Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 21 April 2008
Private Members’ Business:
The Assembly met at 12.00 noon (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes’ silence.
Mr Burnside: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Is it in order that you, on the eighty-second birthday of Her Majesty The Queen, on behalf of the House, pass to her the best wishes of the Assembly and of her loyal subjects in the Province, as well as our thanks for another year of service to the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth?
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Mr Speaker: The Member’s point has been well made, and I will discuss it with my colleagues.
Public Health (Amendment) Bill
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Mr McGimpsey): I beg to move
That the Public Health (Amendment) Bill [NIA 8/07] do now pass.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Public Health (Amendment) Bill [NIA 8/07] do now pass.
The Minister of the Environment (Mrs Foster): I beg to introduce the Local Government (Boundaries) Bill [NIA 14/07], which is a Bill to provide for 11 local government districts in Northern Ireland, for the division of those districts into wards, for the appointment of a Local Government Boundaries Commissioner to recommend the boundaries and names of those districts and wards and the number of wards in each district; and for connected purposes.
Bill passed First Stage and ordered to be printed.
Mr Speaker: The Bill will be put on a list of future business until a date for its Second Stage is determined.
The Minister of the Environment (Mrs Foster): I beg to move
That the Local Government (Boundaries) Bill [NIA 14/07] proceed under the accelerated passage procedure in accordance with Standing Order 40(4).
I am grateful for the opportunity to address the Assembly on the motion. The review of public administration (RPA) was launched by the Northern Ireland Executive in June 2002, which is almost six years ago. The path to agreement on the number of councils and the functions that they should initially exercise has, I accept, been long and arduous.
On 13 March 2008, the Executive reached agreement on those matters. I am keen that there be no further delay in the establishment of the new local government districts and wards, or in setting up the councils to deliver services on behalf of those districts. With that in mind, I have taken every opportunity to ensure the prompt introduction of the Bill.
After the Executive made their decision on 13 March, I made a statement to the Assembly at its first plenary session after the Easter recess, on 31 March. In that statement, I announced that the current configuration of 26 local government districts would be rationalised to 11 new districts and indicated my intention to implement the agreed structural reform package by 2011. I also highlighted the need for a local government boundaries Bill to be urgently introduced so that the first elections to the 11 new councils could be held in 2011, as well as the need for the Bill to be progressed by accelerated passage.
On 3 April, I attended a meeting of the Environment Committee to explain — as required by Standing Order 40(3) — why it is necessary for the Bill to proceed by accelerated passage and the consequences should it not be granted. I also promised to ensure that any future request for accelerated passage would only be made if absolutely necessary. I thank the Committee for recognising the need to expedite the process and for its support for the accelerated passage motion.
Under Standing Order 40(4), where it is thought that a Bill requires accelerated passage, the Member in charge of that Bill shall explain to the Assembly when moving the motion for accelerated passage:
“(a) the reason or reasons for accelerated passage;
(b) the consequences of accelerated passage not being granted; and, if appropriate,
(c) any steps he/she has taken to minimise the future use of the accelerated passage procedure.”
With regard to Standing Order 40(4)(a) and 40(4)(b), we aim to hold the first elections to the 11 new councils at the same time as the next elections to the Assembly in May 2011. That timetable is challenging and contains a number of steps that are in the gift of the Secretary of State, not that of this House. However, the immediate priority is the appointment of a Local Government Boundaries Commissioner to review local government boundaries. That commissioner must be in place by 1 July 2008 because, without that first step, none of the other steps can fall into place.
The Local Government (Boundaries) Bill contains only two substantive clauses, which provide for the appointment of a Local Government Boundaries Commissioner and change the numbers and broad boundaries of the new local government districts to 11. The procedure for a review by the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner includes periods for consultation and public hearings before final recommendations are made. The final recommendations should be submitted by the end of June 2009.
I will lay a copy of the commissioner’s report, together with a draft Order giving legislative effect to the recommendations with or without modifications, before the House early in autumn 2009. Only when that Order is made can the District Electoral Areas Commissioner, who is appointed by the Secretary of State, conduct a review of the district electoral areas (DEA) prior to the first elections to the 11 new councils.
If accelerated passage is not granted to the Local Government (Boundaries) Bill there will be a high risk that it will not complete its passage and obtain Royal Assent before the summer recess. In that case, the Bill would have to be carried forward to the next session, which would delay the appointment of the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner by several months. That would affect all subsequent events — such as the review of the district electoral areas — and mean that it would not be possible to conduct elections to the new councils by May 2011.
Standing Order 40(4)(c) requires the Member who moves the motion for accelerated passage to explain to the Assembly:
“any steps he/she has taken to minimise the future use of the accelerated passage motion.”
My officials are examining the legislative programme for the Department and liaising with colleagues in other Departments, where appropriate, to expedite the development of policy and promote the timely drafting of future Bills. Any future requests for the use of the accelerated passage procedure will only be made when it is unavoidable. With that in mind, I seek the support of the House for the accelerated passage of the Bill, and I look forward to hearing Members’ comments.
The Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment (Mr McGlone): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. The Environment Committee welcomed the Minister of the Environment to its meeting on 3 April. At that meeting, the Minister briefed Committee members on the reasoning behind her request for Committee approval for accelerated passage of the Local Government (Boundaries) Bill.
The Bill sets out the broad boundaries of 11 new local government districts for Northern Ireland and sets out the remit for a review of local government boundaries. The Bill provides for 11 new local government districts in the North, compared to the current 26; for the division of those districts into wards; and for a Local Government Boundaries Commissioner to be appointed in 2008. After this initial review of local government boundaries, future commissioners will be appointed within eight to 12 years of the date of the previous commissioner’s final report.
At her meeting with the Committee, the Minister of the Environment emphasised the importance of a Local Government Boundaries Commissioner being appointed by July 1 2008 in order to recommend the boundaries, and the names, of districts and wards. The Committee was told that the Minister intended to hold elections for the 11 new local government districts in May 2011 — potentially at the same time as the next Assembly elections. For those reasons, the Minister subsequently sought the Committee’s support for accelerated passage of the Bill before the Executive finally decided on its content and its introduction to the Assembly.
The Committee debated the Minister’s request. Some Members said that proper Committee scrutiny could lead to an improved Bill. However, the Committee decided, by a majority vote, to support the accelerated passage of the Local Government (Boundaries) Bill. On behalf of the Committee for the Environment, I welcome the introduction of the Bill.
I now want to speak as an MLA, and to outline my party’s position. The fact that we now have pressure of time — and the Minister herself said that it was a long and arduous path — can be attributed mostly to Provisional Sinn Féin, which dithered between seven and 11 local government districts. The matter could have been resolved long before now, allowing us to give the Bill full and proper scrutiny instead of its being subject to accelerated passage. Our party’s position was well articulated by Minister Margaret Ritchie in earlier communication with Minister Foster. The proposed move to 11 councils — while clearly not our party’s preference or choice — represents significant progress from the original prescription of seven local government districts, although our preference was for the 15-council model. It is important that that be clarified.
I thank the Minister for bringing this Bill before us today, and I assure her of the support of the Committee.
Mr Speaker: Members are reminded that the subject matter for today’s debate is whether the Bill should be granted accelerated passage. I will not permit any detailed discussion about the merits of the Bill. That is a matter for the Second Stage, when the principles of the Bill will be debated. Members at various times, and especially when debating accelerated passage, feel that they want to go into the merits of the Bill, but that will not happen today.
Mr Ross: I will do my best to behave myself. As others have pointed out, today and in relation to previous accelerated passage motions, this is not the preferred way for legislation to progress through the House. From time to time, however, it is essential in order to ensure that legislation is in place within a required time. I am content that the Minister has clearly explained why she is seeking accelerated passage and outlined the potential difficulties if accelerated passage is not granted. I welcome the Minister’s proposals for reinvigorated local government. This motion is necessary to ensure that everything is in place for that process to occur and for a Local Government Boundaries Commissioner to be appointed as soon as possible.
As has been said, the Environment Committee has already voted to support the Bill’s accelerated passage. I am grateful to the Minister for coming before the Committee to answer members’ questions about the detail of this short Bill. As the Minister has explained in this House and to the Committee, the Bill is being introduced under the accelerated passage procedure to ensure that the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner can be appointed as soon as possible to allow elections to the new councils to be held in 2011, and to enable those councils to go live at that time. I hope that the Assembly will support the accelerated passage motion so that there are no unnecessary hold-ups that might cause the process to stall. As the Speaker said, the Assembly will have the opportunity to discuss some of the content of the Bill during the Second Stage tomorrow. I look forward to that. Today, however, I am content that we should proceed under accelerated passage.
Mr Boylan: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Now that you have issued that warning, Mr Speaker, I will be brief. Sinn Féin recognises the need for the Bill to be accelerated; the process must move forward, rather than be further held up. Equality and fairness must be enshrined in any future legislation for the new structures. Therefore, I welcome the Bill, and I hope that it is the first step towards delivering real change for the years to come. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr Gardiner: The issue is of huge importance to the people of Northern Ireland, and it will impact on them for decades to come. Experience shows that the local government electoral boundaries that will be established under the review of public administration will be with us for decades. Local government was the bastion of democracy in the Province for almost 40 years of the Troubles, during the absence of accountable, devolved Government. Therefore, it is extremely important for the people of Northern Ireland to have the best framework for local government and maximise its potential effectiveness and accountability. Local government is at the front line of democracy in this country, and the people of Northern Ireland deserve the best from local government.
Given those points, I do not believe that the Bill is suitable for accelerated passage. The matter is of such great importance that it requires the fullest possible scrutiny by the Committee for the Environment and the House. Accelerated passage should be reserved for emergencies in which swift and decisive action is called for, such as an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease.
Standing Orders require us to consider the consequences of not granting accelerated passage and the problems that that would create. No emergency surrounds the introduction of RPA and new local government boundaries. It is vital that the necessary time is devoted to the subject in order to get it right. The DUP and Sinn Féin only recently outlined their policy that there should be 11 local authorities. The Ulster Unionist Party believes that Northern Ireland would be better served by 15 local authorities, which would reflect the current parliamentary boundaries.
Proper scrutiny and accountability is required during the rest of the process of setting the boundaries for local government. Any Boundaries Commissioner must have the correct powers to ensure that the people of Northern Ireland are appropriately represented and, as far as possible, decisions are taken in line with their wishes. That will increase the buy-in time for local government, and the effectiveness of local government will increase. It is of the utmost importance to get the Bill right. Accelerated passage would hinder, rather than help scrutiny. The Bill is one of the most significant to come before the Assembly because it will dictate our local government arrangements for decades to come.
The Ulster Unionist Party has no desire to unduly delay the working of government or cause any type of obstruction, but parliamentary process should be respected. We are strong supporters of reform of local government, and we will ensure robust, accountable and responsible local government. It is because we are supportive of that reform that we recognise the need for proper scrutiny of the Bill.
The people of Northern Ireland elect MLAs to legislate on their behalf and to ensure that legislation is properly scrutinised. For too many years, there has been little accountability in Northern Ireland. We complained about the unresponsive nature and lack of scrutiny that came with direct rule, yet we now refuse to provide anything much better than that. The parliamentary process is the backbone of democracy and, by pushing the Bill and other pieces of legislation through the Assembly, we are in danger of setting a harmful precedent. We would be failing in our duty to the people of Northern Ireland if we were to permit accelerated passage of the Bill.
Mr Ford: I declare an interest as a member of Antrim Borough Council, although, if the Minister has her way, that may not be the case for long — in a number of respects.
I have a horrible sense of déjà vu. Yet again, we have a significant Executive Bill accompanied by a motion for accelerated passage. It is similar to the Commission for Victims and Survivors Bill, discussion of which will occupy a lot of time in the House tomorrow.
Mr Kennedy: It may.
Mr Ford: As my friend reminds me, the Commission for Victims and Survivors Bill may require a lot of time; whether that is inside or outside the Chamber depends on the attitudes of the two dominant parties in the Executive. That example has demonstrated the wrongs of accelerated passage.
I am grateful that the Minister of the Environment came to the Committee immediately after the Easter recess to outline her plans, and to explain why accelerated passage might be required. Indeed, some of her officials attended a special meeting during the Easter recess.
However, I am afraid that she failed to convince me of the merits of that case, just as she failed to convince Mr Gardiner. I have a number of concerns about the Bill, which are made worse by the motion for accelerated passage.
As a member of the Committee for the Environment, I have seen the Bill. However, it is bizarre that none of my party colleagues have seen the Bill, given that they will shortly be required to vote on whether or not it should have accelerated passage. I am not in the habit of giving blank cheques to anyone, I do not encourage my friends to give blank cheques to anyone, and I certainly would not give a blank cheque to any member of the Executive — not even the Minister of the Environment.
Clearly, there are issues that merit — [Interruption.]
Mr Speaker: Order. The Member has the Floor.
Mr Ford: The proposed numbers and boundaries merit more detailed consideration and taking of evidence by the Committee. Some mathematical genius in Sinn Féin or the DUP has discovered that seven plus 15 divided by two equals 11. There is little evidence to convince us that there is anything more meaningful to the number 11 than that sum.
Similarly, can Members who represent Newry and Armagh, such as Mr Kennedy, tell me whether the people of Newtownhamilton really believe that they live in the same local community as the people of Saintfield or Killyleagh?
Those issues cannot be easily dealt with in the Committee Stage of a Bill. They require detailed examination and evidence-taking by a Committee. The process does not need to be extended. However, if we are to be convinced that what is being done is right, there should be an opportunity for the Committee to discuss and take evidence over two or three meetings.
As Mr Gardiner said, the Bill will set the pattern of local government for a generation. To do that in a rushed, ham-fisted fashion is almost as bad as the direct rule procedures that Members of the House would have complained bitterly about a few years ago. Because the Bill is being rushed, we are maintaining the procedures — dating from 1962 and revised in 1973 — for drawing up single-member wards. However, we all know that there will not be single-member wards of any practical electoral value.
That creates difficulty, and also takes an extraordinary length of time. If there had been discussion with the Secretary of State — about joining the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner process with the district electoral areas process — more coherent boundaries could have been established, significantly quicker. The gains of accelerated passage would have been more than made up for by shortening the process.
I accept that there is a timescale in which to meet current procedures. Indeed, I questioned the Minister about that when she came to the Committee. The expectation is that the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner will complete his, or her, work in a year. That is a totally unreasonable length of time in which to draw up a new set of appropriate and coherent boundaries, with proper time for local consideration and hearings. It would have been far better to have had a detailed Committee Stage — in order to get the Bill right — and shorten the subsequent process.
I accept that there are reasons why, after a lengthy delay, we need to move on with the local government process. However, granting accelerated passage — as opposed to taking time to getting the Bill right and then taking the procedures through more quickly — will not benefit our society.
Visitors to Parliament Buildings — such as the school groups that we all speak to — are constantly told of the importance of Committees. Sometimes, they are even told that there is no opposition in the Assembly, although some of us are attempting to correct that. Those visitors are told that a Committee in the Assembly is the equivalent of both a Standing Committee and a Select Committee in Westminster. They are told that Committees get the opportunity to examine topics in detail and build up expertise, so that they can make useful comments and help to get Bills passed more effectively, and that they can deal with other matters.
However, on this occasion, a Committee is being sidelined completely. The same thing happened to the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister when the Victims and Survivors Bill was granted accelerated passage. There is no logic to that.
Mr Campbell: The Member referred to the Committee being “sidelined”. Does he not accept that the Committee voluntarily and democratically voted on the matter? The fact that he was in the minority does not mean that the Committee was sidelined.
Mr Ford: I accept the Member’s point, and I have no difficulty being in a minority. Members are aware of what happens when the Executive Whip is applied in Committees — and that is another problem that is unique to this place. When Ministers are sure that their party colleagues and Members from the other side of the House will support them in Committee, it amounts to the voluntary sidelining of the minority by the majority. Given the political system here, that is not a healthy situation.
I agree with the Minister that there is a tight timetable. However, if Members were to take a few weeks now to get the procedures right, it would result in a better Bill. Accelerated passage will create difficulties, because there has been no opportunity to carry out a consultation exercise, and the Committee has not had the required detailed discussion. Therefore, at Consideration Stage, it is simply not possible to deal properly with the amendments that the Alliance Party deems necessary.
I say that as one of the few Members to succeed in getting an amendment through the House at Further Consideration Stage and against the wishes of a Minister. Assembly procedures make it impossible to do that easily or properly. Therefore, accelerated passage is wrong, and my colleagues and I will oppose it.
Mr S Wilson: As my party colleague Alastair Ross emphasised, it is better for Committees to deal with legislation. However, the Minister outlined why accelerated passage is required in this case.
I listened to Members from the Ulster Unionist Party and the Alliance Party, both of which are intent on opposing accelerated passage. Their arguments are thin, and their opposition again smacks of the determination of those two parties to oppose what comes before the House. It does not matter to them what the subject is or what arguments are made. The Ulster Unionist Party and the Alliance Party regard their role as being to oppose everything, so that they can say that they are the opposition. However, their arguments against the motion do not stand up to scrutiny.
Mr Gardiner said that this is a matter of:
“huge importance to the people of Northern Ireland.”
He said that it is “of such great importance” that we must get the boundaries right, because everyone will have to live with them for many years to come. It is not the Bill’s job to get the boundaries right. After holding discussions with local people, the commissioner will make recommendations.
Dr Farry: Does the Member agree that the question of whether there should be 11 or 15 councils is also significant? Members can discuss how to arrange the deckchairs in respect of 11 councils, but it is surely important to debate what happened to the option of 15. At the last election, the DUP stated its preference for 15 councils, but it now supports the move to 11. The people of Northern Ireland would be interested to know why the DUP has changed its position.
Mr S Wilson: At the risk of being struck down by the Speaker and losing points for deviation — [Interruption.]
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClarty] in the Chair)
Mr S Wilson: I am no deviant.
I would be happy to engage in a discussion about whether there should be 11 or 15 councils, but the Speaker made it clear that that is not the Assembly’s job on this occasion. Members will have the opportunity to do that tomorrow, and I look forward to that.
Mr Gardiner outlined that we will have to live with the boundaries for the next 40 years or more, and, therefore, it is important to ensure that they are correct. The commissioner will draft those boundaries and, whether we like it or not, we must work to the 2011 deadline. Every day that the Bill spends in the Assembly will be one day less for the commissioner to consult local groups, parties and individuals to reach decisions on this important matter.
Therefore, accelerated passage and the appointment of a commissioner by 1 July 2008 will allow Mr Gardiner’s wishes to be realised and allow the commissioner maximum time to get the boundaries right. For that reason, I cannot understand why the Ulster Unionists will not support accelerated passage.
The second argument involves the delay in introducing the Bill. Like the Ulster Unionists, the Alliance Party and the SDLP — and at least the Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment had the decency to admit it — the DUP was unhappy with the system that was imposed during direct rule; the seven-council model was not the answer. Given that the Assembly must reach agreement to make changes —
Mr Kennedy: You wanted 15 councils.
Mr S Wilson: Mr Kennedy chitters, from a sedentary position, about the 15 council areas. The House will discuss the issue of 11 or 15 council areas tomorrow. The Ulster Unionist Party needs to learn that, in an Assembly where agreement is essential, working with other parties is sometimes necessary. Although the UUP may not always get its own way, sometimes the solution will be better than what was imposed in the first place.
If the Assembly did not reach agreement, it would be stuck with the seven-council model. I will be careful now because a new Deputy Speaker has taken the Chair, and he might have a go at me. [Laughter.]
Mr Kennedy: He is an Ulster Unionist.
Mr S Wilson: He is an Ulster Unionist and, therefore, is likely to strike me down. One of the reasons for the delay is that the Assembly and the Minister were working towards a better solution than the seven-council model that was imposed by direct rule Ministers. We had the option either to accept the seven-council model or to debate the model in the Assembly and reach agreement among the parties. The delay was partly due to the fact that the Minister was reflecting the wishes of the Ulster Unionists, the Alliance Party and the SDLP.
Mr Kennedy: The Member misses the point; the new deadline — and it is rather artificial — of 2011 was agreed between his party and Sinn Féin in order to maximise electoral support by, allegedly, holding dual elections for the Assembly and local government. That is not a reason to rush legislation through.
Mr S Wilson: Given that the point was raised in an intervention, I hope, Mr Deputy Speaker, that you will allow me latitude to respond. Mr Kennedy comes from a party with a history of plotting, so perhaps he sees plots in every decision. Although it makes economic sense to hold elections on the same day, the 2011 deadline has nothing to do with a DUP or Sinn Féin Machiavellian motive. Those of us in local government know that a deadline is necessary to put an end to the uncertainty; we cannot continue to extend the deadline.
Mr Weir: Does not the Member agree that it is rich for the Ulster Unionist Party to complain about the possibility of Assembly and council elections being held on the same day, when, in 2001, that party pushed to ensure that council elections —
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. I have allowed some latitude in the debate for fear of being accused of acting from party-political motives. I remind Members that the motion concerns accelerated passage and that they should stick to that.
Mr S Wilson: My remarks were pertinent to the issue of accelerated passage. I made the point that since we are working towards the 2011 deadline, a local government boundary commissioner must be in place to see that the boundaries are sorted out in time for the 2011 election. The introduction of the Bill was necessarily delayed to try to achieve some measure of agreement among political parties, and to address the concerns of the Ulster Unionist Party and the Alliance Party. As ever, those parties are totally ungrateful for the efforts of my colleague the Minister of the Environment, who worked tirelessly to undo the injustice cited by the two parties that are now complaining.
I turn to the Alliance Party, which has a number of concerns. Its representatives say that they have not seen the Bill, and, therefore, they refuse to give the Minister a blank cheque. Given that party’s reputation, people might not accept cheques from it in any case — only cash in hand. On the one hand, it makes a promise; on the other, it breaks it.
We are told that we should not permit accelerated passage and that we should instead consider and take evidence as to whether the appropriate number of councils is seven, 11 or 15. That was Mr Ford’s first objection. He said that we now enter a scenario whereby there will be 11 councils, the boundaries of which are to be set, yet we do not know that that is the best option. However, there has been extensive consultation on the number of local government units — Mr Ford should know, because his party responded to that consultation. My party, Mr Ford’s party, the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP disliked the outcome of that consultation and the decision that was made by the then Secretary of State. Nevertheless, we know the consequences. To say that we must return to first principles on this issue —
Mr Ford: The Member fails to distinguish between the original wide-ranging consultation process, carried out under direct rule, and a Committee’s taking evidence for a limited period on a Bill during the Committee Stage. They are very different.
Mr S Wilson: From what I can remember — I do not have the documents before me — the “wide-ranging” consultation nevertheless set out the implications of the models for seven, 11 and 15 councils, and it banded councils together. Tweaks were then made by the local government boundaries commissioner.
Mr Ford: Will the Member give way?
Mr S Wilson: I will not give way — the Deputy Speaker will accuse me of straying from the terms of the debate. However, there will be ample opportunity to raise those issues tomorrow, and on other occasions.
My next point about accelerated passage is that, somehow or other, the leader of the Alliance Party gives the impression that, because a Bill proceeds by accelerated passage, there is no chance to give it any consideration. Over the next three weeks, there will be opportunities for the Bill to be discussed by the whole House. Some might argue that accelerated passage gives a better opportunity for all Members, not just for members of the Environment Committee, to consider the Bill. This matter affects all our constituencies. Bearing in mind that coterminosity of council and constituency boundaries — or the lack of it — will affect the work of all Members, one can argue that a wider debate, on the Floor of the Assembly, is better than a restricted debate among the anoraks of the Environment Committee. I am not going to say who the anoraks are, but there are anoraks on that Committee.
Not only will there be discussion of the Bill, there will be an opportunity for amendments to be proposed. Mr Ford quoted the Commission for Victims and Survivors Bill as an example of accelerated passage. However, that is a very bad example for Mr Ford to cite, because the Consideration Stage of that Bill — which was still due to be held, even under accelerated passage — was postponed last week due to an indication that some of the fundamental amendments proposed by his party were going to get support. Sinn Féin requested that the Consideration Stage be postponed for that reason. Therefore, Mr Ford should not run away with the idea that accelerated passage means that Members do not get a chance to change, discuss or improve a Bill. Over the next three weeks, accelerated passage will provide opportunities to do that.
The Local Government (Boundaries) Bill is fairly short, and I suspect that the amendments that will be proposed are fairly predictable and will not require a great deal of evidence to be given to any Committee. Therefore, there should be an opportunity to make whatever amendments are necessary.
The last point that Mr Ford made was that the Committee for the Environment had been sidelined. I sympathise with Mr Ford’s point that Committee members should be allowed a wider degree of expression, rather than being whipped on decisions. The Committee for Education, which I chair, has not yet scrutinised any legislation, but I am aware that Committee members usually have quite wide-ranging views on different issues. On one occasion when the Minister of Education accused me of whipping the whole Committee against her, I pointed out that I sometimes find it difficult to whip members even of my own party. Therefore, I believe that Committee members often express their own views.
However, Mr Ford cannot claim that, just because a Committee makes a decision that is contrary to what he believes, that Committee has been sidelined. He may not have won the argument in the Committee, but he cannot claim that the Committee has been sidelined. I do not believe that anyone would accuse the current Minister of the Environment of failing to keep the Committee informed, explain issues to its members, and attend when requested. Therefore, I believe it is unfair to say that that Committee has been sidelined.
The Minister has given good reasons for supporting accelerated passage of the Bill. The arguments that have been made by the Alliance Party and the Ulster Unionist Party as to why they oppose accelerated passage — most of which I have tried to address — are fairly thin and transparent, and are another case of opposition for opposition’s sake. Their arguments do not stand up to much scrutiny, and I hope that the sensible Members of the House will support the Bill.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Thank you, Mr Wilson, and thank you for your deep and heartfelt consideration for the sensitivities of this Deputy Speaker.
Mr A Maskey: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Earlier, the Speaker enjoined Members to be brief when speaking, and my colleague Cathal Boylan was very disciplined and spoke for only about 30 seconds, to acknowledge Sinn Féin’s support for the proposed accelerated passage of the Local Government (Boundaries) Bill. However, I want to make several points.
Any accusation that has been levelled during the debate that Sinn Féin and the DUP are rushing to reach some kind of a deal with any other intention than getting the RPA right is obviously false. Having listened to them, I am not sure whether the Members from the parties objecting to accelerated passage are actually objecting to it or are simply trying to put down markers. That indicates to me that a certain degree of confusion exists within those parties.
Members will be aware of the strategic leadership board, which is chaired by the Minister of the Environment. All parties are represented on that board, either as party representatives or through membership of Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA). David Ford’s party colleague Councillor Tony Hill is a member of the board, and I have never heard him articulate any of the arguments that David Ford made during the debate.
When Patsy McGlone — who has left the Chamber, momentarily I presume —
Mr McGlone: I am here.
Mr A Maskey: Fair play to you, Patsy. It is good that the Member is still here, because I want him, in particular, to hear what I have to say. He talked about provisional Sinn Féin — whatever that may be — but I assure him and other members of his party that Sinn Féin has not been remotely interested in how many councillors it will retain on those bodies, and certainly not in how many councillors that Sinn Féin may have. Sinn Féin had more important matters to deal with, including the nature of the functions to be transferred and the way in which various checks and balances will work in local government in the future.
Patsy should refer to the Hansard report of the previous debate on this issue, during which his party colleagues Alban Maginness and Tommy Gallagher talked about nine, 10 or 12 councils — anything beyond seven. The SDLP and other parties are still in a bit of a tizzy, because they are not sure what they want out of local government. Their first priority is more of their members’ bums on seats — that is for sure. Perhaps that is understandable in that they are looking up the road at their electoral fortunes, but that is a separate debate entirely.
Patsy McGlone mentioned Margaret Ritchie, so it is appropriate that I respond. At one point during the deliberations, Margaret Ritchie was not prepared to transfer any functions to local government. My understanding is that it took some discussions, bilaterally and at Executive subcommittee meetings, before she was prepared to transfer certain functions. Therefore, Patsy may want to talk to his party colleague, who may have been part of the delay because she, as a Minster — rightly or wrongly — was unsure about what functions it would be appropriate to devolve to local government.
Patsy made accusations about parties making private deals, and so on. All my remarks today, and all the discussions that we had with the DUP — bilaterally and at the Executive subcommittee — were about ensuring that future local government is based on solid foundations of fairness and equality and that the appropriate level of functions are transferred. All that is a work in progress.
