Northern Ireland ASSEMBLY
Tuesday 13 May 2008
Matters of the Day:
Executive Committee Business:
Private Members’ Business:
The Assembly met at 10.30 am (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Dallat] in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes’ silence.
Spamount Car Bomb
Mr Deputy Speaker: Mrs Arlene Foster has sought leave to make a statement on a matter that fulfils the criteria that are set out in Standing Order 23A. As this is the first occasion on which such a statement has been made, I shall outline the procedure that will be followed. I shall call Mrs Foster to speak for up to three minutes on the subject. I shall then call a Member from each of the other parties, as agreed with Whips. Those Members will also have up to three minutes to speak on the matter. There will be no opportunity for interventions, for questions or for a vote on the matter. I shall not take any points of order until the item of business is concluded. If that is clear, we shall proceed.
Mrs Foster: Under Standing Order 23A, “Matters of the Day”, I wish to make a brief statement. Last night, a serious incident occurred in the village of Spamount. A young police officer, who was making his way to his work in Fermanagh to serve and protect — the motto of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) — the community in that county, was targeted in a heinous way, when a booby-trap bomb was placed under his car. This morning, I was told by the divisional commander that the officer is fortunate to be alive and that he probably owes his life to quick-thinking members of the public who bravely pulled him from the burning vehicle.
Words cannot convey my disgust, and that of my party, at last night’s events. I ask Members from every side of the House to join us in condemning last night’s actions; to empathise with the officer and his family; to commend the people who assisted the officer after the bomb exploded; to call on those who have information to bring it to the police; and to send a clear message from this place that the people of Northern Ireland will not tolerate that sort of despicable behaviour from such societal deviants.
Mr G Kelly: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Member for her statement, to which I add my voice. I planned to speak about the matter later, during the Final Stage of the Commission for Victims and Survivors Bill. I endorse the statement that is to be released from the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister and the comments that Pat Doherty, the MP for the area, made this morning.
Therefore, on behalf of my party, I condemn that act in the strongest possible terms. Bearing in mind the subject of the debate later today, let there be no more victims. The establishment of a commission for victims and survivors is an attempt to bring closure for such people, and, in such circumstances, the last thing we need is more victims.
Although dangerous, the individuals and groups responsible for such attacks are tiny in number. They have no support in the community or anywhere in Ireland, and they are attempting to bring us back to the past. They will fail, and their threats against the police, politicians and others will fail. Whatever their aims, the perpetrators are practicing dinosaur politics — everyone else is moving forward while they are attempting to move back.
I also wish to praise the people who helped the injured policeman and, through their prompt actions, possibly saved his life.
I add to Arlene Foster’s request by saying that anyone with information should bring it to the PSNI. Furthermore, I extend our sympathy to the policeman and his family. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr Kennedy: I add my voice in unreservedly condemning — in the strongest possible terms — last night’s murderous attack in Spamount, County Tyrone, on a young PSNI officer who was making every effort to serve the local community, particularly in County Fermanagh. It is a great relief that he was rescued from the car, and I pay tribute to those who gave assistance. I wish the officer a speedy and full recovery, and I extend good wishes to his family and colleagues.
By carrying out his duty and serving his community, that officer is, along with his colleagues, making a positive contribution to society, which contrasts sharply with the actions of the perpetrators, who have no place in decent society and want to bring us back to the past.
I join with others in encouraging members of the local community — who are equally shocked and distressed about the nature of the attack — to come forward and help the PSNI in order that those responsible can be made amenable to prosecution. The technical nature of the bomb, which is of a particularly dangerous type, is a worrying departure, and I hope that, with the local community’s assistance, the PSNI will gather enough information to bring those responsible to book.
I pay tribute to local community representatives — especially my colleague councillor Derek Hussey — who are showing leadership and ensuring that the community remains stable and calm. The Ulster Unionist Party believes that communities in Northern Ireland do not support such actions, and it wishes them never to happen again.
Mrs D Kelly: I am grateful to Mrs Foster for the opportunity to speak about this matter. On behalf of the SDLP, I say that that attack was a cowardly and despicable attempt to intimidate police officers from carrying out their duties to the community. It was also an attempt to intimidate the wider public; however, those efforts will be in vain, and that is demonstrated each time the PSNI run a recruitment competition, when thousands of young people — both Catholic and Protestant — apply for a dwindling number of posts. Evidently, the community supports the police.
Furthermore, I wish to make it absolutely clear that there was never a mandate from the Catholic, nationalist community for violent attacks on police officers or any other member of the community. Indeed, it was heartening to learn that a member of the public came to the officer’s assistance and saved him from further injury, and I join with others in wishing the officer a speedy recovery.
The Assembly’s condemnation of the attack sends the message that the perpetrators of such actions have no place in our society. Unlike police officers, those people have no support, no agenda and no future. I also ask anyone who has information about this terrible attack to contact the PSNI to ensure that justice is served.
Mr Ford: I also thank Mrs Foster for raising the matter. On behalf of my party and my Assembly group, I join those Members who condemned this dreadful act of attempted murder and intimidation of a police officer. I express my sympathy to the officer, his family, his friends and his colleagues in the Police Service. It is also important that we commend the bravery of those civilians who saved the police officer from an even worse fate. Their actions show how the community responds to such attacks on the Police Service and how little support the perpetrators of such actions have. The Chief Constable summed that up eloquently this morning when he said that such acts achieved nothing except to inflict pain on the victims.
The best thing that Members can do is to encourage anyone who can assist the police in any way to do so. We must also concentrate on our responsibilities to develop the political institutions to provide good government for all the people of Northern Ireland and to work actively to promote the type of shared future that will make the perpetrators of such an attack even less significant.
Mr Deputy Speaker: I thank Members for those sentiments, which, I am sure, are shared throughout the wider community.
Lord Morrow: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I acknowledge your ruling, and I have no trouble accepting it. However, I would be failing in my duty as the Chairperson of the Committee on Procedures if I did not say that one intention of the new Standing Order was to give Members of the constituency concerned the opportunity to comment on matters such as this. I am disappointed that that did not happen.
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee will, undoubtedly, review that. The main purpose of using that Standing Order was to allow Members to express their sympathy to the police officer and to assure him, and all his colleagues, that they have our total support. The issue that the Member raised can be addressed when the Speaker returns.
North/South Ministerial Council — Animal Health, Plant Health, Common Agricultural Policy and Rural Development
Mr Deputy Speaker: The next item of business is the Final Stage of the Commission for Victims and Survivors Bill. I call the junior Minister Mr Gerry Kelly.
I apologise to the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development. I have received notice from the Minister that she wishes to make a statement on the outcome of the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) meeting.
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development (Ms Gildernew): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I will make a statement in compliance with section 52 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 on the ninth meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council in the agriculture sector, which was held at the Enniskillen campus of the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise on Wednesday 30 April 2008. At that meeting, the Executive were represented by the Minister of the Environment, Arlene Foster, and by me. The Irish Government were represented by Mary Coughlan TD, the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and Éamon Ó Cuív TD, the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. This statement has been agreed with Minister Foster.
The Council noted progress on the activities in the draft all-island animal health and welfare strategy, including: agreement on a common chapter in the respective epizootic contingency plans for foot-and-mouth disease, with common chapters for avian influenza and bluetongue to follow; ongoing development of a report on the potential for joint data sharing, which is expected to be completed by June 2008; continuing examination of the feasibility of a joint approach to the electronic identification of sheep; the development of common approaches to sheep scrapie genotyping; and the development of a common approach to salmonella in line with an EU baseline report, which is due to be published in May 2008.
The Council approved further measures to progress the all-island approach to Aujeszky’s disease in pigs and, in conjunction with respective food safety standards agencies, consideration of the hygiene package on the transmission of food-chain information with animals going to slaughter and of the feasibility and priority of an all-island approach to Trichinella in pigs.
The Council also noted plans for consultation and a future cross-border event with key agriculture stakeholders from both jurisdictions to discuss the all-island strategic approach.
On the matter of plant health, the Council noted that the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development has developed a draft plant health strategy which includes a section on North/South co-operation. This is consistent with the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food plant health strategies. The Council also recognised the need to develop a more strategic approach to cross-border co-operation on plant health and pesticide matters, and agreed to establish a steering group to identify areas of mutual interest in the plant health and pesticide areas.
The Council had a broad, wide-ranging discussion on issues of common concern regarding the EU common agricultural policy (CAP). It noted recent CAP reforms — in particular, the significant simplification of the single farm payment scheme. Ministers noted the contents of the CAP health check communication from the European Commission, along with conclusions from the European Council. Ministers requested that officials remain in close contact over CAP issues.
The Council received a presentation on cross-border rural development. This centred on an innovative and strategic approach to collaboration and communication on rural development programmes. This project is aimed at fostering improved community relations in remote rural areas and complementing the economic regeneration of disadvantaged cross-border regions.
Ministers noted the development of proposals for a rural enabler project for submission to the Peace III programme. This project aims to bring together people from both traditions, and migrants, to increase understanding and to address issues of sectarianism and racism in a rural context.
The Council also considered a cross-border project under INTERREG IVa to promote tailored rural development initiatives for a number of the most disadvantaged rural regions. The Council agreed that DARD and the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs should continue to discuss other aspects of co-operation that would benefit rural communities across the region.
The Council agreed that its next meeting in the agriculture sectoral format would take place in autumn 2008. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr Deputy Speaker: I call the Deputy Chairman of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development, Mr Willie Clarke.
