Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern IReland assembly

Tuesday 22 April 2008

Speaker’s Business

Executive Committee Business:
Taxis Bill: Royal Assent
Local Government (Boundaries) Bill: Second Stage
Commission for Victims and Survivors Bill: Consideration Stage

Assembly Business

Private Members’ Business:
Graduated Driving Licensing

Private Members’ Business:
Schengen Agreement

Interfaces in North Belfast

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

Members observed two minutes’ silence.

Speaker’s Business

Mr Speaker: I inform Members that I will be absent from the Assembly on Monday 28 April, when I will be in Cardiff to attend a meeting of Presiding Officers.

Executive Committee Business

Taxis Bill

Royal Assent

Mr Speaker: I inform Members that the Taxis Bill has received Royal Assent. The Taxis Act (Northern Ireland) 2008 became law on 21 April 2008.

Local Government (Boundaries) Bill

Second Stage

The Minister of the Environment (Mrs Foster): I beg to move

That the Second Stage of the Local Government (Boundaries) Bill [NIA 14/07] be agreed.

The Bill is the first step towards implementing the Executive’s decision on those elements of the review of public administration (RPA) that concern local government.

As Members are aware, the Executive have decided that 11 is the best configuration for councils in Northern Ireland. That figure will provide the optimal grouping of current councils by striking a balance between reducing some of the diversity among existing areas, such as population characteristics and rating wealth, and promoting the ability of councils and their communities to identify and interact with one other.

As I said yesterday, I intend to implement the agreed structural reforms by 2011. For practical and logistical reasons, accelerated passage is needed in order to secure the appointment of a Local Government Boundaries Commissioner in early July 2008, which is essential if the 2011 deadline is to be met. Much discussion took place on that yesterday, and I appreciate the support that my colleagues in the Assembly and on the Committee for the Environment gave to the motion on accelerated passage.

The Bill’s purpose is to set the context for a review of local government boundaries in Northern Ireland in 2008 and to provide for the appointment of a Local Government Boundaries Commissioner to conduct that review.

That is the first step towards the reorganisation of our local government.

The Bill gives effect to the Executive’s decisions of 13 March 2008. It has six clauses, two of which are substantive. Clause 1 provides for the rationalisation of the existing 26 local government districts into 11 new districts. It sets those new districts’ broad boundaries by joining together

“the whole or the major part”

of the existing districts to form new larger local govern­ment districts and divides those districts into wards.

Clause 2 provides for the appointment of a Local Government Boundaries Commissioner in 2008 to conduct a review and make recommendation on the boundaries and names of the 11 local districts, and the number, boundaries and names of the wards into which each district is to be divided. The clause also allows for a review of boundaries to take place every eight to 12 years thereafter. It is important that those reviews happen, because, in the past, we have been left with static boundaries for decades.

Clause 2 also provides for the new district of Belfast to be divided into 60 wards, with the other 10 districts being divided into 40 wards. However, the commissioner will be given flexibility to vary the number of wards in any district by not more than five. The other four clauses cover consequential amendments and repeals, interpretation, commencement and the Bill’s short title. The Bill is, therefore, quite short.

The Bill does not change in any way the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner’s procedures. The long-established principle of independence from central Government will be retained, and the commissioner will be required to undertake full public consultation. After consultation on provisional proposals, the commissioner’s final recommendations will be laid before the House. Hopefully, that will occur next year. At that point, there will be an opportunity for a full and frank debate before the recommendations become law.

Agreement on the Bill will allow me to appoint a Local Government Boundaries Commissioner to commence work immediately. I anticipate that the review will take up to 12 months. It will then be for a commissioner appointed by the Secretary of State to group the new wards into district electoral areas (DEAs) to enable elections to be held. That will further prolong the process, so that is one of the reasons why we must consider the Bill under the accelerated passage procedure.

The Bill is an important step in modernising and reforming local government in Northern Ireland. Reorganisation will result in stronger local government with enhanced functions and will provide for more effective delivery of local public services.

To summarise, the Local Government (Boundaries) Bill marks the end of the process of deliberation on the number of councils. It is now time to start the process for introducing and implementing new council structures. Therefore, without further delay, I proceed to the debate.

Mr Ross: I am glad that we have finally reached the stage at which legislation can be introduced. We can now set about the task of rejuvenating, rationalising and modernising local government in the Province. The review of public administration was launched in 2002 during the Assembly’s first mandate. That was a long time ago, and an assertion could be made that, all of a sudden, we are rushing a Bill through. However, I hope that that is happening because Members want the issue to be resolved.

Local government is such an important form of local democracy. For many years, it was the only directly accountable form of democracy for the people of Northern Ireland. It is important that we move forward and ensure that the system of local government is brought up to date and that the new councils, with new powers, will complement what will be, it is to be hoped, a new stable and permanent Assembly at Stormont.

During yesterday’s debate on accelerated passage — despite numerous warnings from the Speaker — Members strayed on to the subject of the Bill’s content. In many ways, that debate acted as a warm-up for today’s debate. Members on the Ulster Unionist Benches mentioned numerous times that the DUP had wanted 15 councils, and they questioned when that view had changed. Perhaps those Members should read our 2007 manifesto, which states our clear commitment to getting the review of public administration right. Yesterday, many Members from all sides of the House used the phrase “getting it right”. I am glad that they adopted the DUP’s election slogan. In our manifesto, we welcomed improvements that would streamline local government and reduce bureaucracy, but we rejected the assertion from direct rule Ministers that there should be seven super-councils. That would have weakened local government and made it more remote. Our party made a clear commitment to replace the seven-council model with a more appropriate number of councils, but nowhere in our manifesto did we state that there should be 11, 15 or any other number of councils.

In politics, certain decisions have to be made, and the assertions made yesterday by the Ulster Unionists and others that there was a choice between having 11 councils and 15 councils is totally bogus. The choice was between having seven councils and 11 councils: I prefer 11 any day.

Now that the issue of the number of councils has been resolved, the Assembly can get on with the job of establishing new, more powerful and more effective local government. I welcome the Assembly’s granting of accelerated passage yesterday — we have stalled and deliberated enough. As was mentioned yesterday, it is disappointing that some Members chose to oppose everything just for the sake of opposition, and others spoke of problems when there were none. I look forward to the Second Stage of the Bill progressing, and to the Minister’s appointment of a boundaries commissioner at the beginning of the summer to consider the new boundaries and consult with the community over those proposals.

Members will be able to argue their cases regarding boundaries, and no doubt some, as usual, will not be satisfied with the outcomes. At least, Members know from previous statements by the Minister that there will be checks and balances and that protections will exist for minorities — both unionists in the west and nationalists in the east. This should be welcomed. I support the Bill.

Mr Boylan: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom labhairt i bhfabhar an rúin. I may get a chance to say a few more words today than I did yesterday. Mr Ford and Mr Gardiner said every­thing yesterday, and I would like to hear what they have to say today. Are they going to repeat themselves?

Sinn Féin has little interest in giving enhanced powers to local councils unless they are accompanied by appropriate checks and balances to avoid discriminatory practices. Equality and fairness must be enshrined in any future legislation for the new structures.

As a former member of Armagh City and District Council, I and my constituents have concerns as we have been linked with Craigavon and Banbridge and will be a nationalist minority in a new council. The decision has been made, and equality and fairness is the key. If that hurdle is overcome, then the serious business of co-ordinating public bodies can begin. The review of public administration, if properly implemented, will strengthen local politics; enable it to make real improvements in the quality of life for all; and enhance service delivery.

The Executive have agreed that the first step will be to allow a local boundaries commissioner to be appointed to review the present boundaries and establish the broad boundaries of the new 11-council model. That review should not be a carve-up, as others have commented; it should be a real opportunity to serve the interests of the general public by making public services more efficient.

Accelerated passage of the Bill should not be used as a political point-scoring exercise — it will make no difference to the outcome — it will only delay the inevitable. The Assembly has been running for a year, and people want to see real decisions being made, not continue to listen to sound bites from self-proclaimed opposition parties. It is imperative that legislation is not held up any longer. We should ensure that the new local government structures will be in place in the time frame envisaged by the Minister and her Executive colleagues. Not to do so would be an affront to the electorate who have put us in the positions that we hold.

Although others in the Chamber have concerns about the scrutiny role, it should be emphasised that the Committee of the Environment and the Members in the Chamber will be able to scrutinise the outcome of this Bill and future Bills relating to the review — that will ensure that the checks and balances are made. Let us get the process started. I welcome the Bill, and hope it will be the first step in delivering real change in the years ahead. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Beggs: I declare an interest as a member of Carrickfergus Borough Council. This Bill is the culmination of a long-standing RPA process that began in 2001. The long-standing goals were to renew and strengthen the role of local government, and to restore the powers and parities of our local government with that in the rest of the United Kingdom. The Ulster Unionist Party welcomes that. The Local Government (Boundaries) Bill sets out the legislative foundation for this important work, and my party’s position on accelerated passage was clearly stated yesterday.

As this Bill will result in long-term changes and will have implications for many decades, it is important that there should be proper consultation to get things right, rather than rush the Bill through the House.

I will now take the limited opportunity available to comment on the Bill and provide some degree of scrutiny.

The Bill presupposes the validity and correctness of a local government authority model that is based on having 11 local government units for Northern Ireland. Needless to say, the Ulster Unionist Party has reservations about that model. Members said earlier that the choice was between seven councils and 11 councils. However, there was also a 15-council option. Therefore, it is wrong to say that the only choice was between seven and 11 councils when the preferred option could easily have been 15 councils.

10.45 am

The Ulster Unionist Party’s chief concern is whether the 11 local government units adequately reflect the local identities and communities of Northern Ireland. It is for that reason that party members have consistently suggested that local government boundaries should be based on Westminster parliamentary units, which would provide a more appropriate form of local government. I remind Members that, in their submissions to the fifth periodical review of parliamentary constituencies — the report of 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.

It is essential that local people have an affinity with local government and identify with it so that they can participate and contribute to it. The somewhat abstract nature of the 11 units that are being proposed is not likely to engender that sense of affinity and identity. It is paramount that local government has the buy-in of local people. There is a real danger that the proposed model of 11 local authorities will overlap with, and become enveloped by, the 15 parliamentary units — the four Belfast constituencies combined into one and the other 14 constituencies. That will cause confusion and breed apathy among the electorate in Northern Ireland.

This entire process set out to strengthen and rejuvenate local government, but there is a danger that, under the proposed model, people may lose interest in, and affinity with, their local councillors and institutions. They may deem that local government has become remote and less responsive to their needs. That would undermine role of local government as a strong force for local democracy and cohesion. Over the last 20 and 30 years, local forums have become a very important way for local people to reflect their views and ensure that they are being represented locally. Moving further away from that process presents real dangers, and I know that many Members share that view.

I want to comment on the proposals from a local constituency point of view, as I am a councillor on Carrickfergus Borough Council. The proposals involve linking the councils in Carrickfergus, Larne and Ballymena. It is likely that the main services would subsequently be centred in Ballymena. The difficulty is that there are very poor transport links between Carrickfergus and Ballymena. Therefore, people from Carrickfergus would have to take a 10-mile detour through Larne or alternatively drive almost to Belfast to join the motorway and travel to Ballymena via Mallusk. Those poor transport links mean that the centre of local government would not be easily accessible to the people.

There is a range of other reasons why Ballymena does not link naturally with Larne and Carrickfergus. As regards transport links, it would have been much better if Larne, Carrickfergus and Newtownabbey had been linked together, and that would have fitted in with the proposal for 15 councils. If there had to be a model of 11 councils, it would have made much more sense to have included Larne, Carrickfergus and Newtownabbey councils in one council area. The rail links and the main roads pass through those three council areas.

Mr Weir: Will the Member give way?

Mr Beggs: I will not give way at the moment. The Member will have an opportunity to speak later.

There would be natural transport links for that area. If there had to be 11 councils, perhaps Larne, Carrickfergus and Newtownabbey could have formed one of those 11 councils. Ballymena is closer geographically to Antrim than it is to Larne and Carrickfergus. I do not know what sort of deal happened behind the scenes that is not part of public scrutiny. Sinn Féin and the DUP agreed that particular model of 11 councils and did not allow the necessary public scrutiny and consultation to take place.

There are also important natural cultural links in the East Antrim area that the proposal does not fully recognise.

The natural identities of locations are an important aspect of local government, and natural ties should be preserved.

As a Boys Brigade officer, I am part of the East Antrim battalion. As a result of the local government boundary commission review, part of that battalion may now be linked to Ballymena, while the other part may be split off to be based elsewhere. I am also a member of the Orange Order, which has an east Antrim combine that naturally links the people of the area. That is also being broken up by the proposed 11-council arrange­ment that was agreed between Sinn Féin and the DUP.

It is disappointing that natural geographic and cultural linkages have been pushed aside. I am therefore interested to hear why Sinn Féin and the DUP decided to split Newtownabbey from Larne and Carrickfergus but added Ballymena.

That is an important matter, because in the future, more powers will be granted to local government. For example, the new district police headquarters will move from Larne and Carrickfergus to Ballymena. A range of other services will be become centred in Ballymena, and people will increasingly have to travel to avail themselves of them. I can talk only about my knowledge of changes in my local area, but I feel that it would have been healthier to debate in detail all the other proposed changes during a Committee Stage.

I am sure that improvements could have been possible. However, sadly, we find ourselves in the situation where accelerated passage is being used to progress the process speedily. More timely proposals could have been made in the past year, and there could have been detailed discussions and consultations. Why has that year been lost? Discussions and consultation could have brought about an improved, long-term change to local government in Northern Ireland to the benefit of all our citizens and ratepayers.

Mr Ford: I support the Bill at this Stage, and I am sure that that will doubtless bring some relief to Members of the DUP. It is clear that we need to reform local government. However, many issues remain to be resolved. Indeed, Mr Beggs and Mr Boylan outlined some of those issues when they discussed accelerated passage being granted to the Bill yesterday.

Unlike Mr Boylan, however, I do not intend to repeat yesterday’s speech about accelerated passage. The House has made its decision, and it is therefore incumbent upon all Members to make the Bill workable and to make the significant improvements to it that I believe are necessary.

Furthermore, there has been no convincing argument as to why model 11b is the preferred option. There was no separate or individual consultation on it, and it was never treated as the preferred option until the Executive decided just before Easter to adopt it. The use of that model raises serious issues about boundaries, and Roy Beggs referred to some of those, which is significant for me because I have a similar constituency interest to him.

Speaking as a councillor for Antrim Borough Council and as an MLA for all of Antrim and two thirds of Newtownabbey, I can say that putting Antrim and Newtownabbey together is logical. However, the result of that is the ludicrous grouping of Ballymena, Larne and Carrickfergus into one council area. That area can be crossed only by either entering Newtownabbey — people do not quite have to go into Belfast to reach the motorway — or by crossing one of the worst roads in Northern Ireland, which is frequently closed in winter. That proposal does not seem to have any degree of logic or community coherence.

There would have been merit in examining some of the individual decisions that were made. I am not just referring to what I said yesterday about Newry and Mourne and Down being extended enormously and the fact that that extension will create communication problems; the use of model 11b has resulted in several issues not lying easily together, which should not be the case if we want a pattern of local government that is strong, coherent, logical and easily recognised by the people who live there.

Other wider issues must be addressed. Throughout the whole RPA process there was much talk of coterminosity. However, we have now reached a situation whereby each of the five health and social services trusts will have cross-boundary issues to deal with. Once we moved away from the discredited model of seven councils, we were never going to have one-to-one coterminosity on such issues.

However, it has reached the point where there will not even be simple one-to-two or one-to-three coterminosity between health trusts and district councils. There is a complete amalgam across that. The fact that the Police Service took the unfortunate, premature decision to adopt the wrong model of eight districts, which was driven by its need to rationalise its management structures, has created further cross-boundary difficulties that will add to ongoing problems. It is unrealistic to say that those issues will be resolved by the Bill as it currently stands. Indeed, it may be impossible to amend the Bill in order to create logical boundaries. The Minister must re-examine the issues.

To specify in the list of the proposed 11 councils the whole or larger part of each of the 26 councils that is listed as falling inside one or other of them may not be a rational way to proceed. I did not approve of the previous notion of the Jeff Rooker-memorial “bent banana” district council that hovered round the north and west of Belfast, and I am not sure that Arlene Foster’s modified “bent banana” district council of Lisburn and Castlereagh, which hovers round the south and east of the city, is any better. There are problems with how that will be dealt with if the legislation continues to specify that the major part of Castlereagh must be joined with the major part of Lisburn. The issue would have merited discussion, which the Assembly has not been able to have. It will have to be resolved in the House in the coming weeks, although that will now be difficult. The Alliance Party will seek to produce amendments that will make some improvements to that procedure. Unlike others, the Alliance Party is prepared to put its amendments before the House and have them tested to see whether they attract support.

There are also concerns about procedures. The Minister has emphasised that the boundaries commiss­ioner’s work is part of long-standing established procedures. However, those procedures are the same as the ones that were used by the previous boundaries commissioner to draw up the boundaries for the seven, now non-existent, proposed districts, which resulted in some most peculiar boundaries.

In one case, a rural ward was created in North Down that managed to span the edges of four towns. In my area, an illogically stretched ward took in a housing estate on the edge of Randalstown and a housing estate on the edge of Antrim, with a large rural area in the middle. Parts of Glengormley were combined with parts of Rathcoole. The current rules would make that possible again. They must be revised. The Assembly must ensure that townlands are not dismembered, and that it does not assume that main roads are logical boundaries in rural areas, when, in fact, they are not. That is what happened in the last assessment. That huge issue must be dealt with. The procedures are wrong. That they were used in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s does not mean that they will work in the present.

The Alliance Party supports the concept of the Bill. The Minister will be relieved to know that my party will not go into the Lobby to vote against her at this time. However, she must deal with several serious issues. In her comments, she failed to respond to the substantive points that my colleague Stephen Farry and I made in yesterday’s debate on the way that the work of the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner intermeshes with that of the District Electoral Areas Commissioner, and on how to ensure that the outcome is the creation of logical and coherent district electoral areas. Those must be recognised by people and which meet the needs of natural communities, rather than prolong the current difficulties. What are the Minister’s responsibilities in conjunction with those of the Secretary of State to ensure that action is taken to improve that process immediately?

Mr Gallagher: Mr Speaker, you will not want yesterday’s arguments to be rehashed in the debate. However, at the outset, I want to reiterate the SDLP’s opposition to the 11-council proposal and its concerns about accelerated passage. It is all very well for Mr Alastair Ross my colleague on the Environment Committee to dismiss valid concerns that were expressed by the SDLP yesterday as being made only for the sake of opposition. They cannot be dismissed that easily, because when those boundaries are drawn up, the backcloth will be set, against which the new councils will operate.

Important principles of efficiency, value for money, the development of better relations and the building of a shared future are at stake for ratepayers. The SDLP opposed the Bill yesterday, not for the sake of doing so, but because we are against the scrambling through of legislation that moves Northern Ireland to new council arrangements.

11.00 am

Members need only consider today’s criticism of Larne Borough Council to be aware that lessons need to be learned. Another example is Craigavon Borough Council, which has never invited public tenders for its legal services department, which performs an important function.

All of those issues come into the picture and deserve careful consideration. I agree with Mr Ford about the previous commissioner coming up with some very peculiar conclusions. As we move forward it is important to preserve natural boundaries, whether parish or townland. I hope that that will be the case.

The Bill deals with the commissioner’s appointment and salary, but the Minister and the Department must explain the role envisaged for assistant commissioners. In relation to wrapping up the boundary exercise, has the Minister any proposals for moving to the next stage, which will be to take all of that work and passing it to the District Electoral Areas Commissioner?

Mr G Robinson: I declare an interest as a member of Limavady Borough Council. I will be as brief as possible. I support the Minister in her efforts to ensure that the RPA recommendations are fully implemented through the agreement of new electoral boundaries in Northern Ireland.

The RPA proposals to enhance local government have been widely welcomed in my constituency of East Londonderry, but without the will of all parties in the Assembly they will prove difficult, if not impossible, to implement by the target date of 2011. I encourage Members to join me in fully supporting the Minister in her endeavours to reform and modernise local government.

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

Mr A Maskey: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I hope that all parties in the Assembly welcome, as I do, the fact that we are in a position to move this process on.

Clearly, there are a number of very complex and interlinked matters regarding the whole question of the review of local government. Over recent years, attempts to reach agreement on a wide range of issues have been made by all political parties and many other key stakeholders, including those involved in wider local government, trade unions and the business community.

The issues involve questions of shared services, how local and regional government relate to each other in the new dispensation, how to obtain efficient and effective local government, and how to get fair and efficient governance arrangements that improve systems and help local government to run smoothly. Other elements include developing a community planning process that gives citizens a say in gover­nance and addressing historical rates disparities so that individual councils can reach a financial balance.

These are complex matters, but thorough discussions and debates have taken place over the past few years. Some of the parties here have not been involved in either the strategic leadership board or the previous task force, but all those who have been represented on those bodies over the past few years have been diligent in their attendance and their attention to the detail of the issues at hand. It is unfortunate that, at times, people in this House seek to misrepresent what other parties have been saying.

We must move forward in a positive spirit. The process of accelerated passage of the Local Government (Boundaries) Bill has begun, and, in the time ahead, there will be an opportunity to discuss with the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner some of the concerns that have been raised this morning, once that person has been appointed.

I made the point yesterday that no matter how the North is carved up, minority communities of one or other tradition will be created and may feel trapped within a council area dominated by the other tradition. Two important tasks, therefore, lie ahead. First, we must ensure that the appropriate checks and balances are uniformly built into the future governance arrangements of local government, so that all elected members, no matter which community they represent, have a proper and proportionate involvement in their local council that is protected in law. Secondly, we must have a community planning process, and other governance arrangements to allow councils to engage with communities. That is supposed to in some way address the idea that there will be fewer councils and, some people argue, that people will feel distant from their councillors.

I understand the need of communities to feel an affinity for their local councils, and to relate to, and have access to, those councils. However, listening to some of the comments that have been made in some of these debates, it is easy to think that we are in north Africa or north America. We do not live in such a huge place.

Mr B McCrea: I wish to take the Member up on that particular point. Is there any connection between Rosetta in Belfast, and Moira, which lies at the edge of my constituency of Lagan Valley? If we are serious about creating community engagement, should we not try to examine natural boundaries and do things properly?

Mr A Maskey: I thank the Member for his intervention. I know that many people have no affinity with some of the established local connections and will be glad that some of those boundaries will be removed. As I keep saying in these debates, there will be anomalies. Some of those can be ironed out, and some may not be the anomaly that people are making them out to be; I simply make the point that no matter how the boundaries are carved up, anomalies may or may not occur. We can all make our own lists of geographical areas in which that might happen.

It is essential to ensure that the future foundations of local government are built on the strongest and most robust legal protection for members of councils, those who work for them, and, most importantly, the people that we are there to serve. It is all about the safeguards, checks and balances that will be built in. That is another day’s work for us all, and I look forward to the day when those Members who have cited anomalies will fully embrace the need for full and appropriate governance arrangements that protect not only elected representatives, but the citizens that we are elected to represent.

My party is keen to ensure that local government is considerably revamped by 2011. The Minister of the Environment has said that we are involved in a process, not an event. My party welcomes the commitments that have been made on issues such as timely boundary reviews and timely reviews of the functions that will be transferred and the nature of those functions. I have made the point repeatedly that any one of us could argue for a menu of functions to be transferred to local government. There is always a balance to be struck between what may best be delivered locally and what may best be delivered regionally.

However, it is clear that those proposals are a work in progress and do not represent a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

The Minister of the Environment met all the other Ministers, and there will be future discussions to consider the appropriate transfer of functions and how those functions can best be delivered by local government. Sinn Féin looks forward to those discussions, and I remind Members that much of that work will be conducted by the strategic leadership board, with which local councillors who represent the parties and Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA) representatives will engage directly with the Minister and her officials. Furthermore — and importantly for us — those people will also have the opportunity to engage with the Executive and the Assembly via the Committee for the Environment. In the future, there will be ample opportunities to do our best collectively to get this right.

Rather than taking time to reach agreement, the Executive subcommittee, Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party could have said that we were not prepared to reach such an agreement. Most people will welcome the fact that time was taken for careful consideration of complex matters and that we have reached an agreement that allows us to progress much more positively. Most people look forward to 2011, when local government will be stronger and fairer and will have a greater say about the services that it delivers directly or which are delivered via the legislation-based community-planning process, which is about ensuring that the functions over which local government does not have direct authority — such as roads, elements of education and health — can be influenced. Therefore, local government will have much greater input and influence, and, crucially, the new arrangements will afford elected representatives and democrats the opportunity to engage directly with communities, whether in Moira, Larne, Antrim or Crossmaglen.

Irrespective of whether communities are nationalist, unionist or of another ethnic minority, for the first time, local government will have an obligation to work with them in order to ensure that all citizens are treated as first-class citizens and have some say about the functions that are to be delivered on their behalf.

Sinn Féin looks forward to future debates, and it wishes to ensure that the new arrangements are right however long it takes. There has been much discussion, and I am glad that all stakeholders have had opportunities to consult. In the process outlined by the Minister, such opportunities will be ongoing, and the strategic leadership board will enable the outcomes from such discussions to reach the Executive and the Chamber. Therefore, boundaries, functions and governance arrangements will be considered, and Members will attempt to ensure not only that existing regional disparities and bad practices are not reinforced but that work is done to get those matters right. I am confident that, working together, we can get it right and that we will be able to promise the people that we represent, either in the Assembly or at local government level, that, in 2011, local government will be better, fairer, more efficient and cost-effective. Go raibh míle maith agat.

Mr S Wilson: Despite yesterday’s bluster about the Bill’s accelerated passage and about how damaging that would be, if this debate’s arguments are a flavour of what we will have at Consideration Stage, the Minister of the Environment need not lose too much sleep about its passage through the Assembly.

The issues raised so far have been special pleading about the positioning of boundaries and about which councils should be affiliated with other councils.

11.15 am

I do not claim to have detailed knowledge of all the areas to which Members have referred, but it strikes me that even those who are opposed to the 11-council model have contradictory views on where the boundaries should lie. I suspect that if there was a 15-council model, or a seven-council model, or any other model, there would still be disputes. [Interruption.]

The current 26-council model has been mentioned. If Members want councils that are so small that they cannot have real powers delegated to them because they cannot achieve economies of scale or critical mass, then they can stick with the 26-council model. However, I have not heard any party defend that model, apart from whoever it was who chipped in from a sedentary position — I do not know who that was, but I answered the point anyway. All of the parties want more powers for councils.

Some contributions to the debate have been contradictory, others illogical, and still others just plain wrong — I will come to the plain wrong parts in a minute or two.