All those issues will come before the House, the relevant Committee and, ultimately, the Executive before coming back to the House. I am confident, and Sinn Féin is confident, that we can get to the point of local government being fair and more reflective of the communities.
I really laugh when I hear Sam Gardiner talking about local government being a bastion of democracy. He should waken up. Craigavon Borough Council, on which he serves, leaves a lot to be desired. I repeatedly made that point at meetings of the strategic leadership board and at the previous local government task force. I listen to some of those parties, and to people representing other parties, particularly Sam’s party colleagues, who almost give lectures about local government being fair, and so on. They say that they want a gentleman’s agreement, which is why the deliberations have taken time; there is no such thing as a gentleman’s agreement. Sinn Féin made strenuous efforts in discussions with other Ministers to ensure that proposals on the reform of local government are progressed.
Mr Kennedy: I am grateful to the Member, at least for giving way.
The Member heavily criticised Craigavon Borough Council. He chose not to highlight the less than impressive record of bigotry and discrimination on Newry and Mourne District Council.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. That point is not relevant to the subject matter of the motion.
Mr A Maskey: Go raibh maith agat. For the record — and I have repeated this on numerous occasions at all those meetings — Sinn Féin wants to ensure that the checks and balances that will be built into future local government structures apply across the board. Regardless of how the North of Ireland is cut up through councils or any other structures, there will always be minority communities that believe that they are trapped in another majority.
That will happen no matter how the cake is cut. These proposals will ensure that, in the future, no community in any part of the Six Counties will feel discriminated against. If any council is guilty of discrimination, that is disgraceful and scandalous. Sinn Féin is determined to ensure that discrimination does not, and cannot, occur and that there are sufficient checks and balances in the proposals to counter discrimination. I am pleased that the Minister made absolute commitments, and that should be welcomed by all Members.
Some parties made bogus arguments and claimed to be against accelerated passage. What they are really opposed to is the situation in which the DUP and Sinn Féin have been able to formulate a set of proposals that make sense for the majority of people here. Those proposals will be implemented before the 2011 elections. If Members opposing the motion are honest, they will admit that a number of their colleagues who serve on councils panicked when they thought that local government elections would be held next year or that they might have to serve beyond 2011. Many councillors want to get out early, with a few quid in their pockets. That is fair enough, because some councillors have served for many years.
Some parties made bogus arguments about being opposed to accelerated passage, when, actually, they just wanted to say something. Not one of the parties in opposition was consistent about how many councils they wanted or even why they wanted those councils in the way in which they argued.
Mr Weir: I declare an interest as a member of North Down Borough Council and also as vice-president of the Northern Ireland Local Government Association. I support accelerated passage because I want strong, modern local government as soon as possible. As the Minister indicated, if changes are to be implemented by 2011, the motion must be agreed.
Opponents of accelerated passage offered a range of arguments about why the motion should not be agreed today. They talked about the danger of rushed measures, yet the Minister mentioned that the Executive discussed a review of public administration in 2002. If memory serves me right, initial proposals about the RPA were made even before the 2001 election. It was announced by the then Minister of the Environment, Sam Foster, at the Ulster Unionist Party conference. I vividly remember a number of councillors —
Mr McNarry: Was the Member there?
Mr Weir: No; that was probably during one of my periods of suspension from the party. [Laughter.]
I was unable to hear the Minister in question, but I understood, from press reports, that an announcement was made. That happened before the 2001 election, because I vividly remember there being rumours among local government councillors in the Building about the 2001 election perhaps being postponed.
If the timetable outlined today is met, the process will have lasted approximately 11 years. To put that in context: children who were born on the same day that Sam Foster made that announcement will be preparing for secondary school in 2011.
Mr Kennedy: Will that be a grammar school?
Mr Weir: Fortunately, if those children are academically able, they will be able to avail of the grammar school system for which the DUP has fought and has preserved. I must leave that discussion, because I appreciate that the Deputy Speaker does not want me to deviate too far from the subject of the motion. This has been an 11-year process, so the idea of measures being rushed smacks of nonsense. If that is the Ulster Unionist Party and Alliance Party definition of “rushed”, one hopes that they have no role in selecting our athletes for the Olympic Games.
The process has dragged on for far too long. We want the development of strong, modern local government. Rather than that happening in 2012 or 2013 — or, if some of the parties here have their way, some stage before the next ice age — we need to get on with the task of delivering such government. Indeed, as I said, a wide range of issues must be tackled besides the matter of the new councils’ boundaries.
The lack of opportunity to put forward amendments was also raised. Again, that issue has been exercising most parties in the Assembly for the guts of a decade. We will have opportunities at Consideration Stage — and even at the Bill’s Second Stage, tomorrow — to discuss fully the Bill’s general merits. There will be an opportunity at Consideration Stage to propose a plethora of amendments. Proposing a long list of amendments will be well within the leader of the Alliance Party’s capabilities. Whether they will make any sense will be another issue, but he will not be denied that opportunity. As debate on points of legislation is unlimited, that debate might last one or two hours, or it could go on all day. There really will be plenty of opportunity for all 108 Members to give their views on the Bill.
We have also been told that there has been a lack of consultation. However, I presume that the old Executive consulted on the issue. The late, unlamented Lord Rooker carried out consultation before he made his announcement, and there was consultation after that. The current Executive’s consultation led to the emerging findings report, and there was consultation after that was published. The issues of numbers and boundaries were up for discussion during all those consultations. This debate is not being driven by a lack of evidence or a lack of consultation.
Mr Ford: Will the Member tell me at what point any Executive issued for consultation option 11b as the preferred model?
Mr Weir: The Member will find that, when the emerging findings were discussed, restrictions were put on the three models of seven, 11 and 15 councils. There was specific consultation on the number of councils.
Mr A Maskey: Does the Member recall that, during the initial consultation, the direct rule Administration put nine options on the table, including 11b?
Mr Weir: That is correct. As I said, the Executive’s most recent consultation restricted the choice to those nine models. Therefore, the idea that there has been no proper consultation does not hold up to scrutiny.
We have also been told that there should be discussion with local people and that that important discussion will be endangered in some way by the Bill’s receiving accelerated passage. However, as Mr Sammy Wilson said, the purpose of having a Boundary Commission is to ensure that such proper consultation occurs. One Member mentioned that Saintfield and Newtownhamilton might be linked, and that those two places might not gel together well. I have some sympathy for that argument, but that is the purpose of a Boundary Commission. For example, Saintfield might have much more in common with Ards and north Down. However, that will be a matter for the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner, and the Bill will establish that structure.
I would have some sympathy for the arguments against accelerated passage if the Bill were novel legislation that had not been considered in any way by the Assembly or by previous Administrations. However, as the leader of the Alliance Party said, the legislation is a variation on a theme that has been ongoing since 1962. We have had a range of Boundary Commissioners.
I have news for the Ulster Unionist Party and the Alliance Party: the wheel has already been invented, and there is no need to reinvent it. The Bill is a concise piece of legislation. The areas that it deals with have been outlined time and again, and there will be opportunity for a degree of scrutiny.
Finally, although it is important that legislation be scrutinised properly, we must remember that the downside of that is that constituents become frustrated when much-needed legislation is held up by the slow process through which it must go. The Department of the Environment has a wide range of legislation in the pipeline, some of which cannot proceed until this blockage is removed. For instance, the proposed Northern Ireland contracts Bill will be vital to local government. Indeed, some members of the strategic leadership board — even those who are connected to the parties that have been complaining about accelerated passage — have expressed disappointment that that Bill will not have accelerated passage. The contracts Bill will give power to local government fairly quickly.
Legislation will also be required to allow the modernisation of local government. Again, if we delay such legislation unduly by refusing to allow accelerated passage for this Bill, we will delay that much-needed modernisation. Among other things, there is the clean neighbourhood agenda, and the longer that we delay, the more difficult that it will be to introduce legislation for that in the Assembly.
That agenda contains a wide range of issues, which, as Sammy Wilson said, makes for a certain degree of anorak debate. However, it relates to issues such as graffiti, high hedges and dog fouling, which are of genuine concern to local people and are simply being delayed.
The Bill is a relatively straightforward piece of legislation; instead of the point scoring and grandstanding that has come from the Ulster Unionists and the Alliance Party, let us get on with the business of giving it accelerated passage. There will be an opportunity for full scrutiny on the Floor of the Assembly. Let us develop that strong, modern local government that I assume that all of us want, and ensure that it meets the target date of 2011 rather than be postponed indefinitely.
Mr Kennedy: At the outset, I want to declare my membership of Newry and Mourne District Council in case that is relevant.
Reform of local government has been a priority for all of Northern Ireland’s political parties for a considerable time. Recognition of the compelling case for reform led the first Executive to initiate the reform of public administration. When we were overtaken by direct rule, and Westminster took control of the RPA process, many, if not all, of us in the House quite rightly criticised the lack of accountability and scrutiny. It is therefore deeply ironic, to say the least, that the first piece of legislation regarding local government reform brought before the House since the restoration of devolution, is to be in the form of accelerated passage.
Although mindful of the time pressures that the Minister has previously indicated and others have referred to, I find it frankly staggering that instead of ensuring that the Local Government (Boundaries) Bill — which is of vital importance for the reform of local government — is carefully scrutinised by the Assembly and by the Committee for the Environment, we are being requested to short-circuit that scrutiny process.
The Bill is a key building block in the entire process of creating stronger and more effective local government for Northern Ireland — it has the potential to provide the structure of local government for decades to come. In the light of its importance and significance, full and proper legislative scrutiny is essential. The Ulster Unionist Party believes in strong local government, which means that the Assembly has a responsibility to ensure that it gets the legislation right.
The Bill is not a mere technicality that is irrelevant to the wider process of local government reform; it is central to that process. The Bill determines the number of local government units and sets out the remit of the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner. Therefore, the Bill is the legislative foundation for the entire reform of local government in Northern Ireland.
Accelerated passage is not always an indication that a piece of legislation will proceed smoothly and without difficulty. We have only to think of the Commission for Victims and Survivors Bill to realise that short-circuiting the scrutiny process can undermine the passage of legislation. Careful legislative scrutiny goes alongside the intention of producing good, robust legislation rather than flawed legislation.
Local government reform is of such significance to Northern Ireland that we should not risk the possibility of producing a flawed Bill. Nor should accelerated passage be employed when the House is not fully convinced of the case for only 11 local government units. That a majority in the Assembly support having 11 councils is not at issue. What is at issue is that a not insignificant number of Members believe that 11 councils — although better than seven — falls short of 15 units, a number that is based on the boundaries of parliamentary constituencies and on coterminosity.
In their submissions to the fifth periodical review of parliamentary constituencies, which was published recently by the Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland, every party represented in the House recognised that the boundaries of parliamentary constituencies reflected the ties and identities of local communities, as they should. Parliamentary boundaries, therefore, provide an effective template for local government boundaries, which ensure that local government reflects the ties and identities of local communities.
Dr Farry: Does the Member recognise that there is a difficulty because parliamentary boundaries are changed approximately every 10 years, while local government boundaries are expected to be fixed for 30 or 40 years to allow the two types of boundary to diverge over time?
Mr Kennedy: My experience of the review of parliamentary boundaries shows that there has been tweaking at the edges, but there has not been significant change, and the boundaries can be coterminous. The House should, and must, have this debate. Accelerated passage fails to do justice to that aspect of the Bill’s significance.
I was interested to hear Sammy Wilson’s view that accelerated passage allows plenty of room for scrutiny and amendment. There is, therefore, an argument in favour of using it for all legislation and giving the 108 Members the opportunity to air their views in the House, as Mr Wilson suggested.
Mr S Wilson: Will the Member give way?
Mr Kennedy: I will give way when I have made my point. That is not a proper basis for reviewing and scrutinising legislation. It does not happen and is not advocated in any other place.
Mr S Wilson: I did not say that accelerated passage was the best way of dealing with legislation. The record of my speech will show that. I said that all of the ills that have been attributed to accelerated passage are not true and that there is a case for holding a debate in the House in which everyone has an opportunity to discuss amendments.
Mr Kennedy: I am grateful to the Member for his comments, although I am not sure whether I agree with him. Under Standing Order 40(3), accelerated passage is supposed to be used in exceptional circumstances; it is not meant to be the custom and practice of the House. I recall the saying, “legislate in haste and repent at leisure”.
The same can be said about the remit of the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner. The Bill seeks to amend, in part, the remit given to the commissioner by the Local Government Act (Northern Ireland) 1972. Members will be aware of the local interest and debates that will be stirred by the issue of local government boundaries. Recognising the importance of that issue and the need to determine the commissioner’s remit, and mindful of the passage of time since 1972, full and proper legislative scrutiny is required for those provisions of the Bill.
The Ulster Unionist Party is committed to getting the reform of local government right, so it is opposing accelerated passage for the Bill. Mr Maskey accused political parties of being inconsistent in their approach. His party can hardly claim to be lily-white, given that it has abandoned its commitment to seven local government districts, in favour of 11.
Mr A Maskey: Was he talking about me?
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order.
Mr A Maskey: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Was I referred to by the Member who last spoke? Will you advise me how I was referred to?
Mr Deputy Speaker: It is normally the practice for Members who are present in the House to listen to the debate. [Laughter.]
Mr A Maskey: A LeasCheann Comhairle, further to that point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker, I was listening to the debate, but I am trying to be diplomatic, and I am seeking clarification on that basis. I want to know how I was referred to by the Member.
Mr Deputy Speaker: You can check Hansard tomorrow, Mr Maskey.
Mr Kennedy: For the benefit of Mr Maskey — and, as far as I can recall, I referred to him as Mr Maskey — he complained that certain parties were being inconsistent. No more so than his own party, which has apparently abandoned its commitment to seven councils in favour of 11 — that is consistency for you.
Full and proper legislative scrutiny is necessary if we are to provide a sure foundation for the reform and renewal of local government in Northern Ireland. The use of accelerated passage is the wrong way to achieve that. We will therefore oppose the motion.
Mr Gallagher: It is unfortunate that this morning’s Bill, which is the first step on an important issue, has been rushed through in the way that it has. That fuels and further heightens concerns among the public that the Executive — dominated by Sinn Féin and the DUP — seek to suppress debate on difficult decisions. Instead, difficult issues are allowed to hang around until those two parties work out a deal. The Assembly then goes into fast-forward to try to rush that through.
The Minister knows — from what I said when she met the Committee and from what my colleague Patsy McGlone said this morning — that the SDLP has serious concerns about accelerated passage for this Bill and, of course, about the proposed number of councils. As we have consistently said, we would prefer 15 councils. Will the Minister give an assurance that this will be the only occasion on which she will come back to the House in relation to the RPA to seek accelerated passage?
There are some serious considerations for future Stages of the Bill, not least those to do with governance arrangements, protections and safeguards, the rights of minorities and the need to ensure that, in future, there will be no trapped minorities in the set-up. As far as the SDLP is concerned, there is a great deal of work to be done on that. We do not want trapped minorities anywhere. However, it has already emerged that under an 11-council model there will be serious difficulties for minorities in council areas such as that proposed for the north-east, where Moyle, Ballymena and Coleraine are to come together.
Mr A Maskey: Of the nine options that were originally on the table — or indeed any other options — will the Member highlight any one that would have ensured that no minorities were trapped within a majority council? Can you give one example — that uses five, 15, 20, 26 or 40 councils — where that would not happen?
Mr Gallagher: Mr Maskey, may I first take the opportunity to dispel the myth —
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. Please refer your remarks through the Chair and not directly to another Member.
Mr Gallagher: Mr Deputy Speaker, first, may I dispel the myth — spread by Mr Maskey and peddled by many of his party colleagues for some time — that Sinn Féin had all that tied down under a seven-council model where there would never again be any need for equality legislation or the protection of minorities?
I am looking forward to hearing an assurance that we will have a full opportunity to discuss the issue, because it will put paid to the myth, claimed by Sinn Féin in an effort to bolster the argument, that a seven-council model was best for everyone.
Mr A Maskey: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I ask for your advice on this point, a LeasCheann Comhairle. It cannot be in order for a Member to basically tell lies about what another Member has said. The Member’s party colleagues were members of the strategic leadership board of the original task force, and they are fully aware that my party colleagues and I have consistently argued for the need for stringent checks and balances.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. I remind the Member that it is unparliamentary to refer to another Member as telling lies. I ask the Member to withdraw that remark.
Mr A Maskey: I am happy to accept that the Member has made remarks in the Chamber today that are not attributable to me or my party colleagues. I am happy to withdraw the use of the word “lies”, but an untruth is being told in the Chamber today.
Mr Deputy Speaker: I remind Members to be careful about what they say.
Mr Gallagher: I made some points about the future consideration of the Bill and the importance that we attach to that. It looks as though the Bill will be pushed through regardless, but will the Minister outline where we go from here? What is the next step? Will we find out tomorrow that a new commissioner has been appointed — and if that is the case, will it be just one commissioner?
The comments from the Minister’s party colleague Sammy Wilson were very interesting. He was quick to express his party’s view that everything should be in place so that we could have local government elections and Assembly elections on the same day in 2011. Is that the Minister’s view? Are we opting for the scenario that was outlined by the DUP? Clearly that is the DUP’s view of the way forward.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. At the beginning of the debate, the Speaker said that Members should stick to the motion, which is on the accelerated passage of the Local Government (Boundaries) Bill. Mr Gallagher, you are now straying into areas that are for another time. Please stick to the motion.
Mr Gallagher: I am merely picking up on the different strands of the debate highlighted by other Members today, and I am not the first person to raise them.
In conclusion, correspondence is on the record between the SDLP Minister and Minister Foster regarding what the Department for Social Development (DSD) is prepared to put out to councils under the new arrangements. We know about urban regeneration and community development, but the Minister for Social Development has gone further and identified some aspects of housing for which local government should be responsible. Will the Member —
Mr T Clarke: On a point of order; has your party changed its mind about accelerated passage?
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. I ask the Member to remember that when he wants to raise a point of order, he should attract my attention and I will call him to speak. Points of order should be raised through the Chair and not directly to individual Members.
Mr Gallagher: In conclusion, the point was raised by Mr Maskey —
Mr Weir: Will the Member give way?
Mr Gallagher: No, I will not give way. I am finishing on this point. There is a list of functions that DSD is prepared to roll out. I ask Mr Maskey and Sinn Féin to compare that list with those on offer from the Department for Regional Development (DRD) and the Department of Education (DE).
Mr Armstrong: The reform of local government is a crucial issue that will affect all the people of Northern Ireland for many years. For years, local government in Northern Ireland has been the only form of local democratic accountability. We all know about the need for Government to be reformed in order to increase effectiveness, accountability and sensitivity to local needs. The DUP’s first choice was for 15 local authorities based on the current parliamentary boundaries.
We all know that. I wonder what happened to that proposal. That would better serve the people in Northern Ireland. We all know what happens when you accelerate very fast. There is an old saying, “speed kills”; I hope this will not kill anything.
It is extremely important that we get the best form of local government from the current proposals. The Bill is far too important to be subject to accelerated passage. The fact that it will exert influence on the people of Northern Ireland for such a long time means that it must be given the fullest possible scrutiny, both in the Assembly and in the Committee for the Environment.
It is my understanding that accelerated passage should be reserved for emergencies only, when any delay would have substantial consequences. This is not an emergency. If this Bill were to be given the scrutiny it deserves, there should be no serious consequences.
Mr S Wilson: The Member is right. If accelerated passage is going to have dire consequences, then of course it should be opposed. Will the Member outline some of the dire consequences that he believes would arise through accelerated passage?
Mr Armstrong: Let us take a step back in time. Which party opposed devolution, saying that it would get it right, while at the same time saying that it would ensure that its members came on board? Where did its proposal for 15 councils go? Could it not persuade its partners in Government in other ways? For decades, direct rule robbed the people of Northern Ireland of the best democratic accountability and a transparent decision-making process that people could associate with and respect. We have achieved devolution, yet we are in danger of allowing this Executive to bypass the people’s elected representatives. We must take time and get it right.
The Ulster Unionist Party supports local government and devolution. We have no desire to obstruct the workings of Government, and we understand the importance of elections in May 2011. However, the Assembly, the Committee and the Minister could have worked together to ensure proper scrutiny of the legislation within the deadline of this session. I believe that both could have been met. I am disappointed with the Minister’s decision, but the UUP will be doing its best to improve this Bill in the limited window available to us.
Dr Farry: I declare an interest, as a member of North Down Borough Council. I thank the Minister for going through the Standing Orders and explaining how, in her view, her request for accelerated passage today complied with those terms. That was a welcome change from the last time a Minister came to this Chamber seeking to pass legislation through accelerated passage.
Having said that, I think that there are major concerns with what is happening today, and it is important to focus on those concerns. During the last debate on accelerated passage, my colleague Naomi Long set out the precedents for accelerated passage in this Assembly and the danger that we could be diverging from those precedents into new territory, and setting dangerous new precedents. Accelerated passage has been used primarily for Budget legislation in the past, and that type of legislation is referred to specifically in Standing Orders. All Members understand that that has to be done to ensure that Departments have money to spend, because otherwise services simply cannot be delivered.
The other area where accelerated passage is used is in parity legislation. In that type of legislation there is not a fundamental policy issue at stake, in the sense that, for 60 years, there has been an understanding that Northern Ireland will mirror what happens in the rest of the United Kingdom in relation to social-security issues. Anyone who wishes to diverge from that does so at his or her peril. There are no real major policy debates to be had over that type of legislation, and it is appropriate that it is rubber-stamped in order to ensure that the people of Northern Ireland have the same degree of protection as elsewhere in the United Kingdom.
With this proposed Bill, we are entering into a major policy issue. The issues to be discussed at Second Stage are not trivial matters; they are matters of major consequence that will go to the heart of what is meant by local government over, potentially, 30 or 40 years.
It is crucial that we get those issues right at the outset, rather than rush the legislation through without allowing Members a proper opportunity to air their views and consider matters fully. In particular, the matter of the number of councils is hugely important. Mr Weir said that we want a form of strong, modern local government, as if this Bill is the only means by which that can be delivered. In fact, some would argue that the Bill undermines efforts to create strong local government.
Mr Weir: I said that we all want to see strong local government, but my point was that if we unduly delay progress on this matter, we will postpone the day that such government can be in place. Without accelerated passage, we will not be ready for the 2011 target date.
Dr Farry: I thank the Member for clarifying that point. I certainly agree that we are working towards that goal, but there are a range of different views in the Chamber as to how that can be achieved. From my perspective, the current proposals may undermine attempts to create strong, modern local government — the powers may not be commensurate with the number of councils being proposed. I would certainly like to engage in a proper discussion on that matter, and I would like the Committee to do so, too.
The reason that we are in this rush to get arrangements in place for 2011 is that there have been major delays in the Executive. I fully appreciate that there is a desire among the people of Northern Ireland to move on and to reach closure on this long-running saga. However, it is important that, in its eagerness to reach that closure, the Assembly does not sell itself short. It is appropriate that the Assembly fulfils its role, which is to scrutinise legislation. We must not fall into the habit of simply acting as a rubber stamp for the Executive’s decisions.
The pattern seems to be that the Executive stalls on an issue on which it cannot agree, finally cobbles together a compromise, and then brings it — late — to the Chamber. The Assembly then feels obliged to rush the legislation through its stages. That is not really an appropriate process for the people of Northern Ireland. We must have a balanced form of government that has proper checks and balances.
I was disappointed that the Committee did not resist accelerated passage more vocally. The Committees are supposed to play an important role in challenging Ministers. I have been disappointed when Back-Bench Members from parties that are represented on the Executive act as a rubber stamp for the decisions of their Ministers, rather than seek to challenge them. Even the Committees at Westminster, which have far less power than our Committees, stand up more freely to decisions of Ministers.
Mr Weir: Mention was made before of Members from one party supporting their own Minister’s decisions. Could the Member possibly conceive that those Members have supported the decision simply because they support the policy and that they are not the thoughtless automatons that he presents them as? It is a little insulting to portray Back-Bench Members as people who will follow whatever is thrown in their direction, rather than allow for the possibility that they might genuinely believe in the merits of a proposal.
Dr Farry: I will certainly concede that, on occasions, Back-Bench Members may agree with their Ministers. However, if a pattern is established whereby Back-Bench Members support their Ministers on every occasion, I would be worried that they are incapable of exercising free thought and challenging their Minister’s decisions in the interests of democracy.
Mrs Long: Back-Bench Members on a Committee may well agree with the particular policy direction that is taken by a Minister. However, does the Member agree that the concern stems from the fact that the policy has to be pushed through so rapidly that other people’s views and opinions cannot be debated? There seems to be some fear that a full and frank discussion would lead to Members being more open-minded about some of the alternative proposals. We have seen that happen before, most recently with issues such as the Victims’ Commission.
Dr Farry: I could not agree more with my colleague’s remarks. [Laughter.]
Mr S Wilson: Will the Member give way?
Dr Farry: I will give way to Sammy in just a moment. Any Member who thinks that the Member for East Belfast Mrs Long and I always agree is welcome to eavesdrop on our team meetings on a Monday morning, when we often hammer matters out behind closed doors.
Mr S Wilson: Did I detect the Member’s party leader pulling his coat and telling him that he had to agree with Mrs Long a Member for East Belfast? Mrs Long made a point about listening to the views of others, so does Dr Farry agree that even with accelerated passage — and, indeed, Mrs Long mentioned the Commission for Victims and Survivors Bill — there would be an opportunity for amendments to be tabled in order that others can express their views in any subsequent discussion? There is no limit in the House on how long a Bill’s passage can take once it has been introduced.
Dr Farry: I thank the Member for that point; it brings me on to an important issue that needs to be clarified. There is a misperception in the House that a Bill is either granted accelerated passage with a Consideration Stage during which all 108 Members can, in theory, participate, or a Bill has a Committee Stage.
In fact, in the normal legislative process, both Stages apply. The expected norm is that the Committee first takes evidence from any interested parties, it formulates its own view and discusses whether, as a Committee, it wishes to table its own amendments. At that stage, Committees have the advantage of having their own Committee staff and access to the views that have been presented to them. Often, the views of Committees are taken with an appropriate degree of weight, given the role they play.
Following the Committee Stage are Consideration Stage and Further Consideration Stage. At those Stages, amendments tabled by the relevant Committee, and those from Members who do not have the luxury of sitting on that Committee, can be debated. Therefore, I suggest that we should have those Stages on a matter that is as important as the review of local government boundaries.
Standing Orders provide that a Committee Stage should take no longer than six weeks and that if a Committee wishes, it can seek to extend that period. However, if a Committee Stage is not of an inordinate length, that should not be a major difficulty.
The Executive should have expressed their opinion on the number of councils and on the proposed groupings of councils when the emerging findings paper was published in October 2007. Had that happened, we could have had a much more in-depth discussion.
However, it seems compromise was found much more readily on the issue of the powers for the councils than on the matter of numbers. As a result, people have been penalised. In effect, we have had a four-month delay. In order that it could make its views known, NILGA seemed to be organising a conference every other fortnight in anticipation of the Minister of the Environment’s decision on the number of new councils. There seems to have been quite a lot of disappointed councillors going to those meetings who missed out on the process.
No doubt the House will discuss tomorrow the many issues that relate to the principles of the Bill. At this stage, suffice it to say that critical policy issues are at stake that need be scrutinised properly in a Committee Stage. The Assembly is rushing the Bill through at its peril: if we get this wrong now, we are locking the people of Northern Ireland into something that will be with them for 30 or 40 years. It is important that we get this right, rather than rush ahead with it arbitrarily.
I would like to raise with the Minister the issue of having two separate processes for the creation of boundary commissions. The first deals with the creation of wards and overall boundaries of the councils, and the second deals with district electoral areas. Those two processes will add a considerable amount of time to the process of preparing for new council elections.
I appreciate fully that one process is determined by the House and the other by the Secretary of State. However, I am interested to know whether any attempt was made to approach the Secretary of State to ascertain whether those two processes could be streamlined into one. As someone who has sat through a Local Government Boundary Commission hearing on ward issues, I know that the way in which wards will eventually form DEAs is relevant.
There is real merit in merging the two processes to avoid making mistakes and to ensure that we actually have joined-up Government. If we explored that possibility, the rush that we currently face could be avoided.
Mrs Foster: I have listened carefully to all the contributions that Members have made. I will, therefore, go through briefly some of the issues that were raised.