I am getting things really badly wrong this morning. Mr Tom Elliott.
The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development (Mr Elliott): Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. In being asked to speak first today, I did not expect to be changing parties as well. [Interruption.] If I was in a different party I might consider that.
I thank the Minister for her statement and recognise the points which she has raised. I look forward to seeing the details of these deliberations when the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) approaches the Committee on these matters, particularly the approved measures relating to Aujeszky’s disease in pigs. The Committee also looks forward to the Minister’s attendance at its meeting this afternoon, where we will be apprised of the enhanced controls to prevent the spread of bluetongue in Northern Ireland.
The Committee welcomes vaccination in England as a positive move against the spread of this disease, and asks farmers not to import cattle and sheep to Northern Ireland until further notice. Has the Minister had any discussion with her counterparts in the South on the possibility of bluetongue’s arriving in the Republic of Ireland? How would that situation be dealt with by the Northern Ireland officials?
The Minister has identified a number of cross-border rural development and other all-Ireland strategies. Can she direct me to the section of her statement that deals with the strategies for saving the Northern Ireland pig sector, or indeed the red meat sector? Where are the strategies for protecting the Northern Ireland poultry industry and for action on fuel prices across the Province? Where is the welfare payment for Northern Ireland farmers equivalent to what their counterparts receive in the Republic, and where is the level playing field within the industry?
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: I welcome the Deputy Chairperson’s comments on the progress that has been made. I look forward to the Committee meeting this afternoon, where I will offer further details on the development of a strategy on bluetongue vaccination. Although bluetongue was mentioned and discussed at the North-South Ministerial Council meeting, that was around an island-wide approach as opposed to a specific one.
An outbreak of bluetongue in Louth would have implications for people in south Armagh. The nature of the disease means that we must consider dealing with it on an all-Ireland basis. Our response would depend on the location of the outbreak in the South. As we have done previously, we would liaise closely with our colleagues in the South, and we would then consider whether restrictions should apply in the North. Much depends on geography, and on where the first incursion occurs. Several options are available, depending on circumstances. Thus, good cross-border communication on the bluetongue threat is taking place, as it does on many other issues.
The other issues that the Member mentioned were not discussed in any great detail at the NSMC meeting.
Mr W Clarke: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for her statement. What plans does she have to secure the free movement of animals on the island of Ireland? Will she also outline her plans for a rural White Paper, and will that paper have an all-island dimension?
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: As I stated in discussions on the all-island animal health and welfare strategy, free movement of animals on the island of Ireland is one of my key priorities. Although sheep can be moved around the island of Ireland with relative ease — the industry has welcomed such arrangements — the free movement of cattle is more complex. That is partly down to the 10-year ban — lifted only a year ago —on the export of beef and live cattle from the North, and the European authorities’ ongoing scrutiny of our control systems.
From my discussions with stakeholders, I am acutely aware of the apparent differences between North and South in our application of EU rules on trade in cattle since the lifting of the export ban. My aim is therefore to ensure, as far as possible, a level playing field. The all-island animal health and welfare strategy is the right vehicle to tackle the issue of the freer movement of cattle on the island. The rural White Paper was not discussed at the NSMC meeting.
Mr P J Bradley: I am glad that you did not call Dominic or Mary Bradley this morning, Mr Deputy Speaker.
My main question concerned bluetongue, which Mr Elliott has already raised. I look forward to the Minister’s meeting with the Committee this afternoon.
Cross-border rural development has been mentioned, and the Narrow Water bridge project will slot nicely into the planned regeneration of cross-border regions. I welcome that project, although I know that the Minister cannot comment it.
Was the Treaty of Lisbon discussed at the meeting?
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: The Member is correct; I cannot comment on the Narrow Water bridge project, because that is the responsibility of my Executive colleague Conor Murphy. Some discussion about the World Trade Organization (WTO) negotiations took place at the NSMC meeting, but the Treaty of Lisbon did not feature.
Mr Ford: I thank the Minister for her statement. She refers to the feasibility of adopting a joint approach to the electronic identification of sheep. Can she indicate the timescale for such developments, given the existing problems with sheep identification?
The Minister said that the Department would:
“continue to discuss other aspects of co-operation that would benefit rural communities across the region.”
Can she give a flavour of those particular projects?
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: Local action groups will put forward their own plans. We want to offer them as much freedom as possible and we want to take a bottom-up approach to projects that will be included in the rural development programme. Therefore, I do not want to be too prescriptive or to pre-empt the outcome of that work.
Tagging and identification of sheep is very much a live issue. I am in discussions with the European Commission on issues that concern electronic ID. I intend to have a dedicated meeting on sheep ID with industry representatives shortly. The EU requires a blueprint by the end of 2009. We are developing our plans, and we are liaising with the South to ensure that the systems, North and South, are compatible and that our farmers are not disadvantaged in any way when sheep-identification measures are introduced.
Mr Irwin: As far as I am aware, in Northern Ireland, a programme to eradicate Aujeszky’s disease in pigs is just about complete, while a programme is barely under way in the Republic of Ireland.
Is there not a danger that, in the Minister’s all-Ireland approach, Northern Ireland will be held back with regard to this disease?
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: The industry has made good progress with DARD on Aujeszky’s disease. We should soon be in a position to approach Brussels to seek recognition of our greatly improved Aujeszky’s disease status. The South has also made good progress on the disease. Although parallel status may be sought from Brussels, each case will be judged on its merits, and trade will not be affected by a joint strategy. We could equally point to other animal disease issues. I am, therefore, confident that we can move forward on this matter to achieve the best outcome for the industry.
Mr Molloy: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for her statement, which is important with regard to co-operation. Will the Minister outline what positive outcomes co-operation has delivered, in particular on all-island sustainability and the energy strategy?
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: We are seeking a positive outcome on the energy issue. I have met Teagasc officials to ensure that our research programmes complement each other and do not duplicate work that has been done on both parts of the island. However, renewable energy was not on the agenda at the NSMC meeting.
Mr T Clarke: I know that the Minister sometimes sees herself as the rural champion in the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. Will she accept that Orange Halls play a key and integral role in many communities? Have she or her counterparts considered funding for Orange Halls?
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: That issue did not come up at the NSMC meeting. Obviously, there has been funding for community halls across the sector through the last rural development programme.
Mr Doherty: Go raibh maith agat. Will the Minister outline the positive, practical outcomes of co-operation on an all-Ireland basis with regard to animal health and World Trade Organization talks? Was there mention at the meeting, and are there concerns in the Agriculture Departments, North and South, about those talks?
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: There have been a number of positive outcomes as a result of all-island co-operation on animal health. Those include the development of largely similar systems of sheep identification; co-operation on the exchange of data to facilitate trade in bovine animals after the lifting of the BSE export ban; a broad alignment of border control policies aimed at preventing the introduction of animal disease; co-operation on contingency planning for exotic disease outbreaks, including agreement on a common chapter in the respective epizootic contingency plans for foot-and-mouth disease; and initiation of draft common chapters for avian influenza and bluetongue. There is also agreement on a protocol on welfare during transport breaches, and co-operation on testing regimes for TB and brucellosis in border areas.
The strategic approach will enable the achievement of further positive outcomes over the next year, all of which provide for meeting the key aim of freer animal movements on the island.
The concern with the WTO is that Mandelson is negotiating away a lot of Europe’s strengths, and it is of great concern, North and South, how we will be affected. The farmers’ unions are particularly concerned, and the Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) and the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) have held joint meetings with me and Mary Coughlan, the Agriculture Minister in the South, on these issues.
Farmers have also made their views clear on the Lisbon Treaty, which is also a cause for disquiet.
Mr Shannon: I want to comment on the issue of cross-border rural development.
The Minister talked about the council receiving a presentation on an innovative and strategic approach, aimed at fostering improved community relations in remote rural areas and complementing the economic regeneration of certain regions. What is the Minister doing to assist isolated Protestant communities that have not yet availed of rural development funding? It is an important issue, and people are losing out.
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: Pilot schemes have been introduced in some of those areas, and the Department has been involved in some single identity work. DARD and the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs are supporting the rural community network and the Irish Rural Link with an application under the “building positive relations at the local level” theme of Peace III.
The programme, which is known as the rural enabler, will seek to address issues of sectarianism and racism in rural areas, under the following headings: young people; flags and emblems; housing; interfaces; racism; community relations and community development; and rural institutions. The total estimated cost of the programme of activities is £2·4 million, North and South. Therefore, we are addressing the needs that the Member has articulated.
Lord Morrow: I, too, listened carefully to the Minister. What discussions has she had with the Minister of the Environment, Arlene Foster, to ensure that the Planning Service and the Environment and Heritage Service help to fast-track energy from waste projects? Furthermore, what are the Minister’s proposals for the pig, the poultry and the red-meat sectors? Does she have any proposals in relation to fuel costs?
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: The issue is topical and timely. Although it was not discussed specifically at last week’s meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council, I am sure that I will discuss the issue with Minister Foster.
Commission for Victims and Survivors Bill
The junior Minister (Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister) (Mr G Kelly): I beg to move
That the Commission for Victims and Survivors Bill (NIA12/07) do now pass.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. On 28 January 2008, the First Minister and deputy First Minister announced their intention to appoint four victims’ commissioners. Furthermore, they announced that the establishment of such a commission would require a change in the legislation. We have now reached the penultimate stage in the enactment of that legislation.
