Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 12 May 2008
Executive Committee Business:
Oral Answers to Questions:
The Assembly met at 12.00 noon (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Dallat] in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes’ silence.
Goods Vehicles (Licensing of Operators) Bill
The Minister of the Environment (Mrs Foster): I beg to introduce the Goods Vehicles (Licensing of Operators) Bill [NIA 15/07], which is a Bill to provide for the licensing of operators of certain goods vehicles.
Bill passed First Stage and ordered to be printed.
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Bill will be put on the list of future business until a date for its Second Stage is determined.
Commission for Victims and Survivors Bill
Further Consideration Stage
Mr Deputy Speaker: I remind Members that, under Standing Order 35(2), the Further Consideration Stage of a Bill is restricted to debating any further amendments tabled to the Bill.
Two amendments have been tabled. Members will have received a copy of the Marshalled List of Amendments, which provides details of the amendments. Amendment No 1 deals with arrangements for directing employees of the commission, and amendment No 2 deals with the appointment of a member as a chief commissioner. The amendments will be debated together.
I remind Members who intend to speak that they should address both the amendments. After the debate, I will put the Question on amendment No 1 and then ask that amendment No 2 be moved formally. The Question on amendment No 2 will be put without further debate.
Members are aware that certain matters relating to the appointment of the commissioners designate are before the High Court and are therefore sub judice. I encourage Members to bear in mind Standing Order 68. If that is clear, we shall proceed.
Schedule 1 (The Schedule to the Victims and Survivors (Northern Ireland) Order 2006, as substituted)
Mr Ford: I beg to move amendment No 1: In page 4, line 2, at end insert
“6A. All employees of the Commission shall be subject to the direction of the Chief Commissioner, or if there is no Chief Commissioner, of a member nominated by the Commission.”
The following amendment stood on the Marshalled List:
No 2: In page 5, line 21, at end insert
“(6A) As from 1 August 2012 sub-paragraph (6) shall have effect with the substitution for head (b) of—
‘(b) shall designate a member as Chief Commissioner;’” — [Mr Ford.]
Members at this end of the Chamber are simply attempting to address some of the deficiencies that we perceive to be in the Bill as it stands after amendments were made to it at Consideration Stage.
The two amendments are tabled for different reasons. Amendment No 1 was not selected at Consideration Stage because of the technical order in which the amendments were presented, so we are presenting it again. Amendment No 2 is necessary to improve on, and tidy up, the pantechnicon amendment No 8 tabled last week by the junior Minister Mr Donaldson.
During Consideration Stage, we made it clear that greater coherence and central direction is required in the workings of the victims’ commission than that currently provided by the effective appointment of four commissioners. Each commissioner will have a veto over key aspects of the commission’s work, which sends out the wrong message: that there is a divisive and apartheid system rather than a single, united and coherent one. A key aspect in obtaining greater coherence and central direction is ensuring that the commission’s staff work as a whole instead of being divided and relating to one commissioner or to one group of victims. That is the approach that seemed to be suggested from the Sinn Féin Benches, particularly by Mr Molloy, in the debate last week, and we fundamentally oppose it.
We want to ensure that the commission operates as a whole, recognises the common interests of all victims and seeks to meet their needs. Victims’ groups should not be carved up among the commissioners and perhaps treated in different ways. An example of the approach that we advocate can be seen in the work of Bertha McDougall when she was the Interim Victims’ Commissioner. Undoubtedly, Mrs McDougall’s appointment by Mr Hain was tainted — in fact, it was illegal. However, that did not affect her ability to relate to victims and victims’ groups across society and from all backgrounds. Her background did not prevent her from relating to people from different sections of society. That is an example of how the commission can work as a whole.
My party has said on record that any of the four commissioners designate could do the job, which is an opinion that has not changed. The Alliance Party remains opposed to a commission of four, but the House has stated its opinion on that issue. However, a commission of four must be a single commission that happens to have four members, instead of four individuals who are expected to work in different directions, relate to the public differently, take a different approach and say different things in public interviews, which are all inherent dangers in the current structures. Most damaging would be the suggestion that staff members should have responsibility for dealing with one particular sector or group of victims. That must be avoided, which is why there is simple direction set out in amendment No 1:
“6A. All employees of the Commission shall be subject to the direction of the Chief Commissioner, or if there is no Chief Commissioner, of a member nominated by the Commission.”
That is the only way to ensure a coherent and single approach. It is unfortunate that, due to the technicalities of the ordering process, amendment No 1 was not selected last week. However, it merits thorough discussion and inclusion at this stage of the Bill’s progress.
Amendment No 2 follows up some of the points that were made last week by Mr Donaldson — who, unfortunately, is not in the Chamber — when he tabled amendment No 8. Amendment No 2 seeks to ensure that the common direction that I have referred to applies across the commission through the existence of a chief commissioner. For the benefit of Members who did not hear the debate last week, the appointment of a chief commissioner would not create a hierarchy of victims — it does not, it is not intended to and it would not. Amendment No 2 takes account of the points that Mr Donaldson made when he spoke of the possibility of a chief commissioner and a group of part-time commissioners, which would be sensible. It makes the simple statement that, for the commission to function properly, there must be a chief commissioner for future commissions appointed after 1 August 2012.
The current process largely follows on from the flawed way in which the First Minister and deputy first Minister at first failed to appoint a commissioner and then announced the appointment of four commissioners when there was no legal basis for doing so. If that problem is resolved at this stage, it would be a clear statement that there is no reason why the requirement for a chief commissioner should not be put into place for a second and subsequent commissions following this commission’s four-year term.
I am not entirely convinced of the bona fides of the two parties that are leading this Executive in this matter. That is why it is essential that the legislation contains a specific requirement — not a vague aspiration, as expressed by Mr Donaldson last week — for a chief commissioner for second and subsequent commissions. There must be serious forward movement in bringing together a single, coherent view in the commission. If, at this stage, there is a danger that the four commissioners could proceed in different ways, it is important that that danger be avoided and that such problems should not exist in any future commission.
The difficulty is that during Consideration Stage, amendment No 8 was a pantechnicon that covered every possibility and made it difficult to debate the internal details of the amendment. The Alliance Party and the SDLP believe that amendment No 1 today, which amends a small part of the provisions of amendment No 8 as it was put last week, would create a more workable Bill. I doubt whether any amendment, however modest, will be passed, and I suspect that by the end of today we may well be congratulating Ms Ní Chuilín for the way in which she has enforced her Whip on DUP Members as well as on those of her own party. However, Members on these Benches believe that there are issues that need to be tested.
Mr Spratt: It is with a feeling of déjà vu that I oppose the amendments tabled by SDLP and Alliance Members. I feel a bit like Bill Murray in the film ‘Groundhog Day’— I have been through all his before. However, it is the democratic right of Members to table amendments. The arguments put forward last week in relation to the provision of a chief commissioner still stand. The DUP will be opposing both amendments because we believe that the commission for victims and survivors as it stands provides the necessary flexibility to deal with the issue of having a chief commissioner in the future. That flexibility should exist, and the amendment tabled at Consideration Stage by the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) provided for that.
I reiterate my desire to see an effective commission, and believe that a mechanism already exists by which a chief commissioner can be appointed in the future.
The commissioner for victims and survivors as it stands is an effective model by which the needs of victims can be met. If it were not so, the DUP would not be supporting its formation. We have a duty to the victims of our country to deliver where they have previously been ignored. I urge Members to unite behind the Bill, to recognise its potential for good and to give it the support it deserves. I oppose the amendments.
Mr Molloy: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I oppose amendment Nos 1 and 2. We have reached an important stage of the Bill, through accelerated passage, and its provisions now need to be put into place. Today’s amendments do not add anything to the Bill because they are an attempt to pre-empt what might happen in the future. That is not necessary. I have not found in Mr Ford’s explanation, or in anyone else’s, any real reason why a chief commissioner is necessary; why someone should direct the other commissioners, and why there must be someone to tell employees of the commission what to do in particular circumstances.
We are employing people who are very capable of doing the job. We also want to involve as much as possible the families of victims and survivors when determining how to move this matter forward. It is very important that, at this stage, the process is victim-led rather than resulting from a diktat or from legislation that leaves the victims out. The legislation must allow some flexibility and give the commission the legislative footing that it needs to deal with the issues faced by victims and their families. That is the main issue.
I ask Members to oppose amendment Nos 1 and 2 and to let the commission get on with its work. I hope that a flexible approach can be adopted and that victims and survivors and their families can play a role in designing the future strategy for victims. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr Kennedy: On behalf of my party, I support the amendments. I do so in the full expectation that — yet again — OFMDFM will pay no heed whatsoever to the views expressed in the House. One assumed that the Department would have taken care to listen to the House and to respond positively to at least a few of the many proposed amendments to the Bill. However, sadly, we witnessed the glib and arrogant dismissal of every single amendment that Members brought forward.
It is helpful to reflect briefly on some of the very reasonable amendments that have been dismissed thus far. The number of commissioners will not be capped at four. There is to be no chief commissioner; nor will there be prohibition on commissioners or staff members who have conflict-related criminal convictions. Each of the amendments sought to improve the working of the commission, and each was dismissed by OFMDFM.
Of course, last week, we witnessed the spectacle of members of junior Minister Donaldson’s party — and I am sorry that he is not here today — taking some time to lecture the House on the need to avoid the terminology of conflict-related convictions. Mr Spratt, who is present today, said that that matter refers:
“only to people who have been convicted of crimes that are related to the Troubles, and not to paedophiles” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 30, p163, col 1].
The junior Minister then went on to support Mr Spratt’s contention. Yet, that pressing need to prevent paedophiles from being employed by the commission seems to have been entirely absent from the junior Minister’s mind when the legislation was drafted. It seems that it took a four-week delay in the introduction of accelerated passage before the need to address the issue of criminal convictions entered the junior Minister’s mind.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. The Member must address the two amendments that are before the House today.
Mr Spratt: The Member mentioned my contribution to last week’s debate. Does it not mean that everyone with any criminal conviction —
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. Now that the debate is back on the rails, let us keep it there.
Mr Spratt: I simply wanted clarification, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Mr Kennedy: We should be at least partly grateful for the fact that junior Minister Donaldson and his colleagues have a unique interpretation of the meaning of accelerated passage.
Given what has happened in previous debates, most of us expect OFMDFM to dismiss automatically the two current amendments, not following consideration of their merits, but simply because the present incumbents of OFMDFM appear to dislike scrutiny. The word “flexibility” was used often last week by the two major parties, the DUP/Sinn Féin coalition — the Axis — when talking about the Bill. Amendment No 1 provides flexibility, and provides OFMDFM with the flexibility to appoint a chief commissioner, if required.
Indeed, during last week’s debate on the Bill, junior Minister Donaldson said of one of OFMDFM’s amendments:
“we have made provision for the future appointment of a chief commissioner.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 30, p125, col 1].
That being so, amendment No 1 merely ensures that, regardless of whether a chief commissioner is in place, the commission will function effectively with one of the commissioners fulfilling the functions of a chief commissioner where employees are concerned. In the absence of such a provision, employees of the commission could — and would — be left in limbo. What is worse is that it is not difficult to envisage circumstances in which the potential and temptation would exist for employees to appear to be subject to the direction of particular commissioners, rather than to the commission as a corporate body.
Therefore, in addition to respecting the principle of flexibility, amendment No 1 also ensures, as much as is possible within the constraints of the Bill, that the commission functions as a corporate body rather than as a mere clearing house for four separate commissioners, which remains a considerable concern.
Amendment No 2 reflects the concerns of many in the House that the present DUP/Sinn Féin impasse over the need for a chief commissioner will have to be resolved at some stage. Obviously, the four-week delay in accelerated passage was not enough time to allow that resolution. Hopefully, therefore, amendment No 2’s provision allowing four years might assist the present OFMDFM incumbents to resolve their dilemmas.
During last week’s debate, junior Minister Donaldson indicated on several occasions that the OFMDFM amendment, which has since been incorporated into the Bill, provides that, at any time:
“The First Minister and deputy First Minister acting jointly…may designate a member as chief commissioner.”
It appears that only one party in the House, Sinn Féin, which is the party of junior Minister Kelly, is opposed to the concept of a chief commissioner. I assume that I am right in saying that every other party in the House supports that concept. That being so, why does junior Minister Kelly not accept this amendment? Let him tell the House, now that he has the opportunity, the reasons that he and his party are opposed to the appointment of a chief commissioner.
Mr Donaldson has already stated that the OFMDFM amendments to the Bill:
“represent a consensus in OFMDFM, and there is agreement on how those issues should be addressed.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 30, p139, col 2].
Surely it is not too much to ask that the junior Ministers, over the next few weeks, can ensure the early appointment of a chief commissioner.
Amendment Nos 1 and 2 seek to improve the Bill, and as is the normal course of parliamentary procedure, I commend them both to the House. Indeed, more in hope than in expectation, I trust that they will be considered on their merits.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Mr Shannon: It was only last week that we sat in the Chamber and discussed the details of the Commission for Victims and Survivors Bill, and here we are doing the same thing again. Some Members are, perhaps, changing and posturing as much as possible, but my party and I will not do that.
The DUP has changed neither its mind nor its position since last week. We have, then as now, the victims’ best interests at heart. The Bill provides the framework for good and proper delivery of the help and support to victims and survivors that has been withheld for so long. Therefore, we will reject the amendments, allowing the Bill to stand as it is.
I was misquoted last week as saying that this was not the place to discuss this issue. I did not say that, and I checked the Hansard report to make sure. I said:
“Some Members wish to use this issue as a point-scoring exercise. I urge those Members to make their points elsewhere.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 30, p121, col 2].
I was not saying, as was suggested, that arguments should be made elsewhere; I was saying that those who were on a soapbox to make points should realise that the Victims and Survivors Bill was not the forum for getting one up on a political opponent.
During the many hours of debate on the matter, I have listened carefully to Members’ contributions, and I remained unconvinced that many of the amendments would make a positive difference to the lives of those who I am seeking to help.
Mr McNarry: Mr Deputy Speaker, as you properly took the time to remind Mr Kennedy of the importance of sticking to the motion, could I perhaps ask that consistency be applied in the debate?
Mr Shannon: I will bear that in mind, but I had to clarify last week’s misconception. If the amendments had added to the Bill’s protections or enhanced it, the DUP would have supported them. Instead, we were subjected to a great deal of posturing and pointless arguing. Nothing would have induced me to believe that any real point was being made, other than the fact that some Members believe that the DUP is simply out to flex its muscles. Let us make it clear —
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. I remind Members to keep to the subject under discussion.
Mr Shannon: I thought that I was keeping to the subject; that is, the debate on the Bill.
Some £36 million has been allocated to victims. That is more than double the budgetary allocation awarded to victims under previous devolved Governments. I, too, want to ensure that as much money as possible is directed to front-line services. Therefore, I want to prevent the future expense of further changes to the legislation to allow for part-time commissioners.
Dr Farry: The Member cites the importance of directing as much money as possible to front-line services. Surely that is an argument for having one commissioner rather than four or potentially more.
Mr Shannon: The matter has been debated well today, and we have made our point clear. There is no sensible need to restrict the number of commissioners, when common sense will show that there will never be as many as 10 full-time commissioners, as some Members have suggested.
Amendment No 1 was not, and is not, necessary, nor is there any need for the compulsory addition of a chief commissioner at this stage. Therefore, the DUP also rejects amendment No 2. It is clear that some people have an axe to grind and are determined to do so.
Mr Ford: The Member told us why he rejects both amendments, but will he explain why, five weeks ago, members of his party told not only us but the media that they agreed with the substance of the amendments?
Mr Shannon: I cannot speak for the party, but I can say that the Member misquotes us. Our stance on the matter last week was clear, and our stance today is clear. Members of the Alliance Party should consult Hansard to find out what was said. Some people clearly have an axe to grind, and they are determined to do so, regardless of the issue.
I have no point to prove and no axe to grind. It is simply my duty as an elected representative, and as a concerned individual, to secure the best deal possible, as soon as possible. That is also my party’s duty. That is what we have done, and will continue to do, for the people of the Province. I reject the amendments.
Ms J McCann: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I, too, oppose the amendments. Neither amendment adds anything to the Bill, which is about implementing legislation that will put a victims’ commission in place, so that the issue of victims and survivors of the conflict can become the central focus. Nothing that I have heard in today’s debate or in previous weeks’ debates has changed my mind.
The commission will ensure that the structure needed to address victims’ various needs is established. We must focus on the needs of victims and survivors, and allow the commission to get on with its all-important work, rather than raising barriers to prevent it from doing so.
Nothing will happen with the £36 million of funding and if we continue to stall the Bill by tabling amendments to it. The funding will not be released directly to victims and survivors. Therefore, it is very important for Members — [Interruption.]
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. One matter on which we can all agree is the fact that Members should address their remarks through the Chair.
Mr McNarry: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Will the Member take this opportunity to qualify her remarks and to introduce her opinion on democracy in debates?
Mr Deputy Speaker: That is not a point of order.
Mr Ford: The Member talks about delay. Will she remind the House who twice failed to move the Bill’s Consideration Stage? As I recall, it was no one from the SDLP, the Ulster Unionist Party or the Alliance Party. If there has been any delay, it appears to have come entirely from her party and from her colleagues opposite.
Ms J McCann: I have listened intently to the debate and the Alliance Party’s amendments — among others — are stalling the Bill.
Groups and organisations that, for years, have dealt with victims’ needs have accumulated a wealth of skills and expertise. The Assembly must release funding to allow those groups to continue and to develop community-based initiatives, which, throughout the years, have helped many victims and survivors.
Such progress is being stalled by the amendments. I urge Members to adopt a united stand, demonstrate strong leadership and direction, and support the commission’s important work for the future. Stalling the Bill is not in the interests of victims and survivors. Go raibh maith agat.
Dr Farry: The Member for West Belfast Ms McCann mentioned stalling. Nothing of the sort is happening in the Chamber — we are debating legislation in accordance with Standing Orders. Although it may be news to Sinn Féin, that is how a proper legislative body operates.
A Bill is subject to a First Stage and a Second Stage; then a Consideration Stage and a Further Consideration Stage are opportunities for Members to table amendments. Once those have been considered, the Bill reaches its Final Stage. No additional business days have been scheduled by the Alliance Party, the SDLP or the Ulster Unionist Party to frustrate the passage of this Bill.
Mrs D Kelly: Will the Member acknowledge that, at this time last year, OFMDFM informed the House that a decision on the appointment of a commissioner would be taken before the summer recess in 2007?
Dr Farry: Absolutely. The Alliance Party has tabled the two amendments because of the crisis of confidence and the cynicism in Northern Ireland about the legislation and the proposed commission. It is important to establish safeguards to ensure that the process represents properly the interests of victims.
Had the First Minister and deputy First Minister last year outlined to the Chamber the benefits of a commission — compared with the appointment of a single commissioner — and, subsequently, proceeded with the consultation necessary to develop public policy in Northern Ireland, the credibility of the proposals would have been enhanced. However, the proposal for a commission was, clearly, an afterthought. It was a political fix to bypass the inability to agree on the appointment of a single commissioner, as outlined in the legislation.
However, for better or for worse — and for worse, in my opinion — the House decided to take that route, and, consequently, today we must try to improve that flawed legislation. Amendments must establish safeguards to ensure that a single, co-ordinated strategy for victims is applied consistently across all sections of the community in Northern Ireland.
There is fear that the proposed commission will lead to a Balkanisation of victims’ needs. As the Alliance Party, the SDLP and the UUP have on many occasions stressed, that is not a reflection on any of the individuals. It is a broader issue, concerning structures that will last beyond the tenure of the incumbents who will be appointed as commissioners in subsequent weeks. We must seize the opportunity to get this right.
In all commissions, staff are responsible to a single individual. That is the logical method of operation. It is not about hierarchy; rather, it concerns ensuring consistency in public body administration. In particular, I do not need to remind Members of the crucial importance of such a system when public funds are at stake. Although the matter could be incorporated into Standing Orders, there is, frankly, no community confidence that that will happen. Therefore, it is imperative that the legislation ensures that it happens.
The same circumstances apply to the appointment of a chief commissioner. The current draft of the legislation, as amended last week, provides for the possibility of the appointment of a chief commissioner. The public’s perception of the present situation is that, although four parties support the idea of a chief commissioner, that was vetoed by Sinn Féin, and a compromise was cobbled together by OFMDFM.
Mr Molloy: Will the Member accept that that is also democracy? Will he repeat his stated opinion that any one of the four commissioners is capable of doing the job? Will he explain why the four commissioners need a schoolmaster to look after them?
Dr Farry: I am hardly a schoolmaster. I accept that the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister is entitled to put such compromises before the House, although some might call them fudges. The Member’s party, however, seems to have difficulty in accepting the right of Members of other parties to table amendments in order to fix flawed compromises and fudges. Notwithstanding the integrity of the four individuals who have, unfortunately, been brought into the equation because the cart has been put before the horse, it is important that proper accountable structures be established to deal with staff matters, not least when public funds are being used. That should be clear to all Members.
The importance of the proper use of public funds is the subject of regular discussion in the House. Four parties have publicly stated their support for a chief commissioner. One party used its veto, and the resulting fudge has been carried through into the legislation. A Sinn Féin veto has been written into the legislation. The appointment of a chief commissioner is no closer than it was before the OFMDFM amendment was made. All that we have done is cover up the cracks by suggesting that there might be a chief commissioner, but that that would require the agreement of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister. If Sinn Féin is opposed to the appointment of a chief commissioner, it will veto such an appointment today or some time in future.
It is critical that the Assembly now agrees amendment No 2 in order to ensure that a chief commissioner shall be appointed and that the issue is not fudged. It is important that the legislation be coherent. It is already a botched job; it is already flawed. Let us not make it worse. This is our last opportunity to make some final corrections and to ensure that there is some consistency and credibility. There must be a single coherent approach to dealing with victims across Northern Ireland. We must avoid the Balkanisation of the crucial issue of dealing with victims.
The junior Minister (Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (Mr G Kelly): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I do not intend to address every contribution to the debate. However, a couple of words have been thrown about, such as “apartheid”, which was used by David Ford, and another in-word, “Balkanisation”, which seems to come up during every debate in the House. Let us be clear: this is about an integrated approach; it is about four co-equal commissioners doing the job together in an integrated fashion. The Alliance Party Members go on about integration all the time, but that is what OFMDFM’s approach is all about. I find the use of the word “apartheid” offensive; the use of the word “Balkanisation” is complete nonsense. Mr Ford has misunderstood entirely OFMDFM’s intentions on this matter.
Having said that, a LeasCheann Comhairle, I appreciate that all Members wish to ensure that the commission will be effective, and I share that view. However, today’s amendments will not do anything to enhance the work or the functions of a commission for victims and survivors. The two amendments that were made were an attempt to deal with some of the issues that were raised. We were accused of not listening, but we listened very carefully. Danny Kennedy said that we ignored the debates — far from it; the amendments that we tabled showed that we listened to Members and took on many of their concerns.
During the Bill’s Consideration Stage, my colleague junior Minister Donaldson emphasised that OFMDFM wanted to maintain a flexible approach to the structure of the commission.
The foundation of our approach to working with victims and survivors has been to place those most affected by conflict at the heart of defining needs, recommending strategies and structures, and advocating across Government and across society as a whole.
The commission that is described in this legislation is one part of that evolving structure. It is charged to convene a victims’ and survivors’ forum, which will be representative of victims and survivors and will inform the work of the commission. We wish to fully involve the victims and survivors of conflict in driving forward the process, and we must retain the ability to respond to their proposals and recommendations.