I did not have the good fortune to hear all of the speech that Roy Beggs made, and I apologise for that, but I shall respond to the bit that I did hear. He made a plea for the boundaries of a new east Antrim council area to include all of the boundaries of the East Antrim parliamentary constituency — for them to be coterminous. He suggested that that seemed a logical way to proceed. However, Mr Ford then argued that one of the natural and logical council groupings would include Antrim and Newtonabbey. Newtonabbey cannot be in both council areas.

Mr Ford: If the Member reads Hansard tomorrow, he will see that I did not say that that was logical. I said that, speaking as an MLA for all of Antrim and two thirds of Newtonabbey, that suited me, but, in taking account of the effect that that would have on Ballymena, Larne and Carrick, it became illogical.

Mr S Wilson: I do not think that the word “illogical” was in his speech. I will check the Hansard report tomorrow. I believe that we may be witnessing a certain amount of recanting.

Of course there will be differing views on where the boundaries should lie. However, it is significant that those who oppose the Bill cannot achieve agreement even within their own parties. Mr Beggs did not mention that this issue was discussed at a meeting of his own council last night, and that some members of his own party supported the 11-council model.

Mr Beggs: Will the Member explain why he is so keen that his constituents from Larne and Carrickfergus should have to drive to Ballymena as their key centre for local government — [Interruption.]

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. I am sure that, in meetings of the new councils, it will be necessary to make all remarks through the Chair, just as MLAs must.

Mr S Wilson: This is the —

Mr Beggs: I was still speaking — Mr Wilson had given way.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. Mr Wilson, please continue.

Mr S Wilson: At least let me answer the point on which I had given way, before asking another question.

Mrs Long: Answer the question.

Mr S Wilson: I am going to answer it. The argument has been made that every constituent who wishes to make representations to their council will get into their car, drive away from their street, drive up the road, and arrive at the council offices in Ballymena — if that is where those offices are going to be; I did not know that that had already been decided. Have Members never heard of telephones, faxes or emails? — I must admit that email beats me a bit — [Laughter.]

There are other means of communication than trotting off to where the council office happens to be, if, indeed, it is going to be in Ballymena. People do not tell me that they should bring Westminster to Carrick­fergus so that they can make representations to Parliament.

That argument is nonsense.

Mr B McCrea: Will the Member give way?

Mr S Wilson: Yes, I will. However, I hope that the Member makes a point that is a bit more accurate than his last one: in his intervention to Alex Maskey, the Member asked what Rosetta has got in common with Lisburn.

Some Members: Moira.

Mr S Wilson: Moira; it is the same — it is in the Lisburn City Council area. Unless Lisburn City Council intends to engage in garden-grabbing on a grand scale, Rosetta had got nothing to do with Moira because it is in Belfast. [Laughter.]

Mr B McCrea: It is great to get a lecture on accuracy from the great Sammy Wilson. I said Moira — the Member must get that into his head. I was trying to make the point that any part of Belfast could be linked with Moira, for example, Castlereagh. What about the great idea of linking Larne with Moira, which was also in the plan? When you asked whether people had not heard of a telephone or of walking — if that is your argument — then why have 11 councils instead of seven? If your argument is about efficacy and about getting people talking, seven councils is the answer.

We want a system in which local councils have some semblance of relevance to the communities they serve and deliver local services to people who know to whom they are talking. That is the key point and it is why Members should debate this issue properly. When it —

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. This debate is developing into a farce. Members must make their remarks through the Chair.

Mr S Wilson: The Member has made a speech, not an intervention. [Laughter.]

Mr B McCrea: Before the Member accepted my intervention, he made a sub-speech, which I am responding to. When the Member and I spoke about the Libraries Bill —

Dr W McCrea: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Is it not true that an intervention is supposed to be just that and not an attempt to make a speech?

Mr Deputy Speaker: As Mr Sammy Wilson was not objecting, I allowed Mr Basil McCrea to proceed.

Mr S Wilson: I was objecting. [Laughter.]

Mr B McCrea: Thank you for that clarification, Mr Deputy Speaker. Mr Sammy Wilson said to me — and he was using the Libraries Bill, which has just completed its Committee Stage, as an example — that there is a danger in letting things go, in that no changes can be made and no discussions can take place. This is exactly the same issue: we will have no opportunity to make any changes to this Bill. People say that there will be plenty of time, but there will not. It is a fait accompli; this Bill will be ramrodded through, and Mr Sammy Wilson should know that.

Mr Deputy Speaker: There is no time limit when an intervention is accepted, so Members take that chance when they give way.

Mr S Wilson: You are dead right. [Laughter.]

Dr W McCrea: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Is it a different point of order?

Dr W McCrea: It is the same point of order, and I ask you to accept it. In any elected Chamber, an intervention is supposed to be an intervention and not a speech. In other places, interventions are time limited.

Mr S Wilson: Mr Deputy Speaker, I do not know if you want to respond to that.

By any stretch of the imagination, the last intervention was not an intervention — if that is not too illogical — it was a speech. In future, I will be wary of Mr Basil McCrea’s interventions, mini-speeches or rants. Whatever he calls them, they are usually interesting.

I will answer his point about linking Larne and Ballymena. Having represented the area, I have some knowledge on the matter. Do the councillors and inhabitants of Larne make representations about planning issues to Newtownabbey, Carrick or Larne? No — they make them to Ballymena. Do they make representations about Roads Service issues to Larne, Carrick or Newtownabbey — or Rosetta or Moira? No — they make them to Ballymena.

If Basil McCrea wishes to intervene to provide me with some information — [Interruption.]

Let me finish off with him, for goodness’ sake. If he wants to intervene, let him at least gain some local knowledge first.

Mr Weir: Does the Member agree — bearing in mind that the Ulster Unionists seem to be very keen on parliamentary constituencies — that, for more than half a century, Ballymena was part of the same parliamentary constituency as Larne, but now is being painted as some distant planet that has no connection with Larne?

Mr S Wilson: Those interventions were, of course, cunning ploys to divert me from the point that I was making about last night’s council meeting. Do not run away, Mr Beggs. [Laughter.]

I shall finish talking about last night’s meeting of Carrickfergus Borough Council, at which this issue was discussed. Significantly — perhaps my colleagues from East Antrim will correct me — this issue was of such import to Mr Beggs, who has poured his heart out about it this morning, that the debate was not initiated by him, but by Mr Neeson.

At that meeting, when it came to the vote, even Mr Beggs’s own colleagues did not support him unanimously, and, as a result, the motion was defeated. Carrickfergus Borough Council, as far as I know, with the exception of Mr Beggs, voted to work towards making the 11b model work, and to put in place the arrangements for that. We will come to his reason for that in a moment. That is an indication of how strongly his fellow members of Carrickfergus Borough Council feel about this issue.

I suspect, however, that the real reason for his opposition is that the configuration of councils is not to the suiting of Mr Beggs. Under the current configuration, one ends up with two Beggses on two councils, whereas, in the new configuration, there might be room for only one Beggs. I suspect that the passion — if one can call it that — that we have seen from Mr Beggs this morning is more about self-preservation than concern about boundaries and whether people will have to travel to Ballymena to make representations to their council.

Mr Neeson: Will the Member agree that the combination of Carrickfergus, Larne and Ballymena is the most blatant case of gerrymandering in this Province since the infamous days of Derry City Council?

Mr S Wilson: I find that accusation amazing. Larne and Carrickfergus are unionist-dominated councils. If Newtownabbey Borough Council was a nationalist-dominated council, one could, perhaps, argue that by including Ballymena with Larne and Carrickfergus, and excluding Newtownabbey, there might have been an element of trying to achieve a political balance. However, why on earth, if that is what one wanted to achieve, would one put all unionists in one council, and not spread them around? However, that is not the case — Newtownabbey is as predominantly unionist as Ballymena. Gerrymandering, as I understand it, is the fixing of boundaries in an attempt to achieve a particular political outcome. The political outcome will be no different whether one chooses Ballymena or Newtownabbey.

Perhaps Mr Neeson wants west Belfast to be thrown in with Carrick and Larne to get a community balance.

11.30 am

Mr Kennedy: Or Newry and Mourne.

Mr S Wilson: Or Newry and Mourne. God forbid that Danny Kennedy would be part of the new council. [Laughter.] Those suggestions are not logical.

On the one hand, we heard that the boundaries should reflect the parliamentary constituencies, and on the other hand, Mr Ford said that it makes sense that Newtown­abbey and Antrim should be together. Regardless of which boundaries are chosen, such disputes will remain.

Mr Ford made a valid point, but he did not follow it through. He said that edges of towns can get caught in one council area, rather than being in the same council area as the rest of the town. That is inevitable, especially when new housing developments are built on the edges of towns, and that is one of the reasons why it will be necessary to review boundaries. Mr Ford asked how that could be dealt with under the existing rules. He said that the rules could have been changed if the route of accelerated passage had not been taken. [Interruption.]

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

Mr S Wilson: I am only quoting Mr Ford, and he is wrong to say that. If he had taken the time to read the recommendations on how the commissioner should deal with reviewing boundaries, he would have known that. The Local Government Act (Northern Ireland) 1972, which will be amended by the Bill, states:

“As far as practicable a district shall not be wholly or substantially severed by the boundary of another district.”

That gives the boundaries commissioner the opportunity to consider the edge-of-town anomalies to which Mr Ford referred.

Mr Ford: The Member is completely confusing the issue of a district’s external boundary with my point about the current difficulties that result from the way in which the rules create wards that are not logical or coherent. The issue of whether a district is included in another has nothing to do with my point about trying to get logical wards and, hence, logical district electoral areas.

Mr S Wilson: I will supply a copy of the Act if the Member wants to read it. I referred to districts because, in some cases, the edges of towns may have grown and may finish up in one district instead of another. The boundaries commissioner will work to terms that can deal with that. The rules for determining the numbers and boundaries of wards are the same: they will have regard for the size, population, physical diversity and the desirability for proper urban and rural representation. All those factors will be taken into consideration to deal with the logical boundaries of wards.

Mr McNarry: Are you passing that over to him?

Mr S Wilson: The Member asks from a sedentary position whether we are passing this over to the boundaries commissioner. It just so happens that that is how the boundaries are determined — by the commissioner. They are not determined by us.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. I remind Members to make their remarks through the Chair.

Mr S Wilson: Sorry, Mr Deputy Speaker.

The boundaries are determined by the boundaries commissioner. Members will not consider the nitty-gritty of each boundary in the Assembly.

Mr McNarry: Why not?

Mr S Wilson: The law says that a boundaries commissioner is appointed to do that and that that person will produce a report.

Mr Ford: Will the Member give way?

Mr S Wilson: No, because if the Members beside me do not understand how the system works, they should not enter a debate.

Mr Ford made a valid point, but the rules provide ample opportunity to deal with it.

Mrs Long: Will the Member give way?

Mr S Wilson: As I have not yet given way to the honourable lady, I will do so now.

Mrs Long: I appreciate the Member’s giving way, and I thank him for being so liberal with his time.

Does the Member accept that social coherence is not among the criteria? The Alliance Party was making the point that boundaries should take account not only of size and population but social coherence.

Mr S Wilson: It is still possible to cater for social coherence, because the Bill’s terms of reference are wide enough to allow the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner to take account of all such considerations. I assume that, when the time comes for representations to the commissioner, all parties and their local councillors will make exactly those points to him.

Dr Farry: I will try to clarify the point that Basil McCrea tried to make earlier. Does the Member accept that when the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner was considering a seven-council model a couple of years ago, he made only minor modifications to the external boundaries of council groupings?

There are genuine issues to be considered: for example, it may be reasonable for the commissioner to make significant revisions in the southern reaches of Belfast, because it makes much more sense for services in Castlereagh to be provided from a base in Belfast than one in Lisburn. Given that the DUP is strongly in favour of making efficiencies in Govern­ment, surely that should also be a consideration.

Mr S Wilson: I agree with the Member, but the logic of what he said is that the Minister, having appointed an independent Local Government Boundaries Commissioner, should dictate that he or she must make substantial changes. The Member cannot have it both ways: when an independent commissioner is appointed, the best that a Minister and the House can do is to lay down a set of guidelines that allows him or her to make small or larger changes —

Mr Ford: Will the Member give way?

Mr S Wilson: Let me finish the point, for goodness’ sake. The Local Government Boundaries Commissioner can make small or larger changes to boundaries. I guarantee that if the Minister were to be as prescriptive as some of the contributors to the debate want her to be, Members would be up in arms. It would be a case of the Minister more or less informing the commissioner of her desired outcome and telling him or her what must be done to achieve it.

Mr Ford: I wonder whether the Member has read clause 1(2) of the Bill:

“The 11 local government districts shall incorporate, respectively, the whole or the major part of the following former local government districts—”.

The Alliance Party’s point is that by prescribing that at least the “major part” of Castlereagh must be included in a district with Lisburn, the Bill makes it increasingly difficult to draw logical boundaries on the southern and eastern edges of Belfast.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Mr S Wilson: As far as I understand the clause, the “major part” refers to the geographical area covered by the council. Therefore, any changes to the edges of Belfast would not involve huge geographical swathes. Rather, they would involve including areas of high-density population, such as the Cregagh and Tullycarnet estates. The Bill enables the commissioner to make the kind of changes to which the Member referred. If I am wrong, the Minister will have no difficulty in correcting me, but that is my understanding of clause 1(2).

Mr B McCrea: If the Member does not understand the clause, he should not be here.

Mr S Wilson: I have a better understanding of the clause than the Member, who, in his every inter­vention, demonstrated geographical and procedural ignorance, and a total lack of knowledge of the subject being debated. I look forward to his speech, when I am sure that Members will be privy to his wisdom.

First, the Minister has been attacked for establishing model 11b, with allegations that the model was agreed without consultation. That is patently untrue; there was extensive consultation on the seven-, 11- and 15-council models. The Minister has not drawn a new model out of a hat; it was discussed widely through consultation during direct rule.

Secondly, the Minister has demonstrated a degree of political skill to guide the Assembly to this point. Sinn Féin was wedded to the seven-council model. In fact, it was so wedded to that model that, when one of its members — who has now been reconciled with the party and given a Deputy Speaker position — dissented —

Mrs D Kelly: Will the Member give way?

Mr S Wilson: I will give way in a minute. I want to finish my point and have a go at Sinn Féin, because I have had a go at everyone else. [Laughter.]

When that Member dared to dissent from the party line on the seven-council model, he was either expelled, suspended from the party or threatened — something happened to him, anyway — because Sinn Féin felt so sore about it. Against the background that Sinn Féin had wedded itself to, and was prepared to discipline its own members over opposition to, the seven-council model, the Minister had to try to reach agreement.

Those of us who serve on local councils knew that decisions were required. The fact that the Minister was able to reach agreement on a model and a number of councils allowed a proposal to reach the House. She should be congratulated, rather than criticised. If other Executive Ministers — in particular, the Minister of Education — demonstrated similar political skills and tried to reach agreement, the Assembly might make better progress.

The 11-council model is logical; it does not divorce councils from their constituents and retains a degree of locality and local input. Moreover, the council areas are large enough to give councils the critical mass to take on extra responsibilities. I have served most of my political life on local councils, and I believe fervently that it is important that local councils have the capacity to undertake more regeneration work in their areas. However, that can only be achieved with a sufficient degree of critical mass.

Having served on Belfast City Council — a large council, big enough to employ staff with expertise, as opposed to some of the smaller councils that I deal with in the course of my parliamentary work — I am in a position to make comparisons. Smaller councils by their nature cannot — and this is not a criticism — attract the kind of staff who are required, and they cannot attain the critical mass to complete the work that we would like them to do. Therefore, the Minister has hit it right politically by reconciling differences in the Executive, and she has hit it right economically by establishing councils that are big enough to take on those responsibilities. Therefore, I hope that the House will support the Bill. Amendments may be tabled that will improve the Bill; that is the point of this debate. I look forward to examining those amendments at Further Consideration Stage.

Mr Armstrong: During yesterday’s debate, Members mentioned the importance of the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner, who will, undoubtedly, play a vital role in the process.

It is important — perhaps fundamental — that we be clear on the Local Government Boundaries Commis­sioner’s remit. That is only fair to the commissioner, whomever he or she turns out to be. We must ensure that the remit set out in the Bill reflects best practice in the rest of the United Kingdom. Moreover, the commissioner must be able to reflect local people’s ties and affinities in the structures of local government.

11.45 am

We are all aware of the potential political sensitivities that will surround the commissioner’s work. We must, therefore, give him or her the relevant and necessary tools to reflect in those structures local people’s will and their affinities. It is crucial that Members establish an appropriate remit for the commissioner. The vast majority of Members are aware of the public ridicule that greeted the former proposals, framed under direct rule, for seven local government units. We all remember the public outcry over the ridiculously abstract boundaries that did not reflect, in any form, shape or fashion, the realities and strengths of local identities in Northern Ireland.

To ensure that such an outcome is not repeated must now be a priority for the commissioner. The mess made under direct rule underlines and emphasises the fundamental importance of ensuring that the Bill properly sets out the commissioner’s remit. His or her success may have a knock-on effect for the success of local government. People who associate with their local representative bodies are more likely to vote in local elections and to become involved in and appreciate those bodies.

Mrs D Kelly: Will the Member give way?

Mr Armstrong: I have just finished. [Laughter.]

Mr McKay: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Given that we are working to the deadline of the 2011 local government elections, a clear need existed for the Bill to be granted accelerated passage. It is important that the process experience no further delays. Sinn Féin believes that equality and fairness must be the cornerstone of the new councils. That fact must be enshrined in any future legislation for the new structures. The proposals for the new face of local government will ensure that, in future, no community in any part of the Six Counties will feel discriminated against.

It is important that local government be effective and that it empower local communities. The community-planning process provides such an opportunity. We should not be hung up on the number of councillors — councils’ effectiveness must take priority over keeping seats for politicians. The process has dragged on for far too long, so the Bill is to be welcomed. We now have the opportunity to deliver a more efficient and effective system of local govern­ment — one that engages with communities and protects minorities. Go raibh miath agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.

Mr Weir: I support the motion. I will keep my remarks brief, because we all anticipate that rare treat — a Basil McCrea speech without a time limit. I do not want to delay that any longer than is necessary.

I listened to the remarks of Mr Beggs Jnr a Member for East Antrim, and I was reminded of the film ‘Alive’. For those Members unfamiliar with it, the film involved a plane crash in the Andes. The plane was carrying a South American rugby team, and over 10 weeks, survivors of the crash fought to stay alive. Let me explain, for Members familiar with the film, that I do not refer to the bit of the film in which the survivors resorted to cannibalism. I know that the Ulster Unionist Party can occasionally indulge in a degree of infighting, but even I would not accuse it of cannibalism. Rather, I refer to an incident towards the end of the film, where a couple of the survivors, in a last, desperate attempt to be rescued, spent a fortnight climbing in the Andes in appalling conditions, scaling one peak after another, before eventually reaching safety in another country.

Such was the picture painted of the route from Larne to Ballymena. It is, according to Mr Beggs, a perilous journey, during which the poor, stranded people of Larne might have to resort to cannibalism.

Mr Beggs: I said that the journey from Carrickfergus to Ballymena was difficult.

Mr Weir: The vast distance between Larne and Carrickfergus obviously negates my point. The Member evidently considers the journey from Carrickfergus to Ballymena to last several weeks.

This is hardly rural America — hundreds of miles will not have to be crossed to reach a council building. The type of nonsense that we have heard today, suggesting that the new council areas will cover a territory that is too vast, does not hold water.

We are told that coterminosity with parliamentary boundaries should be sought. However, no other structure in Northern Ireland is coterminous with parliamentary boundaries, be it health, education, police, or planning structures. Indeed, there is no part of the United Kingdom where the councils are established according to a parliamentary constituency. Therefore, the idea of coterminosity does not hold water.

Mr Beggs mentioned the Orange Order, which is based on a county model. I assume that Mr Beggs is a member of the County Antrim Lodge. If we were to follow the Orange Order structure — based on six counties, plus Londonderry city and Belfast — we would have an eight-council model. Therefore, that argument does not carry much weight.

Local identity and social coherence have been mentioned as two of the key criteria that, it is claimed, are ignored by the seven-council model. Local identity is important, and there is a balance to be struck, because the model cannot be driven purely by local identity or, indeed, by affinity between communities.

Mr Shannon: It was long before my time, but back in 1973, a local government reorganisation took place —

Mr S Wilson: That was not before your time at all. [Laughter.]

Mr Shannon: I was first able to vote in 1973, so the Member can work out my age from that.

At that time, there was Newtownards Town Council and Ards Rural Council, and people were concerned when they came together to form Ards Borough Council. In fact, that worked out very well and the people were happy with the changes. We will be quite happy with the proposed changes to take over North Down Borough Council and absorb it into Ards Borough Council this time around. [Laughter.]

Mr Weir: I welcome Alderman Shannon’s comment. I should have declared an interest as a member of North Down Borough Council — or “greater north Down borough council”, as it will soon be known, when it takes over the Ards area.

In any area, there are communities that are relatively adjacent to one another that do not necessarily share a sense of affinity. I am thinking of my own constituency, where there have been problems with a new community hall, or areas such as Conlig and Breezemount, which are effectively separated by the dual carriageway between Bangor and Newtownards, and where it could be argued that there is no real sense of affinity between the communities. If social coherence is to be a key criterion, how can the areas of the Malone Road and Taughmonagh in Belfast be combined? I do not see a great deal of social coherence between those two areas.

I agree that local identity must be one of the factors that is taken into consideration, but if it is to be the sole driver behind the new council structure, we could end up with 111 councils or 1,111 councils, because people’s identification with their own local community goes much deeper than the council area to which they belong. Local identity is important, and that is one of the reasons why I believe that the seven-council model is not the right one. However, a balance must be struck between local identity and the issues of economies of scale, the opportunity for efficiencies of delivery, population and the rates burden. That is why I believe that the 11-council model represents a reasonable solution to the issue.

We must ensure that local government is not only fit to inherit the range of functions that are outlined in the RPA, but that this is only the start of a process and that councils are suitable to adopt more functions in future. If there are too many councils, it becomes difficult to argue that additional functions should be brought down to local-council level. However, if there are too few councils, the argument about remoteness comes into play, so we must strive for a balance.

I wish to deal with one of the points that Mr Ford raised about the need to try to ensure that the right ward boundaries are set. I understand the point that he is driving at, but ward boundaries are needed. As was suggested at one stage — although not in this Chamber — we cannot simply adopt the district electoral areas.

Ward boundaries have to be of relatively similar size because they are the building blocks, not just of local government, but of parliamentary constituencies. Therefore, it is vital that that matter is addressed.

Although it would be useful if ward boundaries reflected local identities, I have yet to meet anyone in North Down who has complained about their ward boundary. The issue is not top of the political agenda.

Yesterday, Mr Sammy Wilson derogatorily referred to members of the Committee for the Environment as “anoraks”. The collective term for anoraks might be “Alliance”; certainly that is the impression that Mr Ford gave today.

There is a range of interpretations of how ward boundaries should be drawn up. Members could draw up precisely the boundaries that they want. I could make an argument that because of natural affinity, areas around Saintfield, for instance, should be in the same ward as North Down and Ards. However, I will resist the temptation of going into too much detail on that issue. However, the boundaries that I would draw up would be different to those of the Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment, Mr Boylan — and they would definitely be different to those of Mr Basil McCrea.

Mr Ford: The Member made an interesting point about the procedures for drawing up ward boundaries. I am sure that it is true that his constituents in North Down — like mine in South Antrim — do not particularly worry about the ward in which they happen to have been included. However, wards are used not merely as building blocks; they are also used for statistical purposes. All Members will be aware of instances in which areas have failed to get the necessary social support because they happen to fall within an affluent ward. Such issues are being ignored due to the current procedures.

Mr Weir: Sensitivity can be used when targeting social need. For example, enumeration districts could be used. Therefore, there are solutions to the problem. The pattern of housing in Northern Ireland sometimes makes it difficult to draw up boundaries that entirely reflect a degree of social cohesion. However, the point about ward boundaries should not be laboured too much.

All Members could draw up their own sets of boundaries. However, if I, the Minister, Mr Boylan or Mr Basil McCrea were to draw up those boundaries, the obvious accusation would be that there would be some form of gerrymandering. Even the redoubtable Mr Ford would be accused of some form of gerrymandering were his wish list to be granted.

If the Bill becomes law, which I hope it will, the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner will be able to do the job independently. To take local needs into account, it will be important that the commissioner has the level of flexibility that the Bill will provide. The commissioner will be able to reflect the views on the ground and to make any necessary changes.

I particularly welcome the level of flexibility that the Bill will provide in that there will not be a one-size-fits-all system for the number of councillors. That will enable the needs of different populations to be met and will allow for the divergence of any necessary boundary changes. The Bill will afford the commissioner the opportunity to increase or decrease the number of wards per district by up to five, which means that he or she will not be put into a straightjacket on that issue.

The Bill is an important step in the modernisation of local government. I wish it well and I urge Members to support it.

Dr Farry: I declare an interest as a member of North Down Borough Council, which will soon be known as the “greater north Down council”; Mr Weir also serves on that council. I also declare that I have left my anorak outside. I have no doubt that wearing anoraks in the Chamber would be deemed by the Speaker to be inappropriate dress. I am interested to know who the second anorak on the Committee for the Environment is going to be, and if he or she would come forward.

Mr Weir: That is making an assumption that the Committee is restricted to two anoraks. [Laughter.]

Dr Farry: I hope that the other anoraks will reveal themselves in due course.

12.00 noon

If the accusation of Alliance Party “anoraks” refers to our detailed consideration of legislation and future boundaries, I am quite happy to stand guilty as charged. Those are matters of critical importance.

However, the Alliance Party is content for the Bill to receive a Second Stage. In common with others, we recognise that there is a need to reform local government, and we will not stand in the way of that process. However, we have issues with aspects of the Bill — particularly the number of councils and the approach to the new boundaries. Those issues will be addressed through amendments that the Alliance Party will table later this week.

Members have said that the goal of the Bill is to create strong, modern local government. I am sure that we all buy into that concept. However, I have major reservations about that being achieved on the basis of an 11-council model.

As is the case anywhere else, councils in Northern Ireland provide a number of different functions and services. At a basic level, councils collect bins and deal with waste — and those are the only experiences that some people have of their local councils.

Councils also provide a focus for local identity, civic pride and local representation. They ensure that decision-makers are accessible to the people whom they represent. Whenever distance is created between councillors and the public, potential problems and barriers could result, and people could feel isolated.

Establishing fewer large councils is sensible in respect of economies of scale and efficient service delivery. On the other hand, a greater number of smaller councils would provide a better local focus and more access to decision-makers. Smaller councils would also be less remote from the public. Therefore, a compromise must be found. My concern is that that balance has not been achieved by the 11-council model.

The decision to establish 11 councils was reached through a political compromise between the DUP and Sinn Féin, and both parties were fairly open about that. That is fair enough, because that is part and parcel of governance. However, a rational analysis of the facts would not lead one to an 11-council model — a 15-council model is a more sustainable solution.