The Chairman of the Environment Committee, Mr McGlone, expressed his Committee’s support for the Bill. He then went on to discuss the position of his party, the SDLP. As Mr Ross said, and I am sure that every Member agrees, accelerated passage is not the preferred way to deal with a piece of legislation. However, he accepted my explanation of why it is necessary. I took considerable time to give that explanation. The Deputy Chairman of the Committee, Mr Boylan, also recognised the need for accelerated passage.
Mr Gardiner, who is a member of the Environment Committee and who attended the Committee meeting at which I was present on 3 April, reflected on the huge importance of the Bill to the people of Northern Ireland. He claimed that I did not explain adequately the consequences of the Bill’s not being granted accelerated passage. I disagree: I have explained the consequences fully to the Committee and, indeed, to the Assembly. I have explained the reasons that accelerated passage must get the go-ahead. The fact is that if it does not —
Mr Gardiner: Will the Minister give way for a point of information? Perhaps the Minister should make it abundantly clear that the same Mr Gardiner voted against accelerated passage in the Committee.
Mrs Foster: Yes, Mr Gardiner was in attendance at that meeting; I made that abundantly clear. He and Mr Ford voted against accelerated passage, and I have no difficulty in putting that on record. I welcome the clarity that Mr Gardiner has brought to the Ulster Unionist Party’s position on 15 councils. I must say, however, that it is somewhat at odds with what some of his party’s members on the ground have said to me. Indeed, it is most certainly at odds with comments that have been made by Mr Gardiner’s friend and colleague in County Fermanagh Mr Bertie Kerr, who said that if there were to be 15 councils, his party would rather keep the current 26 councils. It is, therefore, good to get clarity from the Ulster Unionist Party as to how many councils it believes are necessary.
Instructions on the Bill were sent to legislative draftsmen on the same day that the Executive made their decision on the RPA. I fail to see how I could have acted more quickly. Mr Ford reflected that the Bill would have significant consequences for the people of Northern Ireland. Although he acknowledged that I went to the Committee immediately after the Easter recess, he claimed that I have completely sidelined it. Again, I do not accept that charge. I have engaged with the Committee on all the relevant matters, and I went to it as quickly as I possibly could after the Executive made their decision.
I will continue to discuss the RPA with the Committee, given that the Local Government (Boundaries) Bill is not the only RPA Bill that will be introduced in the Assembly. My friend Mr Weir mentioned the local contracts Bill, and we will also have the local government modernisation Bill. Indeed, I am sure that during the coming weeks and months, the House will take a long time to discuss the issues of governance that Mr Gallagher raised.
Mr Ford discussed communities, and he mentioned that those of Newtownhamilton and Newtownards do not have much in common. With regard to the current 26 councils, does he seriously suggest that people who live in the council area of Strabane, for example, belong to the same community as the people of Castlederg? If so, that is simply nonsense.
Mr Ford: I appreciate the Minister’s giving way. The issue of geography, as it relates to the establishment of the existing pattern of 26 district councils, is such that a simplistic process of merely amalgamating them will throw up a considerable number of anomalies. Of course, one can always debate exactly where boundaries should fall. However, it is difficult to suggest that Castlederg does not relate to Strabane as a district town, in the way that it would be difficult to suggest that Killinchy, which is the place to which I referred, or Saintfield relate to Newry, which is likely to be the centre of that council area.
Mrs Foster: I must point out to the Member that many people in Castelderg have told me that they view Omagh as their local focal point. Therefore, that case is not well made at all.
With regard to copies of the Bill not being available to Members today, the Member knows that a Bill cannot be published until it has passed its First Stage, which occurred this morning. Hopefully, Members will have copies of the Bill tomorrow morning.
Essentially, the Bill has two substantive clauses, which I have explained already. Those can be considered in detail tomorrow and, I hope, next week. Ultimately, it is ironic that Mr Ford, the self-confessed back end of a horse under a previous Administration —
Mr Ford: A pantomime horse.
Mrs Foster: Yes, a pantomime horse. It is surprising that Mr Ford is concentrating on accelerated passage, when, some time ago, he bent over backwards to facilitate the most illogical and bizarre re-designation rule-change to keep David Trimble in post as the First Minister. However, everyone has to stick up for their own position.
Mr Wilson —
Mr Ford: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker: I appreciate that the Minister’s point is all good knock-about stuff and it has recently reappeared on DUP briefing notes. However, are references to a pantomime horse in order or relevant to the debate?
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. The Speaker has made no ruling on that matter, and I accept the Minister’s point that it was the Member himself who first said “pantomime horse”. [Interruption.]
Mr Ford: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. The Minister raised the issue of the designation vote and described me as the back-end of a horse. I may have corrected her on the precise details of the horse, but it was the Minister who strayed from the subject of the debate. [Laughter.]
Mrs Foster: Moving on to Mr Wilson, who is nowhere near the back-end of a pantomime horse or otherwise —[Laughter.]
Mr Wilson referred to the “abominable no men” in the Alliance Party and in the Ulster Unionist Party and made the point that the boundaries are set by the Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland and not by individuals in this House.
I want to allow the commissioner the maximum time possible to examine the boundaries. Indeed, Mr Ford made the point to me at the Environment Committee that he believed, even then, that the task would not be completed in time. I am trying to give the incoming commissioner as long as possible, which is why the issue must be dealt with today.
We are trying to resolve the ongoing and lengthy review of public administration and to give a strong lead to local government, which Members acknowledge as the only democratic avenue in Northern Ireland over the past 35 to 40 years. Councils deserve reform, and that is what we are trying to give them.
It is important that a deadline has been set so that local government is provided with clarity. That deadline is challenging, but if the Bill does not pass its first hurdle, one thing is certain — the elections in 2011 will not be for 11 new local government districts.
There has been extensive consultation on the proposed number of councils. One reason that I feel able to move ahead in July 2011 is because we said that we would consider seven, 11 or 15 council areas. Therefore, the models, as other Members have said, have been clearly set out and everyone involved knows that the decision will be limited to one of those models.
I totally disassociate myself from Mr Wilson’s “anorak” remarks. The Environment Committee does its job very well — environmentally friendly anoraks, and all the rest of it.
Mr Maskey spoke about the work of the strategic leadership board, the input of which I have often recognised. Five parties come together in the board and work effectively for the benefit of local government. Mr Maskey said that some parties have not clarified what they want from local government, even though it has taken a long time to get to the current position.
I believe that there now exists a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reform and modernise local government. Assembly Members will debate in coming days the many and complex issues with which they are wrestling, particularly around governance. Mr Maskey said that there was no such thing as a gentleman’s agreement — not that I am suggesting that he would attempt to say that I would enter into a gentleman’s agreement — but it is right that the issues will be debated in a statutory context on the Floor of this House.
There has been a lot of toing and froing over governance issues, but I repeat that the future cannot be planned by looking to the past. We should be setting out future governance arrangements for Northern Ireland that threaten no-one and protect everyone — from Unionists in the west to Nationalists in the east.
Mr Weir dealt with some arguments made by the Alliance Party and the Ulster Unionist Party. He again referred to seven, 11 and 15 local government districts. He also spoke about the previous Local Government Boundaries Commissioner, and the fact that legislation had been in place in relation to that post for some time. Indeed, the previous Local Government Boundaries Commissioner was appointed in 2006. There is no need to reinvent the wheel; this is a relatively straightforward piece of legislation.
Mr Kennedy talked about the lack of accountability to the House of the accelerated passage process. He is right to say that the Bill is a key building block for local government reform. He mentioned coterminosity, and I look forward to discussing that issue tomorrow during the debate on the Bill’s Second Stage. That debate will not solely concern parliamentary boundaries, however. Issues of health, education, policing, housing and roads must all be addressed. I hope that Members will take the opportunity to do that tomorrow.
Mr Kennedy also mentioned the review of council boundaries. It is intended that, in future, council boundaries will be reviewed every eight to 12 years, especially to detail and to take into account boundary defacement, which happens from time to time as a result, for example, of the building of large housing estates.
Tommy Gallagher expressed serious concerns about accelerated passage for the Bill, and said that he wanted my assurance that other elements of the RPA would come before the House. I am happy to give him that assurance today. There will be a full opportunity to discuss other matters such as governance. Mr Gallagher said that he hoped that the appointment of a Local Government Boundaries Commissioner would not be announced tomorrow. I assure him that the advertisement appeared only last week, and the appointment process has just begun.
I am glad that the Member for Mid Ulster Billy Armstrong was here today to take part in the debate and give us his thoughts on the accelerated passage of the Bill, because he did not attend the meeting of the Environment Committee on 3 April to discuss the issue and provide the scrutiny that he is now seeking.
Mr Kennedy: Will the Minister graciously welcome Mr Armstrong back to the House after a period during which he has not been in the best of health?
Mrs Foster: I said that I was very glad that Mr Armstrong appeared today to attend the debate and to give us his thoughts on local government.
Stephen Farry gave his reasons for why the House should not approve accelerated passage for the Bill. I say to Dr Farry and to other Members that this issue is a legacy of direct rule. The Executive decided in July 2007 that we would hold a fast and focused review that would deliver sound and strong local government. We decided on a fast and focused review because many people seemed to believe that the RPA was never going to go ahead.
We should be letting the wider community, including local government staff, know that the RPA is going to happen and that we have a timetable for its completion. I do not accept that strong local government is being undermined. This is the beginning of a process, and I have said from the beginning that functions are being transferred now, and that we hope that more functions will be transferred in future. However, that is a matter for tomorrow’s debate.
Dr Farry also asked whether we could have streamlined the process of reform of the district electoral area boundaries and the local government boundaries. It is important to ensure that the maximum amount of time is given to the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner so that the most appropriate decision can be made, based on the available evidence. That is one of the reasons that I have asked for accelerated passage for the Bill.
I also wish to thank Dr Farry for acknowledging that I had guided Members through the requirements for accelerated passage, both at the Environment Committee and in the House today.
I will be bringing more legislation before the House in relation to the reform of local government. That will deal with complex issues such as governance and the modernisation of local government capital finance. Rightly, the Assembly will want a full process of scrutiny to be brought to bear on that legislation. For now, however, I hope that Members, despite some of their misgivings, will support the motion and set in train the process that will lead to the beginning of a major and much overdue reform of local government in Northern Ireland.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Before we proceed to the Question, I remind Members that the motion requires cross-community support.
The Assembly divided: Ayes 52; Noes 21.
Mr Adams, Ms Anderson, Mr Boylan, Mr Brady, Mr Brolly, Mr Butler, Mr W Clarke, Ms Gildernew, Mr G Kelly, Mr A Maskey, Mr P Maskey, Ms J McCann, Mr McElduff, Mrs McGill, Mr M McGuinness, Mr McKay, Mr Molloy, Mr Murphy, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mrs O’Neill.
Mr Bresland, Lord Browne, Mr Buchanan, Mr Campbell, Mr T Clarke, Mr Craig, Mr Donaldson, Mr Easton, Mrs Foster, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Irwin, Mr McCausland, Mr I McCrea, Dr W McCrea, Mr McGimpsey, Miss McIlveen, Mr McQuillan, Lord Morrow, Mr Moutray, Mr Paisley Jnr, Rev Dr Ian Paisley, Mr G Robinson, Mrs I Robinson, Mr P Robinson, Mr Ross, Mr Shannon, Mr Simpson, Mr Spratt, Mr Weir, Mr Wells, Mr S Wilson.
Tellers for the Ayes: Mr T Clarke and Mr I McCrea.
Mr Armstrong, Mr Beggs, Mr Burnside, Mr Cobain, Rev Dr Robert Coulter, Mr Cree, Mr Elliott, Mr Gardiner, Mr Kennedy, Mr McCallister, Mr B McCrea, Mr McFarland, Mr McNarry, Mr Savage.
Dr Farry, Mr Ford, Ms Lo, Mrs Long, Mr McCarthy, Mr Neeson, Mr B Wilson.
Tellers for the Noes: Mr Armstrong and Mrs Long.
Total votes 73 Total Ayes 52 [71.2%]
Nationalist Votes 20 Nationalist Ayes 20[100.0%]
Unionist Votes 46 Unionist Ayes 32[69.6%]
Other Votes 7 Other Ayes 0 [0.0%]
Question accordingly agreed to.
Resolved (with cross-community support):
That the Local Government (Boundaries) Bill proceed under the accelerated passage procedure, in accordance with Standing Order 40(4).
Post Office Closures
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes.
Mrs Hanna: I beg to move
That this Assembly notes with concern the recent announcement that 96 local post offices are to close or be replaced by an “outreach” service; believes that the six-week consultation period is too short; further believes such closures and service reductions will have an adverse impact on community and social infrastructure in rural and urban areas and will adversely affect older people, persons with disabilities and other vulnerable groups; acknowledges that provision of post office services is a reserved matter; and resolves to establish urgently an Ad Hoc Committee to think creatively about and make proposals for partnerships that could enhance the economic case for viable local postal services based on engagement with commercial, voluntary and public-sector partners and learning from the experience in the Republic of Ireland.
On 1 April 2008 — April Fool’s Day, which some Members may think is appropriate — the Post Office announced that, as part of its network change programme, its area plan proposals for Northern Ireland would lead to the closure of 42 post offices and the provision of outreach support. Outreach support is available only until 2011, and many people fear that it is a euphemism for the deferred closure of a further 54 rural post offices. That will be the second round of post office closures in Northern Ireland.
A major concern has to be that there will be further rounds of closures. On 11 March 2004, the Post Office announced the closure of 21 post offices, mainly in urban areas. Therefore, in a matter of four years, the post office network in Northern Ireland has been reduced from 580 to 463 — a reduction of 20%.
We all know that change is inevitable. In some areas, fewer people use the post office because services such as bill payments, television licences, car tax and passports are now available online or through banks, as a result of the growth in telecommunications. Apparently, one in five letters is now delivered by private competitors. We are told that the Post Office is losing £500,000 every working day, or about £200 million a year, and that the closures are necessary to stem those losses, to bring the post office network into profitability and to stabilise the situation.
As part of its briefing, the Post Office has produced an impressive-looking document with a branch report for each of the 96 local offices that are under threat of closure, containing addresses, opening hours, average weekly customer numbers, local population profile and so on. However, those reports are incomplete: there is no information on the profitability or otherwise of individual branch offices. Indeed, it has been accepted that profitability has nothing to do with the closure of many branches, and that many local offices, especially in urban areas, are profitable and well used. The Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association has identified six of its members who run local convenience stores that have post offices in the premises: two are in Belfast and the others are in Castlereagh, Omagh, Antrim and Dungannon. Their owners say that they are extremely busy and profitable local offices, and that, if they are forced to close, it will have a severe impact on the viability of other services that are offered in-store and on neighbouring retail outlets, and will cause job losses. Post Office Ltd must explain why it is proposing to close down stores.
Mr Attwood: The Member spoke of post office closures around the North, including in Belfast. Does she agree that any decisions about the future of the post office estate should take into account two values: first, whether services fulfil a shared-society outcome; and, secondly, whether post offices in areas of most deprivation should be protected? Does she agree that the decision to recommend the closure of the post office on Black’s Road, which fulfils these and many other criteria, makes no sense?
Mrs Hanna: I agree with the Member. The Post Office has not given any reasonable explanation as to how it can contemplate doing such a thing.
An economic appraisal should apply to every store that the Post Office is proposing to close, and must take into account not only quantifiable factors such as profitability, but non-quantifiable factors, some of which were mentioned by my colleague. Equally valid factors must be taken into account, such as the impact on the local community; the viability of other local businesses; access; the availability of public transport; socio-economic data such as age, health, deprivation; and what I would call the equivalent of biodiversity. We are all increasingly ecologically aware when it comes to the natural environment and the importance of maintaining the diversity of plants and animals. The same applies to communities, especially in rural areas, where it is the small-scale institutions — schools, churches and post offices — that bind communities together. I represent South Belfast, which is a wholly urban constituency. However, I acknowledge that rural post office closures have a particularly devastating impact. John Dallat and other Members will speak about the damage done to rural communities by those closures. Local post offices are part of the lifeblood of local communities, urban and rural — providing essential services, especially to the elderly and to those who do not have access to their own transport.
At a time when the Government are talking about reducing carbon emissions, the closures will increase pollution and further deplete resources.
The two rounds of closures have closed or proposed to close a number of post offices in the constituency of South Belfast. In 2004, the post offices at Balmoral, Cromac Street, Ormeau Road, Stranmillis Road and Willowfield were closed. This year, it has been announced that the post offices at 217 Lisburn Road and 160 Ormeau Road are to close. Seven urban offices have been taken out of the smallest constituency in Northern Ireland.
The post office at 217 Lisburn Road is situated in the Windsor ward — it serves most of that ward and the Blackstaff ward. The post office at 160 Ormeau Road is in the Botanic ward. Although neither the Windsor ward nor the Botanic ward rank high in the list of deprived wards, the Blackstaff ward is in the top 5% of the most disadvantaged wards in Northern Ireland. The Windsor and Botanic wards are the first and third most populous wards in Northern Ireland. Since the statistics were published in the 2001 census, those wards may have become even more heavily populated. Since the 2001 census, both wards have seen a considerable influx of immigration of minority ethnic groups. The diverse population of those wards includes elderly people, students and migrants. Those are precisely the types of people who may not have access to mainstream banking services.
Mr P Ramsey: Does the Member accept that the Post Office must carry out the fullest consultation process that is available to it? In my constituency of Foyle, a post office in Claudy, a rural area, and a post office in the city centre, on Carlisle Road, are to close. Those post offices are seen as economically not viable, but they are based in areas that have the highest levels of social and economic disadvantage in the city. What relevance will be given to targeting social need when representations are made, and will those arguments be accepted?
Mrs Hanna: I could not have put that better. There are specific questions for the Post Office. Has it taken account of the specific requirements of public bodies to undertake section 75 equality impact assessments on closures? If the Post Office has done that, will it make those assessments available? Has it considered making full economic assessments of closure decisions, and will those be made available?
Does the Post Office acknowledge that, in light of the unanimous outcry against its announcement, the six-week consultation period is far too short? It should be at least double that period — a minimum of 12 weeks. At the very least, the Post Office should acknowledge that the six-week consultation period is far too short to allow for meaningful community consultation. All of those questions must be considered by the Ad Hoc Committee that the motion proposes. That Committee should consider the situation in the Republic of Ireland, which has also been short-sighted in dealing with its postal service.
A few months ago, the Government bailed out Northern Rock, a building society with two million customers. The cost of that is £100 billion, which equates to £1,700 for every man, woman and child in the UK. Post offices in the UK still have 11 million customers, and the Government has promised a subsidy of £1·7 billion for the three years to 2011, provided that the Post Office implements its closure programme. That subsidy amounts to £5 a year for every man, woman and child in the UK.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. The Member’s time is up.
Mrs Hanna: To finish, we must make the case for the proposals —
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order.
Lord Morrow: The DUP supports the motion. The sentiments that are expressed in the motion adequately sum up the revulsion that we all feel about the closure decision. Throughout many years of direct rule, the infrastructure of the Post Office has been run down.
That was another legacy of direct rule, and one in which elected representatives have had little say. Ironically, even though we now have an elected Assembly, we are still going to have little say on the outcome of this debate.
Carmel Hanna put her finger on the pulse of the matter. The Post Office must reconsider the length of the consultation period — six weeks is totally inadequate. By doing so, the Post Office could show the people of Northern Ireland — those who work in post offices and those who depend on its services — that, at least, it is listening to their elected representatives.
I suspect that there is going to be unanimity in the House in favour of the motion. However, if after listening to the views of Assembly Members in this debate, the Post Office continues on its own merry way, that would send a bad message to those of us who believe in democracy.
As I come from the rural constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone, my concern is for rural post offices. People who live in rural communities seem to be penalised day and daily — the running down of rural post offices follows the running down of rural schools. Seemingly, people who live in rural communities are being told that they are not entitled to the same facilities as those who live in urban areas. That is a matter that the Assembly should take on board. Northern Ireland, by definition, is rural. Therefore, I suspect that this matter will resonate with more Assembly Members than one that would occur in a more urban area.
It has been said that the post offices that have been earmarked for closure are not profitable, and I accept that such factors have to be considered. However, I believe emphatically that the Post Office has not properly considered the future of the rural post office network. Surely the Post Office needs to assess what it wants to see in the rural community of Northern Ireland in 20 years’ time.
Mr McCarthy: Does the Member agree that senior citizens who do not have their own modes of transport will be the people to suffer most when post offices are removed from villages and hamlets?
Lord Morrow: I congratulate the Member for making that point. We owe a lot to the older members of our community. The cost of everything is rising — I have just read in the local press that it is expected that the food bill for a normal household will have risen by approximately £600 over a 12-month period. Similarly, as Members will not need reminding, the price of oil is rising on a virtually daily basis. Therefore, the cost of travel is also rising at an alarming rate. Those are other factors that impact on the senior citizens mentioned by Mr McCarthy.
The rural post office in Granville — my own village, which is two and a half or three miles from Dungannon — is one of those up for closure. The rural post offices in Cabragh — about five miles from Dungannon — and Carnteel are also due to close. The Post Office has selected the branches that will close, or that will have their service changed.
I want to know what consideration was given to the communities that they serve.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. The Member’s time is up.
Mr W Clarke: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I support this timely motion, and I thank the Members who introduced it to the House. I hope that the debate will allow Members to deal pragmatically and holistically with this matter. The closure of post offices can have a devastating impact on communities, particularly, as has been mentioned, on rural communities. Key social and personal services will be lost, and Sinn Féin calls for coherent action to replace them.
The general public cannot comprehend proposals that threaten some of the busiest and most successful post offices. The number of people who use those post offices demonstrates their importance to local communities. Another major concern is that the proposed cuts are likely to be a precursor to many more far-reaching cuts in 2011, when the provision of the mobile or shared option that Royal Mail has put on the table will end.
I am extremely concerned about the negative impact of the closures on communities, particularly those in rural and remote areas of the North. It is widely acknowledged that the closures will increase social isolation and disadvantage. The Post Office justifies the closures on the basis that the offices are financially non-viable, but does not take into account either the accompanying business-related services, such as private shops, or the vital role that post offices play in the social infrastructure of local communities.
Six stores in Castlereagh, Omagh, north Belfast, Antrim, Dungannon and west Belfast incorporate extremely busy and profitable post offices. If their owners are forced to close the post offices, it will have a severe impact on the viability of their stores and result in job losses. The Post Office must answer this question: why does it propose to close offices that are economically viable? That makes no sense.
Sinn Féin requests that the six-week consultation period that has been outlined be extended to allow more time for consideration. Communities must have time to formulate their responses. In my South Down constituency, the council is holding meetings this week to gather evidence, and more time is needed to process such information.
Post offices are key focal points for communities, and they are often the only shops in the area. The human contact that post offices provide to many people far outweighs the cost of keeping them open.
Mrs M Bradley: Does the Member agree that the closure of post offices will deprive many older people, and some disabled people, of their independence?
Mr W Clarke: I concur with the Member. The closure of post offices will result in the isolation of some of the most vulnerable people in the community.
Sinn Féin is making it clear to the Post Office and the British Government that when they deem it commercially logical to close a post office, it is vital to provide an alternative. There is an onus on all Members to implement practical measures to help communities to replace the services currently provided by local post offices. Assistance must be given to local authorities to support communities and provide services.
In response to post office closures in the South, the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul in Ireland outlined the measures that are required to mitigate the effects of the proposals: when a town loses its post office, regular transport must be available to take people to sufficiently resourced post offices in towns and villages that are within a reasonable distance; postmen and postwomen should be given guidance on spotting the signs of social isolation and need; all older people in need must have access to social alarms; and local community groups should be given additional relevant training and resources.
Despite increasing urbanisation, a more mobile population and demographic changes, there remains a significant number of people, particularly older people and those who live alone, for whom the local postal service plays a vital part in their social and personal lives.
The decision to close local post offices cannot be based solely on economic imperatives. It has been suggested that the rules on planning and rating be reformed to make it easier to operate a post office from a church hall or village hall. That sensible proposal deserves support, and it is essential to set up an Ad Hoc Committee to investigate every option. Perhaps the Assembly can ensure that all utility bills — with no disadvantage to those who choose that method of payment — and every bill that is payable to Government, including local councils, can be paid at post offices?
Maureen Edmondson, the chairperson of Postwatch Northern Ireland, said:
“Postwatch accepts the rationale for change, but it is important that change happens in a way that is customer-focussed and avoids confusion. This means that Post Office Limited’s decision must be sensible and public consultation meaningful.”
I concur with those sentiments; we must consult, not insult, and local people’s views must be considered meaningfully and acted on. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. As Question Time commences at 2.30 pm, I suggest that the House take its ease until that time. The debate will resume after Question Time, when the next Member to speak will be David Burnside.
The debate stood suspended.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Molloy] in the Chair)
Teacher-Pupil Ratios in Primary Schools
1. Mr Dallat asked the Minister of Education to outline the action she has taken to reduce teacher-pupil ratios in primary schools. (AQO 3012/08)
The Minister of Education (Ms Ruane): Go raibh maith agat. Is é an cóimheas daltaí le múinteoirí 2006-07 do Thuaisceart na hÉireann 20:8; tá seo níos airde ná cóimheas na hAlban, 16:3, an Bhreatain Bheag, 19:9, agus Deisceart na hÉireann 16:4. Ach tá sé níos ísle ná cóimheas Sasana, atá 21:8.
The pupil-teacher ratio for primary schools in the North of Ireland was 20:8 in 2006-07. That is higher than in Scotland, where it is 16:3; Wales, where it is 19:9; and the South of Ireland, where it is 16:4: but it is lower than in England where it is 21:8.
I have recognised publicly that the gap between funding for primary schools and post-primary schools is too wide. For that reason, I allocated a greater share of resources to primary schools in 2008-09. That resulted in an overall increase for primary-school budgets of 4% over 2007-08 levels, compared to an increase of 2·5% for post-primary schools. It was achieved by increasing the weighting of primary schools in the local management of schools formula. We will continue to enhance the levels of support for primary schools by progressively increasing the weighting of primary schools over the Budget period.
In addition, over the next three years the Budget provides for significant additional funding, specifically for primary schools, including almost £12 million to help primary-school-teaching principals, in recognition of the pressures they face, and a further £32 million to support primary schools with delivery of the foundation stage of the revised curriculum. That includes £7 million in the 2008-09 financial year to support the introduction of the foundation-stage curriculum in years one and two. The foundation stage sets out a more appropriate curriculum for the youngest learners, and I have listened to primary-school principals and teachers who have told me that additional numbers of classroom assistants are needed to deliver it effectively. Therefore, the present Making a Good Start (MAGS) funding arrangement, which provides classroom assistants for year one and some year two classes only, will be replaced from September 2008 by foundation-stage funding.
Those measures represent a significant real-terms increase in the amounts available to primary schools for classroom assistance and materials in support of the foundation-stage curriculum to help give the youngest primary pupils the best start to their education.
Mr Dallat: I thank the Minister for her answer. She will agree that continuing problems with literacy and numeracy represent a barrier to equality, and that a good education is a powerful weapon in anyone’s armoury. Does she agree that continuing to improve the ratio of teachers to pupils will improve levels of literacy and numeracy, and, consequently, future investment in remedial education can be reduced?
Ms Ruane: The Member said that better than I could have done. I absolutely agree. Research confirms that a mixture of factors — including the quality of teachers and of the instruction that they provide — is the key influence on learning outcomes. There is also evidence that smaller class sizes in early grades can have a positive impact. Teachers in schools with a significant proportion of disadvantaged pupils must have smaller classes so that they can deal with the barriers to learning, give individual help to pupils or work in small groups. As the Member knows, since I came into office I have initiated work and developed policies to tackle underachievement and ensure that every child has the opportunity to achieve her or his full potential.
Consultation on ‘Every School a Good School’ has just ended, and we are revising the literacy and numeracy strategy. We are also overhauling the current academic admissions criteria: that, too, is changing and will contribute to an improvement in outcomes.
The Member knows that to deal seriously with the teacher-pupil ratio more resources are needed. Countries such as Finland and Sweden, which have improved teacher-pupil ratios, have put significant additional resources into education. All parties should support my request for increased resources for this purpose.
Mr Ross: The Minister will be aware that only last week the Committee for Employment and Learning received evidence from St Mary’s University College and Stranmillis University College, and that Queen’s University and Stranmillis University College have recently announced that they are going to merge. She will also be aware, because she has already informed me of it in response to a question for written answer, that over 6,500 teachers are not currently in full-time employment. Will the Minister therefore recognise that reducing class sizes, or making a firm commitment to do so, will help teacher training institutions to plan for the future, and may also help some of those unemployed teachers find work?
