Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo


Monday 28 April 2008

Assembly Business

Ministerial Statement:
Way Ahead for the Fishing Industry in Northern Ireland

Committee Business:
Ad Hoc Committee: Local Postal Services
Building Regulations (Amendment) Bill: Extension of Committee Stage

Private Members’ Business:
Review of Business Bureaucracy
Death of Raymond McCord Jnr

Oral Answers to Questions:
Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister
Finance And Personnel
Assembly Commission

Private Members’ Business:
Death of Raymond McCord Jnr           

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

Members observed two minutes’ silence.

Assembly Business

Mr Ross: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. On Wednesday, a BBC television crew recorded part of the meeting of the Committee on Standards and Privileges, which took place in Room 135, and this, along with an interview with the Chairperson of the Committee, which was conducted in her Stormont office, was broadcast on the ‘Politics Show’ yesterday. During the Committee meeting, I asked the Chairperson whether she had sought permission from the Commission, and she said that she had, although it is my understanding that the Commission neither granted permission, nor was permission sought from the Commission, for recordings to take place in Committee Room 135 or in the Chairperson’s office. Will you advise whether you personally granted permission for that to happen; and, if not, will you investigate why this matter was not brought before the Commission?

Mr Speaker: I thank the Member for his point of order. I will come back to the Member on this issue in writing or in a response to the House.

Mr Burnside: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. When I raised a point of order last week that the Assembly should convey congratulations to Her Majesty The Queen on her eighty-second birthday, you were good enough to say that the point was well made and that you would consult your colleagues. Will you tell me the outcome of that consultation, if it has taken place?

Mr Speaker: I have some sympathy with the Member, but if he feels that he wants to submit a motion to the House on the issue, he can do so. There are other avenues that he can go down, too. I am sure that the matter could be raised with his Whip on the Business Committee. There are a number of ways that the Member can follow through on the issue raised in his point of order.

Ministerial Statement

Way Ahead for the Fishing Industry in Northern Ireland

Mr Speaker: I have received notice from the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development that she wishes to make a statement regarding the way ahead for the fishing industry in Northern Ireland.

The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development (Ms Gildernew): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. As Members are aware, the sea fishing industry in the North is a relatively small but significant sector of the local economy. Although the value of landings by local boats in 2007 was some £21 million, the fleet and the local processing sector make an important contribution to the economic and social fabric of coastal communities, particularly in County Down. My objective is to help the industry to achieve a profitable future while ensuring that stocks are fished in a sustainable manner.

I readily accept that the industry faces considerable challenges. The sector is heavily dependent on prawn fishing, with more than 90% of the fleet’s vessels targeting prawns as the main catch.

Although scientists are advising that the stock is being fished sustainably, the situation has been helped by the fact that in recent years a significant number of vessels have switched to fishing in the North Sea for part of the year. This year, that diversion of fishing may not take place, which will increase the number of vessels that are targeting prawns in the Irish Sea.

As white-fish stocks, particularly cod, have declined, that part of the fishing fleet has also declined, to the extent that only a handful of boats are targeting white fish as their main catch. Although there are signs of improvement in haddock and herring quotas, there is some way to go before we can hope to rebuild those to former levels.

The state of the fish stocks is only one part of the equation. As quota allocations have changed during recent years, the industry has been limited in the number of days that it can fish because of efforts to rebuild cod stocks. Furthermore, market prices for many species have not always reflected the cost of catching them. Most significantly, operating costs have risen, principally due to higher fuel prices, with a dramatic surge in fuel costs during the past year. As many Members will appreciate, the fisheries sector is not unique in facing ever-increasing input costs. Many other sectors of the agrifood industry and the wider economy face similar pressures. However, there are positive signs. There is a buoyant and growing market for seafood, both locally and throughout key export markets.

The time is appropriate for all key stakeholders in the industry, including the Department, to work together to deal with the economic difficulties facing the industry and develop a long-term strategic approach to achieve a profitable and sustainable future. I want to build a consensus on how to achieve the maximum return for each ton of fish that is landed; how to deal with fragmentation and lack of probability in the sector; how to develop management approaches that reflect local needs while complying with EU regulations, and how to build an improved and productive relationship among the industry, fishery scientists, managers and other stakeholders.

I accept that that will not be a straightforward process. There is no easy way out of the difficulties facing the fishing industry. In that regard, I applaud the initiative of the Anglo-North Irish Sea Fish Producers’ Organisation in developing a marketing role which has helped to reduce sales costs and increase returns to its members. I also applaud the initiative that that organisation and other fishermen have shown to bring about improvements in quality and focus on direct sales to new markets. There has also been a welcome initiative by the Trawlermens’ Trading Company to buy bulk fuel and achieve small, but significant, savings for its members.

Together we must ensure that a framework is created to enable the industry to make the changes necessary to adjust to new circumstances and achieve long-term sustainability and prosperity. To help to bring about that change, I have asked my officials to set up a new fisheries forum in which key stakeholders and the Department can work together to develop a strategic plan to address long-term issues, some of which I have highlighted. Through that forum, we can work together to create the right conditions to encourage new entrants to the industry and allow sound business decisions to be made about investment in new boats and equipment.

I want to see a fishing fleet operating more efficiently and less vulnerable to changing market conditions — a fleet that operates in an environmentally sustainable manner and which places greater emphasis on product quality. To help underpin that long-term approach, I have asked my officials to urgently update work that was undertaken several years ago to assess the likely state of the fleet at 2013. That work should help to inform the debate about catching capacity, resource availability and the possible need for restructuring.

I am also committed to undertaking an analysis of the modernisation needs of the fleet in order to prioritise and target the £25 million of support that is available under the European fisheries fund (EFF), which is on top of £27 million that has been paid out under the Financial Instruments for Fisheries Guidance (FIFG) and £6 million that is available to the fishing villages’ task force.

I want to ensure that the EFF funding is used strategically to achieve a profitable future for the sector. The operational programme for the EFF has been developed by the four fisheries administrations and will be submitted shortly to the European Com­mission. It must be approved by the Commission before the scheme can be formally launched.

In the interim period, the operational programme will be the subject of formal discussion with the EU Commission, which will be informed by responses to the consultation that will be launched nationally on 2 May.

As soon as the operational programme is approved, which we anticipate will take place this summer, my Department will ensure that procedures are in place to receive applications. My officials will soon publish an investment plan for consultation. That plan will set out proposals for spending priorities under EFF. That will happen at the same time as the consultation on the operational programme. Our objective is to have the fund open for applications within three months of EU approval of the operational programme.

I wish to address the question of assistance for fuel costs. I raised that issue with Commissioner Borg when I met him on 1 April. He said that he was aware of the Spanish and French aid schemes. His view was that the Spanish scheme, which provides payments to fishermen, appeared to fall within the state-aid de minimis provisions. Commissioner Borg’s directorate is still assessing the aid that has been notified by France. He made it clear that he favoured a longer-term approach to tackling the economic difficulties that fishing industries face.

I have been called on to make a payment to fishermen under the de minimis state-aid arrangements. Indeed, I received a letter on that matter from the Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development this morning. To use the provision to its maximum extent would cost approximately £1 million per year — a substantial sum of money that I could justifiably invest only if it were to yield significant lasting benefits. Having carefully considered that option and discussed it with my Executive colleagues, I have decided that it is more appropriate to focus on a longer-term strategic plan, which I outlined earlier, to address the difficulties that are being experienced by the industry.

As part of that longer-term approach, I want to see a focus on improving fuel efficiency in the fleet, using EFF when appropriate. There is no one solution that will be the answer for all vessels in a fleet. However, there is a body of technical assessment and research on possible fuel-efficiency measures, and barriers to their uptake. I want to see every opportunity explored to take advantage of that work.

Pending the introduction of the EFF programme later this year, I have asked my officials to explore the scope for using the existing FIFG scheme to provide assistance for specific capital investment where that can be justified. Some fishermen have suggested that the use of regulators on engines can help to improve fuel efficiency. I understand that, elsewhere, fuel-flow meters have enabled skippers to save on fuel costs. Those types of initiatives can be introduced quickly. I am prepared to help the industry with the compliance costs that are associated with the operation of the vessel monitoring system (VMS). When the meters were first installed in 2005, Government agreed to meet the cost of installation and initial warranty to help to build a better culture of compliance. I will provide funding to meet the cost of the warranty for a further two years and to meet the transmission costs that each vessel owner has to pay when the vessel is tracked by satellite monitor. That will be worth some £100,000 to the industry over two years, and I am also interested in extending VMS to other parts of the fleet to improve the management capacity of fisheries.

I am also aware that there have been delays in introducing changes to the administrative rules for vessel licensing that were recommended some time ago by an industry-led licensing review working group, which had proposed to introduce those changes across all regions simultaneously. However, Scotland and England are rethinking some aspects of licensing. Since vessel licensing is a devolved matter, I intend to introduce the changes that were proposed by the review group, which had been previously agreed by fisheries organisations, at the earliest opportunity. That will mean that fishermen who are planning to invest in new vessels can benefit from more flexible licensing rules.

One of the other issues that the industry has raised is the days-at-sea regime. As I indicated when I reported to the Assembly on the outcome of the December EU Fisheries Council, although there was a reduction in the headline figure, some flexibilities were secured in the way in which the regime could be operated. I have decided, in principle, that the Department should use the flexibilities and introduce a kilowatt-day system. Under that arrangement, vessels will be able to fish the same number of days as was available to them in 2007, provided that they follow agreed measures to protect fish stocks and enhance gear selectivity. That will provide more flexibility to vessel owners and skippers in determining their pattern of fishing. I am also prepared to examine the possibility of operating the system on a kilowatt-hour basis, as has been the case in Scotland. That will be subject to the European Commission’s finding that approach acceptable.

12.15 pm

Go raibh míle maith agat. I am firmly convinced that the way forward for the fishing industry is through a more cohesive approach within the industry, and between the industry and the Executive. That is essential if the problems that the industry faces are to be effectively addressed and to enable it to achieve a stable and profitable long-term future. I want all the stakeholders to come together with the Department to develop a strategic plan with clear objectives that will allow us to maximise the impact of the funding that is available under the European Fisheries Fund. Go raibh maith agat.

The Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development (Dr W McCrea): In the light of the Minister’s disappointing statement, I have some questions for her. Although countries such as Spain and France are seeking and endeavouring to aid their crippled fishing industry, our Department has decided to do nothing. Given that, as Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development, I took part in a useful meeting between the fishing industry and senior departmental officials, I find that disappointing.

The Minister described her statement as being the way ahead for the fishing industry in Northern Ireland. I fear that that sounds the death knell for that proud industry because, although forums and strategies sound admirable on paper, the industry will not be around to enjoy the fruits of its long and hard labours. If the Minister wants to know the likely state of the fleet in 2013, she does not need a forum. I can tell her now that it will most probably be rotting at the harbours of once vibrant communities.

The Minister said that she will provide funding to meet the cost of warranty on vessel monitoring systems for a further two years. On current prices, that equates to £276 a vessel a year. Perhaps the Minister will tell the House and the industry how those vessels should spend that 76p a day. All Members share the concerns of other sectors that face the fuel crisis, but Europe demands that participants in the fishing industry tie up their boats, and they are not allowed to fish; no other industry is refused the right to operate.

Why has the Minister ruled out the de minimis option, for which the Committee unanimously asked, particularly given the fact that the Spanish Government are implementing it within the rules? The emphasis for the decision on that seems to have come from certain officials and representatives from her party and the Department. On what date did she present the business case to the Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP) for the de minimis option? I am led to believe that the Minister never presented a business case; her refusal to do that is horrifying to the industry. I ask the Minister to go back to her Executive colleagues, not to inform them about her decision but to demand and request that an active presentation of a business case be made to gain the necessary finances.

I find it disgraceful that the Minister says that she does not have the money when she has not been to the Department of Finance and Personnel. She had £4·5 million waiting to spend on the development of the Forkhill army base. She was happy to spend money on that but will do nothing to help a crippled industry that is on its knees. The Minister’s presentation to the Assembly is despicable, and I demand that she goes back to the Executive and presents a proper business case for the de minimis proposal and for the finances to be given to the ailing fishing industry.

The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: I discussed that issue with my Executive colleagues at last week’s meeting. The crux of the issue is not the availability of funding but the justification for it. Public money is at question and — as the Chairperson of the Committee is aware — many other sectors such as the pig industry and the poultry industry face increased input costs. High fuel prices are not a temporary factor, so it is more appropriate to focus on the longer, rather than the shorter, term.

Last week, when I put that proposal to my Executive colleagues, there were no contrary opinions. I am also disappointed that the Chairman — who is well informed about the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) budgets and the pressures that we face — appears not to know that the money sought for the Forkhill project was not secured. Consequently, we do not have £4 million that we do not know what to do with floating around.

The Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development: The business case was not presented.

Mr Speaker: Order. The Minister has the Floor.

The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: The business case was put to DFP, and it did not stack up. It is not necessary to present a case to DFP if it is of a size where the Department can decide. There must be a long-term solution to the pressures and difficulties facing the fishing industry.

Mr Speaker: When Committee Chairpersons ask questions of Ministers, I allow some latitude; however, I expect Members just to ask questions, rather than adding their own statements to that which they have already heard.

Mr Doherty: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I welcome the Minister’s statement and the fact that when she met EU Commissioner Joe Borg he made it clear that he favours a long-term approach to tackling the economic difficulties that the fishing industry undoubtedly faces. Will the Minister outline what she expects the strategic plan to cover? Further­more, is improving fuel efficiency a realistic option?

The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: That will be a matter for the group responsible for developing the strategic plan. However, I want that group to focus its recommendations on actions that we might take to secure a viable long-term future for the industry, including the fleet’s future size and shape, the likely availability of resources, how fish and fish products should be marketed, and fuel efficiency.

Improving fuel efficiency is a realistic option for the fleet, and that is why I want European fisheries fund money to be used to assist fishermen in taking steps to improve fuel efficiency. The Sea Fish Industry Authority has produced several reports indicating that fishermen can clearly benefit from adopting measures that suit their circumstances and, although there is not a one-size-fits-all solution for every member of the fleet, we must explore every available option in order to improve fuel efficiency.

Mr F McCann: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Throughout the Minister’s answer, a loud conversation was going on on the opposite side of the House. Will you make a ruling to bring that conversation to an end?

Mr Speaker: Order. If Members wish to speak to each other, they should be as quiet as possible.

Mr Elliott: Will the Minister confirm whether the fishing industry recently presented a three-point plan to her and her Department and whether one of those proposals was to suspend harbour dues for a year, which would amount to approximately £500,000, rather than the £1 million indicated in her statement? Furthermore, does she accept that her statement may prove to be disastrous for Northern Ireland’s fishing industry?

The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: I have carefully considered the fishing industry’s suggestions, and I frequently engage with its representatives. Obviously, therefore, I have carefully considered its calls to offset Fishery Harbour Authority charges. However, in order to address all the difficulties being experienced by the industry, we must focus on a long-term strategic plan. The measures that I announced today — payments for the cost of vessel monitoring, a more flexible days-at-sea regime, and the use of existing funding for fuel-saving technology — will provide welcome assistance now.

Mr P J Bradley: I thank the Minister for her statement. However, there will be no celebrations in south Down tonight on the back of it.

The Minister plans to establish a fisheries forum, but what more is there to establish? In the past 12 months, there have been as many discussions with the industry’s leaders as it is possible to have. Alan McCulla, Dick James and representatives from the Trawlermen’s Trading Company have all visited the Minister.

Surely, the Minister has heard all the problems that exist — there are no more problems to find. Instead of establishing a time-delaying forum that will drag on, why does the Minister not analyse the existing problems and examine what has happened in the past 12 months?

The vessel monitoring system is another spy in the sky, despite the Minister saying that it helps to build “a better culture of compliance”. Those are nice words, but the £100,000 on offer work out at less than £20 per month to boat owners — what is the value of that?

The European fisheries fund will be introduced at the end of the year, which is eight or nine months away. There is a downward trend in the industry and many trawlermen could go out of business in that time. Does the Minister have any plans to provide financial assistance in the short term?

The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: I will answer the Member’s last question first. The short-term assistance that we are providing will help fishermen improve fuel efficiency and spend less on fuel.

The Committee for Agriculture and Rural Develop­ment gave much of its attention to the McKenzie Report, which was published last year and examined the issues on the red-meat strategy and whether — and, if so, how — it had a future in the long term. That is where the fishing industry has missed out: there have been debates between fishing industry representatives and others, but we must sit down and explore honestly the problems and challenges that the fishing industry faces and find solutions. That has not happened, so we want to ensure that the stakeholders sit down and agree on solutions. That is a short-term project; the forum should be wound up by the autumn and will make recommendations to us. We want a situation in which the fishing industry appraises honestly where it is, where it needs to go and where it is likely to be. A short-term solution to that will not help to achieve a long-term strategy that enables the fishing industry to stay in business.

The European Commission will approve the operational programme in July 2008. The Department plans to have the fund open to applications within three months of receiving that approval. Over the summer, my Department will work with the fishing industry to help applicants formulate proposals. It is likely that the first applications will be processed and approved by the selection panel before the end of the year. We understand the need to get that money out as quickly as possible; our officials are working flat out to ensure that that happens. The stakeholders in the fishing industry must join together to formulate a long-term plan that ensures that our fishing industry survives well into this century.

Mr McCarthy: I am disappointed by the Minister’s statement and her last answer. Fishermen, who are fed up sitting around tables discussing, planning and plotting, are being asked to continue doing that. Representatives of the fishing industry visited Parliament Buildings in March 2008 and said that they are on their knees — the fishing industry is dying. The Minister knows that, but the industry is still being asked to hold on. In her statement, the Minister mentioned a lack of efficiencies — she is almost saying that the fishermen are not doing what they ought to be doing.

Mr Speaker: Does the Member have a question?

Mr McCarthy: Yes; I have three questions. Northern Irish fishermen are forced to pay a stealth tax — light dues — from which their counterparts in other parts of Europe, including the Republic of Ireland, are exempt. Will the Minister help our fishermen in that respect?

Local fishermen now pay for the maintenance of satellite monitoring equipment, which is an enforcement tool used by the Department. Can assistance not be provided on that front?

For consecutive years, local fishermen have had to endure above-inflation increases for changes imposed at Ardglass, Kilkeel and Portavogie by the Northern Ireland Fishery Harbour Authority (NIFHA). There are measures that the Minister and her Department can take to help fishermen to survive if the will exists to do so. Will the Minister help the fishing industry now, before it is too late?


The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Light dues are a matter for the Department for Transport in London. I am aware that approaches were made some years ago to what was previously known as the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) to abolish light dues for the fishing industry. However, DETR declined, insisting that the user should pay and that favouring any one sector over another would be discriminatory. The North’s vessels contribute around £50,000 a year in light dues, and at current rates, a 15-metre vessel pays £290 a year and a 24-metre vessel pays £470 a year. Our intelligence is that the Department for Transport is unlikely to change its position on the matter. [Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order.

The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: In the South, light dues are funded through general taxation. In the North, they are not a devolved matter, and the policy of the Department for Transport is that they should continue to be paid by commercial fishermen.

The Fisheries Harbour Authority sets uniform dues and charges for the vessels at the three local fishing harbours that the Member named. Over the past three years, landing dues — which form the largest component of the charges that are paid by active vessels — have not increased, remaining at 2·75% of the value of fish that are landed. Increases in dues for berthing, slipping and ice sales have risen to ensure that NIFHA can deliver a good service to the local fishing fleet at all three harbours. However, the charges remain in line with those of the other harbours that are used by local fishing vessels.

Mr Wells: What possible consolation is it to a fisherman who is paying £4,500 a week in fuel for the Minister to offer him 76p a day? It is not a case of the two proposals being mutually exclusive: the Minister could still have her fisherman’s forum and plan a more sustainable future. However, there is absolutely nothing to stop her combining that with immediate de minimis aid.

It is good enough for the Spanish, who have approval from the European Union Fisheries Commissioner to receive that aid, so why can she not bring some consolation to the local fishing industry at a time when it is experiencing enormous difficulties? If the Minister dithers much longer, there will not be a fishing fleet for the forum to discuss. She must act now, or the fishing fleet of the Province will be decimated on her watch.

The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: The Spanish Government have opted to pay de minimis aid to their fishing industry, reportedly to maintain industry competitiveness. To use the provision to the maximum extent here would cost approximately £1 million a year. Having considered that option carefully, I have decided that it is more appropriate to focus on the longer-term strategic plan that I have already outlined to address the difficulties that are experienced by the fishing industry.