The potential range of additional powers to be transferred to councils and the degree of uplift in the control of councils over public expenditure are not much more significant than the current position. The big difference will be in the area of community planning and general well-being, which is essentially a co-ordination function. That is extremely welcome and much needed, but it does not amount to a major shift in service delivery.

Does a move from 26 councils to 11 represent too big a leap, owing to the fairly modest transfer in the level of services? Does the 11-council model have the potential to lose aspects of local identity, civic pride and access to elected representatives?

I have concerns about the proposed boundary arrangements. I will resist the temptation to talk about my local area, and will instead talk about issues across Northern Ireland. At the moment, an effective pattern is in place, as the current 26 councils are based around large towns and their hinterlands. There may well be exceptions, but that is a general rule, and that provides a focal point for identity and service delivery.

When new councils are created by lumping existing bodies together into groups, all sorts of anomalies will inevitably arise. I have no doubt that, on paper, the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner will have a mandate to consider major redesigns of current councils — as long as the major geographical part of the suggested groupings stay together. In practice, however, only minimal changes to the boundaries of the proposed seven super-councils were made in 2006. One such change concerned Coleraine Borough Council and Limavady Borough Council, and the boundaries within which Mussenden Temple would be considered to lie. It was only at that type of level that changes were made, rather than the more radical changes that are necessary to create more logical units.

I refer specifically to Belfast, which is a fairly tightly drawn city by UK and international standards. Many of its suburbs lie outside the Belfast City Council boundary. However, to all intents and purposes, those suburbs are part of Belfast, and the people who live there consider that to be the case. The southern suburbs of Belfast that are in the Castlereagh council area will be lumped in with Lisburn, and people will be confused about that and will not understand why that should be the case.

More critically, there are major challenges for service delivery. If the reform is to be about efficiency, there will not be council works depots, for example, on every street corner in the new council areas. Instead, there will be some rationalisation. For example, in the proposed Castlereagh/Lisburn amalgamation the focus will inevitably be on Lisburn city. One might question whether it will be more efficient to empty the bins in parts of Castlereagh from a base in Lisburn as opposed to working from a base in Belfast.

There are major challenges to be faced, and although, on paper, those can be addressed by a boundary commission, I have severe reservations about whether the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner will make radical decisions. It is not a case, as Mr Sammy Wilson suggested, of the Alliance Party wishing that the Minister would give clear directions to the boundaries commissioner as to what should happen — although opting for option 11b is, in itself, a form of direction — it is about ensuring that the commissioner takes a broad regard of his or her remit and is prepared to make radical changes to create coherent units for future local government.

There are separate processes for examining first, wards and district boundaries, and secondly, district electoral areas. Yesterday the Minister suggested that those examination processes are separate and must take their course. Although I appreciate that they operate under different powers and that different offices are responsible for each process, the two are fundamentally linked. When one is drawing ward boundaries, one must think about how those wards might be fitted together to form coherent district electoral areas in the future. At present, that is not part of the remit of the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner.

According to my analysis of what happened in 2006, difficulties would have been handed over to the District Electoral Area Commissioner, had one been appointed then. At that time, my party made representations about that. However, they were not taken on board by the commissioner, given that “they were” not part of their terms of reference. If we were able to streamline the two processes and have some form of joined-up and efficient government, we would save some time and produce a more logical and coherent process further down the line.

Finally, I concur with Mr Weir’s points about using Westminster boundaries. Parliamentary boundaries are subject to a different review process to that for local government boundaries. Parliamentary boundaries should change every 10 or 12 years, and we will see that happening frequently. At times, radical changes to parliamentary boundaries can be made. For example, the new constituency of West Tyrone was created in 1997. Given that we cannot simply change council boundaries to that degree, it is important to spend time ensuring that we get it right at the start. We must accept that council boundaries will be in place for 30 or 40 years, and, although we talk about reviewing those boundaries every 10 years, in practice, those reviews may result in minor tinkering rather than reforms on the scale that one might expect to see for Westminster boundaries. We must be clear about that.

I am happy to support the Bill’s Second Stage in order that we can move ahead with the reform of local government. However, some serious issues must be addressed at Consideration Stage. My colleagues and I will be happy to table serious amendments, which we hope will be given proper consideration in the House.

Mr B Wilson: I have been a North Down councillor for the past 28 years, and I also declare an interest in the debate. I do not support the Bill, and, in particular, the adoption of model 11b. I regret that the Committee for the Environment did not have an opportunity to take evidence — particularly on the number of councils — because the options set out in the RPA are now obsolete. Those were published more than three years ago, and the parameters have changed.

The proposed 11-council model will reduce local democracy, cause maximum disruption and achieve minimum benefit. The entire RPA exercise has turned out to be a damp squib. Expectations were built up about increased powers for local government, but few significant powers are being transferred. The RPA exercise is based on a number of false premises: the devolution of additional powers to local councils; significant savings for the ratepayer; more efficient and effective delivery of services; coterminosity being central to the provision of effective services. The proposed model will not achieve any of those objectives: no significant powers will be devolved; there is no evidence that any savings will be made; efficiency and effectiveness are not guaranteed; and the idea of coterminosity seems to have been abandoned.

Indeed, with hindsight, it is difficult to understand why coterminosity was promoted so actively when other services now seem to have ignored it. We have five health trusts, seven police districts and a single authority for education. The proposal to have 11 councils is based on the same false assumption that, in providing efficient and effective services, big is beautiful.

It is argued that the critical mass must rise quite significantly if councils are to be allocated additional responsibilities. Sammy Wilson referred to that in some detail. However, recent research into local government reform in Britain by Tony Travers indicates that that is not necessarily the case. He states:

“It does not appear possible to argue a conclusive case for a strong and one-directional link between population size and efficiency and effectiveness … It is not possible to say that larger authorities perform, on the whole, better than smaller, or that smaller authorities perform better than larger. In fact, the assumption that size is associated with efficiency and effectiveness is far from proven.”

The RPA consultation paper used that assumption to suggest that reorganisation of local government could save between £15 million and £75 million, which is almost 16% of the total local government expenditure. That figure seems incredible, given that the same level of services — refuse collection, local leisure centres, and so on — will still be provided. Absolutely no evidence was given to support that figure.

The RPA’s proposals are also based on the premise that the current local authorities are exceptionally small. That is not the case in comparison with local authorities in other European countries. The powers that have been devolved to our regional Assembly are still limited. Therefore, there is no strong case for significantly increasing the size of local government authorities, particularly if it is done at the expense of local democracy and accountability.

In Professor Colin Knox’s briefing paper to the RPA, he pointed out that local authorities in Northern Ireland, and elsewhere in the UK, already have the largest average populations in Europe. The proposed new authorities would have average populations of 160,000. Those would be among the largest in the world and significantly larger than council populations in the rest of the UK. Such massive authorities cannot be sensitive to the wishes of local communities. They would reduce accessibility and democratic accountability, and destroy civic identity.

The proposal to reduce local authorities to single figures is unprecedented and is totally out of step with the rest of Europe. We are proposing to have a council for every 160,000 people. France has a council for every 1,600 people; Germany has a council for every 5,400 people; and the Irish Republic has a council for every 33,000 people.

Many smaller authorities — that are democratically accountable — operate successfully throughout these islands by providing efficient and economic local services. The Green Party believes that the 11-council model will not improve services; it will destroy local democracy and take the “local” out of local government. Can anyone say that they have local government when their local town hall may be 40 miles away?

12.15 pm

Mr Weir: The Green Party is concerned that the 11-council model will destroy local democracy. Will the Green Party put its money where its mouth is and refuse to contest elections for these facades of councils that the Member has referred to?

Mr B Wilson: The answer is no. The boundaries are a result of a number-crunching exercise to achieve an optimum number of councils whilst ignoring local identity, traditional boundaries and long-established communities. The suggestion that it is necessary to have 11 councils to achieve the critical mass and provide major services has no validity. The Welsh and Scottish models refute that. Wales has an assembly plus a single tier of local government, which consists of 22 unitary councils. One of those authorities — Cardiff — has more than 250,000 people, and more than one third of those authorities have fewer than 100,000 people, but they all have full responsibility for a wider range of services than those proposed in option 11b.

In his analysis of the RPA proposals, Professor Colin Knox said that the case made by the review team for single large tier local authorities is not grounded on experience elsewhere. He also referred to the unitary councils in Britain, which were an amalgamation of previous authorities that often lacked any sense of shared identity. Furthermore, he said that many of the new councils appeared superficial because they brought together, in a single authority, towns that in most countries in Europe would be authorities in their own right. However that is what is being proposed here. We are proposing to bring together towns that have no common identity. That has not worked in England, and it will not work here; we should not make a similar mistake.

Unlike Sammy Wilson, I think that the 26-council model proposed by Macrory is preferable to the 11-council model. The 26-council structure provides accessibility, accountability and civic leadership. It also encourages participation in local democracy and promotes a sense of local identity. Councils are the only locally-elected, democratically accountable bodies to have operated continuously and provided services throughout the 30-year conflict.

The Omnibus survey that was carried out by the review of public administration showed strong public support and satisfaction with services provided by local authorities — unlike those provided by the unaccountable quangos in health and education. The review of public administration should be focused in those areas.

Mr S Wilson: Does the Member accept that one cannot compare the 11 councils — which will comprise elected members — with quangos, such as health and education boards? It is a nonsense to make that comparison and say that the public would be as dissatisfied with an all-elected council — which will be bigger than the existing councils and have greater powers — as it is with quangos.

Mr B Wilson: I was not making that comparison. The Omnibus survey showed that the public’s main concern with public services related to health and education. Most people were happy with the way local councils were operating, and the statistics show that. The Omnibus survey also showed that councils were accessible. One of the problems associated with education and health boards is that they are inaccessible. Some 16% of the population consulted a local councillor in the past year, and 21% have contact with their local councils. The local councils reflect and reinforce people’s sense of place and community. The public use the council as their first point of contact. People go to their local council for issues that are not even the responsibility of the council, because they identify it with the local area.

Under the proposed model, which would take the “local” out of local government, the new councils would lack local identity and, as many Members have already said, result in the loss of accessibility. At present, most residents have easy access to their town hall, but in future they may have to travel 40 or 50 miles. That is contrary to the spirit of the European Charter of Local Self-Government. Her Majesty’s Government have not adopted this charter in respect of Northern Ireland, but there is no reason why the principle of subsidiarity should not apply here as it does in the rest of the UK and throughout Europe.

As people become more remote from the decision-making process, they are less likely to vote, which leads to the loss of democratic accountability. In Northern Ireland, turnout is at least double that achieved in larger authorities in England, which have a particularly low participation rate. In the UK, few people vote in local government elections, because they do not see it as being relevant to them and they do not identify with the large authorities.

Supporters of the 11-council model argue that critical mass needs to be significantly increased if councils are to be given additional responsibilities. That raises the question of the significance of additional powers given to local councils. Even if the powers exercised by local government prior to the Macrory Report were to be transferred to local councils, populations of 100,000 or more would not be required.

Take, for example, the present situation in Scotland and Wales: although those countries have a Parliament and Assembly respectively, the local authorities, of which few represent populations of 150,000 or more, possess full powers, including control over education, roads and planning. It seems that populations of 100,000 are more common; indeed, one third of councils in Wales and one quarter of councils in Scotland represent populations of less than 100,000, but they possess full powers over services that our councils do not.

In England, 138 councils represent populations of less than 100,000, including Rutland County Council, which has 34,000. However, that council has powers over education, social services, housing and planning. There is no reason why our councils should not have the same powers.

There is no optimum size for local authorities. In each case a number of factors, including population, geography, identity and history, should be taken into account. In adopting the 11b model, it is clear that the Executive have accepted the need to have a critical mass of 100,000 and, at the same time, to equalise populations as much as possible. That is a bureaucratic number-crunching model which totally ignores traditional boundaries and allegiances.

Instead, the new councils should reflect local communities, which have a wide range of populations. In Wales, Cardiff Council represents a population of 305,000, whereas Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council represents 55,000; in Scotland, Glasgow City Council represents a population of 570,000, whereas Shetland Islands Council represents 21,000; and in England, Birmingham City Council represents one million people, whereas Teesdale District Council represents 24,000 people. It appears that in Northern Ireland we want all our councils to be exactly — or close to — the same size. However, council areas in the rest of the UK are based on their natural boundaries, not on a number decided by some bureaucrat and used as a critical mass for providing services.

Having said that, I accept that we are going to get model 11b, but we should be concerned about how it is executed. I am particularly concerned about the last Local Government Boundaries Commissioner; his review was carried out by a company, Laser-Scan, and referred to sophisticated technology, such as mapping, spatial technologies, and ortho-photography, but did not mention anything about traditional boundaries, local communities or social cohesion. Some very strange decisions were made, because traditional boundaries were ignored.

If we are going to adopt model 11b, we must have maximum flexibility. We must allow local councils to remain within their natural boundaries. However, it makes sense for the natural boundaries of Belfast to expand. Not all councils need to have 100,000 or 200,000 electors. For example, if we take into consideration the natural boundary of Fermanagh, a new council could be created. However, the problem is that the rigid directives set down in the Bill need to be reduced, so that there is as much flexibility as possible to reflect natural boundaries.

Finally, we in the Green Party believe that decision-making should be close to the people. I cannot support the Bill, as it will take decisions away from local communities.

Mr B McCrea: There was a time not so long ago when a certain group of people chanted that it was time to get it right. They said that we should not rush things and that we should take time to get it right, but miraculously their view has changed. Now their chant is that we should do things as quickly as possible and not worry about the consequences. That is an issue.

I declare an interest as a member of Lisburn City Council. Hopefully, in the future, there will not be a dual mandate between those who sit on local government bodies and those who are Members of the Assembly.

I am grateful to Dr Farry for clarifying the point that I made to Brian Wilson about the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner making only minor changes, and that we are not looking for someone to make wholesale changes. If that were the case, we would not specify option 11b — we would simply say that there will be 11 districts and let the commissioner choose. We are giving political direction. Some of us find certain precepts within that direction quite incredible.

Brian Wilson referred to the arbitrary figure of 100,000 electors, but the number of electors varies from one council area to another. In Fermanagh District Council, there are about 50,000 electors. The Newtownabbey/Carrickfergus areas are much tighter. However, there is no doubt that there is a sense of identity in Fermanagh, and that should be protected. I raise that point because it is fundamental to my concerns about the matter.

During a previous debate on the issue, the Minister of the Environment said that she would address Members’ concerns about the inclusion of certain areas, such as Castlereagh. My concern is — and perhaps she will address the point in her closing remarks — that if we do not give a clear steer to the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner that he can consider making substantive changes, he will be left simply tinkering round the edges.

During an earlier intervention, I raised the issue with Alex Maskey about whether it is sensible to include Rosetta along with Moira. Some Members thought that I had made a mistake, but not so. The point that I was making was that if an arbitrary ward could move to another jurisdiction, where exactly does one draw the line?

I am sure that Members have received their folders containing a map of the proposed wards. Members will see that there is some difficulty, as Rosetta ward, with an electorate of 3,427, is just beside Cregagh ward, with an electorate of 3,363. There is an arbitrary line through the middle of that area, which does not make sense, as one group of citizens would get their services from Belfast and another group would get their services from Lisburn.

Are you getting ready, Sammy?

12.30 pm

Mr S Wilson: I am sorry to intervene.

Mr B McCrea: That is OK. You may intervene a couple of times.

Mr S Wilson: I am sure that it will be the first of many.

Does the Member accept that the whole point of having the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner, as I pointed out earlier, will be to focus on cases where, if there were to be a boundary discrepancy, a case could be made to the commissioner to deal with that anomaly?

Mr B McCrea: I thank Sammy Wilson for his intervention. It strikes at the core of the matter, which is that people should be able to make representations — for example, that urban parts of Castlereagh identify more closely with Belfast than they do with Lisburn.

Lisburn is a city; it has a sense of identity and community, and although we like Castlereagh, and the people there, it may be stretching things to claim that it should be included in the Lisburn district electoral area. If we could be assured that the commissioner will try to look after local communities and local identities — if his or her remit is that broad — some issues could be resolved. This debate has been useful in addressing that point, so I thank Sammy Wilson for raising the matter.

I agree that gerrymandering is occurring. Sammy Wilson very helpfully produced a definition of “gerrymandering” — it means producing a set of boundaries in which a certain political outcome is required. It appears to me that natural geographic and community affinities are being ignored in an attempt to try to achieve a balance, and I do not think that that is fair or helpful to the ongoing develop­ment of Northern Ireland.

My fear is that the Assembly is abdicating respons­ibility on this issue — it is rushing the Bill through. The Assembly is saying that the matter will be put into the hands of a commissioner and that it will not be discussed here — so that we will not have to confront some of the very real issues facing our society. I would much prefer to have talked with Members about what makes sense — I will not run away from some of the more difficult issues.

There are issues about the political make up of Belfast that we should talk about; and who better to do so than Assembly Members — particularly once it is clear that they will not be local government councillors also.

I am grateful to a number of Members, Brian Wilson in particular, who provided a considerable amount of detail — several times, in fact. However, the issue is this — as local government accounts for only 5% of public-sector spending and, therefore, does not actually do very much, why we are going through this process? What we are trying to do is to increase participation and get better engagement from citizens. The aim is to coalesce around a sense of identity so that the democratic process is enhanced.

In the process of achieving that enhanced democratic process, an issue arises regarding making savings. I have severe doubts as to whether the process will actually deliver any savings — it will end up costing us money. The question must be asked — why are we doing this if it is going to cost us money? If there are going to be no benefits for the community, and if situations arise that are difficult to understand, the process is doomed to failure. That is an important point to highlight.

It is important that the citizens of Northern Ireland understand what is being discussed. They will not understand why areas such as Castlereagh, Lisburn and Moira should be linked. The issues that emerged when Larne and Ballymena were discussed — earlier, Larne was to be linked with Glenavy or with Dunmurry — it just does not make sense.

It just does not make sense.

A Member: That is not part of these proposals.

Mr B McCrea: Yes, but they were discussed earlier. We really want to find out where the local community sits on the proposals.

Mr S Wilson: Will the Member give way?

Mr B McCrea: I was waiting for Sammy to intervene.

Mr S Wilson: The Member keeps getting these matters wrong, and I hate having to correct him. Even under the seven-council proposal, the linkages involved Newtown­abbey, Antrim, Lisburn and Carrickfergus. Larne never entered into the configuration. The Member mentioned Larne’s being linked with Glenavy, but Larne was never part of that connection. I do not mind the Member illustrating points, but for goodness’ sake, will he illustrate them properly and not mislead the House? Sorry, I am not allowed to say mislead the House. Do not confuse us. [Laughter.]

Mr B McCrea: I apologise for confusing Mr Wilson.

Mr McNarry: I would not apologise for that.

Mr B McCrea: I am apologising because he has been very nice. Anomalies exist in the proposals. It would have seemed reasonable to link Larne to Carrickfergus. If it is not reasonable to do so, that issue must be taken on board.

Similarly, people in Dunmurry are particularly concerned about whether Dunmurry will be classed as part of Lisburn or of Belfast — or of west Belfast for that matter. Many areas have particular issues. It would be useful if we could accept in principle that we should try to consider geographical areas that are meaningful to people who live there. In turn, it is to be hoped that those areas will be coterminous with the council areas in which services will be offered. The Minister may be able to give some reassurance on that matter.

It is regrettable that Mr Alex Maskey is not in the Chamber. He seems intent on politicising the matter. He does not seem to care what the boundaries are, as long as legal safeguards are in place. His entire speech was a political fudge, and such fudging has been the problem with the entire process. This proposal is a political fudge by a cosy coalition that is more interested in maintaining power and avoiding any form of election than in improving local government or serving the people of Northern Ireland.

I was about to sit down, but if Mr Sammy Wilson, who is noticeably quiet at the moment, wants to have one last go at me, I will take an intervention. I have outlined what is really going on. The debate concerns not local government but the Assembly and political gerryman­dering. It ill behoves Members to support the motion.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Both Members thoroughly enjoyed the debate.

Mrs Foster: I thank most Members for their contri­bution to this important debate. I again emphasise that the Bill is an essential and urgent step towards bringing our local government arrangements into the twenty-first century.

I will deal with some issues that Members raised, because some need answered well. Alastair Ross started the debate and talked of the importance of moving ahead, and he mentioned the DUP position on the seven-council model. He also talked of the need for checks and balances in new governance arrangements, which will, of course, come before the House for full consideration.

Cathal Boylan continued the theme of checks and balances. He also mentioned the need to enhance service delivery. Service delivery is the key to everything that we do. Our citizens are the important element in all aspects of RPA, and it is important to have service delivery centred on them.

Roy Beggs commented on the long process of local government reform. He said that the Ulster Unionist Party felt that local government should be strengthened and renewed. He felt that local communities and identities were satisfied only by being based on Westminster parliamentary boundaries. I completely and utterly disagree with those remarks, and research will back me up.

Mr Beggs: Will the Minister give way?

Mrs Foster: If the Member lets me finish my point, I will give way to him. Research backs up my position. When initial research was being conducted, people were very clear about the fact that their local identity was not based on Westminster parliamentary boundaries or local council boundaries. In fact, they felt connected to much smaller areas, and those findings have been reflected in some of the considered speeches that we have heard about townland areas.

Mr Beggs: I thank the Minister for giving way. Although I stated a preference for the 15-council model, will the Minister acknowledge that, if there were to be 11 councils, the area comprising Larne, Carrickfergus and Newtownabbey in my constituency would be a more natural geographically linked area? I did not refer exclusively to what the Minister said previously; I said that if the 11-council model were to be adopted, better geographical units could be created.

Mrs Foster: I am sure that the Member will make those points to the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner when he or she is appointed. The Member indicated that he felt that having 15 councils was a more appropriate model; indeed, several other Members made that point.

A 15-council model would delay implementation incredibly, as it would mean that little and larger parts of councils would be taken, as opposed to entire or major parts of councils. That would create great difficulties for asset and liability splits because smaller parts of councils would be taken rather than larger parts.

The Member’s point about the Grand Orange Lodge was completely fallacious. I would have thought that living in Carrickfergus, he would have been a member of the County Antrim Grand Orange Lodge. However, perhaps the Carrickfergus Orange Lodge has made a unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) of which I was not aware.

David Ford moved on to look at model 11b and stated that he needed me to spell out why that model was chosen. It was selected for several reasons, including the service delivery scale; the desirability of councils having common boundaries with other organisations; coterminosity, which I will come back to; equality; social need; rural issues; population distribution; and employment patterns. Other reasons included access to services, given the existing public-sector infrastructure; local identity; the influence of natural geography in creating communities; rating the wealth base of possible council areas; and the influence of other key strategies, such as A Shared Future and the regional development strategy.

Mr Ford recognised that it was always going to be difficult to have one-to-one coterminosity with major service providers. However, we have been working with the other service providers to find a way to deliver services to the new local councils effectively. I believe that we can do that. Examples of how that works in practice are the new health and social care trusts that the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety established. The Minister has made it clear that he is willing to work towards a model that can provide the accountability that is necessary for local government.

We had hoped that the police would wait before establishing new policing districts, but they decided to proceed. However, I understand that they may revisit their decision, and I have already held a meeting with the Police Federation about the issues that have been raised.

Mr Ford also referred to the boundaries of the “big banana” as opposed to the “small banana”. All I can say is that I am glad that he is not naming the new councils and that someone else is dealing with that. [Laughter.]

There are issues about the naming of the new councils, and the Member knows that the Local Government Boundary Commissioner will present the names of the new councils, but that is entirely open —

Dr Farry: Will the Minister elaborate on the process of the naming of the new local councils? The previous time that the Boundary Commissioner considered names, Lord Rooker had already allocated a name for the commissioner to consider. The commissioner took the approach that if he found a better name, he would consider changing it, but in the absence of that, the existing name would remain.

The names that were suggested were not linked to identity but to big concepts such as the south-eastern region, inner Belfast and outer Belfast. Can the Minister ensure that a proper process will be implemented to devise the council names and that unlike in the previous period, when the public made no suggestions, we can have a proper debate on the matter?

Mrs Foster: That was the point that I was going to develop before the Member intervened. The Local Government Boundaries Commissioner will make recommendations about names or he or she may simply decide to number the names. Essentially, it will be up to the new councils to determine their names. In my view, that is the proper way to do it, as it provides local ownership of the names.

Mr Ford raised an important point about the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner and the District Electoral Area Commissioner.

Before the previous review of local government boundaries, the Department and the Northern Ireland Office discussed that issue, and whether work could be done at the same time. The Northern Ireland Office introduced legislation to allow the District Electoral Area Commissioner to be appointed earlier, rather than wait until after the Local Government Boundary Commissioner had been appointed, so that the two commissioners could be in post at the same time.

12.45 pm

As Mr Ford will be aware, the District Electoral Area Commissioner was not appointed because of the impasse in respect of local government. I am happy to discuss that issue with the Member. I hope to ensure, with the Secretary of State’s assistance, that the District Electoral Area Commissioner will be appointed much sooner than next year. Progress can be made on that matter. I have listened to the Mr Ford’s comments about the District Electoral Area Commissioner, and I hope that I have also responded to his and his colleagues’ questions on that matter.

Discussion also focused on what is meant by the term “readily identifiable”, which is included in schedule 4 to the Local Government Act (Northern Ireland) 1972 and is part of the remit of the Local Government Boundary Commissioner. That term does not have a specialised meaning — it has not been given a definition. I hope that the commissioner will be able to take evidence during his consultation on what people on the ground consider to be readily identifiable boundaries. If people believe that a point needs to be made about social cohesion, and that it is readily identifiable on the ground, I cannot see why the Local Government Boundary Commission could not take that on board.

Mr Gallagher discussed contracts. In particular, he mentioned Craigavon Borough Council’s legal services. I understand that the majority of councillors are in a similar position in respect of legal services. That has certainly been my experience of local councils. In any event, the modernisation legislation will deal with that matter. The strategic leadership board is examining the issue of procurement. Given the day that is in it, that is no bad thing.

Mr Gallagher also raised the issue of assistant commissioners. It will be for the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner to decide whether there is a need for assistant commissioners — I would have thought that there will be. The commissioner will also decide the assistant commissioners’ responsibilities. If the commissioner decides that assistant commissioners are needed, he or she will make a request for their appoint­ment to the Department, which, with DFP’s approval, will determine whether its terms and conditions are met.

I thank George Robinson for his comments in support of the Bill. Councillor Alex Maskey mentioned that all parties were represented on the local government task force and the strategic leadership board. He said that no matter how Northern Ireland is divided up into local government districts, not everyone will be pleased. Indeed, this morning, I listened to Radio Ulster’s ‘Thought for the Day’, which mentioned Benjamin Disraeli’s comment that it is possible to please some of the people some of the time, but not all of the people all of the time. I cannot please everyone when it comes to difficulties over boundaries. However, I will try to do my best for the entire community of Northern Ireland.