Ms Ruane: We need to create opportunities for younger teachers, because they are not getting the opportunities that they deserve. I will outline some of the steps that I have taken to ensure that newly qualified teachers are employed. The Department of Education has issued guidance exhorting employers to give preference to newly qualified teachers and to experienced non-retired teachers who are seeking employment. Employers have also been advised that retired teachers should only be re-employed to provide short-term cover when newly qualified teachers or experienced non-retired teachers are unavailable.
We have also capped the levels of reimbursement of the costs of substitute cover, which provides an incentive for schools to employ newly qualified teachers as substitutes. I have just asked my officials to re-examine the arrangements for employing retired teachers as substitute supply teachers. They will take legal advice as necessary and will also consider what is happening in the South of Ireland. It is not fair that our newly qualified teachers do not get the chances that they deserve.
The number of unemployed teachers presents an opportunity to reduce the ratio of pupils to teacher; however, that is dependent on resources, and, beyond those for the measures that I outlined in my first answer, my Department did not obtain enough resources in the Budget. I look forward to receiving the Member’s support and that of his party when I present such proposals.
Mr K Robinson: Will the Minister accept that the majority of schools are suffering from an initiative fatigue, that short-term, project-led funding does more harm than good and that what is required is enhanced long-term core funding? Will she further accept that her plans to close off the early-retirement option for teachers who are suffering from burnout simultaneously reduces dramatically many of the opportunities that were formerly available to young teachers hoping to obtain their first full-time teaching post?
Ms Ruane: Obviously, schools need substantial amounts of funding to deal with the issues that they face. Staff of all schools argue that the education sector faces a lack of funding, and I absolutely agree with them — there should be more money going into education. In England, an extra £600 million is going into education. However, when funding was allocated to the North of Ireland, equivalent funding was not put into education. As the Member would expect, I argue — and will continue to argue — that it should have been.
Some initiatives are very important. Sometimes we need to introduce initiatives through pilot programmes and then bring those programmes into the mainstream. I argue that the programmes that I have brought in are worthwhile — the GAA and the Irish Football Association programmes, as well as the languages programmes in primary schools, because our children are learning languages much too late. I feel that we do not introduce our children to sport and fundamental ball skills early enough — [Interruption.]
I ask that Sammy Wilson does not interrupt me so that I can continue with my answer.
It is important that children have a sense of their bodies and of the fun of sport and that they enjoy sport. That will lead to better standards of literacy and numeracy, as well as healthy self-esteem. Therefore, some initiatives are good; however, I take the Member’s point about initiatives, and I am aware that many schools are making the same point. Go raibh maith agat.
Special Schools: Transformation
2. Mr Neeson asked the Minister of Education if she will introduce legislation to allow special schools to transform to integrated status. (AQO 3003/08)
Ms Ruane: Is maith a thuigim dualgas mo Roinne an t-oideachas imeasctha a spreagadh agus a éascú. Aithním an ról tábhachtach a imríonn an t-oideachas imeasctha ag cruthú todhchaí cobhsaí síochánta do pháistí.
I appreciate fully my Department’s duty to encourage and facilitate integrated education. I recognise the contribution that integrated education makes to the establishment of a stable and peaceful future for our children. However, there are specific reasons for protecting the educational interests of children and why the legislation prohibits specials schools from attaining integrated status. The current intake criteria for special schools are based on the special educational needs of each and every individual child.
Integrated schools can currently include community background as an intake criterion based on religion rather than educational needs. The prohibition in the legislation recognises the complex needs of children in the special education sector, which I witnessed at first hand during recent visits to special schools in Antrim, Lurgan and Belfast.
Children in many special schools already access shared provision and serve as an example of the way forward. All types of schools have their part to play in developing opportunities for sharing and integrating. I am less concerned about the label attached to a school than I am about the degree of sharing that takes place. Indeed, some of the best integration happens in special schools.
Mr Neeson: Special needs know no bounds — pupils come from all religious and social backgrounds. I suggest that special schools are already integrated. I understand that the Minister supports integrated education, but will she acknowledge that by granting special schools integrated school status?
Ms Ruane: I have answered that question already. The Member knows that I support integrated education and that I take my statutory duties on that matter seriously. For the reasons that I outlined earlier, I do not believe that that is the best way to proceed because it would create equality issues.
Mr McElduff: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Does the exemption or the prohibition amount to a denial of a child’s right to integrated education based on parental choice?
Ms Ruane: That is a children’s rights issue — cearta páistí. First, there is the right of children to receive the most appropriate school provision, regardless of their religion. Secondly, there is the right of children in special schools to have the same options as children in mainstream schools, including access to shared schooling that admits all religions and values every individual.
Given the particular difficulties that are faced by children whose needs require placement in a special school, I am determined that meeting their individual needs must remain paramount in selecting their school. To allow religion to influence that selection is not in the child’s best interests.
In addition, as Members will know, children in many special schools already access shared provision and serve as an example of the way forward. All types of schools have their part to play in developing opportunities for sharing. I am less concerned about the label attached to a school than I am about the degree of sharing that takes place.
We must also consider how to mainstream children with special needs and provide what they need in mainstream schools. When possible, children should attend the same school as neighbouring children. Some of the saddest stories that I hear come from parents who say that their children love the special schools, which are like an oasis, but that they then go home and have no one to play with in the street. The Assembly must consider how to mainstream and ensure that children with special needs are given the fairest chance in life.
Mrs I Robinson: The Minister is often quoted as saying that all children are to be valued. One mile down the road, Tor Bank School provides for children with the most severe special needs that anyone could ever meet, and it does so in the most appalling conditions imaginable. It is a shame that we are discussing integrated status for special needs schools when that school has been waiting since 2004 for a newbuild. Will the Minister kindly outline for Members an indicative timetable for when that newbuild will start? That is what will give those children equality and recognise their needs.
Ms Ruane: I do value all children. As the Member will know, I visited Tor Bank School — [Interruption.] I did not interrupt the Member during her question.
Mr S Wilson: That does not stop us interrupting the Minister.
Ms Ruane: I know that.
I met the principal of Tor Bank School at a wonderful all-island autism conference in Croke Park on 15 April. [Interruption.]
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. The Minister has the Floor.
Mr S Wilson: The Minister should spend more time doing her job here.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. The Minister has the Floor.
Ms Ruane: Part of my job here is to arrange North/South visits. If Members really care about children with special needs, they should know the benefit of learning from what happens in the South of Ireland and in England, Scotland and Wales.
We should not let ideology get in the way of addressing the needs of all our children. Officials in my Department are liaising very closely with the principal of Tor Bank School. I visited that school and had a wonderful time. I also visited the Special Provision for Education for Autistic Children (SPEAC) Centre, and saw the proposals for a new school build. The Member will know that because I wrote to her about that, and I am meeting her very soon to discuss that. I look forward to that meeting. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Can I just check Minister; is question 3 linked to question 11?
Ms Ruane: Yes.
Admissions Test: Lumen Christie College
3. Mr Hamilton asked the Minister of Education to give her assessment of Lumen Christi College’s decision to set its own academic based admissions test. (AQO 2960/08)
11. Mr Lunn asked the Minister of Education for her assessment of the decision by Lumen Christi College to set its own entrance exam. (AQO 3001/08)
Ms Ruane: Tá mé meallta gur fhógair Lumen Christi go raibh rún aige a theist iontrála féin a cheapadh, agus feicim go bhfuil mo mhealladhsa ar Easpag Dhoire, arb é duine de iontaobhaithe sinsearacha na scoile é.
I am disappointed that Lumen Christi has announced an intention to set its own entrance test. I note that my disappointment is shared by the Bishop of Derry, one of the school’s senior trustees. I fully agree with Bishop Hegarty that the current transfer procedure amounts to a form of social selection. I fail to see how the school’s proposals align with the ethos of social justice that has traditionally characterised schools in the Catholic sector.
The proposal appears to be chiefly concerned with defending privilege. It will only serve to perpetuate the impact of demographic decline on the secondary school sector, which has already experienced a drop of over 5,000 pupils over a 10-year period, whilst grammar school enrolments remain broadly the same. My concern is widely shared, as demonstrated by views expressed by teaching practitioners in every single sector across the island of Ireland.
I hope that the school’s current board of governors will review that decision and not set the school on a collision course with the Department. I would very much like Lumen Christi to join with me and the majority of the post-primary sector as we work to assemble a consensus.
The presumption inherent in the announcement of Lumen Christi College is that a legislative framework for transfer 2010 will not be in place. However, if transfer 2010 is to be unregulated, I previously stated that the Department will not fund or support breakaway tests. Lumen Christi, and schools contemplating similar actions, should understand that independent breakaway selective procedures require much more than the provision of a test.
Academic selection based on a test comes with a whole host of pressures and risks. The tests need to be supported by challenge mechanisms in order to manage the high level of appeals. They need to be supported by a special circumstances procedure to ensure that the system is fair. Those are resource-intensive and critical functions — vital if admission criteria based on selective procedures are to be robust. If those functions are not delivered effectively, it is very likely that the admissions processes of such schools will be dysfunctional. That would be damaging for the children immediately concerned, and would also affect the admission processes of other schools. Admissions resulting from dysfunctional processes are also likely to lead to litigation and liabilities for school boards of governors.
I issued a letter to the school — and to 30 feeder primary schools because Lumen Christi had written to them — on 15 April 2008. Those letters highlighted the administrative and legal perils associated with an independently operated entrance exam. No post-primary school can oblige a primary school to prepare pupils for any particular feature of its admissions process. Feeder primary schools have been reminded — and they are glad to be reminded because they like the revised curriculum — that their focus must be on preparing pupils for the revised primary curriculum and not for a test that is unsupported by the Department.
I asked Lumen Christi to reconsider that decision in the interests of social justice, equality and fairness for every child.
Mr Hamilton: Does the decision of Lumen Christi College — one that I applaud — not show that opposition to the Minister’s so-called vision is widespread right across all sections of our community? Instead of blackmailing and bullying boards of governors, would the Minister not be better off working with others to help implement a system that enshrines the reality of academic selection? It is a reality that her party’s leaked position paper admits is here to stay.
Ms Ruane: First, I suggest that the Member looks at the statistics and at the numbers of people who support — [Interruption.]
I did not interrupt you.
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Minister has been asked a question, and she has the Floor. Members must allow the Minister to answer.
Ms Ruane: Go raibh maith agat.
Mr S Wilson: If she answers, it will be a first.
Ms Ruane: You will get an answer, if you stop interrupting.
There are 226 post-primary schools in the North of Ireland, roughly 20 of which state, at this point, that they support academic selection — 20 schools out of 226. Secondary schools are bearing the brunt of demographic decline, and that is totally and utterly unfair. I am working with everyone to build consensus. However, I will lead the change, and I will ensure that every child in this state has a fair chance, because not every child has a fair chance at present.
We have heard a defence based on privilege. If you were so concerned about retaining academic selection, your party should have chosen to take up the Department of Education. You did not choose it — we did. We chose it because we are going to bring about changes.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. Any questions from the Floor, or comments from the Minister, must be addressed through the Chair.
Ms Ruane: We will bring about changes that will benefit everyone. They will benefit everyone on the Falls and Shankill Roads. They will benefit people in Coleraine, Ballymena, Derry and Tyrone, and the 12,000 young people who leave school without even attaining English and Maths GCSEs. Would any of you want your children to leave school without English and Maths GCSEs? Would you? Of course you would not.
Mr S Wilson: You seem to want that.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. Members continue to waste time. Members and the Minister must address questions and answers through the Chair.
Mr McLaughlin: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Mr Deputy Speaker: I will not accept points of order until Question Time is over.
Ms Ruane: I ask, through the Chair, whether any Members would like their children to leave school without English — or Irish — and Maths GCSEs. I do not think so. However, I will ensure that we deal with underachievement. There are none so blind as those who will not see. We must have change. Not changing is not an option. People can wriggle on a hook, bay at the moon and howl at the wind, but change must, and will, come.
Mr Durkan: I thank the Minister for her answer. I regret that some Members would not listen to it or allow the rest of us to listen to it properly.
Will the Minister emphasise that not only are there legal liabilities and vulnerabilities for any board of governors that conducts its own selection test, but there are serious implications for other schools and for the wider transfer procedure? Will she accept that a school that runs its own transfer test not only places other secondary schools in confusion and at a disadvantage, but places primary schools in an invidious position, because they will not be sure what advice or assistance they can — or should be expected to — give teachers and children who ask questions about a test that might be imposed by a particular school?
Ms Ruane: I agree with many of the Member’s comments. However, I do not agree with his point about primary schools. Primary schools are very clear about what they must do. There is a revised curriculum. I have explained very clearly to all primary schools — at every school visit and in all my statements — that they must teach the revised curriculum. We introduced the revised curriculum, which is much better than the previous one. Let me say again, in case there is any confusion — although there should be none — primary schools have no duty to teach according to any post-primary admissions criteria. This is the last year of the 11-plus exam, and that is the end of it. Thankfully, teachers will be able to get on with teaching the curriculum without it being distorted, as it has been previously.
I agree that there are huge perils for any school that chooses to operate breakaway tests, and schools know that. Schools know that there must be change. We cannot continue in the free-fall situation that we are in now.
Mr B McCrea: If the Minister is so concerned about the amount of money that is available for the sector, she should have argued for more funding when Ministers Ritchie and McGimpsey were doing so. How will the Minister persuade Lumen Christi not to use academic selection? Can she outline to the Assembly what legal powers the Department has to commence the entitlement framework, set admission and enrolment numbers, and implement the sustainable schools policy and area-based planning, in particular? How will the Minister persuade schools to do things that they do not want to do?
Ms Ruane: I have argued for funding, and I will continue to do so, because education is not getting enough money. It is no secret that I have argued for funding, and the Member can look at anything that I have said in the Chamber or at my response to the Budget. I accept that there is a limited amount of money and that the Executive came to an agreement, which all parties supported. Some parties were more united than others, and some tried to ride two horses.
As the Member knows, the situation regarding a legislative framework is still under discussion and negotiation. My aim is to achieve a legislative framework that is based on consensus. To that end, I have engaged in lengthy negotiations with stakeholders, and I will present proposals to the Executive.
I want to have a legislative framework for transfer in 2010 that will help progress the vision for post-primary education that I announced on 4 December 2007 and developed in my announcement on area-based planning on 4 March 2008. The time will come, however, when I will have to move forward on the basis of the maximum consensus that it has been possible to achieve, because change is required, and I cannot allow the development of new arrangements to drift.
4. Mr P Ramsey asked the Minister of Education to detail the provision for training teachers of deaf pupils. (AQO 3017/08)
Ms Ruane: Tríd is tríd, déanann an oilúint múinteorí thosaigh múinteoirí atá cáilithe go ginearálta. Ach aithníonn an oilúint i riachtanais speisialta oideachais riachtanais speisialta daltaí agus díríonn sí ar straitéisí le riar ar na riachtanais sin.
Initial teacher training produces generally qualified teachers. However, training in special educational needs in all courses covers the recognition of pupils’ special needs and focuses on strategies to meet those needs. Some student teachers choose a special-educational-needs-specific option during their training programme, and some spend part of their teaching practice in special schools.
During the induction and early professional developmental stages of new teachers’ careers, they are also educated in — and expected to demonstrate their competence in — the recognition of pupils’ special educational needs. The Department’s schools census statistics for 2007 show that there were 887 children with severe, profound or mild/moderate hearing loss on the special-needs register. To ensure that teachers of the deaf receive appropriate in-service training, the Department of Education resources the education and library boards to fund a number of places on a mandatory course for those teachers who are employed by schools or boards. Candidates for that training must meet certain criteria that are set by the Department of Education.
Recently, the Department allocated £10,000 to the education and library boards to cover the costs of training for teachers of the deaf who work with children up to the age of three. That allocation was made on foot of the Department of Health’s hearing screening programme for newborns.
I have also been advised by the chief executives of the education and library boards that a range of training is available for teachers of the deaf to ensure their continuing professional development.
Mr P Ramsey: I thank the Minister for her response. Does she acknowledge the importance of training for teachers of deaf children? Will she confirm that the issue will be included in the special educational needs review? When will the review be concluded and its results publicised?
Ms Ruane: Training for teachers of deaf children is important. I will pass on Mr Ramsey’s comments on the special educational needs review to the review team. The review will go to the Committee for consultation soon — if it has not already done so. I am looking at the Chairperson of the Committee for Education for confirmation, but I think that it is in the process of going to the Committee. It will be a fundamental review, and I will pass on any comments that are made on it today to the review team. Members will have opportunities to contribute when the review is before the Committee and at all other stages.
Variable Tuition Fees: Impact
1. Mr Ford asked the Minister for Employment and Learning to give his assessment of the impact of variable tuition fees on university enrolment among people from deprived backgrounds. (AQO 2999/08)
The Minister for Employment and Learning (Sir Reg Empey): It is too early to gauge the impact of variable tuition fees, as we have completed only one academic year of the new arrangements. An independent review of variable fees and student-finance arrangements, which will include consideration of participation rates by students from low-income backgrounds, is planned to commence in the academic year 2008-09.
Mr Ford: I thank the Minister for that response, and I accept that it is early days. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that there is a high drop-out rate among first-year students, as many of them try to juggle their academic work with holding down the part-time jobs that enable them to meet their living costs and fees. Will the Minister ensure that, in any assessment, he will examine not only the enrolment issue, but the potential drop-out problem?
Sir Reg Empey: The drop-out problem is an important issue in its own right. I have studied the figures, and they have been constant over the past three to four years, albeit they are higher than I would wish. As yet, there is no evidence of a relationship between drop-out figures and work problems that are related to earning money to pay fees. The drop-out rates have been consistent, and they are too high. We work with universities and assist them in developing strategies to deal with the problem. That is a free-standing issue that merits investigation, but not necessarily only in the context of the review of variable fees. It is an important issue in its own right, and I will take on board what the Member has said.
Mr Newton: Does the Minister agree that, in a tight budgetary situation, operating his budget in the dark, so to speak, due to the statistics not being available for further education class enrolments, is undesirable, especially when it is pertinent to the non-national situation? Indeed, I understand that there are no records to show how many non-nationals are registered in further education. Although the Minister allocated £1·5 million in his annual budget for non-nationals, he must wait until they turn up at a class and are counted.
Sir Reg Empey: I am not sure about the relationship between the Member’s point and the question. Nevertheless, I will attempt to respond. Following several debates, I made a commitment to the House that the whole question of variable fees and related matters, including the ability to participate, will be dealt with under the review. Last week, I addressed the conference of the National Union of Students-Union of Students in Ireland, and I repeated my commitment to that body.
Various sources of figures provide conflicting statistics. However, by the time that the review is under way, a further year of statistics will be available. The review will take those statistics into account and establish whether a pattern has developed. That will be an important step forward.
We have a policy of trying to increase participation in higher education in general, particularly that of people who are from difficult socio-economic backgrounds. Resources are ploughed into that policy. We are doing better than the UK average for participation of people from difficult socio-economic backgrounds, and we are almost at the target level that the United Kingdom Government set for England. Therefore, we have a good participation record.
Mr Attwood: When one looks at the spread of parental incomes, and given that grants payable to students in England are higher for those whose household income is more than £21,000, and that such grants continue to be paid in respect of household income up to £60,000, does the Minister propose to adjust the grants payable to students in the North to reflect the practice in England?
In addition, given that university enrolment among people from deprived backgrounds is such an important matter, why is the Department for Employment and Learning (DEL) about to propose a funding formula that would make the college in Northern Ireland with the highest participation rates of students from lower social and economic backgrounds no longer viable? That college is St Mary’s University College on the Falls Road.
Sir Reg Empey: As has been said in debates before, the question of the English experience was raised last summer, along with certain announcements, of which we were given no notice. We made the judgement that the best way that we could help people with social and economic problems to participate in further education was to maintain the maintenance grant differential, which is £500 higher than that in England. We felt that that would make the best contribution towards encouraging people from such backgrounds to participate in further education — that maintenance grant is payable across the board.
As I have previously said, all other issues relating to participation will be part of the review process. We will be examining our performance and what the statistics are showing us as regards participation rates. We will have at least one year’s further figures at our disposal at that stage and will be able to detect patterns.
One other factor that is often overlooked and must be taken into account is the demographic cohort from which most students are drawn, which has been dropping as the number of 18-year-olds falls due to the demographic trend. All those matters will be taken into account, and I relayed that point very specifically to the students when I addressed them last Wednesday.
Adults in Further Education
2. Mr Storey asked the Minister for Employment and Learning to detail the number of adults who have completed further education courses in each of the past three years. (AQO 2992/08)
Sir Reg Empey: The total number of people aged 18 and over who completed further education courses for the past three years for which data are available is as follows: in 2004-05, the figure was 142,231; in 2005-06, it was 131,666; and in 2006-07, it was 125,129.
Mr Storey: I thank the Minister for his answer. The figures indicate that there has been a decline in the number of adult learners over that period. First, will the Minister state whether he believes that the evidence that he has produced today is a result of the fact that the three-year-old FE Means Business scheme needs to be examined to see whether changes can be made? Secondly, will he comment on whether, with the creation of the new regional colleges, there could be a further decline in those numbers due to the new structures that have been in place and which may have a detrimental effect?
Sir Reg Empey: I thank the Member for his supplementary question. There are a number of factors in play. First, I am increasingly confident that the latest statistics will probably be more accurate than some of the earlier ones. Nevertheless, the Member’s point is still significant.
Many factors could be involved. As the colleges are still in their first year of operation, it is probably too early to make definitive judgements. As the Member is aware, there have been other factors involved, including industrial action. The Member raises some important points. The colleges have to be kept under review and consideration, and I will be closely monitoring the operation of the colleges as they move into their second year.
Several Members have written to me in the past few months with concerns about participation, particularly in leisure courses, among others. I have little doubt that the inconsistencies in the operation of policy in the current academic year could be a factor. I cannot give the Member a definitive answer, but I can tell him that I am very happy to keep those matters under review. We have invested a great deal in those colleges, and it is important that we get the best possible results from them.
Ms Anderson: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I ask the Minister to give his assessment of tuition fees at Magee College in Derry and of its ability to attract further education students from its natural catchment area of Donegal, where no fees are payable.
Sir Reg Empey: That question is, of course, about higher education. The Member knows that the Assembly has inherited a fees policy about which many parties had anxieties from the start. It is not possible to take unilateral action on that matter — the budgetary implications are massive. I know that many Members are concerned about that issue. We have to be clear about the type of arithmetic that is involved — we are talking about 10% of my Department’s budget.
I know that people from the educational institutions in Londonderry are already working with their colleagues in County Donegal to see what opportunities might arise, and, obviously, I encourage such engagement. I am looking forward to hearing their proposals, because they could be significant and imaginative. I will certainly look on them positively, if it is at all possible to do so.
I look forward to receiving a report, and I have already stated publicly that I support the colleges in their work and in their co-operation. Such co-operation has always existed in the north-west. For instance, Invest NI — like the Industrial Development Board before it — co-operates with its colleagues in County Donegal and the north-west generally. I see no reason why that spirit of co-operation cannot extend to the further education and higher education sectors.
Mr A Maginness: I want to draw the Minister’s attention to Training for Success contracts. Can the Minister confirm the final number of trainees who have signed on to that programme? Has there been a significant drop in numbers from previous years? Does the Minister accept that such a drop would add to the increasing skills shortage that must be remedied if we are to take advantage of the benefits that are available to us? One such example is the forthcoming investment conference, which we all hope will be successful.
Sir Reg Empey: I note that today’s questions cover a broad range of issues. I often think that some colleagues are in competition to see how far they can push the envelope with their questions.
I will have the opportunity to make a presentation on skills at the forthcoming investment conference. It is perfectly clear that any offering that we make will be strongly linked to skills. As Members know, the grant regime will become very limited in scope over the next couple of years. Therefore, the attractiveness of this place will depend more on people’s skills.
Whether we are talking about Training for Success or further and higher education, the message boils down to a simple fact: we must maximise the skills levels in our community. That applies to the apprenticeship regime as much as it does to further and higher education. At present, the scheme is sufficiently flexible to become attractive to potential employers, including the provision of bespoke training at employer level. I support any measures that would make the scheme more attractive to potential investors.
Mr Deputy Speaker: I remind Members that supplementary questions should be directed to the original question and to Ministers’ responses; they should not left open to Members’ imaginations.
Accommodation for Third-Level Students
3. Mr Brady asked the Minister for Employment and Learning to outline his Department’s position on the regulation of accommodation for third-level students in relation to (i) that provided by third-level institutions and (ii) locations recommended to students by third-level institutions. (AQO 3027/08)
Sir Reg Empey: Student housing, whether provided by a third-level institution or a private landlord, is regulated under the Department for Social Development’s legislation on houses in multiple occupation (HMO). Under that legislation, third-level institutions are responsible for the policies and practices in the accommodation that they provide and the locations that they recommend for their students.
Mr Brady: As the Minister may be aware, my question was prompted by the tragic and untimely death of one of my constituents from Bessbrook, who was a student at Liverpool Hope University. A tenancy agreement had been signed for her accommodation, and her parents are now being pursued ruthlessly by the letting agents for four months’ rent. Her death occurred in January, and her parents are still grieving, shocked and traumatised. They are also shocked by the cavalier attitude of the letting agents.
Should steps be taken to alleviate situations where mental-health problems affect a student or a student suddenly dies? Given that such situations cannot be legislated for, they should be factored into any tenancy agreement. I also stress that in that specific case, money for the student’s rent has never been an issue for her family.
Sir Reg Empey: I recall that incident, and I express my sympathy to the family. That very distressing set of circumstances received a lot of public attention. I will draw the Member’s point to the attention of the university authorities and to my colleague the Minister for Social Development.
The functions that regulate such properties are split over several different bodies. For example, some accommodation is controlled directly by the universities, while university authorities recommend other accommodation to particular students. The Member may know that there is a ‘Student Pad’ website where students can look up and access details of accommodation.
Given the legal and other technical implications of the case that the Member has raised, it would probably be wise for me to consult further with my own Department, the university authorities and the Department for Social Development (DSD) to see what options are open to us on the details of the contract. I was not aware of the specific point that the Member was making when he asked the question, but I will certainly pursue the matter, and I am happy to write to the Member about the matter at a later date.
Mr Gardiner: Will the Minister confirm that the regulation of student housing is carried out under HMO legislation, which is the responsibility of DSD?
Sir Reg Empey: I thank the Member for his supplementary question. That is indeed the position. The HMO legislation governs that area and has implications for health and safety, among other areas.
I suspect that the point made by the previous Member to speak was different. Nevertheless, I can confirm that position, and I will draw the matters in question to the attention of the Department for Social Development.
Ms Lo: Does the Minister agree that the lack of direction and policies from DEL to Queen’s University on student accommodation has contributed to the current housing problems and difficulties with antisocial behaviour in South Belfast?
Sir Reg Empey: As far as student accommodation is concerned, the universities control their own affairs; the Department for Employment and Learning does not dictate to them on every issue.
There are mixed messages with regard to accommodation. The University of Ulster says that it cannot get 100% uptake in its locations; neither, in fact, can Queen’s University. There are still vacancies in the accommodation that is operated by both universities. As far as the Department is concerned, the public interest is being served if good-quality accommodation is provided for students at sensible prices.
I am aware that the Member and others from her constituency of South Belfast have consistently raised the issue of antisocial behaviour. The problem has various causes; it is not simply a matter of accommodation. The Department encourages the universities to take positive steps to ensure that local communities are not adversely affected beyond what is reasonable. The Member will be aware that the problem in her constituency has emerged because too many planning applications were approved in the first place. The percentage of houses in multiple occupation in the area has gone from 20% to almost 80%. The concentration of student housing in the area is the biggest source of the problem. I have great sympathy with the Member for the point that she makes. However, responsibility for the matter is widespread and is not confined to my Department.
Learning and Skills Commission: NI Representative
4. Mr Cobain asked the Minister for Employment and Learning to detail the progress being made towards the appointment of a Northern Ireland representative to the Learning and Skills Commission. (AQO 2970/08)
Sir Reg Empey: The UK Commission for Employment and Skills was launched on 1 April 2008. The Department intends to appoint an employment and skills adviser who will represent Northern Ireland on the commission. A public-appointments process will be instigated for that appointment within approximately one month.
Mr Cobain: I thank the Minister for his answer. Can he confirm that the development of that UK-wide commission will not in any way reduce his devolved policy-making powers with regard to employment and skills?
