Good Friday Agreement, which was supported by the electorate, North and South, and that, furthermore, that commitment was endorsed at the St Andrews negotiations?
Miss McIlveen: I believe that the electorate spoke on that matter at the last election.
As I said, I was drawn to the section on youth justice. I read the recommendations of the working group on criminal justice and victims. I was extremely fearful that the bill of rights would “do a Ruane” by removing youth justice altogether and leaving people guessing as to what would replace it. Instead, there is a bit of a fudge. It states that:
“The age of criminal responsibility shall be raised in line with international human rights standards and best practice.”
What does that mean, and how is it relevant to:
“the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland”?
It means that the UN or another international body can dictate that the age of criminal responsibility should be 18 years and that Northern Ireland is obliged to follow suit, even if the majority of its people and elected representatives disagree. For the record, I do not believe that that is in any way relevant to:
“the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland”.
Phrases such as “in line with international standards” and “best practice” crop up several times, which is a grave concern.
I also found myself drawn to the following statement:
“Public authorities shall guarantee the right of all individuals to work, including to conduct a business, free from paramilitary activity, other violence and threats, harassment, extortion and blackmail.”
As much as that is a noble wish, we must ask what form the guarantee will take. If the state is unable to prevent someone from being threatened by paramilitaries, will the state — or, in other words, the taxpayer — be forced to pay compensation? That provision strikes me as incredibly onerous and impossible for the state to live up to. The victim, after all, cannot pursue the paramilitary organisation.
Mr Ross: I thank the Member for giving way, and I hope that the Deputy Speaker will allocate her extra time.
Martina Anderson said that everyone has the right to an adequate standard of living, including adequate food, water, energy, clothing and to continuous improvement in their living conditions. How will that work? What if someone loses his or her job in a recession? That is a clear example of how the document is not based in reality.
Miss McIlveen: The document also contains a recommendation that “reasonable legislative and other measures” must be introduced to prevent pollution. That is a blank cheque to lawyers to question what is intended by “reasonable”. Such ambiguities litter the document and will keep the legal fraternity in work for many years to come.
In the section on the right to a fair trial, there is a recommendation to reintroduce the right to silence without inferences. Why? If someone accused has evidence that could exonerate him or her, why can that not be provided at the earliest opportunity? Why wait until giving evidence at the trial, when the accused is fully aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the prosecution’s case, before providing such evidence? Why refuse to give evidence at all? It is proposed that a court should not consider those questions.
In the consultation document, there is a proposal to ensure:
“freedom from slavery and forced labour.”
Members will correct me if I am wrong: I am fairly sure that slavery was abolished in the United Kingdom in 1807. I do not recall any moves or demands to decriminalise it. Moreover, I am fairly sure that Article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) prohibits slavery, and that that article is given effect by the Human Rights Act 1998.
We must remember that the remit of the Bill of Rights Forum was to produce something supplemental to the ECHR and addressing the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland. The forum also considered the rights to life, liberty, security, freedom from torture and all cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, liberty and security of the person, privacy and family life, and so on — all of which are adequately covered by the ECHR.
From reading the document, it appears that issues proposed by both unionist parties, that were directly pertinent to the circumstances of Northern Ireland and would have supplemented the ECHR, were not adopted. Many issues that were opposed by both unionist parties, on the grounds that they were not Northern Ireland-specific, were adopted. It is clear that cross-community support was not obtained and, without it, the document fails in its primary purpose.
The effect of a great deal of what is proposed has not been carefully thought through. The document has a sense of something rushed — a bit like my speech — and swiftly cobbled together. This is a wish list: one should be careful what one wishes for.
Mr Elliott: At one level, the motion cannot reasonably be debated. It states an obvious fact: anyone who has read the report of the Bill of Rights Forum is aware that the recommendations debated by the forum do not have cross-community political support. Members opposite may have difficulty in accepting that. Levels of support recorded in the report make that explicit. There is no cross-community political support for the model of a bill of rights contained in the recommendations of the report.
The Bill of Rights Forum was created with the intention of promoting consensus. Over a year later, we must accept and face the reality: there was, and is, no consensus that will allow the recommendations made by the forum to become legislation. It now falls to the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission to give advice to the Secretary of State on the contents of the supplementary rights.
We are all aware that the advice of the Commission is due to be presented to the Secretary of State in December this year. That means that the Commission has eight months to read, learn and inwardly digest the report of the forum. If, after that time, the Commission produces advice that is not built on the solid foundations of cross-community political support, the entire bill of rights process should be brought to an end. It goes without saying that any attempt by the Westminster Government to legislate for a bill of rights that lacks cross-community political support in Northern Ireland could fundamentally undermine political stability and community relations in the Province.
Like many Members, I firmly believe in civil and religious liberty for all. Throughout the centuries, the British constitution has progressively extended the realm of liberty in our society through ongoing reform. Codifying fundamental rights and liberties is far from alien to the British constitutional tradition. The Human Rights Act 1998 belongs to a long tradition that dates back, at least, to the Declaration of Rights in 1689. At each stage of constitutional reform, care has been taken to ensure that proposed reforms are compatible with the principle of parliamentary government and that they are acceptable to the broad swathe of society. The same test must now apply to any proposals for supplementary rights to the Human Rights Act.