George Robinson welcomed the timely boundary reviews, which are referred to in clause 2 of the Bill. The reviews will be carried out to re-examine boundaries every eight to 12 years. I acknowledge the work that has been done and will continue to be done by the strategic leadership board. I want to ensure buy-in from local government.

In a long speech that had many interventions, Sammy Wilson discussed the 11-council model. He referred to the fact that the Ulster Unionists on Carrickfergus Borough Council were split last night and that some of them voted for the 11-council model. Roy Beggs and Basil McCrea seem to have conceded that the headquarters for the Ballymena, Carrickfergus and Larne council would be in Ballymena. The fact is that service centres will be spread throughout the new council areas. It is right and proper that that should be the case.

Basil McCrea said that there was no opportunity to make amendments to the Bill. I am sorry that he does not understand the process that is taking place in the House. I am sure that the Business Office will explain to him that he may put down amendments. Mr Ford has said that he will do so, and I look forward to seeing his amendments.

The Department is alert to the boundary defacement issue to which Sammy Wilson referred. Clause 2(2) states that that is dealt with every eight to 12 years through provision for a periodic review, which Members should welcome.

After listening to some of today’s comments, I am glad that the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner is independent. The former commissioner took the view that the “whole or the major part” of a district mentioned in clause 1(2) means the geographical area of a council rather than its population level. However, the terms “whole” or “major” are open to interpretation and may be defined differently by the new commissioner, subject to advice. Sammy Wilson also referred to previous models that were consulted on extensively from 2001. I thank him for his kind words of commendation.

Billy Armstrong talked about the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner’s tasks, which are set out in schedule 4 to the Local Government Act (Northern Ireland) 1972. He also talked about best practice, examples of which I expect the commissioner to study.

Mr McKay talked about effectiveness being a priority, which of course it will be.

Mr Weir considered the coterminosity between parliamentary constituencies and other services. He is correct to say that services are far from being provided on a parliamentary basis and right to urge a balanced approach to reform. He referred to the flexibility on boundaries engendered in clause 2(3)(c) and the fact that the commissioner can recommend, within a range of plus or minus five, 60 electoral wards for Belfast and 40 for all other councils.

Dr Farry indicated that he was guilty as charged when it came to being an “anorak”. Members are certainly doing their bit for anorak sales. The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment will be very pleased with our support for the Northern Ireland economy. Dr Farry felt that the balance between powers and the number of councils is wrong. I have said repeatedly, and will continue to say, that the Bill is the start of a process for local government. The addition of £25 million to local government’s budget is not a bad beginning. I disagree with Dr Farry’s contention that £15 million is more sustainable. The Bill plans for the long-term future of local government.

Dr Farry talked about revised boundaries pulling different areas together and said that the Bill failed to deal with the issues. However, that is not what is happening; this is about reorganisation. A wholescale reorganisation of planning is taking place as part of the new council set-up. I envisage that there will also be reorganisation in housing and policing, and interaction among health bodies will be improved. The Minister for Regional Development is changing the structure of Roads Service so that it is better integrated with local councils.

Dr Farry talked about the separate process for council wards within electoral areas. I hope that I have answered him on that issue. Attempts to change the procedure in district electoral areas would mean amending the competence of the Assembly under the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which would result in a huge delay. I hope that he accepts the fact that we are going to work with the Secretary of State to ensure that a District Electoral Areas Commissioner is appointed as soon as possible.

Dr Farry made the fair point that parliamentary boundaries were set up on a completely different basis to council boundaries and that they would probably change in different cycles. He welcomed the boundary reviews envisaged in clause 2, which, as I have already said, are essential in order to deal with boundary defacement.

Mr Wilson was completely against the proposals in every which way. [Interruption.]

I am referring to the Member for North Down Mr Brian Wilson. He was against the proposed number of councillors, and felt that the parameters had changed. He is correct — the parameters have changed, because we now have an Executive in place, which we did not have three years ago. That had to be taken into account when examining the new model for local government, and that is what we have done.

Brian Wilson may want to add levels of government, but I certainly do not. I want to ensure efficiency and effectiveness, while at all times taking into account the citizens who are at the centre of our concerns. Performance-management arrangements will be put in place and developed so that key drivers will ensure efficiency in the new councils. I reiterate that this is a process, not an event.

Brian Wilson said that he was happy with 26 councils. I got the feeling from his speech that he would like to see the introduction of parish councils. He was the only Member to say that he felt that the 26-council model was sustainable in the long run. He pointed out that Wales has 22 councils. Even though the population of Wales is 3·5 million, and our population is nowhere near that, Brian Wilson said that we needed 26 councils. I thought that the Green Party was against waste, but it is obviously not. I have been called many things in my life, but I have yet to be called a bureaucrat.

Mr Weir: Wales has 22 councils for 3·5 million people. Surely, if we are to follow the Welsh example, which Brian Wilson seems to be keen on, 1·7 million people should have 11 councils. That represents half the Welsh numbers. Maths may not be a strong point for some Members, but clearly, if we followed the Welsh example, we would end up with 11 councils.

Mrs Foster: Brian Wilson said that he had a difficulty with the Belfast boundary — a theme that was taken up by Mr Weir. Belfast will remain as one council area, but it could be expected to expand in future in order to recognise the natural growth of the city and its community boundaries. Belfast should be allowed to expand. It is strange that Brian Wilson said that he wanted that to happen, but also expressed a desire for smaller councils. He cannot have it both ways.

Basil McCrea began by completely misunderstanding a point that was made by Dr Farry, who talked about a boundary review every eight to 12 years. Basil McCrea took that to mean that such a review was the respons­ibility of the Local Government Boundaries Commis­sioner, who can examine entire council operations or parts of those councils. The commissioner’s remit is not restricted in the way that Basil McCrea understood it. He also said that there were 50,000 people living in Enniskillen. There may be more than 60,000 people in Fermanagh, but Enniskillen certainly does not have a population of 50,000.

The remit of the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner is as stated in the Local Government Act (Northern Ireland) 1972, with which I am sure Basil McCrea is very familiar. He referred to a previous boundaries commissioner, but I am more interested in what the new commissioner will deliver for local government. Basil McCrea then looked into his crystal ball, and said that, geographically, and from a community point of view, people would be ignored. I have no idea what the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner will present to me, save that which falls within his or her terms of reference as stated in schedule 4 of the 1972 Act. Basil McCrea obviously has some inside knowledge of the new commissioner’s intentions.

I do not accept Basil McCrea’s contention that local government does not do very much. He may be speaking for himself when he talks about not doing very much, but there are a great many councillors in this country who do a lot of work, and have carried the burden of this country for the past 35 to 40 years.

Basil McCrea made a final point about not wanting elections.

Mr S Wilson: Does the Minister acknowledge that, in anticipation of her attack on him, the Member has fled the House?

Mrs Foster: I am sure that he is watching the debate on a monitor, with great interest.

1.00 pm

Mr McNarry: The Member to whom the Minister referred asked me, if the matter arose, to apologise to her for his absence owing to the fact that he is hosting an event in the Long Gallery, and I am sure that the Minister will accept that.

Mrs Foster: The Member will be able to read my remarks in the Hansard report, as I am sure he always does.

With regard to the elections that that Member claimed the Democratic Unionist Party is afraid of, the majority of councillors who asked me not to hold council elections next year were from the Ulster Unionist Party. That said, there will be elections next year — European elections — and this side of the House looks forward to them greatly.

Mr Kennedy: Will the Minister be standing?

Mrs Foster: No, I will not be standing. I have a job to do in the House, and I intend to do it.

I urge Members to support the motion. It is right for the country and will benefit local government.

Question put and agreed to.


That the Second Stage of the Local Government (Boundaries) Bill (NIA 14/07) be agreed.

Commission for Victims and Survivors Bill

Consideration Stage

The junior Minister (Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister) (Mr Donaldson): The Consideration Stage of the Commission for Victims and Survivors Bill will not be moved today. The First Minister and deputy First Minister will issue a statement, and junior Minister Kelly and I will brief the Business Committee. Furthermore, we have asked for the opportunity to brief the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister tomorrow about the current state of play with regard to the Bill.

Mr Deputy Speaker: The Consideration Stage of the Bill will not be moved.

Mrs D Kelly: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker.

Mr Kennedy: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker.

Mr Ford: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Point of order.

Mrs D Kelly: Who to?

Mr Kennedy: As Chairperson of the —

Mr Deputy Speaker: So that I am not accused of being partisan, I call Mr Kennedy.

Mrs D Kelly: I believe that I was first, and not because I am a woman —

Mr Deputy Speaker: Everyone, please sit down. I call Mr Kennedy first.

The Chairperson of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (Mr Kennedy): Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and I accept that I have been called first, as Chairperson of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister.

I welcome, at least, the indication from the junior Minister that he and junior Minister Kelly intend to address the Committee tomorrow on this important matter. It is vital that the matter is clarified as quickly as possible.

As a Member of the House — and not in my capacity of Chairperson of the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister — my point of order is: given that accelerated passage should be used only as an emergency measure in exceptional circumstances, given that the House was previously informed by the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) that accelerated passage was essential to the early progress of the Bill, and given that this is the second occasion on which this piece of Government legislation has been withdrawn at the last possible moment, are you, Mr Deputy Speaker, able to confirm, or give an opinion as to whether such actions are an abuse of the accelerated passage procedure, and what steps will you take to protect the House from such an abuse? Furthermore, in light of today’s events, will a statement be made to the House in order to explain the reasons for the delay and to inform members of the Business Committee, whose job it is to arrange the business of this House?

Mr Deputy Speaker: That is not a matter for the Speaker; as the Member has already said, it is a matter for the Executive to bring before the Business Committee for consideration in due course.

Mr Kennedy: Further to that point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. The important point is whether the abuse of the accelerated passage process in these instances can be tolerated by you as Deputy Speaker of this House.

Mr Deputy Speaker: That is not a point of order.

Mrs D Kelly: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. We have witnessed what is known in common parlance as “an absolute Horlicks” in relation to the Commission for Victims and Survivors Bill. Further to the point of order made by Mr Kennedy, will the Deputy Speaker now give a direction to the Executive that this is an abuse of the House, and also, more importantly, an abuse of the victims and survivors?

Mr Deputy Speaker: Once again, that is not a matter for the Speaker, but for the Executive and the Business Committee.

Mr Ford: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I appreciate that Mr Kelly gave us some warning of this statement, and that Mr Donaldson is in the Chamber, but is it not an abuse of the procedures of this House that the two responsible Ministers — who are failing to take action to deal with the urgent needs of victims over a long period of time — are not in the Chamber? We have heard from Mr Donaldson that they are proposing to make a statement. Is it not your role, as Deputy Speaker, to insist that they come to the House to make a statement to the people of Northern Ireland through their elected representatives, and not allow them to sneak something out to the press, when they have patently failed to give victims the priority that they said that they would?

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Mr Deputy Speaker: I do not have the power to do that.

Mr Ford: Further to that point or order, Mr Deputy Speaker. May I ask that you make that request to them, whether or not you have the power?

Mr Deputy Speaker: Mr Ford will be aware that the Business Committee is meeting at 1.00 pm, and I suggest that that issue can be raised there. That leads me on to the next point —

Mr McNarry: Further to that point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Following your rulings, which I respect and understand, will you give the House a sense of what the matter is that you say will be referred to the Business Committee, and how it will progress through that Committee? We have no sense whatsoever of what you are talking about.

Mr Deputy Speaker: As I am not the Chairperson of the Business Committee, I can give no undertaking to anyone. If there are no other legitimate —

Mr Ford: Further to that point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I understand that it is the practice in Westminster that the Speaker makes it clear to Ministers that their role is to relate to the House in the first instance, and the press on a secondary basis. Is it not possible for you to remind Ministers in this place that they have a duty to report to this House and not to the press?

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Mr Ford, I believe that you have made your point. If it is possible, I will move on.

Mr McNarry: On a further point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Again, respecting your rulings and your decision, noting the point that you are not the Chairperson of the Business Committee, and understanding who the Chairperson of that Committee is, can you indicate to the House that, following the meeting of the Business Committee, the Chairperson of that Committee will make a statement to this House as to what transpired at that meeting?

Mr Deputy Speaker: The Member is an experienced Member of this House, and knows very well that I cannot do that. I have tried several times to say that the Business Committee has arranged to meet immediately upon the lunchtime suspension. I propose, therefore, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm.

The sitting was suspended at 1.09 pm.

On resuming (Mr Speaker in the Chair) —

2.00 pm

Assembly Business

Mr Kennedy: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Before the House suspended for lunch, several points of order were raised about the failure to move the Consideration Stage of the Commission for Victims and Survivors Bill. Have you had a chance to consider those points of order, and will you be responding to them? If so, when will that be?

Mr Speaker: I listened to the points of order that were raised just before lunch. The Executive are responsible for the matter. If a Minister decides that a Bill is not to be given a legislative stage on a certain day, that is the business of the Executive and that Minister, not the business of the House. We must try to bring as much clarity as possible to the matter.

Mr K Robinson: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Is it not the case that the Committee on Procedures is struggling to streamline the work of the House? To allow written ministerial statements to be made in lieu of oral statements is one option that is being considered. It will be difficult to persuade Members to accept such changes if current procedures are surrounded by doubt.

Mr Speaker: The party Whips attended the Business Committee at lunchtime, and the Bill’s Consideration Stage has been provisionally scheduled into the business of the House. That is all that I can say. Members should move on. I have listened to the points of order that have been raised, and I will not accept any further ones. It is for the Executive and the Minister concerned to give a Bill a legislative stage. It is not up to the Speaker to determine whether that is right or wrong. The Minister has not moved the Consideration Stage of the Bill, so the business of the House should proceed.

Private Members’ Business

Graduated Driving Licensing

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

Mr Ross: I beg to move

That this Assembly recognises the positive impact that graduated driving licences have had on reducing road traffic accidents in other parts of the world; and believes that a similar scheme should be introduced in Northern Ireland to combat the unacceptably high number of deaths on our roads.

There has been significant media interest in the motion, which has been the subject of some misreporting. To clarify, if the motion is approved, we want a consultation on the graduated driving licences scheme. That would present us with a menu of options, and we could choose the ones that apply to Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland has more road accidents and suffers more road deaths than any other United Kingdom region. Driver deaths are 40% more common in Northern Ireland than they are in England, Scotland or Wales — there was another tragic road accident in Loughgall last night. Therefore, road safety is one of the biggest issues on the political agenda, and it seems that every week we hear of another tragedy on our roads.

I imagine that every Member has been affected by a road tragedy through the death of a relative, friend or someone known to us in our constituencies. We often hear of young people having their lives cut short because of a car crash, and, more often than not, there are young teenage passengers in the car who also die or are seriously injured, sometimes for life. In the summer after I left school and before I started university, three people whom I knew lost their lives on the roads: a close friend; someone with whom I played hockey; and someone who went to my church. They were all 18 years old.

The 17- to 24-year-old age group is more likely to be involved in a serious road accident than any other group. Sadly, there is a boy-racer and girl-racer culture in Northern Ireland. That is not to say that every young driver is a bad driver or that every young driver is irresponsible.

However, the figures show that young drivers are particularly at risk in Northern Ireland. More than a quarter of drivers killed or seriously injured between 2001 and 2005 were between 17 and 24 years old. The Department of the Environment (DOE) must be congratulated for its efforts to tackle the issue, and significant progress has been made. Through correspondence with the Minister, I am aware of the many schemes that are run by DOE to promote road safety and to educate teenagers in schools. Most of us are also familiar with the graphic road safety television advertisements. The DOE is working closely with the Department of Education on this issue, and that is to be welcomed. The PSNI, too, has worked with the DOE to delivery the road safety message through the Roadsafe roadshow and other PSNI-sponsored schemes such as ‘The Right to Drive: the Right to Life’ teaching resource pack.

Education in this area is important. The best way to learn how to drive responsibly, however, is through practical experience. There is, perhaps, scope for driver-type classes in schools, similar to those in America. However, those must be accompanied by other initiatives. This is where there is a role for the graduated driver licensing scheme. I well remember the day that I passed my driving test and went home to put my R-plates on my mum’s car and take a group of friends for a drive. Although I contend that I was, and still am, a sensible driver, the feeling of freedom and independence that a young person gets when he passes his driving test is an important step in becoming an adult.

Although the graduated driver licensing scheme might not, at first, be popular with 17-year-olds, it is a practical step that can be taken to reduce the carnage on the roads. When those young people grow up, they will be glad that the Assembly took steps to ensure that their friends were still around when they were 27 years old.

The graduated driver licensing scheme is fairly straightforward, and it has proved to be successful in other countries. It began in the United States in the mid-1990s, and has since been extended to most states in the US. The scheme is also in New Zealand and Australia. Road deaths and accidents have fallen sharply in all countries that operate graduated driver licensing schemes. In the United States, for example, road deaths among 16-year-olds have fallen by 20%, while in New Zealand, car crash injuries among 15- to 19-year-olds have fallen by 23%. Such figures suggest that the scheme can make a real difference.

The scheme does not specifically target young drivers: it targets inexperienced drivers and helps them to gain the experience that they need behind the wheel so that they can drive safely. Young people make up the vast majority of new drivers. Due to a mix of inexperience and lack of maturity, however, they are also the most likely to be killed on the roads. Many studies have found that young drivers lack the judgement required when driving. They overestimate their physical and driving abilities, and underestimate the dangers of the road by performing high-risk manoeuvres, speeding or tailgating.

I am not outlining detailed proposals today. I am opening a debate on this scheme and introducing the broad principles behind it. There are three main steps to graduated driver licensing. The first is the learner’s licence. At present, there is no time limit before a learner driver can apply to do a driving test. Under the proposed scheme, there could be a six- or 12-month timescale for learning, during which there would be a minimum number of hours of driving with an accredited supervisor. Studies in Canada suggest that the time period should be a minimum of one year, and that there should be at least 50 hours of certified supervised practice. However, we can decide on our own model if the scheme is implemented in Northern Ireland.

Accredited supervised learning is provided by a qualified driving instructor. However, given the requirement of a minimum number of supervised hours, driving instructors would be required for only a certain percentage of the time, otherwise there could be a significant financial burden on learners. Other accredited supervisors could include those who have held a full driving licence for five years, and they do not have to be parents.

In addition, learners would benefit from having supervised experience of driving on motorways or dual carriageways at higher speeds. Someone on the radio this morning suggested that that would be a good idea, because for many drivers their first experience of driving in a fast stream of traffic comes on the day that they pass their test. Northern Ireland has many rural drivers who might not live near a motorway or who do not drive on motorways or dual carriageways regularly. Nevertheless, this option should be considered.

Once learners’ requirements are met, they can apply for their test. If the driver passes the test, he enters the second stage of the scheme.

In Northern Ireland, a stepping scheme towards the driving licence has already been in place since the late 1960s, when R-plates were introduced. Those must be displayed for one year and, during that time, novice drivers are restricted to driving at 45 mph. For the first two years after drivers pass their test, they face tougher penalties for breaking the laws of the road, only requiring six penalty points to lose their licence.

The graduated driver-licensing scheme aims to introduce driving in a low-risk way, and it would add further restrictions to the current laws. Statistics demonstrate that the most dangerous time to drive is between 9.00 pm and 6.00 am. More accidents occur during those times than at other times and, because of the darkness, it is a more challenging time for new drivers. Under the scheme, restricted drivers would be prohibited from driving between certain hours. That would not have to be between 9.00 pm and 6.00 pm, but new drivers could be prohibited from driving at night for any period of up to a year. There could, of course, be some exemptions for practical reasons.

A further restriction is that new drivers who are under 20 years of age could not take any teenage passengers, or would be limited to taking only one teenage passenger, for the period during which they must display R-plates. The theory behind that is that passengers can be a distraction, and young passengers can create the peer pressure to cause drivers to engage in unsafe driving, such as speeding, to try to impress others. Evidence shows that teenage passengers increase the crash risk for young drivers, especially for male young drivers. There could also be exemptions to that proposal, perhaps to allow immediate family members to travel with young drivers for practical reasons.

It is also appropriate to introduce a zero alcohol limit for novice drivers, although the merits of that should be rolled out to all drivers. Zero tolerance for new drivers is operational in countries that currently have a graduated driving licence.

I have heard the suggestion that the engine size that new drivers can drive should be limited. I reject that idea as unworkable and potentially discriminatory against people whose only access to a car is to borrow a parent’s car, which may have a bigger engine. That is not a practical way forward.

Once the period of displaying R-plates is up, a driver would be awarded a full licence. The R-plate restrictions would be lifted, although those could be imposed again if the driver were convicted of a road offence or were to gain a certain amount of penalty points.

The scheme may not be popular with young people; I cannot be accused of playing the populist card with them. However, it would be popular with parents, and any measure that aims to reduce the number of young people who are killed on the roads must be given serious consideration. I look forward to hearing Members’ views, and I hope that the House will unite in backing my motion.

Mr Boylan: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom labhairt i bhfabhar an rúin. I support the motion, and I thank the Members for tabling it. I am glad that Mr Ross clarified that the scheme he mentioned should form part of a review; I look forward to bringing proposals and recommendations. I declare an interest as a member of the all-party working group on road safety. As Sinn Féin’s spokesperson on road safety, I welcome, at any time, the opportunity to discuss ways in which improvements can be made and measures that can be introduced to reduce the fatalities and serious injuries to motorists, passengers and pedestrians.

The graduated licence system is in place in many states, including Canada, the USA, New Zealand and Australia. There are three stages to the system: the supervised learning period; an intermediate licence after passing the test, which limits driving in high-risk situations, except under supervision; and a licence with full privileges that is available only after completing the first two stages. We have some elements of that system here in that there is a provisional licence, a period of restriction and a full licence. However, the statistics show that that system is not working, so I welcome the debate.

The measures of the systems that work in other countries should be considered. I have previously raised the point with the Minister of the Environment that early education of young people would be a major benefit. In other countries, they learn at 15 and 16 years of age. We learn the theory here, but other countries get practical education. The practical side of those courses would give people at 15 and 16 years of age a gauge on braking distances and how to handle a car, and would be more effective at an earlier age.

2.15 pm

Many young people cannot afford driving lessons. At 17 years of age, they have to pay approximately £25 a lesson, which is a lot of money, but that cost burden would be eased if schools started to provide driving lessons. When young people finally get their licences, they discover that their insurance costs three times more than their vehicle.

Mr Ross: On this morning’s ‘BBC Breakfast’, a representative of the insurance companies suggested that they would be likely to reduce the premiums for drivers who complete the scheme, as has happened in other countries.

Mr Boylan: I thank the Member for his intervention. The insurance companies have a major role to play in reducing the costs that are incurred by young drivers, and they must take their share of responsibility. Teaching driving skills to those of a young age will reduce the cost of lessons.

I am aware of the Minister’s commitment to the ongoing review of road safety, and the Committee for the Environment also has a role to play. I welcome Mr Ross’s announcement of a review, in which the Committee should play a major part. However, some measures that Mr Ross mentioned, such as preventing 19-year-olds from driving during the hours of darkness, may be too extreme. I do not want to go down that road, and we must bear in mind that we all had to learn to drive. However, there was merit in some of Mr Ross’s suggestions.

Perhaps the Assembly should consider making it compulsory for all learners to be taught to drive on all types of road and in all weather conditions, as I have suggested to the Minister. That would involve driving in all circumstances: at night; at peak times through towns and cities; on motorways; and on dual carriageways.

Sadly, the success of any system is measured by statistics. The proposals are geared towards 17- to 25-year-old males, but first-time drivers who fall outside that age bracket must also be considered.

The Assembly has an opportunity to target resources at a younger age group: teaching young people driving skills at an early stage will enable them to become better, safer drivers. I hope that Members accept that point and recognise that the Department of the Environment must resource the venture adequately. If that is the case, I will support the motion. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Gardiner: I thank the Member who secured the debate on such an important and innovative motion. Every Member is aware of the horrendous carnage on Northern Ireland’s roads every year. So far in 2008, some 31 individuals have lost their lives on the roads. That is not a mere statistic: those people were parents, sons, daughters and friends. The loss of each life irreversibly alters many others.

In Northern Ireland, young male drivers between the ages of 17 and 24 are over-represented as victims and as drivers responsible for fatal collisions. Throughout the UK, young drivers account for more than two in five road deaths, despite owning only one in eight licences. It can be argued that young people are involved in, and are responsible for, so many deaths and accidents because they are inexperienced. The fact that they are often unaware of how to deal with dangerous situations and simply want to show off to their friends should not be ignored.

The implementation of a graduated driving licence is a possible solution. As it has proved successful in various parts of the world, such as America, New Zealand and Canada, it should be given serious consideration.

For a year after passing the driving test, new drivers in Northern Ireland must display R-plates, and they are not permitted to drive faster than 45 miles an hour — that is one component of a graduated driving scheme.

Has the R-plate system been successful? In fact, in the mid-1990s, research by Queen’s University found that the restrictions did not reduce collisions, and cameras located on two major roads recorded a driver with R-plates speeding every two minutes.

More must be done to save the lives of young people and others on our roads.

The graduated driving licence comprises three stages. During the initial learner stage, an individual must only drive while accompanied, and a minimum amount of time in the driving seat is required. Research conducted by the UK Government demonstrates that the more time an individual spends in the driving seat the less likely it is that he or she will be involved in an accident. Normally, the individual must pass a test to advance to the next stage.

During the next stage, individuals can drive while unaccompanied but with some enforced restrictions. They are often not allowed to drive between 11.00 pm and 6.00 am — the hours when most young people are involved in accidents. They cannot carry passengers, and the engine size of the vehicle they are permitted to drive can be restricted. I disagree with Mr Ross’s earlier assertion: young people are inclined to drive large cars belonging to their parents in an attempt to show how fast they can drive.

The stages often last a year, and individuals must pass a test before they can claim a full licence. By the time an individual claims a full licence, he or she is, hopefully, older and wiser and should have gained increased driving experience in a more controlled setting. In all countries in which such a scheme has been implemented, young drivers’ crash rates have decreased significantly. In the first year of implementation, figures indicate a decrease of between 10% and 40%. However, studies in New York show that the effect is greater at night, resulting in a 60% reduction in collisions.

Implementing such a scheme may cause inconvenience to young drivers, and there may be arguments about freedom and economics. However, those factors must be weighed against the cost of road accidents for families and society. Initially, young people may not respond positively to such a scheme as it is restrictive in some respects. However, we must look at the long-term picture. A short period of restrictions is better when, in the long term, lives can be saved. The implementation of this scheme could produce a generation of better drivers, which could result in a long-term reduction in the number of fatalities on the roads. I support the motion.

Mr Dallat: I am delighted that the Minister is in the Chamber to listen to the debate; I pay tribute to her for recognising that road safety is a serious issue. Essentially, the licensing scheme has not changed much over the last 50 years, apart from the addition of the theory test. Driving instructors have been calling for a radical overhaul of the driving test for some time. I hope that today’s debate on graduated licensing will encourage rapid, focused and clearly directed progress.