Sir Reg Empey: I thank the Member for his supplementary question. I do not believe that any loss of devolved power, or threat of loss, will result from participation in the commission. Members may be aware that although employment is a devolved matter in Northern Ireland, it is not in Scotland, strangely enough. A considerable number of people do not understand that, including some in Whitehall, where we have been at pains to make the point on several occasions.
I do not believe that a threat exists; indeed, there are benefits to be gained from participation. The commission is primarily advisory. As Minister for Employment and Learning, I will take all decisions on employment and skills issues. There are several reasons why it is important for Northern Ireland to have a role in the commission. It means that Northern Ireland will be able to influence the commission’s work to support the world-class skills agenda and will benefit from advice and best practice.
In addition, the Department will continue to receive financial support from the commission with which to take forward the work of the sector skills councils, of which there are 25 in Northern Ireland. It is important that we continue to be involved. I am in regular contact with my counterparts in the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills and the Department for Work and Pensions. It is important that Northern Ireland should have a representative on the commission who will speak for it and advise Ministers throughout the United Kingdom.
Mr Campbell: The Minister has indicated that the appointment of the employment and skills adviser is under way. Can he ensure that when that person is appointed, he or she, the commission and the Minister himself will do what they can to deal with areas where a large workforce, such as former Seagate employees, must go out into the world of work and achieve the diversification and skills that they need to try to pick up the pieces after having suffered the consequences of an announcement such as that which was made at Seagate?
Sir Reg Empey: The Member will be aware that I am fully conversant with the unfortunate circumstances at Seagate. Efforts are ongoing to help the workforce in his locality. Not only is help being provided by people who were appointed by the company to do so, but, through its work with Limavady Borough Council and other interests in the area, the Department hopes to run job fairs in the area later in 2008 after production at Seagate ceases.
The usual practice of providing training as we go along cannot be followed because Seagate production is continuing until closure.
In relation to diversification, the Member knows that the Leitch agenda is regarded as a key economic driver by UK Ministers, at Whitehall and throughout the UK; it encourages people to be flexible and to obtain training that they actually need.
The Member will also know that my Department engaged the North West Regional College to carry out a training needs analysis on every worker in Seagate, each of whom was interviewed. That work has been co-ordinated, and, as the year unfolds, we will gain an accurate picture of the needs of the workforce.
The number of workers from Limavady who may be offered jobs at the Londonderry site is more than was initially estimated; since a substantial number of Seagate workers come from the city area, there may be some hope that more of them than had been envisaged will be re-employed.
Mr McLaughlin: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his answer to Mr Cobain on the learning and skills commission. Is the Minister aware that the so-called Celtic tiger in the South has benefited from a well-thought-out, integrated education and skills strategy? Will the Minister detail the structure and approach of any similar strategy for the North?
Sir Reg Empey: The Member knows that the entire rationale of many Departments’ policies is to ensure that we have a world-class workforce that has the flexibility and skills to meet the demands that are placed on it.
The Member also knows we have a higher percentage of unskilled workers in Northern Ireland than is satisfactory, and, in many cases, employers have been using migrant workers to fill posts that were normally occupied by indigenous workers. The reason that they have been doing so is because many migrant workers are highly skilled. My concern is that there is a tendency, therefore, not to invest in upgrading people’s skills, not only the unemployed but those in work. There is a risk that employers take a shortcut and recruit people by phoning an agent rather than creating a skilled workforce.
I can assure the Member that our policy will be based on providing the Northern Ireland workforce with the skills that it needs to be competitive. The Celtic tiger is suffering a bit at the moment, along with most of us, and we all have lessons to learn.
Training for Success and the Automotive Industry
5. Mrs D Kelly asked the Minister for Employment and Learning to confirm what assessment his Department has made of the ability of further education colleges and a private organisation awarded Training for Success contracts to deliver the quality of training required by the automotive industry and to fulfil the requirements for trainees under this programme. (AQO 3023/08)
Sir Reg Empey: Only those organisations judged capable of delivering contracts to the required standard have been placed on the list of potential suppliers of Training for Success, among them further education colleges and private training organisations.
To ensure quality even further, I have asked the Education and Training Inspectorate to survey training suppliers to the automotive sector under Training for Success. The survey will focus on quality of training, standards, the range in level of facilities and equipment, the experience of staff and the accessibility of provision. DEL officials will consider and act on the survey’s findings.
Mrs D Kelly: I welcome the Minister’s clarity and the inspection.
Does the Minister acknowledge the concern of the automotive industry, as outlined to the Committee for Employment and Learning, that for all the good work done by further education colleges, some may not have the training capacity or specialism to meet the requirements of the high-tech automotive industry? Did DEL assess whether the further education colleges awarded Training for Success contracts could deliver after the Carter and Carter Group withdrew from delivering training to apprentices in the automotive industry?
Sir Reg Empey: Several Members have, for some time, been expressing their concerns to me about this issue, and I welcome the opportunity to put some points on the record. The contractual process in question began about 18 months to two years ago, and was conducted by the Central Procurement Directorate of the Department of Finance and Personnel. My Department has been following the details of the contractual process throughout that period.
When a supplier is given a contract but is found to be incapable of completing it — which is what happened in this case — the contract is offered to the next supplier on the list, until someone comes forward who is prepared to undertake the work. The same conditions apply at that stage as they did to the initial contractor. In other words, the contractor is asked the following questions: can it do the work, is it doing the work, will it do the work, and what equipment does it have?
The Education and Training Inspectorate has been engaged by my Department as its eyes and ears. Its staff are the professionals; they determine what is or is not happening. I can, therefore, assure the Member that a rigorous process will be followed. In circumstances in which it is discovered that a contract cannot be completed, we would review the whole process, and, perhaps, go down a different road. However, while the legal process is in place, we take the advice of the Department of Finance and Personnel, which determines the level of rigour of the contractual obligations. It is up to my Department to ensure that those obligations are met.
I will keep the House fully informed of developments because I am aware that this is a matter of significant concern to Members and to the automotive industry.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Time is up.
Northern Ireland Energy Targets
1. Dr McDonnell asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to confirm the energy targets apportioned to Northern Ireland following the meeting of the 2007 Spring Energy Council, and to outline the implications of these targets for Northern Ireland. (AQO 3067/08)
The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Mr Dodds): At a recent EU Council meeting, member states agreed the target that 20% of the European Union’s energy consumption should come from renewable sources by 2020. The target for the United Kingdom is 15% of total energy consumption across electricity, heat and transport. Whatever the final level of the target, it will require a step change in renewable energy consumption and production.
There are currently no plans to set separate targets for the devolved Administrations. Northern Ireland will, however, wish to contribute to those very challenging national targets. I have recently written to Executive colleagues, seeking cross-departmental co-operation to ensure a co-ordinated approach.
Dr McDonnell: I noticed recently that the Electricity Supply Board in the Irish Republic has committed a tremendous investment of some €22 billion into renewable energy projects, with a view to halving carbon emissions in the next 12 years and achieving zero net carbon emissions by 2035. Having examined what some other countries are doing, I estimate that that will put the Irish Republic at the forefront of the development of renewable technologies, and will afford them some advantage in that respect.
Could we do the same here, or come close to those targets? Does the Minister intend to encourage a similar programme in the North to ensure that we link into and meet the same level of targets?
Mr Dodds: I thank the Member for his question. The targets in the Irish Republic are for 2020; our current target is that 12% of total electricity consumption will be met by indigenous renewable energy sources by 2012. We are confident that that target will be met, but, over and above that, we have an additional target, which is to meet 15% of the total consumption of electricity, heat and energy through the use of renewable sources by 2020. Those are very ambitious targets, and we will have to examine a range of measures in order to achieve them.
I have already contacted Executive colleagues with a view to establishing a co-ordinated approach across Government on that issue. The Member should be assured that we take those targets very seriously and that we will do everything in our power to meet them. He will also be interested to know that my Department recently published a grid study in conjunction with our counterparts in the Irish Republic, examining the capacity of the grid with respect to renewable energy sources. The survey revealed that 42% of the grid’s capacity could be accommodated, but would require substantial investment, totalling many millions of pounds. We must examine that issue carefully in future.
Mr Cree: What plans does the Minister have to replace the Reconnect grant scheme in order to encourage energy users to convert to greener and renewable fuels?
Mr Dodds: Although the installation of household renewable-energy systems will contribute to reaching the 2012 target; in percentage terms, that contribution will be small. The bulk of the target will be met by wind-powered electricity generation.
The Reconnect grant programme was funded through the environment and renewable energy fund, which was a two-year initiative that expired on 31 March 2008. We will evaluate the programme’s impact, and ensure that whatever we do is compared with the targets set in the programme. However, the Member should be aware of, and reassured by, the fact that my Department is doing a lot about renewable energy. We continue to support small-scale renewables through a reduction in standard-rate VAT to 5%; grants are available from the UK-wide low carbon buildings programme, and renewable obligation certificates have been introduced.
Mr McCarthy: Will the Minister — who, obviously, supports energy targets — tell the House why Action Renewables and his Department have prevented a reputable energy-saving employer based in Dundonald, in my constituency, from securing work under the Government’s grant scheme, thus putting more than 100 jobs in jeopardy? Will he will reconsider that position?
Mr Dodds: If the Member cares to provide information to back up his claim, I will be happy to consider it. However, I would be surprised if Action Renewables, or anybody else, was in the business of putting people out of work. Nevertheless, if he provides details, we will investigate and respond to that matter.
2. Mr Maginness asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to outline his Department’s assessment of the economic and environmental potential from the development of anaerobic digestion as a means of producing heat and electricity from municipal, industrial and farm waste. (AQO 3066/08)
Mr Dodds: My Department is responsible for leading and co-ordinating an integrated and strategic approach to the development of sustainable bioenergy in Northern Ireland. It has appointed consultants to undertake a study to assess that potential, which will involve, among other things, an assessment of feedstock materials — such as municipal, industrial and farm wastes — and an investigation into how different technologies such as anaerobic digestion might contribute to the renewable heat, electricity and transport markets. Informed by that work, during 2008-09, the Department will continue to work closely with other relevant Departments — including DARD and DOE — on the development of a cross-departmental bioenergy action plan.
Mr A Maginness: Having been traumatised over the weekend as a result of reading my oil bill, I am asking this supplementary question with additional enthusiasm. Will the Minister consider models of good practice in relation to community-heating schemes that are run on anaerobic digestion systems? Scandinavian cities such as Copenhagen are, to a large extent, fuelled in such a manner. Will the Minister examine such systems in order to provide some relief to poor consumers like me?
Mr Dodds: I am sure that the Member’s colleagues are interested to hear him describe himself as a poor consumer. I wonder whether that is totally accurate, although I commend him for reading his oil bill last weekend.
Of course, we are aware that as a result of world economic conditions and the price of oil on the wholesale market, this is a difficult time for everybody as regards energy and fuel prices, particularly for those who may be pushed further into fuel poverty. To some extent, those matters are beyond our control; however, having said that, we are attempting some measures. The creation of the single electricity market was a major advance in securing supply, and we have been bearing down on wholesale prices and, ultimately, on domestic and industrial consumer prices.
The issue of renewable energy is something that needs to be examined very carefully. The Member raises the issue of energy from waste, and, as I mentioned earlier, there is a considerable emphasis on wind power, because of the plentiful supply of wind in this part of the world, not least in this Chamber, but also further afield. Consideration must be given to other forms of renewable energy, such as bioenergy, energy from waste, marine energy, and so on. All of that will be considered, because the targets that have been set in that area are very challenging indeed. We need to ensure that everything possible is done in order to meet our EU obligations; that we avoid significant financial penalties; and not least that we contribute to a clean and less wasteful environment.
Mr Butler: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. The Minister said that his Department is examining a whole range of bioenergy proposals. Is he aware of the concerns, particularly regarding the environmental impact, of Rose Energy’s proposals for an incinerator plant on the banks of Lough Neagh, an area of high scenic value, and of outstanding beauty? Will he confirm whether his Department will or will not fund such a plant, given the nature of it, given that there is all-party opposition to it locally, and particularly given the area in which it will be located, on the banks of Lough Neagh, and possibly using water from Lough Neagh?
Mr Dodds: I am aware of the proposal. The situation regarding the funding for that particular project is a complex and dynamic one. Invest Northern Ireland is in contact with the promoters and their advisers. I can tell the House that at this stage we are not in a position to finalise the analysis, due to ongoing negotiations between all the parties on the optimum funding mix. Consideration of the case for support will be completed, subject to a satisfactory conclusion to the ongoing shareholder negotiations. As the Member knows, the project will be subject to separate consideration by the Department of the Environment’s Planning Service, and it will be in that context that a lot of the issues that have been raised will have to be dealt with.
Mr Beggs: The Minister spoke earlier about wind energy, but will he clarify how he proposes to incorporate energy from waste into the Government’s programme for alternative fuels, so that Northern Ireland’s environment and economy can benefit from combined heat and power from such thermal treatment, rather than those energy-rich materials being added to landfill, with all the associated risks of that?
Mr Dodds: I hope that the Member will be reassured by the fact that, as he knows, under the environmental and renewable energy fund, which was created to fund a number of environmentally friendly projects, some £18 million was directed towards energy from waste. My Department issued a call for expressions of interest in that back in October 2006. The shortlisted projects are in the final stages of appraisal, and a number of those obviously contain elements of anaerobic digestion. He will also be aware of the Northern Ireland waste management strategy, and he will be assured that the very issue that he raises is one to which we give a considerable amount of attention and focus.
3. Mr McQuillan asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to detail the steps his Department and tourism agencies are taking to promote the Ulster-Scots heritage through paintings and murals. (AQO 2963/08)
Mr Dodds: Paintings and murals are not specifically marketed as tourism products. However, the Northern Ireland Tourist Board’s consumer website provides links to a range of visitor services, such as tours, where the opportunity for visitors to see paintings and murals is identified. The Tourist Board is currently working with the Ulster-Scots Agency and the Ulster-Scots Heritage Council to define the Ulster-Scots product that can be marketed to the travel trade and to Ulster-Scots groups in target markets for the 2009 season. Tourism Ireland has identified the potential of a Williamite trail and has discussed that with the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland.
Mr McQuillan: In view of the interest shown in the creation of an Orange banner at last year’s Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, will the Minister agree that more could be done to market and promote Loyal Order banners as a medium through which the Ulster-Scots story could be told? Does he have any plans in relation to that?
Mr Dodds: The Member referred to the Smithsonian Festival, and I remember visiting the stalls on the Mall in Washington DC, which covered a range of activities and interests related to Northern Ireland. Banner painting was one of those activities, which attracted a lot of interest and was the focus of much discussion. Banner paintings are a key ingredient of Loyal Order parades and pictorially tell part of the story about the Ulster-Scots heritage of this part of the world.
The Tourist Board and Tourism Ireland could market banner paintings as part of the Ulster-Scots product to travel writers and include them in selected PR opportunities and relevant trails and sites when they are fully developed.
Mr P Maskey: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. There is a wall in west Belfast that is known as the international wall because thousands of people from all over the world visit each year to look at the murals and paintings on it. Will the Minister and his Department try to find a way to promote that wall by examining similar initiatives? Go raibh maith agat.
Mr Dodds: People visit Northern Ireland to take part in a range of activities and look at different sites — some activities or sites will appeal more to some people than to others. Northern Ireland has a lot of cultural tourism to offer: there is a good mix of art, architecture, painting, dance and music.
I am not familiar with the wall that the Member mentioned, but there is no problem if it factually reflects part of the history of Northern Ireland. However, there is a problem when support is requested for projects that glorify a particular view of terrorism. I reiterate what I said in the House on 19 February 2008 during a debate that was tabled by the Member — he would not expect me to, and I will not, support anything that seeks to glorify acts of violence or terrorism.
Tourism: Seaside Towns
4. Mr McCallister asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to give his assessment of the role of seaside towns in promoting Northern Ireland as a tourist destination. (AQO 2981/08)
Mr Dodds: Research shows that seaside towns are important assets to the tourism sector. The Northern Ireland Tourist Board’s signature projects include extensive stretches of Northern Ireland’s coast and incorporate some seaside towns. Those towns play important roles as gateways to key destinations and meeting the requirements of visitors.
As part of the Mournes signature project, work has already commenced to develop Newcastle as a seaside resort and gateway. The Tourist Board has provided Down District Council with £250,000 to assist with gateway activity in the town, and Invest Northern Ireland offered £2·5 million towards the expansion of the Slieve Donard Resort and Spa in 2005.
In 2006 ‘The Guardian’ described the Causeway coastal route as:
“Arguably the most spectacular 60 miles in Britain.”
The route passes through a number of seaside towns and brings visitors and economic benefit to key towns on the route such as Carrickfergus, Larne, Ballycastle, Portstewart and Portrush. St Patrick’s trail, which starts in Bangor and passes through a number of seaside locations including Portaferry and Strangford, illustrates the wide variety of seaside activities in Northern Ireland.
Mr McCallister: I agree that seaside towns play a vital role in the promotion of Northern Ireland. Is the Minister satisfied that the regional tourism bodies have sufficient resources to promote the seaside towns that he mentioned?
Mr Dodds: The Member is aware of the significant budgetary increase for tourism for this year and over the next three years. That extra funding for product development and for marketing — in Northern Ireland, Great Britain, the Irish Republic and internationally — will reap significant dividends through the number of visitors and the money that they spend over the next three years.
There are discussions going on between the Tourist Board and the regional tourism organisations. That is something in which I will take a close interest, and I will listen to representations that are made to me. However, I am satisfied that, in respect of the tourism budget, more financial investment than ever is now going into this significant driver of our economy. As a result, I believe that we will meet the target of increasing the number of visitors to Northern Ireland from about two million at present to 2·5 million by 2011.
Mr O’Loan: I welcome the Minister’s comments on the Causeway coastal route, and I agree with him on the success and importance of that project. I take a considerable interest in the towns along the north coast, which play an important role in contributing to tourism. A mix of elements is needed for that success to continue, whether accommodation, transport, events or leisure opportunities. I ask the Minister to continue to support all of those areas.
I welcome the announcement of a high-speed ferry to Rathlin Island. A feasibility review on the reinstatement of the Ballycastle to Campbeltown ferry is under way. The Minister will be involved in that review; will he give it favourable attention?
Mr Dodds: We covered most of north Antrim and all parts in between in that run-through of the tourism product of that part of the world. It is a beautiful part of the world, and I concur with what the honourable Member said. Considerable investment has been made in the area, for example with Portstewart Strand and the Portrush regeneration group. In addition, DSD is involved in Larne on the development of seaside towns.
The Member will know that the issue of the Ballycastle to Campbeltown ferry was raised at the British-Irish Council, when it was agreed that there would be an economic appraisal. That appraisal has begun, and I look forward to getting the results in order that we can determine how to proceed with the matter. The Member will be aware of previous efforts to bring that ferry service into operation, which required substantial public subsidy. That is an issue that will have to be examined. However, I welcome his desire to strengthen the links between that part of Northern Ireland and our kinfolk in Scotland.
Mr Campbell: The Minister mentioned Portrush and Portstewart, and that area has enjoyed great success in the past 10 to 15 years with the Milk Cup, North West 200 and the Northern Ireland International Airshow. The Minister’s Department has supported some of those events, but will he ensure that the Tourist Board continues to promote such activities on the north coast to make them bigger and better, not just in the next year or two but over the next five or 10 years?
Mr Dodds: I hope that the Member is reassured by some of what we have been saying about the investment that has been made in the Causeway coastal route, which has had a major impact and which will continue to have a big impact in expanding tourism, not at just the Causeway but right across that coastal area. Consultants appointed by the Portrush regeneration group have produced a blueprint for the regeneration of Portrush, estimating an inward investment of public and private support of £90 million. We are aware of issues surrounding seaside resorts in general, and in particular Portrush, whose image has suffered in recent times. The Tourist Board recognises the potential of seaside resorts, coastal towns and villages. They are vital to our economy, and we should maximise their tourism potential through investment in their unique built and cultural environments.
Economic Investment Conference
5. Mr McFarland asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to provide an update on his arrangements for the forthcoming economic investment conference. (AQO 2983/08)
10. Mr Irwin asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to provide an update on his plans and expectations for next month’s investment conference. (AQO 3031/08)
Mr Dodds: With your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will answer questions 5 and 10 together. The US-Northern Ireland investment conference has been devised as a platform to showcase Northern Ireland with a stable devolved Administration that is pro-business and proactive in meeting the needs of international business.
Planning and organisation for the event are progressing well. Almost 600 invitations have been issued to chief executive officers and senior executives, and I am delighted to say that US business leaders have shown considerable interest. As of today, some 90 senior executives, representing more than 70 high-profile corporations, have indicated that they plan to attend. That significantly surpasses the target of attracting between 30 and 40 chief executive officers and senior executives that I announced earlier this year. Venues and keynote speakers have been identified, and we recently finalised all the details of the programme for the event.
Mr McFarland: I thank the Minister for his answer. Bearing in mind the need to strike while the iron is hot, can he tell the House what plans he has to follow up urgently on any interest that is shown by potential investors?
Mr Dodds: The follow-up to the conference is critical, as plans to follow up offers or expressions of interest will be a key part of the conference. There is no point in investing time, energy and expenditure to showcase Northern Ireland to the senior executives if we do not have a properly thought-out and well-planned follow-up in place. However, we do have that, and it will be done professionally and effectively.
The investment conference is a unique event; never before have so many quality potential investors and senior American executives attended an event in Northern Ireland. It is an immense opportunity. Members will be aware that we do not expect immediate results or announcements, but the conference will position Northern Ireland as a place that is open for business. It will showcase the Province, and it will lead to investment in the medium term. The support that we have had from the US Administration, Downing Street, my colleagues in the Executive and the Republic deserves to be acknowledged. We are grateful for all that support.
Mr Irwin: In view of the considerable local enthusiasm for the investment conference, can the Minister outline the extent of consultation with local stakeholders and interested parties?
Mr Dodds: Engagement with community groups and local councils has been a critical part of the preparations for the conference, and that has ensured that people understand its nature and focus. It has allowed us to receive input into their thinking and how best to ensure that potential investors can see all the opportunities that are available in all parts of Northern Ireland and in all communities.
Although the conference will be mainly based in the greater Belfast area, the exhibition space, attendance at various elements of the conference and other opportunities will allow councils and communities to be represented and to put their case strongly. The conference provides a unique opportunity to highlight the business proposition for Northern Ireland, so we must pull together to make the best of it.
Mr Durkan: On behalf of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment, I underline the Committee’s support for the efforts of all the agencies that are involved in preparing for the investment conference.
It was promised that the Varney II review would be helpful in time for the investment conference. Is the Minister still hopeful that it will be? If so, when and how will the report be delivered? Will the report include proposals that will complement the positive announcement that was made by the two Finance Ministers on financial services jobs?
Mr Dodds: I am grateful to the Chairman for his comments, and to the Committee for its support. The Committee will play an important role in the conference and its aftermath.
As the Chairman knows, work on Varney II is being led by the Department of Finance and Personnel. I will ensure that his comments are relayed to my ministerial colleague with responsibility in that area. We have not yet received an indication that Varney Review II will be published imminently, and the conference will take place soon. However, I will write to the Member about that matter.
I too welcome the recent announcement on financial services. I pay tribute to the role that Invest Northern Ireland played in bringing about that initiative. That is a classic example of co-operation for mutual benefit bringing about a win-win situation for the economies in Northern Ireland and the Republic.
Ms J McCann: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. What steps has the Minister taken to ensure that — as set out in the priorities in the investment strategy and the Programme for Government — any investment that is secured through the conference will meet the needs of the most disadvantaged in our society?
Mr Dodds: I thank the Member for her question. It is very important that the benefits of investment be felt right across the board in Northern Ireland. However, I must reiterate that it is the investors themselves who will decide whether and where to invest in the Province. However, we will highlight the tremendous amount of work that has been done in many communities to work alongside potential investors on skills and the provision of labour.
It must be pointed out that one of the Department’s priorities — and one of the targets set out in Invest Northern Ireland’s corporate plans — is for 70% of all inward foreign investment to be located close to, or within 10 miles, of areas of high deprivation. That indicates the Department’s commitment to meeting the challenges that the Member outlined.
Post Office Closures
Debate resumed on motion:
That this Assembly notes with concern the recent announcement that 96 local post offices are to close or be replaced by an ‘outreach’ service; believes that the six-week consultation period is too short; further believes such closures and service reductions will have an adverse impact on community and social infrastructure in rural and urban areas and will adversely affect older people, persons with disabilities and other vulnerable groups; acknowledges that provision of post office services is a reserved matter; and resolves to establish urgently an Ad Hoc Committee to think creatively about and make proposals for partnerships that could enhance the economic case for viable local postal services based on engagement with commercial, voluntary and public-sector partners and learning from the experience in the Republic of Ireland.
Mr Burnside: When I think about the importance of post offices to local communities, I am reminded of that speech made 40 years ago, when Martin Luther King said: “I have a dream”.
I have a nightmare about the closure of post offices. If we are not careful, many towns outside Belfast will comprise of little more than massive housing estates with no local shops or post offices; the banks, too, have been in decline.
This subject is of major importance to local communities. Members have argued on behalf of their local post offices on the closure list. I will cite the example of Parkhall post office in South Antrim. That post office is situated in the centre of a big estate, quite close to the centre of Antrim.
Last year, Post Office Ltd, by its own judgement, declared Parkhall as community post office of the year 2007. That title was awarded on the basis of sales and performance in the local community. Parkhall is now one of the post offices targeted for closure — you simply could not make it up.
Last Monday evening, we had a very successful meeting in Parkhall community centre. The postmistress, Elaine Murdoch, and her brother Charlie Henderson — who runs the Mace store at the post office — fronted that meeting and outlined the lack of sense in the Parkhall case. Charlie Henderson talked about the money that Post Office Ltd had spent on flying him to England to receive the award for the local post office.
The post office at Parkhall serves 4,000 people in the local community, of whom 12% are retired senior citizens. The massive expansion plans for that area of Antrim include the construction of an additional 8,000 houses over the next few years, many of which will be located adjacent to Parkhall. There is a post office in the centre of Antrim, one in Greystone, and one in Parkhall. No criteria could justify the closure of the post office at Parkhall.
I hope that the consultation process will be extended but, if not, Members must operate within the set consultation time limit. Antrim Borough Council will submit a proposal outlining the development of the town and designating the area in which new houses will be built in Parkhall’s catchment area.
It is ludicrous to consider closing a successful, profitable, community-based post office. I worry that should the post office at Parkhall close — and it is a jewel in the crown of the Post Office in Northern Ireland — it would mean that no criteria for closure are being used. Its closure would have no economic basis, nor would it be in the interest of community relations. Therefore, no criteria could save any post office in Northern Ireland that is on the hit list.
I used the post office at Parkhall as an example, because it happens to be my privilege that it is in my constituency. It was post office of the year in 2007, and we have no intention of allowing it to close. There is cross-party support, cross-community support and 100% support from the council for its retention.
I ask the Post Office for a genuine consultative process in which it will listen to people’s views and review the criteria for closure. I ask it to reverse its decision to close the post office at Parkhall.
One opinion that has been expressed in Antrim is that people from other areas in the town may not want to come to Parkhall. That is an insult to the community there, who welcome anyone from any area of the town. Perhaps the Post Office has taken bad advice or has based its decision on the wrong criteria. If so, I ask it to be big enough to examine the facts and statistics, listen to the views of local politicians and the community and announce that Parkhall’s post office will be retained.
I have outlined the best example in Northern Ireland of a post office that should not be closed, and Members will cite further examples.
Mr Speaker: The Member’s time is up.
Mr Burnside: I welcome the motion, and I hope that it will be unanimously supported by the House.
Mr Bresland: I congratulate the Members who introduced the motion to the Assembly. The Post Office’s announcement of major changes to its network in Northern Ireland has caused considerable unease in the community. The Post Office’s failure to manage the proposals effectively has caused confusion about how the changes will eventually be implemented.
The Post Office recommends four types of outreach services: mobile; postal; partner; and home services. They all raise important questions about how they will effectively serve the needs of Post Office customers, whose many questions remain unanswered. What is an outreach facility? Will the shops’ staff be fully trained to meet the needs of Post Office customers? Will the outreach centres guarantee the confidentiality that is extremely important to customers, particularly elderly people? What is the exact nature of services that the proposed outreach facilities will offer?