Power, particularly over social and economic matters, must not be transferred from democratically elected representatives to the courts. The role of the courts is to interpret and apply law but not to make it, and any proposals for supplementary rights — particularly in our divided society — must have cross-community political support.
The Ulster Unionist Party continues to recognise the scope for rights that are supplementary to the Human Rights Act, which address circumstances that are particular to Northern Ireland. Two examples are the right to parade and the right to protest, which — few Members would disagree — have been among the most significant and divisive rights to be contested in recent years. In Northern Ireland, it is obvious that some people have attempted to deny those basic rights to members of the Orange Institution. That makes it even more surprising that the final report of the Bill of Rights Forum failed to recommend any supplementary rights to article 11 of the Human Rights Act, which enshrines freedom of peaceful assembly. That glaring failure to address our circumstances must be reflected in the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission’s advice to the Secretary of State.
For years, many citizens of this Province were denied the basic right of life through brutal murders by terrorists in our society. Much responsibility is now on the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission; it has the benefit of the experience of the Bill of Rights Forum, and it knows the recommendations and proposals that do not have cross-community political support. I hope that an important lesson has been learned.
Mr Shannon: I am a firm believer in rights: the right to life; the right to freedom of conscience; the right to freedom of religion; and the right to gather in celebration of culture. However, as those rights are already enshrined in the Human Rights Act 1998, the creation of a bill of rights for Northern Ireland is unnecessary. It was decreed in the Belfast Agreement that the notion of a bill of rights should be examined in conjunction with the Human Rights Act that became law at that time.
The mair hit wus maide clear i the Bilfawst ‘greement at a bill o’ richts shud bae researched hit isnae yin bit certain at a bill o’ richts shud bae brocht in an’ haein raid the report an’ tuk adwice fae legal minds hit’s gyely clear at this bill es hit hes been presented wudnae seek tae protect an’ heft the apstannin fowk o’ the Province.
Although it was made clear in the Belfast Agreement that a bill of rights should be researched, it is by no means certain that there should be one in Northern Ireland. Having read the report and taken advice from legal minds, the proposed bill of rights would not protect and aid the upstanding folk of the Province. Instead, it is designed by one sector of the community and is divisive, because the positive discrimination against the pro-Union people of the Province is apparent throughout.
I am not alone in holding that view — it is held by most unionists, including those who are not noted for being politically minded. For example, in a publication, the Church of Ireland stated that the proposed bill of rights was divisive and detracted from the Union.
Mr A Maginness: The Church of Ireland has not taken a position on the proposed bill of rights and definitely has not opposed it. There was an editorial in ‘The Church of Ireland Gazette’ that expressed a position on the proposed bill of rights. However, the Church of Ireland made it clear that that did not represent its official view.
Mr Shannon: Ultimately, the people made their opinion clear, and they used ‘The Church of Ireland Gazette’ to do so. That editorial spoke for many of the people who belong to that Church, whether Members like it or not. Legal specialists have touted the view that it is unnecessary for Northern Ireland to have a separate bill of rights when the rest of the United Kingdom is merely looking into the possibility of adopting one.
Mr Ross: The Member made reference to a possible United Kingdom bill of rights. The Green Paper ‘The Governance of Britain’ states that:
“this would involve a significant shift from Parliament to the judiciary in making decisions about public spending and, at least implicitly, levels of taxation.”
Is that not a dangerous precedent to set? Does the Member agree that a bill of rights will encourage lawyers to make frivolous claims on behalf of their clients?
Mr Shannon: I thank the Member for his intervention and clear words, and, with graciousness, Mr Deputy Speaker, I believe that he has afforded me an extra 60 seconds.
The Belfast Agreement allowed for discussion on a bill of rights for Northern Ireland because of our particular circumstances. However, I believe that that was merely an attempt to further the nationalist cause, and, for that reason, a bill of rights is unnecessary.
There are a couple of reasons that I, and the majority of unionists, find it impossible to support the bill of rights. I cannot support a bill of rights that would allow young men who almost killed a constituent of mine in Newtownards to walk free because they were 17 years old, and not 18 — the age at which the bill of rights suggests that a person can be considered to be responsible for their crimes. That is not acceptable. Those young men knew what they were doing. They are going through a process that has been designed for people of their age, which will help them to understand what is acceptable, and it is hoped that they will come through the other side of that as men who are ready to give to their community, and not take away. An individual’s right to life must be protected, but the bill of rights gives the wrongdoer more rights than the victim. I cannot support that.
I am also concerned that the unborn child’s right to life is not protected in the proposed bill of rights. That right is definitely impinged upon, because the bill of rights would allow for the right to “reproductive health”. I have been informed by individuals with knowledge of the law that that can be interpreted as a right to abort an unborn child. I cannot and will not support that, and I am not the only Member who feels that way.
During a recent Assembly debate on abortion, the House voted overwhelmingly to maintain our strong anti-abortion laws. I am a man of my word, and it is hoped that all Members are men and women of their word and that they will not go back on that promise to support the cause of the unborn child. That would be unconscionable.
There are many other specific matters relating to the proposed bill of rights that are covered by the Human Rights Act 1998. The bill of rights is divisive in its composition and nature, and it does not uphold the basic rights that are required to make Northern Ireland a prosperous society.