We have made provision to review the commission’s working practices to ensure their adequacy and effectiveness. Therefore, we reasonably seek to retain the flexibility to respond to need, to ensure the effectiveness of the commission and to be informed by the views of victims and survivors themselves. We have taken that flexible approach because we would never presume that we know what is best for victims and survivors, nor would we prescribe the structures to meet their needs. The changing and evolving nature of the needs of victims and survivors means that the legislation must allow us to have the flexibility to respond to those needs. That is why we tabled our amendments. We have made the right arrangements to allow us to develop our future work with victims and survivors.
Amendment No 2 will create a situation in which we will be required to appoint a chief commissioner in four years’ time regardless of the circumstances. I noticed some paranoia in the UUP, SDLP and Alliance Party’s attempts to impose that provision four years ahead. Those parties clearly believe that they will never hold the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minster, and that is why they are trying to tie down the current office-holders.
Mr McNarry: Rubbish.
The junior Minister (Mr G Kelly): That is what they are talking about. They have no faith in OFMDFM because they will never hold those positions.
No one would wish to be tied to such a decision. It would not be sensible —
Mr Elliott: I thank the junior Minster for giving way. Will he state for the record whether he classifies himself as a victim of the Troubles of the last 40 years?
The junior Minister (Mr G Kelly): That is not relevant to this debate.
It would not be sensible to enshrine in legislation in 2008 a commitment to take a certain course of action in four years’ time. That makes no sense whatsoever. We want to see how the current arrangements work, and, as I said, we have already made provision to be flexible in our approach to the evolving structures for victims and survivors and to their changing needs over time.
Mr McNarry: Your nose is growing longer, Gerry.
The junior Minister (Mr G Kelly): There are a few Pinocchios in the Member’s party — I can tell him that. At least he did not slag me about my chin. [Laughter.]
Amendment No 1 deals with reporting arrangements within the commission. It would be unwise to dictate in legislation the way in which reporting arrangements for commission staff will work. That is, rightly, an internal administrative matter, a LeasCheann Comhairle.
I ask Members to reject the amendments for the reasons that I have given. Go raibh maith agat.
Mrs D Kelly: My arms do not seem to be long enough to pick up my notes. [Laughter.]
It is clear that there are still diverging views on why these amendments are before the House today. Some Members argue about whether it is proper democracy. The answer is yes. That is what the Chamber is for. It is for progressing legislation — not that Members have often had the chance to do so, because there has not been much leadership in that regard. However, when we have had the opportunity to debate legislation, my party has proposed amendments in order to improve it.
Much play has been made of the necessity of moving this legislation forward. We agree with that — it was not the SDLP, the Ulster Unionist Party or the Alliance Party that failed to agree on a decision before the summer recess of 2007, at the beginning of the new debating season in September, or shortly before Christmas.
Mr Molloy: Will the Member explain, therefore, why her party did not propose legislation to establish a victims’ commission when it held the post of deputy First Minister?
Mrs D Kelly: It is my understanding that it was the SDLP, alongside the Ulster Unionists, that instigated the strategy for victims and survivors, and first recognised — [Interruption.]
Mr Deputy Speaker: I must repeat the one rule on which we are all agreed: remarks must be made through the Chair.
Mr Molloy: Will the Member tell the House who was appointed on that occasion?
Mrs D Kelly: That has nothing to do with this debate. I am happy to answer Mr Molloy’s questions, in so far as the budget and the fund were set up for victims and survivors, in opposition to his party’s views. The political instability over the past 10 years is certainly not something in which the SDLP had a hand.
It is a matter of regret and bad practice that the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister has not realised the necessity to bring all staff under the direction of a chief commissioner. It is vital to the interests of commission staff and the commissioners that there be strategic decision-making and planning to deliver a consistent high-quality service to victims.
A number of Members seem to think that one could employ all those people without giving them any clarity, responsibility or direction. That is not good employment practice by any stretch of the imagination, and it is something that amendment No 1 seeks to rectify.
My colleagues and I are pleased to support amendment Nos 1 and 2 in seeking to inject some coherence and cohesion into the commission, which has been born out of division and indecision. Amendment No 2 has been tabled in a spirit of optimism, moving on from the fiasco that has characterised the process thus far.
We propose, from 2012, a framework that is more consistent with the other commissions to which the junior Minister has compared the victims’ commission. In response to junior Minister Kelly, one of the reasons that we want to get this right is so that, when we take over, the legislation is right.
There was originally to be the appointment of a single commissioner, so, whatever our misgivings, we are where we are. Having radically altered the commission’s structure, we urge OFMDFM to accept logical and necessary changes and commit himself to the designation of a chief commissioner — if not for the current commission, for the next one.
Both Sinn Féin and the DUP failed to listen to our previous arguments, and we seem to be in the same situation today. It is interesting to note that, yet again, when debating the Commission for Victims and Survivors Bill, some DUP Members remain absent from the Chamber. It is a matter of public record that those Members made much public comment in support of the appointment of a chief commissioner. The media-services department of the House can provide those who challenge my comments with the evidence necessary to convince them of my argument.
There was much talk of Balkanisation and of a hierarchy of victims’ commissioners. Clearly, as Mr Farry said, there is cynicism across the community as a result of Sinn Féin’s and the DUP’s inability to make a coherent decision. Amendment No 8 served to kick their stated positions into the long grass over the next four years: on one hand, Sinn Féin is continually opposed to the appointment of a chief commissioner, and, on the other, the DUP is clearly at some loss as to whether to support it or not. Much of the Back-Bench view, and the view of certain senior DUP party members, is that there should be a chief commissioner. That is the best way forward. Over the years we have heard the cry — particularly from Sinn Féin and the DUP — for their mandate and their views to be respected. That is all that we are asking for today.
I have spoken to victims’ groups, and they champion the idea of a chief commissioner. It is strange that one party will not accede to a logical request from the victims’ groups. I support the amendment.
Question put, That amendment No 1 be made.
The Assembly divided: Ayes 25; Noes 52.
Mr Beggs, Mr D Bradley, Mrs M Bradley, Mr P J Bradley, Mr Burns, Mr Burnside, Mr Cobain, Mr Cree, Mr Elliott, Dr Farry, Mr Ford, Mr Gallagher, Mrs D Kelly, Mr Kennedy, Ms Lo, Mr A Maginness, Mr McCarthy, Mr McClarty, Mr B McCrea, Mr McGlone, Mr McNarry, Mr O’Loan, Mr P Ramsey, Mr Savage, Mr B Wilson.
Tellers for the Ayes: Mr A Maginness and Mr McCarthy.
Ms Anderson, Mr Boylan, Mr Brady, Mr Bresland, Mr Brolly, Lord Browne, Mr Buchanan, Mr Campbell, Mr T Clarke, Mr W Clarke, Mr Craig, Mr Dodds, Mr Donaldson, Mr Easton, Mrs Foster, Ms Gildernew, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Irwin, Mr G Kelly, Mr A Maskey, Mr P Maskey, Mr F McCann, Ms J McCann, Mr McCartney, Mr McCausland, Mr I McCrea, Dr W McCrea, Miss McIlveen, Mr McKay, Mr McLaughlin, Mr McQuillan, Mr Molloy, Lord Morrow, Mr Murphy, Mr Newton, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O’Dowd, Mrs O’Neill, Mr Paisley Jnr, Rev Dr Ian Paisley, Ms S Ramsey, Mr G Robinson, Mr P Robinson, Mr Ross, Ms Ruane, Mr Shannon, Mr Simpson, Mr Spratt, Mr Storey, Mr Weir, Mr S Wilson.
Tellers for the Noes: Mr Boylan and Mr Brady.
Question accordingly negatived.
Amendment No 2 negatived.
Schedule 1 agreed to.
Mr Deputy Speaker: That concludes the Further Consideration Stage of the Commission for Victims and Survivors Bill. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker.
Local Government (Boundaries) Bill
The Minister of the Environment (Mrs Foster): I beg to move
That the Local Government (Boundaries) Bill [NIA 14/07] do now pass.
I do not intend to cover all the Bill’s provisions in detail. The purpose of the Bill is to provide for the reorganisation of local government in Northern Ireland as part of the review of public administration.
Members will be aware that on 13 March, the Executive agreed that Northern Ireland would have 11 new local government districts based on an amalgamation of the existing 26 districts. That had been proposed and consulted upon as part of the review of public administration consultation document that was issued in March 2005. It is our objective that elections to the revised local government structures will be held in 2011.
The Bill sets out the broad boundaries of the 11 new local government districts with reference to the current 26 local government districts, and it provides for the appointment of a Local Government Boundaries Commissioner in 2008. The commissioner’s task will be to review, and make recommendations concerning, the names and boundaries of the 11 new local government districts and the number, names and boundaries of the wards into which each district will be divided.
The prompt appointment of the commissioner and early commencement of the review will advance the reorganisation and modernisation of local government. Furthermore, it will go some way towards achieving the deadline of 2011 — a deadline that, I acknowledge, is challenging.
I thank Members and the Environment Committee for allowing the Bill to proceed by accelerated passage — although I acknowledge that that was not a unanimous decision. The debates at all Stages of the Bill’s passage have been extensive. Members have had the opportunity in those debates to air a range of opinions, and discussion of the Bill has been thorough.
Some 19 amendments were proposed at the Consideration and Further Consideration Stages of the Bill. Although no amendments have been made to the Bill since its introduction, I thank Members for their careful consideration of the Bill and for their contributions to the debates on the merits and implications of the proposed amendments.
Subject to the Bill’s being passed, I look forward to working with the Environment Committee and Members on subsequent Bills for developing and delivering a robust and vibrant system of local government. The Bill is an essential step in the process of bringing local government arrangements into the twenty-first century.
The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment (Mr Boylan): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom cúpla focal a rá.
I support the Bill. The Bill is about delivering services to the public and being responsive to the public. Will the Minister assure the Assembly that the Bill, through the commissioner, will ensure fairness and equality for the public, no matter to which council area they will eventually belong? We must get on with the job of appointing a commissioner so that the time frame for the new councils can be met. I support the Bill. Go raibh míle maith agat.
Mr Beggs: The Local Government (Boundaries) Bill is the most significant piece of legislation to pass through the Assembly since the restoration of devolution. It will shape local government for decades and affect most citizens in some way — as has been said many times over the past few weeks. It is, therefore, crucial that we achieve the best Bill possible.
Unfortunately, the Minister, backed by a DUP and Sinn Féin diktat, has pushed the Bill through the Assembly by way of the accelerated passage mechanism. The bypassing of the Committee Stage has prevented detailed evidence sessions and Committee scrutiny of the Bill, and, therefore, the Assembly’s scrutiny of the Bill has been limited. It would have been useful to have had a Committee Stage so that Members who are not part of the Environment Committee could have read reports of the evidence and used it in our debates. However, that was not to be.
The Minister said that it was imperative that the Bill receive Royal Assent before the summer recess so that the elections could be held by 2011. However, it has been stated that, with the co-operation of the Committee, that goal could have been achieved without accelerated passage.
It is now mid-May, and as this session of the Assembly does not end until July, it would have been useful to have been able to use the additional weeks to enable a greater level of public scrutiny. However, the Minister chose to ignore that, just as she has chosen to ignore every opinion offered and every amendment tabled throughout the process.
I recognise that there are time constraints, but I do not understand why the Bill was not brought to the Assembly much earlier. Why did the DUP and Sinn Féin not recognise those constraints and ensure that the process occurred earlier? Had that happened, it would have allowed for the level of scrutiny that is normally available to Committees and to the Assembly.
The DUP and Sinn Féin have agreed a specific 11-council model that many Assembly Members consider to be an abstract compromise that does not reflect the identity and needs of people in Northern Ireland. The Ulster Unionist Party has always been a strong advocate of the 15-council model and, therefore, strongly supported the Alliance Party’s amendment to the Bill that proposes such a model. However, because we are also pragmatists, we tried to improve the 11-council model by tabling amendments, but our efforts were curtailed.
It was for that reason that we attempted to increase the scope and powers of the Boundaries Commissioner to allow him or her more power to change the boundaries and to ensure that he or she would explicitly take the identities and affinities of local people into consideration. Every other party in the Assembly made some reference to the fact that the Bill needs to take more account of the identity and desires of local people. There was general agreement that the Bill would be improved if it were to incorporate such considerations, and the Ulster Unionist Party attempted to convince the Minister of that through its amendments. However, by wilfully refusing to consider any arguments, the Minister and her colleagues in the DUP and Sinn Féin have ensured that their particular 11-council model will come into existence, largely as agreed by them in isolation and beyond the gaze of the public or, for that matter, without any involvement by other political parties.
The Minister rejected the amendments that were tabled during Consideration Stage. In recognition of the fact that the Minister would not change the commissioner’s remit, we attempted, last week, to improve the commissioner’s democratic accountability by advocating that he or she consults widely with the 26 councils and holds public hearings in each of the existing council areas. We were trying to ensure that the people of Northern Ireland would have their voices heard during this vital period. Although the Minister has made some noises suggesting that she will recommend to the commissioner that he or she should carry out further consultations, she again rejected the amendments tabled by the UUP.
The Bill’s passage has not been the Minister’s or the Assembly’s finest hour. Through its passage and through that of the Commission for Victims and Survivors Bill, we are witnessing the mistreatment of parliamentary protocol and the stretching of Standing Orders to the limits of their interpretation. That has been done in order to save the DUP and Sinn Féin having to consider any detailed evidence about, or Committee scrutiny of, their diktat, or having to face any movement away from their carved-up compromises. That is not good for devolution or democracy, and I urge the Minister and the two main parties to resist from taking this direction again. If this were another place, the way that the Minister has treated this Bill and this Assembly could easily be considered to be an insult to parliamentary protocol.
However, the fact remains that the passage of the Bill is reaching its conclusion, and the Ulster Unionist Party recognises that a commissioner is likely to begin his or her work soon. We wish that person all the best in their work, and urge them to use every means possible — within the restrictive legislative process in which they must work — to ensure that local government boundaries authentically reflect local identities, rather than following an abstract prescription that has been dictated to him or her in the Bill that has been presented to the Assembly. We will continue to oppose the motion.
Dr Farry: We are discussing a flawed Bill, and that is regrettable, because it means that a major opportunity to put local government on a strong footing for the future is being missed.
As Mr Beggs stated, there have been problems with the passage of the Bill. The House, and, I fear, the people of Northern Ireland, have yet again been the victims of the inability of the Executive parties to agree on critical issues in a timely manner. As a consequence of the delays that the Executive created when drawing up their final proposals, the ability of the Assembly and the time that is available to it to scrutinise and debate the matter properly have been curtailed severely. Accelerated passage was granted, which meant that there was no Committee Stage for the Bill.
None of the 19 amendments that several parties tabled in good faith was accepted. I fear that the adversarial nature of proceedings on the Floor does not readily lend itself to the proper discussion of what are, in many cases, technical amendments. In contrast, the atmosphere in Committee meetings may have allowed for much more detailed discussions between the different parties and for consensus on a sustainable way forward.
Mr I McCrea: Will the Member clarify whether the Committee for the Environment agreed to the accelerated passage of the Bill?
Dr Farry: It seems that members of the Executive parties voted in Committee for accelerated passage. There was, however, opposition to accelerated passage, including from my party leader.
It is important to note that Committees are not supposed to simply rubber-stamp the decisions that the Executive make; they are supposed to challenge those decisions. It is regrettable that not many Committees are fulfilling that important role.
Mr Weir: Does the Member accept that not only DUP and Sinn Féin Committee members voted for accelerated passage but that SDLP representatives did so?
Dr Farry: I do not speak for the SDLP; I am sure that its Members are more than capable of speaking for themselves. Indeed, I have no doubt that they will shortly take the opportunity to do so.
The sustainability of reforms is important. Members will be familiar with the litany of local government reforms that has occurred in England and Wales over the past 30 years and more. Many of those reforms had to be abandoned after several years. I fear that the same will happen to the 11-council model. That model has not been devised through a proper policy-making process in which the evidence would have led to a natural conclusion. Regrettably, the 11-council model was a political fudge; it was a compromise between the DUP and Sinn Féin.
As I said during the previous debate on the issue, I accept fully the rights of those parties, as Executive parties, to make such compromises. Equally, however, they must respect our right, as an opposition party, not to buy in to a flawed policy-making process. A move towards 15 councils would be more appropriate.
There is always a balance to be found between the size and scale of councils and their functions on the one hand, and, on the other, the closeness of their decision-making process to people and their interests, including the maintenance of civic identity and coherence of local government units. I fear that that balance has not been found.
The powers that have been transferred to local councils amount only to a move from approximately 4% of public expenditure to just over 5%, which does not represent a significant enhancement of powers. Perhaps the most significant move is the proposal to transfer community-planning responsibilities, which I welcome strongly. However, a move to 11 councils is not required to transfer those responsibilities.
I suggest that local authorities in Northern Ireland will soon have an average population size that is well out of line with those of any council in the British Isles and Europe.
In addition, councils in Northern Ireland have fewer powers than their counterparts in these islands and further afield. A much more extreme solution has been strived for than was needed.
Major questions have been asked about some proposed pairings, or groupings, of councils. Some mergers make sense, but others do not. In a number of cases, there will be significant local opposition — one such case being the proposed merger of Fermanagh District Council and Omagh District Council. Arrangements in the south Antrim area — where Ballymena Borough Council, Larne Borough Council and Carrickfergus Borough Council will merge, and Newtownabbey Borough Council and Antrim Borough Council will merge — are not logical, and will not be sustainable.
The proposed merger of Castlereagh Borough Council and Lisburn City Council has also raised many eyebrows. That proposal is not logical, if one takes into account how people lead their lives and access services, and that is regrettable. A system that uses a 15-council model as the centre point for devising new council areas would be a much more credible way of operating. It would allow natural communities to emerge; as opposed to a simple, quick-fix solution of grouping councils together. Although there may well be some revisions of the boundaries of the new districts, those will not be sufficient to address the system’s underlying problems.
The workings of the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner have also raised major concerns. Based on my recent experience of the process, the framework within which the new commissioner will make decisions is not sufficiently robust. The last report was flawed in a number of respects. A similar remit was given to the commissioner regarding the whole, or major, part of the districts that were grouped together. At that stage, only very minor amendments were made to the boundaries of the proposed seven super-councils, the only exception being Belfast. Even in the context of Belfast, there was major disquiet about the illogical outcome. The commissioner should be given more flexibility and be encouraged to think outside the box as regards those types of issues.
Belfast should be recognised as a major city region and a major growth dynamic in the regional economy. It would be logical to allow Belfast to expand its natural boundaries and allow Belfast City Council to take a more co-ordinated approach to what goes on in the city. That would ensure that the city reaches its full potential.
Such a process would also benefit Northern Ireland as a whole and the councils that border the Belfast area. That includes my own council in North Down, where there is a very close relationship with Belfast City Council. Both council areas would benefit from economic growth. An imperative has been missed regarding the natural layout of Belfast, and it has not been reflected properly in this legislation.
Many people have also mentioned the need to reflect local identity and social coherence when drawing up the wards. This process is not about drawing up artificial boundaries or creating class or religious divisions; it is about reflecting natural communities. It is not about breaking up townlands — unless that cannot be avoided — and it is not about breaking up villages.
This process is about trying, as far as possible, to keep towns within wards or within groupings of wards. It is about avoiding a situation in which unsightly wards are drawn up across huge swathes of countryside, touching upon the edges of different settlements. That would create issues about how credible district electoral areas would subsequently be drawn up, and how credible local representation would be if it were based around those district electoral areas.
I was disappointed that more was not done in order to have a co-ordinated approach between the commissioner who is dealing with wards and districts, and the subsequent commissioner who will be dealing with district electoral areas thereafter. I appreciate that the process could be streamlined to a certain extent. However, it is critical that the first process should be connected to the second one. It should not be a case of the first commissioner tying the hands of the second commissioner; it should be about ensuring that the wards are drawn up so that they do not prejudice the process of drawing up district electoral areas thereafter, and that a situation does not exist in which wards areas extend across huge areas of countryside — or even towns — that make it more difficult to have district electoral areas that reflect natural communities.
We could find ourselves in a situation in which it will be impossible for a town or major settlement to lie within only one district electoral area. The fringe of one town could be lie within the district electoral area of another. We should, as far as possible, seek to avoid such situations.
I regret to say that my party believes that the process is flawed. We have missed opportunities to fix the already flawed process that has emerged from the Executive. The people of Northern Ireland will struggle with that situation in the future. The situation that must be addressed is not a flash in the pan that will last for five or 10 years; it could be with us for 30 to 40 years. It is critical to ensure that we get the process right at this stage, and I fear that we have not.
Mr B Wilson: My opposition to the Bill is not political or personal — although I am a member of North Down Borough Council — it arises from my previous life as a lecturer in government and the fact that the provisions of the Bill run contrary to many of the principles that are fundamental to local democracy. The Bill is fundamentally flawed. There are many different models of local government, but most have a common theme. The Bill’s proposals ignore some of the basic principles for establishing efficient and effective local government.
The role of local councils is to provide local services for local people. Councils should be accessible, democratically accountable, and encourage participation in decision-making. They should also operate on the principle of subsidiarity, which states that matters ought to be handled by the lowest competent authority. The Bill appears to ignore all those principles and focuses solely on achieving a specific optimum population for each council area. The 11-council model will effectively destroy local democracy, and the proposals will create maximum disruption and achieve minimum benefit.
First, we should recognise that it was not public concern about the delivery of council services that initiated the RPA. Indeed, the omnibus survey that was carried out for the RPA showed that there was strong public support for council services and that the public’s concerns related mainly to centrally provided services, particularly health, education and housing. Those concerns include inaccessibility, the lack of responsiveness of direct rule ministers, the lack of political accountability and the proliferation of unelected quangos. The main demand from the public — and some politicians — was that traditional council services, centralised by the Macrory Report, should be made accountable and returned to local government. That demand has, to some extent, been met by the restoration of the Assembly. I question the methodology that was adopted by the RPA.
Mr A Maskey: I am curious as to whether the bulk of what the Member has said addresses the Bill, which does not deal with services and such like. We are dealing with the passage of a Bill that provides for the appointment of a Local Government Boundaries Commissioner.
Mr B Wilson: The Bill is based on the findings of the RPA report. The structure and the methodology that have been adopted are totally unacceptable, because they do not deal with the main problems of local government. The Assembly is basing the 11-council model on the proposals of the RPA, and I am addressing the RPA, which is totally acceptable.
The RPA was unnecessarily complicated, overambitious, and ignored the fact that each service had unique problems in scale and timing. For example, there was no immediate issue facing local government, but the problems facing the Health Services were extensive and urgent. It is nonsense to lump all public services together and expect a single solution to resolve their problems.
The Health Service in particular needed urgent reform, and that reform could not be delayed until the functions and structures of local authorities had been resolved. That is now clear, because the RPA’s main theme has been discarded, with major services such as health, education and policing deciding to go their own way.
We should therefore ignore the models that the discredited RPA put forward. Instead, we should look anew at the role, structure and principles of local government, in particular its relationship with central Government. The whole RPA exercise seems to have been based on four false premises: that additional powers would be devolved to local councils; that there would be significant savings to the ratepayer; that services would be delivered more efficiently and effectively; and that coterminosity would be central to the provision of effective services.
To put it bluntly, the RPA has failed to deliver any significant increase in local councils’ responsibilities. They will not even have responsibility for libraries or the Youth Service. The main local services — health, education, housing and social services — will continue to be the responsibility of unelected quangos, and the percentage of public expenditure that local councils control will rise from 4% to 5%. An increase of 1% does not justify the disruption of thousands of staff and the massive relocation of estates, as model 11b requires. In fact, were the group system to be expanded slightly, nothing in the new powers that are proposed for councils could not be met by the existing councils.