There was some intense debate in the Chamber during the various stages of the Bill; however, the very fact that such a sensitive and often difficult subject was debated shows how far we have come in recent times. That in itself sends a message to such people as the perpetrators of last night’s attack that we are determined to forge ahead towards a new and better, peaceful, more prosperous future.
Everyone who contributed to the debate expressed support for the general thrust of what was being done to progress the Bill, although some Members did not always agree with the precise detail of it. There is a need to get the commission up and fully functioning, so that, at long last, victims and survivors can have a real, strong voice — a voice that, surely, they deserve. Therefore, I am pleased that we have reached this point, which is a milestone for victims and survivors. I hope that, at some stage, we can look back and realise that this was a defining moment for those in our society on whom the impact of the events of the past four decades has been greatest.
During the Bill’s passage, we listened carefully to Members’ concerns, and we gave due and careful consideration to the amendments that were tabled. The Bill, as it now stands, is a genuine effort to reflect, as far as is practicable, the wide-ranging debate that took place. During its various stages, the First Minister and deputy First Minister were criticised for delaying the progress of the Bill. Accelerated passage was sought, and the process took longer than desired. The issues involved, however, are important, and it would have been ill-advised not to give full consideration to the concerns that were raised. Therefore, I make no apology for taking time to get the Bill right.
This Administration is delivering for victims and survivors as promised, through the Bill and through the resources that have been secured for victims and survivors.
Ms J McCann: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I support the Bill, and I am grateful that the priority and focus of the debate has been on meeting the needs of victims and survivors. Over the past weeks, there has been much debate; I hope that we are closer to the establishment of the victims’ commission, which will offer the wealth of experience, expertise and skills that are required to shape and deliver the important services that victims and survivors need.
The legislation will establish a commission to acknowledge and support ongoing efforts and to ensure that programmes are delivered directly to victims and survivors, either by individuals or victims’ and survivors’ groups. I hope that those groups will be guaranteed the secure funding that is required to continue their worthwhile programmes. Go raibh maith agat.
Mrs D Kelly: The SDLP is mindful that today’s Final Stage will amend the existing legislation — the Victims and Survivors (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 — to create a commission. Legislation already exists for the creation and appointment of a Victims’ Commissioner. The SDLP has stated on record that its preferred option was, in the first instance, the appointment of a single Victims’ Commissioner. That, clearly, will not happen.
Along with other parties, we sought to amend the Commission for Victims and Survivors Bill. The amendments were rejected, and that remains a matter of concern for the SDLP. Therefore, we cannot support the Bill. However, we are mindful of the need to make progress and, therefore, we will not vote against the legislation today. It continues to be a matter of serious disappointment that the Bill has been handled with such hypocrisy and dishonesty. Despite the rhetoric, the additional appointments and the associated costs, the Assembly has missed the opportunity to give the commission the powers it requires to support victims effectively. That gives the lie to the self-righteous public grandstanding that we have witnessed.
During his contributions to the debate, junior Minister Jeffrey Donaldson challenged my colleague Mark Durkan for not seeking to amend the Bill at Westminster. That is further hypocrisy, because there was no Bill at Westminster — it was an Order in Council, which, as the junior Minister knows, cannot be amended. Also, Mark Durkan questioned the commission’s authority at the Committee Stage of that Order on 1 November 2006. He said:
“It is one thing for the commissioner to be able to give advice, but there are issues about whether the victims commissioner will be able to get the quality of attention and response from Departments that the Commissioner for Children and Young People gets. We also need to address that in the future.”
More importantly, during last week’s debate on the proposed amendments, junior Minister Donaldson compared the victims’ commission with the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, in an attempt to defend his position on the number of commissioners. That highlighted other disparities that he does not want to rectify. The onus is on the junior Minister and the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to explain why the victims’ commission — despite the Victims’ Commissioners’ receiving an enormous salary, compared with other commissioners — should have such restricted powers.
The powers that the SDLP advocated would have given the commission a legal basis to pursue victims’ interests with the vigour and authority, consistent with internationally defined standards. Without the inclusion of those principles, the commissioners’ ability to make a difference will be limited. I expected it from the DUP, but the manner of the Bill’s passage exposes a side of Sinn Féin that undermines that party’s stated commitment to human rights and equality. It is my view — and that of the SDLP — that victims’ interests remain prejudiced by the lack of consensus and failure of leadership in the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister.
Mr Ford: In moving the Final Stage of the Bill, Mr Kelly said that everyone who had participated in the debate agreed with the general thrust of the Bill. Where has Mr Kelly been during the past weeks? It is absolutely clear that a significant section of the House does not agree with the general thrust of the Bill.
Three parties in this House made it clear that an existing Order provided for the establishment of a commissioner. That was what should have happened, and it was what the junior Minister Mr Kelly and his colleagues were planning to do, until they failed to agree on an appointment. It was then that we had the back-pedalling, and the sad stories of the people who had missed their Christmas pudding. They failed to fulfil their responsibility and their stated aim, which was to appoint a Victims’ Commissioner before the summer recess of 2007. That was what they told us they would do, and now, virtually a year later, they are still desperately trying to cover their traces.
Let us not have any of that nonsense about Members of this House being in agreement on this issue. They may agree that we wish to ensure that the victims are properly provided for and cared for, and that the services that they need are made available. However, to suggest that there is any agreement on the thrust of the Bill is to misrepresent totally the view of the House, or, at least, a significant section of it.
The junior Minister Mr Kelly was rarely in the Chamber for the debates on the Bill. It is, at least, pleasant to see that three of the four Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) Ministers have made it to the Chamber for the Bill’s Final Stage. However, where were they during the serious discussions, when we rarely saw more than one of the four of them, except, of course, when they all arrived with their embarrassed colleagues who had remained outside the Chamber, to vote down any sensible amendments?
How can junior Minister Kelly say that OFMDFM gave its “full consideration” to the concerns that were raised? What he calls “full consideration” amounted to four weeks of discussions between the DUP and Sinn Féin to try to resolve the complete anomalies in their approach, which were exposed by the fact that reasonable amendments were tabled from this side of the House. Let us, at least, accept the reality that this is, and remains, a flawed Bill. It is the result of a flawed process. All that is happening in the Chamber is that the DUP/Sinn Féin steamroller is rolling over everyone else, though, in truth, it is more the case that Sinn Féin is steamrolling the DUP Back-Benchers into submission until they are required to come in and vote.
There has been an absence of participation. Can you imagine, Mr Deputy Speaker, during discussions about the needs of victims in this Chamber, circumstances in which DUP Back-Benchers would be as silent as they have been? That is an indication of their total embarrassment. However much junior Minister Donaldson may smile, the fact that not one of his colleagues is down to speak in this debate is a clear indication of that position.
Mr Shannon: I am going to speak.
Mr Ford: In that case I apologise. It is most unusual for an Alliance Party Member to be called before the first DUP contributor, Mr Deputy Speaker. The way in which you have routed today’s proceedings is a clear indication of the quality of the speeches.
We are left with a defective Bill. Those who have insisted on steamrolling the Bill through in its current form must show that they are going to provide for the needs of victims, and demonstrate that the commission will work, not just with the current four incumbents, but with the structures which, by statute, they have established for the future. I remain extremely doubtful whether that will be the case, although I wish the commissioners, if not the Ministers, all the best in the difficult task that they have.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Despite your efforts to get me involved, Mr Ford, I remain entirely neutral, as a Speaker should. I now call Mr Francie Molloy.
Mr Ford: Will the DUP speak?
Mr Molloy: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle, I am certain that the DUP and the other parties will be able to arrange their speaking rotas without Mr Ford’s help.
We have reached an important stage — the Final Stage of the Commission for Victims and Survivors Bill. It is an incentive to go ahead and provide for victims and survivors. I welcome Dolores Kelly’s comment that her party would not hold up the process any further and not vote against the Bill. It is an indication that, having debated the issues — [Interruption.]
Mr Ford: Is the Member saying specifically that Dolores Kelly was not going to hold up the process any further? That implies that, on some occasion, SDLP, Alliance Party or Ulster Unionist Members have held up the process so far. Perhaps the Member could elucidate when that was?
Mr Molloy: If the Member looks back two or three weeks, even he will realise what those parties have been up to. He should understand his own methods without the need for me to explain them to him.
It is important that we deal with the issue of victims and survivors today. We must take the opportunity to involve them in the process, so that they can begin to work with the commission and develop a strategy that will deal with their needs and the issues that they want to raise. The Assembly should not try to dictate to victims and survivors.
It is very important to move the process forward. Given the debate that Members have had and the various opinions expressed — which is fair enough; there is no problem with that — I hope that all parties will come together, support the commission, and give it the authority to deal with the issues and get on with its work without interfering too much in its development. I hope that no one will try to tie the commission down and impose conditions that it must meet. The issue is very important, and today the Bill has reached its Final Stage.
The division that has emerged during the debate should not be carried through to the way in which we deal with victims. There have been criticisms about who was, or was not, in the Chamber during the debates. Not all Alliance Party Members — few as they are — are here today. One would have thought that the party’s Whip would have been able to summon all its MLAs if its leader were so concerned about attendance. It is typical of the way in which that party tries to tell everyone else what to do. Over the years, the Alliance Party has tried — or at least it proclaims that it has tried — to bring everybody together and get them to work together. It said that no matter what the situation was, everybody should co-operate and take more time to develop relationships. Now, the Alliance Party has become the party of division in the Chamber rather than the party of co-operation.