The proposed changes will have a major impact in my West Tyrone constituency. Although only one post office, at Strathroy in Omagh, will close, the outreach services that will replace a further 11 post offices in west Tyrone account for 20% of the proposed total.
Mr Shannon: The Ballyhalbert post office, in my constituency, completes 300 transactions daily; it is ludicrous to close or reduce the hours of a post office with that level of transactions. Does the Member agree that the pen-pushers — who are responsible for the closures — have adopted a pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey evaluation that is based on monetary reasons and that they must consider the lives that will be adversely affected by the closures and the reduction in hours?
Mr Bresland: I agree with the Member. The village of Dunnamanagh in north Tyrone has a population of over 600. The Post Office has proposed the closure of the branch to incorporate a partner service with the village shop, which, perhaps, is a reasonable move. However, many local residents are concerned that this process will eventually lead to the closure of that post office and are confused about confidentiality and what services that new partnership will offer. According to Post Office proposals to introduce outreach options, only Annahilt, Feeny and Dunnamanagh have a population of more than 500. That does not include the rural hinterland that supports those post offices. That level of population should be able to sustain a post office in a village such as Dunnamanagh.
The vast majority of the proposed changes are in rural communities, and, although I fully accept that it is unsustainable to retain a post office with 28 customers, more thought must be given to how the Government can support rural post offices. That will be achieved only by offering a wide range of professional services to ensure that all age groups use and support the local post office.
Mrs Long: I thank the Members who tabled the motion and the Business Committee for scheduling the debate. The consultation period on this issue is too short. Those people who use post office services are frustrated and feel that they are being denied the opportunity to reply fully. Such a short consultation period hampers consideration of possible alternatives to closure that could make the services sustainable. We cannot consider the matter comprehensively in a six-week period.
The number of services that are exclusive to post offices has, over time, reduced. The revenue stream from benefits administration, for example, has also ceased. Those are central government decisions, which have led to post office services becoming less viable. They have essentially dismantled the service and only now are asking people about the order in which to dismantle it, and we should all be concerned about that.
Therefore, we must bear in mind that the problem was not created by the Post Office. However, it is the Post Office’s responsibility to respond to the new circumstances in a creative way, and I believe that it is failing. This is not the first wave of closures; there has been a cycle of closures, and the most recent proposals prove that closures are not the best option to improve sustainability.
If closure is the only option explored, we simply delay the inevitable — the complete destruction of the service. Libraries have suffered a similar fate; opening hours were reduced and became so intermittent that numbers fell and, eventually, libraries closed. Therefore, we must, in conjunction with the Post Office, examine the potential for co-location of public- and private-sector services in order to provide more sustainable services for the future. Like other Members, I have received numerous representations from constituents who will be directly affected by the proposed closures of Summerhill, Orangefield and Belmont post offices in my constituency — a constituency with higher-than-average levels of elderly people.
A mile may not seem far to a fit individual who is looking at a map in an office. However, the reality and cost of negotiating that extra mile to the post office and home again could be the difference for many older people, people with restricted mobility and people with young families between reliance on others and retaining independence. It is not only the journey to and from the post office but the waiting times — whether that be waiting times at busy branches or waiting times for buses — that we must consider. The social consequences are serious, and we must also consider whether there is suitable parking for people with disabilities adjacent to proposed alternative post offices.
I caution Members against getting caught on the hook of a rural-urban split and focusing on indices of social deprivation as the only issue. Disconnection, fragmentation and isolation do not happen only to whole communities at a time: they often happen to vulnerable individuals within communities; those who live in an otherwise affluent and mobile community but who do not have their own transport, access to affordable alternatives or the Internet. Such people can suffer the type of total isolation that is generally not measured by statistics or addressed by Government. We need to be aware of that issue and those people for whom the Post Office is providing a service.
The consequences for businesses and services that are sited adjacent to post offices have to be considered. They rely on the footfall generated by post offices, and we have seen again and again that, when a local post office or library closes, the adjacent shops find that the footfall drops and business becomes less sustainable. That happened the last time there was a wave of post office closures, and it will happen this time. However, this is not just about shopping and business; it is about the other services that the post offices provide.
The last round of post office closures related largely to businesses that were not viable: that is not so on this occasion. In many cases now, the post offices and stores providing post office services are viable businesses. However, with the removal of post office services, they may no longer be viable. That will have implications for the Assembly’s commitment to encourage entrepreneurship; support small- and medium-sized businesses, and reinvigorate declining communities.
The issue is massive. When the Assembly agrees its resolution today, I hope that the Post Office listens to the elected representatives.
Mr Butler: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Like other Members, I welcome the debate. What was once a vibrant public service is now, unfortunately, in terminal decline. The proposal to close many post offices is the latest in a series of cuts to the post office network across the country and, as Naomi Long mentioned, the Assembly has been powerless to do anything about it. Decisions have been taken by the British Government in conjunction with Post Office management, and we need imaginative proposals that will prevent the closures.
As other Members have said, the brevity of the consultation period gives rise to huge concern. For many people, six weeks is insufficient time to make a considered and comprehensive response to the proposals.
David Burnside, a Member for South Antrim, cited the example of Parkhall post office. Last week, during a public meeting on the closure of post office at Blacks Road, Belfast, to which Post Office management were invited, several issues were put to them which they had not factored into their proposals. One of the main issues was that the Protestant and Catholic communities use that post office, which is situated between Suffolk Road and Blacks Road.
We are in a new political era, and we are striving to bring both communities together, yet the Post Office is closing shared facilities. Members have made representations about the Carlisle Circus post office and other places in north Belfast where the same situation obtains: both communities using a post office that is being threatened with closure.
At the meeting about the Blacks Road post office, which I attended, Post Office representatives conceded that they had not considered that point when framing their proposals. We should be aiming to use the slogan “shared service for a shared future”. Post offices are more than just places in which one can post letters and parcels: they are part and parcel of the community. The elderly, people with disabilities and those on benefits rely on their post offices: for them they are essential.
I fear for the future of the post office network. As recently as 2006, the Post Office had plans to abolish the Post Office card account. However, because of the reaction of Westminster MPs, representing constituencies throughout Britain, the Government pulled back from that.
Therefore the matter may again be open to consideration. There is also concern about how the Post Office is undertaking the consultation process, as many of the post offices that are being told that they may be closed were not even consulted. Members did not know anything about the matter until we were notified of it through the post. Questions exist about the Post Office’s approach to the exercise.
I understand that the Post Office is under commercial pressures and that the market has changed, but the Assembly needs to find ways of returning services to the Post Office. It was once the case that TV licences, for example, could be paid for at post office branches, but those services are being withdrawn. The Assembly must consider that matter.
Some local businesses rely on their local post office, and, in turn, those businesses are part and parcel of the survival of their post office, so closing post offices in some areas will affect local businesses. Therefore we must consider measures will that ensure that post offices play a central role in their community. I fear that if a large number of post offices closes — both in rural and urban areas — many people, particularly the elderly and persons with disabilities, will become increasingly isolated. Go raibh maith agat.
Dr W McCrea: As have others, I congratulate the Members who tabled the motion; I give it my wholehearted support. The motion is a valuable contribution to the debate, and I trust that the Post Office and the Government will listen to the representation made by the Assembly, especially as I believe that the motion will receive unanimous support. We support the motion because it is appropriate that a proper network of services be provided for the people of Northern Ireland.
I acknowledge that the UK Government and the Post Office made the decision about post office closures before the restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly. The period that has been set aside for consultation is certainly short — six weeks. That is totally unacceptable. It leads many to believe that the real purpose of the consultation is not necessarily to hear what the community has to say, but in fact is to perform the act of consultation without doing so meaningfully. I am happy to be proved wrong and to be assured that the Government and the Post Office are listening to this debate and will act accordingly.
Over the years, the Government has dismantled many of the services that post offices provided to the community. Naturally, after many of those services have been withdrawn, it will be claimed that the local post office is not viable, but that is because it was not given the opportunity to remain viable and to continue operating as it had always done. I understand that, as time moves on, we cannot ask that nothing ever change. However, in reference to my constituency of South Antrim, I congratulate two of my colleagues from Antrim Borough Council — Councillor Brian Graham and Councillor John Smyth. They called the community together and allowed elected representatives from across the political spectrum to hear what the community was saying about the proposal to close the post office in Parkhall.
I am absolutely amazed at that proposal. I spoke to Elaine Murdoch, who is a member of the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association (NIIRTA) from Parkhall Mace and post office in Antrim, who told me that they are at a complete loss as to why they have to close their post office, as they have more than 1,200 customers a week and the two surrounding housing estates are growing all the time. Only last year, that post office won the award for the UK community post office of the year for outstanding sales and performance, and it came third in the UK for its special delivery sales. After achieving that high standard, the workers were simply thanked for their services and for what they had done to sell post office services.
Sometimes when I listen to Post Office officials, I feel that they are not selling the service. Rather than selling the service to the community, they tell us why post offices have to close. If the services are not sold properly, and if the post offices’ ability to continue to provide the services is bad-mouthed, the heart will naturally be taken out of the community, and the services that they should be promoting will not be sold.
That post office in the heart of Antrim, despite winning a UK community post office of the year award for outstanding sales and performance, is being rewarded with closure. That is disgraceful. What message does that send to the people of Antrim or to postmasters and postmistresses across the Province?
That post office is not being closed because it is unviable or because it is not profitable — it has received an award because of its success. However, its workers are now being told that, irrespective of what success they achieved, it is being closed simply because a certain number of post offices have to be closed. That is what it comes down to.
Many senior citizens in Antrim who rely on the excellent services that are provided by that post office will no longer be able to do so. That is a despicable situation and it is a shame. The Assembly has to demand that the Government listen to us and provide us with an appropriate consultation period to put the full case for local post offices.
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Member’s time is up.
Mr Armstrong: The importance of this issue is reflected in the media coverage that has been given to the announcement that so many post offices in Northern Ireland face closure.
Four post offices in my own constituency of Mid Ulster have been earmarked for closure, and a further three are to be downgraded to provide outreach services. The four earmarked for closure are Culnady, which is in the Magherafelt District Council area, Sandholes and Killycolpy, which are in the Cookstown District Council area, and Clonoe, which is in the Dungannon District Council area.
As Members know, Mid Ulster is a predominately rural constituency, and the closure of post offices in the above areas will be a hammer blow to the communities that they serve. Post offices are a vital part of the fabric of rural areas, and I do not accept that they should be closed.
The people of Desertmartin, Churchtown and Dunnamore are only slightly better off. Although their post offices are not due to be closed completely, they are to be downgraded, with an outreach service being put in place.
As experience has taught us in this country, simply saying no is not enough. If we are to persuade the Government and Post Office to rethink their closure plans, we must present them with an alternative that will deliver viable and sustainable businesses. That will ensure that we do not find ourselves in the same position later down the line.
Having been starved of public services, rural areas have faced an onslaught for many years. Increased car ownership and the growth of out-of-town supermarkets have assisted in the demise of small shopkeepers such as grocers, butchers and newsagents, and have contributed to the reduction of employment in rural areas.
A recent report by the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association warned that up to 700 shops could be in jeopardy unless the growth of large out-of-town developments is curbed. It is of little surprise that village post offices should be at risk when the Government have already removed some of their most profitable services.
That has had an especially negative impact on those who are already marginalised or socially excluded, which includes the elderly, people with disabilities and those who do not have access to a car. What will they do? Who will speak for them? As MLAs, we were elected to speak for them and to influence the Government.
Those issues, when considered along with the threat of closure that hangs over many rural schools due to falling rolls, clearly show that the fabric of life in many of our towns and villages is under threat.
I believe, however, that if there is a will there is a way. We need to breathe new life into rural communities. The Executive and local government must examine what they can do to assist the threatened post offices via funding, rate relief and the transfer of functions from council or Government offices into local offices that might be incorporated into post offices. A Government rethink is required. I support the motion.
Mr Dallat: It appears that the Post Office has a death wish that will impact rural and suburban areas in Northern Ireland in a way that will knock the stuffing out of the communities concerned. It will also knock the stuffing out of any small retail businesses that need the post office connection to ensure that they remain viable. That is borne out by the presence here today of representatives from the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association, which represents thousands of small retailers.
We can accept those proposals, go through the ritual of objections and protests, and quietly tell ourselves that the closures are inevitable. Then we can sit back and wait for the next wave of closures that will come in 2011, as sure as night follows day. If we are sincere about saving our suburban and rural areas from further erosion and loss of identity, we can take positive action.
Various Members mentioned their communities — I mention Millburn in Coleraine, which provides a 37·5-hour service to 1,500 customers every week. It is a community that has a large elderly population, and it also has many young mothers with young children. What is the alternative for them? According to the Post Office, elderly people could go to the main post office because they get free travel. That is wonderful. The Post Office also said that space is provided on buses for disabled people who use wheelchairs. There is even a pelican crossing for those who want to brave the traffic. That is the alternative that the Post Office is offering to the people of Millburn in Coleraine. It is no different to the situation in Parkhall and various other places mentioned.
There was a ritual culling of post offices during the time of the previous Assembly. Various debates took place in Westminster, but nothing really happened. It is time that this Assembly took the bull by the horns and took a direct interest in the future of our post offices. If we have a strategy, I am sure that the people intending to close so many branches will be interested in listening to us. That is why I am pleased that this motion includes the creation of an ad hoc committee, because we should challenge the Post Office on what it is doing.
There have been success stories in other places. In recent times in the Republic, post offices have been matched up to financial services. That has been a huge success, given that many working-class people do not have bank accounts.
Banks have already begun the closure of branches in Northern Ireland. If we sit back and do nothing, many of our towns and villages will be left without a bank or a post office. In England, up to 60% of decent-sized towns have been left with no bank, no post office, no butcher, no baker — no sense of community. We could not live with that happening here.
Clearly, the people in charge of the Post Office have only one agenda — that is clear from recent interviews. They are bent on wiping out post offices, and they will continue the present trend. It is a situation that we cannot tolerate or accept. We can lie down, or we can get up and challenge what they are doing, but we need proposals that will work. We can overcome adversity and make a success of our post offices by breathing new life into them.
The credit union movement was set up many years ago with nothing more than a suitcase. There are now credit unions in every town and village right across this island because people were inspired by the idea, and were committed and dedicated to it. All of those are sustainable and provide a service. I would love to see that replicated for the post offices.
I have been told that this Assembly has not been particularly good at supporting the post offices in the past. The 11 Departments have given very little Government work to the post offices. That is one way in which they could be supported.
This Assembly can be remembered for what it built and retained, or it can go down in history as having stood idly by, allowing whole communities to be wiped out. I hope that we will not do that, and, therefore, I am glad that we are having this debate. I hope that the agenda will be shifted and that we can take the initiative, create inspiration and stop the lemming-like approach to the future of the post offices. By being inspirational and imaginative, and by looking at the best models elsewhere, we can adapt and make the necessary changes to avert the crisis.
Mr McElduff: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom labhairt i bhfabhar an rúin.
I support the motion. Much has been said about post office closures most keenly impacting on those who are most vulnerable and disadvantaged in the community. I agree with the thrust of the speeches made by John Dallat, Naomi Long and others about the need to be creative and imaginative and to approach the situation from a solution-orientated point of view, rather than with a mindset that accepts closures as inevitable. I commend my colleagues Paul Butler and Willie Clarke for raising many of the points that I intended to raise.
I support the idea of extending the consultation period, as detailed by the Rural Community Network, Help the Aged and other groups. A 12-week consultation makes much more sense than a six-week one. I seek assurance that the consultation is real, because people often feel that consultation exercises are not real. It is to be regretted that the Post Office is not accountable to the Assembly and that this is a reserved matter, rather than a transferred matter, as we would like it to be.
I wish to make the case for Strathroy post office in Omagh. Strathroy post office is earmarked for closure, and there is no plan to mitigate the impact of that by establishing outreach services, for example. An editorial in the ‘Ulster Herald’ — a newspaper that is read widely in County Tyrone — described the closure as a dumb idea that should be returned to sender. It is a bad idea at best, a dumb idea at worst, and it should be returned to sender. The decision-makers must examine the particular circumstances and the merits of the case, because that closure is particularly ill-thought-out.
In my capacity as an MLA for West Tyrone, I convened a meeting last Friday with several community representatives in the area. I was pleased that Barbara Rolston, the head of external relations for the Royal Mail Group, and Sheila McCann, the network development manager with Post Office Ltd, attended the meeting. They agreed to come along and hear the views of the community in that part of Omagh at short notice, and I appreciate that. Both of those senior representatives told us that they were not part of the consultation team. They said that the petition that was handed to them would be forwarded to the consultation team. That consultation team is invisible, and it seems to be unaccountable. It seems to be somewhere beyond the representatives of Royal Mail Group and the network development manager.
At that meeting, the Post Office representatives and I listened to testimonies from local people. People said that the community is part urban and part rural. Strathroy is an area of social deprivation, but it has a strong sense of community. It is a neighbourhood renewal area, and it has a tremendous Sure Start project at the heart of the community. The Strathroy estate and Lisanelly were planned around that major post office and shop facility, which is at the centre of the community. Even the single-storey dwellings that accommodate older people were concentrated in an area that allowed them to take advantage of the proximity of the post office.
We heard from young parents about the cost of public transport for those who wished to travel from the Gortin Road or the Derry Road to the centre of Omagh. They must travel to the Ulsterbus depot and then make their way to the main post office at the SuperValu in the town centre.
The cost in pounds, shillings and pence was spelt out by parents who calculated what it would cost if they had to bring their children with them on the journey. Many older people will have to bring along their home helps.
The proposal has not been future-proofed. Strathroy is adjacent to the Lisanelly site in Omagh, the development plans for which were debated in the Chamber last week. Plans exist for 545 houses adjoining the Strathroy estate, including a Costcutter. The merits and special circumstances of the case must be looked at.
Lord Browne: I am pleased to support the motion on the closure of post offices. However, I am sure that most of us are only too aware of recent dismal predictions of a bleak outlook for the economies of western developed countries. If those prove to be correct, there will be business closures and job losses, which will be a matter of great concern for us all.
That said, it is a profound mistake to regard the closure of a post office as if it were the closure of any other business. The breadth and diversity of the services that post offices offer make them distinct. Not only do they provide accessibility, banking services and cash withdrawals, but they provide a unique link between the public and Departments.
The advice that post offices provide is particularly useful to the disadvantaged sections of the community. Today, we are constantly faced with a barrage of cold calls trying to make us part with our money for super-special offers such as mobile phone contracts or super interest rate loans; older people like me would need a PhD in finance to understand the jargon. That is when advice from someone you can trust — from someone in a post office — is invaluable.
Surveys show that those aged 65 or over, the disabled, carers and single-parent families are the biggest users of post office services. Post offices are the main source of cash for deprived urban residents, especially those without cars or bank accounts. Those are the people who will find it most difficult to adapt to the loss of their local post offices.
It would be easy for a middle-class housewife to make a stop in her people carrier at a new post office in a fancy garage. It is a completely different matter for an elderly person suffering from arthritis who walks the few yards from his or her home to a local post office, which is now threatened with closure. People will say that pensioners have free bus passes, but we must take into account how far the bus stops are from their houses and how long they will have to wait for a bus in the pouring rain.
As Naomi Long pointed out, East Belfast has been hit hard. Of the 10 proposed closures in Belfast, three are in East Belfast: Orangefield, Campbell Park Avenue and Summerhill. Of those, two are in the Victoria area, which has the highest proportion of elderly people in the city and which is one of the two areas in Belfast that is facing two closures.
If those closures go ahead, they will have an adverse affect on local schools, community groups and small businesses, which rely on the local post offices for banking facilities.
Mrs Long: The Member was involved on the previous occasion that closures took place. Would he agree that the closure of the Belmont branch will affect people whose business was previously transferred from as far away as the Knocknagoney branch when it was closed? Those people now have a considerable distance to cross without any bus services or support.
Lord Browne: I agree entirely. Businesses will suffer a further blow through the loss of post offices in their vicinity, especially in Summerhill, Orangefield and Campbell Park Avenue. They will suffer from the loss of custom from people who will be forced to travel to post offices that are further away. As Mrs Long said, they will face longer queues at those post offices and, perhaps, a service that is inferior to that of their local post office.
Some Members who have ploughed through the voluminous documents that the Post Office has provided to explain the rationale for the closures may be convinced that that organisation has given the fullest consideration to the adverse consequences of its actions. Given that we have been given only a few weeks to consider the documents, it will be difficult to spot all the flaws immediately. I am not convinced that the Post Office has taken all the social and economic consequences into account. Members should recognise that the early retirement packages that were already offered to sub-postmaster officers may have had some influence on the decisions made by the Post Office.
I support the motion.
Mr Savage: I support the motion, and I congratulate the Members who secured the debate. As a rural dweller, I can focus on what post office closures will mean to people in those communities. I understand that there will be 27 post office closures in rural areas, and it is proposed that a further 54 rural post offices will be replaced with outreach services.
I visited the new mobile post office when it visited Stormont two weeks ago. Although I was impressed by the facilities on offer, I was concerned that some rural areas might have the mobile post office for only one hour — or two at the most — once a week. Such provision will be a severe cutback to the daily services that those people are provided with, Monday to Friday, nine-to-five.
The mobile post offices must be accessible to the whole community, especially the elderly, who benefit greatly from the services provided by post offices. Many post offices provide a focal point and lifeline for people who live in rural areas.
Although I realise that post offices are a reserved matter, I welcome the intervention and comments of local Ministers, such as the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, who met recently with the Post Office to discuss the proposed closures.
I echo the comments of the Rural Community Network, which believes that the six-week consultation period is too short. I do not think that anyone could disagree with its chief executive, Michael Hughes, who said:
“Rural post offices provide a vital service for sections of the community, particularly for older people, those with poor literacy and numeracy skills, lone parents, those on benefits and newcomers such as the migrant population. The changes proposed will particularly impact on those who are both vulnerable and disadvantaged and it is vital that their voices are heard during the consultation period.”
He went on to say that the consultation period needs to be lengthened so that a true reflection of the voices of the people can be heard. He said:
“Change has to happen, but I think change has to be planned. There needs to be a long term consultation with the communities that will be affected by these so they have some say in the type of outreach service is meaningful to them. Normal procedure would be at least a 12 week consultation. To have a six week consultation period, particularly with 54 communities affected by an outreach service, is not enough time to allow those communities to have some say about a postal service that will mean something to them.”
The Rural Community Network has asked MLAs and MPs to join with it in calling for an extension to the consultation period. The Post Office must realise that a longer consultation period is required, and it must be aware that it needs to listen to the people. It is obvious that Royal Mail has not fully considered the consequences of the post office closures, which will have a detrimental effect on the vulnerable in society.
The results of the Citizens Advice survey showed what important consequences the post office closures will have on groups of individuals in the community, including those aged 65 and over. There will be big changes to their lifestyles, and those people must be taken in to consideration. With these proposals, we are witnessing the slow death of community life.
It appears that Royal Mail Group is more concerned with profitability and productivity than it is with practicality. Post offices were designed first and foremost to provide a service. Sadly, that ethos has gone to the wall, leaving postmasters facing an uncertain future. The key question for Royal Mail Group arising from the debate is how essential services will be provided for the people who need them most.
The sickening thing is that we are talking about the closure of post offices today; but what is it going to be next week? The Assembly must support local post offices. I support the motion.
Mr Irwin: I thank the Members for bringing the motion to the Chamber. In my constituency, the proposal is to close Battlehill and Eleven Lane Ends post offices and operate outreach services in another eight locations. That will represent a significant change in the way in which the Post Office will operate in Newry and Armagh.
Indeed, the local people who will be affected by the changes have been vocal in their opposition to the proposal. As my constituency is largely rural, post office facilities in the area, such as those in Loughgall, Battlehill, Altnamachin, Jerrettspass and Cladymore are a real necessity, especially for the elderly. Rural post offices are a port of call for many rural dwellers, and in many cases, they provide the only service in the area for several miles.
Removing such services will obviously be detrimental to the areas affected, and I am concerned that the rural infrastructure will be weakened as a result. The Post Office argues that centralisation is necessary for the survival of its brand and that the proposals — to either close, operate on reduced hours or use a mobile service — represent the best way forward. Undoubtedly, it must be said that the usage of post office facilities in some areas has been reduced due to other available methods of banking and the centralisation of services in larger villages and towns. However, for people who are less mobile and who live in more remote areas, travelling a few miles to a post office is already a challenge without having to travel many more miles to the nearest facility. Those people will certainly be disadvantaged.
I am also concerned about the small rural businesses in my constituency that rely on the local post offices for various services. Opening times will be greatly reduced at eight local post offices in Newry and Armagh, and in some cases, they will only open for four hours a couple of days per week. In Loughgall, for instance, opening times will be reduced from 40 hours per week to eight hours per week. That will cause a great inconvenience to many people. Indeed, it is possible that it could result in the closure of the only shop in that village.
Although this is a reserved matter, the Assembly can still play a part in reducing the impact of the proposals. It is vital that local people respond to the public consultation — that is the positive way in which they can get the message across that local post offices are lifelines in rural communities. I call on everyone in the community to support their local post offices and not to take them for granted.
Lastly, I hope that the Members present here today are not hypocrites who say that they support the motion but drive past their local post office to use other facilities. I support the motion.
Mr P Ramsey: I thank Carmel Hanna and John Dallat for bringing the motion to the Chamber. It concerns a matter that is hugely important for so many people across Northern Ireland.
For as long as can I remember, post offices have been an integral part of the community. For many people they are a lifeline; they provide essential services in a way that cannot be provided by bigger, commercial organisations.
Most importantly, for elderly and vulnerable people and for young families, post offices provide a very personal service. Post office staff know the names of their customers; they know who is well and unwell, and they know their customers’ circumstances, which is important when it comes to benefit-related banking services. Post offices provide services in a way that banks cannot — banks do not want to provide services to people in the way that post offices do at present. For obvious reasons, banks are not interested in people who are on benefits.
Everyone, young and old, should take the opportunity to participate in the consultation process.
In my constituency of Foyle, the closure of post offices in rural and urban centres will cause real problems for the most vulnerable in society. Claudy post office serves Claudy village and the surrounding rural area. Many people in that area are elderly or disabled, and many suffer from financial hardship. If that post office closes, how will the most vulnerable from that area manage their affairs? How will they get their benefits? The banks in the city will be unable to provide the social and economic function that is carried out so well by post offices.
John Dallat mentioned credit unions. They could be integrated with post offices and could provide the same services as banks. For example, credit unions could introduce the smart-card system to enable customers to access their social security benefits.
The Carlisle Road post office in Derry, which serves mainly the Protestant area of the Fountain and surrounding areas, is also designated for closure. There are high levels of unemployment in those areas, as well as high numbers of elderly and disabled people. Indeed, some sheltered homes are strategically placed within walking distance of that post office.
By definition, the least economically viable post offices are in the areas of highest social and economic disadvantage. That is a paradox. The post offices that are closing are used mainly by people who suffer the worst social and economic disadvantage. The closures will hit the most isolated areas, and the people who are in most need of the post office services will be denied them if the proposed closures go ahead.
As other Members said, the Assembly should send a strong signal to the British Government that the post office network is a means of ensuring social inclusion. Post offices are a vital part of the infrastructure that is necessary for the reduction of poverty and exclusion. Social disadvantage and the social and economic impact of closures should be taken into account when deciding where post offices should be located and which post offices should be closed.
I am delighted to take part in today’s debate. As other Members said, everyone should participate in the consultation process to get the message across loud and clear that post offices should be protected.
Ms Lo: I thank Mrs Hanna for proposing the motion, which I support fully. I, too, am concerned about post office closures, particularly those on the Lisburn Road and the Ormeau Road, as they are in my constituency of South Belfast. People in South Belfast suffered in the previous wave of post office closures a few years ago, and now they will suffer a second round of such reductions. The closures will cause serious cutbacks on local service provision.
Last week, I met with residents on the Lisburn Road and visited their post office. Many elderly people live in that area, and that extra half a mile to and from the next post office is too much for them, particularly in the bad weather, which we regularly have, if I may say. That extra distance would add worries about security for elderly people, particularly when they have just collected their pensions. Many elderly people are dependent on the post office and trust the staff there. I saw with my own eyes that the postmaster of the Lisburn Road post office has a big pack of benefit cards in his drawer, which were given to him by elderly people who were worried that they might lose their cards. He has worked there for 14 years, and he knows his customers well and cares about them. It is a family run business, and his daughter works in the post office as sub-postmistress.
People are devastated by the proposed closure. That post office is very much the hub of the community, where people meet their friends and neighbours and look out for one another. If someone does not turn up for a while, questions are asked.