I would love to be able to help everybody who is struggling to make a living through either farming, fishing or through other industries. However, I am the Minister, and it is my job to balance the payments that we make from the DARD budget in order to maximise the benefit to everybody who comes under our remit. I sympathise with the fishermen, and they have told me before that sympathy does not work. However, to grant de minimis aid would have repercussions that do not stack up. Therefore, I believe that a long-term solution is needed in order to sustain the industry.

In my view, granting de minimis aid is similar to putting a sticking plaster over something that is potentially more damaging to the fishing industry than the high cost of fuel. That high cost is not likely to go away, and it is something that we will all have to learn to live with — householders, haulage firms and fishermen. It is not in my gift to make money available when I know that other sectors are facing high input costs and are in as delicate and vulnerable a situation as the fishing industry.

Mr Molloy: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for her statement. I know that there is very little that she can do to resolve the problems that are largely the making of the European Union. Furthermore, those advocates of the European Union over the years should have seen a lot of this coming.

Who will be involved in the fisherman’s forum once it has been set up? How can fishermen and others become involved? Also, what findings does the Minister expect the forum to return with, and how soon does she think a report could be delivered?

The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: All stakeholders in the fisheries sector will be included. I want all representatives from the main fishermen’s organisations, environmental organisations, the inshore fisheries sector, scientists, processors and my officials to work better together on this issue. I hope that the group will be established fairly soon and that it will produce a report by the autumn. I would like there to be broad agreement on a strategic plan by the time the EFF is open for applications — I expect that that will be at the end of October, subject to the approval of the operational plan by the European Commission.

Mr Irwin: The Minister stated today that fishermen could cut back on fuel costs. I am sure that they could if they kept their vessels docked in the harbours. I will ask the Minister a question that she has already been asked on several occasions — I am asking it again because she has ducked the question in the past. What is the Minister doing to help the fishing industry now?

The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: I am gratified that William thinks that he has the determination to extract something out of me that others before him have not been able to extract. We have gone over this matter many times before; in my submission to the Assembly today, and in the questions and discussions on vessel monitoring systems, fuel regulators and the creation of a plan that will honestly look at the future of the industry. We are engaged in all of that activity. We will do everything in our power to help the industry to become viable and sustainable in the long term.

Mr Burnside: The Minister knows that, because of the European quota system, revenue for our fishermen is completely flat. The only way in which the Minister can deal with the problem is by addressing costs. Like everyone else, I ask her to look again at the £1 million cost of introducing de minimis aid arrangements. The only way that costs can be reduced is through a fuel subsidy. If she were to go back to the Finance Minister and put the matter back on the Executive’s agenda, I believe that she would have cross-community support for it. If the fishing industry goes, it will never come back. Until we get rid of the European fisheries policy as a policy for the whole of the European Union that affects the United Kingdom, fishermen in this Province will not be secure.

The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: As I have already said, I discussed the issue of de minimis aid with my Executive colleagues at last week’s meeting. The crux of the matter is not the availability of the aid but the justification for it. Fishermen already enjoy a rebate — they pay 10p per litre less than others for red diesel that is available to farmers. Therefore, there is already an acceptance of the pressures that high fuel costs place on fishing fleets, and there has been an attempt to try to minimise the impact of those costs. Many other sectors face increased input costs — high fuel costs do not affect the fishing industry alone. We must take a long-term, sensible and pragmatic view of this matter. As an Executive, we must spend public money as best we can. We must find the best way forward and, ultimately, the price of fish needs to be reflected in the catch costs, which are still not quite what they should be. As Minister, I am unable to intervene in the marketplace, but the price of the fish that are caught must rise to meet the challenges of fuel costs.

Mr Shannon: I am sure that the Minister is well aware that the fishing industry is probably the most over-policed industry in Northern Ireland — already there are satellites, eyes in the sky, Royal Navy fishing boats, fishing division boats and a harbour full of departmental officials standing ready to count and check the fish. It seems that the sector has more people keeping an eye on it than any other.

When did the Minister present the business case for de minimis aid to the Executive, and what was the outcome? Will she ask the Executive for that assistance again? Why does the Minister feel that the de minimis scheme arrangements cannot be introduced? Everyone in the Chamber is well aware of the need for such a scheme and of the benefits that it would bring. In her statement, the Minister confirmed that it would cost £1 million to introduce the scheme. From talking to those in the fishing industry, my understanding is that the cost will be closer to £700,000.

The £30,000 to help maintain fishing vessels’ satellite equipment is welcome. However, that amounts to 76p per boat — about the price of a packet of Fisherman’s Friend lozenges. In the same way that people either like or loathe Fisherman’s Friends, the grant gives neither comfort nor succour to the fishing industry.

Will the Minister explain why she does not follow the example of France and Spain by using the de minimis scheme as they do? The Minister has that power. She does not need permission to do her job from either Westminster or the Assembly.

The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: The Member and I have held many discussions over the past eight or nine months on challenges that face the Northern Ireland fishing industry. I know how hard he works for — and how dedicated he is to — the sector. Mr Shannon has repeated some questions that have already been asked by other Members.

I brought the issue of whether a business case was needed to the Executive last week. None of my ministerial colleagues contradicted my view that bringing a business case was bound to fail.

Mr Shannon raised the issues of scientific evidence and monitoring. There is an absolute need for advice from scientists ahead of negotiations in December’s EU Fisheries Council. That advice will help industry and the Department to make the case for Northern Ireland quotas. Scientific advice was instrumental in transforming a 15% cut in Northern Ireland’s herring quota into a 5% increase. Scientific evidence on prawn burrows in the Irish Sea enabled us last year to achieve a rollover on the prawn quota. The Commission is concerned that the by-catch of cod by the prawn sector is a difficulty, and that is a matter on which hard negotiating is continuing.

Environmental issues also come into play, but there is no doubt that scientific evidence helps to make a strong case for increasing rather than decreasing quotas. It also provides fishermen with the best possible opport­unity to land a big enough catch to stay in business.

However, the business case is not likely to stack up or to get through the Executive. I had a good discussion about that with the rest of the Executive on Thursday. We must find a more strategic way to help the fishing industry to stay in business.

Mr Hamilton: The Minister’s statement is disappointing and potentially disastrous for the very fragile fishing industry in Northern Ireland.

The Minister should know that there may be no long-term future for the industry, because it will go down the drain unless the short-term assistance that is being called for by many Members is made available. Will the Minister confirm to the House that, contrary to what she perhaps intimated to my colleague Mr Shannon earlier, she did not actually present a business case to the Executive or to the Department of Finance and Personnel?

Will she heed calls that are coming from Members and directly from the industry itself, and go back to the Executive? The need for a long-term strategy is acknowledged, but the fishing industry also needs a short-term boost through the de minimis scheme.

The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: I did not say at any point that I had presented a business case. I said that the business case would not stack up, that I had discussed it on Thursday at the Executive meeting, and that colleagues there had presented no contrary views. We discussed the pressures that face the fishing industry, and no one advised me to put forward a business case.

I have to consider the available resources, and we have to work as an Executive. There are reasons why the business case will not stack up, and I have answered that question a number of times. The business case is for £1 million — the £100,000 is for the vessel monitoring system.

12.45 pm

Committee Business

Ad Hoc Committee: Local Postal Services

Motion made:

That, as provided for in Standing Order 48(7), this Assembly appoints an Ad Hoc Committee to consider, and make proposals for, partnerships that could enhance the economic case for viable local postal services, in accordance with its resolution of 21 April 2008; and to submit a report to the Assembly by 2 June 2008.


DUP                      4

Sinn Féin               3

UUP                      2

SDLP                    2

Alliance                 1

Quorum:                The quorum shall be five Members.

Procedure:            The procedures of the Committee shall be such as the Committee may determine.  — [Mr McNarry]      [Mr P J Bradley]

Building Regulations (Amendment) Bill: Extension of Committee Stage

The Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel (Mr McLaughlin): I beg to move

That, in accordance with Standing Order 31(4), the period referred to in Standing Order 31(2) be extended to 27 June 2008, in relation to the Committee Stage of the Building Regulations (Amendment) Bill (NIA 11/07).

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. The Building Regulations (Amendment) Bill was introduced to the Assembly on 22 October 2007, and was given its Second Stage on 4 March 2008. It was referred to the Committee for Finance and Personnel on 5 March 2008. The Bill contains 17 clauses and one schedule.

The Bill refines the powers, duties and rights of Departments, district councils that enforce the regulations, and applicants. It extends the general principles of the primary legislation to include protection of the environment and promotion of sustainable development. Therefore, the Bill is important, as it not only updates and streamlines existing regulatory and enforcement provisions, but its provisions reflect the increasing significance of energy conservation, sustainability and environmental protection.

My Committee placed a public notice in the main provincial newspapers on 5 March 2008 to advertise the Committee Stage of the Bill and to invite written evidence. The Committee also contacted key stakeholders who had responded to the Department’s earlier consultations on the policy proposals to which the Bill will give effect.

The Committee has taken oral evidence from a range of key stakeholders, including Building Control Northern Ireland; the Building Regulations Advisory Committee; Climate Change Coalition Northern Ireland; the Sustainable Energy Association; the Chartered Institute of Architectural Technologists; the Chartered Institute of Building in Ireland; the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors in Northern Ireland; the Association of Building Engineers; the Northern Ireland branch of the Institution of Structural Engineers; and the Department of Finance and Personnel officials who worked on the Bill.

The Committee also received a range of written submissions in response to its public consultation. In the coming weeks, the Committee also plans to take evidence from representatives from the South of Ireland and from England and Wales on their experience in implementing similar legislative reforms. Evidence sessions have also been scheduled with the Energy Savings Trust and with the Northern Ireland Environment Link.

Although the provisions of the Bill have generally been welcomed, some stakeholders have suggested specific amendments and proposals. The Committee will need additional time to consult with the Department on those potential amendments and to consider its final position. Therefore, I am seeking an extension to 27 June 2008, to permit the Committee sufficient time to reach a considered position and to report to the Assembly. I ask Members for their support.

Question put and agreed to.


That, in accordance with Standing Order 31(4), the period referred to in Standing Order 31(2) be extended to 27 June 2008, in relation to the Committee Stage of the Building Regulations (Amendment) Bill (NIA 11/07).

Private Members’ Business

Review of Business Bureaucracy

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 are called to speak will have five minutes.

Mr Hamilton: I beg to move

That this Assembly recognises the burden, in terms of time and money, placed upon business in the past by unnecessary bureaucracy, out-of-date regulations and the “gold plating” of EU legislation; and calls upon the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to investigate the potential for a widespread review of business bureaucracy in Northern Ireland, with the aim of simplifying and consolidating necessary regulation and eliminating that which is no longer required.

My colleagues and I tabled the motion because we are extremely sensitive to the continual clarion calls from the business community about the negative impact of business bureaucracy on its ability to operate profitable enterprises.

Since restoration, we have been struck by the volume of subordinate legislation — which places obligations on businesses — passed by the Assembly. Some people have, wrongly, criticised the Assembly for not passing enough legislation in its first year. As Members know, passing primary legislation is a laborious process. However, countless pieces of subordinate law are passed by the Assembly — sometimes without a word being said. Although individual regulations may not particularly burden businesses, the accumulation of regulations can do so. Northern Ireland’s business regulations amount to several thousand pages — and are continually increasing.

Not all regulation is negative. No element of regulation escapes criticism, but everyone will agree that employment, health and safety and environmental regulations are essential in order to ensure the quality of products for the consumer and to maintain a level playing field. The motion does not aim to eradicate all regulation; it aims to build a better regulatory environment, simplify and consolidate required regulation, and eliminate unnecessary regulation.

Those of us in touch with the business community know that red tape places burdens on time, money and, occasionally, foregone investment. Business owners invariably say that red tape and regulation prevents them from doing the job that they want to do, and they are exasperated by burgeoning business bureaucracy.

That sense of mounting pressure is heightened in Northern Ireland because of the well-documented domination of our economy by small to medium-sized companies. If a company has only a handful of employees and no in-house expertise in the areas affected by regulation, it is largely left to the business owner — who must already juggle finance, wages, human resources and marketing responsibilities — to deal with the raft of regulation. Reams of red tape can discourage investment and may, in extreme circum­stances where regulations bring additional costs, threaten jobs.

The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) has approximately 7,000 members in Northern Ireland, and it regularly reports on difficulties caused by red tape and regulation. The FSB’s 2006 survey, ‘Barriers to Growth’, found that over half of small businesses considered regulation a serious barrier to growth. Moreover, 43% of respondents in Northern Ireland wanting to downsize their businesses cited excessive regulation as the reason. Furthermore, 57% of businesses reported an increase in time spent dealing with legislation in the past two years. From that snapshot, it is clear that the burden of bureaucracy and regulation is particularly acute on small businesses and may act as a disincentive.

In a recent survey conducted by the FSB and its counterpart in the Republic of Ireland, the Small Firms Association, 27% of small businesses cited rising levels of bureaucracy as one of their three main concerns. At a time when businesses face so many different pressures — as highlighted daily in the media — the plucking out of bureaucracy as a main concern highlights the extent of the problem.

The FSB regularly holds focus groups with local businesses. The people who have to live with this red tape and regulation say that they spend the days conducting their business and the nights at home keeping up with paperwork, or that, because paperwork arrives in dribs and drabs, they wait to accumulate a bundle to complete, which often results in the receipt of reminders — sometimes final reminders. Furthermore, some people claim that the annual business inquiry is so general and vague that they cannot understand its purpose.

The Federation of Small Businesses has estimated that, nationally, directors of small businesses spend more than seven hours a week filling in forms instead of doing what we want them to do — their real jobs. According to the British Chambers of Commerce, the cumulative cost of regulation on British businesses is a staggering £55·6 billion, and it estimates that that figure has risen by some £10 billion in the last year alone.

It is clear that there are genuine deep concerns in the business community about the cost of red tape and regulation and, more particularly, the distraction they cause. Those concerns are shared by Members on all sides of the House and, most importantly, by the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and his Department. I have raised the issue of regulation with the Minister in the Assembly previously, and he is committed to cutting the burden of business bureaucracy. However, it is appreciated that easing the burden of, or eradicating, red tape is not as easy as it sounds, given that more than 50% of it emanates directly for the European Union, and a substantial amount of the remainder comes from HM Treasury. We cannot simply eradicate overnight all the regulation that we might wish.

Although constant vigilance of regulation is always required, I acknowledge the good work that the Department has done recently. The 2006 DETI review of the Northern Ireland better regulation strategy contained many crucial recommendations, including improved communication with the business sector on the matter; a review of all existing legislation and forms, and annual reports of improvements that are made. As a result of that review, regulations imposed by bodies such as Invest Northern Ireland and the Health and Safety Executive have been consolidated or eliminated entirely.

Northern Ireland must apply constant downward pressure on red tape and regulation. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, as well as Departments that initiate regulations that affect various aspects and sectors of our economy and businesses, such as the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, must constantly review the regulations that they expect business to implement. In so doing, they must be sensitive to small and medium-sized enterprises and cognisant of the fact that a one-size-fits-all approach, in which regulations are sometimes perceived to be tailored to big businesses, does not suit business in Northern Ireland. Where exemptions or alternatives for small businesses exist, they must be seriously explored and implemented.

The case for reducing red tape is simple. Growing a dynamic, vibrant economy is our number-one priority, and we are focusing on encouraging exports and innovation, to name only two elements. Creating a culture of reducing red tape can give indigenous and inward investors a competitive edge, which, for many, can be as attractive as fiscal incentives.

In conclusion, if we want a business climate that is characterised by entrepreneurship, we should ensure that business is held back as little as possible.

The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Mr P Maskey): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Members who brought the motion to the House today. It follows on from the motion on the construction industry that Sinn Féin sponsored last week, and that is a good, natural progression. Given that that motion was agreed, I sincerely hope that this motion will be supported by all Members today. It will give hope to businesspeople and industries that the Assembly is here to assist the development of the business community in the hope that it will prosper and move into the future faster and more positively.

One of the most important points expressed in the motion is that the Assembly recognises the burden that bureaucracy places on business. That is crucial, because we must remember that many of our businesspeople are burdened by the amount of bureaucracy that exists; there is simply too much of it, and we do not need it all.

Like other Members, I have met representatives of the business community over many years. We all recognise the burden that is placed on them. They tell us about the pressures that bureaucracy and red tape put on them and stymie enterprises from growing. However, although we recognise that there must be some element of bureaucracy to ensure that business­people abide by the rules and regulations, too much of it can have a detrimental effect on the businesses and enterprises.

Most Departments deny that the bureaucracy is excessive. However, if we were to ask the business community about it, we would get a different answer.

1.00 pm

We must get rid of as much unnecessary red tape as possible. Excessive bureaucracy hinders business growth, and saps the business community’s precious time and energy. Businesspeople are obliged to complete an incredible amount of paperwork, and the language that is used in those forms is sometimes unreadable. We must ensure that regulation is worded in clear and unambiguous language.

The burden of red tape and gold-plating is holding back the growth of small businesses. Small businesses’ continued failure to expand — or their collapse — would have a hugely negative impact on our economy. Many of our businesses will not flourish, or may even go to the wall. The Assembly cannot afford to let that happen and must safeguard economic development.

We must ensure that democracy, and the filling in of forms, is streamlined. Paperwork must be reduced so that our businesses can get on with what they do best — being productive and innovative, and creating employment. We must do all in our power — and provide the easiest systems — to help our businesses to be innovative and creative. We must encourage and foster quality by removing obstacles and sharpening incentives, and by promoting the skills and entrepreneurial spirit that are needed to succeed in world markets.

Sinn Féin supports the motion, and we hope that everyone else will support the motion; it represents an important step. The Assembly should send a clear message to the business community that we are here for them, and that we want to make matters as easy as possible for them. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Speaker: A number of Members who are due to speak are not in the House; we cannot wait for them. Therefore, I will call those Members who are present.

Mr Cree: On behalf of my party, I support the motion, and I thank the Members who were responsible for its appearing on the Order Paper.

Reducing the burden of regulation and reporting on the private sector is a recurrent theme, but it is important, nevertheless. I will not beat about the bush: our economy is not in a happy state. We are over-reliant on the public sector — one third of our workforce is employed by the public sector, which, in turn, accounts for two thirds of our economic activity.

A skills shortage is being alleviated by immigrant workers. Our economic-activity level — the proportion of the working-age population with jobs — is lower than our competitors. The consequent dependence on the proportion of the population who are in work is high: roughly twice that in the Republic of Ireland.

Under direct rule, the public sector became our biggest exporter, attracting roughly double the tax take through subvention from the Treasury. That is changing, as Gershon reforms and Treasury stringency take hold, now that terrorism does not have to be kept at bay, economically or by the security forces.

The protectionist policies that were pursued by direct rule Ministers for 30 years have failed to rescue declining industries. Manufacturing employment has halved to 12·5% of the workforce, but that 12·5% now represents 30% of economic activity. Productivity has increased dramatically. However, that growth has been achieved through the efforts of businesses themselves, and in spite of the relentless imposition of regulation and reporting arrangements by those who do not have to worry about running a competitive business.

The public sector grew under direct rule. However, in the private sector, reasonably paid production jobs have given way to lower-paid service jobs. The Province urgently needs a thriving, knowledge-based private sector that can turn out products and services capable of holding their own in the global marketplace. The private sector also needs to be able to pay higher wages to talented and hard-working employees.

Government must scythe through needless regulations and reporting arrangements that are not legitimately in the public interest. We must play our part in promoting the economic recovery of the Province. We can do that by sharply reducing and simplifying the burden of rules, regulations and reporting restrictions that impair the ability of our export-orientated businesses to compete globally.

Those businesses are especially important because they bring fresh money into Northern Ireland. They form the top end of the monetary food chain that cascades through the economy, in and out of the pockets of consumers and domestic producers.

Our exporters do well: one has only to consider the Wright Group, F G Wilson, Thales Air Defence, Bombardier and many other companies that export most or all of their goods and services, bringing fresh money into the economy. In particular, we owe it to those companies that compete globally to make the impact of the public sector on their costs as light and effective as possible. We want them to prosper and to grow. They are all highly innovative firms — they have to be to survive on the stage of modern international business. We must avoid blunting their productivity through the impact of public-sector rules, regulations and requirements that increase their overhead expenditure and, as a consequence, affects their productivity.