Graduated driving licensing creates opportunities to reward young drivers for making progress. However, it must not be considered to be a big stick with which to whack young drivers over the head, but rather as a carrot to encourage, cajole and entice them to view driving as a process that rewards those who take it seriously and stimulates positive thinking among those who do not see the benefits first time round.

The development of a new system of licensing based on the principles of graduation must incorporate a partnership between the young driver, his family, the Department of the Environment and, most importantly, the insurance companies. The insurance companies have enormous power to promote positive thinking among young drivers, and, frankly, they do not do it well.

New drivers are immediately penalised for being young, and insurance premiums are overloaded to such an extent that most young drivers are covered by policies taken out under their parents’ names. Young drivers cannot find a company that will insure them until they are 25 years old: that is crazy. Where is the incentive for young drivers to be responsible and feel rewarded for being accident-free? There are none.

Parents can also be an important element in the partnership which directs young drivers through the stages of graduated licensing. In that, new technology can play a part. For example, new drivers could be required to have an electronic device fitted to their car which alerts parents if the car is not being driven within the law — for example, within speed restrictions imposed on the young driver. It would be far better for parents to receive a text message informing them that their car had broken the speed limit, rather than visitors who tell them that their young one has been killed or seriously injured.

However, I emphasise that young drivers’ involvement in the partnership should be honoured by the reward of moving on to the next stage in the graduated licensing scheme, which must be designed to encourage responsibility in a new generation of drivers. Insurers could play a role in that by lowering premiums and increasing no-claims bonuses.

Working together, we can reduce the carnage on our roads. That is important, considering that more have died on the roads than through the 35 years of violence. If we can reduce the need for late-night visits from police officers, accompanied by family clergy, to break the bad news that loved ones have lost their lives in an avoidable traffic incident, then the time spent on this debate will have been well worthwhile. However, I emphasise that any graduated licensing scheme must be positive, attractive and rewarding to the young driver, and that requires partnership the whole way through.

We are all aware that road safety is being reviewed, and that is welcome. The way in which we license people to drive on the roads is a critical part of that. It had been a long time since a person carrying a red flag was required to walk in front of a horseless carriage, since Bridget Driscoll became the first road traffic victim in London, and since the driving test was seriously revised. Now is the time to begin that process, in a way that makes the test relevant to the modern world.

I support the motion in principle, but reform can be achieved only in a spirit of partnership with driving instructors and the others to whom I have referred. There has to be more carrot and less stick.

Mr Lunn: The Alliance Party supports the motion as a good starting point for a debate on the best way forward. As others have mentioned, the original attempt at a graduated licensing system, the R-plate restriction, has been with us for many years. It seems that other countries have made progress in this respect, though they have had different priorities and have achieved different levels of success. We encourage the Minister and her Department to consider all examples. The R-plate system has worked to some extent: perhaps it has now had its day. There are many other ideas out there, and we should look at them all.

The motion does not specifically mention young drivers, but there is no doubt that it is aimed at them. They are the most likely recipients of a new driving licence. There is no doubt that young male drivers cause a disproportionate number of serious accidents.

Several Members have mentioned the attitude of insurance companies. As a recently-retired insurance man, I have something to say about that. Insurance companies are ambivalent in the way that they handle the situation. On the one hand, they will not insure young drivers because they cannot make a profit from them. On the other, if a young driver’s father buys a new Vauxhall Corsa, he will probably receive free insurance for his 18-year-old son with it. The garage which sold the car will have paid perhaps £600 to finance that insurance, yet the same insurance company would rather not give cover at all if the customer approached it directly, or might charge £3,000 for it. There is a clear anomaly there which must be addressed at some point. Commercial companies must make their own decisions, but that position is contradictory.

In this country, there is a perceived right to drive. It is hard to lose one’s licence and almost impossible to be banned from driving for life. The public attitude needs to change: a driving licence is a privilege, not a right. Serious offences should mean serious penalties and, ultimately, the permanent loss of a licence.

That attitude should be encouraged from the start when the provisional licence is awarded. The graduated process recommended in the motion would mean that obtaining a full licence would probably take between three and five years.

2.30 pm

I hope that the debate will open up a discussion about what other steps should be taken. The R-plate restriction, particularly as it affects motorway driving, has become a nonsense in this day and age. I have heard suggestions about the number of passengers, night-time curfews and various other ideas from around the world that are all worth considering, including some fairly wacky ideas from the United States. However, I want to highlight the model used in the Netherlands, where any serious offence committed during the first five years of a person’s being awarded their licence leads to the withdrawal of that licence and a requirement to do a retest. It is too early to assess the effect of that policy as it was only introduced in 2002, but I like the sound of it.

My suggestion is that any infringement in the early years of a person’s having a licence should result in a driving ban — it could be as short as a month for something not too serious or as long as a year. If the ban is for more than six months, the person should have to do a retest. Apparently that is how the German system works — I am not saying that we can always learn from Germans, but their system could be considered. Such a system would give our young, and occasionally headstrong, male — and sometimes female — drivers a clear indication of the value of their licence as they progress from their probationary period through to having a full licence.

The Alliance Party supports the motion and would be willing to contribute to any consultation on the matter, and I thank Mr Ross for tabling it.

By way of an aside, the Lisburn road safety committee was recently reconstituted after a break of a few years, and I am glad to see the Assembly taking a direct interest in it and in other local groups.

Mr Speaker: I remind Members to check that their mobile phones are switched off. There seems to be a mobile phone ringing somewhere — I do not want to name anybody at the moment, but I ask Members to check them.

Mr Brolly: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. This is a timely debate on an important topic because, for a small area, the place that I come from has a terrible number of road fatalities among its young people.

It is important to consider whether graduated driving licences should be introduced; however, perhaps more important for us to consider is our young people’s attitude to cars. It is absolutely different, Mr Speaker, from yours and mine. We see a car as something fundamental that costs us far too much money and we think of the cost of keeping it in tyres and fuel; but, for young people, a car is a symbol of who they are. They identify one another by the cars that they drive. If I ask a young fellow in my part of the world who someone is, that person will be described to me according to what car he drives, where he bought it, how many lights he has on it, and how low its suspension is.

When considering how to reduce the number of young deaths on the roads, we must understand our young people’s perspective. We must also make them understand that we will not introduce legislation simply to punish them or to put them off the road or to be hard on them; we must convince them that we are concerned about keeping them safe on the roads.

It is clear that the use of prolonged licences has paid dividends in other parts of the world. The highest figure that I am aware of is from Canada, where, after introducing graduated driving licences, a 31% downturn in fatalities was recorded. That is a huge decrease. Some of the states in America identified an 8% decrease in the number of serious accidents and fatalities.

A balance has to be struck between how young people view cars and how they deal with their driving. There are not many young people in the Chamber, but they can drive cars better than we can; apart from Cathal Boylan of course — they have only recently been introduced to the car in Keady. [Laughter.]

Watching young people driving is similar to watching a circus act; they can manoeuvre cars in all sorts of ways. They also know all about their cars. However, when they first get their licences, they do not have experience of driving on roads.

The type of driving lessons that young people receive before gaining their first restricted licence would have been fine 50 years ago when roads were not as dangerous, when cars were not as fast and when not as many young people owned cars. Nowadays, we have to reconsider young people’s lifestyles and, as I said previously, their attitude to cars.

We must convince young people that, although they may be handy drivers, they need more time, they do not know everything, they do not know all about driving the roads at night or in wintry and wet conditions, and they do not know about driving on motorways at high speeds.

An important point was made on a radio programme this morning about young people not realising how long it takes to stop a car when they are driving at 60 mph or 70 mph.

I am supportive of —

Mr Speaker: The Member’s time is up.

Mr Brolly: Thank you. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr P Ramsey: I commend Alastair Ross for proposing an important motion, and for the approach that he has taken to the debate. I agree that there has been a lot of press speculation about what the motion aims to achieve. However, much of what was reported was inaccurate. The SDLP also wants a major consultation on the graduated licensing scheme to ascertain what options are available.

Last year, 112 people were killed on our roads, which equates to more than two deaths every week. During the first three months of 2008, 2,009 people were injured, 270 of them seriously, which wrecked their lives. When I last checked, yesterday, 31 people had lost their lives on the roads this year. Alastair reminded us that there was an overnight fatality at Loughall in Armagh, bringing the number to 32. Had that number of people been killed as a result of our conflict, we would be blocking roads, there would be protests and outcries and it would be featured on the international news.

As Members know, young people, particularly young males, present the greatest risk, and are at the greatest risk. A male in his late teens or early twenties is 10 times more likely to be killed on our roads than a man in his forties. It is clear that that age group needs to be targeted for a change in driving habits, attitudes and ability. Sadly, as we all know, young people, particularly young males, have no fear of driving. We can see that with our own family members as they grow.

A wide range of actions should and could be taken. It is not just for Arlene Foster’s Department to advance those; a wide-ranging approach across all Departments is required. Housing estates should have speed limits of 20 mph, and greatly reduced speed limits around schools should be imposed, especially at times when pupils are leaving school. Better footpaths away from busy roads, especially on school routes, are also required.

Many of us have good friends who are driving instructors, and they tell us that when they teach people how to drive, they are mainly teaching them how to pass a test, and that it is up to the learner to get the experience of driving on the roads. Such experience is gained only over time.

The penalties for people who are caught speeding — particularly for those who are caught driving significantly over the speed limit — should be much heavier. There should also be much heavier penalties for drink driving. Hundreds of roads need to be re-evaluated and their speed limits reduced. Cars being sold to inexperienced drivers should have their performance restricted. Car companies should stop marketing cars as if roads are race tracks, and they should stop associating engine performance with virility, because, unfortunately, that is what is happening.

The list of possible actions is long, but there should be a new cross-cutting structure put in place to design and build safer roads. An all-island public body should be established to improve road safety and harmonise the penalty points systems on the island. The SDLP welcomes the recent announcement that driving bans will be mutually recognised North and South and that there will be greater co-operation in areas on a North/South basis, but the pace of that work needs to be increased.

The proposals for graduated driving licensing should be implemented without delay. Many international studies show which systems work best, and which model is best to work from. The evidence of their effectiveness is overwhelming. Graduated driving licence schemes involve restriction and control and will be resisted, particularly by young people. Therefore, a wide and vigorous consultation process will be needed to achieve the highest level of buy-in.

It is important to acknowledge that the Minister of the Environment has actively responded to a number of Members’ concerns on road safety. I expect nothing less from her in relation to carrying out an effective consultation with all people involved in the industry.

This morning, the press homed in on graduated driving licensing as a way of placing curfews on young people — that is not the case. Curfews would not work. There are too many young people working in the hospitality industry or on night shifts for such a measure to be effective. In addition, many young people are carers who depend on their cars day and night.

The SDLP urges the relevant Executive Minister to cut through bureaucracy and engage with partners in the British and Irish Governments. That Minister should do whatever is necessary to introduce this scheme urgently. On a broader basis, the SDLP urges the Executive to set up the necessary cross-cutting structures, and research and implement a raft of road safety measures in the North of this island. If we can save a significant number of lives on our roads, that would be an achieve­ment that everybody in this House could be proud of.

Mrs I Robinson: I congratulate my colleagues on securing this debate in the House today. Road safety is a very important issue, as is what the Assembly can do to reduce the number of accidents and fatalities that occur on Northern Ireland’s roads. Those are challenging issues for all of us.

As was already mentioned, 32 people have lost their lives on the roads in Northern Ireland this year. Although the figure is down on the equivalent figure of recent years, it still represents a dreadfully high statistic, and requires further analysis. Of the 32 people who lost their lives this year, 22 were killed in rural areas. That is already more than were killed in the whole of 2006, and is only two short of the figure for the whole of 2007, with the Cookstown, Omagh, Dungannon and Fermanagh areas being worst affected.

Analysis of the figures for the 2006-07 period shows that there were 5,615 road traffic collisions — an increase of more than 500 on the previous period. The most common causes of those collisions were: inattention, 17%; excessive speed, 11%; and emerging from a minor road or driveway without care, 10%.

The current minimum age for learning to drive is 17 years old. In addition to driving lessons, learners can drive while accompanied by an experienced driver who is at least 21 years old and who has held a licence for three years. The incidence of road traffic accidents is known to be much higher when young novice drivers between the ages of 18 and 24 are behind the wheel.

The risks associated with young drivers can be due to a number of factors: immaturity; the novelty of driving; being more open to dangerous behaviour; drugs and alcohol; lack of driving experience, especially under difficult circumstances; new and unknown traffic environments; a limited capacity to recognise hazardous conditions; and over-estimating their own driving skills.

2.45 pm

Improving basic learning has been shown to provide a solution to the problem in countries across the globe. Since the 1980s, in the USA, Canada, New Zealand and Australia, the learning phase has been lengthened in what is known as a graduated licensing system. The graduated licensing system usually comprises three phases, and it aims to provide novice motorists with driving experience so that their driving restrictions are lifted as their skills improve.

The first phase in a graduated scheme is the learner phase, which means driving only when accompanied and taking lessons from an approved driving school; that phase lasts between six months and approximately one year. The second, intermediate phase may involve driving in the dark and with passengers who are not younger than the driver. In some instances, a test is required before the learner can progress to the next stage. That phase lasts from three months to one year in the USA, but it lasts for three years in Australia. Finally, there is the novice-driving-licence phase, during which stricter rules apply to the novice than to experienced drivers in that the punishments for driving offences are more severe.

Leaving aside, for a second, the human cost of road traffic accidents and the lifetime of grief to which families and friends are condemned, there are huge financial implications. In GB, the average cost of a fatal accident in 2003 was reported as being almost £1·5 million, and the average cost of an accident that resulted in serious injury was £175,000. Of the £18 billion estimated total cost-benefit value of prevention of road traffic accidents in 2003, £13 billion was attributed to accidents that involved personal injury, and the remaining £5 billion was attributed to accidents that led to property or vehicle damage only. Although no one would ever put a price on life, it would be much better if accidents did not happen in the first place.

In countries in which there is a graduated licence system, the effects have been marked, and the accident rate among younger drivers has decreased substantially. In Sweden, it is claimed that the introduction of that type of scheme has reduced the number of accidents by 35%, although the validity of that evidence has been questioned. However, in circumstances where the methodology has received greater support, the figures show a reduction in accidents of 10% to 20%. Therefore, I am pleased to support the motion.

Mr Armstrong: I support the motion, which addresses an important topical issue. As other Members have said, the death toll on our roads is still unacceptably high. All deaths are tragic, but there is something about the death of a young person that is particularly difficult to accept, as is the suffering of a family grieving for lost years and unfulfilled promise.

Statistics show that young people, particularly young male drivers, are most at risk on the roads. Young male drivers aged 17 to 24 are consistently over-represented among road-death victims and among drivers who are responsible for fatal collisions. Sadly, where statistics are available for drivers or motorcycle riders who are responsible for deaths or serious injuries due to being under the under the influence of alcohol or drugs, young male drivers aged 17 to 24 are also consistently over-represented. Staggeringly, they are five times more likely to be responsible for such accidents.

Research by the road safety organisation Brake found that young people aged between 15 and 25 accounted for more than 40% of road deaths, yet they accounted for just 12% of licence holders. It seems that young people in the company of novice drivers may lose their lives by encouraging drivers to drive dangerously or in a way that is beyond their capability. The high crash rate of novice motorists is due to lack of driving experience and overconfidence.

Graduated driving licensing is a system in which those most at risk — young drivers — gradually gain driving privileges as they mature and develop the necessary skills. Various countries have implemented such schemes. Measures include restrictions on young people carrying passengers younger than themselves, and on driving between midnight and 5.00 am.

New Zealand, Australia and several of the Canadian provinces operate versions of graduated licensing. Most states in America also have graduated licences; Florida was the first American state to introduce such a scheme, in 1996. Statistics indicate that graduated licensing schemes have been successful in those countries. Studies in New York and Pennsylvania suggest that the number of night-time crashes has been reduced by more than 60%. Research in New Zealand showed a 23% reduction in the number of car-crash injuries sustained by 15- to 19-year-olds, and a 12% reduction for 20- to 24-year-olds.

Some people may have misgivings about the introduction of graduated licensing, particularly young people, who are likely to be directly affected. However, the findings of a 2002 study by the injury prevention unit in New Zealand are heartening. It showed young people to be reasonably accepting of the restrictions; restrictions on passengers were found to be the least acceptable element of the scheme.

We cannot allow the current situation to continue. The evidence suggests that graduated driving licences can play an important role in reducing the carnage on our roads. We would be failing our young people if we did not seriously investigate the practicalities and implications of adopting graduated driving licensing in Northern Ireland. I support the motion.

Mr G Robinson: The outcome of this debate has the capacity to save lives, reduce the level of horrendous injury, and reduce the number of families suffering the loss of a loved one due to an accident. We must send the right message. The debate is not aimed at making it more difficult to obtain a full driving licence. Rather, we are trying to ensure that young drivers are well trained, thereby reducing their risk of being involved in an accident.

Sadly, road accidents and fatalities are most common among young people. There are more fatalities among 17- to 24-year-olds than among any other age group. That does not mean that every young person is a bad or irresponsible driver — many circumstances can lead to a fatal collision.

I commend the Minister for the efforts that she has already made to reduce the death toll on the roads. However, she and I are aware that there is still much to be done. The introduction of a graduated driving licence would be a step in the right direction. Many European countries, the United States, Australia and New Zealand all have graduated driving licensing systems, and their road death tolls are much lower than ours. There is a direct link between graduated licences and death toll reduction.

Some of the successful approaches have included restrictions on inexperienced drivers: a night-time restriction on driving; a ban on carrying passengers; and zero tolerance of drink-driving. Indeed, I should like zero tolerance to be applied to drink-driving for all motorists. Those are all measures that we should consider introducing in Northern Ireland.

The additional requirements will, no doubt, be portrayed as a restriction on new drivers. However, a driving licence represents a big responsibility at a young age. This motion is not attempting to deprive young people of a learning experience. It is attempting to ensure that our roads are safer, and to prevent young drivers from becoming another sad statistic. Nobody wants members of the younger generation to be appallingly maimed in road accidents, and I make no apology for trying to prevent that.

I urge the Minister to consider the graduated licence scheme — drivers should be trained and skilled to the highest level. This motion is a positive step in that direction. If the motion saves one life every year, it will have achieved its intended goal. However, the consequences of the motion will be much greater than that. I thank my colleague, Mr Ross, for bringing this important motion to the House. I support the motion and I urge every Member to support it.

Mr Shannon: Las’ yeir, i the UK, thair wur 1,000 fowk at dee’d i road miscanters quhar the driver wus aiged atween 17 an’ 25. Men aiged atween 17 an’ 20 ir 10 times mair apt tae bae kalled ir get bad hurts nor men aiged fae 40 tae 59. Neir 1 in 5 drivers hes a crash i thair furst yeir o’ drivin’. These ir awfu’ nummers , but still, they mak’ yin thing gyely clear – experience maks aa the differ i drivin’.

Last year in the UK, 1,000 people died in road traffic accidents in which the driver was between the ages of 17 and 25. Males aged between 17 and 20 are 10 times more likely to be killed or seriously injured than 40- to 59-year olds. Almost one in five drivers has a crash in his or her first year of driving. Those are horrible statistics, but they make one thing clear: experience makes all the difference.

It is a long time since I was 17, but when I was that age, Mini cars ruled the world. I was fortunate to have one, and fully comprehensive insurance for the car was £140. To my discredit, I had an accident a couple of days after I got my licence.

Mrs I Robinson: Was it a babe machine?

Mr Shannon: That tells us one thing: accidents are not new to today’s 17-year-olds, but the factors relating to them are as important now as they were then.

By the way, Iris, it was a babe machine — at least, I thought that it was. [Laughter.]

Northern Ireland has a form of graduated driving. People — regardless of their age —who pass their driving test are obliged to use R-plates for a year; that means that they are restricted drivers and not permitted to drive above 45 miles per hour. The thinking behind that rule is that restricting the speed of drivers who have no real driving experience will reduce speed-related accidents; experience is important. However, the results of that rule are not always positive. Drivers may be confident driving around the town for the first year after receiving their driving licences, but they are not always able to cope with motorway conditions. That inexperience carries through to the next stage, so it is clear that our limited graduation is not enough to cope with real driving conditions. It is for that reason that I fully endorse the principle of a graduated driving licensing system.

I am a member of the Ards District Policing Partnership, and we visit secondary schools, for instance, around the country to give demonstrations on traffic accidents. Representatives from the Ambulance Service, the Fire and Rescue Service and the PSNI attend to tell their stories to the young drivers. At the end of the presentation, a road traffic accident victim, who, unfortunately, is confined to a wheelchair, tells his story. Those presentations have had an effect on some young drivers, but more must be done. I have stood with the families of young men and women who lost their lives in traffic accidents, and it is time to speak for them.

A minimum number of structured lessons should be given by licensed instructors, and the time between the first structured lesson and the practical test should not be less than one year. I endorse the zero blood-alcohol-level policy for the two years after an individual passes his or her test. It is hoped that when drivers acquire the habit of not drinking and driving, that habit will continue and drink-driving levels across the Province will be reduced.

We are aware of the Californian schemes and schemes elsewhere, about which Members have spoken. There are statistics that prove that the scheme will work and improve our situation.

I am not convinced of the legitimacy of a ban or restriction on night-time driving. As Pat Ramsey said, many young people need to drive at night because of their jobs or because they are carers.

Mr Ross: That concern was highlighted in the media this morning, but, the countries that operate a night-time ban or restrictions on night-time driving offer exemptions. If one was creating criteria for graduated driving licensing in Northern Ireland, one would limit the restriction or ban on night-time driving to a period of up to two or three months. That way, the driver would obtain experience behind the wheel and would progress to a lower risk. The restriction or ban does not have to be for a year, as some media reports suggested this morning.

3.00 pm

Mr Shannon: I thank the Member for his intervention and explanation; it takes some of the sting out of that issue. Statistics show that in Michigan in the United States, there has been a 53% reduction in night-time crashes, proving that the system can work. The Member has explained how such a scheme might go ahead.

In conclusion, although it may seem that there are an awful lot of rules and complications, when we consider the success of schemes in other countries, it is evident that a bit of thought will save lives. It is for that reason that I urge Members to support the motion to ensure that a safer system is implemented in the Province as a matter of urgency to save lives and to safeguard our children’s lives.

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

Mr Craig: I support the motion and commend my two honourable friends for bringing the motion to the House.

On 4 October 2007, well-renowned road safety charity, Brake, revealed that 60% of 17- to 24-year-olds exceed the 30 mph speed limit — which will not surprise any Members in the House — whereas just 37% of older drivers break that same limit, illustrating the extremes that exist. Indeed, Brake has renewed its call for graduated driving licences.

Ulster’s youngest drivers regularly admit to speeding in urban areas. The latest research into speeding shows that someone hit by a car at 35 mph is twice as likely to die as someone hit at 30 mph. I am sure that Members have seen those television advertisements, which I find very disturbing, that highlight that fact.

The research also indicates that action should be taken to stop younger drivers taking such risks. This is a serious matter; breaking the speed limit by just a few miles per hour can mean the difference between life and death for an individual.

As road crashes are the single biggest killer of drivers aged 17 to 24, Brake has campaigned for graduated driving licensing. It is a licensing system, as has already been stated, that is used in several countries including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, and many states in America. Those places have seen reductions in accident rates among teenagers and young people.

In America, many states have guidelines that do not permit drivers under 18 to progress from a learner’s permit to a full valid licence until they have undergone a graduated process of licensing, which includes several steps. In fact, in some states, it may take a period of six, eight or 12 months to obtain a full licence. In some cases, it may take even longer if, during that period, learners break traffic regulations. They are also given the option of taking part in more driver education courses and — as we discussed earlier — some have restrictions placed on the hours during which they are allowed to drive at night. None of those measures are meant to persecute the driver. The idea behind the graduated system is not to persecute young people.

The difficulty is that most young people do not recognise their lack of experience. We have all been there — the minute that people get their driving licences, they think that they are the world’s greatest expert on driving. Unfortunately, the world lives with the consequences of that. The system is designed to put sensible restrictions on drivers to give them the experience that only comes with time and to learn that roads are genuinely dangerous. At present, one of the great failings of our system is that those who have a restricted driver’s licence cannot drive on a motorway, so how can they gain experience of driving at high speed?

All those matters must be considered and incorporated in the proposals.

Teenage drivers will not be happy with the new licensing system, but we care more about the lives of those teenagers than about their feelings. Unfortunately, many teenagers end up not only killing or injuring themselves, but others, and, regrettably, many families are devastated by their actions. Therefore, I commend the motion to the House.

Mr B McCrea: The motion is wide ranging, and its intent was to stimulate debate, which has been the case. It may be necessary for us to narrow the discussion and come up with some useful measures.

It may seem as though we are patronising young people and trying to persecute them, as the previous Member to speak said, but that is not our intention. We are merely recognising the risks. However, when we discuss such matters, we must be careful that we do not enter into some sort of Orwellian nightmare in which curfews are imposed on people. If that were to happen, where would it all end?

If we want to win the hearts and minds of young people, we must be clear about what we are trying to achieve and how we are trying to go about it. Future debates on this matter should include the issue of alcohol and our attitude to it. That is the most important issue, not only for young people, but for their parents. Underage drinking and binge drinking seem to go hand in hand with having a good night out.

There is no doubt that accidents are caused by drink-driving and by other factors that supposedly make up a good night out. There is an issue about how people respond to alcohol. The evidence is quite stark. Young men, in particular, are prone to taking risks, because they show off and try to impress their friends, and their ability to make judgement calls is diminished, particularly if they have consumed alcohol. Statistics show clearly that the risk element is five times greater when young people are in a group — as a group dynamic takes over, and they all try to outdo one another. Therefore, we must persuade people not to partake in such damaging exercises.

Many advertisements encourage people to not drink and drive, but persuasion is not enough. Effective sanctions must be put in place. There should be an absolute ban on alcohol consumption for drivers under the age of 21.

Mr Ross: At the beginning of his speech, the Member referred to the need to narrow the focus of the motion. However, the two issues that he has raised in his contribution so far, namely a ban on alcohol and restrictions on passenger numbers, were both specifically mentioned during the opening speech. Therefore, both issues have been addressed in the motion, which he said is not narrow enough.

Mr B McCrea: I heard the points that were raised, and I was coming to the issues of R-plates, restricted speed limits and curfews, on which I am not keen.

I am not keen on night-time restrictions, not because they are ineffective but because they restrict civil liberties and remove responsibility from the individual. People can marry and vote at a young age; they can choose their educational path and A-level subjects. To tell them that they cannot go out at night may be heavy-handed.