In earlier legislative stages, Members highlighted the benefits of model 11b’s introduction to ratepayers. However, they have provided no evidence to support those claims, and I suggest that no such evidence exists. Most local-authority expenditure goes on providing local services such as refuse collection, leisure services and building control. Those services will still have to be provided, regardless of which authority provides them, and that offers little opportunity to make savings. However, there will be a significant increase in costs due to redundancies, relocation and the upgrading of the estate. Similarly, the claim —
Mr P Robinson: Will the Member give way?
Mr B Wilson: Yes, I will give way.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. I remind Members that, when they give way, they must resume their seat.
Mr P Robinson: How can the Member argue both sides at the same time? He says that no savings will be made yet goes on to say that there will be redundancies.
Mr B Wilson: There will be some higher-level redundancies, but the vast majority of staff employed in —
Mr P Robinson: Therefore, money will be saved.
Mr B Wilson: Yes, but my point is that those savings will not be significant. The vast majority of people employed by local councils provide a local service — [Interruption.].
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order, please. All Members must make their remarks through the Chair. That applies to everyone.
Mr B Wilson: There will obviously be some redundancies, but the vast majority of employees who provide services to the local community will continue to provide them. There will, at a higher level, be some rationalisation of the chief officers’ roles, but those savings will not be significant, and no one has provided any evidence to the contrary. We know that, if there are redundancies — there will be — redundancy payments could be significant. Many millions of pounds were paid out in redundancy packages to senior Health Service officers. Considerable expenditure will also be involved as councils’ relocate to new areas and new offices.
The claim that the new councils will provide more efficient and effective services cannot be proven. As I previously pointed out, recent research by Tony Travers into local-government reform in England indicated that there was no link between the size of a local authority and the efficiency of the service provided.
The coterminosity argument is even more dubious. Although the RPA suggested that coterminosity was the single most important factor in the review, I find that assertion rather strange, because coterminosity does not exist in the rest of the United Kingdom or, as far as I am aware, in any other European democracy. In fact, I suggest that coterminosity is not desirable, because the optimum population for the provision of different services will differ considerably, depending on the service. The fact that coterminosity has now been effectively discarded indicates that that has been recognised.
Members speaking in favour of 11 councils also argued that we have too many councils that are too small to reach the critical mass needed to provide services efficiently. That, however, is refuted by the experience of Scotland and Wales. In Wales there is an Assembly plus a single tier of local government, comprising 22 local authorities of which only one has a population of more than 250,000. In Wales, a third of local authorities have a population of less than 100,000 — the minimum population size proposed in the Bill for a Northern Ireland council. All 22 local authorities in Wales have full responsibility for a much wider range of local services than that proposed in the RPA.
In response to the RPA proposals for Northern Ireland, Professor Colin Knox has pointed out that the case for large, single tier local authorities is not grounded on experience elsewhere. Therefore, evidence from academics and people involved in local government discounts the premise that the 11-council model will achieve greater efficiency and savings.
Mr P Robinson: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. There is a convention and a Standing Order that require a Member’s speech to relate to matters on the Order Paper. What is being said has nothing to do with the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner. The Member is discussing the substance of the changes in local government under the RPA. The Member must address the issue under debate, not go off on some hobby horse of his own.
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Member is reminded that he should stick to the subject.
Mr B Wilson: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I considered that the emergence of the 11-council model from the RPA was adequate justification for my making the points in question. All of the points — on efficiency savings and on more effective local government — have been made in previous debates by many Members who supported the Bill. I am refuting those claims because they are not supported by any evidence.
The 11 proposed new councils are designed to deliver the optimum population size as determined by bureaucrats as part of a number-crunching exercise. However, they totally ignore local identity, traditional boundaries and long-established communities. There is no optimum size for local authorities. Factors such as population, geography, identity and history must be considered in every case.
In adopting model 11b it is clear that the Executive accepted that a critical mass consisted of more than 100,000 and tried to maintain a population balance across the 11 proposed councils, an approach that totally ignores traditional boundaries and allegiances.
Had local identity been considered, 11 councils would not have been the model selected. Instead, the new councils would reflect local communities, which are significantly different from those proposed. Fermanagh could have been given its own council for a population of 60,000, and there could have been an expanded council for Belfast that took account of the conurbation with a population of, perhaps, 400,000.
Councils should not be kept within population sizes of 100,000 or 200,000. They can reflect local populations and traditions. There is no need to place a restriction on the numbers.
The example of other countries in these islands should be considered. In Wales, Cardiff Council serves a population six times bigger than that of the smallest council. In Scotland, the population of Glasgow City Council’s area is 25 times that of the smallest council’s. In England, Birmingham City Council’s is 40 times that of the smallest council’s.
Mr Weir: I want to be clear on the Green Party’s position on the issue; will the Member clarify whether he is arguing for more than 11 councils — 15, or perhaps even 26?
Mr B Wilson: I am not arguing for either. I am saying that the principle for the 11-council model is based solely on numbers. The approach should be reviewed to take account of the most effective way of providing services for local communities that identify with a certain area. People who identify with Fermanagh should be able to provide services for Fermanagh.
In England, Scotland and Wales, councils range from the very small to the very large, in order to reflect the diversity and differences among local communities. Services are delivered in accordance with communities’ needs and are not dictated by some central body. Councils are not drawn up by a computer in an effort to ensure the optimum population for a particular service. Initially, they must reflect the local communities to which services are then appropriated.
Colin Knox maintains that recent amalgamations of councils in Great Britain lack shared identity. In certain places, councils that were created need to be reviewed because they do not reflect local identities. I envisage that that situation will arise in Northern Ireland in 10 years’ time. Dr Farry has indicated that the failure of some of those councils in England could mean that the 11-council model must be re-examined in the not-too-distant future.
People have been distracted by the size of councils. As a result, local identities have been lost. For example, people do not identify with the Castlereagh/Lisburn “banana”. The experience in England has been that, when larger councils have been created, there has been loss of identity. Turnout for local council elections was only 30%, because people do not identify with those councils. In Northern Ireland, the turnout is over 60%. Public participation in the political process must be encouraged. The introduction of larger councils that have no common identity will, inevitably, lead to loss of participation.
Another possibly minor matter is that many Members have served as mayors or chairpersons of particular local councils, each of which has a different identity. Certainly, mayors are invited to hundreds of engagements because people feel that they represent their local communities. Mayoral appointments are historic, and people identify with them. The new proposals will abolish certain positions, some of which have existed for 100 years or more. They will be replaced by new positions; for example, that of the new chairperson of the Castlereagh/Lisburn “bent banana”. Will anyone identify with that appointment? The present structure provides accessibility, accountability and civic leadership. It encourages participation in local democracy and promotes a sense of local identity, which will largely be lost as a result of the Bill.
I regret that the Bill has been steamrollered through the Assembly. Certain amendments should have been made that would create flexibility and, perhaps, include the concept of local identity. I accept that reform of local government is needed. However, it is not urgent — it could be deferred until rationalisation of the Assembly, the Executive and the 11 Departments is carried out, which will impact on local government.
If the current proposals are accepted, local-government boundaries will need to be re-examined within the next 10 years. I do not support the proposals, because they will weaken local democracy and local identity; they will create massive disruption for councils’ staff and estate for little obvious benefit; and they are likely to cost, rather than save, money. At best, they are an irrelevance; at worst, a distraction from the political and economic problems that face Northern Ireland.
Mr Weir: First, I, like the last two Members, declare an interest as a member of North Down Borough Council. I am also vice-president of the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA).
I watched the ‘Politics Show’ yesterday, and a great injustice was done. Why Brian Wilson was not pronounced the greatest communicator in the Assembly — nor, indeed, politician of the year — is utterly beyond me.
I support the Local Government (Boundaries) Bill, which is what we are supposed to be discussing. However, it appears to have become the local government anoraks extension Bill. Membership of that club seems to be widening day by day as each debate takes place.
A number of criticisms have been levelled at the Bill, and I want to deal with some those today. First, in relation to the use of accelerated passage for the Bill, the Member for East Antrim Mr Beggs said that, in another place, that would have been deemed unacceptable. Of course, in another place, as when we did not have devolution, we might have been given only an hour or an hour and a half to discuss an Order in Council, and we would not have been able to amend it.
Mr Beggs: Does the Member think that if a motion were to go through Westminster that affected local government in England and Wales, it would be put through in an hour or an hour and a half?
We are talking about Northern Ireland and how to deal with local government here; it is in our gift and power to determine the length of time for such consideration. Will the Member accept that were MPs in England and Wales determining the future boundaries of local government in that jurisdiction, considerably more time would be spent on ensuring that they got it right?
Mr Weir: I thank the Member for his comments. If a local government Bill that established certain boundaries were to go through Westminster I suspect that a guillotine would be applied to it to limit the amount of time that it spent there. In contrast, this is the fourth occasion on which the substance of this Bill has been debated, as many of the Members who have had to listen to those debates will be all too painfully aware. Indeed, the speeches delivered in these debates have not been time-limited. The argument against accelerated passage would be slightly more worthy had any significant and worthwhile amendments to the Bill been proposed.
The Member said that the Committee Stage would have been the ideal opportunity to debate the Bill and produce a report that all Members of the Assembly could have then read. Although I am sure that many Members are fascinated by my words and those of Mr Ford, Mr McGlone and others on the Committee, if Mr Beggs seriously believes that the House would be better informed by listening to the Environment Committee — as opposed to all 108 Members’ having the opportunity to put forward their views on the subject — he is sadly mistaken.
Mr Beggs: Will the Member give way?
Mr Weir: To be perfectly honest, I have heard enough from you for one day.
We must get the Bill through. Brian Wilson said that there was no time pressure and no reason why this should be happening. However, I remind the House that the original announcement about the RPA was delivered in 2000 at the Ulster Unionist Party conference. By the time this is put through —
Mr A Maginness: Were you there?
Mr Weir: I hear someone in a seated position asking whether I was there. On the afternoon in question, I was supporting our wee country at Windsor Park, which both at the time and with hindsight seemed a much more eminently sensible place to be.
Once the RPA, of which the Local Government (Boundaries) Bill is just one part, is completed in 2011, a child who was born on the day when it was first announced will have reached secondary-school age. I am at a loss to see how the Bill has been rushed. We must grasp the nettle, provide some degree of certainty and get on with the job ahead of us.
We were told that the Bill needed to deliver a degree of balance with the number of councils. That has been achieved in terms of size and scale. Of course, we must ensure that local communities have identities and that there is a level of accountability. However, we must also have the other side of the coin — and this has been sadly lacking in the discussion — which is to ensure that the proper economies of scale are in place to create a cost-effective model.
Down the years, I have received more complaints about rate bills and lack of value for money than I have about the accountability of local councils or their geographical basis.
The Bill tries to strike a balance on that basis. The opponents of the Bill do not appear to have provided a unanimous position on that. The majority of the Members who have expressed concerns want a 15-council model. Other Members, including Mr Brian Wilson, may want a 26-council model, a 60-council model or a 100-council model.
We are told that local community identification is the be-all and end-all, yet all Members could provide examples of areas in their constituencies which are one or two streets apart but in which there is no connection between those communities. That does not mean that a plethora of committees and councils should be set up.
The issue of our being out of step with parts of Europe was raised. We are out of step with, for example, France, in which every village seems to have a mayor and a local council. Is that really the model that is being suggested? More than 1% of the population of France is a local councillor. That may be good for ensuring local accountability, but where is the effectiveness of delivery? Ultimately, that is what people care about most.
A range of weak amendments, which lack substance, have been proposed. The Alliance Party’s amendment No 13 proposed that, at all costs, a townland should not be separated, unless that was unavoidable in the interests of maintaining social cohesion. However, if that were to be held as a hard-and-fast rule, a large area such as a golf club could fall into two different council areas and would pay different rates on parts of its land. There was not much sense in that amendment; Members who supported it said that there must be social cohesion, but they did not give a proper answer to how that would be brought about.
Amendment No 14 proposed that the Bill reflect local identities. I take exception to the comments from the Member for East Antrim Mr Beggs. He said that everyone acknowledged that there was a degree of deficiency in the Bill on that issue. On the contrary, the ability to reflect local identity is contained in the Bill by way of the process that will be carried out by the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner, who will be able to consult widely and take evidence from local communities. That flexibility is at the heart of the Bill, which is concerned to ensure that the boundaries for wards and particularly the council boundaries reflect the desire of people on the ground.
Many examples have been used in which a strong case can be argued for which side of the line a particular community will fall. That may be the issue of Saintfield and Killyleagh, that of the southern boundary between North Down and Ards, the question of which area Castlederg should belong to, or the much-discussed issues over the boundaries in Belfast. The Bill provides the full level of flexibility for those issues to be resolved. By contrast, the adoption of the amendments would have led to a blank map that would have been left to the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner to fill in, in whatever form he or she wanted. That would have meant a further period of uncertainty and delay, and the strong, effective local government that is sought by the Bill would not have been achieved.
I agree with the concept of consulting widely. During the debate on 6 May, the Alliance Party accepted the point that was made by the Minister that the Bill will lead to a consultation exercise in each of the 11 proposed council areas but that the Bill does not restrict the number of consultation exercises to 11. There will be an opportunity for the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner to consult in much greater detail where he or she sees fit.
In contrast, proposals to, in effect, ring-fence the 26 existing local councils would have been wholly inappropriate. Indeed, although I hope and believe that local councillors will play a role in putting people’s opinions to the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner, to ring-fence those councillors into a special place that would be above other members of the community would be the wrong way in which to proceed. The Bill can help local government to make progress.
As many Members said, under the review of public administration, much work must still be done on many substantial issues that will probably have a much greater impact on the future shape of local government than the anorakish, navel-gazing discussions that have taken place on the Local Government (Boundaries) Bill. However, those are debates for another day.
Had better amendments been tabled, Members would have been minded to support them. Unfortunately, the arguments that the Bill’s opponents made demonstrate that submitting the legislation to more thorough consideration than accelerated passage would have been a complete waste of time. The Bill will enable the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner to get on with the job, allowing the commissioner’s office freedom to manoeuvre, and flexibility to reflect local concerns and needs. I look forward to the commissioner’s achieving what everyone in the House desires — strong, effective and accountable local government. I support the Bill.
Mr Ford: My colleague Stephen Farry outlined the problem with the Bill, and, therefore, Members will be delighted to hear that I do not intend to speak at length.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Mr Ford: As someone, as proclaimed by Peter Weir, with an anorak-wearing tendency, as well as being a member of the Committee for the Environment and Antrim Borough Council — he declares rapidly — I wish to comment specifically from the Committee’s perspective about issues that Peter Weir raised about the Bill’s accelerated passage.
The Bill is a classic example of legislation that does not follow proper formulation but which emerges in a hurry as a result of another deal, and the reason why accelerated passage has contributed to that must be examined.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClarty] in the Chair)
The Taxis Bill’s progress through the Assembly was an example of a Minister’s willingness to engage with the relevant Committee, and a Committee’s willingness to engage with its Minister, in the course of which the Minister’s officials played a full part. As a result, amendments were produced that, when first considered, might not have been perfectly crafted for an experienced lawyer such as Mr Weir, but which ended up being positive and constructive additions to the Bill.
Given the confrontational nature of debates in the Chamber compared with discussions around the Committee table, for Mr Weir to sit back — as he does now — having got to his feet to criticise the quality of the proposed amendments, he implies that some points that were made a few weeks ago when we debated the Bill’s accelerated passage were right. Mr Weir appeared to acknowledge that, if only we had had his learned experience in Committee in order to improve other members’ feeble ideas, better amendments might have produced a Bill that he, and even the Minister, might have found to be better. That matter must be addressed.
I welcome the Minister’s indication that, in other circumstances, such as those that I mentioned, accelerated passage is not the best way in which to pass legislation, and this Bill is proof of that, as is the Commission for Victims and Survivors Bill. The confrontational nature of debate in the Chamber does not allow for the necessarily detailed working-out of proposed amendments. No matter how many anoraks were to be assembled in the Chamber, that could never be considered a substitute for a proper Committee Stage.
Some of Mr Weir’s criticism of specific amendments appeared to omit the fact that some amendments — particularly on procedural matters — noted that certain actions would be desirable; nevertheless, he described them as if they were being rigidly laid down.
The Alliance Party considers the Bill to be deeply flawed for several reasons. First, the figure of 11 councils is somewhat doubtful and cannot be said to have achieved public confidence. The proposed groupings are not coherent or acceptable. Indeed, they conflict with other aspects of the model as presented elsewhere in the RPA.
Mr S Wilson: The Member said that public confidence has not been secured for the 11-council model. On what does he base his view that the public are deeply unhappy and are agitating for more than 11 councils?
Mr Ford: The Member cannot tell the difference between the meaning of “not attained confidence” and “people are agitating”. No model has attained public confidence, and there was no specific consultation on any particular model. As I said earlier, the single convincing argument for the 11-council model seems to be seven plus 15 divided by two equals 11. I have seen no evidence, from anyone in the Member’s party or from Sinn Féin, of a better argument than that.
One does not have to join Mr Weir in his expeditions over the mountains of East Antrim — Shane’s Hill in the wintertime — to know that Roy Beggs had a point when he said that, according to models 15b and 15c, local community ties would put Antrim with Ballymena and Newtownabbey with Larne and Carrickfergus. However, the grouping in 11b is different for those five councils. No other grouping has operated on that basis, so it should have been subjected to local tests with more, not less, flexibility given to the Boundary Commissioner. There is flexibility in the proposals — however, there should have been more.
Furthermore, the issue of coterminosity has been raised. It was clear that there was never going to be one-for-one coterminosity once the seven-council model had been rejected. As has been highlighted previously, the 11-council model makes one-to-two or one-to-three coterminosity, on issues such as health and social care trusts or policing, impossible. That we can manage no movement towards coterminosity is regrettable, because, at one stage during the discussions under direct rule, it was elevated as the only thing that mattered. The process will not be helped by that, and timetable pressures will combine to make difficulties.
I regret that reasoned amendments were not accepted, and that the only concession was — as Mr Weir has highlighted — the Minister’s assurance in last week’s debate on the number of boundary hearings. If that is the level of ministerial concession for Members to expect when Bills are discussed, it does not hold out great prospects if accelerated passage continues to be used. I am afraid that some of us still believe that the Bill is deeply flawed.
The Minister of the Environment: I thank Members for their contribution to the debate, particularly the Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment who began the debate and said that he wanted me to say something about fairness and equality. Obviously, those two issues underlie all the work done on the reform of local government, and will become apparent when further Bills are brought before the Committee and the House.
Mr Beggs revisited arguments that he made during the Consideration Stage of the Bill. He spoke of an alliance between the two major parties to push the Bill through, which ignored the fact that, in the Environment Committee, we had gained the SDLP’s support for accelerated passage. However, accuracy does not seem to be one of his strong points.
I want to have a Boundary Commissioner in place by the start of July so that the work can begin. Mr Beggs contradicted himself by saying that we did not need to rush things before welcoming the news that the Boundary Commissioner will soon start work — if the Bill had not received accelerated passage, he or she would not be able to start work soon.
He also accused me of:
“wilfully refusing to consider any arguments”
and of ignoring his amendments. There is a difference between ignoring amendments and considering them, but finding them muddled and incoherent, as were the amendments from his party. I am surprised that the Member keeps flogging that particular dead horse. Moreover, he alleged that the DUP and Sinn Féin went into a darkened room to make the decision. He knows that the matter was debated in the Executive on 13 March 2008, and came to the House as quickly as possible. Many of the points that Mr Beggs made can, therefore, be dealt with quickly.
Dr Farry went over old ground. I am sorry that he does not accept that we have had a detailed debate on the matter, and I dispute that. I have been present in the House for an entire day of scrutiny of the Bill. I have not yet had the privilege of that experience with the Environment Committee, but I am sure that that is something to which I can look forward.
This process is not the end of the review of public administration as far as local government is concerned — it is an ongoing process, which will be continually reviewed. Brian Wilson said that this issue may have to be re-examined within 10 years. The workings of local government will be continually under scrutiny — the Executive should do that. That examination will be ongoing, instead of waiting for some 35 years to reform local government, which is what happened heretofore.
Points were raised about Fermanagh and Omagh, and how never the twain shall meet. That is despite the fact that Fermanagh and Omagh are together in housing, policing, education and health. I cannot see what the difficulties are in that respect. There were also some philosophically grand phrases about the need to allow communities to emerge naturally. That type of subjective nonsense does not help the debate, and I am surprised at Members for coming out with that.
In Government, we must deal with realities. I do not have the luxury of fantasy local government, unlike Brian Wilson or Dr Farry. We are trying to put in place a real, effective, deliverable, efficient local government structure. I believe that that will be achieved through the model that is being considered.
Brian Wilson then regaled Members with tales of Armageddon and how we could be seeing the end of local democracy as we know it.
Mr Weir: It is notable that the Green Party Member has given indications on two occasions that the death of local democracy is near. If local democracy is about to die, will the Green Party boycott the elections? The Member has been challenged on that, and he seems reluctant to answer.
The Minister of the Environment: We will wait with bated breath to see whether the Green Party stands in the local government elections of 2011. I am sure that the electorate of North Down will be greatly worried about that. For clarity, I can inform Brian Wilson that I do not hold responsibility for health matters. He delivered a wide-ranging speech on health matters, and if he wishes to raise such issues in respect of the review of public administration, he should raise them with the appropriate Minister.
I wonder whether the Member read anything of the current local government review of public administration. He registered absolutely no recognition of the links that we are trying to develop through community planning. Is it the position of the Green Party in Northern Ireland that health and education should be provided by local government? That is an entirely different matter, and is something that no one else in this House has suggested.
Brian Wilson then provided his own unique understanding of redundancies — that they are significant, but not in respect of efficiencies. I find it bizarre to take lectures on turnout from the Member for North Down, when his voter turnout is not the same as some of which we in the west are very proud.
The functions that will transfer to local government currently account for an annual expenditure of £116 million, and involve around 1,070 staff. That represents a 25% increase in the budget of local government and an increase of almost 12% in respect of its staff complement. This is the start of a process — it is my intention that a review of the family of local government functions will be conducted 12 months after the new councils become operational, and periodically thereafter.
The Member is correct about one issue: the rationalisation of the devolved institutions will have a knock-on impact on local government. Mr Weir pointed out that the Local Government (Boundaries) Bill is just part of the process. Further Bills will be introduced in relation to the review of public administration. I have already indicated, as has been acknowledged by Mr Ford, that those will be considered by the Environment Committee. Accelerated passage was not my first choice. All other parts of local government reform will be subject to the normal procedure.
Mr Ford ended the debate by reiterating his points about accelerated passage. The good work that has been done on the Taxis Bill has come back to haunt me on many occasions throughout this debate, but I must say that that was a good job, well done.
One of the benefits of local government reform is that it will raise awareness of local government, and thereby help to address the apathy among the public, which David Ford mentioned, and people’s lack of knowledge about the debate on whether to have seven, 11 or 15 councils. I hope that these debates, and the debates to come, will help us to engage those apathetic voters who could not care less about local government.
Finally, I wish to make one correction to David Ford’s speech. He said that the policing structures do not have to be coterminous with local government structures. One of the recommendations of the Patten Report was that the police units should be coterminous with local government boundaries. I have, therefore, written to the Policing Board to alert it to the findings of the Executive and to see what it intends to do on that issue.