We need to make Northern Ireland the location of preference for the establishment of new businesses, particularly for talented young people who, all too often, leave our shores. A productive private sector provides the wherewithal for provincial and local government to meet all those welfare and infrastructure needs to which we aspire for the people of Northern Ireland. What we do for export businesses, we should also do for businesses supplying our domestic market in order to make the goods and services purchased by the people of Northern Ireland cheaper and thus improve the welfare of all in our Province.

There is a necessary level of regulation and reporting that is recognised by responsible businesses. It provides a level playing field in areas where the public interest should prevail. However, overburdening the private sector will inevitably adversely affect employment and the tax take.

I lay before the Assembly my party’s unequivocal support for legitimate business interests, and the UUP intends that Government should play a full and con­structive part in enabling businesses to be established and to grow and prosper. The business world creates and distributes wealth: we, in the Chamber, consume it. My party is committed to making the public-sector burden on businesses as light and effective as possible.

Mr Simpson: I accept — and I am sure that the Assembly accepts — that there must be rules and proper accountability. Businesses, however, can be frustrated by the heavy hand of regulation and bureaucracy that dogs business in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland Departments are committed to reducing the burdens on business, including any arising from EU directives and regulations. I ask the Minister to investigate fully complaints of that type that are brought to his attention, with a view to removing as many layers of bureaucracy as possible.

The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Invest­ment has a responsibility to ensure that all Departments operate good regulatory and enforcement practices in setting and implementing policies on devolved matters. Departments undertake regulatory impact assessments when developing new policies or amending existing ones. They must also estimate the cost to business of proposed regulations, and, within 10 years of the introduction of legislation, decide whether the measure should continue. In theory, those measures should be to the benefit of business.

Mr Burnside: The Member is an experienced businessman. In counting the cost of regulation, one item, which the Minister should address in his summing up, is never brought before the public eye. That is the cost to regular, legal business of the black economy, which is absolutely massive in the Province. It is illegal activity that pays no tax to the Treasury; all the money goes into the hands of criminals. Does the Member agree that the Minister should evaluate the cost of the black economy to Northern Ireland’s legal economy?

Mr Simpson: I agree with the Member. The black economy causes major difficulty across the entire Province. It is a subject that should be examined in detail.

I have questions for the Minister. What method does his Department use to check how closely Departments adhere to the measures to which I referred earlier? How effective is the system? What contact does DETI have with business leaders that allows it to ascertain their views? How beneficial — or otherwise — have those measures been for businesses across the Province?

The other question to be asked is whether DETI has identified any improvements that could be made to the current situation.

I want to be fair to the Minister — after all, nobody wants to fall out with the incoming deputy leader of their party; not unless one really has to. He has taken a keen interest in promoting business, and I have spoken to him about issues in my constituency. I have found the Minister to have a real interest in improving Northern Ireland’s economy. I commend him for that, and for his work in attracting international investors and encouraging local businesspeople.

If I were to put myself in his shoes, I imagine one of the difficulties that he would have would be in identifying definite examples of businesses that are suffering because of bureaucracy. I can offer him two such examples in my own constituency.

First, there is a major international company that is seeking to locate its UK administration headquarters in Upper Bann — it is being held back due to delays in gas pipeline installation. The company is ready to proceed; the machinery is ready to be imported; jobs have been identified that can be relocated, yet the company is being held back by an unwieldy, blunt, heavy-handed bureaucratic environment.

Secondly, I have been working with a firm that has bought a 10-acre, fully-serviced site in which it plans to establish a new facility. That will create considerable employment in Lurgan and Portadown, but the firm has been told by Northern Ireland Electricity that the electricity supply that it requires could take up to 12 months to establish.

If we are going to rise to the challenges of competing successfully with the Irish Republic, we have to put competition first. We must adopt the approach of getting things done for business and putting competition to the forefront of our decision-making process.

I do not think that the companies that I have mentioned would want their details tossed back and forth across the House, so I will not go down that road. I ask the Minister of Finance and Personnel to look urgently at those particular examples of bureaucracy that are causing delay in creating further employment. I commend the motion to the House.

Mr McLaughlin: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I congratulate the proposers of the motion on bringing it to the House. I am pleased to support the motion. I am also grateful for the attendance of the Minister.

It goes without saying that here in the North, we operate in a very difficult and challenging economic environment. I strongly support the commitment in the Programme for Government to develop the local economy. It will be necessary to achieve that if we are to provide a stable and sustainable political and economic future. We have very little autonomy as regards fiscal matters, tax matters and the policy that is laid down by the Treasury in London. That disadvantage is compounded by the economic trade winds of Europe and around the world. However, that does not mean that the Assembly, within its remit, cannot address certain conditions which constrain competitiveness and productivity.

The motion correctly identifies unnecessary bureaucracy and form-filling as particular issues that can, and should, be addressed. The review being advocated — and that will, hopefully, receive all-party endorsement today — will provide an opportunity to identify how modern IT systems and new data-sharing powers allied to responsive and agile Government can be deployed to not only make this a more investment-friendly region but to relieve the pressure on those who are already in business.

That can be achieved by streamlining the interface between Government and business, and it is hoped that the review, under the Minister’s leadership, will take that on board. There is an opportunity to develop this region as an exemplar of how to achieve a business-friendly relationship with the Government that will, equally, work to the advantage of the Government.

The challenges that exist to build the economy here require us to demonstrate the differences between ourselves and the locations with which we will be competing for business. This is one such opportunity. I support the motion.

1.15 pm

Mr Shannon: I thank the Members for securing the debate, because it is an issue about which many small businesses are concerned. However, I want to mention a couple of matters before I get into the thrust of the debate. Members are aware of red tape and how it affects farmers. That is another Minister’s responsibility, but it illustrates that it is not only small businesses that are affected by red tape; it affects farmers. The Ulster Farmers’ Union has long campaigned to change that.

My colleague Simon Hamilton and I met with another Minister — Margaret Ritchie from the Department for Social Development — to discuss the red tape that is involved in benefit entitlement. The system is so entangled and so difficult to understand that, in frustration, people turn to their elected representatives to lobby Ministers for change. There have, therefore, been requests for change in the agriculture sector and the benefit system. There have been problems across the Province in those two industries, and some people have been penalised because of the unnecessary bureaucracy that exists. However, it does not end there.

Small businesses across the Province are left bewildered about their obligations and about how to carry them out. That bewilderment extends to worrying about how to fund the changes when they eventually understand what they are being asked to change.

Small and medium-sized businesses make up over half of the UK’s business population, and as such, they are not merely a minority to be overlooked and ignored. However, it is clear that they are at a distinct dis­advantage compared to the bigger businesses when it comes to implementing new legislation. The Federation of Small Businesses says that it costs five times more and takes five times longer for a small company to implement new regulations than it does a big business. It is, therefore, clear that small businesses are hampered in a way that the larger companies are not. That is grossly unfair, and it should not be seen simply as how things are.

A survey that was carried out by the Federation of Small Businesses found that two thirds of small firms wanted to grow and expand, but half of them felt that regulations were a barrier to that growth. That is not difficult to understand when one discovers that complying with regulations and changes costs businesses between £20 billion and £40 billion a year. It was also discovered that 50% of small businesses that sought help in interpreting regulations into language that they could understand and policies that they could implement did not find the help for which they were looking. It is, therefore, no wonder that so many small businesses are fined for not complying with the regulations.

It is difficult for someone to implement and comply with changes when they do not understand what is being asked of them. Some 40% of small businesses said that they needed more guidance, and 54% were confused by the complexities of the material that was sent to them. There is an easy solution: implement only that which is necessary and do so in a way that the ordinary person can understand. I am aware that many Departments have tried to ensure that easy-to-understand guidelines are produced, and I commend that, but there should be a firm rule for all legislation.

I am aware that the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment is ahead of its target for cutting red tape, and I commend the Minister for that. However, more must be done. The so-called Gershon review-inspired slimming down in the Civil Service focused on fewer tasks for fewer people and on being proactive in simplifying matters. That is the line that we should take. Procedures should be simplified: the unnecessary audits that have put so much strain on small businesses should be cut, and legislation should be reviewed so that the laws, which are not doing their job or which are redundant, should be scrapped.

I ask the Minister to consider the Dutch approach, which has meant the scrapping of one piece of red tape when another is introduced. That comes down to prioritising. The implementation of that Dutch policy and the review of bureaucracy cost £35 million, but it saved up to £16 billion by enforcing only those regulations necessary for growth and by binning the rest. That must be done here.

Mr Weir: Will the Member agree that this would not be the first time that we have had a very successful import from Holland?

Mr Shannon: I agree wholeheartedly. I must express an interest and some bias in that respect. The coming of King William was a special occasion — and he did not have to worry about border controls either.

We can no longer sustain the amount of regulation that comes through; something has to go. It is my preference that a redundant policy that costs money to implement should go, rather than small businesses from our high streets or industrial parks.

As the economic conference draws near, it is vital to show in every way that Northern Ireland is an investment- and business-friendly place. I urge the Minister to start a review of the process now, thereby showing that we are ready and waiting to encourage and build businesses — both big and small — in the Province. I support the motion.

The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Mr Dodds): I thank everyone who has participated in the debate — it has been short but useful.

The Executive want to create an environment that encourages and enables businesses to continue to expand and contribute to Northern Ireland’s economic growth. I am aware that, at times, businesses can feel frustrated by what they see as unnecessary red tape, too much form filling and the perceived heavy hand of Government regulation. However, a modern economy needs rules and accountability, whether to protect the vulnerable or the environment, to promote safety and fairness at work, or to help raise standards of service. The right regulatory environment is essential if businesses are to grow, inward investment is to flow, and our economy is to develop. The Members who have spoken about the need for balance and the right regulatory make-up are absolutely right.

This morning, I attended the Unite trade union headquarters on the Antrim Road where an event was being held to mark international workers’ day, with the focus being on the number of deaths at work over the years. I was struck by the fact that during this century so far, 10 million people across the world have died as a result of work-related injuries, incidents, or illnesses. In light of that and the work of the Health and Safety Executive for Northern Ireland, for example, it is right and proper to say that it is necessary to have a certain amount of regulation in place to prevent death and injury at work.

As several Members have already mentioned, many of the regulations that affect business in Northern Ireland derive from European Union or United Kingdom law. Business representatives consistently indicate that the majority of the regulatory burdens are felt in areas with an EU or a UK legislative base. Therefore, develop­ments in the European Union or in Whitehall are of great importance and relevance to us.

In recent years, the European Commission has been pursing a better regulation agenda and the United Kingdom has been at the forefront of EU efforts to improve and simplify the regulatory environment. The Commission is committed to simplifying EU legislation and intends to reduce by 25% the administrative burdens that it creates before the end of 2012. That will have significant benefits for Northern Ireland businesses if it is successful. Along with other Members, I look forward to that happening.

Complaints have been made today and in the past about gold-plating — that is, adding to EU requirements when legislation is being implemented here. It has been said that the United Kingdom, in particular, goes overboard and goes the extra mile when implementing European laws and regulations. The Member for Strangford Mr Shannon mentioned the agriculture sector, and the difference can be seen in our approach to legislation and that of other countries — in particular, several southern European countries. For example, six or seven years after Britain introduced milk quotas, certain countries in southern Europe were still counting their herds. That is, therefore, an issue.

The whole issue has been investigated thoroughly. The 2006 Davidson report suggested that over-implementation is not as widespread in the United Kingdom as is sometimes claimed. The majority of directives are issued on a UK-wide basis, and, because that is the case, Northern Ireland Departments liaise closely with the Whitehall regulators to ensure that any specific Northern Ireland interests are taken into account. In instances in which Northern Ireland Departments are responsible for directly transposing EU regulations, they automatically and stringently adhere to a policy of avoiding unnecessary and inappropriate gold-plating.

I am unaware of any examples of gold-plating of regulations for which the Northern Ireland Executive are responsible. However, if Members have any particular concerns on that issue, I am happy for them to be brought to my attention. I will investigate those to ascertain what can be done.

The UK Government’s better-regulation agenda is being pursued actively in Whitehall through various initiatives and proposals that have flowed from the recommendations of two major reports that were published in 2005. Those are the Better Regulation Task Force report, ‘Regulation — Less is More’, and the Hampton report, ‘Reducing administrative burdens: effective inspection and enforcement’. Those reports led to a number of initiatives in Whitehall, including simplification plans, risk-based inspection and enforcement and proposals to make the penalty system more proportionate and effective.

In Northern Ireland, my Department is responsible for ensuring that all Departments across the Executive operate good regulatory and enforcement practices when setting and implementing policies on devolved issues. As part of that strategy, Departments undertake regulatory impact assessments each time they develop a new policy, amend an existing policy or develop proposals for legislation. They are also required to consult all stakeholders at an early stage and to draw up a preliminary assessment that includes estimating the cost implications for business.

When a substantial impact is identified, Departments must set a date within 10 years of the introduction of the legislation to test the need for the measure to continue. Departments are also required to carry out a micro-business test to assess the impact of any proposal on businesses with fewer than five employees. That addresses the issue that Mr Shannon raised about the number of small businesses in particular that are affected. My Department checks that those procedures are conducted, and we have evidence that that is the case.

To further assist business, Departments have to provide guidance on new legislation at least 12 weeks before it comes into operation. The only exception is when timetables are dictated either by emergency situations, such as risks to health, or by European Union legislative requirements.

In the second half of 2006, my Department conducted a review of the strategy. As an integral part of that, recent better-regulation developments in the rest of the United Kingdom were examined. Those included simplification plans, improved regulatory impact assessment arrangements, implementation of EU legislation without gold-plating, and improvements to the sanctioning system. In each case, we examined the Northern Ireland position to ensure that all necessary steps were being taken to ensure that we were not falling behind.

Representatives of the main business organisations were consulted, including the Institute of Directors, the Confederation of British Industry, the Federation of Small Businesses, the Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Northern Ireland Hotels Federation. Ideas and concerns put forward by them were taken fully into account.

The review report was also discussed with the Economic Development Forum’s enterprise subgroup, which fully endorsed the recommendations. The review concluded that the existing Northern Ireland strategy should continue, but that a number of steps should be taken to strengthen it. As a result, all Northern Ireland Departments are now to include an objective to encourage better regulation in their corporate and/or operating plans.

Greater efforts will be made to communicate better-regulation developments through departmental websites and meetings with representative groups. Each Department has also undertaken to review all legislation, forms and enforcement arrangements that impact on business. Departments are also considering the simplification plans of their Whitehall equivalents to ensure that any improvements are reflected in Northern Ireland.

1.30 pm

The review also committed the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) to publish annual reports to outline what Departments do to improve regulations each year. The 2006-07 report is available on the DETI website, and I invite Members to read it. I am sure that they all did that before attending this debate.

Mr Burnside: At the end of the review, does the Minister expect that more or fewer regulations will be in place?

The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment: It is my confident prediction that fewer regulations will be in place. If the Member had looked at the website, he would have seen that it tells a very good story, because consolidation is already taking place. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE), for example, consolidated 12 sets of regulations into three, and repealed 12 sets of other regulations. The process has already begun, and I am glad of that.

As another example, of the 15 forms issued to businesses, Invest Northern Ireland amended three, consolidated five and removed one entirely. The Insolvency Service’s business-modernisation project radically improved the way in which it undertakes its work and the service that it offers by providing new service-delivery channels through the Internet.

The Health and Safety Executive now provides a range of information and guidance to businesses in a variety of formats — including awareness days, free information packs and online guidance — in order to ensure that that is easily accessible to businesses. In response to a suggestion by the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), an up-to-date list of all Northern Ireland health and safety regulations is provided on the Health and Safety Executive website. That allows businesses to easily find out what health and safety regulations are in force. That is just a sample of what my Department has been doing. I am determined that that work should continue, and that a further comprehensive review of the strategy will be carried out in 2011.

I take this issue very seriously. As the proposer of the motion, Mr Hamilton, said, it is important to bear down on regulation where it is unnecessary or superfluous. As I said earlier, there will be examples where it is necessary and important to have regulation. Mr Hamilton also mentioned the amount of subordinate legislation that is passed in the Assembly, without much debate, that places obligation on businesses. I take the Member’s point entirely. If there are particular areas of concern about subordinate legislation, I am all too willing to consider, in respect of any specific example, whether that regulation is necessary or required. Mr Hamilton made a very important point when he said that our aim must be to build a better regulatory environment. That is what we want to achieve in Northern Ireland, and I am committed to that task.

The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment, Mr Paul Maskey, made a number of very useful points. I appreciate his support for what the Department is trying to do. The Member for North Down Mr Cree talked in more general terms about the private sector, and about the need to see it grow. I agree entirely with him.

The issue of regulation and bureaucracy is important. However, as we know, in order to achieve the private-sector objectives, the key drivers of the economy — skills, infrastructure, enterprise and innovation — must be invested in. As a member of the DETI Committee — and having gone through the Programme for Government in enormous detail — Mr Cree will know that the Programme for Government puts the economy at centre stage, and guarantees investment in those key drivers of the economy. That is exactly what needs to happen.

Mr Cree quite rightly praised a number of exporters. Very challenging targets have been set to ensure that 600 companies will export outside Northern Ireland within three years. New companies are also needed to export goods, and that will drive the economy forward.

Mr Simpson raised a number of very important points. He talked about investigating various complaints with a view to removing as many layers of bureaucracy as possible. I will do that if Members bring any particular issues of concern to me about specific regulations. Mr Simpson also asked about the methods used by DETI to check how closely Departments adhere to those regulations. I mentioned that officials in the regulatory impact unit of my Department liaise closely with other such units in other Departments.

As for the effectiveness of the system, we receive completed regulatory impact assessments from all Northern Ireland Departments, which are scrutinised carefully. The Member raised several issues about gas and electricity supply, and he will be aware that that, to some extent, is beyond my remit. However, I will examine those matters, and write to him. Mr McLaughlin also raised points in broad support of the thrust the motion.

The motion calls on me to investigate the potential for a review of business bureaucracy. I trust that, in the brief time that is available to me, I have demonstrated that the regulatory burden on business is kept continually under review, and that mechanisms are already in place to minimise both the volume of regulations and the problems associated with them. However, if Members have any particular concerns, I ask them to contact me, and I will be happy to investigate.

Mr Newton: The motion probably will, I hope, be agreed with very little discord in the Chamber. Although some Members may place differing emphasis on certain aspects of the motion, it is gratifying to have the Minister here and to see that there is unanimity in favour of the motion.

Members who were outside the Chamber over a year ago — before the Assembly was in operation — would not have put money on the Budget and the Programme for Government supporting the business community and creating additional well-paid jobs for our people.

I note that the Minister has expressed concerns about this issue. In the Chamber, about a year ago, he said that he would do everything in his power to advance the agenda of deregulation, streamline bureaucracy, simplify form filling, and reduce information requests to businesses. That statement was welcomed at that time, and I welcome his repeating it in the Assembly today.

All Members who spoke in the debate acknowledged that much of the regulation and red tape emanates from Westminster and the European Community. However, that does not invalidate the debate, because this is a matter of concern for business organisations throughout the UK, and for elected representatives and devolved Administrations throughout the UK.

It cannot be argued that we do not need regulation — it is necessary to ensure that business is transacted in a fair, safe and equitable manner. However, I wish to highlight some problems — particularly the position of small and medium-sized enterprises, as referred to by Jim Shannon. The burden of meeting regulations falls on the shoulders of family businesses and owner/managers, and their time is required to deal with the red tape. We all know that time is money.

It has already been said that it is estimated that the average SME spends about seven hours a week on form filling, and often that is additional to the working week, rather than part of it. I acknowledge that although the motion calls on the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to investigate the potential for a widespread review of business bureaucracy in Northern Ireland, the problem is not in his bailiwick alone, and is not confined to his Department. David Simpson has already provided a couple of relevant examples. I also concede that it is difficult to identify exactly where the unnecessary bureaucracy and red tape is, and who should sort out and adjudicate the level of the necessity for such red tape.

Many reports have been produced by business schools, universities and business organisations throughout the length and breadth of the UK. However, until those in the highest levels of Government recognise that there is a problem, the potential for the devolved Administrations to address this matter is minimal.

The ethos of Westminster and Brussels must be one of giving support and encouragement to businesses, rather than piling additional burdens on their shoulders. The system of Government should be driven by the attitude that minimalist is best in the area of red tape, until proven otherwise. I hope that, if this motion is passed, a message will be carried by all Northern Ireland MPs to the House of Commons, and indeed through local lords to the House of Lords.