Cross-community support was not achieved for the 41 substantive proposals, and only seven of the 216 secondary recommendations received cross-community support. How can a bill of rights that did not receive cross-community backing be progressed? It cannot. I urge the Secretary of State to take that into account and put the bill of rights in its proper place — the bin.
Mr Beggs: I served on the children’s working group of the Bill of Rights Forum, and, from the early days, I was surprised that the group adopted such a maximalist approach. When I, as a member of the politicians’ grouping within the forum, expressed my concern that attempts were being made to take decision-making away from the political process and to create a legal or courtroom-based decision-making process, I was ignored. It was strange that my concerns — and those that were raised by another unionist — were ignored by the grouping that was dominated by non-politicians.
Consensus and stability in Northern Ireland have been achieved by our listening to other communities, being aware of their concerns and moving forward in a manner that ensures cross-community support.
From the beginning, alarm bells that should have been heeded were ignored, and I thought that it did not bode well for the process.
It is strange that Alban Maginness said that the forum was established as a parallel process because of a lack of political consensus. If the unionist community had wanted to achieve its aims and had decided to ignore the views of the nationalist community and proceed, with the support of the statutory system, to impose a new method of governance in Northern Ireland, how would the nationalist community have responded?
Mr A Maginness: The Member paints a lurid picture of political exclusion. However, the forum was inclusive; five political parties attended, two of which were unionist. The parties outlined their views firmly and robustly and were not excluded in any way.
Mr Beggs: The forum failed to listen carefully to the concerns of others and to proceed on a basis that would ensure cross-community support. The forum ignored the concerns of unionist representatives and the unionist community and produced a report. As I stated previously, imagine if that had happened in reverse. Imagine that the unionist community decided to ignore the wishes of the nationalist community and imposed a new political system in Northern Ireland that removed much of the decision-making process from the Assembly — and, perhaps, Ministers and Departments — and transferred that power to the courts. It is a joke. We are moving towards a system whereby the country would be governed by the courts.
Rather than helping the most vulnerable people in our society, such a system would drain valuable resources, because more resources would be put into Departments and agencies to examine decisions from a social, economic and human rights perspective. More resources would be consumed by lawyers in statutory agencies and by individuals who take their discontent to the courts to decide whether they receive a service. The legislation provides no additional services and places limited funds into fat-cat lawyers’ hands. That would adversely affect disadvantaged people in our community.
There has been a failure to recognise the real politics involved in decision-making and the importance of living within a budget. There is a proposal to progress legislation, including social and economic rights, so that, in the future, the Budget process could be determined by the courts. Therefore, what is the purpose of the Assembly? The report’s failure to recognise, and reflect, the concerns of the unionist community is a mistake.
An area of interest in my working group — which is, to a degree, reflected in the main report — is children and armed conflict. I expected that to concentrate on ensuring that children are not abused by paramilitaries. However, when I examined the outcome, that section of the report prevented 16-year-old British citizens from joining the British Army, Navy or Air Force. The report is an abuse of the unionist community and will never gain cross-community support. The SDLP amendment attempts to sidestep that.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Mr Deputy Speaker: At the risk of being rebuked, the Member’s time is up.
Ms Lo: Having served on the Bill of Rights Forum, I wish to begin by reflecting on some of its successes. All five parties that are represented in the Assembly took part in the forum to a greater or lesser extent, and participated in the final round of discussions to arrive at a final document.
First, it is fair to say that all five parties were committed to a bill of rights for Northern Ireland. The diversity of opinion centred mostly on the format and the content of such a bill of rights. Secondly, we might reflect that if we were guilty of anything, it was of setting the expectation level too high. All the participants worked hard, beyond the call of duty, including the observers who represented civic society even more widely. However, those participants were unable to reach an agreed outcome that would have been acceptable to the Assembly, voting on a cross-community basis.
That was, perhaps, an unreasonable expectation. It could be argued that the foundations now exist to achieve the desired outcome. However, the Alliance Party shared the concern — raised consistently in the working groups and the forum itself — that not enough attention was paid from the outset to solving basic areas of disagreement on a cross-community and cross-party basis.
Mr Beggs: Does the Member accept that concerns were raised by the children’s working group, but were ignored? In that respect, there was no intervention to indicate the need for cross-community support.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Molloy] in the Chair)
Ms Lo: All the concerns that were raised were listened to and recorded. That is all that was asked for.
The objective was to achieve agreement between civic society and political representatives, which is no easy task, bearing in mind that we all live in Northern Ireland. The Alliance Party supported the vast majority of the proposals in the report, with some exceptions, such as the attempt to write a two-community model into the bill of rights, which we opposed outright.
There were other serious concerns, such as the age of criminal responsibility, which were best held over to be dealt with in domestic law. Reproductive rights have a place in a bill of rights, but would never achieve the required political agreement without a compromise. The Human Rights Commission must now apply itself to the task of achieving that political agreement. It is in that context that we support the motion. I am sympathetic to the sentiments of the amendment, but the task in hand now must be to seek the political agreement that will allow us all to make progress.
I must reflect on one earlier comment. The Alliance Party’s bottom line throughout has been the fundamental right to self-identification, accepted universally, but, apparently, not in Northern Ireland. The failure to accept that right amounts to an attempt to sectarianise the bill of rights, which we reject totally.