It is important that we, the majority of Members in the Chamber, move the process on, give the commission the authority to deal with the issues, and give the victims and survivors and their families the opportunity to become involved. Let the process be victim-led from now on. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr Kennedy: I am grateful for the opportunity to speak. The original desire to create a commissioner for victims and survivors of the Troubles was an honourable desire to compensate, in some way, those people who suffered innocently at the hands of terrorists. Therefore, an independent, neutral and respected figure was supposed to serve victims and help our society to move beyond its regrettably violent past. However, due to the joint actions of Sinn Féin and the DUP, that honourable intention has been slightly soiled by the grimy compromises that those two parties have cajoled from each other.
The blatant inability of the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to agree on a single Victims’ Commissioner has led to the fudge of having four commissioners. The First Minister and deputy First Minister appointed those people and paid them salaries — presumably at the taxpayers’ expense — only to discover that they could not legally carry out their work. That has led us to the unfortunate Bill that we are completing today.
In an attempt to stifle debate and protect its compromising position, the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister forced the Bill through the Assembly by accelerated passage, albeit that acceleration was interrupted by self-made speed bumps. On 31 March, the deputy First Minister said:
“It was implicit in the case for accelerated passage in this instance that the First Minister and I do not wish to use that procedure as a matter of routine for legislation on victims and survivors, or more generally.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 29, p46, col 2].
The Ulster Unionist Party expects the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to abide by that statement. We expect that no further victims’ legislation will be pushed through the House by means of accelerated passage.
My party has made it clear that it considers the current definition of the word “victim” to be morally wrong. It allows those who perpetrated acts of terrorism to be given the same status as those who suffered at their hands. Despite all its claims, the DUP has failed to address that issue, and the reason for that is that Sinn Féin would not let it do so.
We could not table an amendment on the issue for technical reasons. However, we endeavoured to protect innocent victims by ensuring that no commissioner — or employee of a commissioner — who had a conflict-related conviction would be employed by the commission. Our amendment would have protected innocent victims from being placed in the position in which they would have had to seek help from former terrorists and victim-makers. However, again, the DUP and Sinn Féin rejected our amendment.
Junior Minister Donaldson’s amendment is a laughable attempt to address this issue. Clearly most, if not all, DUP Members would have supported our amendment but were unable to do so. Why was that, Mr Deputy Speaker? Again, it was because Sinn Féin would not let them.
There was a general consensus on the need to have a chief commissioner, which would have given the commission direction and would have ensured that the existing commissioners would not act as independents, serving specific communities within their own remits. For the sake of innocent victims, it is crucial that the commission acts as a comprehensive entity. Regardless of every party supporting the idea of having a chief commissioner — including, I believe, the majority of DUP Members — that has been denied to victims. Why was that, Mr Deputy Speaker? Again, it was because Sinn Féin did not want it.
The deputy First Minister (Mr M McGuinness): Will the Member give way?
Mr Kennedy: Sorry, I am not giving way today.
We have seen a departmental fudge that gives the Office of the deputy First Minister and First Minister — and I use that term explicitly: deputy First Minister and First Minister — the power to introduce a chief commissioner and to appoint a chief commissioner in the future. However, having a power without the will to use it is the same as having no power at all.
Although this is a flawed piece of legislation and despite the unsatisfactory manner in which it has been pushed through the House — which, frankly, is a disgrace — the Ulster Unionist Party will support the work of the commission.
Mr Boylan: Will the Member give way?
Mr Kennedy: I am sorry, I will not give way. We will support the work of the commission because that is the right thing to do. However, let us not be under any illusion: this Bill has been a fudge, largely dictated by Sinn Féin, the only party in the Assembly with a violent history.
The DUP has gained very little movement from its position as a party hell-bent on promoting and protecting its own position at the expense of innocent victims in Northern Ireland. The DUP and Sinn Féin should reflect long and hard on what they have achieved today.
Dr Farry: This process has been a complete shambles since it was inherited by the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. There have been repeated delays, and now a total fudge. The Assembly, as something that was supposed to be putting victims’ needs first, has fallen well short of the mark.
The First Minister and deputy First Minister inherited a situation in which they were required to appoint a single commissioner for victims and survivors. They sat on that issue for a number of months and then decided to re-advertise for a single commissioner. Even at that stage, there was no talk of a commission. There was no mention of a commission until we had the situation in which four commissioners designate were announced by OFMDFM.
There was no emergence of the concept of a victims’ commission through the normal policy-making processes that are now tried and tested in Northern Ireland, and there was no consultation on the idea of having a victims’ commission. The concept of a victims’ commission was very much an afterthought, designed to get around the inability of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to agree on the appointment of a single Victims’ Commissioner who would be capable of representing the interests of victims across the spectrum in Northern Ireland.
We now have the bizarre situation in which four individuals have been appointed without the proper legal framework for them to do their job or the legal framework for the commission to exist. That has placed those individuals in a very invidious situation and, frankly, places Assembly Members in an extremely difficult situation, as inevitably personalities become part and parcel of the process. We should focus on implementing proper structures to fulfil the victims’ legislation mandate. Personalities should not be drawn into that.
There have been opportunities to discuss this matter in detail. Clearly, it was not initially appreciated that legislation would be required. Indeed, it was only in March — long after the January announcement — that legislation was introduced in the Assembly. Given the situation in which we find ourselves, the Bill should have been given a Committee Stage, which takes only six weeks. If there had been a Committee Stage, we could have had a more constructive and less adversarial discussion on the issue. We would also have had the opportunity to fashion proper amendments to be thrashed out by Committee members and departmental officials. Perhaps a consensus would have been reached that would have corrected the flaws in the legislation.
Accelerated passage was sought, very controversially, but the brakes were then applied. That was a bizarre and totally unprecedented way for any piece of Government legislation in these islands to be handled. Parties have tabled amendments in good faith and in an attempt to improve the legislation. Indeed, one party from the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister made it known publicly that they had sympathy with those amendments. Another bizarre situation emerged when the DUP and Sinn Féin went back into a huddle to try to cobble together some sort of fudge in an effort to paper over the cracks.
The Alliance Party is here to address the needs of victims and to see that a robust solution is implemented to do so. However, we will not hand out blank cheques. We have worked over the past 40 years to deliver peace and stability in Northern Ireland. Other parties that are represented in the Chamber have joined that work rather late in the day, so we will take no lectures on our efforts. Having fought so hard to have devolution restored in Northern Ireland, we are not prepared to let the DUP and Sinn Féin to do as they please. We will not allow them to Balkanise Northern Ireland and merely manage the divisions in our society, rather than moving forward and building a proper shared future.
The Alliance Party wants to have proper, effective democratic institutions and a normalisation of democracy in Northern Ireland. That means establishing a situation in which issues are debated on the Floor of the Assembly, Government Ministers table Bills and motions, and other parties table amendments. That is the normal process of any democratic Chamber and one that we should celebrate, rather than criticise. Until such time as my party is in a position to take its place in Government, it will continue to play the role of a constructive opposition in the Chamber in the coming months and years.
There are deep concerns in the community about the nature of the victims’ commission. I stress that those have nothing to do with the integrity of the individuals in question. Those concerns regard the structures of the commission, and whether they will last beyond the current four nominees for the body. People want a single, coherent strategy to deal with victims across the board. There are concerns that the commission will mean a Balkanised system whereby different groups in society, almost implicitly, identify more closely with one commissioner than another. Similarly, staff on the commission may work more closely with one commissioner than another.
We must move forward and overcome the deep divisions of the past that were created by events in Northern Ireland. Those divisions must not simply be set in stone but, rather, overcome. It should be realised that people share much common ground in suffering and in how they access the relevant services to address that suffering.
There is particular concern about the absence of a chief commissioner.
I stress that the Bill merely provides for the First Minister and the deputy First Minister to make such an appointment. That appointment will remain subject to veto by either party in the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMDFM). Bearing in mind that an amendment providing for appointment of a chief commissioner was rejected, major concerns exist over the prospect of the emergence of a chief commissioner at some time in the future.
The appointment of a chief commissioner is not about creating a hierarchy of victims or about asserting that one viewpoint is more important than any other. It is about setting in stone the normal structures expected in any public body, whether that be the Equality Commission or the Human Rights Commission. It is about ensuring adherence to proper structures, proper administrative procedures and, in particular, proper financial procedures, not least because public money is at stake. Equally, it is important that all staff operate coherently and cohesively, and report to a single individual on the body.
The party Whips will no doubt ensure that the Bill becomes law. The commission will become a legally constituted body, and the Alliance Party will work with it. However, we shall seek to overcome those flaws in the commission’s constitution for which the Bill is responsible. We shall use our best endeavours to ensure that the commission delivers for victims in a single, coherent manner.
Mr Shannon: We are on the brink of legislative change that will deliver for victims. It is important to repeat what I said yesterday: the DUP has changed neither its mind nor its position on the Bill. Then, as now, we have victims’ best interests at heart. The Bill provides the framework for good and proper delivery of help and support to victims and survivors. That help and support has been withheld for too long.
Dr Farry: The Member says that the DUP has been consistent and has not changed its position. Will he inform the House at what stage the DUP changed from supporting the appointment of a single commissioner to its current position, which is that the appointment of a commission is the best way forward for Northern Ireland?
Mr Shannon: I do not agree with the Member. The DUP’s position has been consistent; we have delivered. Our focus is clear: we are working on behalf of the victims. An example of that may be found in the Budget, wherein £36 million is allocated directly to victims. Never before has that been done.