Subject to the passing of the Bill, I look forward to bringing to the House the subordinate legislation that will give effect to the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner’s recommendations. I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Local Government (Boundaries) Bill [NIA 14/07] do now pass.
Insolvency (Disqualification From Office: General) Order (Northern Ireland) 2008
The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Mr Dodds): I beg to move
That the Insolvency (Disqualification from Office: General) Order (Northern Ireland) 2008 be affirmed.
Provisions exist in a number of pieces of Northern Ireland legislation that disqualify a person from holding certain offices and positions should he or she become bankrupt. Following the passing of the Enterprise Act 2002, a review of legislative provisions of that type that applied in Great Britain resulted in the making of The Enterprise Act 2002 (Disqualification from Office: General) Order 2006. The aim of the review was to reduce the stigma of bankruptcy by removing unnecessary or outdated restrictions resulting from bankruptcy, while ensuring that restrictions were in place for those found to be culpable and made subject to a bankruptcy restrictions order.
The equivalent of the Enterprise Act 2002 in Northern Ireland is The Insolvency (Northern Ireland) Order 2005, which amended the main piece of primary insolvency legislation, namely The Insolvency (Northern Ireland) Order 1989, and made it possible for my Department to apply to the High Court for a bankruptcy restrictions order.
A bankruptcy restrictions order would be applied for — or an undertaking accepted — in cases where evidence had emerged following investigation that a bankrupt had been irresponsible, reckless or otherwise culpable. A bankruptcy restrictions order imposes a number of insolvency-based restrictions on a bankrupt for a period of between two to 15 years. It continues in force after a bankrupt is discharged from bankruptcy. As an alternative, the Department can accept a bankruptcy restrictions undertaking from the same bankrupt, which will have the same legal effect. The 2005 Order also reduced the period after which most bankrupts are discharged from bankruptcy from three years to one year.
My Department invited other Departments to review existing bankruptcy disqualification provisions and legislation that were under their policy control. As a result of the review, four Departments identified bankruptcy provisions that they wished to have amended. The outcome has been that it has been possible in five cases to do away with bankruptcy as grounds for disqualification and substitute that the individual would be subject to a bankruptcy restrictions order. In the remaining seven cases, it was decided to retain the bankruptcy disqualification, while extending the disqualification to those subject to a bankruptcy restrictions order. In general, that was because the office or position could involve duties of a fiduciary nature.
The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Mr P Maskey): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. On 9 October 2007, the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment considered proposals to amend disqualification provisions, which are contained in various pieces of legislation, that apply if an office holder becomes bankrupt. The Committee was content with the proposals, and, as the Minister outlined, five such provisions were amended. As a consequence, bankruptcy will no longer result in disqualification, and the office holder will be disqualified only if he or she becomes subject to a bankruptcy restriction order. Another seven provisions were amended, with the effect that bankruptcy, or being subject to a bankruptcy restrictions order, will result in disqualification.
After consideration of the Order’s proposals at the SL1 Stage on 9 October 2007, the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment subsequently considered the Order on 17 April 2008. The Committee, therefore, recommends that the Assembly affirm the Order. Go raibh maith agat.
The Deputy Speaker: Does the Minister wish to make any further comment?
The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment: No, thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Insolvency (Disqualification from Office: General) Order (Northern Ireland) 2008 be affirmed.
Draft General Register Office (Fees) Order (Northern Ireland) 2008
The Minister of Finance and Personnel (Mr P Robinson): I beg to move
That the Draft General Register Office (Fees) Order (Northern Ireland) 2008 be approved.
The Order is intended to provide for revised certificate and change-of-name fees that are charged by the General Register Office (GRO), and it includes a proposed date for the commencement of those new fees. The previous fees Order was made in 2005, and this Order proposes new fees to reflect the increases since then in the costs of providing those public services.
Under the current law, fees are not charged for the statutory requirement of registering births and deaths, or for providing one copy of a birth entry at the time of registration. There is no intention to change those statutory provisions. Fees are chargeable, however, for providing other certificates and for further certified copies of registration events, including, where necessary, searching indexes and retrieving records. There are also fees for recording a change of name and for marriage, including the giving of notice and the solemnisation of marriage. Under Government accounting rules, the cost of such chargeable services is recovered by means of a fees Order, as provided for in the relevant legislation. It is in that context that this Order comes before the Assembly.
The General Register Office and district registrars’ offices produce more than 175,000 certified copies of vital events each year, for which fees are chargeable. The majority of records are held in bound registers, and the certificate process requires significant administrative input, involving receiving moneys, searching indexes, retrieving entries, producing copies on security paper, necessary checking, certification, and final dispatch.
General Register Office efficiency in those areas has increased, and it is expected to increase further with the implementation of plans to digitise the register entries, thereby creating a fully computerised system. By introducing new services, the General Register Office has improved significantly the options for delivering registration services. Certificates can be ordered from anywhere in the world, 24 hours a day, seven days a week over the Internet or through a programmed 24-hour telephone answering service. Customers can also pay by credit card.
In recognition of those and other developments, for the fourth time, the General Register Office was awarded Charter Mark status in 2007. Customer satisfaction surveys indicate that the office has achieved a satisfaction rate of 98% — I am sure that the Assembly would like the same percentage — and the office has received unsolicited letters praising the service.
To develop the service still further, we will introduce legislative measures to provide greater choice and more flexibility in the registration of vital events and in the places in which they may be registered. Those measures will also provide additional types of certificates to meet public demand and greater access to historic civil registration records to facilitate genealogical enquiries.
As I indicated, the General Register Office is required to cover the cost of chargeable services, including those that are provided by the local register offices that are based in each district council. The previous fees Order was introduced in 2005, and increases are now necessary for some services. The cost of each fee has been calculated individually using work study analysis and takes into account the full range of costs that are involved, including staffing, ancillary services and other costs such as rent and maintenance. A similar cost-recovery system operates in Scotland and in England and Wales.
Passage of the draft Order will ensure that, as has been the case here and in Great Britain, the cost of providing certain services and producing chargeable certificates is borne by the parties that require such certificates and not by the public purse, as would otherwise be the case. However, at the new levels, fees in Northern Ireland for certificates that are issued from the General Register Office are commensurate with those for certificates that are issued centrally by the GRO in England and Wales and from all offices in Scotland. The draft Order has been considered by the Committee for Finance and Personnel, and no objections to it have been raised. I commend the draft Order to the Assembly.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel (Mr McLaughlin): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. As the Minister of Finance and Personnel explained, the draft Order sets the fees to recover the costs of the various services that are connected with the registration of births, deaths, marriages and civil partnerships.
On 13 February 2008, the Committee for Finance and Personnel considered the proposals that are contained in the statutory rule and sought further information on a range of issues, including details of the proposed changes in fees, clarification on whether there was an equality issue arising from the proposal to charge for the registration of civil partnerships while apparently not having a charge for registering a marriage, and clarification on whether there was a need for a regulatory impact assessment, given that the increased fees may have an impact on charitable and voluntary bodies that are involved in associated activity, such as genealogical research.
The Committee raised those issues formally with the Department, and it received a substantive written reply on 20 February 2008, which provided the necessary clarification, including a detailed list of proposed changes and fees, confirmation that registration fees are in place for civil partnerships and marriages, and that both are calculated on the basis of the time that is spent by the registrar on each event. Therefore, the Department advises that no equality issues arise.
Further confirmation was also provided that a regulatory impact assessment was not required, as the fees are calculated on the basis of the actual cost of providing the service. The Department also pointed out that the main users of the services are individuals and businesses rather than charities and voluntary organisations. Having received that clarification, the Committee agreed unanimously on 16 April 2008 to support the Department in seeking the Assembly’s endorsement of the provisions of the draft Order. Therefore, I support the motion.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Does the Minister wish to make any further comment?
The Minister of Finance and Personnel: I thank the Chairperson and the Committee for their work on, and co-operation with, the draft Order, and I urge Members to support it. If they do so, it will come into operation on 1 June 2008.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Draft General Register Office (Fees) Order (Northern Ireland) 2008 be approved.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. As Question Time commences at 2.30 pm, I suggest that the House takes its ease until that time.
Office Of The First Minister And Deputy First Minister
North Belfast: Conflict Resolution
1. Ms Ní Chuilín asked the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to detail its plans for a task force to tackle interface and conflict resolution work in the North Belfast constituency. (AQO 3435/08)
The First Minister (Rev Dr Ian Paisley): The future that we look forward to will be one without barriers, in which society is characterised by respect, tolerance and interdependence, while sectarianism and racism are consigned to the past. In that context, significant progress has been made in the past three years to improve relationships. The Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) wishes to ensure that those improved relationships in the community continue.
In his closing statement in the 22 April Adjournment debate on the interfaces in North Belfast, the junior Minister Mr Donaldson confirmed that the Member’s proposal of creating a task force for the North Belfast constituency would be considered. OFMDFM will liaise with the Minister for Social Development and the north Belfast community action unit on the issue. In the meantime, our Department and the community action unit continue to engage with communities on an interdepartmental basis to address the important interface and conflict-resolution issues that exist in North Belfast.
Over the past few years, the community action unit has facilitated a north Belfast interface working group, comprising representatives from statutory agencies and community groups, to develop an action plan for interfaces in North Belfast. The action plan contains 10 key recommendations for addressing interface issues. The unit continues to work with the interface working group, and is facilitating the group in developing an application to the International Fund for Ireland to help take forward the key recommendations in the action plan.
OFMDFM also recognises the invaluable work that communities have undertaken to build sustainable relationships that have been the foundation for the peaceful summers of recent years. In recognition of that, I can confirm that funding of up to £100,000 will again be made available in the current financial year to provide a diversionary programme for young people at risk of becoming involved in interface violence over the summer months, when community tensions can increase.
Ms Ní Chuilín: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the First Minister for his response. I also wish to acknowledge the ongoing work of the interface and conflict resolution groups, which continue to be a massive source of inspiration to us all.
The First Minister said that the establishment of a task force was being considered by OFMDFM. What is the timescale, if any, for that? OFMDFM should ensure that the community and voluntary sector are involved in any such task force. The First Minister mentioned the north Belfast community action unit — it should be one of many statutory and voluntary bodies involved in the task force. Go raibh maith agat.
The First Minister: The development of detailed proposals for a programme of cohesion and integration for a shared and better future, which is a part of the Programme for Government, is at an advanced stage.
Our officials briefed the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister on the current stage of development of the programme for cohesion and integration on 9 April 2008. That programme will tackle issues that affect the established communities and new arrivals. It will build on some of the excellent work that has already been done — particularly by district councils and community organisations — to address the challenges faced by local communities. Action to tackle sectarianism, racism and intolerance will be at the core of the programme’s proposals.
I pay tribute to the north Belfast community action unit, which was established in 2002 to tackle the problems facing the communities in north Belfast. I call on all areas that face, and must remedy, such matters to work with us with great energy to resolve them.
Mr McCausland: Last week, comments were made about the removal of peace walls in North Belfast, and there has been some concern about that. Does the First Minister agree that peace walls can only be removed with the consent of local communities when they feel comfortable about that and when their security and safety can be ensured?
The First Minister: During the US-NI investment conference last week, Mayor Bloomberg called for the removal of peace walls if Northern Ireland is to become a leading hub for global investment. Although I welcomed his remarks, any plans to remove peace walls must be primarily community-driven. The people must act. Outsiders pulling down walls will accomplish nothing. However, when those living on either side of the wall agree to take it down, we will have won a great victory. I look forward to that victory being sealed over and over again in the areas where there has been great trouble in the past.
Mr Cobain: Will the First Minister give greater weight to removing social deprivation and child poverty in North Belfast than that which he intends to give to interface and conflict-resolution issues? Will he set up an inquiry into the impact of water charges on the poorest sections of the community in North Belfast?
The First Minister: I assure the Member that all those matters will be considered, and anything that goes against the well-being of the community must be tackled. We cannot do that in a piecemeal fashion; we must do it in the light of the fact that there has been serious trouble in many areas in our Province, and we must end such trouble. The condition must be diagnosed, and the prescribed remedy must be applied, so that we can win through at the end. That will not be an easy job, but it must be done, and it can be done when we all unite to ensure that it is done.
Mr A Maginness: I thank the First Minister for his comprehensive and detailed response to the question. I congratulate him on his work — symbolically represented by his visit to the site of the Battle of the Boyne with Mr Bertie Ahern, the former Taoiseach — in tearing down the historic wall of division between North and South.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. The title of this section of today’s business is ‘Oral Answers to Questions’, Mr Maginness. I am looking for a question. Will you ask a question?
Mr A Maginness: I have a very important question. Will the First Minister make a further contribution to bringing down the historic walls of division that infect and divide the people in North Belfast? Will he go one step further and implement a programme to take down those walls?
The First Minister: I want to do everything that I can to ease the situation. I know North Belfast very well, having lived on the perimeter of that part of our great city. I belonged to the famous Dock ward, which the Member will know.
Mr Storey: The Doc in the Dock ward.
The First Minister: I did not say “the Doc”. However, having been elected in that ward four times, I can help the Member if he, too, is keen to go there. [Laughter.]
I will do everything possible to help. I am well known in the areas concerned and have talked to people there. Many of my friends, and members of my Church, come from that area. We should use our influence to help those communities and, indeed, for the betterment of the entire city.
The Deputy Speaker: I have given Members some latitude until now. However, this is Question Time — the word “question” is singular. Members will be allowed only one question under each section; not a multitude of questions.
Northern Ireland Bureau in Washington
2. Mr Hilditch asked the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to detail the new role of the New York person associated with the Northern Ireland Bureau in Washington. (AQO 3383/08)
The First Minister: The Northern Ireland Bureau plays a vital role in supporting the work of the Executive, and the Assembly, in all matters that have a United States dimension. The bureau’s purpose is to promote Northern Ireland as a confident, outward-facing region, and to develop a mutually beneficial relationship with the United States. The bureau will continue to pursue high-level political communications and build relationships with key federal and state institutions.
The Programme for Government included provision to extend the bureau’s remit to New York. The importance of strengthening relationships with key political figures and business executives in New York cannot be overestimated. The appointment of an additional staff member, based in New York, will allow the bureau to widen its outreach programme among key groups. The New York-based officer brings with her a wealth of contacts: in the financial services sector; in the Mayor’s office; and in Irish-American business circles, including the influential American Ireland Fund, which has its headquarters in the city.
The post holder has already been responsible for the organisation of two high-profile visits to New York — one by me and the deputy First Minister in December 2007, and my return visit in April 2008. She has also played a key role in successfully bringing about the New York pension fund’s recent announcement that it will invest many millions of dollars in projects in Northern Ireland through the Emerald Fund.
Over the next two years, the post holder will be responsible for promoting a positive image of Northern Ireland in the New York consular area, which includes Pennsylvania and the New England states. Her duties will include assisting Invest Northern Ireland in follow-up work with those companies and organisations based in the city that attended last week’s highly successful investment conference. She will also have responsibility for supporting the Executive in all their activities in the New York area.
In particular, she will work with the New York State Office of the State Comptroller and the New York City Office of the Comptroller, both of which were represented at the highest level at last week’s conference, to seek further opportunities for private investment in Northern Ireland. She will also take responsibility for arranging official visits by Executive Ministers. Other duties will include the development of mutually beneficial links with the Irish Consulate General and the New York media, the arts, Irish America and wider business communities.
Mr Hilditch: I thank the First Minister for his comprehensive answer. Could he outline further what future work will be undertaken in that role?
The First Minister: On a day-to-day basis, the post holder will continue to develop high-level contracts and contacts with senior executive officers in corporate America. The post holder is also responsible for all activities in the New York metropolitan area, and the New York consular district, which includes Pennsylvania, New York state and New England. That will enhance the positive image of Northern Ireland, in line with the Programme for Government, and help to develop good international relations. When she has done all that, she will deserve a holiday. [Laughter.]
Mr McElduff: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Tá ceist agam don Chéad-Aire.
Can the First Minister tell the House when the proposed international strategy will be completed?
The First Minister: The international strategy will set in context the international roles and responsibilities of the Executive. It will identify the Executive’s international strategic aims for the period of the Programme for Government, and will detail the international priorities and activities in which the Executive plans to engage. It is planned that the Executive will endorse the strategy by the end of the summer.
I cannot answer the first part of the Member’s question, for I am neither a prophet nor an interpreter.
Mr Elliott: Bearing in mind what the First Minister has said, will he investigate the possibility of creating roles for special Northern Ireland trade commissioners, to lobby key business figures in growing world-beating super economies, such as India, China, Russia and Brazil, with a view to building an inward investment strategy?
The First Minister: I am glad to tell the honourable Member that that has already happened in respect of India. There has been positive support from my friend the Minister with responsibility for that portfolio, who has done well and has already had success in India.
I would like to see Northern Ireland securing jobs from China, Japan and from the whole world. Let them all come to Northern Ireland and enjoy this Province.
OFMDFM: Staff with Disabilities
3. Mr Shannon asked the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to detail the number of its staff who have a disability. (AQO 3360/08)
The First Minister: The Northern Ireland Civil Service continues to work with people and their representatives to identify proactive measures that will encourage those who have disabilities to consider a career in the Northern Ireland Civil Service, and, when they have been appointed, to remove any barriers to their retention and progression in the service. On 1 April 2008, 12 members of staff had formally recorded a disability. That represents just under 3% of staff in the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister.
Regardless of whether staff declare formally that they have a disability, for monitoring purposes, Departments will make reasonable adjustments across the range of employment practices including recruitment, selection, training and development, and working arrangements, to ensure that, compared with non-disabled persons, people with disabilities are not disadvantaged.
Mr Shannon: I thank the First Minister for his positive response. Does he agree that other Departments should take the same actions as OFMDFM to ensure that people with a disability have the same opportunities as able-bodied applicants? People with a disability must know, and be assured, that they can become part of the workforce — not just in OFMDFM but in all Departments.
The First Minister: I do not think that there is any difference between what happens in my and my deputy’s Department and the other Departments. The rules are the same for all, and it is for Government to encourage people to apply and to ensure there is fair play on employment.
Mr McNarry: Will the First Minister indicate the current state of disabled access to public buildings used by Government Departments? Specifically, will he comment on access for people with a disability to areas that the Assembly is responsible for — namely how they can gain access to Parliament Buildings?
The First Minister: When people with a disability are employed by the Northern Ireland Civil Service, that organisation makes reasonable adjustments to help them carry out their jobs to the best of their abilities. The responsibility for that matter rests, not only with my Department, but with the whole Executive.
If any Member has information that people with a disability are not receiving a fair deal as regards employment they should take up those cases. If the honourable gentleman knows of any particular instances, I would be happy to take up those cases.
Mr P Ramsey: Will the First Minister explain what actions his Department is taking to ensure that the percentage of people with disabilities working in Government Departments reflects the percentage of people as a whole with disabilities? Furthermore, will he ensure that all Departments are vigorously progressive on this matter?
The First Minister: Care is taken during the recruitment process to ensure that job specifications and advertisements do not require, or imply, that unnecessary physical requirements are needed. When applicants indicate that they have a disability, OFMDFM liaises with them and their representatives to put reasonable adjustments in place to enable them to compete in the recruitment process. Those adjustments are always made according to an individual’s specific requirements and may include test papers being made available in larger print, extra time being allotted for the test or interview or a sign language interpreter being made available during interviews.
European Task Force for NI
4. Mr Hamilton asked the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to outline at what level the European task force will continue to operate. (AQO 3378/08)
The First Minister: The European Commission has adopted the report from the task force for Northern Ireland. Additionally, it has signalled its commitment at the very highest level to continue to work with us to reap the maximum benefit — both operationally and financially — from the European Union. The European Commission has also confirmed that the task force will remain active to help follow up on the many leads set out in the report. Those include: how to improve the participation of our universities, research bodies and our private sector in the seventh framework programme; drawing down further support from the trans-European network programme for infrastructure improvement and the identification of European policy initiatives and programmes that could assist in modernising our economy.
Mr Hamilton: On this, the occasion of the First Minister’s final Question Time, I praise Dr Paisley for his efforts in the past year to promote Northern Ireland at every opportunity, and I congratulate him on his many successes — including the establishment of the EU task force. In that respect, he is leaving his successor a firm foundation on which to build. Will he outline some of the major investments that he has overseen during his year in office?
The First Minister: I thank my friend for his kind remarks. I will not be standing here to answer questions for much longer, but I will be about, listening, and, no doubt, I will make my own contributions in my own way.
We sought to showcase Northern Ireland in a positive light on as many occasions as possible, and I did so during my visits to Brussels, Washington, New York, Edinburgh and London. It is a pleasure to see Northern Ireland move forward in a more confident manner — looking to the future and aiming for greater ability, stability and economic prosperity. By early 2008, the Executive had agreed a Programme for Government — despite the fact that many people thought that it could not be done.
I read in a newspaper today that some individuals say that we have only shame to offer our people. I want to nail strongly that lie today: we have seen many successes, and we will see even bigger successes in the future.
Local Ministers have been involved in decision-making on local issues, and they have contributed to developing an economy that can compete on the global stage and that can ensure that we seize the opportunity to deliver a better future for all. Some people said that the investment conference would not work. A certain gentleman, who thinks that he knows everything, told me that the American economy was about to collapse. He said that there would be no hope for us if that happened. Our ancestors lived in an era in which there was no United States of America, and they still lived and took their porridge.
I remind Members that valuable investments have been committed in the past weeks, especially during the investment conference, which delivered £63 million from US companies to create almost 1,100 new jobs over the next three years, and a £70 million investment from Bombardier to safeguard another 1,100 jobs. There were other equally important announcements last week, such as the opening of the new office for Bloomberg in Belfast and a £7 million investment by Independent News and Media in its plant in Newry.
Members should not forget the decision, in principle, to establish an office of a commissioner for older people; the introduction of legislation to create a commission for victims and survivors, so that they can finally address the needs and concerns of those groups; and legislation aimed at improving the lives of people with disabilities.
Over the course of 25 meetings, the Executive have considered 200 papers, reviewing the previous Administration’s decisions in key policy areas to ensure that they match the Executive’s key priorities.
Since May 2007, 14 Bills have been introduced, and a further nine are scheduled for introduction before the summer recess — I could go on. All this has been achieved from a standing start and in spite of everything that our opponents cast at us and their continual chorus that we are not doing enough and that we are dithering — some of them are not only dithering, they are on the ground, unable to reach decisions. The contrary view to theirs — which I believe is the view of the vast majority of the people in Northern Ireland, whether they are unionists or nationalists — is that we have made a solid start and have built the foundations, and we can now go on to build the building that will be a credit to this part of the world and this part of Ireland.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Agriculture And Rural Development
1. Mr McCarthy asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to outline the procedures she will put in place to prevent future cases of bluetongue. (AQO 3427/08)
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development (Ms Gildernew): Bluetongue virus is spread by infected midges, so it is very difficult to control, but I will continue to do all that I can to minimise the risk of further cases. There are two ways that the bluetongue virus could be introduced here: from imported animals that have been infected with bluetongue prior to importation, or by wind-borne spread of infected midges.
The biggest immediate threat to our herds and flocks is from imported cattle and sheep. I have successfully lobbied the European Commission to have bluetongue movement controls strengthened. All the controls that are available to us have been put in place. Those include a derogation that we successfully applied for to allow us to prevent the import of animals over 90 days old, unless they meet very strict conditions. As a result of that, I have been able to replace the suspension of certain imports, which I introduced on 1 March with the agreement of the Executive. My action has been justified by the tightening of the movement controls by the European Commission.