It has been mentioned that DETI produced a better-regulation report in March, and that was a very welcome step. It provides us with a baseline; a foundation on which to build. It is a report that will help to build some confidence in the SME sector. However, we need to move beyond generalisation about red tape. Underpinning the future approach there needs to be a measurement of the cost to SMEs in time, money and effort of showing compliance to a legislative body’s requirements. Challenging targets need to be set — as has been argued in many areas of the Assembly in various Departments — as well as a measurement system to confirm that progress in reducing the bureaucracy is being achieved. Those must be targets that each year can be enhanced, demonstrating progress and helping the business sector increase its efforts to spend additional time in real business activity, a point made by David Simpson.

It is that kind of approach that was outlined by William Sargent, executive chairperson of the Better Regulation Executive in Westminster. It is a businesslike approach, and only that type of action will actually result in our making progress. We need to release the entrepreneurs from form-filling and give them back those seven hours per week. That cannot be achieved by civil servants on their own. Business needs to play its part. There must be a partnership approach so that Departments know the impact of new regulations on small businesses in particular. Creating increasing levels of contact between Government and business owners and managers is necessary — a point that, I think, was made by the Minister. That contact should build profitable two-way relationships and increase levels of business understanding within Government. Unless the business community understands what the Government are attempting to achieve, and the Government understand the impact of regulations on business, this problem will remain a continuing source of complaint.

There were many excellent and relevant points made by other Members. My colleague Simon Hamilton, in proposing the motion, placed emphasis on that additional time spent by businesses in dealing with red tape. In the life of a small company, in particular, the time that is spent dealing with red tape is precious. Mr Hamilton stated that the cost of dealing with red tape is about £55·6 billion UK wide. Paul Maskey indicated that legislation to reduce the amount of red tape should be a key priority, that he was supportive of the motion, and that a clear message should be sent to the business community about our intentions to support it.

Leslie Cree placed his emphasis on the need for growing a knowledge-based economy, and said that the role of Government and the Assembly in creating that was vitally important. Unless the conditions are right, the inward investment we seek — or the additional investment from resident companies — will not be available. Supporting the exporters is absolutely essential, and we do not want, if I quote Mr Cree correctly, to “blunt their efforts”. David Simpson — who obviously comes at this from two perspectives, both as an elected representative and as a businessman in his constituency — stressed the EU’s role in this. He referred to two companies in his constituency that were suffering from red tape; that needs to be addressed.

1.45 pm

Mitchel McLaughlin talked about the difficult and challenging economy. He said that the Assembly must do everything in its power to streamline the interface between Government and business.

Jim Shannon spoke, with the passion that he brings to every subject, about cross-departmental red tape. He pointed out that red tape is not confined to DETI, but extends to other Departments. He said that legislation hampers growth and expansion and that micro-businesses often find it difficult to understand the language that is associated with red tape.

I thank the Minister for his presence, and I applaud his command of the subject. He is committed to providing ongoing delivery in the fight against bureaucracy.

Question put and agreed to.


That this Assembly recognises the burden, in terms of time and money, placed upon business in the past by unnecessary bureaucracy, out-of-date regulations and the “gold plating” of EU legislation; and calls upon the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to investigate the potential for a widespread review of business bureaucracy in Northern Ireland, with the aim of simplifying and consolidating necessary regulation and eliminating that which is no longer required.

Death of Raymond McCord Jnr

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

I remind all Members that absolute privilege attaches to the making of statements in proceedings of the Assembly only for the purposes of the law of defamation. It is important to remember that privilege does not extend beyond that.

I also remind Members of the Speaker’s advice to the House on other occasions: with such protection comes responsibility. I strongly encourage Members to act responsibly when speaking in the debate.

I am sure that Members will be particularly anxious to do nothing that would prejudice any future court proceedings. That is the crux of what I want to say to the House, and I will bring to order any Member who strays beyond the parameters that I have set.

Mr A Maginness: I beg to move:

That this Assembly notes with grave concern the report of the Police Ombudsman into the death of Raymond McCord Jnr and related matters; applauds the work of the McCord family’s campaign for justice; supports the ongoing criminal investigation into these matters; and calls on all individuals and organisations to co-operate fully with the Police Ombudsman and PSNI investigations.

Mr Speaker, I hope to follow closely your advice and injunction to the House. I welcome the opportunity to raise a most serious issue in the House. The death of Raymond McCord Jnr, the events that surrounded it, and the subsequent police investigation represent a scandal that involved the police and a brutal paramilitary organisation in north Belfast and Newtownabbey.

Peter Hain was Secretary of State when the Police Ombudsman’s report on the death of Mr McCord Jnr was published in January 2007. He released a statement, in which he said that the Ombudsman had:

“shone a light on a dark and murky period in the history of Northern Ireland.”

Everyone in the House should agree with that comment.

He also referred to the report’s finding that the investigation into Raymond McCord’s murder in November 1997:

“was fundamentally compromised because of the corrupting relationship between elements of the then RUC Special Branch and informants within the UVF in North Belfast.”

That was a scandalous situation.

He said that the report by Nuala O’Loan, the Police Ombudsman, was “comprehensive and thorough”, one that :

“makes for extremely uncomfortable reading.”

That is, in fact, to minimise the nature of the report. As I have said, the Police Ombudsman’s report revealed a scandalous situation, with serious findings in respect of the RUC Special Branch. Speaking about police failures, the then Secretary of State went on to say that:

“no one should attempt to justify them.”

He also said — and I agree with him — that a small number of Special Branch officers were involved, and that that small number:

“failed in their fundamental duty to protect the community”.

It is important to remember that the majority of RUC officers were not found guilty of misconduct in respect of their duties or the finding of collusion. When one examines this scandalous situation, one can see that the influence of some Special Branch members distorted policing in Northern Ireland, in particular in north Belfast and Newtownabbey, because their influence created a situation whereby a police informant — “Informant 1” — escaped proper investigation and possible prosecution.

This case does not end with the death of Raymond McCord Jnr, but only begins with it, and it goes back­wards and forwards in time because the main suspect and other informants were deemed, as a result of the report, to have been involved in other criminal activity.

The 10 murders that were the subject of investigation were those of: Mr Peter McTasney; Miss Sharon McKenna; Mr Sean McParland; Mr Gary Convie; Mr Eamon Fox; Mr Gerald Brady; Mr Thomas Sheppard; Mr John Harbinson; Mr Raymond McCord Jnr; and Mr Thomas English, who died in 2000. Those are 10 murders in which police informants were allegedly involved, according to the report. I believe that that 10 has increased to 17 — the other seven not being the subject of the report.

As a result of that investigation, a wide range of criminal activity by the UVF, in north Belfast and elsewhere, was uncovered. However, the most revealing and most damaging aspect of the affair was the involvement of elements of the Special Branch. Such was the extent of that involvement that the Police Ombudsman said in her findings that, because there were no credible explanations from the Special Branch and the police, the only conclusion that she could draw was that there was collusion between elements of the Special Branch and the UVF. That, surely, is a great indictment of policing in Northern Ireland, a shame on those who were involved, and brings dishonour on those who served the public honourably in the police service, whether in the RUC or its successor, the PSNI.

That must be borne in mind by all Members in their consideration of the matter.

I want to remind Members of Mr McCord’s perseverance, courage, tenacity and doggedness. Despite all the pressures on him from the authorities and paramilitaries by way of threats and so forth, he stuck to his quest for truth and justice. In doing so, he has done a great service to the House, to the community and to policing in Northern Ireland. The subsequent Police Ombudsman’s investigation, which began in 2002, has ultimately established that the speculation and rumours were facts. The House owes Mr McCord a considerable debt of gratitude for his persistence and public mindedness.

Never again can a situation arise where police handlers and intelligence gatherers become intimately associated with paramilitaries or any other criminal organisation. I hope that, as a result of the report, that never happens again. However, the disturbing failings that gave rise to the report and came to light after the murder are a timely reminder to everyone in the House of the number of victims of terrorism, collusion and of violence in our community. We must all be mindful of that.

If the report does anything, it must strengthen the resolve of everyone in politics to prevent any of that happening again. The cumulative effect of the actions of certain members of Special Branch and the police protected informants, particularly Informant 1, from investigation. That must never happen again in our lifetimes. Any kind of collusion must be prevented. I urge people to remember that when it comes to matters of national security so that mechanisms can be put in place to prevent that ever happening again.

Mr McCausland: The motion deserves the Assembly’s full support. It states: “That this Assembly notes with grave concern the report of the Police Ombudsman into the death of Raymond McCord Jnr and related matters”.

The report is comprehensive and thorough. It deals with a brutal murder. Many murders have occurred in Northern Ireland during the past 30 to 40 years, particularly in north Belfast and the surrounding area. Raymond McCord Jnr’s murder was particularly brutal because he was found beaten to death at Ballyduff quarry — a young man of 22 years of age who had the rest of his life before him. The murder took place 11 years ago in 1997. The Police Ombudsman’s report, which was published more than a year ago in January 2007, is the outworking of the campaign for justice by Raymond McCord Jnr’s father and the family circle.

That is understandable because all victims and their families naturally seek justice. Like everyone else, victims deserve justice. The DUP, therefore, supports not only the McCord family’s search for justice but the ongoing criminal investigation into those matters, which must be followed through to completion. The DUP calls on all individuals and organisations to co-operate fully with the investigations of the Police Ombudsman and the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

2.00 pm

The Police Ombudsman’s report examined the relationship between the security forces and informants, during what was referred to earlier as a “dark and murky period”, and it focused on one paramilitary organisation. However, collusion stretches across a number of paramilitary organisations both on the loyalist and the republican sides, and the Police Ombudsman’s compre­hensive report significantly opened up that world.

Importantly, the report included a list of recommend­ations. Too often, reports gather dust on shelves and their recommendations are not followed through. It is important that the recommendations of the Police Ombudsman are followed through to full effect. Not only would that bring us closer to resolving this case and delivering justice to the McCord family but it would ensure that nothing of that nature happens again. Alban Maginness paid tribute to the McCord family circle for its campaign for truth and justice. To a certain extent, the family’s tenacity was rewarded with the publication of the report, but much more could and should be done.

Across our society, families are crying out for justice. The work of the Historical Enquiries Team is ongoing, which helps to a limited degree. From my perspective, many crimes will never be fully resolved because the perpetrators have died. In other cases, people possess information but are unwilling to release it.

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

Mr McCausland: For that reason, it is possible that the resolution for which we hope will not be achieved.

Mr Adams: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I commend the Members for tabling the motion. Collusion, a Cheann Comhairle, between British state forces and others is a challenge to political institutions in how we respond to the needs of victims and address the issue of truth. It is a challenge for the Irish Government, which, from Sinn Féin’s point of view, has adopted a less than effective approach to investigating collusion and its effects here, but especially in their own jurisdiction. It is a particular challenge for the British Government and their military and intelligence agencies, which established some of those paramilitary organisations and provided weapons, training and information as well as facilitating and directing attacks in which many citizens were murdered.

From the perspective of Sinn Féin and any objective onlooker, collusion was an administrative and institutionalised practice. It led not only to the deaths of more than 1,000 people — which impacted on their families — but to the deaths of more than a score of Sinn Féin members and members’ relatives. Collusion also led to unionist citizens being murdered by those who claimed to be their defenders.

Raymond McCord Jnr was one such victim. I first met his father a number of years ago. He was campaigning, and is still campaigning, for justice. He alleges that at least two members of the UVF gang who were involved in the murder of his son were agents working for Special Branch, and he has named both men. As other Members said, he has been threatened and intimidated by the UVF, and he alleges that he has been harassed by members of the PSNI. Sinn Féin supports the McCord family’s demand for an independent and internationally based inquiry into Raymond McCord Jnr’s murder. I have raised the case with the British and Irish Governments, and, earlier this year, Raymond spoke at the Sinn Féin Ard-Fheis.

As others have said, the Police Ombudsman produced a damning report, which confirmed Raymond McCord’s accusations and went on to expose a depth of collusion that appeared to shock many unionists. I welcome the positive remarks from the Benches opposite.

Many reports from Amnesty International and other bodies have confirmed the use of collusion and state murder in cases ranging from the killing of Pat Finucane to a series of murders in County Tyrone, including one in Cappagh, and across the island. A number of official reports, such as the Stevens Report, have been suppressed by the British Government. A report in October 2006 concluded that at least 76 people died as a result of a gang that was based in Glenanne in south Armagh, which involved members of the RUC, UDR and MI5, along with members of unionist paramilitaries. Many of the people who were killed by that gang were citizens in the South. The subcommittee of the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women’s Rights, in Leinster House, concluded that those were acts of international terrorism. The Barron Inquiry into the Dublin and Monaghan bombings also confirmed the existence of collusion.

Despite the overwhelming evidence, the British Government have never acknowledged any of that. On the contrary, they have sought to deny, cover up and suppress the truth. The judicial apparatus, from the lowest to the highest levels, including the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) and some judges, connived to ensure that killings were not properly investigated, that many of those who were known to be involved were not prosecuted or, as in the case of Brian Nelson, were offered a deal to prevent the facts from coming out. All of those who were involved in running such operations in the British system were — and still are — protected from the legal consequences of their action, and public interest immunity certificates were used to withhold information at trials and inquests. In many cases, no inquests have been held into those killings. The extent of all of that is breathtaking.

Mr Kennedy: Will the Member give way?

Mr Adams: Sorry, I do not have enough time, Danny.

Collusion was an integral part of the fabric of the British system’s political and counter-insurgency strategy. The Ombudsman’s report into the Loughinisland murders will be published in the near future, so I ask the Members opposite not to respond with a knee-jerk reaction. It is as much in the interests of unionists as anyone else to get the truth out. Families deserve to have the truth acknowledged and admitted to by those who killed their loved ones.

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

Mr Adams: Once again, I commend Raymond McCord, who deserves all our thanks for his significant part in bringing the issues to the surface. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Cree: Once again, the Assembly is debating an aspect of our painful past. I fear that some in the Chamber will do so without a due sense of responsibility to wider society, to those who have gone before us and to those who will come after us. During the Troubles, more than 3,500 people met with violent deaths. The perpetrators of the vast majority of those deaths have not been, and never will be, brought to justice. The pain, sorrow and loss of far too many families throughout society cannot and should not be forgotten.

Mr Raymond McCord Snr lost his son in horrific, evil circumstances. The murder in 1997 was one of too many heinous acts over three decades. The murder of Raymond McCord Jnr is a painful and bloody testimony to the effects of paramiltarism on society.

In the debate, we should not lose sight of that truth. Paramilitaries murdered Raymond McCord Jnr, just as paramilitaries murdered the vast majority of those who died violently between 1969 and 1998. Whatever other questions are asked today, that fundamental truth cannot go unsaid — paramilitaries murdered Raymond McCord Jnr.

In the face of murder at the hands of paramilitaries, both the families of victims and wider society have a rightful expectation that the police will fully and impartially investigate the crime, with the intention of gathering evidence that will lead to a prosecution in a court of law. That obligation on the police is part of the state’s solemn duty to protect the rights and freedom of all in society. The Ulster Unionist Party regards that solemn duty as sacrosanct.

The Police Ombudsman’s report on the police investigation into Raymond McCord Jnr’s murder, without doubt, raised several significant and troubling questions. It must be noted, however, that since 1997, as would be expected in a post-conflict situation, procedures, responsibilities and organisation in the Police Service have changed considerably. The present Chief Constable’s comments about the Police Ombudsman’s report are therefore important:

“Significant reorganisation and the new systems and processes to deal with this most difficult area of policing, which we have put in place over the last four and a half years, will ensure that the situation described by the ombudsman could never happen again in Northern Ireland.”

Of course, much comment has surrounded the role of Special Branch officers in the investigation. Of primary importance is the realisation that, during the Troubles, Special Branch officers played a highly significant and courageous role in protecting society against terrorism. The former Police Ombudsman said:

“undoubtedly, Special Branch officers were effective in preventing bombings, shootings and other attacks.”

Therefore, our society owes an immense debt of gratitude to those Special Branch officers who, throughout the Troubles, engaged in the most difficult and most necessary aspect of policing — confronting the threat posed by paramilitarism.

The balance to be struck by police officers with regard to protecting intelligence sources and investigating crime is, as any reasonable observer would recognise, not an exact science. Therefore, it is obviously wrong for politicians or others to seek to second-guess police officers’ professional judgement in incredibly complex situations. That said, there can be no doubt that society should hold the actions of police officers and other agents of the state to infinitely higher standards than those of people engaged in criminal paramilitary activities.

While the Ombudsman’s report into the death of Raymond McCord Jnr raised significant questions, it is also important to recognise that it has not been without its critics. That is an important aspect of the debate about policing in many societies. On this occasion, it was necessary to strike a proper balance between accountability and operational effectiveness.

The response of former senior police officers to the Ombudsman’s report must be taken into consideration. In particular, the House should note the following comments from the Northern Ireland Retired Police Officers’ Association:

“The misuse of the word ‘collusion’, without any legal anchorage, has led to it being used as a political catchphrase … The Statement completely fails to contextualise the dilemmas facing the police in terms of the existing legal and disciplinary frameworks”.

Mr A Maginness: Will the Member give way?

Mr Cree: I am sorry, but I do not have time.

The response continues:

“it oversimplifies the ethical and moral dilemmas; and it ignores the overriding priority set by HMG at the time to save life through the effective gathering, assessment, analysis and exploitation of intelligence”.

Mr Speaker: The Member’s time is up.

Mr Cree: On behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party, I support the motion.

Dr Farry: I fully support the motion, and I thank its proposer for bringing the subject to our attentions. I also pay tribute to Raymond McCord Snr’s long-running, and ongoing, campaign. In particular, I note his dogged persistence in pursuit of justice for his son and his wider family.

For far too long the claims made by Mr McCord were dismissed as being fanciful, and the Ombudsman’s report has given considerable credence to the allegations that he has been making consistently over the past decade.

Members should note that the former Police Ombudsman upheld two of the four charges: that Mr McCord Jnr was murdered by a UVF figure who was also a police informant, and that the murder investigation by the RUC was flawed. The report raised a long list of wider concerns, including problems with record keeping and sham interviews.

2.15 pm

As Mr Alban Maginness outlined, Informant 1 has been associated with a wide range of crimes, including a long list of murders. That should be sobering for us all when we read the report. It is also of concern that the former Police Ombudsman reported that there was a lack of co-operation from a number of officers with her office, in particular from those who are retired.

We cannot bury our heads in the sand over reports of this nature. Although they make uncomfortable reading, it is likely that more uncomfortable truths will be exposed in the near future. That is part and parcel of the Eames/Bradley process. Regardless of how painful that is, it is a process that our society must go through in order to move on, build a shared future and promote reconciliation.

The mechanisms are in place for us to begin to hold the state to account for actions that occurred that were outside the law. However, there is an imbalance because many members of paramilitary organisations who perpetrated crimes are not under any pressure to reveal the truth and provide comfort to those who suffered at their hands. That should focus our minds as we move forward. It is correct to hold the state to account as long as it is the source of law and order in society. In doing so, we must be able to make the distinction between paying tribute to the role played by the RUC and the sacrifice that many of its officers made during the Troubles to protect wider society, and holding it — and individual officers — to account for involvement in illegal actions. I emphasise that that applies to a small minority of officers — the vast majority acted honourably and bravely.

To have a society that is based on the rule of law, there must be accountability and we must not be afraid to acknowledge when the system breaks down. The RUC was faced with an incredibly difficult situation during the Troubles. Intelligence was an inevitable and important aspect of the RUC’s work to counteract the extreme threat from loyalist and republican paramilitaries, which meant that informants had to be used. The problem was the lack of a framework for accountability. Home Office guidelines were not even adhered to, never mind not fully taken on board.

We do not have the luxury of knowing about the successes of the intelligence that was gathered, but we do know the costs through the lives that were lost. We must be concerned if officers can determine who lives and who dies — in essence playing God. In a society that is based on the rule of law, democracy and human rights, we must be concerned about every life and ensure that every death is properly investigated. We cannot turn a blind eye for the sake of an ill-defined greater good.

Ms J McCann: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I join the other Members who spoke in welcoming the debate. I also welcome that the motion has been brought to the House by SDLP Members because in February 2007, after the report was published, my party colleagues and I brought a similar motion to Lisburn City Council. On that occasion, it was very disappointing that the SDLP members of the council did not speak on the motion and abstained from the vote on it. Therefore, I am glad that SDLP Members have brought the motion to the House.

Nuala O’Loan’s report into the death of Raymond McCord Jnr and the activities of the north Belfast UVF gang confirmed what nationalists and republicans have known for years — that collusion played a huge part in the British Government’s war on the nationalist and republican people here.