Mrs D Kelly: In the absence of any guidance from the First Minister or the deputy First Minister, the Member may be able to detail exactly how that £36 million will be spent. Will he confirm that the Health Service has already spent much of it in treating victims and survivors? How much control will individual commissioners have over allocation of those funds?
Mr Shannon: The Member is correct: £36 million has been set aside. The decision on how it is to be spent has yet to be taken. However, that will be decided, and our position is clear. The Member will have an opportunity to have input into that process, as will all Members.
We welcome statements from the SDLP, the Alliance Party and the Ulster Unionists that they will work with the commission. That is a step forward.
Never before has £36 million been set aside for victims alone; never before has a commission for victims been in place. Things have moved on. The money is in place, the commission is in place, and the legislation is a step in the right direction. This Assembly has awarded much more money from its Budget than any previous Westminster Government or any Government made up of Assembly parties ever allocated.
Let us deliver that money to those who need it most. Many victims are not members of victims’ groups, and those people must be considered. Until now, they have borne their sorrow and burdens on their own. We have a duty to respond to them directly. The Commission for Victims and Survivors Bill gives us an opportunity to deliver for all victims, whether they be groups or individuals.
I urge Members to move on.
Mr Irwin: Although Members from several parties have been vocally opposed to the Bill, when it came to Divisions on the various stages of the Bill, very few of those Members — particularly from Mr Kennedy’s party — actually voted. If those Members were as concerned as they said they were, they should have been turned up to vote.
Mr Shannon: I thank the Member for that intervention. As has been mentioned, the Hansard reports can be checked, and the names of those Members who were present and participated — as well as those who did not — will be clear for all to see. My friend is correct that there were absences on the part of the UUP. However, that party can answer for itself.
Mr B McCrea: I am somewhat confused. Is the DUP trying to build a consensus on this issue, or to stoke up division? [Laughter.]
There are guffaws from a sedentary position. [Interruption.]
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. Members were reminded yesterday that all remarks must be made through the Chair. The rule has not changed overnight.
Mr B McCrea: The Ulster Unionist Party has made its position quite clear, and Mr Kennedy has set that out. We will support the victims’ commission when it is established, but we do not like the way in which it has been created, nor do we like the political fudge and the machinations surrounding its creation. The UUP does not believe that that does justice to the real victims. Frankly, we believe that it is a disgrace. If we are being asked to vote for something that is a disgrace, I am afraid that certain parties are on a different planet.
Mr Shannon: The point that I made is that some Ulster Unionist Party Members were not present here to vote either for or against the Bill. According to the Hansard reports, the Member’s party and its Members have not been present in the Chamber when they should have been to make their opinions clearly known.
We have moved forward. I hope that Basil McCrea can move forward as well. The debate is over and the discussions have concluded. Now is the time to move forward and deliver for the victims.
The DUP has been consistent and honest. We have delivered in the past, and we are about to do so again in respect of victims. The money that has been set aside and the creation of the commission is proof of that delivery. We are delivering for the people who have suffered through the Troubles in this Province.
The victims are our focus and our priority. I ask Members to support the legislative change before us to ensure that we can move forward. Let all the posturing and division from certain parties be left in the past. Let us go forward together and support the victims.
Mr S Wilson: Many people will be relieved that the Assembly has reached the stage at which the finalisation of the legislation is at hand and that some structure will be put in place to channel help towards victims and to represent them. However, some have used the legislative process and this debate to engage in point-scoring, nit-picking and finding excuses not to offer support.
I was not planning to speak in this debate until I heard the speech from Mr Kennedy on behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party. Although I have a lot of time for Mr Kennedy, I have never heard such a whingeing, self-justifying, hypocritical and political-point-scoring speech in my life. That was not becoming of him or of the serious issue that we are addressing.
Mr A Maginness: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Is it not unparliamentarily to use the term “hypocritical” in respect of another Member of this House?
Mr S Wilson: I imagine that if it was unjustified, it would not be in order. However, since I think that it is probably justified —
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. I ask the Member to withdraw his remark.
Mr S Wilson: I will withdraw the remark, but only in so far as other Members of —
The junior Minister (Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister) (Mr Donaldson): On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I have been taking careful notes of the debate. Mrs Kelly described my position as being one of “hypocrisy and dishonesty”. You did not ask her to withdraw those remarks, but you are asking my colleague to withdraw a remark that contained the word “hypocrite”. Can we have some equity in the Chamber?
Mr Deputy Speaker: If there had been an objection, I would have asked Mrs Kelly to withdraw her remarks.
The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson): I formally object to the comments that were made by Mrs Kelly.
Mr Deputy Speaker: I hope that the Member will allow me to permit Mr Wilson to continue his speech.
Mr S Wilson: Many people would perceive what Mr Kennedy was involved in as hypocritical and as a display of double standards.
Mr B McCrea: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Some time ago, did you not clarify, for the benefit of the Assembly, that, while it was not appropriate to refer to individuals as “hypocrites”, one could refer to a party as “a bunch of hypocrites”?
Mr S Wilson: That being the case —
Mr Deputy Speaker: Allow me to respond, Mr Wilson. That is correct, Mr McCrea.
Mr S Wilson: That being the case, the position of all of the people to my right could be perceived as being hypocritical in a number of ways. First, they were hypocritical in the words that were issued this morning, and secondly —
Mr Ford: Will the Member give way?
Mr S Wilson: No. Let me just finish this point.
Secondly, the record of the Assembly’s debate —
Mr McNarry: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Have you or have you not asked the Member for East Antrim to withdraw his remark? Have you or have you not heard that withdrawal? Will you or will you not tell the House that you accept the Member’s withdrawal?
Mr Deputy Speaker: I am happy that the Member withdrew the remark.
Mr S Wilson: I have withdrawn the remark. Furthermore, I clarified it by saying that it was not only one person who was guilty of the accusation that I made, but a whole bunch. Let me give some justification for that. We have heard self-justification from Mr Kennedy today. However, so intensely did his party feel about the issues, so passionate was it about the changes that were required, and so deeply supportive of its position were its members, that half of them did not bother turning up to vote — and the record will show that.
Some Members: Shame.
Mr S Wilson: That is how deeply the Members on my right felt about the issue.
Mr Kennedy: Will the Member give way?
Mr S Wilson: I will give way to Mr Kennedy, and I hope that he will provide some explanation as to why his party colleagues did not turn up to vote on the amendments.
Mr Kennedy: When one thinks of shame, and when one thinks of people who will, and should, be ashamed of themselves when they examine the voting record, none should be more ashamed than Sammy Wilson and his party colleagues, who went into the same Lobby as provisional Sinn Féin.
Mr S Wilson: Let me come to that now — [Interruption.]
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. I remind Members that this is a serious debate about a serious subject, and Members will not do credit to the House if they continue with this style of debate.
Mr Molloy: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I ask Mr Kennedy to withdraw his remarks, because there is no party in this Chamber registered as provisional Sinn Féin.
Mr McNarry: He did not say that you were a party.
Mr Molloy: I did not raise that as a question; I was challenging what Mr Kennedy said. There is no party called provisional Sinn Féin. It must be made clear that the party is called Sinn Féin.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Will Mr Kennedy please clarify his remarks?
Mr Kennedy: I am happy to clarify that I did not actually list a party, but said “Members of provisional Sinn Féin”. If Mr Molloy claims that he is not or never has been a member of provisional Sinn Féin, that is news to most of us. However, I did not indicate a political party in my description.
Mr Molloy: The Member said that the DUP went into the Lobby along with provisional Sinn Féin. Given that there is no registered party in this Chamber called provisional Sinn Féin, I again ask the Member to withdraw his remark.
Mr Kennedy: To give perfect clarify: I said that Members of the DUP went into the same Lobby as Members of provisional Sinn Féin. That is an indisputable fact.
The junior Minister (Mr G Kelly): On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. There is no organisation called provisional Sinn Féin — full stop. Therefore, there could not have been anyone going anywhere with members of provisional Sinn Féin because that organisation does not exist.
Mr Deputy Speaker: As Deputy Speaker, I clarify that there is no party called provisional Sinn Féin. If there is any further unhappiness about the matter, I suggest that Members refer to the Hansard report, and the matter can be raised at the next meeting. Are Members happy with that? Please continue, Mr Wilson.
Mr S Wilson: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. The real shame is that Members of the Ulster Unionist Party have stood here today wringing their hands about this legislation and talking about the shame of it. However, when they tabled amendments to the Bill, they could not even get the support of half their own party, who were so indifferent that they did not bother turning up to vote. I feel absolutely no shame about what we, as a party, have done. We made a promise, and these are the promises — [Interruption.]
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order.
Mr S Wilson: I do not mind the chittering behind me, because I know that I am getting somewhere with the Members who are involved.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. For the last time, I ask Members to make all their remarks through the Chair. If they persist in interrupting, I will apply Standing Order 60, and Members know what that means.
Mr S Wilson: I do not mind a wee bit of chittering, because I know that if it is going on beside me, I probably have made the point that I wanted to.
Let me make something clear: we made a promise that, first, we would secure resources for victims. That has been done. People can question how those resources will be spent. Indeed, I even heard a derogatory comment, which I think came from a sedentary position on the SDLP Benches, that some of the resources would go to the Health Service to help victims. If that is the kind of help that victims require, is that not a good place for those funds to go? Some groups will benefit from the resources immediately, and some groups will benefit from a further dispersal of the funds through the victims’ strategy. Securing those resources is the first promise that was made, and that has been done.