The Alliance Party remains committed to a bill of rights that seeks to enhance our democracy, not to replace it. We want a bill of rights that the people of Northern Ireland can support. The motion passes that responsibility not just to the Human Rights Commission, but to this Assembly, as representatives of the people. It would make a mockery of devolution to suggest that British politicians should legislate on this matter if the Northern Ireland Assembly cannot agree on it.
Mrs D Kelly: I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate. Like my colleague Alban Maginness, I welcome and acknowledge the constructive engagement by the unionist parties in the Bill of Rights Forum. I also welcome this afternoon’s more mature and measured debate compared with a similar debate on a previous occasion.
In his opening remarks, Mr Kennedy set out the context for the Bill of Rights Forum, in so far as its task was to examine rights supplementary to those contained in the European Convention on Human Rights. Some Members said that they had difficulty in understanding some of the forum’s paper. The recommendations acknowledge that a better way of setting out the paper would be to establish the European standard and then set out the supplementary rights, with an emphasis on the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland.
It is fitting that the Human Rights Commission has determined that it will hand over its advice to the Secretary of State by 10 December, as that is the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We must all reflect on the circumstances around the need for a bill of rights in the European Convention on Human Rights. It came about as a result of the two horrific world wars of the twentieth century, and our bill of rights has come about as a result of 40 years of conflict.
As my colleague pointed out, Northern Ireland needs a bill of rights because there were human rights violations in the past. A bill of rights will protect not only nationalists and unionists, but all the people of Northern Ireland. I hope that all parties will buy into it, and I note that some Members said that they have nothing against a bill of rights.
Mr Beggs: Will the Member acknowledge that the greatest abuse of human rights during the Troubles came from the republican movement, which maimed and murdered more people than any other group in this society?
Mrs D Kelly: I thank the Member for his intervention. One of the absolute rights in any bill of rights is the right to life. The Member is quite right: paramilitaries and, in some cases, the state, took away the right to life of many of our citizens in the North and added to the conflict. Indeed, during the debate on the bill of rights, the SDLP looked to the rights of the families of the disappeared and the continued practice of exiling people. We have all said that that is unacceptable.
Although the Ulster Unionist Party did not endorse many of the supplementary rights in the forum’s report, it agreed in principle to an extensive number of recommendations. That is progress over previous Human Rights Consortium debates.
I welcome Sinn Féin’s support for the amendment. Martina Anderson highlighted economic and social rights in her contribution. Many Members seem either deliberately to misrepresent economic and social rights or to be ignorant of the fact that they are about progressive realisation, not about handing over power. That is already being determined in the European Court of Justice. It is not a novel idea that we plucked out of thin air — it is happening already. Surely all Members want to use their power to build a better future and a better life for all our citizens.
It was striking that many unionist Members focused on the right to parade rather than on the right to good housing or health; they seem to be obsessed. Some Members reflected on the Irish language. The Irish language is recognised as a minority language in Europe; Ulster Scots is not. That is a fact, and we cannot do anything about it.
Mr McCausland: Does the Member acknowledge that the recognition of minority languages in Northern Ireland is a matter for the United Kingdom Government? In its ratification of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages both Ulster Scots and Irish were recognised as regional minority languages, along with a range of languages in Great Britain.
Mrs D Kelly: Unfortunately, there were no proposals from either the DUP or the Ulster Unionist Party to include Ulster Scots in the recommendations. To say that this is a matter best left to Westminster is to do it an injustice, because legislation is being brought forward in the UK that will violate existing human rights standards — provision for 60-day detention and the introduction of ID cards. Is that really the road we want to go down? Even the Labour Party Back-Benchers are not going to support their Prime Minister in that context. Those are simple facts.
We want a progressive realisation — which Alban Maginness clearly articulated — that the Human Rights Commission has a statutory responsibility to build the best society; build the best human rights framework for the future, and give advice on that to the Secretary of State. The buy-in of the representatives of civic society, who made representations and contributed greatly to the forum’s debates, reflects a very wide range of people who designate themselves as unionist, nationalist and neither.
Mr Weir: I declare an interest as a member of the Bill of Rights Forum. As we are now coming to the conclusion of the process, it would be churlish of me not to recognise the contribution and help that was provided by the forum’s secretariat and the many legal advisers. Some constructive work was carried out on technical issues on which there was agreement. However, when I look back at the Bill of Rights Forum, I do so with a fundamental disappointment at its results — not with a great deal of surprise, unfortunately, because the process was fundamentally flawed.
At the beginning of the process, a decision was taken by the Secretary of State to appoint a group of people to represent — as he saw it — civil society and different groups within civil society. It is, perhaps, not important to question whether those who represented various sections of civil society truly represented everyone in those sections. For instance, it would be impossible for someone to represent all women or all older people. However, with the supposed representation of those sections, what we got was a panoply of sectional interests emerging.
I do not blame the representatives of civil society for pushing their particular agendas; in many ways, they were only performing their job in that regard. They backed each other with a level of solidarity that would have made the three musketeers look divisive. Time after time each representative section of civil society, with the possible exception of the business and Church sectors, simply supported one another in relation to the proposed bill of rights. The end result, inevitably — and again it was no fault of the representatives of civil society — was that a whole stable of hobby horses was released. The deafening clatter of the hooves of those hobby horses rings throughout this document, the result being that it displays a scattergun approach.