Overall, the new measures provide us with protection that is at least equivalent to that provided by the former suspension of certain imports. Also, a rigorous post-import testing regime has been put in place for any cattle and sheep imported here for breeding and production. Such animals are tested twice before they are allowed to move, and importers must also apply strict housing conditions to the imported animals, to reduce any disease risk to other animals. The only exception to that is in respect of animals from the South, as it has a disease-free status similar to ours.
My veterinary staff continue to assess the disease-risk situation. The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) staff are also working closely with industry stakeholders on bluetongue prevention strategies, and they do not consider that any other measures are necessary at this time. I continue to urge farmers and livestock dealers to think very carefully before importing any animals that may have been exposed to bluetongue.
Mr McCarthy: I thank the Minister for her answer, and I welcome her acknowledgement of the very serious threat that the bluetongue virus presents to the farming industry, as well as the support that she has provided at every level in order to eradicate the scourge. I know that she has no power over the way that the wind blows, particularly when it is coming from Scotland, but when will she act to ensure that adequate supplies of vaccine are placed with manufacturers, and how will she ensure that the vaccine is made available to those who need it?
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: I want everyone to be clear about when vaccination can take place. Under EU rules, vaccination against bluetongue is only allowed within a protection zone; that means that we cannot vaccinate until the disease is present. However, that said, I am considering a vaccination strategy as part of our plan to tackle the disease, should it arrive here. I am considering all the options that are open to us to ensure that we are prepared. As part of that planning process, a without-prejudice application for co-funding of a vaccination programme has been submitted to the Commission for consideration. If I conclude that it is necessary to order vaccine, I will do so.
I will be pleased to update the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development on the details of our deliberations and proposals about this issue to date, and I will be seeking its input to this major policy area. I welcome the realisation that I cannot control everything.
Mr McCarthy: You do your best.
Dr W McCrea: In a recent press release, the Minister described the new controls that the European Commission recommended to limit the spread of bluetongue to our farms. Will those measures go far enough to prevent any such spread? Given the warmer weather and the high prevalence of midges, what assurances can the Minister give to the House that her Department is in a position to eradicate any further outbreaks immediately upon detection? Although it is true that the vaccinations cannot be administered until particular criteria are established, will the Minister tell us whether the vaccine has been ordered in the case of an emergency?
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: As I said, I am considering those issues. I will attend the Committee meeting tomorrow, at which I hope to be able to give more detail.
The European Commission has implemented several legislative amendments, which help to strengthen our controls. Furthermore, we have been granted a derogation to apply more stringent import conditions on animals that are over 90 days old. Six months ago we probably would never have conceived that we would be able to amend regulation 1266/2007 to that extent. However, because of emerging scientific evidence from the north Antrim case, we have been able to move the Commission to amend the regulations.
We punched above our weight on that issue, and we provided the leadership necessary to protect the industry. By and large, the industry welcomed the steps that have been taken so far.
Mr Burns: Will the Minister tell us what levels of compensation farmers may receive if any flocks or herds are required to be put down this summer because of bluetongue?
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: When bluetongue is detected in imported animals that have been affected by, or exposed to, infection prior to arriving here, compensation is not paid if those animals are culled. In cases in which the Department culls animals that are infected with the disease, but have not been imported, compensation can be paid at half the value of the animal immediately before it became infected. In other cases, compensation is paid at the value of the animal immediately before it was slaughtered.
In the north Antrim case, the animals in question were culled, as a precautionary measure, before the full test results were received and prior to the epidemiological investigation being completed. That is normal procedure to prevent the introduction and spread of disease to an area that has been free from disease. The case is further complicated by the need to consider fully the emerging scientific evidence about the spread of the disease.
We had little power to stop imports, and we had to use all possible measures to encourage farmers and livestock dealers not to import cattle. The whole issue about compensation is linked to that.
We did what we had to do to protect the industry from the disease. Had we not acted when we did in February, the economic consequences of importing bluetongue would be huge.
Communication with the Fishing Industry
2. Mr Hamilton asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development how she proposes to improve her Department’s communication with the fishing industry.
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: My Department already enjoys good lines of communication with the fishing industry. There is regular contact about the development of policy and legislation, and, at quayside, through the work of the Sea Fisheries Inspectorate.
There is always room for improvement, and we can do more to develop a more collaborative relationship between the industry and fisheries scientists in order to achieve a shared, common purpose to ensure that the precious and finite fish stocks of our shores are exploited in a sustainable manner.
On 28 April 2008, I announced that I was setting up a fisheries forum to facilitate dialogue between all key stakeholders in the industry — including in the Department — to work together to address the economic difficulties faced by the industry. I want that forum to arrive at a consensus about the long-term strategic approach that is needed to achieve a profitable and sustainable future.
I know that it will not be a straightforward process. There is no easy way out of the current difficulties that the fishing industry faces. However, we must not miss the opportunity to establish a framework that enables the industry — with support from the European fisheries fund — to adapt, and to address effectively, the problems that prevented it from achieving a stable and long-term profitable future.
Mr Hamilton: One of the most common complaints that I hear from the fishing industry concerns poor communication from the Department. That has been borne out by answers that the Minister has given me. Since taking office, she has met representatives from the farming industry over five times more than she has met those from the fishing industry. That is despite the fact that the fishing industry is going through a crisis.
What does the Minister propose to do to improve lines of communication, particularly as she seeks to forge a long-term strategy, which we all support? What impact will a lack of participation in the forum have —
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. At the beginning of Question Time, you were present when I warned that I would accept only one question from each Member. You managed to ask three. I will accept only one question —
Mr Hamilton: I am sure that I was not the only Member to do that, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Mr Deputy Speaker: The rule will be applied from now on. The asking of multiple questions prevents Members further down the list from getting their opportunity to ask their questions, and that includes Members from your own party. I insist that you ask only one question.
Mr Hamilton: At least I got two in. [Laughter.]
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: The establishment of a fisheries forum was valuable in helping the Department to communicate effectively with the fishing industry. All the fisheries stakeholders will be included on the new forum. I want to see representatives from the main fishermen’s organisations, processors, the inshore fisheries sector, scientists, representatives from environmental organisations and my officials all working better together. This week, my officials will write to stakeholders to request their participation.
The farming industry is much more than five times larger than the fishing industry, and huge pressures exist in the farming industry, particularly in the pig sector. The fishing industry has received far more time and attention than its size merits. That shows my commitment to the fishing industry, and my commitment to ensuring a sustainable future for it.
Mr P J Bradley: The Minister referred to the recent announcement that a forum has been set up to discuss the way forward for the fishing industry. She also referred to that in the answer to Mr Hamilton’s question.
During the past 12 months, the Minister held a series of meetings with the main industry stakeholders. What other groups or individuals does the Minister hope to meet that could be better informed than the Anglo-North Irish Fish Producers’ Organisation, the Northern Ireland Fish Producers’ Organisation, the Northern Ireland Trawlermen’s Trading Company, or Northern Ireland Seafood?
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: No other organisations could give better intelligence on the state of the fishing industry. The organisations that the Member named will be vital components of the fisheries forum. The other bodies that I mentioned will complement that process, but it is fishermen’s organisations to which the Department will listen, and has been listening all along.
Farmed Animals: Welfare
3. Mr McNarry asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to detail the action she is taking to guarantee adherence to the regulations on the welfare of farmed animals. (AQO 3376/08)
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: DARD has an important and active role to play in developing national and EU animal welfare legislation, and in educating livestock keepers in standards of animal welfare. Owners and keepers of farm animals are required to comply fully with EU and domestic legislation, which stipulates minimum standards for keeping farm animals.
The legislation contains specific requirements about record keeping, freedom of movement, buildings, equipment and feeding and watering of animals. My Department’s Veterinary Service carries out farm-animal welfare inspections against those standards. Against legal requirements, farm animals may be assessed on farms, in markets, in slaughterhouses and during transport. Enforcement is used where appropriate.
The Department produces codes of recommendations for the welfare of livestock. Those provide advice and guidance for the upkeep of farm animals and details of relevant legislation. Livestock farmers and employers are required by law to ensure that all those who attend to livestock are familiar with, and have access to, the relevant codes. My Department’s Veterinary Service also investigates welfare complaints from members of the public, and carries out targeted farm inspections if welfare issues are identified by a veterinary officer working in an abattoir.
Moreover, in order to obtain a single farm payment, a farmer must meet certain animal welfare-related cross-compliant statutory management requirements. Cross-compliance and inspections are, therefore, carried out on approximately 400 farms — 1% of all farm businesses — each year. Those inspections are spot checks to verify that the industry complies with existing standards and, in line with Commission regulations, individual farmers receive minimal notice of such inspections.
The Department regularly revisits farms with a history of welfare violations to ensure that corrective action has been taken and that better standards are being maintained.
Mr McNarry: I thank the Minister for her answer, but does she agree that penalties for those who are found to be in breach of the regulations are not severe enough? If she agrees, what plans has she made to improve that situation?
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: The Department can do only what it has the power to do. We cannot —
Mr McNarry: That is not what I asked.
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: We do not allow people to keep animals, and a farmer does not need a licence to keep farm animals. We have no power of seizure, even in the case of a ban. We must take such new cases to court — and have done so on several occasions — and that is where the penalties are imposed. The power to seize animals, and the specifics of the Member’s question, will be considered fully in any review of animal-welfare legislation in the North.
Mr Boylan: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. What plans does the Minister have to improve protection for non-farm species of animals?
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: Under the Welfare of Animals Act 1972, it is an offence to cause unnecessary suffering to any animal. Unlike in Britain where, until recently, animal welfare legislation dated back to 1911, legislation in the North had already been updated and consolidated by the 1972 Act. However, I recognise that the legislation is now over 30 years old and, as such, there is a need to review it to ensure that it provides sufficient protection to all animals. I have, therefore, asked my officials to finalise a report that will summarise the outcome of the responses to a consultation on new proposals, after which I will decide what new legislation is required.
All-Ireland Food Exhibition
4. Mr P Maskey asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to confirm the number of Northern Ireland companies that attended the opening of the all-Ireland Food Exhibition in Belfast. (AQO 3411/08)
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: IFEX is an annual international food, drink, hospitality and retail exhibition for Ireland, which is held in the North every two years. The latest was the twenty-second IFEX event, which played host to a comprehensive range of Irish and international products and services across the food, drink, hospitality and retail industries.
Information that was supplied by the organisers of the IFEX exhibition confirms that 77 of the 145 exhibitors attending the show were companies based in the North of Ireland. In addition, some of the large food-service companies included in those figures had additional local company representatives and products on their stands at IFEX. I opened the exhibition and visited many of the stands, and I was impressed by the organisation of the event and the quality of the local produce and services on display. The exhibition reaffirmed my view that we have food products in this island that are the equal of — and, in many cases, superior to — competing products in the marketplace.
Mr P Maskey: Go raibh maith agat, LeasCheann Comhairle. What is the Minister doing to support the marketing and promotion of local products in the North?
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: Under current state-aid rules, Government funds cannot be used to fund a campaign promoting local produce. However, there are other support mechanisms. For example, my Department administers the regional food programme, which aims to promote quality regional food and increase its consumption in the islands of Ireland and Britain.
Under that programme, assistance is available to develop and expand profitable and sustainable markets by encouraging better co-operation and communication among all sectors of the food industry. The regional-food programme also complements the work that my Department and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) have been doing to implement the recommendations of the July 2004 ‘Fit for Market’ report of the food strategy group. The programme offers grant aid to producer groups in five key areas: regional fairs and exhibitions; information programmes; award ceremonies; seminars and workshops; and market intelligence and research.
One of the objectives of the programme is to assist the local agrifood industry to develop and expand profitable and sustainable markets. The programme was subsequently complemented by the formation of Food Promotion NI, an industry group representing the entire supply chain, which is now jointly introducing and funding a domestic marketing campaign to promote local food, named Good Food is in our Nature. Over the past 12 months, the regional-food programme has provided financial support to a range of successful events, such as the food pavilion at the Balmoral Show, which showcased the wide range of quality local produce that is available and brought the industry together in a common cause.
Mr Savage: Were any companies from outside Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland invited to attend IFEX, and how many did so?
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: I do not have the level of detail to answer that question. I will respond to the Member in writing.
Mr D Bradley: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Seo í mo cheist ar an Aire.
What is the Minister’s assessment of the food-marketing strategy in the Republic of Ireland, which identifies Ireland as the “food island”? What advantages would there be for the agricultural and food industry here if we were to join that strategy —
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. Which of those two questions do you wish the Minister to answer?
Mr D Bradley: I asked one question and one question only.
Mr Deputy Speaker: There were two questions.
Mr D Bradley: No, there were not; there were two parts to the one question — [Laughter.]
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: After all that, I cannot remember the question. Marketing the Food Island campaign in the 26 Counties has been successful, and I would like to see more of that marketing, promotion and campaign work extending to companies from the North so that we have a level playing field. I have raised the matter with ministerial colleagues, and I will continue to do so.
5. Mr Bresland asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to outline the percentage of funding awarded to Local Action Groups to deliver Axis 3 of the Rural Development programme that will be set aside for administration and technical support. (AQO 3351/08)
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. The contract to deliver axis 3 of the rural development programme will be with my Department and the seven council joint committees, not with local action groups. The regulation allows for up to 20% of the total expended budget to be used for administration purposes. It should be noted that any joint committee that uses less than that 20% for administration can transfer that underspend to project funding.
Mr Bresland: I thank the Minister for her response. Will she explain why her Department has adopted a so-called competitive process for selecting the social partners for the local action group? Will she further indicate how much she has spent in the seven local action groups to tackle low support and to appoint the groups’ members?
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. Which part of “one question” do Members not understand? I have stated that there should strictly be one question and one question only. Minister, please answer the first part of Mr Bresland’s question.
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: Animation funds have been made available to the local action groups in order to set them up, and I can give the Member details of that in writing. I hope that that answers his question.
Mr Elliott: I am almost afraid to get up, Mr Deputy Speaker — [Laughter.]
What impact will the reorganisation of local government in 2011 have on the current proposals for the local action groups? Will those groups continue to exist?
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. That is the second part of one question, according to Member Bradley. The Minister should answer the first part.
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: We will stick with the current proposals and model. That is because we can get the money out more quickly and because we will not have to go back to the drawing board. Given that my Department wishes to get the money out by the end of the summer, the local action groups that have been set up and constituted will go ahead. The competitiveness that the Member mentioned is about getting the right number of people with the right talents, skills and experience into the local action group in order to achieve the best outcome for the delivery of the rural development programme.
Mr Brolly: Go raibh míle maith agat. Why are the joint committees being asked to formulate themselves as bodies corporate? I hope that the Minister’s answer will help me to understand the question. [Laughter.]
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: Having taken legal advice on the issue, my Department has been advised that simply setting up joint committees does not afford the required legal protection. A joint committee would have no legal identity of its own, and all persons and councillors involved could find themselves the subject of legal action at some point. Unlike a simple joint committee, a body corporate has its own legal personality, and establishing the clusters as joint-committees body corporate would afford better protection in any actions that are taken by or against them. Therefore, if, for example, there were court proceedings for a judicial review, the body corporate, rather than its individual members, would be responsible for decisions, subject to that review. In addition, a body corporate has the power to enter into contracts, can acquire and hold any real or personal property for the purposes for which the corporation has been constituted, can dispose of such property, and has the right to employ staff for the performance of its functions. Those powers will provide joint committees as corporations with the element of flexibility and autonomy in programme delivery that they would not otherwise have.
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Member may be none the wiser but better informed.
Rural Childcare Provision
6. Mr McElduff asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development what action her Department is taking, in conjunction with other Departments, to address the barriers to accessing rural childcare provision in West Tyrone. (AQO 3403/08)
7. Mrs O’Neill asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to outline the recommendations in the rural childcare report; and the action she is taking to implement these recommendations. (AQO 3405/08)
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: With permission, I will take questions 6 and 7 together.
In July 2007, I established a rural childcare stakeholder group to research and discuss the difficulties associated with childcare in all rural areas, including West Tyrone, and to suggest potential solutions to identified problems. The group’s final report sets out the specific challenges facing rural areas as regards transport, accessing existing facilities, affordability of childcare and current providers’ ability to access further training courses.
The report also details the current level of childcare provision in rural areas and suggests that, with the exception of childminders, there is no acute lack of rural childcare provision, and that childcare providers such as crèches, playgroups and after-school clubs are operating in rural areas. However, the report highlights many difficulties, such as accessibility and affordability, which rural families face in being able to make use of the services.
The report’s most significant recommendation is that the development of a separate rural childcare strategy is not needed, but working partnerships should be formed to establish a rural childcare funding programme with the aim of addressing rural-specific needs and circumstances.
Other recommendations for my Department include developing and resourcing rural evidence-gathering so that future trends and comparisons can be made on rural circumstances; developing a rural White Paper; and ensuring adequate and monitored rural proofing of Government policies. Those issues will be addressed in work that the Department will be carrying out to prepare the way for a rural White Paper and the role of a rural champion, as set out in the Programme for Government and recently agreed by the Executive.
I will implement the report’s key recommendation for DARD by establishing a rural childcare programme as part of my Department’s anti-poverty and social inclusion work. My Department will also work with the stakeholder group to identify such areas within the programme and how best to work with other Departments. Funding opportunities for children and young people, including rural childcare, are already an important part of DARD’s new rural development programme, with around 5% being devoted to it.
Rural childcare is not an issue for my Department alone; the report raised issues for other Departments too, and in March, I shared the report with them via the ministerial subcommittee on children and young people. So far, reaction has been positive and welcoming, endorsing the need for joined-up working to address particular challenges facing rural areas. By adopting a joined-up approach, partners will complement each other’s actions, avoid duplicating effort, and deliver real benefits to rural childcare providers and parents.
Mr McElduff: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Urgent Executive business led, understandably, to the Minister’s scheduled visit to Eskra childcare centre some months ago being called off. I ask her to find space in her diary to visit the centre and listen at first hand to the views expressed by people in that community? I am trying to extract a commitment from the Minister.
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: Yes, I will be happy to check my diary to see when I can get to Eskra.
Mr McElduff: Thank you very much.
Mrs O’Neill: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the Minister’s commitment to implement the report’s recommendations. Will she confirm how DARD will finance future actions to support childcare?
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: DARD has received an allocation of £10 million to address anti-poverty and social exclusion in rural areas over the next CSR period. The money will provide the opportunity to work with others inside and outside Government to address a range of issues affecting rural areas, including rural childcare.
I have already said that I also expect funding to be available under the rural development programme, especially through the measures that are being taken forward by local action groups. For example, 57 childcare projects received funding under the rural development programme for 2001 to 2006. Around 54 of those projects were supported under Building Sustainable Prosperity (BSP), Peace II and Peace III, which amounted to just under £2 million. Therefore, quite a lot of investment has been put into rural childcare projects.
Mr K Robinson: I presume that financial costings associated with the recommendations have been undertaken. If so, what role will those play in any future implementation?
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: I have already outlined what can be done as regards the £10 million to address social exclusion and anti-poverty and the rural development programme. The rural childcare stakeholders report’s recommendations concerned what my Department could do, so this is about looking at other Departments, where DARD fits in, and avoiding duplication so that the best level of service possible is provided to rural dwellers.
Mr McGlone: Excuse me, Mr Deputy Speaker, but I must withdraw my supplementary question. I do not have the relevant information in front of me.
Forest Service Priorities
8. Mr McKay asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to detail her priorities for the Forest Service; and the action she is taking to ensure that forests could be better utilised. (AQO 3420/08)
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: My priorities for forestry are set out in the forestry strategy. They include a programme for forest expansion, with the long-term goal of doubling the area of forest from 6% to 12% of the land area, and sustainable management of existing woods and forest that takes account of economic, environmental and social-use requirements. More detailed priorities and targets will be included in the Forest Service’s business plan.
Proposed business priorities for 2008 include: publishing a strategy on the social and recreational uses of forests in order to set out a clear framework for delivery of those activities; securing operational partners to improve the quality and range of services and visitors’ experiences; and bringing forward new legislative proposals to the Assembly to replace the 1953 Forestry Act. Those proposals will seek to ensure that the Forest Service not only has a duty to supply timber, but to provide recreational access, protect the environment and make use of the development opportunities of forests in a balanced way; optimising the return from the sale of forest products, and implementing the Government’s wider market initiatives to secure a better return from assets.
Enterprise, Trade And Investment
Assistance to the Small-Business Sector
1. Mr McCausland asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to detail the steps he has taken to assist and encourage the small-business sector since May 2007. (AQO 3358/08)
The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Mr Dodds): Since May 2007, Invest NI has continued to offer a wide range of support to encourage the growth and development of the small-business sector. During the last financial year, it has supported the development of over 3,000 new business starts and delivered nearly 1,200 interventions aimed at improving the management and workforce capability of locally owned small- and medium-sized enterprises.
Invest NI has also encouraged 250 small and medium enterprises to enter export markets for the first time. The agency has also continued to introduce new schemes that focus on supporting small-business growth. For example, the growth-accelerator programme, which was launched in June 2007, is aimed at assisting small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to grow faster in export markets and has, to date, provided over £5 million of support to over 150 companies. That high level of activity signals SMEs’ increasing ambition to achieve the scale that is necessary to compete effectively in global markets, and will make a significant contribution to greater wealth and economic growth in Northern Ireland.
Mr McCausland: Will the Minister outline what his Department is doing to encourage local business growth in North Belfast under the Renewing Communities programme?
The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment: I am particularly grateful to the honourable Member for that specific question. I am delighted to outline what is happening under the Renewing Communities programme in the constituency that we both have the honour to serve in the House. As Members will be aware, the Renewing Communities action plan — under which Invest Northern Ireland is piloting the Exploring Enterprise programme — covers north, east and south Belfast, the greater Shankill area and Rathcoole.
In summer 2007, I launched the programme in North Belfast. We have engaged the North Belfast Partnership to deliver the business programme with North City Business Centre, and a range of locally tailored initiatives have been developed. The budget was set at £100,000.
Several key achievements have been made, including the participation of 33 people on the certificate in business, with 19 of them achieving NVQ level 2, and 14 achieving NVQ level 3. Several workshops and seminars have also been held. I am delighted to report that, as a direct result of those, 21 participants have begun the business start-up programme to date, with six or eight having since started a business.
Ms J McCann: Given that the social economy has been successful in developing small businesses that employ local people and, therefore, give something back to the community, can the Minister outline the discussions that he has had with Invest NI about the implementation of the next Social Entrepreneurship programme, and what funding —
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. At the start of Question Time, for which Ms McCann was present, I said that Members may ask only one question. However, some Members have asked more than one question, preventing others from getting on the list. Therefore, I will take the first question.
The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment: The point the Member raised about the social economy is a valid one. As she and other Members of the House will know, I am greatly interested in that area.
I have made it clear that my Department will maintain responsibility for developing social economy policy. That follows a meeting I had with the Social Economy Network. I continue to work with Invest Northern Ireland on a range of issues regarding the social economy, including the one that the Member mentioned.
Last week, I was delighted to be in my constituency for a meeting that previewed a major social economy event that will take place at St George’s Market in June. I remain committed to improving the prospects of that sector.
Mr Durkan: I thank the Minister for his answer, in which he outlined a number of programmes in which Invest Northern Ireland is involved.
Will he accept that the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment has been particularly impressed by the work of Enterprise Northern Ireland, and is concerned about the withdrawal of the Start a Business grant? Will he ensure that as changes take place in the context of the Review of Public Administration that there will be no reduction in Invest Northern Ireland’s interest in supporting small and medium-sized enterprises and that matters will not be left loosely for local government to tidy up?