Mrs D Kelly: Will the Member give way?
Mr S Wilson: No, I will not give way — let me finish my point.
The second promise that we made was to seek a way of dealing with the issue of victims. There is a certain amount of embarrassment to the Benches on my right about that issue because, for the four years that the Ulster Unionist Party was in the lead position in the Assembly and had the opportunity to introduce legislation on the matter, it did not do so. Of course, therefore, that party is somewhat embarrassed. Its members will chip and chirp about the legislation, but at least we said that we would do something about the issue of victims, and we have sought to deliver on that promise.
Mrs D Kelly: I thank the Member for giving way; it will give him time to think. I want to make it clear that I did not make a remark from a sedentary position about expenditure on the Health Service; I was attempting to expose the fact that much of the £36 million involved is not new money and will be spent as was originally intended.
Mr S Wilson: Of course, some of the money will include old money; I never suggested that it was all new money. It will be an amalgamation of old and new money. The point is that £36 million has been allocated to victims, which is more than was available previously. How that will be spent will be determined by victims’ needs. If those needs are health related, for example, surely it is right that the money is spent in that area.
There have been a number of complaints about the nature of what has been achieved through the Bill. I listened to what Alliance Party Members have said about the Balkanisation of politics in Northern Ireland, and the fact that Sinn Féin and the DUP must now have input into the process. Other parties have also had input. Such Balkanisation, whether they like it or not, is something that the Alliance Party has been preaching about for years — its Members have always argued of the need for inclusivity. The belief that inclusivity can be achieved at the same time as one particular party is getting its way illustrates the naivety of the Alliance Party and the Ulster Unionist Party.
The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson): Does the Member agree with me, as one who was present when the institutions that we are now operating were agreed on Good Friday 1998, that the architects of the current structures — and Mr McNarry talks about vetoes — were the Ulster Unionist Party, the SDLP and the Alliance Party? They created the system that is in place. When it comes to hypocrisy, all three parties are guilty.
Mr S Wilson: That is exactly the point: they did create the system. Whether parties like it or not, in finding a way forward when there are differences of opinions, no party is always going to get its own way.
Mr Kennedy: Can any party get a fair deal?
Mr S Wilson: Yes; we got a fair deal, which I will come to. [Interruption.]
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. I am not sure how many more times I will have to advise Members to make their remarks through the Chair. At some stage, I will have to take action.
Mr S Wilson: Again, the discomfort on the Benches to my right is something that those Members have to account for.
At the end of the process, the victims have got a fair deal; additional money is available; and a commission has been set up that will be able to gather and channel the concerns of the victims, consider a strategy for them and dispense the money. That is a better deal than that delivered by the Ulster Unionist Party, which is perhaps one of the reasons for its members’ discomfort.
In order to achieve consensus in the House, Members have to work their way through party differences. The outcome has been that we now have a commission that will deal with victims, and legislation now exists that allows for the appointment of a chief commissioner. The four commissioners have said that they believe, from their work to date, that they can work together. For example, they have rotated the chairmanship of their meetings, and they believe that they can speak with one voice.
If the commissioners believe that they do not currently need a chief commissioner, and if there is uncertainty among some of the parties as to whether a chief commissioner is required, the best that we can do is to provide legislation that will allow a chief commissioner to be appointed if necessary. That is what politics is all about. Perhaps if the party to my right had understood what negotiations were about and how to get what they want in negotiations, they would have been able to demonstrate that flexibility.
The legislation will provide the flexibility to allow a chief commissioner to be appointed. However, if the commission feels that it can operate without a chief commissioner, the legislation will give it the freedom to do that. Why should the legislation fall on the basis that something should be imposed on the commission that it believes it does not need? If a chief commissioner is needed, this House, the Executive, and the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister have the ability to appoint one. That is a reasonable way out of the impasse that was reached.
In the future, if we decide that we no longer want to have the commission in its present form — or if we decide that we want a single commissioner instead of a commission — the legislation gives us the ability to make those changes. That is what the parties who are objecting to this Bill wanted.
Mr Kennedy talked about employment rights. The amendment that the DUP proposed stated that the commission could not employ anybody with a criminal conviction, and, legally, that is the most that can be done. Therefore, we addressed that point.
The definition of a victim is something that the DUP would like to see changed. The current definition is not acceptable.
Mr B McCrea: Why was nothing done about that?
Mr S Wilson: We have reached this stage because when the Ulster Unionist Party had the ability to deal with that issue, it dithered and procrastinated, and it failed. When direct rule —
Mr B McCrea: Will the Member give way?
Mr S Wilson: Let me finish the point first.
Some Members: It failed.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order.
Mr B McCrea: The Member will not give way because he does not want to engage in debate.
Mr S Wilson: I will engage in debate —
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. Two Members cannot stand up at the same time, and Members cannot shout at each other in the manner that has been happening. Before Standing Order 60 is applied, perhaps Members will give this debate the respect that it deserves.
Mr S Wilson: The issue was dealt with under direct rule because it was not dealt with when the opportunity existed previously. Under direct rule, a definition of a victim was produced that my party is not happy with. However, the competency did not exist at that point to make changes to the definition. I hope that we will produce a definition that is acceptable. That issue will be addressed through the forum that is being set up.
At least the DUP has sought to address that issue in a way that does not —
Mr B McCrea: Will the Member give way?
Mr S Wilson: I will give way in a minute or two, because I know that Mr Basil McCrea is keen to be heard once again.
There is no point in pretending that this issue could have been dealt with, at that stage, in the way in which the Ulster Unionist Party wanted. It is much better to consider a way in which we can address that issue properly. Had it been addressed in the previous Assembly, perhaps there would be a much better definition in law than the one that we currently have.
Mr B McCrea: I will attempt to deal with this issue with the respect that it demands. The Member made a point about dealing with the issue when the opportunity existed. As far as the Ulster Unionist Party is concerned, the definition of a victim cannot be changed unless the long title of the Bill is changed. We asked for the long title to be changed so that this issue could be confronted. The DUP had the opportunity to do that, but fudged it. The Member is now prevaricating and filibustering — talking at the top of his voice to try to avoid the issue.
People will not understand why we have not dealt with the matter of the definition of a victim — that is our job. We should have tackled that now; and the Member agrees.
Mr S Wilson: Of course I agree that the issue should be tackled, and a mechanism has been set up to try to deal with that. As far as the long title of the Bill is concerned, the legal advice — and the Member who made the intervention is well aware of this — indicated that the long title could not be changed.
I do not know the details of the legal advice. However, it was accepted that the long title could not be changed at that stage and, therefore, the issue of definition could not be dealt with.
Mr B McCrea: I am happy to examine that matter in more detail. The Ulster Unionist Party’s understanding was that the definition could not be changed unless the long title was changed. If there is another way of changing the definition of “victim”, I would be pleased to explore how that most contentious of issues can be tackled. That is one of the most fundamental problems that the Ulster Unionist Party has with the Bill, and many other Members share that concern.
Mr S Wilson: That concern is shared by other Members. I have made it clear that that concern is shared by my party, the SDLP and the Alliance Party. The only party that has no difficulty with the definition of victims, as it stands, is Sinn Féin. We must look for ways of dealing with that issue. The DUP is happy to investigate whether that can be dealt with through a private Member’s Bill, through consultation with the forum for victims and survivors, which may be able to reach agreement on that contentious issue, or in whatever other way is available. I accept that that is the one outstanding major issue that must be dealt with.
There has been criticism in respect of the ability of one individual on the commission to use the power of veto, and that has been dealt with through negotiation. The only other issues that will require consensus are matters that would have had to be dealt with — in the first instance — by the First Minister and the deputy First Minister anyhow and, therefore, if consensus were reached between them, it is unlikely that consensus would not have been reached in the commission. That issue was raised at the start of the process.
Mr Ford: I am grateful to the Member for eventually giving way on the issue of consensus, and for coming back to that. About 10 minutes ago in his rant, he said that no one party could have its way in a consensus situation. Six weeks ago, when the Alliance Party first tabled amendments in an effort to improve the workings of the commission in respect of the voting system and the appointment of a chief commissioner, four of the five parties agreed that there was merit in that.
Can the Member explain why one party has had its own way? He was not in the Chamber yesterday when I congratulated Ms Ní Chuilín on her ability to enforce her Whip on the DUP Back-Benchers. It is clear that that has happened.
Mr S Wilson: I cannot understand that approach. The Alliance Party appears to have the impression that only its amendments could have dealt with the issues about which Members had concerns, and that, if the issues were not dealt with in its preferred way, they were not being dealt with properly at all. The same outcome has been achieved by examining other ways in which those matters could be addressed — namely that there is not the power of veto, we have the potential for a chief commissioner, we have the ability to change the shape of the commission and the number of commissioners, and we can ensure that people with criminal records are not employed by the commission.
OFMDFM’s amendments differed from the wording of the amendments that the Alliance Party proposed. Nevertheless, they achieved the same objective. It is a bit infantile of the Alliance Party to now say that, simply because the amendments that were accepted — although they were designed to reach exactly the same objective as those designed by the Alliance Party — did not have the Alliance Party’s wording, that they had to be opposed.
Mr Ford: Perhaps the Member can explain why, if the amendments proposed by Mr Donaldson achieved exactly the same objectives and were exactly the same as the amendments tabled by Mrs Kelly and myself, among others, it was necessary to put forward amendments that differed from what had already been tabled.