We have the situation in which many areas that fall outside the forum’s remit find their way into the final report. There was a lack of focus on the key issues that are particular to Northern Ireland, and the result is that we have something that goes massively beyond the forum’s remit. As stated by the proposer of the motion, the bill of rights is supposed to deal with supplementary rights that are particular to Northern Ireland. However, looking through the report there is a large number of proposed inclusions to the bill of rights that do not fall into that category. As a result of that, and because of the vast amount of ground that was covered, we ended up with a situation where there was insufficient time to focus on areas on which we could try to reach some degree of consensus. The end result was that, leaving aside the technical issues, there were 41 proposals outlined in the main body of the report — which dealt with which rights should be included — of which none received cross-community support in its entirety. None of those 41 substantive recommendations achieved complete consensus. As Jim Shannon said, only seven of the 216 secondary recommendations in the report received cross-community support.
In the Assembly we have been consistently lectured that the days of unionists as a majority imposing something on the nationalist community are clearly gone. We are not in that position. Crude majoritarianism, we are told, is not something that can ever happen again. Yet the opponents of the motion seem to want to replace crude majoritarianism with crude minoritarianism, and have a situation in which, despite the lack of cross-community support, something can be imposed upon the people of Northern Ireland from Westminster. This is not Zimbabwe; we are not in a position where a minority can impose upon people.
On a subject as sensitive as a bill of rights, we must make progress on the basis that both communities will be able to buy into it, and the problem with the report is that it is not a document that both communities — or, indeed, their representatives — can buy into.
The proposer of the motion mentioned the importance — and absence — of cross-community support, and, in relation to Northern Ireland’s particular circumstances, the need for the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities.
Alban Maginness spoke about the gaping gulf between the political parties, and said that that is why a bill of rights is required. Sadly, the net effect of this process has been to widen that gulf. Indeed, because many people in civil society took a particular view, the political parties have not bound together; rather, they have diverged.
Mr Maginness also said that a bill of rights has been a demand in Northern Ireland for many years, and that it was mentioned in the Belfast Agreement. The point is that since the Belfast Agreement, the European Convention on Human Rights has been incorporated into domestic law under the Human Rights Act 1998. We are not operating in a vacuum; the human rights agenda is already here, and there are adequate protections.
In addition, I take exception to the idea that a bill of rights would guarantee peace, because, although I am sure that he did not intend it, the implication is that the absence of a bill of rights would provide some level of justification for people on either side turning to violence, and that is unacceptable.
Nelson McCausland raised the matter of cultural identity in language, and those are the types of issues on which we should have concentrated our time.
Dolores Kelly later mentioned —
Mr McCausland: Does the Member agree that in relation to peaceful assembly, which is one of the most basic human rights, it was interesting that both the SDLP and Sinn Féin opposed the inclusion of the most recent, comprehensive and coherent guidelines from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, and that that illustrates their lack of interest in human rights?
Mr Weir: That is one of the many disappointments in the report.
Mr A Maginness: Will the Member give way?
Mr Weir: I am sorry, Alban, but I do not have time, and I want to fit as much into my 10 minutes as possible. As I understand it —
Mr A Maginness: The SDLP supported the right to peaceful assembly at —
Mr Weir: I simply say that people can read the report for themselves, and make up their own minds.
Dolores Kelly wondered why unionists seem to be obsessed with parades, rather than other matters. Perhaps that is because, in the bill of rights’ remit, the parading issue — whatever one’s opinion might be about it — is fundamentally particular to Northern Ireland’s circumstances, whereas economic and social rights are, by nature, universal.
I took grave exception to Martina Anderson’s lecture about standing up for the rights of the unionist working class. For the past 30 or 40 years, her party’s military wing has been responsible for denying the most basic human rights to many unionist working-class people.
She mentioned social security, which, as Stephen Farry and others said, it is unwise to tamper with, because such tampering would destroy the parity principle and actually make people vulnerable to changes.
Nevertheless, we agree on a range of issues that she mentioned. The DUP wants adequate living standards and housing, but those matters are not particular to Northern Ireland — they apply throughout the world. Secondly, they are policy issues, and that point has been the basis for a fundamental misunderstanding.
Mrs Anderson said that a hungry child is hungry whether he or she is on the Falls or the Shankill, in the Bogside or the Waterside, and I completely agree. However, it is strange that she chose those examples, because, in ‘An Phoblacht’, she used slightly different language. She stated that:
“A hungry child is a hungry child, whether they live in Belfast or Ballymun, Dundalk or Derry.”
It is also true that a hungry child is hungry in Birmingham or Banff, and that argument proves that such rights are not particular to Northern Ireland; they are universal and beyond the remit of a bill of rights.
Stephen Farry dealt with the fundamental issue of the nature and format of the Bill of Rights Forum, and said that it would be ludicrous for its recommendations to be imposed on us. A major problem with the forum’s proposals is that they are not supplementary to the European Convention on Human Rights, but are, once again, an attempt, in effect, to rip it up and rewrite it, and that falls beyond the forum’s remit.
Simon Hamilton highlighted the forum’s scattergun approach. Michelle McIlveen spoke about a range of issues, particularly in relation to youth justice, where we have been left with several ambiguities.