Mr Weir: I appreciate the Member’s point, but will he also acknowledge that the same argument about restricting civil liberties was made when the wearing of seat belts was made compulsory? Many people initially resisted wearing seat belts because they considered it a restriction of their civil liberties. A balance must be struck.

Mr B McCrea: That was the point that I was trying to develop before I took interventions. There comes a time, however, when persuasion alone is not sufficient. Some form of sanction must be imposed in order to make it clear that people who disobey the law will feel serious repercussions.

There should be zero tolerance on alcohol consumption for drivers under the age of 21. It should be made clear that that will not be allowed. Most people would accept that as a reasonable intervention. I know that other Members have discussed the fact that in the US — where, in many states, it is illegal for a person under the age of 21 to buy alcohol — road-accident statistics from state to state differ, depending on when particular bans were introduced.

When I was in Washington a couple of weeks ago, its chief of police told me quite categorically —

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. Perhaps you can tell us about your American experience later.

The Minister of the Environment (Mrs Foster): I congratulate Alastair Ross for tabling the motion. I welcome his clarification that he wanted to start a discussion on the issues involved, and this has been a timely discussion. When such issues are discussed, sometimes the media would have us believe that new laws are to be introduced tomorrow or next week. I welcome today’s debate because it gives me an opportunity, first, to reaffirm my commitment to improving road safety and, secondly, to introduce new measures to reform driver training, testing and licensing in Northern Ireland.

To date, there have been 32 deaths on our roads this year, and, as we are all aware, young and inexperienced drivers are over-represented in road-traffic collisions. More than a quarter of all drivers who were killed or seriously injured between 2001 and 2005 were aged between 17 and 24. Newly qualified drivers were responsible for 7% of fatal or serious collisions in the same period, even though they account for only approximately 1·5% of licence holders. Although it is encouraging that the number of people killed or seriously injured on our roads is decreasing —we must remember that fact — much more can, and should, be done. I am committed to doing everything in my power to save lives on our roads.

Pat Ramsey made the point that, even though it forms part of its portfolio, road safety is not just an issue for the Department of the Environment. Other Departments have a role to play. He mentioned speed limits outside schools. I understand that the Department for Regional Development is running a pilot scheme — I think that it is in County Londonderry — that entails operating a 20 mph speed limit outside schools during school opening and closing times. It is a very important trial, which, if successful, will be extended across Northern Ireland. As the Member may be aware, a similar scheme operates in Scotland.

We have also been working with the Department of Education on the issue of school buses, which was brought to the fore earlier this year for all the wrong reasons. My Department has a road safety working group, which Department for Regional Development and Police Service of Northern Ireland representatives attend. Representatives from the Ambulance Service have recently been invited to join that group. Much partnership working is taking place, but I accept Mr Ramsey’s point, which was well made.

It is worth noting that Northern Ireland is unique in the United Kingdom in having a set of restrictions already in place for novice drivers. The restricted driver scheme was introduced in Northern Ireland in 1968, and it requires newly qualified drivers to display R-plates and to drive at no more than 45 mph during their first year of driving.

There are also more severe penalties for new drivers who are qualified for fewer than two years. For example, if they accumulate six or more penalty points, their licences will be revoked and they will have to resit the theory and practical tests.

3.15 pm

Times have changed since 1968 — and for the record, Mr Brolly, I was not around in 1968. Traffic is now much heavier, cars are more powerful and people are commuting greater distances. On the other hand, driver testing has been improved in recent years; cars have many more safety features than ever before, and more resources are being directed at enforcement. Although existing measures have no doubt had an impact on driver behaviour, it is recognised that the restricted driver scheme has been in place for 40 years and needs to be reviewed.

This will not be the first time that the learner and restricted driver schemes have been reviewed. In June 2000, the Department consulted on the proposal to remove the 45 mph speed limit on learner drivers to allow them to be trained at higher speeds. Following on from that, it was intended to progress to the next stage of the process with a review of the restricted driver scheme. Unfortunately, that review was postponed to allow for the outcome of the March 2002 Department for Transport consultation on its document, ‘Introducing a more structured approach to learning to drive’. The purpose of that consultation process was to inform both the review and a wider consideration of driver training and testing in Northern Ireland.

At the beginning of 2004, and in the absence of firm decisions in Great Britain following the March 2002 consultation, the Department proposed to proceed with its own consultation on the proposed removal of the 45 mph speed limit for restricted drivers. However, the direct rule Minister decided that the time was not right for such a consultation and that she would consider it only when there was a significant reduction in the number of fatal and serious collisions involving 17- to 24-year-olds.

However, although the reduction in the number of such collisions has not been as significant as we would like it to be, we cannot afford to drag our feet on the issue. That is why one of my priorities since coming into office has been to hold a comprehensive review of all aspects of driver training, testing and licensing in Northern Ireland, not just speed limits.

Much work has already been done to review the current arrangements and to consider what other countries are doing, and doing well. In Europe, several very popular measures are in place, such as a probationary period for new drivers, reduced speed limits and passenger restrictions. Elsewhere in the world, restrictions such as night-time curfews, lower blood-alcohol limits and compulsory professional lessons are very common and have been successful. We have heard several Members comment on those measures. We constantly review the vast amount of research on those initiatives to see whether they could be applied in Northern Ireland.

Graduated driving licensing aims to restrict learner and novice drivers as to when, where, how and with whom they drive, according to expert research. The ideal system of graduated driving licensing will contain many elements, including a learner stage of at least 12 months. We have heard Members say that sometimes learners take lessons just to pass the test and not to become good drivers. I am particularly concerned about that issue.

Other elements will include mandatory supervised practice periods and night-time curfews. I recognise that there is some controversy about night-time curfews. Some Members mentioned hospitality workers and people who need to be out at night. My friend Alastair Ross is correct to say that in America, there are exemptions to the curfew rule. However, consultation on the proposals will give people the opportunity to put forward their views on those issues. I am sure that young people will let us know how they feel about night-time curfews. Do not forget that this consultation will not only be for people over the age of 24 — I imagine that 17- to 24-year-olds and schoolchildren and young people will have a view, too.

Other elements of the graduated driving licensing scheme include teen passenger restrictions and zero blood-alcohol limits, which Basil McCrea mentioned earlier.

We must be mindful of the constraints when considering graduated driving licensing in a Northern Irish context. We have a large rural population who do not routinely drive on motorways or dual carriageways — more is the pity; we do not have enough dual carriageways, but that is beside the point. We have more rural roads than the rest of the UK, and we drive more miles per capita than the rest of the UK, too.

It is commonplace for learner drivers in Northern Ireland to be taught mainly by family members or, indeed, by friends.

We should be mindful of the impact that such social and environmental factors can have and of the fact that compliance with any of the measures that we introduce must be easy. That said, 70% of all road deaths in the past five years have occurred on rural roads. Therefore, it is vital that we find a way to address what is a very specific Northern Ireland issue.

Driver training and testing must ensure that new drivers are equipped to deal with solo driving and all the risks that that entails. We also have a duty to reduce risk exposure for new drivers in the first two years of solo driving, which is, as we know, the most dangerous period for new drivers.

We are already reaching out to young people through road-safety education. Mr Boylan mentioned that at the beginning of the debate, and I feel that it is important that we continue with our positive work in that area.

I take Mr Dallat’s point about working in partnership with insurance companies and about having more carrot and less stick. I am happy to follow through with the insurance companies on that to see whether something can be done. However, I also appreciate what Mr Lunn said about insurance companies taking a commercial point of view, but I hope that they will also consider the social context.

My Department is in close contact with the Department for Transport in London. That Department is also considering reviewing driver training and testing in GB. However, it will not go down the route of introducing graduated driver restrictions. Our research indicates that imposing post-test restrictions has merits in that lives can be saved and the frequency and severity of collisions can be reduced. I would like to think that we could lead the way for the rest of the UK in implementing tried-and-tested measures. We are, of course, keeping our options open, and any measures that could improve our road-safety record and save lives are of interest to us.

I, again, welcome the support of Alastair Ross for the scheme. I assure him that work is well under way in the Department to produce a shortlist of proposals and that my Department will continue to work with the Department for Transport in England on the matter.

I am sure that Mr Ross will appreciate that the introduction of the scheme will not happen overnight. The Department has a great deal of work to do prior to the consultation, which I hope will happen very soon. We will then have to assess the findings of that consultation, table legislation and finally look for the co-operation of partners in the scheme.

I assure the House of my personal commitment and the commitment of my Department to act on these proposals and to make Northern Ireland a safer place for all road users.

Mr Weir: I thank the House for the very sober and constructive manner in which the debate has been held. The debate on local government issues this morning caused great banter in the House, but it is important that road safety is addressed with appropriate sobriety and reflection. Although it may be a cliché to say that few issues could be described as being more life or death than road safety, it is important that the House speaks with one voice on the issue.

I appreciate that Members across the Chamber have, broadly speaking, supported the motion. Not surprisingly, many Members raised caveats about some elements of graduated driving licences. In many ways, that is not surprising, given that research on the various schemes that are in place across the world shows that this is not a single-scheme option.

Indeed, the purpose of the debate was not to provide a single option that would be introduced within a matter of weeks, but to stimulate discussion. As the Member who moved the motion stated, although such schemes may have similar elements, some may differ and can be interpreted in different ways.

It is important over the weeks and months ahead that, as the Department moves towards consultation, it examines the most appropriate mechanisms. It must also consider what is best for Northern Ireland, and if particular options are employed, it must examine how best those can be implemented.

There has been a great deal of discussion about the merits and demerits of a night-time curfew. However, such a curfew is not one upon which we can place either a set period of time or a set regulation. Application of night-time curfews in other areas of the world has shown a range of variations; for example, timescale, the restrictions that are placed on the driver, the number of months for which it can be applied, whether there is a complete ban, whether the driver should be accompanied, and the level of exemption. That is just one element of a wide range of issues.

I want to deal with some of the issues that arose during the debate. The proposer of the motion, Alastair Ross, detailed the high level of casualties as a result of road accidents in Northern Ireland. Indeed, unfortunately, our level of road traffic accidents is around 40% higher than that of the rest of the United Kingdom. Mr Ross explained the various components of a graduated driving licence. He was correct to highlight the fact, which was also pointed out by several other Members, that to tackle such a multifaceted problem requires a multi-agency approach. It is not simply a matter for the Department of the Environment.

Mr Ross also highlighted the fact that this is not an issue that concerns only young drivers, but inexperienced drivers. Sometimes, the debate has tended to focus purely on young drivers. Cathal Boylan referred to his experience on the all-party road safety group, and highlighted a range of issues. He is right to say that it is important that the Assembly learns from best practice and experience elsewhere in the world. The graduated driving licence is one of a range of road safety measures that have been tried and tested. It is important that the Assembly puts all that research to good effect.

Mr Boylan also emphasised early education for drivers, which I agree is important if the culture of driving, to which several Members referred, is to change. He mentioned the problems of insurance, which Trevor Lunn also discussed in considerable depth. That is an important matter. The Minister has given her commitment to work on that. However, it is also important to realise that if schemes and measures were put in place that significantly reduce the level of road crashes among inexperienced drivers, it would have a major effect on insurance premiums.

Sam Gardiner brought the discussion back to the human cost of road safety problems. Many inexperienced drivers face peer pressure, which is why several elements are aimed at addressing that issue. He emphasised the need for reform of the R-plate system, which was also highlighted by the Minister and other Members. A theme has emerged time and again in countries where schemes of that nature have been introduced. Although they have varying levels of success, the one common factor is that all of them have seen a reduction in the numbers of crashes and fatalities. The only issue is how success rates of, say, 10%, 20% or 30% could be measured. However, all those schemes have been reasonably successful.

John Dallat said that such a scheme must be positive and attractive, which is also true. It is important that the Assembly takes people with it, as far as possible, and that it works in partnership with them. Therefore, the scheme must be made as attractive as possible. However, as Basil McCrea and other Members have pointed out, it must be appreciated that any new measure, like almost every road safety innovation that has been introduced during the past 50 years — the introduction of seat belts; belting up in the back; breathalysers; anti-drink-driving campaigns; speed cameras, etc — will meet a degree of resistance. Initially, people felt suspicious of the merits of those measures and sceptical about their effects on civil liberties. In the long run, however, they have become part of society’s culture and, indeed, have been broadly accepted.

Trevor Lunn highlighted the situation in the Netherlands, the merits of which are worth studying. He mentioned the importance of sanctions and of drivers getting it right from the start.

Francie Brolly discussed the need to engage young people. That returns us to a point that was made on several occasions, namely that the Assembly must aim to change the culture of driving and, in particular, impact on young people’s attitudes towards driving.

Pat Ramsey discussed in great depth the frightening statistics of road traffic accidents and their human cost. Any approach must involve all Departments working together through effective consultation.

He highlighted that whatever is done to reduce the danger posed by inexperienced drivers must be comple­mented by measures to cut down on drink-driving, speeding and other motoring offences. There is no golden bullet to solve the problem; a range of measures is needed.

3.30 pm

Mr McCarthy: Does the Member agree that the Department for Regional Development (DRD) has a major role to play in ensuring that road conditions help to reduce accidents, regardless of the age of those involved?

Mr Weir: I agree. I understand that the Department of the Environment and the Department for Regional Development are working closely on what the Executive consider an important issue.

Iris Robinson highlighted the human and financial cost of crashes and warned that a reduction in the number of deaths on roads must not lead to complacency.

Billy Armstrong pointed out the disproportionately high number of young people killed. Scepticism on the issue of night-time curfews or restrictions for young drivers was countered by statistics from the United States showing that the measures have saved a significant number of lives.

George Robinson said that much remains to be done but that ensuring the safety of young drivers must be a priority.

Jim Shannon conjured up the nightmare image of him as a 17-year-old in what was described as a “babe machine”. [Laughter.] That image will haunt me for many a year. On a serious note, he contrasted the situation between novice and experienced drivers.

Jonathan Craig made the same point and highlighted a range of worldwide experience available to Northern Ireland.

Basil McCrea spoke of the significance of alcohol in accidents, which is another issue being considered by the Minister.

An holistic solution involving a range of elements is needed. We cannot focus on graduated driving licensing at the expense of considering alcohol, speeding and road safety in general; we must balance persuasion with enforcement.

I welcome the Minister’s proposals and her review of the restricted driver scheme. I urge the House to support the motion.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Having seen the film, I can only begin to imagine the babes. [Laughter.]

Question put and agreed to.


That this Assembly recognises the positive impact that graduated driving licences have had on reducing road traffic accidents in other parts of the world; and believes that a similar scheme should be introduced in Northern Ireland to combat the unacceptably high number of deaths on our roads.

Private Members’ Business

Schengen Agreement

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 are called to speak will have five minutes. One amendment has been selected and has been 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.

Dr Farry: I beg to move

That this Assembly recognises that the Schengen Agreement contains advantages for all parts of the United Kingdom, and for the Republic of Ireland, particularly in relation to policing, security and opportunities for the free movement of people; calls upon the Governments of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland to sign up to, and implement, the agreement; and considers that this will be critical to maintaining a common travel area between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.

There are good, solid reasons why the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland should sign up to the Schengen Agreement: it would maximise freedom of movement across the continent and improve our collective security.

Particular concerns relating to Northern Ireland should encourage both jurisdictions to sign up to the Schengen Agreement, along with other countries in the European Union and beyond.

The common travel area that gives UK and Irish nationals the ability to move relatively freely across these islands is under threat. That threat to the common travel area should focus our minds and encourage a rethink away from the narrow perspective that has dominated border and immigration issues in these islands. Let us make that leap and recognise that our true interests lie in a broader common European response to issues relating to freedom of movement and security. In doing so, we can preserve a common travel area between the UK and the Republic of Ireland, which is of critical importance to the people of Northern Ireland.

The Assembly occasionally discusses matters that lie outside its direct area of responsibility. We are not calling today for additional powers to be transferred to the Assembly, although we have done so in the past. These issues are best addressed at a national and, potentially, European level. Rather, this is a case in which the needs and interests of the people of Northern Ireland are not particularly well served by the perspectives that have been adopted by the UK Government and, to an extent, by the Government of the Republic of Ireland. Therefore, there is a responsibility on the Assembly to speak out.

Before the First World War, it was possible for someone to travel freely from Paris to Prague. That possibility has now been effectively restored through the Schengen Agreement. The agreement provides for several matters. First, and most importantly, it provides for the abolition of border checks at common internal European borders. Those checks are balanced by a more stringent check on external borders. Schengen and non-Schengen traffic are separated at ports and terminals. Entry terms and short-term visas among countries that have signed up to the agreement are harmonised. Cross-border rights of surveillance have been established, as have common databases and hot-pursuit protocols that allow law enforcement from one jurisdiction to cross over into another, within prescribed limits, in pursuit of suspects. It is important to stress that the agreement does not remove the ability of states to control their own immigration and nationality policies.

The Schengen Agreement dates back to 1985, when it was signed by France, Germany and the Benelux countries. It went live in 1990 and was formally incorporated into the European Union legal framework in 1997 through the Treaty of Amsterdam. New accession countries to the European Union are expected to demonstrate an ability to comply with the terms of the Schengen Agreement. Today, all EU states, except for the UK and the Republic of Ireland, are fully signed up to the agreement. Indeed, several non-EU states participate as full members of the agreement, including Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Switzerland, the last two countries joining this year.

It is interesting to note, when considering our own common travel area, that there had previously been a Nordic passport union between Norway and Iceland. Those countries recognised the need to sign up to the Schengen Agreement in order to preserve that de facto union when the other Scandinavian countries became part of the European Union. The United Kingdom has not signed up to the Schengen Agreement, due more to a Euro-sceptic bias than any logical reason. There is a false fear of people gaining access to Europe from the east and travelling unchallenged to Britain. The Republic of Ireland was forced to follow suit, in conjunction with the United Kingdom, in order to protect the common travel area.

The common travel area, as we know it, is an informal arrangement that goes back to 1922, when there was no attempt to interfere with the movement of people between the new separate jurisdictions when the South of Ireland got home rule. The UK and Ireland are limited to participating in some aspects of the Schengen Agreement that deal with policing and judicial co-operation. There are also a number of other disadvantages that arise from the UK and the Republic of Ireland’s non-participation in the agreement. First, and most critically, there are limitations on the free movement of people. That wastes time and creates unnecessary bureaucratic barriers to travel, which result in economic disadvantages. I look forward to a situation in which I, as a European citizen, can move freely around the Continent. I would like to think that citizens of other European countries could do likewise in the United Kingdom and Ireland.

Secondly, we are paying opportunity costs for security and, in particular, for terrorist threats. The UK is denied access to shared databases in the Schengen Agreement’s information system. Indeed, that disadvantage may worsen if a common biometric system is introduced under the aegis of the agreement.

Thirdly, both states are excluding themselves from some aspects of justice, immigration and anti-terrorism decision-making in the European Union. I stress that there is no trade-off to be made between, on the one hand, the freer movement of people and, on the other, losing the ability to introduce tougher measures to combat security threats. Under Schengen, they go hand in hand; there is no threat.

Terrorism is as much a problem in Madrid as it is in Manchester and in Barcelona as it is in Belfast. If one suspects that adopting the Schengen agreement would be a threat to security and anti-terrorism measures, one must merely anticipate Sinn Féin’s remarks about that matter.

From Northern Ireland’s perspective, the common travel area is particularly important. In addition to local people’s ability to move from one part of the UK to another, the common travel area allows free movement across the Irish border, which enables social and economic relationships to be more easily preserved. The common travel area is under threat from the proposed e-border system, which was first mooted in ‘Confident Communities in a Secure Britain: The Home Office Strategic Plan 2004-08’. Furthermore, the UK Borders Act 2007 was passed. Consequently, the threat of an e-border hangs over us, potentially to be implemented in 2009. It could result in an artificial border being created down the Irish Sea and identities having to be proven by travellers moving from either part of Ireland to Great Britain. That would inhibit the free movement of people and would create political problems for unionists and people of other political persuasions.

Similarly, the creation of a stringent e-border within the island of Ireland would interfere with current arrangements and create major political difficulties for nationalists and others. Both outcomes would be perverse for Northern Ireland, and, given our particular circum­stances, there is an onus on us to speak out, ensure that we recognise the circumstances in which we find ourselves and maximise our citizens’ ability to interact with the different jurisdictions to which we are bordered.

In addition, the common travel area only applies to UK and Irish nationals. Travellers who require visas for either jurisdiction have a major problem. Such people cannot legally travel to the other jurisdiction without breaching the terms of their visa, unless they apply for a second visa, and that applies even to people in transit. For example, a person from India who wishes to travel to Northern Ireland can only enter through a UK port or airport. Such a person cannot legally go to Dublin and then travel to the North. A businessman from India who wishes to decide between investing in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland cannot easily travel legally across the border. That is a needless barrier to our development and our interaction with the wider world, and it is important to recognise the realities of globalisation and move with the times. Within the Schengen zone, a common Schengen visa, which deals effectively with that problem, now exists, and, no doubt, we are missing out on major economic advantages for the European Schengen states.

There are other potential benefits. The introduction of a hot-pursuit protocol between the PSNI and the gardaí has obvious benefits in combating terrorism and organised crime. As we know, those evils do not respect borders. Why should we handicap our law-enforcement personnel, who are attempting to combat those serious problems?

Switzerland has even greater historical hang-ups than the United Kingdom about sovereignty, yet it has signed up to the Schengen agreement. Iceland is a remote island in the North Atlantic, separated from the rest of Europe by vast distances. Nevertheless, both of those countries understand that it is in their best interests to be part of Schengen. Northern Ireland requires a similar level of sound judgement from the Governments of both the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. To sign up to the Schengen agreement, which recognises Northern Ireland’s particular situation and the realities of a globalised world, would be the liberal, progressive and modern thing to do. From Northern Ireland’s perspective, it is the only logical action to take.

Mr A Maginness: I beg to move the following amendment: Leave out all after the second “Agreement”.

Generally, I support the Alliance Party’s motion; however, the SDLP is not convinced that the Schengen agreement is critical to maintaining a common travel area between the UK and the Republic.

3.45 pm

It is a matter of considerable contention whether, in fact, that last statement is true. One could argue that the reason that the UK and the Republic have not fully signed up to the Schengen Agreement — although they are part of the arrangement to some extent — is due to concerns about protecting the common travel area. I am not absolutely convinced by Dr Farry’s argument that the British Government have taken their stance largely as a result of a Euro-sceptic position. I do not think that that is correct; it may be an element, but there are other reasons.

As Dr Farry pointed out, the common travel area predates the Schengen Agreement, predates the Common Market, and, of course, predates the European Union in its present form. It has been, and hopefully will remain, a permanent feature of travel and movement between these islands, and is a sensible and beneficial arrangement for the people of Ireland and Britain. It is very important that we in this House recognise that agreement, are supportive of it and encourage both Governments to preserve it, because it has been of great benefit to people in Northern Ireland and throughout these islands.

The Schengen Agreement, as a part of the European law, arose out of the Amsterdam Treaty, which came into force in 1999. In its original form, it has an earlier genesis in 1985. The agreement was essentially an organic development among a number of European Union member states that wanted to increase co-operation and freedom of movement for their citizens. That was an important, good and solid development, but I stress that it was an organic development that arose out of the particular circumstances of those European states. It has been shaped and formed both by the common geography of those states on the European mainland, and by the internal policing of European states at large. Ireland and Britain organically developed their own system of free travel, again due to common geography and the stylistic differences in internal policing arrangements within these islands.

The Schengen Agreement is a good development, and provides significant benefits by allowing much freer travel for millions of EU citizens. It does not, however, allow absolutely free travel for people within the European Union. There is a problem in respect of citizens of third-party countries outside the European Union. That complicates the freedom of movement of people within the European Union and within the area covered by the Schengen Agreement. As with all such developments, the Schengen Agreement has its upsides and its downsides.

It is important to remember that, although the agreement is progressive, good, and certainly liberal in comparison to previous arrangements, it is not perfect. It is a system that has been criticised by many people, because it is seen in some aspects of its operation to represent an infringement of people’s human rights. It is important, however, that we support and acknowledge its benefits for many Europeans, in particular for full citizens of the European Union, although not necessarily all residents of the European Union — I draw a distinction between those who are residents and those who are citizens. Britain and Ireland have, in part, signed up to the Schengen Agreement, but not fully. One hopes that, with the passage of time they will do so, and will implement the agreement as have our European partners.

Although the two Governments have not fully signed up to the Schengen Agreement, they have the option to participate fully in its provisions through the protocol in the Treaty of Amsterdam. That is an important capacity for both countries to have in what is an important aspect of European law. It is important to remember that both countries have that capacity: they can now examine what is happening and make arrangements to reconcile their desire to preserve a common travel area with their responsibilities regarding the provisions in the Schengen Agreement. It is a complex matter that cannot be easily resolved in this debate. It is important to remember that that reconciliation must happen because the Schengen Agreement has — whether we like it or not — complicated the common travel area.

Neither country can implement the provisions in the Schengen Agreement without the participation of the other partner state, so it is impossible for Ireland or Britain to proceed unilaterally. Implementing the provisions must be a bilateral process. Unilateralism will not work, and I do not detect any desire from Britain or the Irish Republic to act unilaterally. However, the Schengen Agreement does complicate the common travel area, which is why Britain and Ireland have not exercised their opt-in facility. Preserving the common travel area is a priority for both jurisdictions.

The commitment of the UK Government to the establishment of an e-border system further complicates the free-travel arrangements between our islands and the implementation of the Schengen Agreement. The e-border system will be rolled out between 2008 and 2014, and we will have to see how that develops and study its implications for these islands.

Of the 30 states that have signed up to the Schengen Agreement, only 15 have implemented it fully. Fifteen states are, to varying degrees, outside the full implemen­tation of the agreement, and whether the development of an e-border will be an indefinite obstacle to the agreement is unclear — we will have to examine its consequences.

Members should be concerned about the preservation of the common travel area and, in particular, the free movement of people between the North and South of Ireland — it would be nonsense and regressive to have border controls between the North and South of Ireland. That must be the top priority for Members. Both Governments are committed to the operation of systems that protect the common travel area, which should be supported and encouraged.

There are aspects to the Schengen Agreement that I have not mentioned. Dr Farry mentioned hot pursuit, which is a policy that contains good ideas. Although I am not certain that we are at the stage where hot pursuit could be fully implemented, I cannot see any objection in principle. However, relations between the Garda Siochána and PSNI are excellent and may negate the need for that type of arrangement.

Mr Hamilton: Although the sparse attendance in the Chamber indicates otherwise, this is a serious matter. Perhaps it is a sign of the progress that our society is making that a debate on borders does not have Members ranting, raving and slinging insults across the Chamber at each other. We are in danger of making the progress that Dr Farry started.

It is good to have a serious debate on border controls, and I hope that I do not lower the tone set by Dr Farry and Mr Maginness.