Mr S Wilson: Of course the amendments were not exactly the same, although the outcome has been the same, namely that there is the potential, when required, for a chief commissioner.
The Alliance Party may, regardless of how the commissioners designate believe they can behave, wish to impose on them an arrangement that they say is not needed because they can work things out among themselves. If the Alliance Party is now involved in imposition of that nature, even though the commissioners designate have said that they have had no difficulty to date —
Dr Farry: The Member is making the argument that there is no need for a chief commissioner because the four current incumbents of the commission are capable of sorting things out between themselves. Is it good practice to design structures of governance around particular individuals who may be there at a particular time, or is it better to design them to be robust and able to deal with a number of different circumstances? I cannot think of any other precedent in which, because the current incumbents are said to be fine, there is no need to put in place the proper structures for accountability, particularly on issues regarding finance. I find that totally bizarre.
Mr S Wilson: That is not in fact what has been done, because the law allows, if there should be a change and the current arrangements are seen not to be working, for the First Minister and the deputy First Minister to appoint a chief commissioner,. That flexibility is there.
We are coming to the end of the process of this legislation. As all of the other parties have accepted, it is important that, once the legislation goes through, we work to ensure that there is an effective mechanism for dealing with the issues surrounding victims. I hope that, despite the political points that have been made — perhaps necessarily made, in a Chamber such as this — once this Stage of the Bill has passed, all parties will work with the commissioners to ensure that there is effective delivery for victims.
Mr B McCrea: I wish to say at the outset, on behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party, that first and foremost the most important issue is the welfare of victims — genuine victims. We have fought, and continue to fight, for their well-being. I commend my colleague Mr Kennedy for his excellent speech, which I heard both on the television monitors and when I was in the Chamber. It obviously hit the nail on the head on a number of occasions, judging by the reaction of other Members in the Chamber.
A number of suggestions have been made. When Mr Shannon was speaking I asked him whether he was trying to build consensus or stir up division. Our party has made its point through all the Stages of this legislation. Our record is clear. We have identified the very real concerns and disappointments that we had, but it has become apparent that there is a cosy coalition between the two largest parties. There is a political fudge that is designed to get them through this particular issue, and no amount of interventions, debates or amendments will make any difference.
Even the combined votes of the Ulster Unionist Party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, the Alliance Party and the Green Party would not be enough to overturn the decisions that have been made. The process of this legislation is a complete and utter sham, and when people look at this from outside this ivory tower, they will see, with some concern, that we did not address the issue of the definition of “victim”. We did not address the issue concerning the appointment of four commissioners, which many people think is a strange decision, nor did we address the issue concerning the possible compromise position of having a chief commissioner.
Despite all of that, having had our say, our party then resolved to support the generality of the Bill. We do want to have some sort of commission that will tackle the needs of the victims. People have pointed fingers and said that we were not in the Chamber yesterday to vote, as if in some way that meant that we do not care about victims, or we are not doing it in the right way. I see people nodding, and I am quite prepared to debate the point in public outside the Chamber with anybody here now that is prepared to take it on. How can anybody —
Mr S Wilson: Will the Member give way?
Mr B McCrea: I will of course give way in just a moment.
How can anybody not be in favour of supporting victims? It is ridiculous. Sammy Wilson is trying to argue that black is white and that good is bad. Nobody in their right mind could do anything other than support victims. The big question, of course, as Sammy Wilson has accepted, is how to define a victim.
Mr S Wilson: Perhaps the Member would explain why half of his own party felt so unconcerned about their amendment that they did not bother turning up to vote?
Mr Kennedy: Mr Basil McCrea will undoubtedly agree with me that the arithmetic of this place was the real reason why it was not possible for the Ulster Unionist Party to defeat Sinn Féin on the issue of victims: it was because the DUP supported Sinn Féin.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Mr McNarry: It is a two-party coalition.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order; the rules of this House apply to all Members, not just to some. The majority of Members have been extremely good and have taken the debate seriously. A few, unfortunately, have not, and that is to be regretted.
Mr B McCrea: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I thank Mr Kennedy for his erudite intervention, which clearly demonstrates the political reality. If this debate has achieved nothing else, it has shown quite clearly that when there is a DUP/Sinn Féin axis, there is nothing that the rest of the Members can do about it. It does not matter whether cross-community controls are in place, whether reason is on the side of their opponents, or whether people disagree with their argument — the DUP/Sinn Féin axis cannot be stopped.
Mr Storey: Will the Member give way?
Mr B McCrea: I will give way in just a moment, Mr Storey.
I cannot recall the DUP/Sinn Féin axis accepting an amendment to this Bill or any other Bill that has been proposed by other Members. That is not the way to proceed. If we are genuine about building consensus and about building a future for this place, it will not rest on a two-party, cosy coalition. This is supposed to be a mandatory coalition of all parties, and the DUP and Sinn Féin are not taking other points of views on board.
Mr Storey: I thank the Member for giving way. If he is so concerned about what he terms the “DUP/Sinn Féin axis”, and he and his party cannot turn up to vote when required to; when will the Ulster Unionist Party do what we know it does not have the capacity to do, which is to follow its own convictions, leave the Executive and ask its two Ministers to walk out with it?
Will he also explain — if he is as concerned about victims as he says his party is — why his party, while occupying a lead role in Government, allowed out of prison murderers and criminals who created victims? He has the bare-faced cheek to come into this House and accuse the DUP of not doing anything for victims.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Mr McNarry: We did not go into power with them.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order.
The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson): Yes you did.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. [Interruption.] Order; if the debate becomes any more unruly, I have the power to suspend it for an hour, which would be an absolute shame.
Mr B McCrea: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. An issue has been raised about why parties in previous Administrations did not bring forward legislation to deal with victims. [Interruption.]
As far as I am aware, any party may bring forward legislation at any time. Therefore, when people ask the Ulster Unionist Party why it did not do so, our response is to ask them the same question — if it was such a big issue, why did they not bring forward legislation?
Mr Storey’s question about whether Ulster Unionists should be considering leaving the Assembly leads me to wonder whether that is what he wants us to do.
Does he prefer to be in a genuine cosy coalition with just “themselves alone” on the opposite Benches? Is that what he wants? The Assembly might as well accept —
Ms D Kelly: Will the Member acknowledge that in 1998, the people of Ireland, North and South, agreed the terms of the Good Friday Agreement — the agreement under which the DUP now operates? One of the agreement’s accomplishments is that acts such as that which happened last night are now, thankfully, rare.
Mr B McCrea: I share Mrs Kelly’s sense that her party and mine did the heavy lifting for peace. Our parties tackled the hard issues head on. My party was honest and true. It did not say one thing to the electorate and do another — [Laughter.] It stood by its principles.
The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson): Will the Member give way?
Mr B McCrea: I will give way in a moment. My party stood by its principles then, and it stands firm again. When it comes to the issue of victims, it does what it believes is best for them; it puts them at the very forefront of what it wants to achieve — not just because it is right, but because it is necessary for progress.
The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson): Will the Member give way?
Mr B McCrea: I will have to now, because I said earlier that I would.
The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson): I thank the Member for giving way. He said that the Ulster Unionist Party was, at all times, honest with people and stood by its principles. Although it was before his time, I remind him that his party once had an election slogan: “No guns, no Government”. The Ulster Unionist Party said that it would not go into Government until paramilitary guns had been dealt with. Yet, that party went into Government without a single rusty bullet having been decommissioned. How did it stick to its principles then? [Interruption.]
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. I ask Members to speak to the Bill, which is the subject of the debate. In doing so, perhaps they will be somewhat more restrained in their comments.
Mr B McCrea: I will, of course, speak to the Bill, Mr Deputy Speaker. Never, never, never, never has my party done anything other than defend victims. [Interruption.]
When ordinary people outside the Chamber look at what has happened in the debate, they will see the shenanigans that have taken place. They will point the figure and will ask which Members are genuine about the matter and want to sort it out. I agree with Mr Wilson on many issues, one of which is that the people who shout loudest usually have most to fear.
Let me say clearly that the Ulster Unionist Party will support the victims’ commission because it is the only show in town. Party Members do not like the way at which it was arrived. We do not like its constitution. However, we are willing to do what is right for the victims of conflict and the people of Northern Ireland. No amount of prevarication and muddying of the waters —
Mr Simpson: On a point of clarification, will the Member confirm that his former leader, Mr Trimble, and Mr Mallon launched a document in the Craigavon Civic Centre that related to the definition of a victim, and that that is where it all started?
Mr B McCrea: Mr Deputy Speaker — [Interruption.]
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. The Member is entitled to be heard.
Mr B McCrea: Mr Deputy Speaker, you have, with considerable patience, asked that Members address the matter at hand.
Mr Elliott: Will the Member accept that when the DUP had an opportunity to change the definition of “victim” it failed to do so, because it could not get agreement from its partner in crime, Sinn Féin? Mr Wilson practically accepted that every party except Sinn Féin agreed that the definition of “victim” should be changed. The DUP is being held to ransom. [Interruption.]
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. The definition of “victim” is not part of the Bill, which means that we have once again moved off the subject.
Mr Elliott: It should be part of the Bill.
Mr B McCrea: It is obvious — and regrettable — that there is not consensus on the issue. The Members to my left should have proceeded with this piece of legislation in a seemly way, but instead they chose to stir it up again. We have made our position clear. When people come to judge the DUP’s actions, they will not accept that the party did this properly. Many members of the party to my left agree with the issues that we have raised. I know that because, like me, they will have constituents who say that they are unhappy about what has happened, that it is a political fudge, and that it is not the right way to proceed.