Tom Elliott highlighted the fact that, ultimately, a solid foundation of cross-community support is needed. Jim Shannon argued that protecting many rights is unnecessary because they are already covered by the remit of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission.
Roy Beggs talked about the dangers of adopting a maximalist approach and replacing accountable democratic rule in an Assembly with a judge-based position. The danger of that from a budgetary perspective is that the Executive would have to choose between funding items that are enshrined in a bill of rights and those that are not, instead of being free to make choices. To echo what was said by a representative of Sinn Féin in another document, the Government may be compelled to take certain actions. Therefore, the Government may be forced to choose between putting resources into worthy causes that are covered by the bill of rights and equally worthy causes that are not.
Anna Lo made the important point that not enough time was taken to resolve the differences of opinion. If we try to take forward a bill of rights that lacks cross-community support — as is the case with a range of other issues in Northern Ireland — we are simply doomed to failure. It is time that the opponents of the motion woke up and smelt the coffee, and realised that, rather than making this divisive proposal, we need to find something around which we can all unite.
Question put, That the amendment be made.
The Assembly divided.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. Will Members please return to their seats? A mistake has occurred in the system. Therefore, we will re-run the Division.
The Assembly divided: Ayes 33; Noes 51.
Ms Anderson, Mr Boylan, Mrs M Bradley, Mr P J Bradley, Mr Brady, Mr Brolly, Mr W Clarke, Mr Doherty, Mr Durkan, Mr Gallagher, Ms Gildernew, Mrs Hanna, Mrs D Kelly, Mr G Kelly, Mr A Maginness, Mr A Maskey, Mr P Maskey, Mr F McCann, Ms J McCann, Mr McCartney, Dr McDonnell, Mrs McGill, Mr McGlone, Mr McKay, Mr Murphy, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O’Dowd, Mr O’Loan, Mrs O’Neill, Ms Purvis, Ms S Ramsey, Ms Ritchie, Ms Ruane.
Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Gallagher and Mr McGlone.
Mr Beggs, Mr Bresland, Lord Browne, Mr Buchanan, Mr Campbell, Mr T Clarke, Mr Cobain, Mr Craig, Mr Cree, Mr Dodds, Mr Donaldson, Mr Easton, Mr Elliott, Sir Reg Empey, Dr Farry, Mr Ford, Mrs Foster, Mr Gardiner, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Irwin, Mr Kennedy, Ms Lo, Mrs Long, Mr McCallister, Mr McCarthy, Mr McCausland, 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 P Robinson, Mr Ross, Mr Savage, Mr Shannon, Mr Simpson, Mr Spratt, Mr Storey, Mr Weir, Mr B Wilson.
Tellers for the Noes: Mr Kennedy and Mr Shannon.
Question accordingly negatived.
Main Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly expresses its grave concern at the lack of cross-community support for the recommendations contained in the Report of the Bill of Rights Forum; and strongly urges the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission to ensure cross-community support for its advice to the Secretary of State.
That the Assembly do now adjourn. — [Mr Deputy Speaker.]
Footpaths in Kingsdale Park, East Belfast
Mr Deputy Speaker: The proposer of the debate will have 15 minutes in which to speak. All other Members who are called to speak will have 10 minutes.
Mrs Long: I thank Members for their support for my bringing this issue to the Floor. I also thank the Regional Development Minister for making himself available for this debate, despite having had an extremely busy day. This issue may not be on the same scale as the recent news about public transport, but it is nevertheless important to constituents of East Belfast. From that perspective, I appreciate the Minister’s attendance.
The issue is relatively straightforward. When Kingsdale Park was made adopted land in May 1959, the pavements, for some reason, were omitted. I have discussed this matter at length with residents and departmental officials, and it appears that there was no particular reason for that omission. It was not the case that the pavements were substandard in some way, or did not meet the right design guidance for adoption. It appears that that was simply an omission.
An almost unique situation has been created, because the public road is the responsibility of the Roads Service, and is adopted, but the adjacent pavement is not. Therefore, the responsibility for maintenance of that pavement lies with the residents. That is a particularly invidious situation, because people use the main public thoroughfare and park their cars with two wheels on the pavement, thereby causing damage. People view that thoroughfare as a public road, but the residents are left with the bill for damage.
As far as I am aware, the pavement has not been repaired since 1959 — it certainly has not been repaired since 1980. There are defects in the pavement. I understand that Roads Service and the Department for Regional Development are not in a position to seek out unadopted pieces of road and pavement, and adopt them all. That would create a precedent, which could result in difficulties.
However, as I outlined, Kingsdale Park represents an exceptional situation. On that basis, it should be possible, on this occasion, for Roads Service to reconsider its opinion, and for the Minister to intervene. The pavement could be adopted, or some other redress could be sought to alleviate the burden that the residents currently bear.
Most of the residents of Kingsdale Park are elderly. Many of them bought their properties when they were first built. From their perspective, repair of the pavement represents a major financial pressure. The residents also bear a degree of legal liability in respect of the potential for accidents on the pavement, etc. That causes residents a great deal of distress.