I oppose the motion and the amendment — this is where the tone starts to slide. The UK’s policy towards the Schengen Agreement is sensible. It is a positive thing that we can opt into parts of the agreement that benefit the UK and which enhance our security and safety, yet can opt out of other parts of the agreement that might have a negative impact on our security and safety. It is right and proper that the UK is involved in sharing information across borders and between law enforcement agencies on matters such as drugs, illegal immigration and organised crime. However, giving up control of visas and elements of immigration is not in the interests of the UK and must be opposed.

Some issues are particular to the UK, which is why we should be cautious about the Schengen Agreement. Some of those issues derive from the fact that we live on an island, and we are part of a country that occupies another island. In the area of national security, there is no doubt that the UK is a target for terrorism and for illegal immigration, and that is not a false fear. The new Schengen Agreement zone, which was recently expanded to include the eastern European secessionist states in the EU, now has a 1,800-mile border running from the Baltic to the Adriatic. Mindful of some of the countries through which it passes, that is a potentially very porous border. If we sign up to the Schengen Agreement, we would be subcontracting elements of our border control to other countries. Various media reports highlight the severe and worrying weaknesses in the border controls of some eastern European countries. Agreeing to Schengen would cede control of the entry of non-EU citizens into the UK, irrespective of the country through which they enter the EU in the first place.

Some interesting points were raised in an article by an academic at the National University of Ireland in Cork about what he called the Schengen Agreement’s radical civil liberties implications. Everyone knows that there is a difference between the common law system in this part of the world and the continental civil code. If we move from strict border controls and into other areas to control those coming into the country, there are implications that might include national ID cards, with which I assume the proposer’s party rightly disagrees.

There is also the issue of national sovereignty. There are few issues that define national sovereignty as much as border control. As a representative of a party that is sceptical about the intentions of the EU in any agreement of this kind, I noted with interest the comments of Lech Walesa, the former President of Poland, who, before the new year and the extension of the Schengen area, said:

“An improbable thing has happened: in many areas, Europe is becoming one state.”

That is something about which those of us on this side of the House — and, indeed, probably others as well — would have concern.

I want to touch on the issue of the common travel area, which was raised earlier. We have serious concerns at the implications of the electronic border control system that the UK Government want to introduce and which would include Northern Ireland. That would have serious implications for business travel and short breaks. Those were issues that the Government ignored or did not see, but they are now well aware of them and their practic­alities. Those issues must be resolved, but the Schengen Agreement is not necessarily the way to go about it.

Mr A Maskey: Go raibh míle maith agat. It is an interesting sign of the times that although we are talking about borders and border controls, we are not having an argument. Simon Hamilton talked about someone occupying someone else — I was not quite sure who was being occupied, but it would be interesting to hear his thesis later.

That is an appropriate tone for the debate. Sinn Féin opposes the motion and the amendment; I am sure that Stephen Farry has been waiting with bated breath to hear that.

4.00 pm

Dr Farry: We are glad to bring Sinn Féin and the DUP together.

Mr A Maskey: Well, this is it. I was not sure how to vote until I heard Simon Hamilton speak. Our parties have the wit and maturity to reach agreement when it makes sense for everybody — hallelujah for that.

Sinn Féin has a number of reasons for objecting to the Schengen Agreement. Mr Farry and Mr Maginness gave a potted history of the Schengen Agreement. It emanated from Luxembourg in 1985, and it was agreed under the Amsterdam Treaty in 1990 and ratified in European law. As has already been said, Britain and Ireland have opted out of the agreement, but they opt in when it suits them. Perhaps that is fair enough.

Sinn Féin’s primary objection to the arrangements of the Schengen Agreement is that the information that is gathered and shared by the states is available and accessible to a range of agencies. Given our circum­stances, which Stephen Farry mentioned, a lot of us are alert to the dangers inherent in that type of system. In recent times, illegal renditions have resulted in people being taken away by states in the guise of state security. Sinn Féin recognises that every country and state must protect itself and its borders and look after the interests of its citizens. We support the right to, and the need for, common travel, and we want to protect that. We want to ensure that each country has the necessary authority and judicial powers to protect itself and its citizens.

However, the Schengen Agreement allows for the collection of information on people without their being aware that that information is being collected. People have no idea whether the information is factual, inaccurate, erroneous or even mischievous. That sort of information is available to all sorts of agencies, never mind countries. Even the author — the national authority that originally collected the information — does not have to be asked for permission to release that information.

A wide range of information is collected on individual citizens and shared among all sorts of agencies without the knowledge of the individuals. There is no means of redress, because the individuals do not know what information has been collected and have no way of challenging the collection. People have been turned away from airports and barred or deported from countries. High-profile Members of the US Congress and Senators have been stopped at airports because their names have appeared on mysterious lists.

Sinn Féin is opposed to this country’s adopting the Schengen Agreement until such a protocol has all the necessary appropriate safeguards built in for all its citizens. No democratic country wants to aspire to, or avail itself of, an unaccountable, invisible system. We oppose the motion and the amendment on those grounds. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Cree: I will address European and UK issues relating to the Schengen Agreement, and, hopefully, my colleague will deal with the common travel area. Northern Ireland, within the United Kingdom, has a strong and important place in the European Union. We benefit greatly from being part of the European Union, and the UK is a major leader in EU institutions. On some issues, however, the United Kingdom — and, indeed, the Republic of Ireland — retain the right to respect the wishes of their Parliaments and indigenous citizens. The Governments of the UK and the Republic of Ireland are correct not to have signed up to all aspects of the Schengen Agreement.

The security of the United Kingdom’s borders should be of the utmost importance to the UK Government. The Schengen Agreement effectively dissolves the internal borders of countries in the European Union and some other signatory countries.

The agreement’s logic is that it makes life easier for businesses, travellers and tourists on the Continent. However, it also pushes all border security and immigration checks to the edges of Europe. Therefore, if the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland were to sign up to the Schengen Agreement, they would have to rely on the existing security in Portugal, Italy and eastern Europe.

The argument that having no borders makes travel easier is lost on the British Isles, due to the large expanses of water between them and the Continent. As the UK Government recognise, frontier controls are the most effective way to control immigration and to combat terrorism and other crime. The borders in the UK and the Republic of Ireland provide much internal security in the region. The Alliance Party seeks to jeopardise the security and sovereignty of the United Kingdom by having it sign up fully to the Schengen Agreement.

Dr Farry: Will the Member give way?

Mr Cree: I will not give way just yet.

Stephen may not want to hear this next wee bit, but even the Alliance Party’s sister party, the Liberal Democrats, does not want to sign up unequivocally to the agreement. In its European election manifesto, it says that it will sign up only under certain conditions:

“When we are satisfied that strong and effective EU external border controls are in place”.

Can the Alliance Party guarantee that such external border controls exist? I do not think that it can.

Dr Farry: There is a move towards establishing strong external borders in the Schengen area, and the Liberal Democrats in Great Britain are moving in the right direction.

My point concerns security: certain individuals have entered the United Kingdom and posed a security, and even a terrorist, threat. Had the United Kingdom been part of the Schengen information system, those indi­viduals would have been flagged up. As a consequence of being excluded from the Schengen Agreement, the United Kingdom has lost out and allowed people to enter.

Mr Cree: I thank the Member for his point.

The Liberal Democrats’ manifesto goes on to state that, were adequate external border checks implemented, Britain would be able to benefit from, for example, “passport-free movement”.

For such miserly benefits, the Liberal Democrats and the Alliance Party are prepared to fly in the face of security, sovereignty and public opinion. The Alliance Party, in its attempt to highlight its liberal European credentials, has made an error of judgement. I consider the United Kingdom to be one of the most liberal and welcoming societies in the world, and particularly in Europe.

The Alliance Party has ignored the feelings of the people in the United Kingdom. It has also ignored the fact that society in the United Kingdom, which is outside the Schengen Agreement, is, in many respects, much more open to indigenous people and immigrants alike.

As I often found when travelling, countries in the European Union that have removed their internal borders and immigration checks are now required to make greater efforts to implement surveillance away from the border areas. The measures that they employ include national identity cards; more stop-and-search mechanisms; the registering of immigrants at addresses; and potential raids on immigrant quarters.

That is not only my view; it is shared by the academics from the Centre for Migration Studies in Cork. They consider that the adoption of the Schengen regulations would have “radical civil liberty implications”. The differing legal traditions in the United Kingdom and the European Union mean that there is a danger that signing up to the Schengen Agreement might jeopardise legal securities that exist in the UK, such as the right to trial by jury.

At present, strong external border controls ensure internal security and control immigration, and they simultaneously facilitate a liberal and welcoming society. The Alliance Party would have the UK move from that to having no direct control of borders — in exchange for identity cards, increased surveillance, the potential loss of legal safeguards and even more of the unwanted suspicion that surrounds immigrants in this country.

The UK signed up to those security aspects of the Schengen Agreement that allow it to participate in the Schengen information system. To go further would jeopardise the integrity of its borders and its sovereign ability to act according to its own immigration policy by securing and policing those borders. Therefore, I oppose the motion.

Mr Shannon: I also oppose the motion. I researched the Schengen Agreement and its implications for member states. The motion refers to the advantages of its implementation in the United Kingdom, but I find it difficult to see any such benefits. In fact, the motion encourages less control over illegal immigration.

National security is beyond the remit of the Assembly and is, rightly, the responsibility of the Westminster Government. The motion demonstrates that many Members cannot understand security matters or work with them. National security is at stake, and implementing the agreement to follow the majority is a bad idea.

At present, 30,000 immigrants enter Northern Ireland each year, even with border controls in place. As outlined in a response to a question in the House of Commons, the number of illegal immigrants is difficult to determine because of the common travel area that operates between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Ninety-three illegal immigrants were sent home recently — a paltry number.

Tony Blair’s open-door policy exceeded all expect­ations. The Labour Government expected approximately 5,000 to 13,000 workers to come to the UK in 2005. However, more than 700,000 Polish workers came. The door was closed firmly when it became clear that the UK could not handle such a volume of immigrant workers. Northern Ireland has benefited greatly from immigrant workers, but we cannot adopt an open-door policy. Although the Schengen Agreement does not advocate immigration, its implementation would, undeniably, result in less border control and, subsequently, increased opportunity for illegal immigration. Further­more, if we cannot sustain large numbers of migrant workers who contribute taxes, how can we handle an increase in the number of people who do not pay taxes and live off the land illegally?

There are more than 8 million illegal immigrants in the EU, the vast majority of whom travel throughout the Schengen area. Housing and health services cannot cope with more stress, and that is one reason why the implementation of the Schengen Agreement would be detrimental to the Province. Moreover, the threat of global terrorism has not decreased — indeed, we receive monthly updates on new terror cells and threats discovered throughout Europe, yet people claim that the Schengen Agreement will increase security. That does not make sense. Border controls are instrumental in keeping a rein on security, and, now more than ever, we should be grateful for security checks that act as deterrents to terrorists.

Some people claim that security is increased through information sharing under the Schengen information system, which is an international database of information on asylum-seeking aliens, criminals and stolen goods. It is undoubtedly a useful tool to reduce international crime, and the UK has been an active member since 2000, when leave was granted by the EU to share information. The Republic of Ireland joined shortly after, and we have benefited from membership for the past eight years. The information system is advantageous to everyone, so adopting all the provisions of the Schengen Agreement to increase security seems redundant.

Northern Ireland is tightening security through the introduction of electronic border controls in 2009, and, therefore, it is senseless to dumb down by asking for the Schengen principles to apply in the UK or Ireland. Outgoing Taoiseach Bertie Ahern resoundingly stated that Ireland would not join the Schengen Agreement because he was satisfied with the structures that allow freedom of travel between the Republic and Northern Ireland.

The motion is illogical. The shenanigans of the Schengen Agreement would severely restrict the benefits that we already enjoy. It is abundantly clear that the detrimental effects of completely open borders far outweigh any potential benefit. Therefore I urge Members to put the motion and the amendment where they should be — in the bin. The safety of the UK and the Republic is a priority, and for that reason any implementation of the Schengen Agreement would be questionable at best and downright foolish at worst. I urge Members to reject the motion.

Ms Anderson: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I oppose the motion and the amendment. The motion refers to the benefits that the Schengen Agreement would have on policing, security and free movement. Sinn Féin supports international co-operation where it is necessary to fight crime — in particular drug and human trafficking, and we are in favour of the free movement of individuals throughout Europe.

4.15 pm

However, that is not what the Schengen Agreement will deliver, nor is it what it was intended to deliver. Let us be clear about what the agreement will mean. The Schengen information system (SIS) is already in place in many countries throughout Europe: it has been for some time. The unaccountable nature of it has drawn consistent criticism from respected human rights organisations. The second generation of the system consists of a centralised database, containing a wealth of information about citizens of the various nations that signed up to it.

According to the leading watchdog Statewatch that information will include so-called intelligence and supposition. Effectively, as my colleague Alex Maskey said, the Schengen information system is an invisible, unaccountable, European-wide electronic network of truly Orwellian proportions. As already stated, its massive database can be accessed by completely unaccountable bodies, such as Europol, which will have access as of right. They will not be required to request access from the relevant national authority, nor will they need to explain why they want the data. The infor­mation acquired can then be shared with other nations. In the era of illegal CIA abductions and extraord­inary rendition, it is easy to see how the system is wide open to abuse.

Supporters of the Schengen Agreement claim that it is a necessary replacement for the physical barriers of old, an effective method of allowing freedom of movement while maintaining security. However, with virtually no democratic control or oversight, the use and operation of the SIS has grown more ominous, and there is evidence that it has been used to suppress legitimate political opposition.

A well-documented example of that relates to a member of Greenpeace from New Zealand, who was en route to that organisation’s Amsterdam headquarters, only to be turned back at Schiphol Airport, because the French had entered an alert for her, as a consequence of her anti-nuclear-testing activism.

Despite the rhetoric hailing SIS as an essential safeguard against cross-border organised crime, the system has been used overwhelmingly for the tracking and exclusion of immigrants. According to statistics released in 1998, 80% of the 1·2 million entries on SIS related to non-Europeans who should be deported and/or rejected at the common-entry EU frontiers. All that the Schengen Agreement has achieved is the replacement of the physical barriers of old with an even more sinister and repressive digital barrier.

As I have said, Sinn Féin supports any measure that genuinely combats international crime and assists freedom of movement. However, any such system must be accompanied by the necessary accountable checks and balances to ensure that it is not abused. The Schengen information system clearly does not meet the basic democratic standard, and Sinn Féin will, therefore, oppose the motion and the amendment. Go raibh míle maith agat.

Mr B McCrea: We have just heard a speech that appears to be going in the same direction as my party, in the sense that the Ulster Unionist Party opposes the motion and the amendment. Yet, the more I heard, the more I doubted that I was going in the right direction.

I affirm categorically that every country has a right to defend itself. If people enter a country to undertake illicit activity — whether it be economic, terrorist or drug-related — that country must have some way of protecting its citizens.

Let us consider the common travel area, which was agreed between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. The agreement is eminently sensible; since the 1950s, it has been possible to travel between the two countries without a passport, because there is much commonality and cultural agreement. The common travel area was born of common sense.

The problem is that recent changes on the part of the United Kingdom, especially the inclusion of electronic elements in the passport, threaten the common area. That is important.

Bertie Ahern, as mentioned in Mr Shannon’s speech —

Mr A Maginness: The Member rightly praises the common travel area agreement. Will he not accept that the Schengen Agreement substantially accommodates and affords that freedom of movement to people in the European Union, in the same way that the common travel area accommodates those of Ireland and Britain? He and his party ought not to object to it.

Mr B McCrea: I am grateful for that intervention, because it allows me to emphasise the point that I want to make about the law of unintended consequences. Members who have already spoken made the point that the Schengen Agreement does not do anything that the Member claimed. What it does is introduce identity cards and raids on immigrants’ houses, and bring about an absence of civil liberties.

When I visited Virginia — I did not get to tell my story earlier, Mr Deputy Speaker, so I will do so now — I learned that the local police have been told to implement the immigration policy. Therefore, every time that the police stopped someone they checked whether that person was an illegal immigrant. Criminals there call immigrants “walking ATMs”, because although they might be robbed, they will not go to the police. That is an example of a situation that was not thought out resulting in unintended consequences.

If someone were to ask what we have here to protect our borders, I would argue that, being an island, we have a fair chunk of water surrounding us. I understand that certain difficulties arise in Germany, France or any other place where there is a huge common border, but we are at an advantage. It is important that we are able to defend our country, our citizens and our economic interests. Of course, we all like to have some common pathways, but a system has already been worked out to facilitate that. Therefore, the Alliance Party motion presents the wrong solution — it is akin to using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

Common sense must prevail, and we must ensure the free passage of persons between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom by sorting out electronic tagging on passports, or whatever system is required, and that should be the end of the matter. The challenge that comes from Bulgaria, international terrorism or international drugs trafficking should not be underestimated, as recent events in Glasgow have demonstrated. Our country and our people cannot be denuded of a way in which to manage that exercise.

To adopt the Schengen Agreement, given all its associated problems, would result in a complete loss of civil liberties. We have got things right since 1950, and there is no reason to change now. I urge the House to reject both the SDLP amendment and the motion.

Mr A Maginness: I do not understand Mr McCrea’s position, which is contradictory. The common travel area is a model for the Schengen Agreement. We can criticise how it operates, for example, but the agreement is all about providing freer travel for people in the European Union. If we believe in the European Union, it is sensible and appropriate for the House to support the motion. Of course, if we do not believe in the European Union, and that seems to be the Democratic Unionist Party’s view —

Dr Farry: But it will take EU money.

Mr A Maginness: Yes, of course it will. [Laughter.] The DUP will fete President Barroso whenever he visits here, and it will accept his assistance and the support of his office, but it will not buy into the spirit, or the constitution, of the European Union. The same goes for Sinn Féin — I listened very carefully to Ms Anderson and Mr Alex Maskey’s speeches, both of which were anti-European.

Of course — [Interruption.]

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

Mr A Maginness: We repeatedly hear from Sinn Féin —

Mr A Maskey: Will the Member give way?

Mr A Maginness: No, I am going to run out of time.

We repeatedly hear Sinn Féin Members say that they are now converts to the European Union. However, they have opposed every expansion of the European Union, including the Treaty of Nice and the Treaty of Lisbon. They now oppose the Schengen Agreement. Is there any treaty of the European Union in recent years, or, indeed, in preceding years, that Sinn Féin has supported? I cannot understand how Sinn Féin Members can genuinely and sincerely claim to support the European Union while opposing all its substantive decisions.

At least the DUP is straightforward and honest in its opposition. I am unsure as to whether the Ulster Unionist Party is truly opposed to the European Union or whether it is simply Euro-sceptic in its views.

The SDLP does not disagree with the substance of the Alliance Party’s motion, which is sensible and supportive of the Schengen Agreement. However, the emphasis that the motion places on that agreement’s helping to maintain a common travel area between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland is something that we find difficult to accept.

The Schengen Agreement creates complications for the common travel area that have to be ironed out. Furthermore, the agreement has to be reconciled to the common travel area, which we cannot afford to lose. The top priority for people who live in Northern Ireland, Ireland or Britain is to preserve that common travel area. It would be disastrous, regressive and unhelpful to all of us if that were lost.

Mr B McCrea: Will the Member give way?

Mr A Maginness: No, I want to finish.

The caution expressed about the Schengen Agreement by the British and Irish Governments is well founded, provided that their objective is to preserve the common travel area, which I believe is genuinely the case.

The SDLP has grave concerns about the establishment of an e-border. That is an issue that we all must take on board and examine critically and seriously in order to preserve the liberties of the people on these islands and throughout Europe.

In conclusion, I hope that Members support our sensible amendment to the motion.

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

Mr Neeson: We are prepared to accept the amendment, and I hope that the rest of the House does likewise.

Mr McNarry: That is the new coalition.

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

Mr Neeson: I thank the Assembly Research and Library Service for once again preparing the Members’ information pack, which I found useful. I welcome the opportunity to speak about an important European issue. Bearing in mind the importance that Europe has on our everyday lives, the Assembly does not deal enough with European issues.

The UK and the Republic of Ireland are the only EU member states that have not signed up to the Schengen Agreement. To reinforce what Stephen Farry said earlier, the UK has opted out of the Schengen Agreement because of the opposition of Euro-sceptics. There are plenty of Euro-sceptics in the Chamber today.

Mr McNarry: Name them.

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

Mr Neeson: The Republic of Ireland was forced to follow suit in order to protect the common travel area.

4.30 pm

Although some Members disagreed with the motion, there was general agreement on the importance of the common travel area, and that it should be protected.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Mr Neeson: If both countries signed up to the Schengen Agreement, that would provide greater security cover in these days of the threat of global terrorism. It would provide for hot-pursuit protocols, which would allow law enforcement personnel to cross into another jurisdiction, within prescribed limits, to pursue suspects. One only has to look at our recent history to recognise the advantages of such a system.

I thank Members for taking part in the debate, irrespective of whether they were in favour of the motion or were against it. It was no great surprise to see the DUP and Sinn Féin in agreement — although the Ulster Unionists were out to spoil the party today.

Alban Maginness, in his — [Interruption.]

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order.

Mr Neeson: Alban Maginness recognised that the Schengen Agreement is a sensible arrangement. He looked on it as an organic development among different European states. He said that the Schengen Agreement was progressive and good, but created problems for the common travel area.

It is no surprise that Simon Hamilton opposes the motion. He said that the UK policy towards the Schengen Agreement is a positive one — I do not understand that view. He also stated that the UK is a target for terrorism. By signing up to the Schengen Agreement, the fight against terrorism would be strengthened. Members who spoke in favour of the motion stressed the importance of strengthening the fight against global terrorism.

Simon Hamilton also referred to the possibility of ID cards being introduced. Some countries have issued ID cards, but they are not compulsory under the Schengen Agreement. I agree with his concerns about the creation of an e-border — that would create major difficulties for the citizens of both the UK and Ireland.

Alex Maskey’s speech did not come as a surprise. We know that Sinn Féin is anti-Europe.

Mr A Maskey: I am curious to know what words I used to indicate that so-called anti-European stance in my last remarks. We could always refer to the Hansard report, but I am curious as to how you can interpret what I said as being anti-European.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. The Member should refer all of his remarks through the Chair. The Member is long enough in the tooth — and long enough in this Chamber — to know that all remarks should go through the Chair.

Mr A Maskey: My brother said that I am big and ugly enough, but I am sorry about that, Mr Deputy Speaker.

Mr Neeson: During the recent debate on the intro­duction of the Euro into the UK, Sinn Féin came out very strongly against the idea in a series of meetings. That underlines the entire approach of Sinn Féin to Europe.

Mr Alex Maskey also stated that he was worried about information gathering — I wonder why. [Laughter.]

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order.

Mr Neeson: Leslie Cree said that both countries were correct not to sign up fully to the Schengen Agreement, and he asked whether sovereignty would be undermined. Sovereignty is not at risk. It is clear that some Members today have misrepresented what the Schengen Agreement stands for. Moreover, Jim Shannon said that the Schengen Agreement would make illegal immigration easier. Once again, that shows that Mr Shannon does not understand fully what the Schengen Agreement is about.

Unsurprisingly, Martina Anderson expressed concerns about information gathering. Although she agrees with tackling international crime, will she take the same stance on tackling international terrorism? That is one of the main reasons why we tabled the motion. Basil McCrea in his usual inimitable —

Mr B McCrea: Style.

Mr Neeson: — style, stated that, basically, the Schengen Agreement was using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. He certainly knows plenty about nuts.

The issue is important in many ways. The main reasons for bringing the motion to the Assembly are to strengthen border controls, to strengthen the fight against global terrorism, to provide for easier movement across Europe, and to bring the UK and the Republic of Ireland into line with other EU countries.

Question, That the amendment be made, put and negatived.

Main question put and negatived.

Motion made:

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


Interfaces in North Belfast

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

Mr Deputy Speaker: I remind Members that the proposer of the topic for debate will have 15 minutes, and all other Members who wish to speak will have approximately eight minutes.

Ms Ní Chuilín: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Business Committee for selecting interfaces in North Belfast as the Adjournment topic.

Mr McNarry: Will the Member give way? What I wish to say has nothing to do with the debate, but I am sure that she will find it worthwhile.

Ms Ní Chuilín: That sounds interesting; I will give way.

Mr McNarry: I thank the Member for giving way. I apologise on behalf of my colleague Mr Fred Cobain, who is a Member for North Belfast. Unfortunately, he is suffering from toothache and has had to go to the dentist. He sends his apologies to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and to the other representatives of North Belfast.

Ms Ní Chuilín: Fair play. I was speaking to Fred about North Belfast at an event in the Long Gallery this morning. I am happy to accept his apologies, and I am glad that they have been recorded, because people will follow the debate. Scepticism has been expressed about the validity and effectiveness of some of the debates that have taken place in the House. This debate gives us an opportunity to be effective.

Violence is a legacy of the conflict, and is rooted in sectarianism. That is the case regardless of where or how the violence occurs, whether it is petrol-bombing or someone being beaten unconscious, and whether the damage is physical or emotional. We must make sectarianism history.

I will use the Adjournment debate to highlight some of the issues facing the people who live and work in interface areas in North Belfast. A small minority of people are intent on causing mayhem and destruction, but they do not reflect the vast majority of people in our community.

The courage of people who live and work in interface areas should be a constant source of inspiration. They challenge destructive behaviour and attempt to end violence in interface areas. Those brave people are from various backgrounds — republican, loyalist, nationalist, unionist, protestant, dissenter — and some are paid activists. Together, they work all year round to reduce the potential for conflict in and around interface areas. The work of preventing riots, which sometimes involves physical intervention, is often undertaken in difficult and fraught circumstances. Incidentally, that rioting should not always be attributed to children and young people.

Irrespective of the political situation that we are experiencing now, we must confront that legacy. I urge political leaders in the Assembly, particularly those from North Belfast, to show support and to lead by example. I call for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) to convene a forum — comprised of elected representatives, community activists, community leaders, residents’ groups and statutory bodies — aimed at solving the all-year-round problems that are experienced in interface areas.

Projects designed to do that are ongoing, and many people are doing a lot of very good joined-up work. We, as elected representatives, need to do more of that work publicly, so that people can see what we are doing. We will, no doubt, hear about the cost of division, and about the walls and barriers that divide us, later in this debate. We must address sectarianism and historical neglect together.

The political and military conflict was black and white in many respects. There was clear recognition, across the board, of what was going on. However, the post-conflict era has been a grey area. The end of conflict has not yielded benefits and uplift for some people, particularly in North Belfast.

Unless we harness the opportunity collectively, we will not attract investment or encourage development, and the potential to regenerate our communities will have been lost. That would mean that people living in certain parts of our city, such as North Belfast, would be left behind.

Many people experience fear and mistrust. North Belfast is a patchwork of interface areas; each is a small and distinct community, often demarcated, some more obviously than others. Fear builds walls and creates territories. Trust and confidence will bring those walls down, and that is a goal that we must work towards, collectively. We must be brave and support those people who are afraid — standing still is not an option.