Mrs O’Loan also claimed that Special Branch officers who colluded with the UVF could not have operated as they did without knowledge and support at the highest levels of the RUC and Special Branch. The fact that those senior officers then refused to co-operate with the Ombudsman’s inquiry added further insult to the grieving families.

However, the involvement of high-ranking RUC officers is only part of the web of deceit. Collusion could work only with the knowledge of all its participants, including MI5, British military intelligence and the British Cabinet. Furthermore, the Force Research Unit (FRU) was a unit of the British Army —

Mr A Maginness: Will the Member give way?

Ms J McCann: No. FRU was a unit of the British Army that was responsible for the recruitment and the running of British agents whom they directed to murder Irish citizens. FRU was answerable to a task co-ordinating group made up of the RUC’s Special Branch, the Chief Constable of the RUC and other intelligence services.

In turn, the task co-ordinating group was accountable to the Joint Security Committee, now known as the Joint Intelligence Committee. That committee is directly responsible to the British Prime Minister and has overall control in all security issues. Therefore, the British Cabinet, including the Prime Minister, was aware of everything — and is still aware of everything — happening in intelligence circles.

A number of reports and inquiries, namely the Cory Report; the Barron Report; Stevens I, Stevens II and Stevens III; and the Stalker Report, together with a number of other reports and inquiries, have found that collusion went to the very heart of the British establishment. In addition, the findings of an inquiry carried out by a team of international lawyers into dozens of murders here in the 1970s showed that Government officials were aware of collusion between members of the UDR and loyalist killer gangs. Up to 15% of UDR members were directly linked to loyalist paramilitary organisations, and UDR weapons were used in the murder and attempted murder of nationalists.

There is no doubt that the findings of Nuala O’Loan’s report into the death of Raymond McCord Jnr uncovered only a small part of what actually happened. Furthermore, the lack of a credible response from unionist politicians at the time must have been a major let-down for the unionist, Protestant community, given the fact that four of the victims that were referred to in the report were from that community.

There is also no doubt that if a similar inquiry were conducted into killings by loyalists in any other part of Ireland, like findings would emerge. Families who were directly affected by the policy of collusion are entitled to the truth about why a state agency that is supposed to uphold the law and protect citizens was instrumental in their murder. It was only through the campaign and efforts of Mr McCord’s father and his family that reports like Mrs O’Loan’s — and others — are possible. Some of those families have been insulted and demonised because they dare to seek the truth of what actually happened to their loved ones.

The people of the North of Ireland are entitled to a policing service that is free from political and sectarian control. They are also entitled to a service that is representative of the local community, that observes and protects human rights and that is founded on the ethos of equality. Therefore, the campaign to expose collusion must continue, and those who were responsible for directing murder and human-rights abusers must be held to account for their actions. Collusion must be exposed. Any suggestion of state-sanctioned murder should be of concern to everyone, and families are entitled to the truth. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Speaker: Order. As Question Time commences at 2.30 pm, I suggest that the House takes its ease until that time. The debate will continue after Question Time, when the next Member to speak will be Mrs Dolores Kelly.

The debate stood suspended.

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

2.30 pm

Oral Answers to Questions

Office Of The First Minister And Deputy First Minister

Commissioner for Older People

1. Mr Cree asked the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to provide a timescale within which the Office of Commissioner for Older People will be established.  (AQO 3090/08)

The deputy First Minister (Mr M McGuinness): The establishment of an older persons’ commissioner is a priority for us, and we are keen to maintain momentum in establishing that post. Work is ongoing on the establishment of that office, and we have appointed an independent organisation to advise on the commissioner’s role and remit. That organisation is due to report in the near future and its report, which is being finalised, will include views that were expressed by key stakeholders at three preliminary consultation events.

Further consultation is planned, including with our departmental Committee. The necessary legislation will be drafted after the Executive agree on the role and powers of a commissioner and once formal consultation has been completed. That legislation will be progressed following the normal Assembly procedures, and we expect the process to take 18 months after Executive clearance has been given. Interim arrangements are being developed, and junior Ministers will make an announcement on those shortly.

Mr Cree: Will the Minister consider the Welsh Assembly’s experience in such an important area?

The deputy First Minister: We must recognise that this issue has been exercising all Assemblies. The rights of older people are very important. Lessons on how others have dealt with the issues will be considered, but there is some way to go before then. Legislation is needed, and all Members will have the chance to contribute to any discussions on the matter. Consultations with the Committee and with others will continue. Getting the process right is more important than the speed of the process. However, we have a responsibility to ensure that our approach takes account of lessons from others, provided that they have lessons to teach us.

Mr Shannon: What discussions has the deputy First Minister had with older people’s organisations such as Help the Aged? Has he asked for their input and their thoughts on how best their views can be represented at the highest level?

The deputy First Minister: It is critical to consult fully with all people before making important decisions that will have an impact on everyone’s lifestyle; in this instance, our older people. Adequate procedures have been diligently put in place to ensure that we listen very carefully to what they have to say. Having done that, we cannot then be accused at a later stage of failing to consult the most important people at the heart of the issue.

Mrs M Bradley: Will the Minister say what, if any, mechanisms have been put in place by the Executive, including by those Ministers who are responsible for abolishing poverty, to assist those older people who have been left severely impoverished by the latest substantial increases in fuel, energy and grocery costs?

The deputy First Minister: I am not sure whether that supplementary question relates to the initial question; however, it is a legitimate point of view.

Members are particularly concerned about the recent big increases in fuel prices and about the impact that they will have on older people. All Departments recognise their responsibilities in considering how to alleviate such a huge pressure, and they accept that the issues that are involved cannot be left to the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMDFM).

World forces beyond our control are at play. Wars around the planet are contributing to fuel price increases and are imposing additional poverty on people.

I sympathise with the view that the Member expressed. I assure her that all Departments are conscious of the need to ensure a joined-up approach to alleviating the difficulties that older people, in particular, will face in the difficult economic times that lie ahead.


2. Mr Burnside asked the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister what, if any, discussions or consultations have been held with the UK Government on issues that impact on Northern Ireland but are outside the remit of NI Departments.          (AQO 3192/08)

The deputy First Minister: The memorandum of understanding between the British Government and the devolved Administrations commits the parties to effective communication in consultation with one another on issues that may have a bearing on one another’s responsibilities. Therefore, a wide variety of discussions will be conducted at official and ministerial level across the Administration, not only with the British Government on reserved and excepted matters, but with the Irish Government and the European Union institutions.

The Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister regularly participates in meetings of the Joint Ministerial Committee to discuss excepted European matters that impinge on devolved responsibilities. We also meet formally through the work of the British-Irish Council.

Mr Burnside: The deputy First Minister possibly has little personal interest in the question that I am about to ask, as he probably spent about 35 years of his professional life avoiding surveillance from Royal Air Force helicopters. Nevertheless, last week, the Ministry of Defence (MOD) took the serious decision of withdrawing the Royal Air Force from RAF Aldergrove. That closure includes the transfer of 700 service personnel, plus hundreds of extra civilian personnel who were connected with RAF Aldergrove and linked to Massereene Barracks.

Will the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister provide a corporate response on the consultation that took place between OFMDFM, the MOD and Her Majesty’s Government? How many meetings took place between OFMDFM, Her Majesty’s Government and the MOD? Why did the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister fail abysmally in maintaining a Royal Air Force presence in the Province?

The deputy First Minister: The Member is well aware that he has raised an issue over which the Assembly and the Executive have no authority. That is a direct rule matter. With regard to the decisions that direct rule Ministers have made over the years, there was very little consultation —

Mr Burnside: None?

The deputy First Minister: — between direct rule Ministers and Assembly Members.

Mr Burnside: None?

The deputy First Minister: The Member needs to stop badgering me.

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

The deputy First Minister: I understand the issue that the Member raised, and I understand why he is exercised by it. I am not aware of any such discussions between the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, the MOD and Her Majesty’s Government. However, there may have been discussions with departmental officials. We will check on that and provide the Member with a response.

Mr Gallagher: Was the issue of tax credits raised during those discussions? In Northern Ireland, there are thousands of people who filled in their forms properly and followed the correct procedure, yet they are now being billed for £5,000 or £10,000 of overpayments. Those people have done nothing wrong, yet they are being harassed by debt collectors who telephone them, or, as has increasingly been the case, call at their doors to demand payment. Will the deputy First Minister raise that matter again and ask for an end to the disgraceful treatment of those people, who have done nothing wrong?

The deputy First Minister: Members must be conscious that the First Minister and I can answer questions only in respect of our Department’s responsibilities. As I said, there will be wide ongoing contact involving all Departments, and it would not be appropriate for me to respond on their behalf.

The Departments with responsibility for those matters will, undoubtedly, tackle the difficulties that inefficiency in the tax credit system creates for many people. Members have a responsibility to act on behalf of those who have been affected detrimentally and must express their dissatisfaction at the treatment of people, many of whom live in poverty.

Mr Butler: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Does the deputy First Minister agree with Gordon Brown’s recent announcement at Westminster that the north of Ireland will be excluded from the policy of flying the Union flag on schools, colleges and Government buildings? Does he agree that such practice runs contrary to the Good Friday Agreement, does not respect people’s identities, damages good relations, contravenes fair employment legislation and does not create neutral environments?

Mr Shannon: The same goes for the Celtic goalkeeper yesterday.

The deputy First Minister: I am reluctant, upon Jim Shannon’s invitation, to enter into a debate about sport. However, I congratulate the Derry senior Gaelic football team, which defeated Kerry yesterday to win the all-Ireland National Football League division one final.

We are aware of the British Government’s intention to introduce new arrangements for flying the Union flag on Government buildings in England, Scotland and Wales. The Green Paper consultation in 2007 on that issue and other reforms confirmed that those changes will not apply here because we are subject to separate legislation on the flying of flags on Government buildings.

The Flags (Northern Ireland) Order 2000, which regulates the flying of flags on Government buildings here, is the responsibility of the Secretary of State and not the Assembly. If individual Members — probably more on the unionist rather than the nationalist or republican side of the House — are concerned about the flying of flags in England, Scotland and Wales, they should approach the Secretary of State for Justice because OFMDFM is not responsible for that issue.

Mr Deputy Speaker: I remind Members that this is not Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park — it is Oral Answers to Questions in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Draft Programme for Cohesion,  Sharing and Integration

3. Mrs D Kelly asked the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to outline the main differences between the draft Programme for Cohesion, Sharing and the Integration; the Shared Future report; and the Racial Equality Strategy.        (AQO 3151/08)

The deputy First Minister: As we have stated on many occasions, we are fully committed to building a shared and better future for all. We will introduce a programme of cohesion, sharing and integration to tackle sectarianism and racism, which will refresh the previous Administration’s separate but associated policies on good relations and good race relations.

The new programme will reflect the new political dispensation and provide a positive lead on the important aspects of building our new society. We will consider the changing social context that is faced by the community and welcome and integrate new communities into our society. The programme will tackle issues that affect established communities and new arrivals and will build on, and not supplant, the excellent work already completed.

The Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister does not intend to dispense with effective initiatives simply for the sake of change. Our commitment, and that of the Executive, is demonstrated through the Programme for Government and the Budget, and we have put our money where our collective will is.

During the incoming comprehensive spending review period, we will invest an additional £7·5 million and, therefore, our total investment will be approximately £29 million, which includes a substantial increase in funding for minority ethnic communities. That additional funding will target directly those areas that are blighted by racism and sectarianism, deliver continued improvement in relationships and address the challenges facing new and host communities.

2.45 pm

Mrs D Kelly: The deputy First Minister stated earlier that he was here to answer questions on matters that are the responsibility of his Department. I asked him to outline the main differences between the two programmes, but I did not receive an answer. Perhaps he will reply to me in writing.

Will the deputy First Minister inform the House of the status of the good relations indicators baseline report?

The deputy First Minister: Our task was to assess the effectiveness of previous policies and, where necessary, to refresh the strategic approach in order to reflect changing circumstances and the way in which Government should respond to them. We have sought to take into account the impact of many highly successful local initiatives, which many people have undertaken, often away from the spotlight, in order to produce a vision and strategy that reflects the aspirations of the Executive and the Assembly, but which, most importantly, empowers that work for the future.

The commitments contained in the Programme for Government are widely recognised as having set a clear course, which emphasises what we seek to achieve over the next three years. The programme of cohesion sharing and integration that we will announce shortly will add detail to that high-level policy. It is a political commitment. The Member should reserve judgement until we make that announcement, and then comparisons can be made.

Mrs Long: I suspect that the Member will have to reserve judgement for some time, because that policy has been a long time in gestation, and we have yet to see any out-turn from it.

The deputy First Minister stated his commitment to supporting local action, which all Members would agree is very valuable. Will he confirm that the new strategy will examine the contribution that can be made by central Government’s strategies, expenditure and programmes in tackling segregation in society?

The deputy First Minister: I accept that there is criticism about the length of time that the strategy has taken. However, our approach is to take as long as is required to ensure that we get it right. We do not apologise to anyone for that. We intend to bring proposals to the Committee and to the Assembly as soon as possible. Officials are drafting a policy document, and they have briefed the Committee, of which Mrs Long is a member, on progress made to date. The process is progressing well, and we anticipate completing it in the immediate future.

I wish to draw attention, however, to the emphasis in the Executive’s Programme for Government and Budget, which clearly confirms our commitment to tackling racism and sectarianism. We are giving a clear lead, and we endorse ongoing work on the ground that has proven to be successful in building new relationships within and between communities. Refreshing that policy will not compromise what has been achieved already, rather it will support, facilitate and better resource that good practice. Considerable work is taking place. People are working hard on the issue; we want to get it right. The financial commitment that was made by the Executive is a clear example of putting our money where our mouths are.

Mr McCausland: I welcome the deputy First Minister’s endorsement of the principle of a shared society and a shared future, which includes shared public space. Will he, therefore, support the right of the Orange Institution to share the Springfield Road, Garvaghy Road and the village of Dunloy when exercising its right to peaceful assembly?

The deputy First Minister: In recent years, there have been many difficulties in several towns and villages in the North. Indeed, many Members and many members of my party have attempted to diffuse very dangerous situations. Many of those people have been assaulted, or have had their lives threatened, but they have stood firm in the face of those in society who would attempt to exacerbate difficulties in relationships between sections of our community.

I became closely involved when a serious situation developed in Dunloy only a few years ago on 12 July, or it may have been 12 August — I cannot remember which. I got into a car and drove straight from the centre of Derry city to Dunloy in an attempt to diffuse the situation.

There are certain issues that must be resolved. Those issues would be best resolved through dialogue between people at the heart of conflict in local communities. Everyone has a responsibility to attempt to ensure that we have peaceful summers from now on. That represents a huge challenge, but there are many people, from all sides, who want to contribute to a better atmosphere and to better community relations. I appeal to everyone to continue that work. We must not be divisive in our approach to this matter. We must resolve the difficulties — which are now very small in number — in a manner whereby everyone’s rights are protected.

Victims’ Commissioners: Workplan

4. Mr Ford asked the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to report on the expected work to be conducted by the four Victims’ Commissioners.           (AQO 3199/08)

The deputy First Minister: Subject to the Assembly’s approving the Commission for Victims and Survivors Bill, we expect that the commissioners will soon get down to carrying out the duties that were outlined in the Victims and Survivors (Northern Ireland) Order 2006. Those duties include promoting an awareness of matters relating to the interests of victims and survivors; reviewing the adequacy and effectiveness of law and practice in this area; and reviewing the effectiveness of services for victims and survivors. All those activities will be carried out within an agreed work programme, which is being prepared by the commissioners designate in anticipation of their formal employment.

Mr Ford: That was a fine answer. However, the First Minister and deputy First Minister failed to come to the House last week to make a statement on not proceeding with the Bill. Indeed, in practice, they continue to kick victims in the teeth.

Will the deputy First Minister share the proposed amendments to the Bill with the House? Will he give a categorical guarantee that the Bill will be proceeded with next week, in line with the draft Order Paper? Will he also guarantee that he and the First Minister will end their blockade of the process, start to put victims first, and stop carrying on as they have been in recent times?

Some Members: Hear, hear.

The deputy First Minister: The abiding principle of establishing the Victims’ Commission is to generate real support for those who need and deserve it most — the victims and survivors — in as timely a fashion as possible. The tabled amendments, to which the Member refers, are being considered carefully. None of those amendments has been dismissed or adopted at this stage. It is incumbent on Members not to use the issue of victims and survivors as a political football in the Assembly. We must recognise that this is important work.

Mr Ford: We know that it is important work, but do you?

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order.

The deputy First Minister: I am not going to finish until I have silence.

This issue is hugely sensitive for victims and survivors throughout our community. There has been an attempt to play political football with the issue.

Mr Ford: Yes, and it started with you.

The deputy First Minister: No, it did not start with us.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. Remarks must be made through the Chair.

The deputy First Minister: While many Members were on their Christmas holidays, the First Minister and the deputy First Minister were working to try to resolve this issue, and were implementing a process that addresses the real needs and concerns of victims. We hope that the relevant legislation will be put before the Assembly — and passed — within a very short period, and that the four commissioners will be installed as soon as possible.

Mr Kennedy: The deputy First Minister, and others, have produced a Christmas turkey that has not yet been dealt with.

Does the deputy First Minister and his party support, in principle, the appointment of a lead commissioner to carry forward the newly proposed commission’s important work? Will he indicate whether agreement has been reached in his Department — between his party and the DUP — on any, or all, of the tabled amendments to the legislation?

The deputy First Minister: This is a work in progress, and the Member will receive answers to those questions in due course. Hopefully, that will be sooner than the Member expects.

Mr Molloy: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Will the delay in establishing the commission affect the funding of victims’ and survivors’ groups for this year?

The deputy First Minister: As I said earlier, we will provide £36 million over the next three years for work with victims and survivors.

Following consultation with the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, we will shortly introduce a strategy for victims and survivors that will set out our plans for their future support. We anticipate that current funding arrangements in relation to the memorial fund and the core-funding and development grant schemes for victims’ and survivors’ groups that are operated on behalf of our office will continue during the financial year 2008-09.

The Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister will work closely with the memorial fund, the Community Relations Council, the new commission and the Victims’ and Survivors’ Forum to manage the transition to the new funding arrangements that will be set out in the strategy for victims and survivors. Moreover, in liaison with the commission, for certain areas of need already identified, the Office of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister will introduce enhanced support for victims’ and survivors’ groups to provide befriending services for victims and survivors, enhanced provision for respite care, and support for general practitioners in dealing with trauma. Other areas of emerging need may be examined by the new commission.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Question 5 has been withdrawn; the Member who asked question 6 is not in the Chamber; and question 7 has also been withdrawn.

Northern Ireland Bureau: Washington DC

8. Mr O’Loan asked the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister what plans it has to review the work of the Northern Ireland Bureau in Washington DC.          (AQO 3155/08)

The deputy First Minister: The work of all business areas of OFMDFM is evolving and is constantly under review. Since the reintroduction of devolution, the role of the bureau in Washington DC has changed significantly. The bureau plays a vital role in supporting the Executive and Assembly in all matters that have a United States dimension.

In recent months, the bureau has become increasingly involved in supporting our economy through the promotion of the investment conference with key figures in the Bush Administration, the US Congress and corporate America. The bureau also played a key role in bringing the New York pension-funds investment project to a successful conclusion through its work with the Office of the Comptroller of the City of New York and the Emerald Investment Development Fund LP. In January, the bureau’s presence in the US was enhanced by the appointment of a full-time, New York-based manager.

From a strategic perspective, the Executive plan to develop a comprehensive international-relations strategy to address the need for overseas representation. Whereas efforts to date have concentrated on the United States and Europe, consideration will be given to countries in Asia, where there are significant opportunities for inward investment and trade.

Mr O’Loan: I thank the deputy First Minister for his answer. In view of the increased demands on the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, as a result of the investment conference, the follow-up to that conference and other matters, are there plans to increase the resources available to OFMDFM?

The deputy First Minister: The bureau has been involved in important work to assist OFMDFM in ensuring the success of the conference. Those involved have worked very hard and they are under considerable pressure — not least because several Ministers have visited the United States. Every time a Minister visits that country, it adds to staff workload. Nevertheless, staff welcome that and are satisfied that visits raise our profile. They know, as do the Executive, that we must continually review our performance and representation in the United States, given that we are now open for business.

This is a good-news story. Our initial expectation in sending invitations to chief executive officers in the United States was that 30 or 40 might attend the conference; however, the number that has accepted has exceeded all expectation. If all who have accepted the invitation come to the conference, the turnout will be huge: it may be double the number expected.