It appears that the current situation is the result of an administrative oversight, and is therefore completely different to the one that often pertains in new developments, whereby developers deliberately create private roads and unadopted areas to leave them in the ownership of those who purchase the properties. Given that the pavement appears to meet all of the conditions for adoption — bar its current condition — there is a degree of exception to this situation.
I am sure that the Minister has more accurate figures, but, from what I have been able to ascertain, there is only one other public road in Belfast that is immediately adjacent to an unadopted pavement.
Without labouring the point, I ask the Minister to reconsider the decision. Other elected representatives from the area have also been lobbied by the residents, who are extremely stressed and concerned by the situation. Although I accept Road Service’s argument, I reiterate that this case is unique, and that would allow a precedent not to be created.
In the context of the overall roads budget, the cost of repairs is a relatively small amount of money. However, it is a significant burden for the individual residents. Kingsdale Park is not a short, five-house street; there is a considerable number of properties along the road. Making repairs is a significant piece of work for the residents to undertake.
I will not labour the issue any further, and I do not intend to use the 15 minutes to which I am entitled. I am happy to make the appeal and ask the Minister to give the matter further consideration.
Lord Browne: I wholeheartedly agree with Naomi Long, but I will not go into the technicalities that Naomi has gone into.
Although the street is a cul-de-sac, it consists of 72 dwellings. It is a mature area with many elderly residents. On two recent occasions, I visited the area and spoke to the residents. A partially sighted resident is very apprehensive about going outside, even in the hours of daylight; the other elderly residents will not go out during the hours of darkness. Many of the area’s footpaths are in an advanced state of decay. One can see the loose chippings and the depressions that have led to ponding in many areas. Last summer, several houses experienced serious flooding.
The state of the footpaths in Kingsdale Park is unacceptable. We have heard the reasons why it is a very unusual situation — the footpaths have not been adopted even though the carriageway has. The residents deserve to have the footpath replaced or upgraded. It is unusual that the road surface is made of cement; I do not know how many areas in East Belfast still have cement roads. The condition of the road, as well as of the footpaths, is poor. The lighting has not been replaced for many years, so the area is in need of upgrading.
I appreciate that considerable money and investment is needed to manage and preserve our roads and pavements, but I feel strongly that the residents of Kingsdale Park, through no fault of their own, have had to endure many years of neglect. It is a mature area and many of the houses are 50 or more years old. In the past, some repairs were made to the pavement until it was pointed out that the road was unadopted. Steps must be taken to upgrade the area and to have the footpaths adopted. I do not want to go back into the history of the area and trace the ownerships, as many years have passed since then and it would be unfair to expect the residents to plough through mountains of red tape with officials in order to get the road adopted. I appeal to the Minister to find some method of fast-tracking the process of having the road adopted.
As Naomi said, we do not want to labour the point, but the area has been neglected and it is only fair to the residents, many of whom are elderly, that the area is given full consideration.
Sir Reg Empey: There is little point in repeating everything that has been said by the two Members who have spoken; I agree with their comments. However, I ask the Minister to consider the issue from a health and safety perspective. I understand the nervousness about the idea of adopting unadopted entries, pavements and roads in the city, and I will comment on that in a moment. However, the health-and-safety aspect ought to take precedent over some of the other concerns that the Department for Regional Development might have.
It has been pointed out that anyone who is unsighted or partially sighted has great difficulty walking on those footpaths. Much of the damage to the footpaths has been caused by visitors to the area who, over the years, have parked their cars on the pavement, and erosion is responsible for the rest. We understand that. The question is: what happens now?
I want to widen the scope of the debate a little and focus on the many unadopted areas in Belfast. Most of those areas would have originally been owned by the occupants of individual properties under old leasehold arrangements. The site map shows that those properties normally extend over what we would call the “back entries”. Many of the properties were built in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and they each have an individual piece of land in an entry that is under separate ownership. The council has now reached the stage where it has withdrawn refuse collection services from some unadopted areas, as it does not believe that it is safe to access those entries because they are overgrown with weeds and are full of potholes, and so on.
Similarly, residents often find it impossible to operate alley-gating schemes because they cannot always get permission for them — it takes only one resident to object. Certainly, Belfast City Council colleagues may remember the battle that we had to get the site of the current Finvoy Street Walkway Community Centre. It took years to secure that site because we had to vest every wee bit of land.
Clearly, my proposal would have financial implications, but perhaps the moves to change the powers of local authorities could present an opportunity to tidy up the matter. It makes no sense to have bits and pieces of roads, footpaths, back entries, and so on, in all sorts of different ownership. Every ratepayer is entitled to the same services. If an individual’s property backs or fronts onto an area that is unadopted, that person will receive less of a service than everyone else. Council workers will not go on to private property, which is what unadopted land is. The matter may go back to the original estate company that bought the site, or it could involve other concerns.
I want the Minister to address the problems with footpaths in Kingsdale Park, but I want him to consider the wider issues of principle throughout the city. The east of the city seems to have a greater density of those unadopted patches of land than other parts of Belfast. Naomi Long has made a good argument today, and I thank her for securing the debate. I hope that the Minister can respond positively.
Mr Newton: I am the fourth Member to speak in the debate, so there is not much more that can be said about footpaths in East Belfast. That said, I should point out that the situation is complex, as other Members have said. The problem has arisen for historical reasons, and if there is to be a solution to it, it is surely not down to the ratepayers and taxpayers who live in the area to find it. It would be well nigh impossible for them to do so.