When I visited the post office, I could see that it is a very busy, friendly and viable business. Both the residential and business communities in the Lisburn Road area, which has many shops and businesses, use the post office to bank the day’s takings. It serves different sections of our community with very diverse backgrounds, and it serves nurses and staff from the nearby hospital.
The closure does not make sense when the business is viable, and many customers are not aware of the proposed closure. Many of them are not aware of the consultation. As Members have highlighted, the consultation period is not long enough. I propose to drop leaflets among the residents of the local area to alert people to this issue.
I hope that the Assembly will support the motion and take a strategic look at keeping viable local post offices open.
Mr P J Bradley: Before I wind up on the motion, I would like to include some comments of my own. I open my remarks with a comment similar to the one that I made when representatives of the Post Office attended a meeting of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development.
At that meeting on 8 April 2008, I asked whether the visit by those officials was merely a cosmetic exercise. I suggested that, no matter what Committee members had to say or propose, no changes would be made to the proposals of the Post Office to abandon numerous rural communities. Will today be any different? Will the views of Members — particularly those who represent rural areas — who are concerned about the proposals of the Post Office to shut 96 of its current facilities even be considered?
Given that the 27-working-day consultation process is more than halfway over — it closes on 12 May 2008 — we should know the result of our endeavours on behalf of those whom we represent very soon.
My fears that the Assembly and the Committee may be ignored are based on the lack of consideration given to the efforts of one of our Ministers on the issue of post office closures.
On 22 June 2007, the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development referred in a press release to a meeting that she had held with the Royal Mail and Post Offices Ltd, when she heard about the preparations being made to reduce the size of the urban and rural post office network, following the Department of Trade and Industry’s proposals for reform. The Minister, recognising that it was a crucial period for rural areas, said that she was determined to play her part to ensure that the needs of the rural communities would be fully taken into account when decisions were made on the size and shape of the future post office network.
The Minister made it known that her officials would work closely with Royal Mail and Post Offices Ltd on future provision. I believe that it is fair to assume that exchanges between DARD officials, Post Offices Ltd and the Royal Mail did take place, but, given the proposals announced on 1 April, those exchanges were non-productive. If the Minister and her Department were ignored, why should we, as mere Members of this Assembly, expect to be treated any differently?
At the meeting of the Committee to which I referred earlier, I made a special case for the retention of Attical post office, which is located in the heart of the Mournes. The post office serves the village and forms part of a wider service that is provided to a very scattered and diverse community by the sole retailer in the village. The post office is the key element of business that is carried out in the popular village store.
Attical post office attracts people from across a wide catchment area and plays a significant social role in the community. The people who reside in those areas that are serviced by that facility do not see themselves as being of one persuasion or the other. They consider themselves to be people of the Mournes, living and working side by side as a united people.
Attical post office — and the village store — is the hub of the community, and it should be noted how people there live in harmony together. Indeed, press releases show that the proposed closure is opposed by their elected representatives from the SDLP and the Ulster Unionist Party. The Post Office has proposed to offer the Attical customers what it terms an “outreach service” — a mobile van service. I am convinced that that is a temporary form of appeasement, offered to lessen the eventual effects of total withdrawal.
Rural and urban dwellers alike have witnessed the downgrading of the services that post offices provide. That was no doubt a preparatory measure to allow for closure and to lessen the impact of what we now face. That is also the case with mobile post offices — it is inevitable that even that basic type of service will be withdrawn in a few years’ time, if not sooner. A couple of hijackings or the mobile unit having a flat wheel or two — or any other reason imaginable — will be all the excuse that the Post Office needs to withdraw the service when it believes it timely to do so. I make one final appeal to any decision-maker who might be listening: please revisit the proposal for Attical post office, and, when doing so, please read from the handout that Post Office Ltd distributed at its meeting with the Committee of Agriculture and Rural Development on 8 April. It stated:
“Our aim is to make Post Office Ltd a business with a social purpose.”
If the Post Office Ltd proceeds as planned at Attical, it would not only be removing a business with a social aspect, it would be introducing the beginning of the end for a close-knit rural community.
I now turn to my winding-up speech. I first wish to thank my colleagues Carmel Hanna and John Dallat for bringing this detailed motion to the House. I thank all the Members who took part in the debate and supported them. The fact that only one and a half hours was allocated for the debate meant that many Members were denied the opportunity to speak. I can speak only for the SDLP — I know that a dozen of our Members wanted to speak. I am sure that all the other parties were in the same boat.
Carmel Hanna mentioned the earlier post office closures, and she predicted that there would be further closures. She touched on the domino effect that closure will have on other businesses attached to post offices. She identified the consequences that closure will have for many communities in Belfast, including those in South Belfast, an area that she knows best. She called for an economic appraisal, an equality impact assessment and an extended consultation period.
Lord Morrow used the word that he thought best described his feelings, and the feelings of all elected representatives: “revulsion”. That feeling is shared by all the communities under threat. He, too, requested that the proposed closures in his constituency be reconsidered.
Willie Clarke questioned the Post Office’s decision to close post offices that are economically viable. He made suggestions of merit regarding the future of the service, particularly in rural areas. Mr Burnside exposed the hypocrisy of the Post Office. An award was given to the Parkhall post office in his constituency just last year; this year, the proposal is to close it. What does that tell us about those making the proposals — the pen-pushers, as Jim Shannon called them?
Mr Bresland touched on the plethora of services that are proposed to replace the post offices. He described the futility of introducing such measures and named a number of areas in his constituency that deserve better professional services.
Naomi Long criticised the all-too-short consultation process and mentioned the cycle of closures. The Member for East Belfast gave us an insight into the consequences for her constituency if the draconian measures are implemented. Like me, she wondered whether anyone up there was listening.
Mr Butler repeated the comments of others, and he was concerned about the short consultation period. He questioned the attention that will be given to the Assembly’s views. He was also critical of the constant downgrading of post office services and the inevitable outcome of the downgrading process.
Dr McCrea commended the proposer of the motion on bringing the matter to the Assembly. He dealt at length with the very limited consultation period, and he expressed his views on why the consultation period was so short. The ludicrous situation regarding Parkhall post office was central to Dr McCrea’s address, and he demanded that Government immediately review the proposals.
Mr Billy Armstrong devoted his speech to the proposal for his area. He highlighted the lack of services in rural areas and the negative impact on the rural community. My colleague John Dallat, who is the joint proposer of the motion, has championed the cause of both rural and suburban post offices for many years in both this Assembly and the previous Assembly. He described the situation in Coleraine, which is similar to the situation elsewhere. He highlighted the need to establish urgently an Ad Hoc Committee in an effort to think creatively about the serious outcomes of the proposals.
Mr McElduff referred to the Rural Community Network and Age Concern and their desire to have a 12-week consultation process. He also highlighted the lack of accountability by the Post Office, and he concluded by stating that the proposals had not been future-proofed.
Lord Browne spoke of the job losses that would ensue if the proposals are allowed to proceed. He made reference to the various categories that would suffer most as a result of the proposed closures. In particular, he spoke of the effects that the closures will have on senior citizens, and he concluded by warning of the social and economic consequences of the proposals.
Mr George Savage spoke about the proposed mobile post offices and the fact that he has no confidence in the service that they would provide. He also called for a longer consultation period to allow for a better and more realistic picture to emerge, concluding by suggesting that this is the only the beginning and that there is worse to come.
Mr William Irwin took us on a tour of the Newry and Armagh constituency and listed the post offices that are earmarked for closure there. He was also critical of the proposed opening hours for the post offices. I welcome his call for the community to respond to the consultation process.
My colleague Pat Ramsey described the Post Office as a lifeline to many people, repeating the call for everyone to make their views known on the closures. He questioned why the Post Office was targeting the most vulnerable and socially deprived people in society.
Anna Lo a South Belfast Member discussed the first tranche of closures in her constituency and suggested that further closures would be a major disadvantage for many people, especially the elderly. She also questioned the reasons for closing viable businesses.
It only remains for me to thank everyone for taking part in the debate, and, as someone said earlier, I hope that the vote on the motion will be unanimous.
Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly notes with concern the recent announcement that 96 local post offices are to close or be replaced by an ‘outreach’ service; believes that the six-week consultation period is too short; further believes such closures and service reductions will have an adverse impact on community and social infrastructure in rural and urban areas and will adversely affect older people, persons with disabilities and other vulnerable groups; acknowledges that provision of post office services is a reserved matter; and resolves to establish urgently an Ad Hoc Committee to think creatively about, and make proposals for, partnerships that could enhance the economic case for viable local postal services based on engagement with commercial, voluntary and public sector partners and learning from the experience in the Republic of Ireland.
Mr Speaker: The next item on the Order Paper is the motion on construction industry jobs. Before I begin, I inform Members that the Minister of Finance and Personnel has written to me to advise that due to unavoidable diary commitments, he regrets that he is not available to respond to the motion. He has arranged for the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, Mr Nigel Dodds, to respond on his behalf.
The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes. One amendment has been selected and published on the Marshalled List. The proposer of the amendment will have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes to make a winding-up speech.
Mr McElduff: I beg to move
That this Assembly notes with concern the job losses in the construction industry in recent times; and calls on the Minister of Finance and Personnel to establish a working relationship with all his Executive colleagues and key stakeholders from the industry to devise a strategy aimed at creating further opportunities and sustaining jobs in this sector.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I state from the outset that I and Sinn Féin are happy to accept the amendment, as it adds value to the motion.
I assert the importance of the construction industry, which could rightly be described as the backbone of the local economy throughout the island, North and South.
In the North alone, the construction industry has an annual total output of approximately £3·2 billion and employs some 85,000 people. It is, therefore, one of our largest single industrial sectors. That is according to the Construction Employers Federation (CEF), which also drew attention to the 1,500 job losses in the sector in recent months.
Those losses have happened for a variety of reasons. One reason, but not the only one, is the slowdown in house building and the flatness of the housing market.
There is serious concern in the industry and fear for its short-term future. If the construction industry sneezes, the entire economy catches a cold. Why do I say that? I say it because building suppliers, planners, architects, engineers, plant-hire companies, surveyors, estate agents, solicitors, banks, advertisers, shops and even hot-food counters will all feel the pinch and experience the knock-on effects.
I have highlighted the great uncertainty that exists at present. In the North, for example, builders and developers who, during the past couple of years, took risks and bought land at high prices, have expressed serious disquiet that they must set aside 20% of every development for social and affordable housing. They are at pains to point out that although they support the concept of providing social and affordable housing, they want mechanisms to be introduced that will prevent the industry from being crippled and allow it time to adapt.
In 2007, 78,000 homes were built in the South of Ireland. However, only 45,000 were built in 2008 and just 37,000 are predicted to be built in 2009. Often, that affects self-employed people most. Of construction workers, 70% are self-employed and do not receive sick pay, for example.
The motion calls on the Minister of Finance and Personnel to take action in the first instance. However, the Assembly has been told that the Minister of Finance and Personnel cannot be present at the debate and that he is happy to delegate that responsibility to the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment. The debate is also relevant to other Ministers — a plethora of them could have been in attendance today. Although I am happy that the Enterprise Minister is present, the debate has messages for a range of Ministers, which is why the motion calls on Minister Robinson to establish a working relationship with relevant Executive colleagues. The amendment calls on him to do that on a North/South basis, particularly given the nature of the building trade and the wider construction industry.
During the past week, I took the initiative of writing to builders and contractors in West Tyrone to ask them for feedback on the issue. I received replies from them within a quick turnaround. Planning Service could learn a thing or two about prompt turnarounds for correspondence to an Assembly Member for West Tyrone. I posed questions on what hurdles, obstacles and threats are faced by the construction industry. The views that were expressed demonstrate the relevance of the issue across many Departments.
For example, DOE’s Planning Service was described by many contributors as the biggest single influence on the industry. Draft PPS 14 was quoted extensively; for example, its blanket ban on building houses in the countryside and the need to improve the poor criteria for replacement of dwellings. The Assembly awaits with interest the outcome of deliberations on draft PPS 14.
I have been told that rather than enabling development, the planning system frustrates it. It holds up major construction projects; draws out decision-making; and creates lengthy delays in the processing of planning applications. The system is too slow. The Assembly tries to attract inward investment and build hospitals, schools and houses. Two years is too long to wait for a planning decision. Indeed, many developers wait much longer. People say that accountability is needed. Although that is certainly the case, management processes are also needed that will deliver quicker, more efficient decision-making and that will not cripple the construction industry.
The water service, Roads Service, Environment and Heritage Service and Northern Ireland Electricity have all been faulted for the turnaround in their consultation times. Each has the capacity to slow the process down or to speed it up. Again, that has a tremendous effect on company planning, because local companies’ finances are not finite.
The industry tells me that banks need to be more flexible and lenient. In the current climate, they are slower to give out much-needed loans. They constantly push for payments and show no understanding of circumstances.
If we consider what the Department for Social Development, the Housing Executive and housing associations can do, I have been told that in Strabane, for example, there is plenty of Housing Executive land that could be released to allow private developers to build houses at an affordable rate.
A constituent has written to me describing how he invested false hope in co-ownership housing association funding. Minister Margaret Ritchie announced this February that part of the new agenda for housing included a major investment in co-ownership housing and that, among other initiatives, the threshold for purchasing a property would be increased to £180,000.
The press release was no sooner issued than the money for the project was pulled. People are asking me whether the Minister understood the funding restrictions in her own Department before she raised people’s hopes by making an official statement.
The Minister also said:
“give me the money and I will build the houses.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 22, p134, col 2].
We have yet to see any evidence of that. Questions are being asked about the possibility of housing benefit increasing to address the realities of 2008.
The investment strategy and the Programme for Government promise much, but builders, contractors and others in the construction industry are frustrated because the plans are not taking effect quickly enough on the ground.
The Titanic Quarter, the potential education campus at Lisanelly in Omagh, retail and housing projects, and the Maze/Long Kesh stadium project are all being talked about. The Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister heard that the entire Maze/Long Kesh project could produce up to 10,000 jobs, many of which would be in the construction industry.
The shelving or stalling of the A5 and M2 road projects, along with school and hospital initiatives, creates a sense of indecision among observers. People in the construction industry also want more opportunities for smaller, local contractors who are disadvantaged by group procurement.
I welcome the fact that the Programme for Government states that procurement policies must pursue social objectives. Hopefully, that will create opportunities for young apprentices and for the long-term unemployed, and the Department for Employment and Learning can help through appropriate retraining and reskilling.
The construction industry is facing many opportunities — as well as threats and challenges — but it remains a backbone of our economy. The industry wants a level playing field. The Executive, Departments and Ministers are being called upon to intervene and to breathe life into the construction industry, to sustain current jobs and to create future opportunities.
Dr McDonnell: I beg to move the following amendment: Leave out all after “times” and insert
“; further notes the infrastructure investment opportunities announced in the Republic of Ireland’s National Development Plan; and calls on the Minister of Finance and Personnel to establish a working relationship with all his Executive colleagues, relevant Ministers in the Republic of Ireland and key stakeholders from the industry, to devise a strategy aimed at creating further opportunities and sustaining jobs in this sector.”
I thank Members for bringing an important and timely issue to the House. I recognise that although we in the Assembly cannot create jobs directly, we can create an environment for others to do so, and we are discussing how we must do that.
The construction industry makes a major contribution to the Northern Ireland economy through employment and turnover. Any decline, shrinkage or shrivelling of that industry affects us all. The sector has grown rapidly over the past few years, not only through house building, but through major regeneration projects in cities such as Belfast and Derry and in towns and villages throughout Northern Ireland. Now, however, as a result of micro- and macro-economic factors, a downturn is fairly inevitable.
Statistics from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment’s quarterly employment survey and labour force survey show that some 80,000 people are employed in the construction industry. It may be that the figures were assessed too early, but, at this stage, the surveys do not seem to express any sense of concern about job creation or job losses. The figures contained in the surveys fail to take into account the realities of the past few months, in which the “readjustment” — for want of a better word — in the housing market and the global credit crunch are squeezing the construction industry.
I am told that, in the past 12 months, the Northern Ireland construction industry’s output amounted to some £3·4 billion, approximately 50% of which was generated from house building. The significant downturn in the house-building sector is having and, for the foreseeable future, will continue to have a negative impact on the construction industry. That can be predicted from the dramatic fall in the number of new house starts and can be seen in the number of construction workers who are being laid off. Several firms are even operating a four-day week in an attempt to retain staff and keep functioning.
Our planned social housing and education programmes will go some way towards addressing the issue, but they are not nearly enough to offset the current downward spiral. We must put more money into social housing, and we must build more primary schools to replace those that are, in many ways, well beyond their sell-by date. I have visited several primary schools in South Belfast, some of which are 30, 40 or 50 years old, and they all need some repairs, if not full replacement.
The Budget allocation of £1·8 billion a year to the construction industry in our planned investment strategy will lead to opportunities in the sector. However, those opportunities will be severely limited by the fact that that level of expenditure is largely similar to that of previous years, and by the fact that projects are notoriously slow, subject to delays, planning problems and repackaging.
The construction industry in Northern Ireland could, and will, avail itself of, and benefit from, the investment and job opportunities created by the Republic’s national development plan. Although I welcome many of the comments made by Mr McElduff in proposing the motion, I regret that he preferred to make a Judas sideswipe at the Minister for Social Development rather than tackling the issue head-on. The Minister for Social Development has had about six weeks to get to grips with the issue, and she has done so. It does not help if there are sneers and jeers from the sidelines.
The Republic’s national development plan will encourage valuable North/South co-operation on a range of projects in infrastructure, transport, energy and tourism. The construction industry will have a major role to play in the delivery of those projects, and I am confident that the wealth of experience and skills in our construction industry, which has international recognition and standing, will be deployed in that regard.
Northern firms have already had tremendous success across the world and in the Irish Republic. There have been new developments at the harbours at Killybegs and in Cork, several new bridges and the new motorway to Dublin. Northern firms had a substantial input in all those ventures, which I welcome. I hope that they are equally successful in future.
There are a number of projects in hand. The House has often debated the issue of the A5 Aughnacloy to Omagh road. There are other plans to link Belfast and Dublin to the north-west, but I will not go into the details of those plans today. The development of the Belfast to Dublin rail network is an important issue; access to tourism and links between County Down and County Louth are being improved. The bridge at Narrow Water is a simple example of that, and much more extensive opportunities exist at that location.
There is work on the restoration of the Ulster canal, the development of City of Derry airport and, last but not least, the development of the North/South electricity interconnector for delivery, we hope, in 2012.
I stress that I tabled the amendment honestly and openly and not from a party-political motive. I consider it to be good business, and I urge the Minister to work with his Executive colleagues and with Irish Government Ministers to ensure that local construction firms are in the best position to benefit from any opportunities that may arise. The Assembly can assist in that, and, given that the Minister is much more powerful than other Members, I appeal to him to reinforce our efforts to ensure that the construction industry does not sink to its knees. If it is allowed to do so, it might take three or four years to get back up again, and if the skills base is lost and people are redeployed out of the industry, there will be a skills shortage when the industry turns around and labour will have to be found from abroad.
Without being too narrow, I want to ensure that local construction workers are given hope and kept in a job that allows them to bring home a week’s pay or a monthly salary on which to live comfortably.
Mr Shannon: I support the motion, which comes at an opportune time to address some construction industry issues.
The construction industry is a major employer in the Province, and it generates approximately £3·5 billion a year and employs approximately 80,000 people in various sectors. Although it is clear that the UK is suffering from job losses in the construction industry, there is a positive outlook for Northern Ireland, which alone holds the crown for dramatically reducing skills shortages to the lowest level of any region in the history of the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors’ construction market survey.
That survey illustrates that workloads have reduced; however, workloads in the private industrial sector have risen, which provides a sense of hope for Northern Ireland’s construction industry. Nonetheless, the motion comes at a good time to generate interest, and now that we have the skills, jobs must be provided. I am positive that that can be aided by the Assembly’s actions, which is why I support the motion.
I was aggrieved to read that one of the Province’s leading surveyor firms cited indecision in local government as a major factor in the industry’s downturn. As a councillor and an MLA, I understand that planning system restrictions have been a factor in the reduction of jobs, but it is clear that the growth in the Province’s industrial sector can and should be repeated across the board.
The Minister of Finance and Personnel and his colleague Nigel Dodds are doing an excellent job in encouraging business growth. Encouraging the emergence and expansion of small businesses will secure construction jobs for generations to come. As businesses expand, the consumer base and customers will follow. Such businesses will require larger premises and, in some circumstances, new buildings, so there will be work to be done. A healthy economy is one that is booming and growing, and Northern Ireland is moving into a growth phase, which should be reflected in the construction industry. I congratulate the Minister of Finance and Personnel for his work in partnership with the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, and I urge that he continue that partnership because Northern Ireland feels the benefits — not least in the construction industry.
Although it is clear that we have the required skilled labour — indeed, many of our construction workers are poached for work on mainland projects, such as Canary Wharf — the fact that much essential work in our hospitals has been undertaken by companies from the Republic of Ireland and overseas must be highlighted. I urge Ministers to ensure that any work carried out on Northern Ireland properties that are owned or rented by the Government should be undertaken by home-based firms. That will increase the work for our construction industry. That said, some properties’ rental agreements stipulate that certain firms must be used; however, regulations should ensure that such firms hail from Northern Ireland and not from further afield.
I believe we have the skills, and I think we should employ those skills for our benefit.
The Government are investing in excess of £18 million in building projects, and it is imperative that that work is given to local firms so that Northern Ireland benefits in a two-fold manner, both from the new builds, and from the economic boost that the workload will produce.
It is particularly imperative that, given the additional funds that were given to DSD and earmarked for social housing, the resulting work is given to local firms. The Minister of Finance and Personnel has freed up money for expansion, and the parties must make sure that Northern Ireland benefits fully from that. However, there is concern that although the house-building sector is responsible for over 35,000 jobs, there has been a notable downturn in the number of houses being built and new houses for sale. There is a two-fold issue and problem.
Let us turn in a slightly different direction and focus on social housing, because that is where the jobs are and where the potential prosperity could be. The market has turned. People are not buying houses as they did previously; they do not have the funds with which to purchase, and, that being the case, and although there is a need for social and private housing, the funds to buy houses are not available at the moment. As a result, developments are not being progressed as quickly as they could be.
As regards draft PPS 14 and the proposed restriction of growth in developments through a blanket ban, I again urge the Minister for Social Development to liaise with our colleague Arlene Foster to implement a new planning policy that will encourage sensible development to supply the needs of the rural community and care for the countryside. It is clear that the construction industry will benefit from that.
In conclusion, the Minister of Finance and Personnel should take much credit for the fact that our economy is turning and is becoming self-sustaining. It is clear that for that to become a reality we must look after our local firms and ensure that they get the work. Each Minister has a major part to play in the security and future of the construction industry in Northern Ireland.
Mr Beggs: I thank the proposers of the motion for securing the debate today. The construction industry represents a valued part of our local economy, and it is something with which we must take care. The industry is one of Northern Ireland’s largest areas of private sector employment, generating up to £3·5 billion a year and accounting for about 14% of our gross value added. There are 45,000 employee jobs in the industry, but as many people are self-employed, it is thought that there are actually more than 80,000 people working in the sector.
In recent years the industry in Northern Ireland has seen periods of record growth, and there are reasons for that: the relative peace that we have enjoyed, the buoyant UK economy, the growing local economy and increased confidence have all played a significant role. Although there is merit in the motion, we all must recognise that the Assembly has a limited role to play, as many of the factors involved are driven at UK level or indeed at world economy level.
The construction industry is experiencing a decline, which is in response to the downturn in the housing sector following the UK sub-prime mortgage losses. The Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, indicated in its UK first quarter survey of 2008, that public sector housing and public works are now in decline throughout the UK. According to that survey, the Northern Ireland infrastructure workload fell for the third quarter in a row. The survey also indicates that commercial workloads are falling; so there is a range of areas that are declining.
The Executive and the Assembly must ask what more can be done to facilitate and support the construction industry, given its importance. I am aware of sizeable commercial developments in my constituency that are experiencing undue planning delays, and that does not give confidence to those who are putting up money and risking their capital to try and encourage the local economy. We must have an efficient planning system.
What else can be done in the short term? Industry representatives are concerned that the infrastructure projects envisaged under the investment strategy are not proceeding as speedily as they could. It is of paramount importance that those projects are confirmed and are delivered in the most efficient manner. Therefore, I would be grateful if the Minister would update the Assembly, on behalf of his colleagues, on the progress of Departments in implementing the investment plans. The construction industry can be helped by the Executive delivering public funds in a timely fashion; dealing with planning issues, and ensuring that the funding flows.
There have been noticeable delays in some new school developments. For example, a colleague told me that a big fanfare and public announcement was made in January 2005 about a new school to be built on a 28-acre site on the Tempo Road, Enniskillen. The site was acquired for a £16·7 million scheme to build a 700-pupil post-primary school to replace outdated facilities in Kesh and Enniskillen. That scheme was expected to be completed by September 2008. It has not even started.
What is happening with our school-building programme? Properly financed, such a programme would provide work in the construction industry and our workforce would have the necessary skills to complete that work. A sustainable construction industry and a sustainable and affordable housing market are required. Hundreds of millions of pounds have been set aside for new social homes, and we must ensure that a building programme proceeds expediently.
As other Members have mentioned, we must also ensure the establishment of a co-ownership scheme that helps to boost the economy and supports first-time buyers. First-time buyers are a critical part of the market — without them, no one else can move. It is vital that first-time buyers be encouraged and given the confidence to re-enter the market, because everyone benefits — other people can move house, the industry will benefit, and jobs will be created. It is therefore disappointing that the entire fund that was set aside for co-ownership has been used by the third week of the new financial year.
I know of people who were assessed for co-ownership, qualified, and agreed the sale of a house, only to have an essential part of the jigsaw taken away. I call on the Minister to ensure that additional funds be directed to the co-ownership scheme to help first-time buyers and secure more jobs for the economy.
Mr Speaker: The Member’s time is up.
Mrs Long: I thank the Members who brought the motion before the House, and the Minister for his attendance — the motion calls on his ministerial colleague to act, but DETI also has a role to play.
After working in the construction industry for 10 years before becoming a Member of the Assembly, I am aware of its cyclical nature and the changes that it goes through. During the past 20 to 30 years, there have been periods when employment prospects were much worse at the professional, technical and craft grades. For example, when I graduated in 1994, the lion’s share of civil engineering graduates went east, south or even west to North America to find work. At that time, graduates with masters degrees were applying for programmes such as YTP schemes to get a foot on the ladder in the industry. Thankfully, it is no longer necessary to do that.
Political change and relative stability have ensured unprecedented growth in construction and development in our towns and cities. Recent conversations that I have had with many employers have focused on the lack of suitably skilled people to advance current and future development commitments, particularly at craft level. For example, major developments at the Titanic Quarter and Sirocco Quays were seen as needing imported labour.
Due to international market changes and local economic factors, there will be fluctuations in the sectors that make up the construction industry. Some Members have referred to the situation in house-building as part of the overall picture. Although some Members are correct that the statistics in the past few months are a cause for concern — that should not be denied — we must be cautious of talking ourselves into a crisis because we could undermine confidence in the local industry. We must also be careful not to talk ourselves into making knee-jerk reactions.
Some Members mentioned draft PPS 14. Sustainable growth and development of the construction industry is needed, but that is also required for our rural communities and they must be considered.
The latest labour market survey from the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, which relates to the final quarter of last year, shows that, although workloads are reduced, the balance is positive. The workload in the private industrial sector rose, as Mr Shannon said; private housing and infrastructure workloads were static; other public works and private commercial work both fell. Although confidence in anticipated profits slipped for the third successive quarter and are now negative, workload and employment expectations have remained positive. Therefore, there are positives and negatives, and the negatives should not be over-egged.
The Ulster Bank Construction Purchasing Managers’ Index, which is seasonally adjusted to measure the overall performance of the construction economy, has fallen to a new low for the third successive month. The large, public-sector civil engineering projects suffered the largest fall. That tends to reflect larger-scale projects, which are often in the public sector, not being delivered.
We should continue to be vigilant and to watch trends. However, the industry realigns itself from time to time, and we might be going through such a realignment. These figures come at the end of a period of unprecedented and, some would argue, unsustainable growth in the development market. That is something about which we have to be realistic. The industry has a cyclical nature. In a free-market economy, even the Government and — this from an opposition politician — the Executive cannot be expected to alleviate all those woes and improve matters in every case.