What flows from that and the prospect of increased inward investment from companies in the United States could put pressure on the Executive and on the bureau.

The only way to deal with it is to keep it under review, and if additional resources are required due to an increased workload, then the Executive will consider that.

3.00 pm


Armagh Observatory

1. Mr Boylan asked the Minister of the Environment what action she is taking to ensure adequate funding for the Armagh Observatory given the environmental work it carries out in relation to climate change.          (AQO 3188/08)

The Minister of the Environment (Mrs Foster): Government funding for Armagh Observatory rests with the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, and I have recently written to the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure highlighting my Department’s use of information provided by the observatory in assessing climate change in Northern Ireland. In my letter to the Minister, I have stated that the climate data which we have obtained from the observatory:

“is an important tool used by the Department in monitoring climate change in Northern Ireland and I would be concerned if a situation were to arise whereby the Observatory would be no longer able to supply such information.”

I am hopeful that such an important facility will continue to receive the necessary Government support to secure its future for generations to come — however, this is ultimately a matter for the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure.

Mr Boylan: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for her response — she has actually answered my supplementary question as well. Will she give me an assurance that she will keep me informed in relation to this matter?

The Minister of the Environment: I am happy to confirm that I will. Once I have the response from the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, I will share a copy of it with the Member.

Mr Cree: Will the Minister tell us if any mechanism exists between the Ministers and Departments, where publicly funded facilities such as the observatory are used by different Departments, to liaise with one another to produce additional funding when the core funding for such a body is no longer adequate during a particular financial year?

The Minister of the Environment: That is precisely what I have done. When Mr Dominic Bradley raised the subject of Armagh Observatory at Question Time on 31 March, I took the opportunity to write to my colleague regarding the matter, and, on receipt of a response, I will make the House aware of it.

Mr D Bradley: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. As the Minister has stated, she gave an undertaking at a previous Question Time that she would raise this matter at Executive level. Will the Minister report on any discussions she has had on this issue at that level?

The Minister of the Environment: I have not had any discussions at Executive level, but I have written to the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure. When I have received a response from him, I will decide whether there is a need to take it to the Executive.

Dangerous Wild Animals

2. Rev Dr Robert Coulter asked the Minister of the Environment to confirm (i) the frequency with which owners of dangerous wild animals are obliged to renew their licence to own such animals; and (ii) that these licences permit the owners to keep the animal(s) at one address only.     (AQO 3095/08)

The Minister of the Environment: A licence to keep dangerous wild animals is valid for one year from the date of issue. Licence-holders must reapply to the Department for a licence before the expiry of their existing licence. A veterinary inspection will then be carried out and a recommendation made to the Depart­ment as to whether a licence should be granted for a further year. Each licence is issued to the applicant and is specific to the premises detailed in the application.

Rev Dr Robert Coulter: I thank the Minister for her answer. Does the Minister agree that the desirable situation would be for every wild animal in private ownership to be electronically tagged to ensure that enforcement of licensing provisions is made more effective?

The Minister of the Environment: I understand where the Member is coming from. The licence has to be applied for annually, and, as well as the annual inspection, vets can be called to inspect the animals if we believe there is a reason to do so. We believe that the way in which the licence-holders are monitored is effective, and we will continue with the process as it stands.

Mr Ross: Can the Minister detail what species of animal comes under the description of “dangerous wild animal” and indicate how many of these dangerous wild animals there are in Northern Ireland?

Mr Weir: Are any of them in the Chamber?

The Minister of the Environment: I am glad to confirm that none of them is in the Chamber, as asked from the sedentary position behind me. The types of animals that are held under licence are such as small primates, raccoons, emu, vicuña, a wolf-dog, venomous snakes, caimans, zebra, one tiger and a cheetoh, which is a small cat derived from crossing a Bengal cat and an Ocicat. Do not ask any further questions, Mr Deputy Speaker, because I do not think that I would be able to supply you with the answers.

Mrs Long: I thank the Minister for her answer. Does she agree that to secure the humane treatment of the animals involved and to reassure people about public safety, serious questions must be asked as to why an individual wants to keep dangerous wild animals? Furthermore, does the Minister agree that thorough checks should be made on the conditions in which the animals are being kept and on what training the individual received to look after the animal?

The Minister of the Environment: Individuals who wish to keep wild animals must apply for and obtain a licence, and departmental officials will look at those issues when processing applications. Licences are granted not only to individuals but for a specific area, so that we can see where the animals are supposed to be at any given time. Departmental officials can call at addresses to ensure that the areas of concern mentioned by the Member can be checked. I am content that the current regime is effective, and we will continue to apply it.

World Heritage Sites and National Parks

3. Mr Kennedy asked the Minister of the Environment if she has any plans to develop applications for additional world heritage sites and national parks to develop further Northern Ireland’s tourist potential.           (AQO 3097/08)

The Minister of the Environment: I have no plans to propose another world heritage site for Northern Ireland. However, my Department is willing to work with those who are keen to explore that possibility. The Department of the Environment will have to consider carefully any proposals for additional sites before submitting them to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, which leads on world heritage matters for the UK Government.

I am giving careful consideration to the issue of national parks and the proposal to establish a Mourne national park. I do not have any plans to consider other areas as potential national parks.

Mr Kennedy: I thank the Minister for her answer. Will she report to the House on the up-to-date position of the potential development of the Giant’s Causeway, which is a world heritage site? Will she also inform the House of the timescale wherein she expects major progress to be made on that important project?

The Minister of the Environment: I have not, as yet, received a planning application for a visitor site at the world heritage site at the Giant’s Causeway. Discussions are taking place between my officials and the National Trust, but I have not received a planning application. I am hopeful, however, that a planning application is weeks, not months, away.

Areas of Special Scientific Interest

4. Mr Bresland asked the Minister of the Environment to outline (i) the consultation process in the designation of an Area of Special Scientific Interest (ASSI); and (ii) the support available for landowners within a newly designated ASSI area.    (AQO 3134/08)

The Minister of the Environment: The Environment and Heritage Service (EHS) has a statutory duty, under the Environment (Northern Ireland) Order 2002, to give notice of an ASSI declaration to every owner and occupier of lands that are affected, and to each district council in which part of the ASSI will be located. In addition, EHS must publish a notice in two local newspapers, at least, and display the designation documentation in a public area in the locality.

Prior to declaration, EHS tries to meet all landowners and occupiers individually to explain the reasons for the declaration and its implications for them. EHS must consider any representations or objections it receives through that consultation process before confirming the ASSI declaration.

With regard to support available to landowners, EHS is empowered by the Environment (Northern Ireland) Order 2002 to enter into a management agreement with an owner under its management of sensitive sites scheme (MOSS) to ensure that lands are managed in a manner that will secure the special scientific interest of the ASSI. If considered appropriate, payment may also be made in respect of ASSIs under the Northern Ireland countryside management scheme, which is administered by the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

Mr Bresland: The farming community is concerned about the designation of ASSIs and how the designation of those areas is handled by the Environment and Heritage Service. What are the Minister’s plans to increase the number of ASSIs in my constituency of West Tyrone, in particular? What percentage of land does her Department aspire to have under ASSI in Northern Ireland by 2010?

The Minister of the Environment: I am aware that the Member has been involved in the creation of a proposed ASSI in Lisnaragh in his constituency of West Tyrone. Officials from the EHS met landowners on 24 April, and Mr Bresland and Mrs McGill, who are Members for West Tyrone, were invited to that meeting. Therefore, the Member will be aware that the matter is ongoing.

The Programme for Government includes a target to declare 25 ASSIs during each of the next three years. That will be a significant step towards declaring the additional 200 ASSIs that are on the Department’s priority list by 2016. The proportion of the land area of Northern Ireland covered by ASSI designation by 2010 will be approximately 7%. I am unable to specify what percentage of West Tyrone will be designated as an ASSI, but if I can provide the Member with that level of detail in the future, I will write to him.

Mr Ford: The Minister referred to the targets for the designation of ASSIs in the Programme for Government. Will she indicate how the achievement of those targets is proceeding, given the resource constraints in the EHS, particularly with regard to staffing? Furthermore, will the Minister tell us whether she has considered using outside expertise to assist with the processes that were mentioned by Mr Bresland — specifically, early consultations and subsequent support to landowners?

The Minister of the Environment: The EHS estab­lished the target of 200 new sites for the Programme for Government. In doing so, it gave proper consideration to what resources would be required to deliver on what is, admittedly, a demanding and challenging commitment. I have already advised Members that the EHS will seek to secure beneficial land-management practices for ASSIs through the application of its management of sensitive sites scheme and also supported by the application of agrienvironment schemes that are administered by DARD under its rural development programme. I am content that adequate resources are available.

I take the Member’s point about using outside help, and I am considering whether it is possible to employ EHS scientists more effectively so that they are allowed to focus on the science element of EHS work, leaving others to deal with the elements that are more labour-intensive.

Of the additional £2 million that I secured for better regulation of environmental crime, the EHS will allocate £100,000 specifically for work on ASSIs.

Mrs McGill: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for her responses to Mr Bresland’s questions. The Minister is correct to say that a consultation is under way in Lisnaragh in West Tyrone. There is concern about that. Will the Minister tell the House whether being designated as an ASSI will impact on a valid planning approval that currently exists but which has not yet been activated?

The Minister of the Environment: I believe that a “green form” from the Planning Service will stand, because an ASSI designation will not be retrospective; it will not affect a past decision and will be applied only to future decisions.

Planning Circular PC 03/07

5. Ms Lo asked the Minister of the Environment to confirm that planning circular PC 03/07 is being applied in all planning offices.          (AQO 3177/08)

The Minister of the Environment: Planning circular (PC) 03/07 relates to the assessment of planning applications for residential development in urban areas, villages and other small settlements. It was issued to all Planning Service staff in August 2007. Its purpose is to remind development control staff of the need to ensure that the impact of new residential developments in urban areas, villages and other small settlements is fully considered, in line with existing policies and other material considerations.

That circular was issued after several controversial proposals for the redevelopment of large, single houses or other brownfield sites in cities, towns, and — increasingly — smaller rural settlements, mainly to develop apartments and town houses. That circular is being implemented in all planning offices. From time to time, Planning Service headquarters will draw existing policies to the attention of staff, such as PC 03/07, to ensure that those policies are being implemented properly.

3.15 pm

Ms Lo: I thank the Minister for her answer. Although the guidelines are helpful, we have seen little or no effect on changing the trend of the overdevelopment of apartments in south Belfast, because the circular has no policy framework to make it effective. Does the Minister plan to consolidate the guidelines into a planning policy statement?

The Minister of the Environment: The Member is right that planning circular 03/07 contains no new policy. After I took office, I decided that the current planning policy must contain provisions to cover the type of development that the Member referred to. The planning officials drew together everything concerning that type of development and published it as planning circular 03/07.

I acknowledge that this issue is of great concern, and I have asked my officials to prepare a paper on policy options to consider the type of issues that Ms Lo talked about, including garden grabbing. I will consider that matter in the next couple of weeks, when I receive that paper.

Mr Spratt: Will the Minister confirm that planning circular 03/07 is being applied to conservation areas and areas of townscape character?

The Minister will be aware of a considerable controversy about a planning application to develop apartments in south Belfast at 66-68 Malone Road. Will she confirm whether the Planning Service applied planning circular 03/07 to the consideration of that application?

The Minister of the Environment: I thank the Member for giving me notice of his question, because I would not be able to answer it otherwise. I confirm that planning circular 03/07 is being applied to applications for development of all conservation areas and areas of townscape character. I also confirm that such applications are also judged against other relevant existing plans and policies and other relevant material considerations.

Planning circular 03/07 was not applied to the application for the apartment development at 66-68 Malone Road, Belfast because it had not been published when that application was submitted. The applications for demolition consent in the conservation area and for planning permission for an apartment development at 66-68 Malone Road pre-date the issue of the planning circular.

However, as I said in my answer to Ms Lo, those applications were assessed against a full suite of policies that existed at that time, and which have now been brought together in the form of planning circular 03/07. Therefore, although the planning circular did not exist, the policies did.

Road Safety: Advertisements

6. Mr Hamilton asked the Minister of the Environment what plans she has to make new television or radio advertisements on road safety.           (AQO 3146/08)

The Minister of the Environment: The processes of developing, updating and refreshing new radio and television advertisements will be ongoing throughout 2008 and into 2009. All of that activity will be guided by research, and will continue to target the major causes of death and serious injury. One area of focus at present, for example, is the issue of pedestrian inattention and the safety of vulnerable pedestrians.

We are also currently producing five new instructional television advertisements that will remind drivers about some important rules of the roads. Furthermore, we are producing 10 new radio edits to update and refresh the existing portfolio of radio material.

Mr Hamilton: I thank the Minister for her response. She will be aware that foreign nationals in Northern Ireland account for a disproportionate number of road traffic accidents. What plans does she have to educate foreign nationals who arrive in Northern Ireland about road safety issues?

The Minister of the Environment: That issue of the number of foreign nationals who arrive in Northern Ireland who may not have sufficient knowledge of our road safety issues has been raised with me by a number of MLAs and by local representatives. The Department of the Environment (DOE) has developed five instructional television edits that will provide all drivers with a reminder of the need for attentive driving. Those edits will be translated into four languages — Polish, Lithuanian, Portuguese and Mandarin — and will be distributed to target ethnic community groups by using the broadcast media.

The current portfolio of successful television and radio advertisements has also been translated into those four languages and will be distributed among the targeted ethnic groups around Northern Ireland. The Department has produced two leaflets; one provides information on the effects of alcohol on driving skills, and the other provides details of courses for drink driving. Hard copies of those leaflets will be issued to the targeted ethnic groups, along with copies of radio and television adverts. Downloadable versions of the leaflets will also shortly be made available on the road safety website.

The Department takes the issue of road safety very seriously, and that is why a suite of concerns is being debated today.

Mr Burnside: Mr Hamilton raised an interesting subject with the Minister. Opinion in the advertising industry on whether the very dramatic — almost blood-curdling — television advertisements are helpful or unhelpful is mixed. If qualitative as well as quantitative research were done on that advertising, it would indicate a certain turn-off factor.

Will the Minister make sure that the advertising agencies that propose the new road-safety advertisements have proper focus groups to undertake qualitative research to ensure that those advertisements reach the right audience? The present weekend advertisement slot times do not hit the target audience, so will she also ensure that appropriate slot times are selected?

The Minister of the Environment: It is difficult to measure the sole or unique contribution that any specific area of road safety, including advertising, makes towards reducing casualties. That is because of a range of interventions and factors, including legislation and education. Advertisements are a very useful tool for improving road safety.

The effectiveness of each road safety campaign is assessed through independent research that is conducted immediately before its launch to establish prevalent attitudes. Research is then undertaken after the launch — and annually thereafter — to determine the effects on public attitudes. Results show that DOE advertising is influential in improving drivers’ attitudes and in producing positive changes in behaviour. Therefore the Department will continue with the advertising campaign. We may change the way that it flows, but the advertising campaign has definitely been a success.

Mr McGlone: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for her answer. She stole some of my thunder because I was going to ask about the evaluation process and the impact of the advertising campaign. Will the Minister outline whether the tendering for the production of television and radio advertising is done in line with normal and accepted public procurement and tendering procedures?

The Minister of the Environment: There is a very short answer — yes.

Local Councils: Litter Prevention

7. Mr Elliott asked the Minister of the Environment to detail the action that she has taken to promote best practice among local councils in relation to preventing litter.    (AQO 3081/08)

The Minister of the Environment: There are many ways to prevent or reduce litter. The best endeavour to change the attitudes and behaviour of those who are too lazy or who do not care enough to take that extra small step and put their litter in a bin. I am encouraged by the actions that councils are taking to tackle litter problems, such as local awareness campaigns, website information, and — in some cases — litter wardens.

I am sure that many Members have seen the television advertisement campaign entitled: ‘Litter, don’t drop it; stop it’. That is an excellent example of positive action to encourage litter prevention.

The Department also provides core funding to the TIDY Northern Ireland organisation. That funding allows it to work with district councils on litter issues and allows it to run litter campaigns and programmes. I am encouraged by the findings in TIDY Northern Ireland’s latest annual survey, which show an improve­ment in cleanliness levels for the third year in a row.

Mr Elliott: I thank the Minister for her answer. Since the forced closures of many waste disposal sites — or skip sites as we know them — throughout council areas, will the Minister accept that the incidence of fly-tipping throughout the countryside of Northern Ireland has increased significantly and that some councils appear to have difficulty in dealing with the issue?

The Minister of the Environment: The issue that the Member raised is not strictly a litter issue; it is more of a fly-tipping issue, which is slightly different. Earlier this month, I had a useful meeting with the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA) working group representatives, during which we discussed various issues, including the fly-tipping problem that the Member mentioned.

I have asked NILGA representatives to consult with their councils and provide me with their priorities for the clean neighbourhood agenda, because I am receiving conflicting views as to what those are. Some say that fly-tipping is the priority, although I have a large postbag relating to high hedges. I am sure that many Members have taken the opportunity to write to me. However, I need to know what the priorities are, and I am hopeful that NILGA will complete its work and respond to me on the subject.

Mr Weir: What co-operation is taking place between the three waste groups, and what action is being taken to help meet targets on the clean-up of waste and litter at that strategic level?

The Minister of the Environment: The Strategic Waste Board has been working well and has a large programme of work. Members may be aware that the board will have to consider a large procurement in the near future to solve the huge landfill waste problems. I hope that the board will take the opportunity to come to Stormont and meet with Members of the House to discuss what needs to be done deal with waste. Frankly, some Members have not grasped what must be done in the coming years to deal with that issue.

Mr Brady: Go raibh maith agat. Taking into account the recent court case in England, does the Minister’s Department have any plans to fine householders for overfull bins?

The Minister of the Environment: No. As regards recent media coverage relating to my allowing councils to fine people for putting rubbish into the wrong bins; that is a matter for the 26 local councils: Arlene Foster has not decided that everybody will be fined £100.

The results of a TIDY Northern Ireland survey commissioned by the Environment and Heritage Service came out today, and it received responses from 24 of the 26 local councils in the Province. The findings reveal huge variations in the way in which councils deal with their litter offences. Some councils are simply not dealing with litter, but they need to get on with it, and it is entirely up to them how they deal with the issue.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Question 8 has been withdrawn.

Local Limits on Bird-Showing Licences

9. Mr Molloy asked the Minister of the Environment to detail the reasons why breeders who hold licences for showing birds are limited in the number of birds that can be shown, compared to other regions.       (AQO 3185/08)

The Minister of the Environment: In Britain, under the terms of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, any wild bird that can be shown to have been bred in captivity may be kept and exhibited in competitions. That relaxation of the protected status of captive-bred wild birds was not included in the Wildlife (Northern Ireland) Order 1985 and, therefore, the keeping and exhibiting of wild birds is allowed only under the terms of a licence issued by the Department.

Article 8 and schedule 4 of the Wildlife Order presently allow for the keeping and exhibition of 15 species of captive-bred wild birds under such licences. The ongoing review of the Wildlife Order, which is at public consultation stage, offers an opportunity for interested organisations to suggest additions to the list of species in schedule 4 or to bring that aspect of the legislation into line with that in Great Britain.

Mr Molloy: Will the Department be recommending a review of the legislation?

The Minister of the Environment: The Wildlife Order has been published for consultation. Interested parties, such as Mr Molloy or anybody else, can suggest additions to the list of species in schedule 4 or bring that aspect of the legislation into line with the rest of the United Kingdom. In doing so, Mr Molloy would then be able to do what he asked in his question.

Mr T Clarke: In relation to the Minister’s answer — and maybe I am asking my question on behalf of another Member who has been known to shoot at doves and other birds — are there any implications for sporting interests such as shooting and wildfowl?

The Minister of the Environment: The Member’s question relates to those who are involved in aviculture. Although the Department is planning to introduce restrictions on the use of lead shot over wetlands — something that the Members behind me may not be too excited about — and will be consulting on such proposals during May 2008, such proposals are concerned with changing shooting practices and will not affect aviculturists in any way.

3.30 pm

Finance And Personnel

Peace II Extension

1. Ms Lo asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel what proposals he has to extend Peace II to dovetail with the start of Peace III.          (AQO 3169/08)

The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr P Robinson): The Peace II and Peace III programmes are operating in parallel, so there is no gap between the two. Some Peace II themes opened to funding applications in November 2007, and the programme is now fully open. Peace II is still operating, but must close before the end of this year. All Peace II projects that are still operating have specified that they will close between June and September. Peace III is an entirely new program with its own aims and objectives; it is not a continuation of Peace II. Organisations that have received, or are receiving, Peace II funding can propose projects for funding under the new programme. Those proposals will be assessed competitively, using the agreed Peace III selection criteria.