The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment: I thank the Chairman of the Committee for his question. I assure him that, in the move towards the review of public administration, we will meet him on the point that he raised today and previously in the House. I am determined not to let the matter fall between two stools.
Mr Durkan referred to the Start a Business programme, which has been very successful and which will continue to be so. He mentioned the withdrawal of the £400 grant. However, the review showed that, for the vast majority of people, the funding was immaterial to their decision about whether to embark on the programme.
The withdrawn funds will be reinvested in the programme, and will provide more training courses, online resources, and enhanced mentoring. I reassure the Member on those points.
Action Renewables Programme
2. Mr Bresland asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to outline the impact of the Action Renewables Programme upon householders, business and the community sector. (AQO 3352/08)
The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment: Action Renewables’ remit is to raise awareness of climate change, to stimulate knowledge of the issues associated with conventional-energy use and to promote renewable-energy solutions.
An evaluation of the Action Renewables programme during the period from 1 April 2005 to 30 September 2006 indicated that Action Renewables successfully implemented a wide range of activities in line with its business plans for that period and, in doing so, achieved high levels of customer satisfaction. During that period, some of the outcomes achieved included 285 schools visited; 300 news articles published; 300 installers trained; and 258 not-for-profit organisations provided with sustainable-energy advice.
A further evaluation covering the period from 1 October 2006 to 31 March 2008 is currently under way and is due to be completed by the end of May 2008.
Mr Bresland: I thank the Minister for his response. How much funding does the Department give to the Action Renewables programme? What plans does the Minister have to develop Action Renewables’ role in the future?
The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment: Action Renewables receives a budget of approximately £1 million a year. My Department recently received an independent review of the Northern Ireland sustainable-energy market. That identified an ongoing role for Action Renewables. At present, the exact nature of that role is under economic appraisal to ensure value for money and economic viability in the future.
Mr D Bradley: In view of your earlier admonishment, Mr Deputy Speaker, I have fashioned several questions together in such a way as it will appear as though I am asking just one question. [Laughter.]
Does the Minister agree that a greater environmental impact would be achieved by replacing the current fragmented system of renewable energy agencies with one overarching, cohesive body that is responsible for offering expert advice and direction?
The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment: I congratulate the honourable Member — one could not see the joins. That was seamless and efficient.
The Member makes a good point about the number of bodies that are active in the field of energy efficiency. I mentioned the independent review of the sustainable energy market, which showed that, compared with other regions of a similar population size, Northern Ireland has more bodies that deliver advice on such matters as sustainable energy, energy efficiency, micro-generation and large-scale renewables. My Department will evaluate that report, and I will introduce proposals after close scrutiny. I take the Member’s point on board.
Mr K Robinson: High fuel costs are a reality, and they are unlikely to fall in the immediate future. Does the Minister agree that urgent and imaginative action is necessary so that alternative fuels become a practical reality for domestic, commercial and business consumers?
The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment: Action Renewables is doing its job in heightening awareness and interest in that area. Along with many other bodies, it is becoming more closely involved in promoting the necessary action.
The honourable Member is correct to say that other forms of energy production must be considered, rather than relying solely on fossil fuels. In recent days, prices have increased because of the vast increase in world prices for wholesale gas and oil. Sustainable renewable sources of energy must be carefully considered, not only from a sustainability and environmental point of view, but because we are now obligated under European Union law to meet very stringent targets for the reduction of reliance on fossil fuels, and to reduce carbon emissions. My Department is committed to that and is leading a co-ordinated approach in the Executive on that issue.
Increase in Gas Prices
3. Mrs M Bradley asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment for his assessment of the impact of the 28% increase in Phoenix gas prices on low-income families. (AQO 3458/08)
The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment: The recent announcement of the 28% increase in gas prices by Phoenix Supply Ltd was unwelcome news for all consumers. However, it comes as no surprise in the current climate, whereby wholesale oil and gas prices have been increasing steadily over recent months.
The Department for Social Development is spending some £35·4 million on alleviating fuel poverty. However, that cannot offset the upward surge in global fuel prices, which is clearly outside Government control. My Department will continue to work with the regulator to facilitate market arrangements, such as the opening of the Belfast gas market to competition, and the creation of a single electricity market. Those types of measures have the potential to exert downward pressure on energy prices, thus reducing the burden of energy costs on low-income families, and everyone else.
Mrs M Bradley: What action is the Minister taking to protect the vulnerable and the poor from spiralling energy prices?
The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment: As I said in my previous reply, a range of measures are being implemented by the Department for Social Development to try to alleviate fuel poverty. A considerable budget of £35·4 million has been allocated for that purpose. We are conscious of the fact that income, energy efficiency and fuel prices all have a role to play in fuel poverty, and that the steep rise in fuel prices is pushing more people into fuel poverty.
We are suffering so much primarily because we have lower income levels. It is important that we continue striving to alleviate fuel poverty. When I was in the Department for Social Development, we introduced the warm homes scheme, which is an important aspect of work in that area.
It is important that my Department continue to do what it can. Last year, we provided £5·6 million to defray the 2007-08 energy efficiency level, which reduced tariffs by approximately 1% below what they would otherwise have been. We supported the mutualisation of energy assets, which, once again, saves consumers a considerable amount of money. We are also considering measures such as a single electricity market and common arrangements for gas, which, in the long term, would bear down on prices.
All those matters are important, and I will continue to play my part, along with colleagues, on the interdepartmental group on fuel poverty, which is chaired by the Minister for Social Development.
Mr Brady: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. The Minister has already detailed the impact of fuel prices on low-income families, pensioners and disabled people. Will he outline any discussions that he and his Executive colleagues may have had with the regulator in order to reduce fuel prices and keep them as low as possible for those groups?
The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment: I have met the regulator, and I will meet him again soon. Members should bear in mind that, at the end of the day, the Government do not set prices. For gas and electricity, the regulator has — [Interruption.]
Somebody shouted something about setting the tax on fuel. The honourable Member used to be in another place but is no longer — he should realise that it is Westminster’s responsibility to set taxation for such matters, and it is not for the Northern Ireland Assembly to do so. We do not set prices or taxes, but the Member can rest assured that the devolved Administration will do everything in their power to deal with the impact of higher prices, especially on low-income families, and the interdepartmental working group, under the chairmanship of the Minister for Social Development, is important for bringing together all the disparate elements in Government in order to consider that important matter.
Mr Kennedy: On the subject of increased fuel costs, the Minister will be aware that, unfortunately, electricity costs will soon rise again dramatically. Will the Minister give his best estimate of likely fuel-price movements during the latter part of this year?
The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment: It would be wrong for me to speculate about such matters. However, we are all aware that the rise in world oil prices, which are virtually 100% higher than they were last year — $120 a barrel compared with $60 a barrel, and even that was historically high — will inevitably affect energy prices. It will be a matter for the regulator and the Consumer Council to make representations to NIE about any suggested price increases, and we wait to see the level of such increases.
Nevertheless, my Department will continue to do what it can to bear down on the matter, and the single electricity market was introduced specifically because it is mutually beneficial to consumers in the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland. In the next 10 years, it should produce savings of more than £100 million for industrial and domestic consumers and dynamic benefits of between £150 million and £170 million. Those are real actions being taken by Government to bear down on prices and, importantly, to ensure security of supply. We will do what we can, and we all hope that the wholesale prices for gas and oil will eventually settle and come back down, which is what is required in all areas.
4. Mr Hamilton asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to detail his plans to encourage the use of biofuels as alternative sources of energy. (AQO 3380/08)
The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment: My Department recognises the potential in Northern Ireland for bioenergy, including biofuels, and, last year, established a bioenergy interdepartmental group, including representatives from the Departments of Agriculture and Rural Development, Environment, Regional Development, and Finance and Personnel, and Invest Northern Ireland.
Co-ordination will enable Northern Ireland to optimise the potential benefits of bioenergy across the energy, agriculture, enterprise, transport and environment sectors and will contribute to renewable energy and greenhouse-gas-emission targets.
However, it will be important to ensure that such development is sustainable and benefits Northern Ireland in the long term.
On behalf of the interdepartmental group, my Department has appointed consultants to assess the potential for the sustainable development of the bioenergy sector in Northern Ireland. The results of that important study are intended to inform the development in 2008-09 of a cross-departmental strategy for the sector.
Mr Hamilton: The Minister will be aware that farmers in other parts of the world have been encouraged to diversify and grow crops for biofuels. How does he respond to the argument that growing crops for that purpose contributes to world food shortages and increases in the price of food?
The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment: The Member has raised an important point about the tension between trying to meet renewable energy targets and increase the energy from those sources and, at the same time, recognising the detrimental effects of that, two of which he mentioned.
Food shortages and the increase in food prices are not entirely due to the growth of crops for biofuels; other reasons include a greater demand from China and the Far East for different types of food, and harvest shortages. However, there is growing concern about the effect of growing more crops for biofuels. That is why I share the decision of the UK Government to not support higher targets unless they are sustainable, which includes being confident that they will not lead to food poverty.
The Renewable Fuels Agency has been asked to undertake a review of the impact of biofuel production, including such indirect impacts. It is important that we recognise the problem and adjust our policy in light of what happens on the ground, instead of pursuing something out of an ideological attachment to a particular way of moving forward in energy production.
Mr Cree: The Minister has answered most of my question. We are all concerned about the cost of fuel. However, has any work been done to address the dichotomy between having land available for the production of biocrops and having enough land for food stocks for people and livestock? That tension must be tackled in a meaningful manner.
The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment: The Member is correct to reinforce that point. Those matters are raised between my Department and the Government, who have the national responsibility. The Prime Minister and the Chancellor have also raised the possible impact on food production at G8 meetings. The growth of crops for biofuels is an issue that people are well appraised of, and it is correct that we take it seriously. I am grateful to honourable Members for raising it.
Mr A Maginness: I urge the Minister to act cautiously in relation to biofuels. Is he aware of the call by the European Environment Agency for the EU to suspend its 10% target on biofuels? Is he also aware that —
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. Good try, Mr Maginness.
The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment: As time goes on and Members try to slip in extra questions, you remain as alert as ever.
Yes; I am aware of that issue, and it arises because of the same concerns. It is a testimony to Members that they are raising such issues, and I will ensure that those concerns are fed to the Government for use in their discussions in Europe.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Question 5 has been withdrawn.
Changed Economic Environment
6. Mr O’Loan asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment for his assessment of the implications of the recent credit problems and general global economic slow down for the economic targets and growth strategy set out in the Programme for Government; if there will be any change in the economic-development aims and strategy resulting from the changed economic environment. (AQO 3461/08)
The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment: The current global economic conditions present us with enormous challenges. I have commented on those issues in the House and in the media. The economic priorities and targets set out in the Programme for Government were framed in the context of the global economic slowdown and the uncertainties in the financial markets. Therefore, I do not see a need to revise them.
However, the targets will be continually tracked and monitored against changing markets, and, where appropriate, they will be amended over the current Programme for Government period.
Mr O’Loan: I am reminded of what it is like to be at school, and I do not mean as a teacher. Mr Deputy Speaker, I hope that you will allow me to congratulate the Minister and his associates on the organisation of the US investment conference. Everything possible was done to make the conference a success. In the light of the international pressures that have been mentioned, what signals on prospective investment here did the Minister get from those who attended the conference?
The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment: I am very grateful to the honourable Member for his comments. It is only right to record our gratitude and thanks to everybody who put in such an enormous amount of time and effort over many months to make the conference the success that it was. Members of the House, Committee members and others played an important role. The feedback has been very positive, but the hard work to ensure that something tangible is delivered from that conference begins now. I believe that it will be.
We recognise that we live in a time of great global economic challenges, and the Province is not immune to those challenges. We may be small, but we are subject to the turmoil that affects the global economy. Energy prices are an example of that turmoil.
I shall make two points on the conference. First, it was always intended, and has always been the case, that the possible investment that flows from such a conference will not happen immediately but over the next 18 months to two years. However, holding the conference certainly puts Northern Ireland in a much better position, and our doing so gives us a far greater opportunity to obtain investment over the next 18 to 24 months than had the conference not taken place.
Secondly, a number of investors said to me that the current financial climate presents Northern Ireland with an opportunity, because people are looking at reducing costs and at becoming leaner and more efficient. Potential investors with an operation in the City of London or in Dublin, where property is expensive and where attracting expertise and skills costs more, may look for a near-shore solution, and Northern Ireland offers a very good, competitive cost environment. It is close to customers and culturally compatible, so, in many ways, the current climate does provide Northern Ireland with an opportunity. Several executives indicated that, in this climate, they were looking ever more closely at places such as Northern Ireland in which to set up cost-centred operations.
From both those perspectives, the conference was extremely worthwhile, and I am grateful to the honourable Member for his comments.
Mr Deputy Speaker: I am sorry that the Member is reminded of being at school, but somebody must deal with naughty schoolboys who cannot follow simple instructions.
Mr Burnside: I went to Coleraine Academical Institution — I would not dare to ask more than one question.
Mr O’Loan mentioned credit problems, which is an understatement. Currently, when financing an investment, whether here or anywhere else, one must finance the equity and finance the debt. In the absence of the credit markets being open at the minute, will the Minister ask Invest NI to show some more flexibility? As a result of banks’ recent dreadful performance, companies that finance debt are unable to do so, so can Invest NI be more flexible when it comes to the debt financing of investment?
The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment: I am grateful to the honourable Member for pointing out a particular current problem. Invest NI, within its remit of accounting for public expenditure, has done a very good job, particularly over the past year. There will be greater challenges in the year ahead.
In Foyle this morning, I was pleased to be able to announce the creation of 150 jobs by Fujitsu — 120 in Londonderry and 30 in Belfast. That will bring Fujitsu’s total workforce here to almost 1,000 people by 2010 or 2011. Those are very high-paying, highly skilled jobs in the information and communication technology sector. It indicates that people are willing to invest, despite the current difficulties, and why? Companies are telling us that we in Northern Ireland have the skills, the people, and the education system in place that provides them with what they need.
I am very encouraged by that, and it certainly reinforces my view that the Programme for Government is concentrating on the right issues — those broad issues that will drive our economy forward.
Dr Farry: In light of the economic downturn, there is a certain logic in focusing on Northern Ireland’s inbuilt competitive strengths. Therefore, what response would the Minister give to David Varney and others who have suggested that we should focus on low costs, as opposed to our inbuilt strengths, as a way of attracting investment?
The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment: Sir David Varney made several recommendations and suggestions, some of which are already covered in the Programme for Government, and others which we shall examine soon. Some of the rest of the recommendations can be examined over a longer period, as they may not be as urgent. However, it is important to realise that we cannot compete with low costs and low wages. Such an approach will not work for Northern Ireland, just as it will no longer work for any modern western economy. We must, therefore, focus on our knowledge base and skills that are not easily transferable out of Northern Ireland.
At the same time as seeking to attract foreign direct investment, we are also trying to grow our local indigenous companies. We are setting stringent and stretching targets to increase export potential. In fact, Invest Northern Ireland invests more in local indigenous industries than it does in attracting foreign direct investment. Those measures play an all-important part in growing our economy.
Education and the Economy
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to two hours for this 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.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Education (Mr S Wilson): I beg to move
That this Assembly notes the growing needs for our indigenous economy, with particular reference to the engineering sector, and calls on the Minister of Education to bring forward proposals, complementary to the Department for Employment and Learning strategy ‘Further Education Means Business’ and the Programme for Government objective under PSA 2 to “increase skills and career choices in science, technology, engineering and maths (stem) subjects”, geared towards our primary and post-primary school children that will address the future needs of our economy.
I welcome the opportunity to debate this motion, which is the first that the Education Committee has tabled. This is a timely debate, given that last week’s investment conference highlighted the importance of an education system that can deliver the type of skills that firms require. In light of that conference, and the evidence that the Committee has heard from witnesses to date, the Committee decided to table the motion.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Molloy] in the Chair)
The Committee heard evidence from groups that had expressed an interest in this matter. One of the first companies to appear before the Committee was Schrader Electronics Ltd, which is based in my constituency of East Antrim and in south Antrim. It is a large engineering employer that employs 1,000 people. Its representatives outlined some of the company’s difficulties in recruiting people to fill engineering and technical posts.
When that company first arrived here in 2000, it had no real problems at all. However, since then, 50% of its jobs for graduates have had to be re-advertised because it could not find people to apply for the jobs in the first instance. Some 28% of the company’s hourly paid workers are now foreign nationals, rather than people from Northern Ireland.
FG Wilson has a manufacturing plant that is also sited in my constituency. Last week, someone from that company told me that 70% of those employed during its last recruitment drive came from outside Northern Ireland, because the company could not find local people with the necessary skills.
There has been a 60% drop in the number of students who have gained engineering and technical qualifications.
Therefore, from what we have heard, the education system in Northern Ireland is clearly not as effective as it should be in addressing the skills gap for technicians and engineers. Even though a higher percentage of young people in Northern Ireland take science and maths at school, we still have that skills shortage.
I hope that the Minister does not think that I am giving her ammunition with which to attack me, because normally when she hears talk of deficiencies in the education system, she immediately has a Pavlov’s dog response and things are blamed on the 11-plus and everything else. The record in Northern Ireland is better than that in non-selective areas in England, Scotland and Wales. We consistently have a much higher percentage of children in secondary education who go on to take science and maths. Therefore, just in case the Minister was hoping to employ that argument, let me knock it on the head.
The second group that came before the Education Committee was the education task force, which gave us some insight into how to develop a strategy to deal with the problems that Schrader Electronics articulated to us. That task force wants to see an education-driven system of economic growth in Northern Ireland. Although I stress that it is important that other agencies are engaged in that endeavour, I want to focus on what education can contribute.
Last week’s US-Northern Ireland investment conference showed that education lies at the heart of the economy. The education task force, which comprised teachers from various sectors, as well as industrialists and engineers from Queen’s University and the University of Ulster, made several recommendations. Its full report, which I do not have time to discuss, can be found on the Assembly website. I believe that it has also been deposited in the Assembly Library, and some Members might have received copies of it from the Committee Clerk.
I wish to highlight some of those recommendations. The first was the importance of dialogue between industry, business and education with regard to creating a skills agenda. Schrader Electronics said that it was in discussion with the two universities about giving students and lecturers placements in the firm to ascertain the skills that were needed so that courses could be designed around the company’s technical requirements. That is important, because on the one hand people from industry complain that the education system does not deliver, yet on the other, it is often unclear what industrialists want that system to deliver.
The second recommendation was that there is an education supply side in Northern Ireland that does not adequately meet the needs of society. That must be tackled. Equally, however, business must articulate what it demands of education. Schools also need to place a greater emphasis in the curriculum on business vocations. The education task force talked about the need to develop enterprise education to encourage a business ethos and to encourage young people to consider careers in the engineering industry and in industry as a whole. Indeed, careers education in schools sometimes steers youngsters away from those areas.
The Department of Education presented the Committee with a paper on careers education. I hope that the Minister and the Department will heed what industry is saying, which is that careers education needs an overhaul. I also hope that it accepts that there is a role for careers teachers and for parents in directing young people towards the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects.
Representatives from Schrader Electronics Ltd told us that they invited careers teachers, parents and young people to the company to show them the great opportunities that were available. A departmental report states that engineering graduates tend to be placed in jobs that reflect their skills, and male engineering graduates tend to earn 28% more than arts graduates. Therefore there is also a financial reward. Students must be informed of those facts to steer them towards STEM subjects when they are making their choices. Perhaps the Minister will respond to that issue.
It is disappointing that the Curriculum Advisory and Support Service’s review of the curriculum talked about developing regional strategies, similar to literacy and numeracy, to provide coherent and consistent levels of support across key areas of the education service such as special needs, Irish-medium, English as an additional language and behavioural support, yet there was no mention of science. Although the Programme for Government talks about promoting STEM subjects, the Department of Education is not placing sufficient emphasis on it. If we are to encourage young people to meet the needs of industry, they must be directed to the relevant subjects at the relevant time — long before they decide to make career choices at university or at further-education level.
The Curriculum Advisory and Support Service also talked about the importance of developing a qualification structure that was specifically designed for Northern Ireland’s needs; therefore a curriculum at university level, as well as secondary level, must be considered.
I welcome the fact that we are moving towards more vocational GCSEs and A levels.
The Curriculum Advisory and Support Service also spoke about —
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Member’s time is up.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Employment and Learning (Ms S Ramsey): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Sammy was on a roll — you should have allowed him to continue.
I support the motion. It is important that it is seen in the wider context of recent concerns regarding the skills base and the drive for economic development. The Chairperson of the Committee for Education highlighted that issue, particularly in the high-value-added sectors, such as engineering, manufacturing and technology.
During two recent debates, concern was expressed about the potential lack of suitably qualified persons to meet the growing demands of our indigenous industries. Although the motion focuses on primary and post-primary school level, the issue cannot be divorced from policy considerations at further and higher education level. Therefore I would like to make some points about the Committee for Employment and Learning’s work and consideration in that field.
The Committee will soon present its first report to the Assembly on the Department for Employment and Learning’s Training for Success programme, which is the key vehicle for the delivery of vocationally based training and apprenticeships. In 2007, the Training for Success programme replaced the Jobskills programme. I hope to report on our findings by the end of May. Some issues that are pertinent to this debate emerged during the Committee’s consideration. We received positive and negative feedback on the first year’s operation of the Training for Success programme. While giving evidence to the Committee on 16 January 2008, the regional chairperson of the Sector Skills Council for Science, Engineering, Manufacturing and Technology, David Hatton, highlighted major concerns about apprenticeships and manufacturing.
Mr Hatton stressed that recent sector surveys discovered that three-quarters of businesses reported difficulties with recruitment and that, more worryingly, those firms believed that the trends would continue.
It was also stressed that despite the recent news on job losses, there are tremendous opportunities for skilled engineers and technicians, and that it is vital to establish appropriate skills training. The Chairperson of the Committee for Education mentioned electronics — under the correct conditions and with appropriate education and training, there is potential for expansion in that sector.
The Committee for Employment and Learning discovered that the engineering sector is concerned that companies may be tempted to relocate if they cannot source appropriate skills here. In addition, economic incentives to attract foreign investment will fail if the building blocks of skills are not in place.
I will not say much about the Committee’s findings on the Training for Success programme until its final report is released. However, it is fair to say that the Committee is concerned that current occupancy levels appear to be falling below the Executive’s target of 10,000 apprentices in training by 2010. More worryingly, the balance is massively skewed towards level-2 apprenticeships, which currently comprise 93% of the total, while level-3 apprenticeships comprise only 7%. Although level-2 apprenticeships play an extremely important role in sectors such as food and drink, tourism, and hospitality, the Committee concurs with the engineering and technology sector that level 3 must be the basic requirement.
Some employers consider level 2 to be semi-skilled and, consequently, below their business requirements. Department for Employment and Learning figures — supplied to the Committee in April 2008 — reveal that only 16 young people were participating in level-3 apprenticeship training in the engineering and manufacturing technologies.
The wording of the motion mentions the important Further Education Means Business programme; and the Committee recently considered the further education curriculum consultation that derived from that programme. The Committee welcomes the programme’s alignment with local economic needs. However, it is concerned that the SME structure of the economy is not adequately reflected by the further education sector’s engagement with the workforce development forums and Sector Skills Council.
The Committee recommended that every effort be made to include that sector. Engagement with the sector may not be routine and may require intensive outreach work by colleges at local level. The Committee also recommended that local industry and business needs be critically assessed by experts to ensure —
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Member’s time is up. I must be fair to everyone.
Ms S Ramsey: Go raibh maith agat. I support the motion.