Anyone who walks over the streets in East Belfast will know what they are like. My colleague Wallace Browne and I have tramped the area in the run-up to numerous elections, and we hope to tramp them again in the not-too-distant future.
The point has been made that it is a health-and-safety issue, and it is one which, I say to the Minister, must be addressed. It is, too, a health and safety issue that is getting worse. Much of the damage has been created not through the fault of any of the homeowners, but by heavy-goods vehicles from the private and, indeed, the statutory sector as they ply their trade on the street. In addition, as contractors have gone about their business — for example, building extensions to homes — that has caused continuing damage to the footpaths.
Kingsdale Park is a stable area. The vast majority of the residents have great pride in their homes. There are two social extremes: an ageing population and young families. I welcome the fact that this issue has been brought before the Assembly and that the Minister is present. Like others, I hope that the Minister can address the matter in a positive manner.
The Minister for Regional Development (Mr Murphy): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I note the comments and concerns. People have acknowledged that this is a complex situation and one towards which we would all like to be sympathetic and to find a solution. Nevertheless, it is a difficult situation and one that brings with it a degree of precedent.
I welcome the opportunity to discuss the situation in Kingsdale Park, and I have asked my officials to take a note of any specific issues raised and to try to address those for Members following this debate.
By way of background, in relation to the adoption of private streets, I will summarise the legislative position. Under article 9 of the Private Streets Order 1980, as amended, a road can be considered for adoption where the Department is of the opinion that the street should become a public road, that the majority of frontagers so request it, and the street is first brought up to adoption standard at the expense of the frontagers, or owners, to ensure that the road is fit and proper to become a public road.
Article 9(3) of the 1980 Order advises that, where the Department is not satisfied that the street is in all respects fit and proper to become a public road, it may, in exceptional circumstances of such a kind as the Department may determine, declare the street to be a public road. The difficulty with that — and I believe that that was one of the issues mentioned by Naomi Long — is that if the Department did declare, in exceptional circumstances, that a street should become a public road, it is obliged immediately to bring it up to standard. That then becomes a resources issue and a priority issue for Kingsdale Park as opposed to other areas in Belfast City Council area and the Roads Service’s eastern division area.
Article 9(5) of the 1980 Order makes a provision for the applicant to request a hearing with the Planning Appeals Commission to appeal against a decision to refuse to adopt. Under article 9(6), the Department will consider any recommendations made by the commission; and under article 9(7), the subsequent decision of the Department shall be final.
All Members will be aware of unadopted roads and private laneways in their areas. In 2002, there were an estimated 62 km of unadopted private laneways throughout the North. There have been many requests to have those adopted into the public-road network. However, very few of them are fit for adoption. At 2002 prices, it has been estimated that it would cost approximately £14 million to bring all private laneways and roads in the North up to the necessary standard for adoption. That estimate excluded the cost of land, service alterations and accommodation works, which would substantially increase that sum.
With regard to Kingsdale Park, the Roads Service adoption records indicate that the carriageway was adopted by Belfast Corporation on 19 May 1959. Unusually, the associated footways were specifically excluded from the adoption. Unfortunately, there is no indication as to why they were omitted from the adoption at that time. There are some 74 properties in Kingsdale Park, and I fully appreciate that it is an unusual situation whereby pedestrian access to residential properties is dependent on privately owned footways alongside a substantial public street. My Department is, therefore, content in principle to adopt those footways providing that they are brought up to an acceptable standard for adoption.
For the reasons that I have already covered in the legislative requirements that are imposed on the Department, I am sorry that I must confirm the Department’s position that the responsibility for carrying out the necessary improvements and repairs to bring the subject footways up to adoption standards, lies with the frontagers — that is, the residents.
I sympathise fully with the arguments that have been put forward today. The situation is unusual, although there are many unique situations, and people can find them all across the North when discussing precedent. I will not close my mind to other ideas that might be advanced or explored on the matter; however, I have stated the position in which we find ourselves under the legislation. If the Department were to adopt the footpaths before they were brought up to standard, it would be required to bring them up to standard immediately.
Reg Empey made a point about health-and-safety regulations. Again, as I said, I am prepared to examine any ideas, but most unadopted roads will raise health and safety issues for people who wish to walk or drive across them.
Perhaps there is merit in looking to the future. I am not offering a solution, but the discussions on the review of public administration include the public-realm issue and the responsibilities that will be transferred to local government. Perhaps there will be opportunities to sort out some anomalies during the discussions on the transfer. That may offer a way forward, although not specifically in this case.
There are many anomalies, and, although Reg Empey referred specifically to Belfast, the same situation pertains across the North, and one can find anomalies in public-realm issues in cases where roads or footpaths were not adopted. Perhaps in the discussions on the transfer of public-realm functions to local government, we can kick ideas around and find ways to reduce anomalies. As I say, I am willing to consider ideas.
That said, Roads Service is always willing to provide whatever assistance is required with guidance and advice on adoption standards. However, at present, the cost of design work must be borne by frontagers.
I realise that I can provide no immediate solution, although I share Members’ concerns. I have asked my officials to take note of the Hansard report, so that if I have missed any points that were raised, I will write to the Members concerned.
Adjourned at 4.07 pm.