Ms Lo: Given that the Peace III budget is a lot smaller than the previous two tranches, many grass-roots groups that are working on peace and reconciliation projects may not receive further funding beyond the summer. Has the Minister any plans to sustain some of those very worthwhile projects?

The Minister of Finance and Personnel: As I outlined, the key objectives of Peace II and Peace III are different. The objective of Peace III is reconciliation. Unquestionably, some groups that receive funding under Peace II might well fall within that category, and, therefore, can lodge an application, which will be duly considered against the Peace III criteria. However, when groups applied for Peace II funding, they had to indicate the level of sustainability of their projects, which they knew, at that stage, would end with the end of the Peace II funding. We were very fortunate in getting Peace III funding at all. There were many people who felt that funding would have ended with Peace II.

Mr Doherty: Go raibh maith agat. I ask the Minister what steps his Department has taken to advise and inform projects that are funded by Peace II, but which may not receive Peace III funding. I am thinking in particular of projects that deliver essential front-line services in local communities. I also draw the Minister’s attention to the looming childcare crisis facing West Tyrone as a result of a gap in appropriate funding.

The Minister of Finance and Personnel: There is a basic misunderstanding of what Peace II and Peace III are about. I will make it very clear: groups applied for Peace II funding in the knowledge that they were applying to a programme that was time limited. They, therefore, lodged their applications and were successful on the basis that they would be able to operate during that period, but, after that, would have to find alternative funding, either through any continuation of Peace funding, or, alternatively, from some of the other statutory organisations. It will be up to those organisations, if they cannot lodge a submission under Peace III, to seek other sources of funding, such as any of the Departments, or from organisations outside of Government.

Mr Kennedy: The Minister knows and has accepted that many organisations that qualified for Peace II funding will not qualify for Peace III funding. Will the Minister advise what actions he is taking to ensure that local organisations take greater advantage of other initiatives within the European Union that may provide an additional source of funding?

The Minister of Finance and Personnel: The Special EU Programmes Body (SEUPB) will be happy to assist any organisation that believes that its funding will not be continued and that there might be other European sources of funding. However, we recognise the very significant opportunity represented by Peace III, because it opens up a wider area at a more strategic level for funding in Northern Ireland.

Peace III can provide funding for victims’ organi­sations, for instance, and applications can be submitted right now. Many victims’ organisations have benefited from such funding and have already submitted their applications. Under the new requirements of Peace III, organisations can submit applications to fund reconc­iliation projects, and they will receive due consideration. If an application is beyond the scope of Peace III, the organisation must seek an alternative source of funding. It can either approach Government or contact staff at the SEUPB, who will be happy to assist.

Bullying and Sexual Harassment

2. Mr Simpson asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel what steps he has taken to ensure that Government Departments adopt a consistent approach to reducing the number of complaints of (a) bullying; and (b) sexual harassment.     (AQO 3211/08)

The Minister of Finance and Personnel: To ensure that harassment and bullying are addressed in a consistent manner, in November 2007, the Northern Ireland Civil Service adopted a single corporate policy and set of procedures called Dignity at Work. A further significant step has been the development of a new mandatory training course, Diversity Now. The course is designed to raise awareness of equality and diversity and to show, in a practical way, how each member of staff can take a stand against inappropriate behaviour in the workplace.

Mr Simpson: I thank the Minister for his answer. He will have noticed from recent questions for written answer that the frequency of such complaints varies greatly from one Department to another. Why is that the case, and are there any lessons to be learned from how different Departments have used good or bad practice to tackle the issue?

The Minister of Finance and Personnel: The Member has been assiduous in his questioning on the subject. He will have noted from the replies that the number of people who have claimed harassment or bullying in the workplace varies greatly, not only from one Department to another but from year to year. I must also point out that the replies to Mr Simpson show that the number of claims upheld is relatively low in comparison with the number submitted. That indicates that more work may be required to increase understanding in the workplace as to the definitions of “harassment”, “bullying” and “sexual harassment”. Unfortunately, no legal definitions exist and, following consultation, DFP uses its own definition.

Size is one obvious reason for the wide variation in the number of claims: the larger the Department, the greater the likelihood that someone will claim to have been harassed in the workplace. Variations in the age, gender and grades of staff are additional factors in the propensity for such claims to be submitted.

After consulting other Departments and taking legal advice, DFP produced a policy that is of tremendous assistance because, instead of each Department developing its own criteria, they are all adopting that single policy. A network of harassment contact officers is in place in each Department, and, as a first step, they help staff to resolve informally any problems that they are experiencing in the workplace.

Mr Butler: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his answer in relation to complaints of bullying and sexual harassment. I welcome the fact that Diversity Now is in place. Do that policy and the Minister’s Department also cover complaints of homophobic, racist or religious harassment in the workplace?

The Minister of Finance and Personnel: If the Member is interested, I can give him the definitions from which DFP works. “Inappropriate behaviour” has the wide-ranging definition of:

“Any form of unwanted, unreasonable and offensive conduct that has the purpose or effect of violating a person’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment”.

The policy continues:


2.2.1   Harassment is unwanted, unreasonable and offensive conduct that is linked to aspects of a person’s social identity i.e. sex, race/ethnic origin, marital status, religious belief, political opinion, age, disability, sexual orientation or whether or not they have dependants.”


2.2.2   Where the unwanted conduct is not linked to a person’s social identity then it is often referred to as bullying. There is no legal definition of bullying however, it is generally accepted that bullying comprises of “persistent offensive, abusive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour,”

For those Members who think that that runs very close to what they get from their Chief Whips, there is a let-out clause in that many people will recognise that there are some individuals who feel that an employer persistently telling them to do work and not to do things that are not related to their work can also be regarded as harassment.

Mr Beggs: Are patterns emerging regarding complaints of bullying and sexual harassment and what action is the Minister taking to address any such patterns that show worrying trends in particular Departments and agencies? Furthermore, the Department has settled several cases out of court; can the Minister reassure the Assembly that, as well as learning lessons from court judgements, the Department will ensure that, where appropriate, lessons are learned from out-of-court settlements that are made on behalf of the Department of Finance and Personnel?

The Minister of Finance and Personnel: It is essential that the policy that has been set out by the Department of Finance and Personnel, after consultation with all Departments, is followed at every level of Government. There will always be individuals who flout that policy, and there will, therefore, always be a requirement for steps to be taken.

As far as patterns are concerned, one or two Depart­ments have a higher level of bullying than others. Where there is a persistent level of harassment or inappropriate behaviour, management and the trade unions will act, as they have a shared view on the problem and can work together to alleviate it.

Stormont Events

3. Mr Newton asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel to outline the events planned for the Stormont Estate this summer.    (AQO 3077/08)

The Minister of Finance and Personnel: The following events are planned for 2008: a vintage car rally on 29 April; the Red Bull soapbox derby in late May; the Race for Life in support of breast cancer in early June; The Police pop concert to be held in late June; a Daisy Chain charity event, which will be run by the PSNI on a date to be confirmed; and a teddy bears’ picnic in late August, in which I know, Mr Deputy Speaker, you will be interested.

The events calendar for the Stormont Estate changes regularly, with events being added throughout the year. To date, no other major events are planned for 2008; however, further requests are anticipated.

Mr Newton: I thank the Minister for his answer. The Minister will be aware that the grounds of the Estate are used extensively, primarily by local people, for jogging, walking and dog walking — activities from which much enjoyment is derived. Does the Minister intend to ensure that the Estate is open beyond the current 6.30 pm closing time during the summer months in order to encourage such activity?

The Minister of Finance and Personnel: The closing time of the Stormont Estate varies throughout the year depending on daylight hours. In winter, as the Member said, the Estate is closed at 6.30 pm; in summer, however, it remains open until 9 pm. Over the years, there have been problems with groups of youths congregating in the Estate after dark. As a result, management closes the park one hour before sunset to ensure the safety of visitors. Therefore, I can confirm that during the summer, the Estate will be open after the 6.30 pm winter deadline and that he, his wife and his dog will be able to walk, jog, or whatever, in the park.

3.45 pm

Mr Deputy Speaker: I call Mr David McClarty, who, I am sure, is also interested in the teddy bears’ picnic.

Mr McClarty: I thank the Minister for his response. Will he confirm whether The Police have been asked to perform at Stormont in order to prepare for the devolution of policing and justice? Will he confirm whether he will accompany the deputy First Minister to the concert? [Laughter.]

The Minister of Finance and Personnel: I am sure that many people will be delighted that The Police are to perform at Stormont. It is expected that in the region of 20,000 to 35,000 people will attend that event. However, I have not yet worked out my diary for that particular day.

I am pleased that there will be no charge to the public purse as a result of the event. Financially, it will be dealt with completely by the organisers. I hope that all who are involved have a good evening.

As far as the devolution of policing and justice is concerned, the Member knows the position. All unionist parties want those powers to be devolved to Northern Ireland. However, they also want to ensure that the conditions are right for that to happen and that people have confidence, not only in the modalities of how those powers are handled, but in those in whom the responsibilities will be vested.

2011 Census

4. Mrs Long asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel to report on preparations for the 2011 census.            (AQO 3168/08)

The Minister of Finance and Personnel: The next census is planned to take place on 27 March 2011, and there has been formal consultation on the topic content already. Users are being kept informed of current thinking through, for example, the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency’s (NISRA) website and information days. The census office conducted a census test in 2007, and a rehearsal is planned for 2009. Final consultative proposals for the 2011 census will be published later in 2008. Those will be followed by a census Order and regulations in 2010, which will provide the opportunity for full legislative scrutiny.

Mrs Long: In the previous census, 14·2% of the population either did not disclose their religion or followed religions and philosophies other than the Christian religions that were listed on the census. During reallocation, that percentage was reduced to 3·1%. Can the Minister assure the House that such processes will be done away with in favour of respecting the rights and wishes of individual citizens to define their own identities or to keep matters of religion private?

The Minister of Finance and Personnel: The Member does not quite understand the purpose of a census. Their whole point is so that we can benefit from the statistics and information that are made available for a range of purposes; not least is that demographic statistics can be benchmarked and used by Government offices to help in developing and monitoring policy. It is essential that the census presents as clear a picture as possible of that information. Therefore, the Assembly should encourage people to complete the form fully.

The Member will have every opportunity at the consultative stage to give her views on the questions that are on the form. She will also have a further opportunity to do so when the regulations go through the Assembly.

Mr McGlone: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his previous answer. What arrangements have been made for publication of the census findings in languages other than English, including Irish?

The Minister of Finance and Personnel: I was asked a similar question the previous time that that question found its way on to the list. I pointed out that although the census will be carried out in English, templates will be provided in a range of additional materials, which will include other languages. I pointed out that Irish, Ulster Scots and probably several languages of immigrants’ groups in Northern Ireland will be necessary. The range is as large as the requirement. Indeed, I think that it is more important that it includes groups such as Portuguese, Romanians, Poles and others who are not as competent at the use of the English language as those who speak Irish and Ulster Scots.

Mr McFarland: Will the Minister confirm that NISRA will liaise with the Office for National Statistics so that the statistics and patterns emerging from Northern Ireland will be combined with those from the rest of the United Kingdom to give a clear picture of the situation across the whole country?

The Minister of Finance and Personnel: Yes. The timing and processes are joined up with the rest of nation.

Rates Relief for over 70s

5. Mr K Robinson asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel to detail the strategies in place to inform qualifying people over the age of 70 years that they are entitled to rates relief. (AQO 3118/08)

The Minister of Finance and Personnel: Land and Property Services (LPS) has sought to raise awareness through a number of measures. Those include publicity issued along with the 2008 rate bills in the form of a leaflet on who can get help and how; advertising leaflets providing details of the scheme and the application processes; posters for display in a range of public places, including all Land and Property Services and Northern Ireland Housing Executive offices, GPs surgeries, health centres and credit unions; information and application forms on the Land and Property Services and Housing Executive websites; partnership working with the voluntary and community sector, including Age Concern, Help the Aged, Citizens Advice and the Consumer Council; working with other Government agencies to raise awareness of the scheme and to update appropriate literature, such as pension service leaflets; press releases to secure coverage about the new scheme; and features about the new allowances on local radio and television programmes. I hope that we can add to that list the Member’s question and my answer.

Mr K Robinson: I thank the Minister for his comprehensive reply to my question. I have an equally comprehensive set of further questions, which I want to pose.

First, will the Minister advise the House how many pages of information pensioners will be required to complete to apply for rates relief and to detail what actions his Department is taking to simplify that process.

Secondly, in the rest of United Kingdom, the Pension Service will be passing on details to local authorities to facilitate payment of the council tax benefit later this year. When will there be automatic delivery of rates relief in Northern Ireland using the information that already exists on Government databases? Will the Minister accept that there is a need for automatic rates relief for the over 70s, given that, in a recent Northern Ireland omnibus survey, only 33% of those aged 65 and over indicated that they were prepared to claim help with the payment of rates.

The Minister of Finance and Personnel: I have a copy of the application form, which includes simple questions. The only difficulty is that people might be intimidated by the number of pages providing further information. Answering the questions is simple and straightforward. LPS has done a good job in putting down the key issues, which can be answered quickly. Senior citizens should be able to respond to it; they should not choke up because of the additional information provided to answer any queries.

With regard to automaticity, clearly, as soon as someone has applied and received such a benefit there should be no further application required, and we are looking at ways to achieve that. In the generality of the Member’s question, he will be aware that we asked some of the groups concerned — Age Concern, Help the Aged — to carry out a study on issues relating to the take-up of those reimbursements where it is permissible. They have provided a detailed study— in fact, it is one of the best studies that I have seen — which offers a series of options. At present, the Committee for Finance and Personnel is considering those options. Officials in my Department are also conducting a consultation on the policy, and we hope to be able to give further guidance to people to ensure there is appropriate take-up. There is, however, already a high level of take-up.

Mr Brady: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. The Minister has, to some degree, answered part of the question that I was going to ask. Will he comment on the recommendations that were made in the take-up study of rates relief and disabled person’s allowance? Does he have plans to implement any of those recommendations?

The Minister of Finance and Personnel: As I said, the report was valuable. It makes a series of recommend­ations; the Department is considering each of them, and I am certain that a large number will probably be acceptable.

Mr O’Loan: I thank the Minister for his comments about addressing the big problem of the low uptake of other benefits, especially from owner-occupiers. As the Minister is working through that problem, does he think that the resource problems that are becoming evident in Land and Property Services, and the reported morale problems, will cause difficulties?

The Minister of Finance and Personnel: I have read some of the stories in ‘The Irish News’ on problems in LPS. As the Member is aware; when I set up the performance and efficiency delivery unit (PEDU), I announced to the House that I had initially asked it to consider two areas: planning, and the general range of property services. That will do something to improve morale in LPS, as it will indicate the priority that the Executive and the Assembly have for the work that Land and Property Services is carrying out.

PEDU will consider closely whether there are requirements for more personnel to be drafted in, and whether, and when, the IT can be improved. I recognise the difficulties in LPS, which is one of the reasons why I ensured that PEDU would consider it. It is an important area for delivery for the Executive.

Post Offices: Rates Relief

6. Mrs Hanna asked the Minister of Finance and Personnel if he will include Post Offices in his consider­ation of small business rates relief, as undertaken in Wales.   (AQO 3141/08)

The Minister of Finance and Personnel: The Economic Research Institute of Northern Ireland (ERINI) has completed its study into the case for small-business relief. Its report has been published and can be found on ERINI’s website and on my Department’s rating reform website. The report includes consideration of a scheme that could include post offices, along the lines of the scheme that was introduced in Wales this year.

It is worth noting that I met representatives from the National Federation of SubPostmasters on 21 June 2007. Following that meeting, I asked my Department to ensure that, as part of its research, ERINI would include post offices in its consideration of options. I understand that during the formative stages of its research, ERINI consulted the National Federation of SubPostmasters and that that body’s views are reflected in the ERINI work.

It should also be noted that on 9 April 2008, the Committee for Finance and Personnel took evidence from officials in my Department and ERINI. The Committee has already highlighted the importance of the social value of the post office network in rural areas and has asked that I consider that along with options that are intended to fulfil other social objectives before final decisions are made.

One interesting point that emerged from the ERINI report is that it said in reference to the Welsh scheme that:

“If this scheme was duplicated in Northern Ireland, then approximately 459 Post Offices would be covered at an average rate relief of £1,368. The total amount of rate revenue foregone would be in the region of £628,000. It should be noted that this is very much a rough estimate as the LPS valuation data only identifies 304 separate properties as Post Offices while information from the National Federation of Sub Postmasters gives a figure of 543 Post Offices in Northern Ireland. It is thought that the difference is accounted for by Post Offices contained within other properties such as supermarkets”.

If we were minded to adopt such a scheme, any decision, as with all new policies of the Assembly, would have to be made in light of an assessment of its effectiveness, alternative ways of providing support and, most importantly, other departmental spending priorities.

Mrs Hanna: I thank the Minister for that helpful and comprehensive answer. I do not know that I even need to ask whether the Department of Finance and Personnel needs to consider any other options; it will take me a while to digest what the Minister said.

The Minister of Finance and Personnel: My ministerial colleagues in DETI and DARD are examining the ERINI report, and their reviews will enable me to reach a conclusion about whether rate relief is the right way ahead and, if it is, what type of scheme would be affordable and deliver effective support.

4.00 pm

Assembly Commission

Funding for Constituency Offices

1. Mr O’Loan asked the Assembly Commission what steps it is taking to ensure that the system for funding Assembly Members’ constituency offices provides proper protection of public money and is not subject to abuse; and that the amount of money used for constituency offices can be subject to independent appeal.        (AQO 3173/08)

Mr Moutray: Funding for constituency offices is provided through a Member’s entitlement to office costs allowance (OCA). All OCA claims must be supported by a Member’s signed declaration that the expenditure was wholly, necessarily and exclusively incurred in respect of that Assembly Member’s duties. Furthermore, every claim is checked by the Assembly secretariat to ensure that it is within the allowance’s remit. Such a check is conducted for every claim made by every Member.

The Commission asked the Senior Salaries Review Body to consider OCA administration in its forthcoming report on Members’ salaries and allowances. That report may recommend additional steps to further enhance assurances that public money is being protected and that the system is not open to abuse.

The Commission has no plans to introduce an independent appeal mechanism concerning the amount of money used for constituency offices. Members are aware that the OCA in each financial year is limited. It is entirely for each Member to decide how that allowance can be used best to provide a service to constituents. Some Members might decide to use the majority of their allowance to provide support staff salaries, and others might decide to use the majority of their allowance to obtain office accommodation and pay for its associated running costs.

Mr O’Loan: I thank Mr Moutray for his answer. The term “independent appeal” was intended to refer to independent scrutiny, and that meaning is conveyed in the intent and content of Mr Moutray’s answer.

I welcome such an answer from the Assembly Commission, because this is the first time that the Commission’s accountability role for this matter has been clear to the Assembly and, I imagine, the public. Given that there is widespread concern in the Assembly and, most certainly, among the public, whom we serve and who provide us with the money for such purposes, will the matter now be on the Commission’s agenda? I urge the Commission to continue its deliberations and to ensure that full accountability is provided for the public.

Mr Moutray: The Assembly Commission awaits the Senior Salaries Review Body’s report on Members’ salaries and allowances and will give due consideration to any recommendations that seek to enhance the protection of public money.

Assembly Chamber: Refurbishment

2. Mr Savage asked the Assembly Commission what plans it has to refurbish the Assembly Chamber.    (AQO 3128/08)

Rev Dr Robert Coulter: During this summer’s recess, the Assembly Commission has put plans in place to refurbish the Assembly Chamber and upgrade the broadcasting equipment and its infrastructure in the Assembly Chamber and the Senate Chamber.

Initially, the Assembly Chamber’s refurbishment was to form part of the broadcasting upgrade; however, it has been agreed that the Chamber’s refurbishment and the upgrade of the broadcasting equipment and its infrastructure will be treated as two distinct projects.

The Chamber’s refurbishment will primarily address ongoing problems relating to audio quality, and the heating and ventilation systems. It will also include the replacement of the temporary Speaker’s table, new worktops for Members’ desks and the addition of lecterns for the Back Benches. Where possible, infrastructure will be provided to allow for future upgrades and technology.

Accessibility will be improved by creating a level entrance at each end of the Chamber. The internal steps in the Chamber’s floor will also be upgraded in order to comply with disability legislation, and the carpet will be replaced.