Mr Deputy Speaker: I call Mr Basil McCrea.
Ms S Ramsey: Does the Member want to finish my speech?
Mr B McCrea: I will gladly take an intervention if Ms Ramsey wants to finish.
This Government has placed the economy at the centre of the Programme for Government; however, do they understand what that entails? This is a debate in which Members will quote from the Leitch Report and the Tomlinson Report and in which researchers will have done all the work. Members will, undoubtedly, talk about the economic investment conference and the need to match rhetoric with delivery. If we were telling the Americans that our workforce was so good, how can our education system be, apparently, so bad? That, surely, demonstrates incongruity.
The key questions that Members have to ask this Administration are: is it is competent to deal with the matter, and will it do more than issue platitudes and exhortations to improve?
The Committee for Education hears evidence from teachers. We are all a product of our experience, and, for what it is worth, I have four A-levels — in maths, physics, chemistry and biology. I also have a degree in chemical engineering and a masters degree — with first-class honours — in information technology, and I am eager to discover Mr Storey’s credentials.
Mr S Wilson: With those qualifications, why does the Member work in the Assembly and not in industry?
Mr B McCrea: I will ask a question straight back. Why do 30% of people with engineering degrees not go into engineering, but into commerce and finance, just as I did? Perhaps the Chairperson of the Committee for Education will tell us why 8% of graduate engineers are still unemployed after eight months. Perhaps he will also explain to the House why over 50% of engineering postgraduates in the United Kingdom do not come from this country. Why are those questions being asked? I know why, because I was there.
The issue comes back to two strategic questions for Northern Ireland. In recent years, our employment figures have soared, but our productivity has declined. For all intents and purposes, we have full employment, but 30% of our workforce is economically inactive. As the unions correctly point out, there is very little differential between the minimum wage and some of the benefits that people are claiming. The motivation to move people off benefits and into work is not what it ought to be, or what it is in other parts of this kingdom.
How should we meet those key challenges? We should, first of all, make it a priority to raise the average wage in this part of the world above 80% of the UK average. It should be brought up to at least 100%. That is a target that the Executive might wish to take on board, but it can only be achieved through improved productivity. We must focus on those areas that produce high gross value added (GVA) per employee. We must find a way to improve the private sector. Mr O’Dowd said to me recently that not everyone wants to go to university or to have a career in ICT. If that is so, he should tell those people that they are wrong. If they really want to get a better job, to get more money and to get out of poverty, they should apply themselves to the areas in which there is a demand.
There is a problem when it comes to encouraging people to take up engineering. Nathan Connolly said that at the age of 12 or 13:
“I was always around music, and like any other kid … I wanted to be a rock star and play guitar.”
Young people want to be pop stars, or footballers like David Healy or David Beckham. We must get young people to understand that engineering offers a way forward.
I could go on at some length, Mr Deputy Speaker. If I have checked the clock correctly, I have an extra minute. [Interruption.]
There is a danger in trying to educate some people, but that would not do in this place. The Engineering Technology Board has produced several reports that explain the most pressing problems. Parents are the biggest influences on their children. Teachers — not just careers teachers, but teachers of subjects — also have a big influence.
Did I get an extra minute for the intervention, Mr Deputy Speaker?
Mr Deputy Speaker: Yes; for the intervention.
Ms S Ramsey: Sammy.
Mr B McCrea: He has the suit for it.
We must encourage young people to understand that engineering offers a genuine way forward. We cannot do that by lecturing young people; we can do it by informing them. The Royal Academy of Engineering and the Engineering Technology Board, and other such bodies, are able to do that. The Minister of Education must tell the House how she intends to tackle the underperformance in communication. We must encourage people to do what is right for them, right for the country and right for us all.
Mrs M Bradley: Science, technology, engineering and mathematics — the STEM subjects, as they have become known — are essential to the development of science- and technology-based industries, in which we must excel if we are to compete in the global economy. The number of pupils taking STEM subjects has been falling over the past several years, and although that is an international trend in the US and Europe, that is no reason for us to be complacent.
Our competitors in the global economy now and in future, in countries such as India and China, are excelling in those fields. If we do not meet the challenge, we will simply not be in a position to compete. The opportunity stills exists for us to reverse those trends and to be at the cutting edge of international competition, but we must grasp the opportunity now, while it still exists.
The prioritisation of science, technology, engineering and maths skills is a key measure that will support the aim for a knowledge-driven economy, based on higher-value-added sectors. In most emerging countries, growth remains solid, and activity in China, India and Russia is particularly striking. In that context, Northern Ireland must capture the benefits of global demand over the long term. As Sir David Varney reported, many East Asian countries exhibit low labour costs. The challenge for Northern Ireland, and for many European economies, is to move up the value chain by improving skills, innovation and technology.
The STEM subjects should be an area of the curriculum that fires the students with the desire to enquire, to experiment, to learn, and to apply knowledge to solve problems and devise solutions. Throughout the education system, from primary to third level, we must encourage a gradual awareness that knowledge can be transformed — through research and development and experiment — into products that can be marketed and sold commercially.
We must link the STEM subjects with wealth creation and the various careers that go with them. That means that there must be a strong emphasis on the STEM subjects, not only in careers education, but through teachers’ highlighting the career potential of those subjects throughout the education system.
At present, the majority of STEM-subject graduates go into the medical professions. The remainder go into the public sector and the private sector, in that order. There is a clear imbalance, which must be put right if we are to grow the private sector to the extent that is required. However, STEM subjects must be made more attractive to students, with an emphasis not only on knowledge, but on experimental application. The revised curriculum, with its emphasis on skills, should help in that respect. In some cases, the emphasis on health and safety in the laboratory has reduced students’ involvement in experimentation, which is one of the chief motivational aspects of STEM.
We need curricular settings that integrate the components of STEM subjects, and there is a need to develop better links among schools, further-education students and industry. We must see where their work is leading, and each STEM-subject teacher must become a careers teacher in that respect by continually making links between the work in the classroom and work in the outside world. Links with local industry are particularly important in that respect, and although some schools have established good relations with local industries, there is plenty of potential for development in that area.
Although STEM subjects will be recognised under specialist-schools cohort 3, every school must be given a high priority in that area.
Mr Lunn: The Alliance Party also welcomes this constructive and timely motion. The question of how to match the education system to the needs of industry and commerce has been discussed many times, but it has never been more relevant, given the current economic climate. Our manufacturing companies are crying out for qualified people who have been suitably prepared for work. The current education system, with its emphasis on academic achievement and the pressure to obtain a degree in something — almost anything, frankly — is failing to prepare students for work.
Those of us who were fortunate to hear the presentations that were made to the Education Committee by the education task force and Schrader Electronics Ltd, which Mr Sammy Wilson mentioned, heard at first hand about what is missing in the system and about the gap that has arisen between what is needed and what is provided.
The education task force highlighted several problems, including the need for pupils to move from primary education with an acceptable standard of literacy and numeracy and the need for greater emphasis on vocational subjects for post-16-year-old students. The task force also advocated the development of school partnerships across education sectors, and it highlighted the importance of further-education colleges in encouraging students to follow a path that has been regarded as second best for too long. Moreover, the task force demanded meaningful dialogue among the business, industry and education sectors on the skills agenda, and it suggested that a campaign should be directed at parents and children about the benefits of science, technology, engineering and maths, in line with the motion.
The presentation from Schrader Electronics was directed at the practical shop-floor problems that the manufacturing industry now faces. Schrader is a very successful company, with a growing market and ambitious expansion plans. It employs about 1,000 people, and the intention is to raise that to 2,000 in the next two or three years because its product is about to become compulsory in the United States. The world is its oyster.
Although I am sure that there is competition out there, the company is in a very good position — except that it cannot get the staff to make the things. Fifty per cent of its current personnel are production staff and, of that number, 29% are immigrant workers, mostly Polish. Those are not minimum-wage jobs but well-paid, long-term ones, and our system is not producing enough suitably qualified people to fill them.
What happens if economic conditions in Poland improve, as is inevitable under the EEC guidance, and our migrant workers go home? We will have even more of a skills shortage and we will have the possibility that industry will follow the movement of labour, compounding the problem that we already face.
This is a good motion, and I have no doubt that it is in line with the thinking of both the Ministers. The days when a degree in a subject such as hairdressing or scholastic metaphysics, or, for that matter, human nature or surfing — and I mean on the water, not on the Internet, although that degree is available at Liverpool University — is more desirable than a useful vocational qualification with a practical application must surely be at an end. As Northern Ireland moves forward under its own steam, it is essential that we encourage the necessary changes in direction.
If the Americans who were here last week for the investment conference decide to invest, they will be looking for practical skills, not wacky degrees. The warning signs are there for all of us to see, and we must take heed. Let us prepare young people for the real world with qualifications that mean something and will take them to sustainable and useful work. I commend the motion to the House.
Mr Storey: I support the motion and welcome the fact that we have cross-party and cross-Committee support today in the House. I also have to say that I am sad that Mr Basil McCrea is not in the Chamber. He made some comments in my direction earlier, and I suppose, given the problems that the BBC has had recently with its voting system, no doubt there was a problem again at the weekend, as he unfortunately seemed to rise to the top of that particular poll — which just proves that yet again the BBC systems are in failure.
Mr Weir: Does the Member also believe that Mr McCrea could still be Nancy as well?
Mr Storey: It is quite possible.
Turning to matters of substance, which Mr McCrea probably knows little about, last week’s US/Northern Ireland investment conference could be the beginning of an unprecedented period of investment in Northern Ireland if we can see it as the impetus for change and the milestone for taking note of the valuable findings of two reports, which should not be ignored as we seek to build on the success of the conference.
One of those reports was referred to earlier; I refer to the education task force report compiled by teachers, industrialists and engineers from higher education. It has characterised our society as risk averse, and notes that there is little support or encouragement for entrepreneurial activities and the stimulation of interest in science and engineering. The report is quite scathing on the potential that will never come to light and the consequences for a society that the report depicts as heavily reliant on public-sector employment.
The other report, from the Federation of Small Businesses, paints an equally gloomy picture of a Northern Ireland suffering from a skills deficit where there are clear barriers to growth. These are not images that fit well with the feel-good factor of last week’s conference, and that is not the picture that we want potential American or other investors to take back from their fact-finding excursions.
There is one note of harmony in the two reports that should not be ignored. It is incumbent on the Minister of Education and the Minister for Employment and Learning to respond effectively to it in order to reduce the risk of losing the momentum, which, in the long term, will ensure that Northern Ireland becomes and remains a venue for potential investors.
It is time for both Departments to use joined-up thinking and to develop a responsible, measurable strategy to stimulate and nurture the level of skills development that business and higher-education experts have identified as essential. This is a time for new partnerships and co-operation.
The Minister’s obsession with equalising opportunities and her attempts to do away with academic selection have been a distraction for months; it is feared that she will throw the baby out with the bath water. The Minister is neglecting the core issue of the essential skills deficits in the primary sector; the Federation of Small Businesses report and the experts who produced the education task force report recognise that deficit. They have called on the Minister to refocus her attention on her responsibility to stimulate and support a greater interest in science, technology, mathematics and engineering at school level. That call echoes the Committee for Education’s identification as a major problem of the Minister’s persistent degeneration, degradation and downplaying of the education system.
In the Senate Chamber during last week’s investment conference, the Prime Minister paid tribute to the excellence of our education system. I welcome that tribute, unlike the Minister’s continual “failure” mantra, which she uses as a cloak to attack academic selection. I would like the Minister of Education to praise Northern Ireland’s invaluable, high-class education system. Unfortunately, at no time has the Education Minister referred to her essential task of making scientific and entrepreneurial skills a key focus of secondary education.
The essence of the argument is simple: the profile and operation of our education system must match our economic ambitions if we are to have a skills agenda that connects primary and secondary learners with the skills progression necessary to meet foreign investors’ expectations. It is time for the Department for Employment and Learning (DEL) and for the Department of Education to merge thinking — if not their entire Departments. They must assist industry and business in formalising needs and in articulating demands. The Departments must also provide a system that will help schools and colleges to translate demands and requirements into educational goals. I support the motion.
Mrs O’Neill: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I am delighted to speak to the motion, which I proposed to the Committee after we had heard presentations from employers and from the education task force; those presentations sparked concerns about local businesses’ unmet needs. We heard concerns about businesses not being able to expand — or even being forced to relocate — in future. Such problems are due to the shortage of students studying STEM subjects and moving into the engineering field. We tabled the motion because of that shortage.
As other Members said, one of those presentations was made by a very successful engineering firm that does excellent work in the surrounding schools, universities and colleges; it attempts to attract people to the type of work that it offers and to grant young people ownership of their career path while pointing them in the right direction. That organisation, and others, works proactively with young people to provide them with relevant information and to point them towards labour market shortages.
Members mentioned the need to connect children to the world of work and to point them and their parents towards shortages in the economy. We must encourage children to take an interest in the STEM subjects at an early age; that would enable them to make wise subject choices. We want them to study subjects that will lead to meaningful employment in our economy, particularly in the engineering sector.
If we are to build a strong economy, we must encourage young people to work to its needs; otherwise we encourage them to follow a career path that could lead to a qualification in an area in which our economy cannot offer gainful employment. The Federation of Small Businesses has said that the provision of skills development for everyone will ensure a prosperous and sustainable economy. The investment conference to attract potential investors took place last Thursday, and if we are to live up to the promises made at it, we must gear our young people towards the needs of our economy.
I welcome the Chairperson’s remarks that although we have called upon the Minister of Education to respond, this is not solely an educational issue and that there is a need for a partnership approach. We need business and Government to work together to develop a new skills strategy for the North developed on a cross-departmental basis that will embrace the Department of Education, the Department for Employment and Learning, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. Input from the business community will be vital. The business sector and employers’ organisations are vital to the future of our economy: who better to identify the skills necessary to ensure that we remain competitive?
We all need to come together to develop a world-class, skilled and competitive workforce. Some of the necessary work is being done through the various forums. I have already mentioned the proactive nature of one company, and I am sure that its example is being followed by others. There are also progressive projects, such as business education partnerships, which bring together schoolchildren and local businesses. We need to build on those and ensure that there is consistency of approach across the North.
In the engineering sector, more than 50% of recruitment campaigns for engineers and technical staff have to be re-advertised to attract applicants. That shows that young people do not recognise that field of work as a viable option, and we need to do more to challenge that myth.
Much work has to be done to ensure that we grow a vibrant economy with a highly skilled workforce. We have shown our constituents that we are committed to creating a strong, vibrant economy. Let us ensure that we live up to the commitments in the Programme for Government. Go raibh maith agat.
Miss McIlveen: All Members will agree that there has been a shocking decline in the number of students taking STEM subjects at A level over the years. The seeds of disinterest in those subjects are sown at a much earlier age.
Much is being made about Northern Ireland’s seeking to fight it out economically on the world’s stage. However, we are still over-reliant on public-sector employment and on low-paid retail jobs. There is a lack of skills-based qualifications; an apparent obsession with professional-level jobs, such as accountancy and law; and a paucity of medium and large businesses.
Northern Ireland has always boasted about its well-educated and highly skilled workforce, and that is true for a proportion of our society. Every year, we produce a top level of academically successful students, which the Minister appears intent on removing. We also have a large number of pupils who leave school every year with inadequate reading and writing skills. Children should be leaving primary school with those basic skills. The issue was debated at length last year, and the Minister, for her snail-paced approach to dealing with it, is worthy of much more criticism than she receives currently.
In its 2006 survey, the Federation of Small Businesses highlighted the concerns of the businessmen of Northern Ireland at the skills deficit. Some 49% felt that Northern Ireland fell short of having the required basic IT skills, and 44% were concerned at the shortage of technical skills that met their business needs. The report of the education task force highlights interesting points, particularly about countries such as Finland and Taiwan. By taking a cross-departmental approach and input from the business sector, Governments are able to formulate plans to meet the needs of the business sector through education. That increases better-paid employment and facilitates development of a sustainable economy.
The Minister of Finance and Personnel seeks to reduce Civil Service bureaucracy, but bureaucracy and regulation impede progress in many aspects of our society and that is no less true of education. Subjects, such as chemistry, thrived on practical experiments that made learning fun. If a subject is enjoyable, it will be attractive to young inquisitive minds. The fun has been taken out of those subjects by over-regulation.
Last year, I watched a television programme that took a group of GCSE pupils out of a modern classroom and back to a school of the 1950s. The children loved the practical side of the science subjects, and that had a particularly positive impact on the boys. Needless to say, girls must also be targeted.
Northern Ireland’s public sector accounts for 61% of GDP; that, in itself, tells a story. We are turning into a country of paper-pushers, but our level of spending remains unchanged. We do not bring enough new money into the country. We can only rectify that by encouraging entrepreneurship and developing a highly skilled workforce with the right skills for a modern economy.
The US investment announced last week was welcome news to us all. However, I want Northern Ireland to produce its own technology-based companies, employing men and women from Northern Ireland who can become world leaders. We have fantastic companies, such as Randox Laboratories Ltd, based in County Antrim, which employs over 600 people, and Andor Technology PLC, based in Belfast, which produces goods sold in over 40 countries.
At Queen’s University, the Institute of Electronics, Communications and Information Technology (ECIT) does some fantastic work in research and development and in supporting local technology-based businesses and projects. We must build on our home-grown successes.
We have seen difficulties before with outside investment. When the economic climate does not suit, investors will leave. However, by generating home-based companies, we can build a better economy in Northern Ireland. That, in part, will be achieved by appropriate education.
That does not mean that we remove academic-focused schools from the education map, as the Minister for Education envisages — it is a matter of complement in the schools’ estate. Society needs all types of schools, which should be able to provide all types of skills. There must be an appropriate strategy to deal with education as a whole. Removing bits that are not liked for some faux-ideological reason is not the way to a successful education system that will build our economy.
If we note the Minister’s own pseudo-Marxist credentials, we are perhaps talking to the wrong person in relation to building a vibrant economy. However, I would like to think that she takes note of the political and economic realities, and appreciates the real benefits that a multi-skilled, literate and numerate population — including those who have received an academically focused education — can have for the future of all the people of Northern Ireland.
Mr K Robinson: I welcome the motion. It is timely and previous Members who have spoken have identified the reasons for that.
One of the primary purposes of an education system is to produce a workforce fit to drive and service a modern economy. That has been the driving force behind much of the good and commendable work that has been done over the past few years by the Department for Employment and Learning.
The document, ‘Further Education Means Business’ — the outline business plan for the Department for Employment and Learning — was developed from a report from this Assembly’s Employment and Learning Committee. The Committee’s report on education and training for industry in late 2002 sets out the guiding operational principles through which vocationally relevant education and training can be delivered by our further and higher education colleges.
I cannot emphasise enough how crucial it is that higher and further education is linked as closely as possibly with our secondary and primary-level education in this process. It is a continuum from the first day a pupil enters the primary school door to the last day that he or she leaves college or university.
Furthermore, I cannot emphasise too much the importance of prioritising industrial and job-related skills in our schools and colleges. Looking at the patterns of educational uptake in the STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and maths — the schools and the Department of Education that oversees them have some way to go in catching up with the lead provided by DEL.
There has been a slight increase in the uptake of biology at A level; however, conversely, there has been a decrease in the uptake of chemistry and physics. Physics, in particular, is an important building block in many science-related careers, particularly those with higher rates of pay, and that deficiency needs to be addressed urgently. The number of students studying physics at GCSE level has marginally increased from 1,861 in 2002 to 1,933 in 2007. Therefore, that slight increase should correspond to an increase in uptake at A level. However, that has not yet occurred.
The quality of careers guidance in schools has long been a subject of heated debate, and has been unfavourably commented upon in the past. Steps have been taken by DEL to address that issue. Therefore, once again we are seeing the educational lead being taken by DEL and not by the Department of Education — a situation that really must change if we are to address the problem at its roots.
The proactive stance taken here by DEL is reflected in strategic objectives being realised by our universities. Up until now Queen’s University has received honourable mentions — and rightly so. However, I must also congratulate the work that has been carried out by the University of Ulster at the different campuses around Northern Ireland.
The Vice-Chancellor of Queen’s University, Peter Gregson, suggested that if Northern Ireland’s economy is to survive and prosper in the global market place, highly qualified graduates are needed in the key areas of science and engineering — subjects that have, in recent years, shown a decline. As a member of the Russell Group of leading UK universities, Queen’s has played a major role in initiatives to encourage students to enrol in those subject areas. That effort has paid off, and the university has recorded a higher increase, when compared to the national average, in student applications for areas such as chemistry and mathematics.
We want to see real action from the Department of Education. We do not want a Department that is being led up the garden path by its Minister on what appears to be a single focus — post-primary transfer — and little else. We need a Department that realises what industry is telling us with an increasingly frustrated voice. For instance, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) has set out a five-point programme, which I commend to the Assembly. The CBI recommends that the brightest 40% of 14-year-olds should be directed automatically into separate physics, chemistry and biology GCSE courses, instead of the stripped-down science curriculum that is being studied by most.
The CBI also states that £120 million of new funding should be identified to pay for one-to-one careers advice at ages 14, 16 and 18, which will help to challenge the misconceptions about science and engineering.
The education task force was most impressive when it came to speak to the Education Committee. It noted that we have a relatively well-off, risk-averse society at one extreme, which will not encourage bright children to be entrepreneurial or to consider science and engineering. The task force stated that we produce too many students of law, dentistry and medicine.
Companies must also take further steps to encourage young people into careers. I commend the energy and vision that has been shown by Schrader Electronics Ltd in my constituency of East Antrim, which has visited all types of schools in the area to try to change that perception.
Mr Hamilton: I congratulate the Chairman of the Education Committee and his Committee colleagues for tabling this important motion. The linkage between education and the economy is sometimes overlooked in our debates.
The CBI has been moved to state that there is a:
“mismatch between education provision and the needs of the economy.”
That provides us with something to note and to act on.
The dichotomy between the debate and last week’s successful investment conference has been mentioned. Today, Members have been complaining that our education system is not tooled appropriately for the economy. However, last week, we were selling Northern Ireland and our education system to Americans. I do not see a massive gulf or a huge problem. Our education system is one of our few competitive advantages in a globalised economy.
Last week, I was interested to hear our educational achievement being heralded as a selling point to the US delegates. In the Senate Chamber, we even heard the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, extolling Northern Ireland’s exam results at 16 and 18 and comparing them, favourably, to the rest of the United Kingdom. It is good to hear our Prime Minister doing that; it would also be good to hear our Education Minister do the same from time to time.
Despite our widely recognised and acknowledged high educational achievement, it is not unfair to say that, traditionally, our education system has not been tooled towards our economic needs. Business is let down because too much of the workforce lacks basic skills in literacy and numeracy, and, simultaneously, graduates are being churned out by universities here and elsewhere without some basic skills that are required for business. That is an unusual problem that we face.
The concentration of the motion and the debate on STEM subjects is correct, but one must look beyond the simple accumulation of qualifications. The basic building blocks for the long-term development of our economy in a positive direction can be set in place long before university, or even secondary school — it can be established in primary schools and, perhaps, pre-school education. Therefore, those who qualify in STEM subjects, or other subjects, can have the opportunity to work for other companies or set themselves up in business. That is just as important.
It is wrong to say that the attributes that make entrepreneurs such as Bill Gates and Richard Branson tick can be taught in a classroom. However, teaching and the curriculum can be tailored to include topics, projects, exercises and coursework that will instil in the pupil adaptable, transferable and versatile skills, attributes and behaviours, such as problem-solving, creativity, persuasiveness, planning, negotiating, decision-making, versatility and resourcefulness.