Interfaces are often situated in highly-deprived areas — that can impact on the health and general well-being of people living there. Many people live on their nerves, with fire extinguishers and buckets of water in their halls. That is not conducive to good health and well-being.

Anecdotal and factual evidence points to poor indicators of deprived areas, and that is well known. What are often overlooked by those indicators are the experiences of the people who live at interfaces and the poor quality of life that families there face.

4.45 pm

I have mentioned the potential for regenerating our areas that might be missed. Some areas have been clearly neglected, and have lacked inward investment. Members are aware of health-related statistics, but economic development levels in those areas are equally poor.

Members present will understand that, often, families leave their homes because they feel that they have had enough — and their homes are left vacant. Due to the heavy demand for social housing in North Belfast, houses at interfaces are often allocated, and some people are so desperate to get a house that they are prepared to live there. In the past, the Housing Executive and housing associations have been unwise in their allocations: problem families, or families who were considered by other communities to have little community spirit, have often been housed at interfaces. I urge the Housing Executive and housing associations to be sympathetic to the needs of families when making allocations.

Children and young people have become involved in what has been described as recreational rioting at interfaces. A small number of the children organise riots over the Internet and through text messaging. That is shocking. We must do our best collectively to reduce the potential for conflict and to ensure, above all else, that our children and young people are safe and stay out of the criminal justice system.

I am sure that most Members have met with the groups that work with all sections of the community at interface areas. They also work with the conflict resolution projects. I will be shocked if at least one Member does not congratulate those groups for the work that they have done and are continuing to do. I call on Members, as political leaders, to meet those groups on a collective basis. Rather than our meeting them separately, the groups need to see us working together outside the confines of the Assembly. They need to see us as part of a strategy and a plan that can help to develop a programme of work in which we can all be involved.

Regardless of what Members say during the debate — and I assume that their remarks will be well intended — we need to go beyond the rhetoric. Good work is being done, but more needs to be done. The Assembly must lead by example.

It is imperative that we make progress beyond the small opportunity that exists before the chaos of the summer months kicks in. People who live and work in the New Lodge, Tigers Bay, Mount Vernon, Skegoneill, Ardoyne, Glenbryn, Ligoniel, Ballysillan, Rathcoole, Greencastle, and Carrick Hill — I am sure that I have left out some areas — need support.

We must ensure that funding for diversionary work, for example, is not agreed to, or granted, at the eleventh hour. Groups need to know from the earliest opportunity that their applications have been successful so that they can make plans to take children and young people out of problem areas and away from interfaces. Members can assist by making sure that groups know where they stand from the earliest opportunity.

We must also work towards resolving the issues that accompany the marching season. Together, Members must stand up and step forward for North Belfast. Most of the activities involved are organised through the community empowerment partnerships — most of which are in our areas. We must ensure that those activities and other projects are given a hand up — not a handout — and they must not be treated as if they are coming to us cap in hand.

It is almost May, and those groups are trying to prepare work for June and July. It would be beneficial to convene a meeting with the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, the Department for Social Development, Belfast Education and Library Board (BELB) and other funding bodies so that the groups can see where they stand and ensure that they will have the funds to make plans for their diversionary work.

I urge the people who live and work at the interfaces and those who are tired and burnt out — and who are, perhaps, cynical of what we do — to step forward. I also ask those who want to help us address the problems — but do not know how — and elected representatives and statutory bodies with responsibility, to step forward, because step forward we must.

I ask the junior Minister to consider the idea of setting up a working group or task force to address that perennial issue in our communities. Such a group could examine the potential for reducing or eradicating violence at interfaces. We must uplift and regenerate those communities and ensure that we do everything possible to address the legacy of the past. I ask Members for their support. Go raibh míle maith agat.

Mr McCausland: The issue of interfaces has particular relevance to North Belfast. As the previous contributor said when she referred to locations in the north of the city, there are more interfaces and peacelines in the constituency of North Belfast than in any other.

There are particular problems for those who live at interfaces — the police, politicians and people from other organisations go home in the evening, but those who live at interfaces suffer every day. Even if there have been no sectarian attacks or interface incidents for some time, people still live in constant fear that tonight might be the night.

Interface trouble covers a wide range of activities, from recreational rioting to more serious incidents. Twaddell Avenue has been targeted in the most sustained and systematic way over the years. In fact, in recent days, there were attacks on Protestant homes there. However, such attacks have been ongoing for many years.

Records show that there have been several hundred attacks on homes in the Crumlin Road area. Clearly, there is a serious problem in that area and in many other areas. The problem is also reflected in the fact that there are still demands for peacelines to be erected in parts of North Belfast where new houses are being built. A peaceline was erected beside a school on the Whitewell Road, and a wall is being erected between new houses on a site near Somerdale Park and old houses near Twaddell Avenue. In fact, the wall may have been largely at the request of an SDLP member. We recognise that there is a problem.

There is a grey area between interface violence and antisocial behaviour. Those who participate in interface violence may also participate in antisocial behaviour. What is not interface violence at one point in the Waterworks may become interface violence at another point in the Waterworks.

We must also consider the issue of displacement. When people are displaced from an interface for engaging in antisocial behaviour or interface violence and they are moved elsewhere, quite often they take the violence with them. Therefore, interface violence should be examined in the broader context of antisocial behaviour, because, for the reasons that I have just given, there is a grey area of uncertainty. Interface violence at one point can become non-interface violence a short distance away, yet the same people may be involved.

Antisocial behaviour and interface violence, in particular, require a coherent, comprehensive approach. Too often, the approach is ad hoc and short term, and it generally involves just one agency. A coherent and comprehensive multi-agency approach is needed. Youth services and youth providers should certainly be involved in tackling this. It is deeply regrettable that the Minister of Education did not give greater priority to youth work in her budget. I point that out, not for any party political reason, but because it is a fact.

I sit on the Belfast Education and Library Board and on its youth committee. At the moment, we are trying to set a budget for this year. The initial budget that was put before us for one area that experiences significant levels of deprivation — namely the greater Ballysillan area — gave an allocation of just 66p for each young person. Some of the young people and youth workers stood outside the Belfast Education and Library Board offices with placards that said “66p – is that all I am worth?” However, in other areas of North Belfast, as much as £36 was allocated per young person for youth work.

We must be careful to ensure that there is an adequate and equitable allocation of youth funding across the city. We have managed to get an increase on that 66p — the allocation is somewhat larger now — but only by redirecting an underspend in the budget for the Renewing Communities initiative. There was no change in the core budget.

We must put more carefully directed resources towards youth provision in the north of the city to ensure that there is equitable and adequate provision of youth services. This is not simply an issue of one community losing out. For example, in the Oldpark electoral area, the unionist community at Ballysillan was losing out and the nationalist community in Oldpark was doing rather well. However, there was also under-provision in the lower Whitewell Road, which is a nationalist area. This is not a simple issue, but we must find a much better way of allocating and directing youth resources.

Youth work has a role to play, because, if young people are left standing around on street corners with nothing to do, there is every possibility that they will be drawn into antisocial behaviour. Instances of such behaviour can be related in some way to the lack of provision of youth services. Antisocial behaviour hot spots tend to be in areas where there is inadequate youth provision. I am in no way trying to justify or excuse antisocial behaviour; I am simply stating a fact.

We must also acknowledge the police’s role in dealing with the problem. The Police Service is experiencing manpower pressures, and it does not have the resources that it should have. Nevertheless, a better response is required from the police. I do not want to dwell on that issue today; it is better to take that matter up directly with the police.

Furthermore, parents have a responsibility. Those young people all have homes and parents, and those parents must take some sort of responsibility for their children. I have heard that comment made recently with regard to West Belfast, but it also applies to North Belfast.

My final point is only one sentence. The Planning Service should take a look at those interfaces and ensure that any new designs do not encourage or facilitate antisocial behaviour. We should commend those who are doing all that they can to prevent violence at interfaces, and whatever can be done to ensure that there is a comprehensive approach should be encouraged.

Mr A Maginness: I congratulate Carál Ní Chuilín on securing this Adjournment debate.

She has done a valuable service in highlighting the problems of interfaces in North Belfast. I do not like the term “interface”, because it gives a cloak of respectability to naked division in society. In a way, it almost legitimises that division. I listened carefully to her constructive proposition for a forum for North Belfast that involves politicians and civic society. It is a worthwhile proposition that deserves consideration by the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. I give it my support.

5.00 pm

It is important to remember that, as politicians, we have a duty to lead all of the people of North Belfast; those who voted for us, against us or not at all. It is important that we give that leadership. The interface problems to which previous Members referred are not just violence and antisocial behaviour. Violence is simply a symptom of the divisions that exist in society. Politicians have a duty in the institution of the Assembly and its processes to give leadership and to end those divisions. Politically, we are different. However, to push those differences to the point of division is wrong. We must respect one another’s differences, whether they are political, religious, social or otherwise, and not allow them to divide society.

North Belfast is clearly accepted to be the most divided part of the city, and, perhaps, of Northern Ireland. Sectarianism expresses itself most forcibly in the divisions that exist. As politicians, our duty is to counteract that and to create conditions in which all people can come together and build a shared society. We must make efforts to do that now. We must state that we are opposed to division and to its manifestations, particularly the peace walls and security barriers that are erected in North Belfast. Our task must be to remove them. Of course, it will not be easy and will take a long time. However, collectively, we must commit ourselves now to removing the physical barriers that are a manifestation of the political divisions that exist in North Belfast. We can turn it around from being a model of division and sectarianism to being a model of unity and reconciliation. That must be our aim as Assembly Members if the damage of division is to be repaired and its legacy of suffering alleviated.

There are simple tasks that we can undertake as politicians. For example, there are steel barriers in many streets in North Belfast that could be removed tomorrow. We can find creative ways to remove them and to create security for the people who live in those streets and areas. We need not have great chunks of walls pulled down, but can start by having the less profiled physical barriers that have afflicted society removed more easily. We can also encourage people to live together by sharing housing. That may be difficult to achieve. However, we must be brave, imaginative and courageous and encourage people to share living space. Although that may seem unimaginable at present, we must be creative if we are to give leadership.

It is important that we do that and that we set an example to the rest of the community, because that filters down. The more that the junior Ministers work together to create something better for all our people, the greater the impact that it will have. That is a very important lesson.

It is unfortunate that forces that are beyond our control sometimes act against the creation of a shared space. For example, the post office at Carlisle Circus serves both communities, yet it is under threat of closure from Post Office headquarters. We must have areas in which people meet one another and are able, in comfort and security, to share services. That is just one example of how officialdom is threatening what little shared space we have.

We also have the seasonal problem of sectarian clashes. It may be, as Mr McCausland said, that those clashes are simply examples of antisocial behaviour, or recreational rioting, as was pointed out by Ms Ní Chuilín. However, we must tackle that problem in an imaginative way, through youth work and good policing. People who use the Waterworks Park regularly tell me that antisocial activity is continuing there. What are the police doing about that? The police must be proactive in dealing with those types of problems before they get out of hand.

I agree with Nelson McCausland that we must adopt a multi-agency approach in dealing with those problems. However, in the past few months, a further barrier has been created in Old Throne Park, which divides our people. We should be working towards the removal of those barriers in order to advance the interests of all our people. There is nothing to lose by uniting people; there is everything to lose by dividing them. Therefore, I conclude by welcoming the positive proposals that have been put forward in the debate. It is important that we all work together in order to counteract divisions in North Belfast.

Mr G Kelly: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Tá áthas orm a bheith anseo le cúpla rud a rá ar an ábhar seo.

I thank Carál Ní Chuilín for securing the debate. There are two Ministers from North Belfast in the Chamber, but I am speaking as an MLA because all politics is local. Jeffrey Donaldson will speak on behalf of the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister.

It is worth beginning by saying that there have been several attacks in North Belfast in recent times. Whatever we say about the history of the area or what happened there in the past, there have been terrible attacks at Twaddell Avenue, and there was an incident in which a young man was beaten to within an inch of his life. It is important to put on record that all MLAs will condemn those attacks, no matter how they are described. It is clear that they were sectarian attacks, but whether any such attacks are sectarian or otherwise, they are entirely wrong. The same applies to racist attacks. We are in a new society, and we should take the opportunity to say that, although society is changing and North Belfast has the highest numbers of immigrants in the city, the people who are joining our society must know that we want to protect them as well.

It might have been Nelson McCausland — I am not sure — who said that MLAs are there to represent everyone. Whether something happens in Ardoyne, in Twaddell Avenue or in Whitewell, MLAs’ offices are open to all.

MLAs’ display today of similar attitudes in the Chamber in itself sends a message.

North Belfast is a small constituency. It is a series of satellites, and earlier it was described as a patchwork quilt. The suffering that people on all sides there endure has been ongoing for generations, not just in the immediate past. There is political and sectarian violence, multi-deprivation that involves housing shortages and bad housing stock, poverty, and low educational attainment. It is fair to say that in proportion to any other constituency, North Belfast has suffered more for over 30 years. Four wards in the constituency are in the top 20% of deprived wards, and the area has taken more than its fair share of casualties over those years.

Nevertheless, in common with other MLAs, I praise the area’s community workers. Now and again we hear headlines about incidents such as the petrol bomb that was thrown or the young man who was recently beaten, but in fact, people have been working in the community for as long as I can remember — perhaps 15 or 20 years — and they still go out almost every night. It is only because of such people’s work that there are not headlines every night of the week. Their work involves not just standing around interfaces; it consists of rapping doors to talk to parents about matters such as whether rioting is recreational, or having a dialogue with young people in an attempt to understand their motivations. Community workers have been successful with such activities. Therefore, although people still face attacks and we can by no means feel complacent, it is worth pointing out that, year on year, things have improved. It is also important to highlight that such work is labour-intensive and carries on throughout the year. Those community workers should therefore be praised.

The people who suffered should also be mentioned. Someone said earlier that one must picture interface areas. Interfaces are situated in specific streets, and although the people who live there experience pressure 24 hours a day, people who live two streets away are able to go back to bed. That is how concentrated the problem is. Unfortunately, in North Belfast, because of the number of what are euphemistically called “peace walls”, such problems affect many streets.

I also praise the work that goes on between commun­ities. North Belfast has a reputation for divisiveness, but in fact, there is inter-community contact, and talks are ongoing and have been for a long time.

We are in a new dispensation; the institutions are up and running, and they have local representation. It is fair to say that most people want progress, and, if people want a scientific gauge, that has been proved at elections. However, what do those people demand from us? They demand that not only must we set up institutions, introduce legislation and supply funding, but that those measures form part of a strategy and make a difference.

Such measures must be strategic and multi-departmental. Several community empowerment partnerships have been established — and junior Minister Donaldson will talk about that later — including the North Belfast Community Action Unit and the CEPs. Indeed, the interdepartmental good relations panel met a couple of days ago to discuss North Belfast, which illustrates that it is able to hone in on particular areas and not just take an overview.

Members spoke about leadership, which is the key issue for MLAs. There are many demands on Members, but the key demand is that we lead by example and display leadership. That means that we must discuss relevant matters — there must be genuine dialogue that makes a difference, and we must ensure that, when possible, we are singing from the same hymn sheet. People are watching us, and they know that if we adopt attitudes that exclude other political opinions, we cannot blame people on the ground for taking similar attitudes. Whenever there are talks, they must be genuine and involve targets and strategies that are designed for perhaps 10 or 20 years.

People tell Members about funding that does not come on time or that comes at the last minute. If we are serious about moving the process forward, we should be thinking five, 10, 15 or 20 years ahead. There are issues that still need to be resolved — I do not need to go through them here. However, at the heart of the matter is the need for dialogue. The problems will not be solved simply by my speaking to Nelson McCausland, Alban, Nigel Dodds or Carál, although that is part of the solution. Dialogue must be encouraged in all areas and at all levels.

Alban spoke about peace walls, and I want to make some remarks about them. Peace walls are a symptom, so it is the causes that should be dealt with; if they are, peace walls will not be a problem.

Recently, a respect week was organised in North Belfast to deal with the causes of our problems. When dealing with almost any group, whether older people, young people, disabled people or ethnic minorities, all of them will use the same word: respect. If there is respect, everything can be resolved. That also goes for north Belfast and for the respect due to the different sections of our community. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Dodds: I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate and to those responsible for securing it. I also appreciate the fact that the junior Minister from the Office of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister is here to respond. Those of us who represent North Belfast — most of us are here, as we usually are when such matters are being discussed — have raised matters that are vital to the future of the people of North Belfast.

5.15 pm

I want to join with others in paying tribute to those who do great work, day in, day out, not just in the summer but all year round. Yesterday evening, I attended a meeting at which I was told about the work that is going on, even over the last week, much of which is unsung. Unfortunately, it involved people distributing fire extinguishers and fire-protection blankets to residents in Twaddell Avenue. The attacks there last Monday and over the weekend were adverted to, and we all absolutely deplore them. The people in Twaddell Avenue have suffered terribly from attacks over the years; they are not alone in that, but they have borne a disproportionate number of attacks.

Even as we speak, a meeting is taking place with the police and local representatives to deal with the issue. It is incumbent on all of us to do what we can at community, political and security level to bring those attacks to an end. The priority for people living on interfaces — no matter what side they are on — is security. Youth provision, education and housing are vital, but more important than everything else is security. People want to feel that they can live without the threat of a petrol bomb or a stone coming through their window and without the fear that their kids will be attacked. That is why I welcome the developments on peace walls that the last Member spoke about.

None of us wants more walls to be built in north Belfast or anywhere else, but we recognise them as a reality. Things take time, and we can only move at the pace with which communities in those areas are comfortable. Alban Maginness referred to a security fence recently built in the Whitewell area. Of course such developments are regrettable, but we must remember that they stem from the demand of local people. Local people persuaded the Northern Ireland Office Minister — not a person given lightly to spending money on such things — and they made representations across the board. They wanted protection, and that must be recognised.

When I hear proposals — some of which are PR related and others part of a political agenda — to mark the anniversary of the Belfast Agreement by tearing down peace walls, I remind people that we must move at a pace that the people who live in those areas are comfortable with. First and foremost, those people demand protection and security. It is incumbent on all of us to try to achieve conditions in which people start to feel sufficiently comfortable, safe and secure so that the peace walls can come down. However, that should not be imposed on them, and I will fight for their right to have the protection that they feel they need, within reason. Although the provision of CCTV and other physical elements of security have helped to lower the frequency of attacks in interface areas, we must acknowledge that such protection often cannot be provided in other ways.

As well as Twaddell Avenue, there has been ongoing trouble on the Limestone Road in recent days. Trouble at interfaces does not have as high a profile as it used to, and it is on the news less. We welcome the reduction of tension and trouble on the streets, compared to a few years ago. However, there are still major problems for people living along the interfaces in North Belfast, and we must be conscious of that.

I agree that there should be a multi-agency, co-ordinated and strategic approach to interfaces in North Belfast, and we must think carefully about how to make progress. Although there is considerable merit in that approach, we must recognise that there are differences between the White City and Whitewell Road areas, and the Twaddell Avenue, Limestone Road, Alliance Avenue and Glenbryn areas. I join those who condemned the appalling attack on the young man in the Alliance Avenue area the other night. Although we can put in place overarching strategies and plans involving politicians and officials, we must recognise that there are different dynamics at work in different areas and that things will play out differently in different areas. Therefore, local communities must to be involved closely in those strategies.

A couple of years ago, the Renewing Communities initiative was established by the Government to address the lack of community capacity, particularly in Protestant areas. That issue was recognised by DSD a while ago, and it is still an issue that is recognised by Government and needs to be addressed.

Some of the funding from the Renewing Communities initiative is leading to excellent work — it is helping considerably in education and community issues. However, the Minister and his Executive colleagues should examine how to bring some of those programmes and projects into the mainstream. That would ensure that the good work that has been started — with people becoming more involved and taking on greater responsibility for their community — can continue, instead of programmes that have been started being left high and dry. That message was emphasised during a meeting that I had with school principals in North Belfast, when I was told about the extra help in teaching provision that the initiative had provided, and the noticeable difference in the kids that attended those schools. That should be built on. There is a range of issues that we could talk about, but I wanted to make that point in particular.

It is timely that the House has revisited the issue of interfaces in North Belfast because it is evident from the general thrust of the remarks in the Chamber that, although the situation is better, people living along the interfaces still face many difficulties, even if they are not under physical attack. There are many other issues that, when combined, mean that the quality of life in interface areas is worse than in other areas.

If the Assembly, the Executive and politicians are to mean anything, we must ensure that all of our people experience the benefits of the political process. Although I am not speaking in my ministerial capacity, I say that as one of the Ministers responsible for jobs and investment. We all want to see investment in our communities, but we must ensure that that happens. If it does not, we are storing up trouble for the future.

The junior Minister (Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister) (Mr Donaldson): I congratulate the Member for North Belfast Ms Ní Chuilín on securing the Adjournment debate, and I thank colleagues who represent North Belfast, from both sides of the House, who have spoken in the debate.

The issue of interfaces is a serious business, and I know that we are all united in our support for the continuing work to tackle the difficult issues in that part of Belfast. I acknowledge the important points that Members made.

The debate revolves around a number of key issues: safety, and how that is best achieved; relationships, and how trust can be enabled to develop; opportunity, and how our improving economy benefits everyone; and support, and how we facilitate rather than complicate the good work that people are already doing, and to which Members have referred.

In every society, how people live together is a major challenge, for Governments as well as for individuals. In a society that is moving out of conflict, that challenge is all the greater. We recognise that North Belfast has experienced great trauma over the years.

Dr Johnston McMaster has said that fear is a block on the road to peace. It was fear that contributed significantly to separating communities and to the building of the physical barriers of separation and segregation. The existence of those walls and barriers created a greater sense of safety and security. We must also recognise that many people in that area still value their presence. People find it difficult to envisage life without the barriers and walls, and there are still those who would fear for their safety were the barriers removed.

It is unfortunate that the walls have become a stop-off point on the growing tourist trail. With all due deference to my colleague who is responsible for tourism, I am sure that he would agree that that is not for what the people of North Belfast want their area to be best known. There is much talk about taking down the barriers, but, as Mr Dodds said, the reasons for their need must first be addressed. Furthermore, we must ensure that the need for such barriers does not arise again.

Some key principles must be developed and applied. First, nothing is done by statutory bodies without the involvement and engagement of local people and communities. Initiatives that originate in communities are the most effective. Secondly, genuine safety concerns must be tackled. We will develop transparent guidelines and criteria that inform communities and agencies when the time is right to remove a barrier. Thirdly, our aspirations should be to see a Belfast without barriers, both physical and psychological.

The creation of safe, shared spaces requires sensitive and practical planning. Safety is best secured by people and relationships. Several Members referred to the taking-down of the peace walls. As the Member for North Belfast Mr Dodds rightly said, it is not about choosing some arbitrary date or anniversary on which to do so but about creating the right conditions in which the walls can come down at the right time. I understand that the Northern Ireland Office is involved in an interdepartmental, inter-agency group, convened by the Community Relations Council, to review issues surrounding the peace walls. Consideration includes developing criteria to consider requests for new barriers or walls, and indicators to help in assessments that relate to their removal.

Walls are man-made structures. We are responsible for their existence, so we must take responsibility, in time, for their renewal — sorry, their removal. [Laughter.] Well, we may have to do them up on the odd occasion.

The Member for North Belfast Ms Ní Chuilín mentioned the need to develop indicators. We already have a set of indicators to measure the impact of our policies, and we intend to develop those to have information that is relevant at a local, neighbourhood level. She also mentioned social housing: the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and the Department for Social Development are involved in a number of regeneration projects in North Belfast. The Member will be aware of some of those projects.

We recognise that developing good social housing — and the regeneration of local communities — is essential to increasing and improving the well-being of those communities.

5.30 pm

As I said, safety is best secured by people and relationships. The Programme for Government commits us to continue our efforts to address divisions in our society. The people of North Belfast know better than we do about how they need to work together to build and mature the relationships that will secure the peaceful and prosperous society that they want for their children’s futures. There are many encouraging stories — for example, the New Lodge and Mount Vernon communities’ joint event during the respect week in March and the developing greater Greencastle relationship involving communities from Greencastle, Rathcoole and the White City. In 2007, a cross-community campaign took place to discourage young people from involvement in what has been described as “recreational rioting”.

That is not the tea-and-buns work that many people perceive community relations to be; it is hard, challenging and long-term work. It needs ordinary people showing real courage, and North Belfast has that in abundance. There are people in North Belfast who are well down the road of helping communities to move forward. Members of this House owe it to those people to recognise their efforts and to continue to put our shoulders to the wheel and accept the value of the work that they do.

The Member for North Belfast Carál Ní Chuilín mentioned the possibility of OFMDFM forming a group to focus specifically on North Belfast. In 2002, the north Belfast community action unit was established to tackle the problems facing communities there. The unit aims to address interface issues and to work to build trust between communities. It continues to work with the interface working group and is facilitating the group in developing an application to the International Fund to help take forward the key recommendations that are contained in the action plan. However, we will consider the points that the Member has made, and we are looking to develop a more cohesive, inter-agency approach with regard to North Belfast.

In recent years, we have enjoyed a succession of peaceful summers. Although that must not be taken for granted, that is evidence of the value, impact and importance of building relationships on the ground, for which we have a responsibility. The Member for North Belfast Mr Maginness referred to the need for people to work together. Recently, junior Minister Kelly and I have attended a number of events where the theme of good relations and working together was at the heart of discussions. Last week, we attended the good relations panel, which is chaired by Sir Nigel Hamilton, and yesterday we attended a meeting to consider how to tackle issues specifically in North Belfast. We recognise the need to work together at departmental level and to create a more cohesive approach across Government that will ensure delivery for the people of North Belfast.

The Programme for Government pledges to bring forward a programme of cohesion. Detailed proposals for that programme are at an advanced stage. Integration for a shared and better future, which is also signalled in the Programme for Government, is at the heart of what we are trying to do in North Belfast and in other areas.

I welcome the points that were made by the honourable Members for North Belfast Mr Dodds and Mr McCaus­land. I welcome the contribution that they have made, particularly in the unionist community, to helping build community confidence, creating the infrastructure and empowering those communities to move forward and reach out across the community divide to engage with other sections of the community in order to build a more stable and peaceful society in North Belfast. I recognise the contribution of all colleagues in that regard.

Mr McCausland mentioned the important area of youth provision. We must ensure that funding of youth provision in North Belfast is equitable across the board. As the Member said, it is clear that that is not currently happening.

OFMDFM is delivering important funding for projects to promote good relations in several areas in North Belfast. Our work on a shared and better future will be based on building strong confidence in the community, urging respect for difference, promoting shared interests and tackling the difficult issues. Although the work is highly demanding, and not only is it achievable but the process has begun.

I thank the honourable Member for tabling today’s useful Adjournment topic, and I thank those Members who contributed. Above all, I hope that the debate helps the people of North Belfast.

Adjourned at 5.35 pm.

< previous / next >