I do not have a problem with the motion or with the amendment. However, we need to look more closely at the Programme for Government, and particularly at the investment strategy. If we could deliver on some of the big projects that have been earmarked in that strategy, such as Maze/Long Kesh or the Ilex regeneration scheme, we could provide some comfort to those in the industry — first, by providing jobs to allow people to realign themselves within the sector when they have the appropriate skills; and, secondly, by creating a sense of confidence in the private sector in order that it, too, might be willing to commit its money to planned works. There are many areas in which construction plans are approved, but people are now unwilling to commit their cash because they see those areas as high risk.
If we want young people to continue to see the construction industry as having prospects, we need a sustainable approach when dealing with the industry. Boom and bust cycles have been the biggest weakness in the construction industry. We need to move away from that by taking a measured approach in a period of realignment and by looking at how public-sector investment can even out some of those trends. I will welcome the Minister’s comments on those matters.
Mr Newton: I support the motion. The construction industry is a highly valuable industry for Northern Ireland. The industry has many highly skilled people, it is sustainable, it is local and it offers many career choices to school-leavers. Job losses are a great concern in any industry. The construction industry is one of the largest employers in the Province, with an estimated 84,000 employees, and generates an annual income for the Province of £3·5 billion.
Northern Ireland, in common with much of the United Kingdom, has seen considerable rises in house prices in recent years. That boom has also seen a rise in the number of commercial and residential properties being built, creating many jobs in the construction industry. In recent months, however, we have seen the opposite happening, with a considerable downturn in the property market, especially in the private housing sector. That will, no doubt, have a knock-on effect on the number of people in the industry. According to the Construction Employers Federation, that downturn in market values, along with other economic factors, has the potential to cost hundreds, if not thousands, of jobs in the industry.
As we have seen in the Republic of Ireland, once the infrastructure of a city is complete and the large companies have completed the office blocks, there is, inevitably, a loss of jobs. It is, as has been said, a boom and bust situation. Northern Ireland has seen many buildings going up around the country, especially in Belfast, where the skyline is barely recognisable in comparison to that of five years ago due to a number of new buildings. The new shopping centre in Victoria Square, with its large glass dome dominating the Belfast skyline, is probably the most notable of those. There is a huge potential for five or six high-rise buildings to be constructed in Belfast if we can get a high-rise building policy.
Developers are actively interested in those high-rise buildings.
In my constituency of East Belfast, buildings such as the Holywood Exchange and IKEA have sprung up, although most of IKEA arrived in the back of a lorry. Nevertheless, that added some construction jobs. George Best Belfast City Airport is being extended with an investment of £14 million. One of the largest construction projects in Northern Ireland is under way at the Titanic Quarter, which will result in the creation of hundreds of long-term jobs. Those jobs must go to people in the local area in order to ensure that potential skills are developed for the longer term.
The construction industry is an important employer in Northern Ireland. It is vital for investment to continue to flow in order for the industry to be kept sustainable at its current level. As I said earlier, the slump in the property market will have an effect on the number of houses, but if one were to take a drive around Belfast city centre, it is possible to see the number of commercial developments that are under construction.
I encourage the Minister to consider the huge potential of the Olympics Games in London for construction. In whatever way possible, local construction companies should be encouraged to seek direct, indirect or subcontracting work from the Olympics Games development. The site for the Olympic Games is the biggest building site in Europe, the project has known schedules, its budgets are already established and it has predicted skills shortages. Any assistance that the Minister can provide to assist local companies to compete in that environment and consider work that can be undertaken in Northern Ireland would be beneficial to the construction industry.
Mr Brolly: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I will be brief because my party colleague Mr McElduff covered everything on his solo run. It was reminiscent of the great solo run that he once did when playing for his home club, Carrickmore. He talks about that every day, and I believe him.
Mr Elliott: No one else does. [Laughter.]
Mr Brolly: Today’s situation is made worse by the fact that, for many years, construction workers have been fully employed and highly paid. Young men were leaving my village with newly bought vans that were beautifully inscribed with their names. They went to do dry lining in Dublin, Galway, Donegal and Belfast, and they brought home huge wages. That has created the present difficulty because the work has stopped, and those young men have vans but they have nowhere to go. They do not have the kind of money that they need to pay for the things that they bought when they had a lot of money.
I take a different line on the subject than my friend Mr McElduff and other Members who spoke about statistics. Over the weekend, I visited construction workers and asked them what they felt about the situation. It was only when I spoke to the workers on the ground that I fully appreciated the despondency, insecurity and fear, especially from family men. I spoke to one man in his mother’s house. His sister and his wife were there, and they were keen to let me know how big an effect the downturn in the construction industry was having in the places in which they worked. They both worked in supermarkets — one on the deli counter and the other in general service. The person who worked in general service said that the trolleys that were once overflowing were now half filled.
At the deli, the queues of workers who have rushed out in the morning without breakfast are dwindling. Those are the sort of effects that we must consider.
The construction industry is an umbrella for many other services down along the line. The same fellow told me that the plastering company that his employer uses after building had been completed, initially employed 53 people. At the beginning of last year, that figure was down to 24 and, at the last count, the company employed only five people.
The plastering company would have had various types of vans — expensive vehicles. Indeed, that man told me an interesting story. In the middle of last year, when times were good, a certain van sales company had orders for seven vans from construction industry workers; only one of those vans has been picked up.
He also told me a nice, if sorry, story about a local contractor developer. That contractor was out of work in the run-up to Christmas. He asked his friend, another developer, to let him do a small job for the price of the materials alone. The contractor did that because he did not want to pay off his workers just before Christmas. That gives a picture of the seriousness of the situation in the construction industry.
I appreciate the statistics. Mr McElduff talks to contractors and is close to the situation. Mrs Long was very good on statistics, and her confidence in the continuing existence of a strong building industry is, perhaps, heartening. However, I do not appreciate Mrs Long’s lack of confidence in those of us who live in the rural areas having the capacity to look after the rural areas. We do not need advice from someone from Belfast city.
Mr Gallagher: This is a timely motion, which highlights the growing concerns about job losses in the construction industry. However, I support the amendment because it adds an important all-Ireland dimension, which has a significant contribution to make to the construction industry. The importance of economic co-operation has been highlighted. For example, a recent report from the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference on the all-island economy states:
“The vision must be of an island characterised by a strong competitive and socially inclusive island economy with strong island-wide economic clusters whose development is not impaired by the existence of a political border.”
The basis of an all-Island strategy on transportation is already set out in the regional development strategy in the North, and the national spatial strategy in the South. Co-operation with the Irish Government — for example, on developing roads that have been identified in both strategies — would benefit the entire community in Northern Ireland, and all people on the island. The South’s national development plan contains a North/South chapter to encourage joint governmental work on such initiatives, and to provide funding when projects have been agreed.
The west has a legacy of underinvestment and poor roads infrastructure, and many people there rely heavily on the construction industry for income. That industry, among others, is being squeezed. The manufacturing industry in the west is also on a downward trend and has experienced job losses.
Departments are working with councils in Dungannon, Omagh, Strabane and Fermanagh to help redress, to some extent, the disadvantages that exist in the western region. Useful work is being done to develop business, tourism, training and other cross-border initiatives.
The joint aspiration of the British and Irish Governments is to deliver balanced regional development, which is vital to the economy. However, there can be no development in the west until the key transport corridors from Derry to Dublin and Belfast to Sligo are in place. With increased co-operation comes potential EU investment in regional development, and therefore tremendous opportunities exist to improve key roads and open up the west for economic development. Water, the environment and waste management are also important factors in economic development.
Investment would make a tremendous impact on research and development, and it would be good for the economy in the west. The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, who is in the Chamber, told me that Invest Northern Ireland is committed to exploring North/South co-operation on the establishment of facilities for research and development and industry-led competency centres.
The amendment highlights the importance of key stakeholders, and I commend the private developers who have played a significant role in advancing North/South co-operation. Often, they have been ahead of the politicians in that respect, and they have made a fundamental difference. The Strategic Investment Board and InterTradeIreland, which is the North/South body that was set up to improve cross-border trade, can also play an important role in linking investment strategies across the border. They can help to lever additional funding, thus stimulating economic growth for the benefit of everyone.
Mr Speaker: I remind Members that the business on the Order Paper will continue beyond 6.00 pm. In accordance with Standing Order 10(3), I will allow business to continue until 7.00 pm or until the outstanding business is completed.
Mr Boylan: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Éirím le labhairt i bhfabhar an rúin agus an leasaithe.
I thought that you were going to tell me to be brief for the second time today. Go raibh maith agat.
I support the motion and the amendment. I am pleased to speak to the motion, and I thank my colleagues for introducing it to the Chamber. The construction industry is, undoubtedly, experiencing a downturn, and action is required to stem the rising number of people who are once again leaving our shores to seek work elsewhere. People were led to believe that that scenario was a thing of the past, but tell that to the tradesmen, tradeswomen and labourers who are leaving their families behind to go to England, Scotland and America. Many of them are from my large rural constituency of Newry and Armagh, including some from my hometown of Keady. The Assembly must address this matter urgently to save not only those who work in the construction industry, but the businesses affected by the downturn.
According to the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, growth in construction work has fallen to its lowest level for more than 10 years. Some reasons for the downturn are beyond the control of Members, but we can influence others. The long-foreseen fall in house prices, exacerbated by the global credit crunch, is a major part of the problem, but it is not the only cause of the crisis in the construction industry.
It is time for some of the Assembly’s Ministers and their Departments to step up to the plate and help to address the situation. In particular, I call on the Minister for Social Development to fulfil her pledge to deliver social-housing projects. She cried out that she wanted to be shown the money, and her Assembly colleagues have delivered. Now she must show us the houses.
The Minister of the Environment must ensure that the issues surrounding draft PPS 14 are resolved, as she has said they will be, over the coming weeks and months. A satisfactory outcome will allow many projects to proceed and ease the pressure on rural construction companies.
I have been approached by such companies, which believe that the present situation is slowly killing their businesses; they have laid off skilled and experienced workers as work has dried up. The Minister of the Environment must also address the overstretched planning services. Although I recognise that the Minister is committed to an overhaul of planning, she must find resources to ensure that planning applications — including areas plans, which are the mechanism for zoning land for development — are dealt with quickly and professionally.
Too many construction workers are kicking their heels waiting for straightforward planning applications to be approved; all Ministers must address that matter. The Office of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister must address the issue of applications awaiting decision by the Planning Appeals Commission. Furthermore, I urge the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure to make a positive decision on the proposed stadium, associated infrastructure and development at the Long Kesh site.
In conclusion, I emphasise to the Minister of Finance and Personnel and the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment that thousands of workers in the construction industry are relying on the leadership of the Assembly to offer solutions to the construction industry’s predicament. We must ensure that we stem the flow of Irish workers to other shores and prevent skilled workers leaving the industry. To achieve that, we must ensure that projects and developments are available to generate work. I hope that the Minister will influence his Executive colleagues to deal with the construction industry crisis. Although Naomi Long thinks differently, I believe that it should be considered a crisis when people leave home to seek employment. At a time when we hope for serious economic regeneration in the North, the collapse of this essential industry could have serious consequences. Go raibh maith agat.
The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Mr Dodds): My colleague Mr Peter Robinson, the Minister of Finance and Personnel, has key responsibilities in this area; he is chairperson of the procurement board and has responsibility for managing the interface between Government and the construction industry. I am pleased to respond to the debate, and, as several Members indicated, all Ministers and Departments must make an important contribution to supporting the construction industry.
I thank every Member who participated. Some contributions were balanced, highlighting the cyclical nature of these situations; others were more cataclysmic. We must examine the issue in its context and recognise that many of the problems are driven by forces beyond the control of Governments — especially of a devolved Government.
Our vision is of a vibrant, competitive construction industry in Northern Ireland that is capable of delivering the investment strategy. The construction industry delivers buildings and infrastructure for the public and private sector and has experienced sustained growth over the past number of years. In 2003, the construction industry produced a total output of £2·5 billion with a workforce of more than 64,000. In 2007, the workforce was more than 75,000, and, although the 2007 figures are not yet available, in 2006 the estimated value of construction output was £3·25 billion — the equivalent of 12·3% of gross value added.
Those figures illustrate the fact that construction is one of the largest industries in Northern Ireland. Through the construction industry forum, key stakeholders in the industry recently raised concerns about a slowdown in sections of the industry. They expressed concern about the effect of the downturn in the housing market, which has been mentioned during the debate.
That is important because the housing market represents in excess of 40% of the total turnover of the construction industry. Therefore, any downturn in demand for house-building and renovation has the potential to have a major impact. The Construction Employers Federation has also advised the Central Procurement Directorate that its ‘State of Trade’ summary for the fourth quarter of 2007 also shows a downward trend: 48% of firms predict a downturn in workload over the next 12 months.
Sustained investment in infrastructure is absolutely crucial to the future of Northern Ireland and necessary to transform the Province into a successful, competitive regional economy with high-quality public services. The public sector represents about 40% of the total turnover of the industry. Government spending on construction has effectively doubled over recent years: in 2003-04, total public-sector spending on construction was £676 million; in 2007-08 it is expected to exceed £1·2 billion. I appreciate the points that Members have made about certain projects and programmes, which they claim to be slow and so on. However, when one considers the effective doubling of Government expenditure on construction over four years, it puts into perspective the sort of investment that has been made over that period.
The good news about the future is that the level of public-sector spending is to increase significantly with the investment strategy for 2008-11 and beyond. The investment strategy sets out the Government’s infrastructure investment proposals, which offer an unprecedented opportunity for the construction industry. The 10-year strategy was agreed by the Assembly in January, and Departments have now been tasked to deliver capital investment of £1·8 billion in this financial year, £1·7 billion in 2009-10 and £2 billion in 2010-11. Most of that investment will relate to construction projects, and it represents a step increase over recent allocations and a real opportunity for the construction industry.
Government is also funding Constructing Excellence in Northern Ireland for a three-year period. That centre of excellence, based at the University of Ulster at Jordanstown, supports all sectors of the construction industry. It provides the local industry with a valuable knowledge base to help it stay ahead of the competition. It forms a unique bridge between industry, clients, consultants, Government and education, and aims to assist the industry to address challenges and deliver improved performance.
In my area of responsibility as Enterprise Minister, Invest Northern Ireland actively encourages client companies operating in the construction industry and its supply chains to pursue additional opportunities.
Several Members have mentioned the opportunities in the construction sector and how companies might make the best of them. One of those mentioned by Robin Newton was the 2012 Olympics, to be held in London. That is important. The current focus of the construction industry and Invest Northern Ireland is the opportunity arising from the CompeteFor portal. Invest Northern Ireland provides information on an ongoing basis to client companies on opportunities arising from Olympics 2012. I have been involved in some activities connected with that, and there is great potential in it.
Other Members mentioned the national development plan in the Irish Republic. That, too, offers opportunities for companies in Northern Ireland to take advantage of the investment in infrastructure in the Irish Republic.
Invest Northern Ireland’s construction clients are also encouraged to promote their capabilities through participation in its ongoing programme of international trade missions. Additional opportunities exist in sustainable construction, research and development and specialist product provision, such as the global hard-build security market.
Issues and problems do exist. Several Members mentioned delays in the planning system and how those are of particular concern at the present time. All of us are aware of those issues. The Planning Service continues to face considerable operational pressures, primarily due to the sustained high number of applications over recent years — approximately 27,000 a year — however, steps are being taken to address those pressures.
Steps must be taken in the short-term, medium-term and long-term, through the comprehensive programme of planning reform that the Minister of the Environment announced last year. I am sure that all Members want to see that programme being progressed to ensure that the Planning Service is properly reformed so that work is streamlined and decisions are made.
Some Members also mentioned smaller, local firms as compared with large national or international consortia. Government policy is to encourage small- and medium-sized enterprises to form consortia and/or seek opportunities in supply chains. I am pleased to note that concerns among the industry that firms here would be excluded on the grounds of size appear to be unfounded.
For example, the concern that Northern Ireland firms would be excluded from appointment to the central procurement directorate’s framework for the procurement of public sector construction projects has not been realised. Four of the five integrated supply teams are based in Northern Ireland, and the other has a headquarters in Cork and an office in Belfast. Each of the firms employs a wide range of subcontractors and designers, many of whom are locally based.
The investment strategy represents an unprecedented level of co-ordination and co-operation across the Executive. It also provides an opportunity to integrate a wide range of social, economic and environmental issues through the procurement process. I am therefore confident that the delivery of the investment strategy will contribute to a sustainable construction industry over the long term — an industry that is capable of delivering the twenty-first century infrastructure that is needed to enable the Government to deliver public services throughout Northern Ireland.
As Naomi Long said, it is important that we do not talk ourselves into a crisis or into an overly pessimistic view of the situation. When we consider the historical context — where the construction industry was previously and where it is now — then it is true that things are not as good as they were over the last three or four years. However, it is important to note that the scale of investment now being made in the public sector represents an unprecedented opportunity, and I firmly believe that we will be able to see our way though all of this.
Francie Brolly, the Member for East Londonderry, mentioned particular examples of how the current situation impacts on individuals and their families. As I have said in previous debates, we always need to be conscious of the fact that we are talking about real people, real families and real firms that are made up of employees who are worried about their future. Certainly, it is sometimes easy in these debates to start talking about statistics and suchlike, and to leave the personal aspect out of the debate. Statistics can be manipulated in many ways, but I prefer to approach the issues by considering the objective facts, and those facts must be provided. However, it is important to be reminded that there are real people out there with fears, worries and concerns, and to make it clear that we care about that and are seen to address those issues. We cannot solve all the problems, but at least we are considering the issues. That is one of the values of a forum such as the Assembly, where issues can be raised and debated, and people know that that is happening and that some action is being taken to try to deal with those issues. That should give those people some reassurance.
The Construction Industry Forum for Northern Ireland already provides a strategically focused interface between representatives from Government and construction industry stakeholders. The forum is chaired by officials from the Department of Finance and Personnel; it facilitates discussion on key issues in the industry, and it is uniquely placed to explore what further strategies might be put in place to sustain jobs in the industry. I will ask the Minister of Finance and Personnel to ensure that the concerns that have been expressed in today’s debate, as well as those that have been expressed previously by representatives of the industry, are discussed at the next scheduled meeting of the forum, in June. I will also ask him to request an update from the Central Procurement Directorate after that meeting.
It is clear that effective working relationships in the Executive are already providing unprecedented opportunities for the construction industry. We will continue to work with the industry, through the Construction Industry Forum for Northern Ireland, in order to realise the vision of a sustainable construction industry in Northern Ireland that can demonstrate truly world-class standards and compete in the global market.
Mr O’Loan: We are in a serious situation, and the published figures do not fully reflect that situation. To that degree, I disagree with one or two of the Members who spoke, including Naomi Long. As many of us know, the figures have not caught up with the reality of what is happening in the construction industry.
The problems particularly relate to house building. Two issues have combined. Recent price rises were probably unsustainable, and at some point they were going to fall back, which was always going to cause a fall in confidence leading to some degree of slowdown. Simultaneously, the major international credit crunch also led to a huge crisis of confidence.
Mrs Long: It seems that when a Member makes balanced comments in the Chamber, often only half of them are heard. I hope that the Member will accept that I reflected the fact that the two factors that he just mentioned are currently at work, and causing problems. I was saying that we do not want to talk the industry into further crisis.
Mr Speaker: Mr O’Loan, you will have an extra minute in which to speak.
Mr O’Loan: I also intend to provide some balance in my remarks. We cannot talk about the situation in the construction industry without reference to house-building. There is stagnation in house construction, which I know from talking to people who work in that industry. There are enormous consequences for developers, on whom the industry depends, and there are heavy consequences for building workers.
Undoubtedly, jobs have evaporated. Some anecdotal evidence was provided by Francie Brolly and Cathal Boylan. To provide yet another anecdote, I know of one person who travels everyday from Kilkeel to beyond Ballymena because that is the only place where he can get a bricklaying job. When he went for a job in his local area, he was told that he was the sixtieth person to enquire about it. Building workers are going abroad — some countries were mentioned earlier — and I have heard of workers who are seeking work in Australia, where, apparently, some jobs are available.
I agree that it is important not to talk ourselves down. There are real grounds for confidence in the future. The regional development strategy, Shaping Our Future, stated that 160,000 new homes are required by 2015, some of which have already been built, with more to come.
The Executive recently published figures that show that the number of households in Northern Ireland is projected to grow by 48,500, or 7%, between 2006 and 2011. All those households will need a home. The financial markets will sort themselves out. The recent issue of bonds by the British Government and the Bank of England will help to create confidence.
It is also important to realise that there is no slowdown in the public-housing sector. There has been some falsification of the facts in respect of that issue. Last year, the target was 600 new homes, but there were 1,595 housing starts. The Executive and the Minister for Social Development remain committed to 1,500, 1,750 and 2000 houses being built in the three-year Budget period. That is substantial.
As others have stated, the construction industry is wider than simply the housing sector. The £18 billion investment strategy will be a huge boost to our civil engineering and broader building industry. Part of the investment will come from the Republic of Ireland’s national development plan, which Tommy Gallagher rightly referred to. Our amendment is aimed at setting the whole issue in that context.
The co-ownership issue was also needlessly and wrongly represented by a number of Members, including Barry McElduff and Roy Beggs.
The contribution of finance to co-ownership housing has increased hugely over the last two years. The Executive are spending big in that area, because 500 houses will be delivered this year, at £100,000 per house. It is also important to recognise that co-ownership does not make a huge contribution to the construction industry — only 12·5% of co-ownership dwellings are newbuilds; 87·5% are existing dwellings. It would be as well to use facts when issues are debated; we would get a good deal further.
Some Members made very useful and significant contributions, and I will probably not do justice to those. I appreciated Jim Shannon’s confidence in the skills of the industry and the competence of our firms. It will be that competence that will win them contracts. Robin Newton made a number of interesting points, and I agree with him about the exploration of building a number of high-rise buildings in Belfast. I also agree that the Titanic Quarter could make a contribution, and there will be scope for both firms and individual workers in relation to the Olympic Games construction issue.
I appreciate that our amendment has been accepted by the proposers of the motion, and it is an issue on which this Assembly can agree.
Mr P Maskey: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I am very pleased with how the debate went today. Many of the contributions made during the debate were very positive and realistic about what can be done and what cannot. I disagree with Francie Brolly on the facts and figures. A number of members of Sinn Féin met industry representatives over recent days and weeks regarding the number of employees who have lost their jobs in the last six months. They estimated that between 1,200 and 1,500 people have lost their jobs in the industry.
That is a statistic that should be highlighted, because we have to ensure that no more jobs are lost in the sector. A number of other employers have talked about putting their staff on four-day weeks. That has a large knock-on effect, and not only for the construction industry. Every year, its 85,000 employees bring £3·2 billion into the industry.
We can blame the fall in house prices on a number of issues. Some developers may have bought land last year and paid a high price for it. Prices have fallen this year, so those developers could be holding on to that land, banking on the price increasing again before building on it, in order to get some of their money back. The industry must address that issue. House prices have fallen by between 10% and 30% in recent months, and that has a massive impact on the industry.
What we are trying to do — via the motion and the amendment — is move the debate on, and to look very positively at ways in which the Executive can help. I heard people say today that the Executive have very limited control over what they can do, but I disagree. If details were published as to when the capital programmes will go online, the industry could prepare for the day when those capital programmes begin.
Barry McElduff said that 70% of the construction industry is self-employed. That is a key statistic that Mr Brolly perhaps did not recognise. That shows that there are many small employers, and this decline has a massive effect on them. Many of the larger employers are now doing more extensions and refurbishments — which means that local tradespeople are losing out on that work.
Mrs Long: Am I to assume, because the Member is having a go at Francie Brolly, that he took exception to Mr Brolly’s remarks about us town-dwellers giving advice about anything in this Chamber?
Mr P Maskey: As a townie myself, I will not go into that argument. Francie is a very good friend of mine.
Barry McElduff asked why so little social housing has been built. Even before the present Minister for Social Development took office — and this is not an attack on any Minister; it is merely a fact — between October 2006 and December 2007 in Antrim, Armagh, Ballymena, Ballymoney, Carrickfergus, Castlereagh, Coleraine, Cookstown, Craigavon, Down, Dungannon, Fermanagh, Larne, Limavady, Magherafelt, Omagh and Strabane not one social-housing dwelling was built. That is shocking. As Cathal Boylan said, the Minister has been shown the money, now she must build houses. However, some of the problems began long before the Minister for Social Development took office. Nevertheless, in all the areas that I mentioned, not one social-housing dwelling was built in the last couple of years.
Mr O’Loan: Sinn Féin scriptwriters must have a note reminding their Members to have a go at the Social Development Minister whenever they make a speech. I presented the facts clearly about the social housing that has been built and that which the Executive, including Ministers from the Member’s party, are committed to delivering over the next three years. That was fact, and anything else is simply waffle that is intended to distract.
Mr P Maskey: I was not reading from a script; I was quoting facts from a DSD document. Perhaps Declan would like to have a look at the facts and figures in it.
I said that because Ministers and the Executive must introduce proposals. As I said before, billions of pounds are available for capital works through the investment strategy, for example. Construction is a massive industry, and we have an enormous amount of money that we can use to help the industry to progress; however, we must allow the industry to plan for that. We must ensure that we are given timetables and commitments. That applies not only to DSD; other Departments must do the same thing. That is very important.
Barry McElduff mentioned the Maze/Long Kesh site, and development there would create thousands of jobs; there would be opportunities for apprenticeships and employers. Building the multi-purpose stadium there could create up to 10,000 jobs. If we do not make a decision on that in the early stages, we will be throwing an opportunity away.
Alasdair McDonnell said that we were creating the opportunities for others to create employment, and he went on to talk about the global credit crunch. The credit crunch is a fact. Some lenders are charging people 2% just to take out a mortgage, because it does not suit them to lend money. First-time buyers — and even those with properties to sell — who wish to borrow £100,000 will be charged £2,000 simply to buy into a mortgage, which is disgraceful. Some mortgage lenders ought to be ashamed of themselves; they should be trying to help us to find a way out of the present situation.
Jim Shannon mentioned PPS 14 and the fact that we need a new planning strategy, and he is 100% right. For example, in the Dublin docklands, planning applications can be turned around in six weeks. However, even after consultation with the local community, builders and developers to ensure that the best planning application goes forward, applications can take up to three years to process here. That is a disgrace. Why would a developer waste time, effort and money to apply for planning, when it might cost him more money in the future?
Roy Beggs said that we have seen record growth in recent years. However, there has been a downturn. We listened to the industry, and we met representatives of the Construction Employers Federation last week, who said that, according to their figures, about 1,500 people have lost their jobs. We must acknowledge that, despite recent record growth in the industry, we must now start to stem job losses. More important, not only must we sustain the jobs that exist, we must create more, and we have ample opportunity to do that.
Naomi Long said that she worked in the construction industry for 10 years before she was elected to the Assembly — I am not sure which was the more difficult. Perhaps she will tell us sometime.
Robin Newton mentioned the 2012 Olympic Games and the potential for high-rise buildings in Belfast. If our stadium is up and running in time for the Olympic Games, we could host some events. We are losing out on all sorts of opportunities by slowing down the process and not making decisions as fast as we should.
Francie Brolly talked about people who buy new vans when they start out in business; they drive all over the place in their vans on which their names are displayed. However, they do not have any work to go to now. The Assembly must examine that situation carefully. It is unfair that people who have invested in business opportunities, for example, have no jobs.
Tommy Gallagher correctly mentioned the all-island context, which is important. We are an island, and we have to compete with each other for business, but we should also share our experiences and workloads to enable all people on the island to have a fair share of work. The North can benefit greatly if we take that approach and, thus, Sinn Féin will support the amendment.
Cathal Boylan talked about the people who have to go elsewhere in search of work. A core part of the argument is that everyone thought that we would never again see people leaving our shores to look for work. It is sad to see that happening. The Assembly must put all its efforts into ensuring that the people who are trained to deliver and build for our future remain here.
I know that I am running out of time, but I want to comment on what the Minister said.
Mr Speaker: The Member’s time is up.
Question, That the amendment be made, put and negatived.
Main Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly notes with concern the job losses in the construction industry in recent times; and calls on the Minister of Finance and Personnel to establish a working relationship with all his Executive colleagues and key stakeholders from the industry to devise a strategy aimed at creating further opportunities and sustaining jobs in this sector.
Adjourned at 6.37 pm.