Those skills and attributes are obviously required in business, but would stand any student seeking any career in good stead.
It is not necessarily about entrepreneurship, but rather about having an enterprising attitude. It is about developing a culture of enterprise instead of one of dependency, and we all acknowledge that our country has lost its enterprising culture in recent times. There are many good examples from around the world of entrepreneurial skills and the culture of enterprise being taught in the classroom. I was struck by a project that a unit of Durham University has been working on with countries such as the Ukraine, Hungary, Poland and Latvia — all former bastions of communism. If those countries see the need to instil a culture of enterprise in children as early as at pre-school age, surely it could also be done in Northern Ireland. Similar programmes are in place in countries that are not too far from here — in Scotland, for example.
In conclusion, in the past, we have been a powerhouse of industry, known for punching well above our weight. The cost of labour gave us a competitive advantage in those days, mostly in heavy industries that are, sadly, by and large a thing of the past; something that I am aware of, as a representative for the Strangford constituency. Improving the education system in the way that the motion suggests is about maintaining our competitive advantage and ensuring that we do not end up in an economic wilderness in the future, but rather that our children will graduate into well-paid and highly skilled jobs.
Mr Newton: In supporting the motion, I want to make the small point that perhaps it should have included the words “inward investment” also. Addressing the needs of inward investment should be a part of what we are attempting to do, in order to help us attract such investment.
First of all, in our society, we must appreciate the work of the technician and the technologist as well as that of the doctor and the dentist. That is not to say that we do not need doctors and dentists, but, so often, our society sees a lot of virtue in the work of doctors, dentists and other such professions, and ignores the technician and the technologist. In many ways, this motion highlights the need for a review of the number of Departments. I believe that all the pieces needed to help us to deal with this issue are already in place, but they are not joined up. I hope that the points that I make will demonstrate that.
I have spent most of my business career in the development of job-specific training programmes, vocational qualifications and academic qualifications up to the level of foundation degrees. During a Question Time in this Chamber, I asked the Minister for Employment and Learning about a demand-led strategy, and received an assurance from him that he was implementing such a strategy, which would be based on the needs of employers, as identified by DEL. I believe that, along with the Executive, industry is seeking to play a positive role in the development of appropriate strategies and actions to ensure the provision of qualifications and the development of programmes to provide relevant qualifications to combat skills shortages, drive up the skills base and enhance the potential of the Executive to attract inward investment.
I want to comment on three areas. As has been mentioned, just over a year ago, the European Commission announced that it would be targeting the entrepreneurs of tomorrow by introducing a plan to make entrepreneurship a part of the school curriculum. Generally speaking, I am a Euro-sceptic, but in this instance, I think that the Commission got it right. Enhancing the role of education and promoting a business spirit in schools and universities has proven to be helpful in creating greater self-confidence among young people and making them think about the business world. Educating young people in entrepreneurship dramatically increases the start-up chances of self-employment in small- to medium-sized enterprises.
I note that approximately 20% of participants in European secondary schools who are involved in mini-company activities go on to create their own company.
I advocate stronger links between our colleges and business. The Committee for Employment and Learning received an interesting presentation about the Lecturers Into Industry initiative, which I support. That initiative should be extended to include schoolteachers, and, at an increased level, to those who work in industry. Furthermore, businesspeople should also be allowed to get involved.
Each sector of industry and commerce is covered by a sector-skills council. Such councils are led by businesspeople and are required to develop sector-skills agreements, which are approved by DEL, Invest Northern Ireland and others who have an interest in the development of a strategy for the specific sectors. The sector-skills agreements are demand led and reflect the needs of industry. Through such agreements between industry sectors, Government bodies have the opportunity to meet the needs of industry, by creating, for example, sector-specific qualifications. Sector-skills agreements have been developed to get industry-training providers working together to improve the performance and skills base of training and education.
As a result of the brain drain, Northern Ireland is losing its brightest and best. I welcome the fact that the Minister for Employment and Learning commissioned a study to investigate such issues. I acknowledge that the Minister has yet to report back to the Assembly on that study. I look forward to the outcome, which will serve as one strand in addressing the issue, and I especially look forward to the implementation phase of that report.
Mr Shannon: I support the motion, and I congratulate the Member for bringing it to the House.
It has been said that the Minister of Education is getting in a knot about selection and that she is fiddling on the shore while the truth is in the ocean beside her. That is not one of my colleague Sammy Wilson’s comments, nor is it one of his opinions on or assessments of the Minister. Rather, it is an assessment made by a group of teachers from different sectors, industrialists and engineers from our universities. Therefore, others clearly have an opinion about the issue. That comment proves that change is required, and I am not talking about forms of academic selection.
It was not so long ago that I tabled a motion on apprenticeships, and I indicated that there was a severe skills shortage in the Province. The Minister for Employment and Learning listened, and he responded positively by beginning to make a series of changes that were required in order to meet the needs of the industrial sector. However, the issue is not entirely the responsibility of the Minister for Employment and Learning, hence today’s motion.
Part of the solution to the problem lies with the Department of Education and, indeed, the Minister of Education. She has bemoaned the fact that children of 11 should not have to pass a test to decide their future or whether they should be academically successful or otherwise. So far, we have heard little or nothing of the alternative, and, indeed, I await Thursday’s announcement with bated breath.
It is clear that people in all streams of education share that fear, and that is the reason that I urge the Minister to do what she said she would, which is to provide a forum for children of differing skills ability to concentrate on what they do best. The education of children who have a desire to work with engines should include a course that will foster that interest before they go for their apprenticeships.
As my colleague Simon Hamilton pointed out, we are fortunate that part of Bombardier Shorts is based in my constituency of Strangford. I have spoken to some of the third-year apprentices who work there. They told me that the first year of their apprenticeships was spent getting out of the mindset of school teaching and on being able to apply principles practically instead of academically. Why should the first year of an apprenticeship be wasted in such a way when it is clear that the school should have provided a good basis for moving on?
The needs of the future economy of Northern Ireland are great, and it is clear that they must be met through our education system as a matter of urgency. It is even clearer that children must be taught the skills in science and maths that lend themselves to practical education. I implore the Minister to listen to our teachers and to our future employers. If she were to do so, we would be further along in delivering a framework that would allow each child to enjoy their job — academic or otherwise.
That is why I urge the Minister to spend some time assessing and meeting the needs of our children in science, technology, engineering and maths when it is clear that they have a desire and an ability to excel in such subjects.
Although I know that the Minister may hate the sound of it, she may have to consider streaming those who have the ability to help Northern Ireland progress in the industrial sector from those who simply do not have that ability.
Since that is not strictly academic selection, she might be able to swallow that pill and — in this instance — put the interests not only of our children but of the Province above any other agenda.
A strong emphasis is needed on the STEM subjects from primary school onwards, and it is clear that an urgent review is needed with interested bodies such as the Engineering Training Council. I urge the Minister to read the reports and assessments. She has a grave responsibility to ensure that our children can perform to the best of their abilities in their chosen fields; she must put a system in place that will help them to accomplish that.
In my constituency many young people are looking for opportunities. We must have a system that ensures that they can attain the qualifications that they need — that their full potential is achieved when they study at school or during their apprenticeships. The motion gives us that opportunity, and I implore the Minister to respond positively to it.
The Minister of Education (Ms Ruane): Go raibh maith agat. I welcome this debate, and I listened carefully to the many points that were made.
Chonaic mé an tsár-obair atá a dhéanamh inár scoileanna agus inár gcoláistí le cuidiú lenár n-aos óg dul i gcionnn an tsaoil, agus molaim an obair sin.
I have seen at first hand the excellent work that is being done in our schools and colleges to help our young people to prepare for life and work, and I pay tribute to that work. I see enthusiasm in our schools from principals, teachers and our young people; and also from industry and business to equip our young people with the life and work skills that they need.
I welcome the fact that the debate has moved on and that so many Members recognise the need to reform our education structures to ensure that they are fit for the twenty-first century and are capable of ensuring that all our young people have the opportunity to reach their full potential and to play their part in their community and in our economic development.
I attended many events during the investment conference last week; I was in Cultra and in Hillsborough, and I also attended the St Mary’s University College event and many others, where I engaged with many potential investors. As the conference highlighted, we have a real opportunity to play our part as a dynamic and competitive economy in an increasingly global market.
Last Friday, after the St Mary’s University College event, I had lunch with the New York City Comptroller at An Chultúrlann on the Falls Road. Two issues were highlighted: first, we need a dynamic economy with flexible and creative thinking skills; secondly, we need an equal economy. Equality has to be a part of our competitive economy; the best economy is one that is equal.
Education is central to the vision that we all have for the future, and I am determined that that will play its full part. Many of the North Americans to whom I spoke mentioned the importance of education.
The investment conference and recent reports on skills shortages highlight various issues, but the two issues that I will respond to are the need to enable our young people to learn the skills that they need for a modern economy; and the need to ensure that we tackle the deficits in basic skills. Both those issues are raised time and again by business, industry, and, particularly, the small to medium-sized enterprise sector.
Much good work is going on, and we have responded to the needs of business and the demands of the modern economy by reforming the curriculum that is taught in every school. In September 2007, a revised and dynamic curriculum was introduced into our schools. I am delighted that everybody now appears to share my view that that is the way forward. At the curriculum’s heart, there is a focus on knowledge and on allowing young people to develop the key skills that they need to do well in life and at work; the key skills that our economy needs, such as critical thinking, team building, building relationships, problem solving, making informed choices, and becoming independent learners.
Díríonn an curaclam nua ar foghlaim don saol agus don obair, agus, tríd seo, cuidíonn sé le daoine óga tuiscint níos fearr a fháil ar shaol na hoibre; cuidíonn sé leo fosta na scileanna agus na dearcthaí a fhorbairt a chuirfeas ar a gcumas a bheith ina bhfostaithe éifeachtacha agus le tnúth lena i bhfad níos mó ná sin.
The new curriculum also has a deliberate focus on learning for life and work and, through that, on helping young people to understand the world of work more fully and to develop some of the skills and attitudes that will enable them not just to perform as effective employees but to aspire much further.
Although much of the focus has been on science, engineering and technological skills, and rightly so, we must not lose sight of the fact that far too many young people are leaving school without the most fundamental skills — the ability to read and write and to use mathematical skills in everyday situations. If we are to meet the economic needs, we must start by raising the standards of literacy and numeracy, and I am totally committed to that.
Last year, around 5,000 children left primary school without achieving the expected levels in literacy and numeracy — 22% in English and just over 20% in maths. In GCSE exams last year, 47% — almost half of our young people — did not achieve at least a grade C pass in English and maths. Good passes in English — and in Irish for those children studying though Irish — and maths at GCSE level often unlock access to further and higher education and well-paid jobs. Too many pupils leave school with inadequate literacy and numeracy skills, which leaves them ill-prepared for working life, and too many of those young people come from low-income families, the Travelling community and ethnic minority groups who have other barriers to face.
I have already established an independent task force to oversee our progress in raising levels of achievement in literacy and numeracy, and I will introduce shortly the consultation on a new strategy designed to raise achievement and tackle underachievement. It will support and build on the focus inherent in the revised curriculum on helping young people to reach their full potential.
People seem to think that I do not value the academic excellence in our system: I do, and I will say it again just in case people do not understand what I have said. I value academic excellence. Nevertheless, I am concerned about the tail of underachievement.
My proposals for the wholesale reform of the post-primary system are also an essential part in transforming the educational outcomes of our young people. Our current system of grammar and non-grammar schooling is predicated on a 1947 concept of a blue- and white-collar world for which children needed to be prepared through either a purely academic or a purely vocational education — a view of the world that is rendered obsolete by the new realities of work.
I spoke to many North Americans during the different events last week, and they were amazed that an academic-selection system is still operating here. They did not support academic selection — regardless of which end of the political spectrum they represented.
Members referred to the world of business wanting us to change. I met members from the Institute of Directors and the Confederation of British Industry, and they have said publicly that the current selection system must be changed.
We are being presented with many imperatives to change the system, and key amongst those is the need to have an education system that promotes equality of opportunity and supports young people in their learning, that nurtures talent and does not brand young people as failures, and that is responsive to the needs of a modern, global economy and not built on tradition and privilege.
It is essential that we move away from a mindset where the true value of vocational courses is not fully recognised, or is seen by some as solely for non-academic or lower-ability pupils, and a mindset that is denying real opportunities to our young people and short-sighted when it comes to recognising the needs of our society and economy.
We need only look at the changes in the education system in the South of Ireland, and how that has supported the growth of the economy in the South of Ireland, to see the changes that are needed here now. We will not achieve progress if we deny any young person access to either academic excellence or vocational excellence, or a combination of both. That is why I am determined that every young person in our post-primary schools will have not just access but an entitlement — and I use that word deliberately — to the range of courses that can meet their needs and aspirations and lead them into further and higher education, training and employment. [Interruption.] I am sorry if this is boring for some Members.
By 2013, all pupils will be guaranteed access to a broad range of courses — general or academic, and applied or vocational — through the entitlement framework, with at least 24 courses on offer when it comes to making choices at the age of 14, and at least 27 when it comes to post-GCSE choices at the age of 16. In both cases, at least one third must be general, and at least one third must be applied. That requirement reflects the fact that our economy needs many more young people with skills and talent in more applied areas.
I am equally determined that access to a wider range of courses and pathways cannot be dependent on the size or type of school that a young person attends, or their geographical location. Through the work of the area-based planning groups that I have established, my Department will ensure that post-primary education is planned and provided for through a network of schools, all of which are successful, sustainable and vibrant, and linked closely with the communities they serve. We will ensure that pupils in every one of those schools will have access to the full entitlement framework, either in their own school, through collaboration of their school with other local schools, or through collaboration with further education and other providers.
Young people must be able to see that the courses available to them will lead to interesting and stimulating careers. That will require schools to offer coherent packages of courses to support pupils’ progression to further education, training or employment, and I welcome the comments made by representatives in those areas. It will also require the provision of flexible and responsive careers education. My Department is already working alongside the Department for Employment and Learning to finalise a strategy to deliver high-quality careers education, information and advice. The overall objective of the strategy will be to enable learners to become more effective career decision-makers, successfully empowered to manage their own career development confidently. The process of finalising the strategy has been helped and has been informed by the large number of responses to the earlier consultation on the draft strategy. I am grateful to all those who took the time to respond. Go raibh maith agaibh. My Department hopes to be in a position to publish a strategy by the summer, and to move swiftly to implementation and action.
There has been much talk about the needs of business and the economy. In all of our work in education, we must never lose sight of the importance of input from employers, and the necessity of strengthening links between business and education. I hear increasingly from business and industry that they stand ready to play their part. The key challenge now must be to harness that willingness in a way that delivers results.
A LeasCheann Comhairle, ba mhaith liom labhairt go háirithe faoin eolaíocht, faoin teicneolaíocht, faoin oideachas agus faoin mhatamaitic san fhís atá agam don oideachas anseo. Tá mé tiomanta go hiomlán do chinntiú go soláthraíonn ár gcóras oideachais dár ndaoine óga agus dár n-eacnamaíocht.
I want to turn more specifically to the role of science, technology, engineering and maths subjects in my vision for education here. I must declare an interest; my father was a civil engineer; three of my sisters are teachers, focusing on maths, and my brothers were involved in architecture and engineering. In our house, engineering and maths were very important subjects. It is part of the vision that I have for education here. I am absolutely committed to ensuring that our education system delivers for our young people and for our economy; that no one is denied their education entitlements, and that we promote excellence — academic excellence and vocational excellence for all, across our education system. We must make science stimulating. I was at the Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition in Dublin, with many of the schools from the North of Ireland, and I think it is essential that we participate more in events like that, because it does make science, technology, maths and engineering stimulating for our young people.
The revised curriculum creates new opportunities for teachers to present those subjects in ways that appeal to young people and that catch their imagination. My Department’s efforts to raise standards in literacy and numeracy will ensure that young people are not turned off maths.
The entitlement framework offers a greater breadth and balance of courses which, coupled with high-quality careers and educational advice, will enable many more young people to make the leap into STEM-related areas at age 14 and 16.
I agree with what Ken Robinson said about our primary and post-primary schools. I have seen some really interesting and stimulating courses involving collaboration between post-primary schools and post-14 further education colleges. I want to see more of that. It is good for our young people to move from the world of school for a short time to attend courses in further education colleges.
I am open to taking additional steps to promote STEM subjects. That is why my Department, with the Department for Employment and Learning, has initiated a review of science, technology, engineering and maths. That review reflects the fact that we are experiencing a reduction in the number of students who undertake STEM-related subjects. Any fall in the demand for science, technology, engineering and maths subjects should concern us all.
I have met the head of the review, Dr Hugh Cormican, a founder and managing director of Andor Technology. His team also comprises representatives from business, Government and academia, and is expected to produce its report in the summer. Sir Reg Empey and I will carefully consider those findings and recommendations and decide how to translate them into action.
I want to see many more young people doing well in maths and taking science subjects through to GCSE and A level, or equivalent. I further contend that modern languages are an increasingly important requirement in building a competitive, outward-looking economy. Perhaps we should expand STEM by adding an L on the end.
Regardless of how well schools collaborate or how many courses they offer, we will not make the necessary progress without changing attitudes. We all have a role to play in doing that. Too often, it is expected that only our brightest pupils can excel in science or maths. Too often, those brightest pupils are steered away from industry and enterprise towards safe jobs, frequently in the public sector. We must do more; we must learn from the South of Ireland about how to improve educationally and how to promote careers in the science and technology sectors.
Business must play its part by showcasing opportunities for stimulating and rewarding careers, by taking pride in being employers who promote equality of opportunity and reward commitment, and by providing young people with quality work-experience opportunities that can whet appetites and foster aspirations.
The motion calls on me to bring forward proposals that are complementary to those that are being advanced by DEL and that are designed to increase skills and career choices in science, technology, engineering and maths, geared towards our primary and post-primary school children, and that will address the future needs of our economy.
My reform programme will deliver exactly what the Education Committee wants, not just by increasing skills and career choices in science, technology, engineering and maths, but by ensuring that all young people — whatever their interests and aptitudes — have an equal opportunity to reach their full potential, and to play a full part in the development of the economy on this island, as well as developing our society and community.
The challenge is to celebrate the excellence in our system while, collectively, taking responsibility for the children whom our system is failing. A bright future with unique opportunities lies ahead. Let us all play our role in it. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr D Bradley: Go raibh míle maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Bhí díospóireacht an-suimiúil againn inniu. Sílim gur labhair thart faoi dheich gComhalta, agus bhí gach Comhalta a labhair ar aon intinn faoin bhealach chun tosaigh ar an cheist seo.
We have had a very interesting debate involving 12 Members, if one includes the Minister and me. Generally speaking, there was a high degree of agreement on the issue.
The Chairman of the Committee for Education, Mr Sammy Wilson, proposed the motion. He highlighted the difficulties that local industries face in recruiting people to fill engineering and technical vacancies.
Quite a few Members — Mary Bradley, Michelle O’Neill, Trevor Lunn, Mervyn Storey, Ken Robinson and Sammy Wilson — mentioned the education task force’s report and reiterated some of its points. They mentioned the need for meaningful dialogue among business, industry and education, particularly on the skills agenda.
Several Members emphasised that, at present, Northern Ireland’s education-supply side delivers with little reference to the needs of society and the economy. In other words, it prepares students for jobs that do not exist, instead of for jobs that do. As several Members pointed out, those jobs are being filled by people who are not local.
Mr Lunn mentioned the fact that the business-demand side must define and articulate its needs, and how those needs should be met. Simply to say that needs exist is not adequate — business must explain what those needs are and how they can be met.
Several Members mentioned the need for greater emphasis on business and vocational courses in the curriculum, and that practical careers advice is needed for the promotion of STEM subjects, which featured quite often in the debate. Many Members, and the Minister, referred to the decline in numbers of students taking those subjects and called for measures to be introduced to increase their uptake. Several Members referred to the fact that current practice in schools means that STEM subjects are not presented as attractively as they had been previously. In some cases, stringent health and safety rules restrict the amount of experimentation in which pupils can be involved. The hands-on, experimental aspect is what motivates pupils to continue to study those subjects. The various components of STEM subjects must be integrated and links must be developed among schools, further-education colleges and industry.
The task force’s report highlighted the need for all children to reach a clearly defined level of functional communication, both oral and written, in English or Irish, and the need for a similar level of numeracy. In her response, the Minister detailed her proposed actions to deal with literacy and numeracy problems. A new literacy and numeracy strategy has been developed and a task force created. However, the Assembly is aware from experience that task forces have been set up to deal with that problem, but have not delivered success. In fact, the Public Accounts Committee has criticised them for their failure to deliver what they set out to achieve. I wonder whether more investment in primary schools should be considered. The Minister mentioned the low levels of attainment in GCSE English — more than 45% of pupils do not achieve a grade C or better. Often, by the time that children reach secondary school, their literacy and numeracy problems are, to some extent, embedded. Remediation has only limited success.
If we consider the difference between the levels of funding for primary schools and secondary schools, a more effective way in which to deal with literacy and numeracy problems may be to improve funding for primary schools. Teacher to pupil ratios, for example, could be brought to a level at which teachers could tackle, individually, students’ literacy and numeracy problems.
I return once again to the report of the education task force. One of its key elements was the need to develop a qualification structure in Northern Ireland designed specifically for the area, but which would also be acceptable elsewhere.
Sue Ramsey, Chairperson of the Employment and Learning Committee, provided a useful contribution. It is good to see that type of co-operation between Committees. Sue Ramsey and Ken Robinson agreed that education is a continuum: from pre-school level, to primary, to post-primary, to further education, through to higher education. An approach to educational challenges must be made on that basis.
Sue Ramsey mentioned the lack of skills and how that had impacted on the ability to secure foreign direct investment. She also referred to the disparity between level 2 and 3 apprenticeships, with only 7% of trainees participating at level 3.
Basil McCrea referred to a decline in Northern Ireland’s productivity and the need to improve the private sector. He also mentioned the need to raise the average wage here. He concluded by saying that the promotion of engineering offers the way forward. He asked the Minister directly how she would tackle the failure of communication in promoting engineering.
Several Members — Mervyn Storey, Michelle O’Neill, Mary Bradley and Michelle McIlveen — agreed that there must be a joined-up strategy on the issue among Government Departments, business, the Executive, the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, and industry.
The decline in the uptake of STEM subjects, which I have already dealt with, was mentioned by a number of other Members, including Mervyn Storey, Mary Bradley and Michelle McIlveen.
Although the Minister expressed some sympathy with the sentiment expressed in the motion, she failed to respond to the motion in a way that would satisfy many of the Members who spoke today, including Michelle O’Neill — a Member from her party. Michelle O’Neill said she proposed the motion at the Education Committee. Perhaps she should have discussed it in some detail with the Minister before she proposed it or before the Minister made her speech here today, because in my view the Minister did not respond to the issues raised in the motion.
The motion called for specific action on a specific subject, whereas the Minister believes that her reform programmes will deliver on the motion. However, most of the Members who spoke today were in agreement that specific action must be taken to tackle the skills shortage and to improve the uptake of STEM subjects.
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Member’s time is up.
Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly notes the growing needs for our indigenous economy, with particular reference to the engineering sector, and calls on the Minister of Education to bring forward proposals, complementary to the Department for Employment and Learning strategy ‘Further Education Means Business’ and the Programme for Government objective under PSA 2 to “increase skills and career choices in science, technology, engineering and maths (stem) subjects”, geared towards our primary and post-primary school children that will address the future needs of our economy.
Adjourned at 5.34 pm.