A key feature of the upgrade will be improved facilities for disabled visitors, including the installation of a platform lift, disabled toilet facilities and the provision of four additional wheelchair spaces in the Public Gallery. Visitor facilities will also be enhanced with an upgraded audio system and the provision of plasma screens in the Galleries, which should enable visitors to feel more integrated and involved with the business on the Floor of the Chamber.

The upgrade to the broadcasting equipment in the Chamber and the Senate, and the associated technical broadcasting infrastructure, will provide a better-quality picture and ensure that out-of-date equipment is replaced with state-of-the-art technology. The Commission is keen to promote its vision of engagement and, with the investment in the Chamber, will ensure that the public is given a better chance to visualise and participate in Assembly business in the Chamber.

Mr Savage: Will the Member outline any other planned facility upgrades for Parliament Buildings that are being discussed by the Assembly Commission?

Rev Dr Robert Coulter: All plans are based on having the Chamber upgrade completed during the summer. The contractor will be given possession of the site on Wednesday 2 July, and construction work is scheduled to be completed by Friday 29 August, with two weeks allocated to testing and commissioning. The Commission is content with the progress to date and is assured that the project is on schedule. Other tenders have been issued for the broadcasting equipment and will be evaluated in late April. On appointment, the successful tenderer will be required to liaise closely with the contractors responsible for the construction elements of the Chamber upgrade. My earlier answer gave an indication of some of the other upgrades that are planned.

Bottled Water

3. Mr T Clarke asked the Assembly Commission to detail the suppliers of bottled water to the Assembly; and to provide an assurance that bottled water will only be sourced from suppliers in Northern Ireland.       (AQO 3074/08)

Mr Neeson: A variety of water is offered by the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission on Assembly premises. The 19-litre plastic bottles that are dispersed throughout the Building at water fonts are sourced from the Classic Mineral Water Company — which is based in Lurgan — and are purchased through the support services contract, which is operated by Eurest.

Glass bottles of still and sparkling water are consumed at Committee meetings and are available from vending machines. Those are provided by Coca-Cola through Deep River Rock, which is based in Lambeg, Lisburn. A 500 ml plastic bottle of water, One Water, is also available from vending machines and the Basement Restaurant. That is a Fairtrade product. Those purchases are made though the support services contract.

The use of local suppliers was at the request of Assembly Commission management, and is consistent with the Assembly Commission’s insistence on sourcing local products, where possible. That was a requirement of the Assembly Commission prior to the award of the support services contract. Eurest is committed to sourcing local water products that are suitable for the needs of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Mr T Clarke: I am pleased to hear that we are supposed to be sourcing water from local producers. However, I am alarmed that the Member forgot to mention that Tipperary Natural Mineral Water is used at some Committee meetings. As far as I am aware, we are still in Northern Ireland, and not the Republic of Ireland.

Mr Neeson: The Assembly Commission has directed Eurest, which holds the contract, to source water locally. We are determined to assist local producers, be that in agriculture or other sectors, so I take the Member’s point on board.

Ban on Cameras

4. Mr O’Dowd asked the Assembly Commission what steps it is taking to remove the ban on all cameras being used in Parliament Buildings.           (AQO 3158/08)

Mr A Maginness: Arrangements for photography and filming in Parliament Buildings were revised on 6 March 2008.

Those arrangements stated that no photography or filming was to be allowed in the corridors or in any other area in Parliament Buildings — other than in the Great Hall — without the prior agreement of the Assembly Commission.

Subsequently, at a Commission meeting held on 24 April 2008, it was agreed that those restrictions should be amended. Accordingly, filming and photography will now be permitted in public areas of the Building, provided that the sponsor required was present at application stage and that this satisfied the criteria for the organisation of events.

Filming and photography are also permitted in accommodation relating to Speaker’s events and to Commission, Executive and Committee business. Detailed guidance, providing further instructions on the outworking of this decision, will be issued to all Members and to Secretariat staff at the earliest opportunity. The amendments to the rules were agreed to promote the strategic objectives of the Commission on the engagement of and outreach to the community.

Mr O’Dowd: The objective of the Commission to be open and transparent to the public is being hindered by those rules. If I saw someone taking a photograph in the hall outside a senior Minister’s office, should I report it to the Commission? I ask the Assembly Commission to review that rule and allow the media and the public full and open access to Parliament Buildings.

Mr A Maginness: The rules have been amended and the Commission will keep them under consideration. I note the point that the Member made, and I am certain that the Commission will attempt, in due course, to accommodate his points.

Mr Ford: Mr Maginness referred to the revision of the recent March rules with regard to photography. The March rules also included the requirement that events be authorised by three different Members, including one from each of the two principal designations. Has the Commission taken a view on the equality aspects of that decision? At present, members of the United Community Group require two signatures from outside their group — and from the two designations — while all other Members require only one signature from outside their own group.

Mr A Maginness: There was some discussion on that issue at the last Commission meeting; it was raised by a Commission Member and also in a letter from the Chief Whip of the Member’s group. The Commission will endeavour to address the Member’s points.

Mr Ross: During the period of the ban on photography and filming in Parliament Buildings, how many individual MLAs or Committees sought permission from the Commission to film in restricted areas of the Building?

Mr A Maginness: That is not a question that I can answer at present. However, the Commission will provide a written response to the Member.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Question 5 has been withdrawn; and the Member is not in her place to ask question 6. That concludes Questions to the Assembly Commission. We now return to the debate on Raymond McCord Jnr.

Private Members’ Business

Death of Raymond McCord Jnr

Debate resumed on motion:

That this Assembly notes with grave concern the report of the Police Ombudsman into the death of Raymond McCord Jnr and related matters; applauds the work of the McCord family’s campaign for justice; supports the ongoing criminal investigation into these matters; and calls on all individuals and organisations to co-operate fully with the Police Ombudsman and PSNI investigations.

Mrs D Kelly: I welcome the constructive and mature debate that has taken place thus far on the motion. The contributions have acknowledged the serious nature of the Police Ombudsman’s report and demonstrate that a light must be shone into the murky dealings of our past.

Nelson McCausland’s contribution demonstrates what appears to be a dawning realisation across the unionist community that the report might not be a one-off. It has shown that dirty deals were done in the past — in our name, I hasten to add.

4.15 pm

The Police Ombudsman made a series of recommend­ations in the report, and I am pleased to say that the majority of them have been, or are being, implemented. The outworkings of the ombudsman’s balanced report and the tenacity and courage of Raymond McCord Snr have been of service to the community in that they have improved policing and ensured that the mishandling of agents cannot happen again — at least not in policing. The SDLP will continue to raise concerns about national security and the lack of oversight of agents that are handled by MI5. The SDLP will not be rolling over on that issue.

The Police Ombudsman’s report details the previous reports of the Chief Surveillance Commissioner, which failed to recognise how agents were handled and make recommendations on how they should be handled. Therefore there is little confidence in that methodology being introduced in the future. My party will raise that issue in the House; in private with the British and Irish Governments; and at Westminster.

I also welcome the call from right across the community for all people to take responsibility for aiding the criminal investigations in the past. The victims issue has been central in recent weeks, and we all must share the onerous responsibility of addressing it properly, which means dealing with the past truthfully.

I note that the leader of Sinn Féin, Gerry Adams, spoke a great deal about the need for truth. It is incumbent upon him and his party colleagues to tell the truth about their paramilitary wing, the IRA, and the part that it played. It was little over four years ago that the remains of Jean McConville, who was horrifically murdered, were found on a beach. It is still much to my party’s regret, my personal regret, and, I am sure, the regret of the family of Jean McConville, that the IRA has yet to apologise or show any remorse for the murder of a mother, whose children were left orphaned.

That is only one example of the need to deal with the past. Families search not only for truth, but for justice. We now realise that, in many cases, there is little chance of justice resulting from any of our deliberations on the past — as many Members have said, some of the perpetrators may have died in recent years. However, there are many people at large in society who know much about the truth of the past, and they have a responsibility to at least go some way towards meeting the needs of victims and survivors in getting to the truth.

Establishing the truth is not just about giving some peace of mind to those who have survived terrible atrocities; it is also about getting this matter right so that we can promote reconciliation and learn lessons from our divided past. In that way, we can collectively ensure that events of the past cannot happen again. Central to our ambition to build a new and shared future is the need to acknowledge the truth of what happened. I once heard a story of how loyalist paramilitaries were wrongfully blamed for the murder of a Catholic man. His grandchildren have only recently found out that the murder was perpetrated by the IRA. This man’s children and grandchildren have grown up to hate Protestants simply because the truth was not told about that murder, and they also suffer the deep wounds caused by that loss.

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

Mr McLaughlin: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I too welcome the debate. For very good reasons, it has mostly focused on one particular example of collusion — the cruel murder of Raymond McCord Jnr.

Engaging in the political process of the Assembly will sometimes require us to deal with challenging issues. Members have quickly realised that it is impossible to ignore the consequences of our conflicted past or confine our energies to feel-good issues. There are also some difficult and neuralgic issues.

Members have rightly acknowledged the tireless, dedicated and fearless work of Raymond McCord Snr in campaigning to uncover and expose the truth about state-sanctioned collusion. He has done a service for all, and he has helped the case and the cause of other families seeking justice through the discovery or recovery of truth.

Mr McCord has done a further service in achieving what I think will be unanimous support for the motion. He has dealt with an issue that often, understandably, stirs people’s tribal instincts. No side of this debate is free of the consequences of our history. Rather than focusing on the mote in our opponent’s eye, we should accept that we all have motes and issues of our own with which to deal. Raymond McCord Snr has opened the possibility for others with similar cases to come forward with issues that can, should and must be dealt with, and to apply the experience that he has gained.

Recently we have seen how what should be a unifying issue — Victims’ Commissioners —failed to unite Members. Instead, it exposed existing fault lines and proved that for some the conflict continues, albeit in a different form. However, it need not be like that; we need not proscribe every well-intentioned initiative in order to prevent us from achieving an objective. The same applies in relation to collusion.

A learned British judge once described as an “appalling vista” the involvement and the role of British security and prosecution services in framing people.

This case also reveals an “appalling vista”. The issues must be addressed to reconcile our conflicted past and replace the pain and trauma that we have endured or caused each other with a peaceful and democratic future.

Let me say to supporters of policing that I have never believed and do not believe that every single member of the RUC was involved in collusion, sectarian activities, hate crimes or repressing the rights of others. I have never subscribed to that notion, because it simply is not true.

It is not possible, though, to find the new space and the new peace that we are seeking if we constantly deny the faults within our own political traditions and backgrounds. This is conflict resolution, which will eventually lead to reconciliation between our communities and across our society. We have to give a lead. To that end, I hope that Raymond McCord’s initiative, commitment and dedication to his cause has inspired us all. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Molloy: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I congratulate the SDLP for the motion and welcome the debate.

It is a very sensitive issue and important in that it discusses what has gone on, particularly in the loyalist community. Mr McCord is to be congratulated for standing up on behalf of his son to try to uncover the truth about what happened.

The report of the former Police Ombudsman, Nuala O’Loan, is very important. She took a courageous stand in exposing the truth. For the first time, Mr McCord has managed to get a straightforward report that details clearly what happened. There was straightforward collusion between loyalist paramilitaries, police handlers and agents. Nuala O’Loan highlighted what our party had been highlighting for years but what many other parties did not believe and simply put down as PR and propaganda. Regardless of the parties that we represent, we must all recognise that there was collusion and there were covert operations in various lines in the British security forces. They were engaged in collusion to kill Irish nationalists, North and South of the border. Also, some sections of the gardaí and the Government colluded in a cover-up from the highest level of the British Cabinet to ensure that certain actions were carried out and that any investigations that could have unveiled the truth were covered up.

Some would say that things that used to happen in the RUC could not happen in the future. I do not believe that, because Hugh Orde is still trying to stifle and hold up inquests. With the new era of policing, it should be easy for him in his new role to open up files and to co-operate with families who wish to have inquests into the deaths of their loved ones. Those inquests could be given the go-ahead, and Hugh Orde could instruct the PSNI to get involved and to co-operate fully with those investigations.

The report sends out a clear message about collusion and murder. There are many such cases in loyalist and unionist communities and in republican and nationalist communities. There must be more inquiries and cases reopened, because in many cases the truth of what happened has not been uncovered. In an area of my constituency of Mid-Ulster that is known as the “murder triangle”, murders were committed and there was collusion at the highest levels in the RUC. However, those were covered up, and there were no proper investigations into them, mainly because senior RUC men actually organised the collusion.

In the Moy, Sergeant Dodds, who was a local sergeant, was one of the main organisers who co-ordinated the RUC Reserve, the UDR and loyalist paramilitaries. Some sections of his RUC squad in the Moy carried out many of those murders and colluded with others to ensure that they were covered up and that there was no investigation. Therefore, we need to get to the truth of what happened. Any attempts by others to try to silence those who seek the truth must be condemned, because we want the truth from all sections of the community. In particular, we want the truth for the families, because they need to know what happened.

I commend Raymond McCord for the stance that he has taken and for the activities that he has exposed.

Dr Farry: The Member said that we need the truth from all sections of the community. Does that include the IRA giving a full account of its actions in Northern Ireland over the past 35 years?

Mr Molloy: Even the Alliance Party should understand that all sections of the community means all sections of the community — it does not exclude anyone. All means all. The truth should come out. I hope that the Alliance Party would co-operate with the rest of us to ensure that the RUC comes clean, exposes what happened and co-operates with the families who are seeking investigations so that the truth can be exposed.

Ms Purvis: When the Police Ombudsman released her 2007 report on the investigation into the circumstances of the death of Raymond McCord Jnr, society was shocked by its contents. However, the Progressive Unionist Party and I were not surprised. The late David Ervine consistently and continually raised with Government Ministers and Secretaries of State — from 1992 or 1993 onwards — the manipulation of some loyalist paramilitaries by RUC Special Branch. We consistently demanded an investigation and, although the dogs on the street knew the truth, Secretaries of State and Government Ministers did not seem to notice.

The report highlights the failure of some RUC Special Branch handlers to uphold law and order and to perform their duties with integrity and honesty. That failure allowed informants to, literally, get away with murder. I am disappointed that so few unionists are in the Chamber to contribute or listen to the debate. When the report was released, I said that the unionist community needed to wake up and smell the coffee; they needed to lift the rocks and look underneath. Those in working-class loyalist areas know the truth — and it is indefensible.

I want to put on record — as the Police Ombudsman did at the time — that I welcome the changes made by the PSNI since 2003 to secure effective management of covert human intelligence sources. The Policing Board must ensure that those recommendations are implemented and reviewed regularly. The report has had ramifications for wider society and has challenged how we collectively deal with the past. Although the House has not yet reached consensus, I look forward to further debate on that matter.

My party has consistently condemned threats against or intimidation of the McCord family. Although we do not agree entirely with the family’s approach, the killers of Raymond McCord Jnr must face justice. I encourage those with the ability to assist the police with their investigations to do so.

Mr Attwood: I apologise for missing the first part of the debate — I was returning from a meeting of the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body in Wexford. My colleagues have given me a flavour of the debate before Question Time, and, therefore, I will respond to some points.

During such a debate, it is appropriate to acknowledge the McCord family and other families in our society such as the Finucane family; the Quinn family; the McCartney family; families from the Ballymurphy area; families affected by Bloody Sunday; and, most recently, Gavin Larmour, the son of a murdered police officer — all of whom have spoken truth to power. They represent the position that society should be in, and highlight where it has failed in the past.

I acknowledge — as Dolores Kelly did — that there is a difference in the tone and substance of this debate, compared with the tone employed during similar recent debates, and I commend Members for that.

It might indicate that, not only do we need a corrective response to some of the recent debates on victims’ issues; but we need a corrective measure in wider society to acknowledge that we all should oppose the individuals, elements and state organisations that were responsible for grave error and dangerous policy in the past.

I will make one or two comments on events that have transpired since the then Police Ombudsman, Nuala O’Loan, published her report. There have been two material changes since the publication of that report that are important to note, and Dolores Kelly touched upon them.

First, since the report was published, it has been confirmed that all payments to all agents in the employ of Special Branch in the RUC, as it then was, came directly from MI5, the Security Service. It is inconceivable that MI5 was unaware of what certain agents might have been doing in respect of the McCord murder, other murders and other criminal activities that even Dawn Purvis hinted at. If we are to uncover the truth about what happened to Raymond McCord Jnr and about many past events, the truth about what MI5 knew — for it surely knew — must also be exposed.

Secondly, as a retired police officer who might have an interest in the matter has said, the strategic direction of Special Branch/RUC intelligence was set by Whitehall. I do not know whether that is an attempt to wash hands, but it is a serious allegation. If it is the case that the strategic direction of Special Branch intelligence activities in the days of the RUC was set by Whitehall, then that must be probed and exposed.

The final words of the motion deliberately state the need for:

“individuals and organisations to co-operate fully with the Police Ombudsman and PSNI investigations.”

That is not specific to the McCord case. The motion calls on all individuals and organisations to co-operate. That point was deliberately included, because there was a failure to co-operate at the heart of Operation Ballast, for whatever reasons — and there are disputes in the Chamber, as elsewhere, about what those reasons might have been. If individuals continue to fail to co-operate, the McCord family’s campaign for justice will be denied.

The principle of co-operation extends well beyond the McCord case, because we have recently seen further evidence of the British Government’s failure to live up to their responsibilities by refusing to implement the independent judicial review into the murder of Patrick Finucane that the Cory Report recommended. In that case, the British Government are failing to co-operate with the search for justice and with the need for a public, independent tribunal.

Similarly, in this phase of politics, the Eames/Bradley Consultative Group on the Past is beginning to consider what it might recommend in the next four or five months, and we must co-operate fully with its recommendations. Recently, I asked OFMDFM to confirm that it would recommend that all groups and individuals should co-operate fully, in all matters, with the Eames/Bradley Consultative Group on the Past. A few days ago, I got a vague reply, which failed to say definitively and categorically, on its behalf and on behalf of everybody in Northern Ireland, that there needed to be full co-operation.

The Finucane and McCord families have suffered from the failure of certain individuals and groups to co-operate fully in exposing the past. If the Eames-Bradley group suffers in the same way, the truth of the past will not become known.

Stephen Farry talked about the sacrifice of police officers; Mitchell McLaughlin touched on a similar theme. Irrespective of our differing views on the nature of the RUC — and the conduct of individuals and elements in the RUC — and the wider security apparatus, no-one should take away from the sacrifice of those officers who died and were injured, or detract from the burden of pain that their families continue to endure. As Stephen Farry has done, I acknowledge the price that those individuals and families have paid. Evidence suggests that part-time officers, in particular, were targeted — on dark nights, in their homes and at their places of work — disproportionately. That was a cynical and deliberate strategy.

I understand that Jennifer McCann questioned what the SDLP had done on the matter in Lisburn City Council. I do not want to dwell on the matter but the Sinn Féin motion — proposed at that meeting — highlighted collusion and stated:

“further calls on the British government to acknowledge its role in employing this policy during its ‘Dirty War’ in Ireland.”

Ms J McCann: Does the Member agree with the first part of the Sinn Féin motion that was proposed at that meeting of Lisburn City Council? Will the Member read out the whole motion?

Mr Attwood: The first part of the motion refers to collusion, and the second part refers to the British Government’s “‘dirty war’ in Ireland.”

Ms J McCann: Will the Member give way?

Mr Attwood: No, I have given way to the Member already.

Contrast that Sinn Féin motion with the balanced and sensitive wording of the SDLP motion. Is the Sinn Féin motion that was proposed at Lisburn City Council likely to unite or divide people? Does it cover all the relevant issues, or was it partial in its dealing with the truth of the past? Why would anybody — especially unionist parties — sign up to a motion that refers to the British Government’s “‘Dirty War’ in Ireland”? A matter of days ago, Lisburn City Council passed a motion — one endorsed by the SDLP, and spoken by our councillor, Matthew McDermott — which deleted that provocative and aggressive content.

We are at very important stage in our history, when victims and survivors must be placed at centre stage. The McCord family has helped to put victims and survivors at centre stage. I welcome all-party support for the motion.

Question put and agreed to.


That this Assembly notes with grave concern the report of the Police Ombudsman into the death of Raymond McCord Jnr and related matters; applauds the work of the McCord family’s campaign for justice; supports the ongoing criminal investigation into these matters; and calls on all individuals and organisations to co-operate fully with the Police Ombudsman and PSNI investigations.

Adjourned at 4.43 pm.

< previous / next >