Lord Morrow: I thank the Member for giving way. Mr McCrea is vexed because there is going to be a victims Bill. Mr McCrea and his party built their hopes on the fact that there would not be a victims Bill; that would have pleased them immensely. Today, they hang their heads in shame, because something has been achieved that they never had the guts, will or determination to do.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Mrs D Kelly: I thank the Member for giving way. Contrary to Lord Morrow’s comments, a victims Bill has been in existence since 2006. What we are supposed to be discussing today is the establishment of a commission, because the DUP and Sinn Féin could not agree on the appointment of one commissioner.
Mr B McCrea: I want to conclude my speech, provided that there are no further —
Some Members: Hear, hear.
A Member: There is consensus on that.
Mr B McCrea: Had it not been for that comment — made from a sedentary position — I would have forgotten that Sinn Féin was here. It is amazing that it is not — [Interruption.]
When it gets to this point it is important that we send out the right message to those victims who have suffered so horrendously over the past 30 to 40 years. We, as a party, will work with the commission and we wish it well. However, we are disturbed that we were not able to deal with a number of important issues.
Nevertheless, the democratic process is such that the DUP and Sinn Féin have brought a Bill; we have highlighted certain deficiencies; a vote will be taken and the Bill will be carried. However, I hope that, if it does not work out in the way that they anticipate, they will have the good grace to acknowledge that the points made in the Chamber were not only right but helpful. I hope that they stop the party political bickering in a bid to win political points, because this is an important matter.
Mr Attwood: When Sammy Wilson, who has now left the Chamber, concluded his remarks — [Interruption.]
Mr Kennedy: He has moved position again.
Mr Attwood: I see that he has returned. [Interruption.]
I did not spot you in that suit, Sammy — it is not glaring enough.
When Sammy Wilson was in the Chamber, to which he has now returned, he said that all Members of the Assembly should:
“work to ensure that there is an effective mechanism for dealing with the issues surrounding victims.”
Mr Wilson went on to say that, after all the political points have been made and the legislative process completed, we should all work with the victims’ commission. Mr Basil McCrea has just expressed the same sentiments. As Dolores Kelly said, the SDLP will abstain from the vote. In doing so, our actions are consistent with those sentiments. We do that not to convey opposition to a victims’ commission per se but to indicate our lingering doubts about the powers that the victims’ commission might have and its role.
Although I do not often agree with Sammy Wilson, there are times — if for only a moment — when I do. I agree that work must be done to ensure that effective mechanisms are in place to deal with victims’ issues. On that theme, I shall make four or five points. The Bill will soon become law, and it is reasonable to expect that, in those circumstances, individual victims and groups will knock on the door, or doors, of the victims’ commission to advocate on behalf of their individual and broader needs. That is when the really big issues will emerge.
Over and above the issues that have been rightly and properly debated in the Chamber over the past few weeks, and over and above the powers and the moneys that the victims’ commission will have, issues concerning the victims’ commission will endure. The Chamber will not be able to deal with those issues, and that will lead to individual victims and victims’ groups having a level of expectation that will not be fulfilled.
There are three or four reasons for that. On a range of victims’ matters, Members are not masters of their own destiny. The British Government are masters of destiny on such matters; they have established the law that governs a number of victims’ issues. That law has been established not by us, but by the British Government. They have laid down constraints on what can happen with certain victims. One need only consider how the British Government have changed tribunal legislation in order to understand how they will introduce legislation to constrain what a victim or a victim’s family can do. The primary and particular purpose of the Inquiries Act 2005 was to restrict the Finucane family’s ability to get the truth about the murder of the solicitor Patrick Finucane. The Assembly does not have the power to amend any or all of that legislation.
However, the issue goes deeper than that. As the SDLP leader, Mark Durkan, said at the weekend, the British Government now propose legislation that could lead to the establishment of a special-cases coroner. That legislation may roll out in the North and affect the conduct of inquests here. As we know from European Court decisions, dozens of inquests around which there are serious issues are waiting to be convened. However, the British Government may be about to legislate in a way in which those inquests will be constrained in what they can and cannot do.
Mr Weir: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I seek a ruling. I appreciate that legislation from Westminster may lead to serious issues, such as issues around coroners’ courts and inquests. However, I struggle to see how the Member is speaking to the Bill.
Mr Deputy Speaker: I ask the Member to stick closely to the Bill.
Mr Attwood: I appreciate that ruling, Mr Deputy Speaker. A great deal of flexibility has been shown in the Chamber, and I was exploiting that flexibility.
I move on to matters that affect the Bill, and that particularly affect the victims’ commission. The SDLP tabled amendments to the Bill that were not accepted. If made, those amendments would have incorporated the Paris Principles into the workings of the victims’ commission. The Paris Principles are established UN standards that govern the powers, or otherwise, of an independent commission to do its business.
We know all about those powers, because when the Assembly established the position of Children’s Commissioner, it legislated for the Paris principles to be embedded in that post’s authority. That enables the Children’s Commissioner to call for papers, summon witnesses and support applicants in matters relating to their cases.
From recent history, we know of the long and tedious battle that was fought with the British Government to ensure that some of the Paris principles were embedded in the Human Rights Commission’s authority. However, the victims’ commissioners will not have the power to call for papers, summon witnesses and subpoena evidence that might come to their attention through a victim or a victims’ group. Consequently, in the near future, when people ask the commission for victims and survivors to act as their voice, the victims’ commissioners — through no fault of their own — will only be able to reply that, although they may be those peoples’ voice, they do not have the power and authority to act on victims’ and survivors’ wishes by compelling witnesses to appear and by gathering evidence.
If powers consistent with the Paris principles were good enough for the Children’s Commissioner, the Human Rights Commissioner and other commissions in the North, the House should stretch itself to provide the same powers for the commission for victims and survivors, which, through no fault of its own, will be weaker without them.
Thirdly, many sensitive and important matters have been rightly addressed in the debate. However, based on my observations, there has been little discussion about what the commission will actually do. The SDLP wishes to put down some markers — not exclusively or exhaustively, but representatively — about matters that the commission should address immediately after the vote.
Through various structures and initiatives, the victims’ commissioners should act as voices for victims and survivors. The commission should provide, as we heard earlier, the fullest possible range of welfare, financial and broader support for those in need; and, when the Eames/Bradley recommendations are forthcoming, the commission should be the custodian of, and responsible for, advancing those recommendations. In future, I hope that Assembly debates will be concerned with addressing those types of matters, rather than the other matters that were, rightly, raised in recent weeks.
My fourth point is about how the Eames/Bradley group will relate to the commission. If the Assembly is to send any message to the Northern Ireland people — especially to those who are still hurting and grieving — it should be that every individual deserves the right to the truth about what happened to their family member or loved one. However, I have not heard that message coming from the Chamber in a unified voice.
I shall provide two examples. First, in a question for written answer, I asked:
“the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister to confirm that (i) it will co-operate fully and in all matters with the Eames/Bradley Consultative Group on the Past and (ii) it will encourage all groups and individuals to co-operate also.”
Given that I asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister, or the junior Ministers, to address those questions, I wonder why the following answer was given:
“Both of us have met with the Consultative Group in January 2008. The Consultative Group is to present a report to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland by summer 2008. We therefore have no direct responsibility for, or role in, this group. We await the outcome of this group.”
I asked the shared office of leadership in the North those simple questions: will it co-operate and will it encourage all others to co-operate as well? On both matters, the answer was silence.
What does it say to people in the North and to the victims’ commission when the Department that sponsored the Bill is silent when it is asked a simple question about the principle of co-operation with Eames/Bradley? Is that the standard that will best inform the victims’ commission on how to do its work and inform society as it tries to deal with the difficult issues of the past?
I have doubts about how the process will work if all organisations and parties do not co-operate fully with Eames/Bradley or with any other legitimate inquiry — police or otherwise — that is ongoing in the North. The Bloody Sunday Inquiry revealed that, at the time of the subject of its investigation, a Member of the House was bound to an illegal organisation by a code of honour that was greater than the obligation to co-operate and provide information. I would welcome hearing whether that is still the case.
I hope that we are moving beyond all that. However, in the day that is in it, given that the McCartney murder trial is due to commence today, telling the truth and co-operation will be essential in determining whether there are convictions.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. I ask the Member to restrict his remarks to the Bill.
Mr Attwood: The reason for OFMDFM’s ambiguous response to a question in the House about co-operating fully on all matters and encouraging all groups and individuals to co-operate is — unfortunately — still unclear.
The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson): I thank all Members who contributed to the debate, and I will respond to some of their remarks. The victims’ commission that the Bill will establish is a genuine attempt to do something better for the victims of the period in Northern Ireland that has become known as the Troubles and to ensure that they have the support and recognition that they deserve.
Members may debate whether the proposals in the Bill are flawed or ineffective, and they are entitled to their view. However, the DUP and the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister believe that the proposals are robust and capable of delivering for the innocent victims in Northern Ireland, the needs of whom are paramount in all discussions about the Bill.
Mrs Dolores Kelly said that the powers of the commission would be ineffective. At one stage, she referred to something that I said about the Victims and Survivors (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 in response to points that her party leader, Mr Durkan, made in the debate during the Bill’s Consideration Stage. I have a copy of the Hansard report of that debate, and, in fact, I did not accuse Mr Durkan of failing to change the Order — I know that an Order cannot be amended once it has been presented and that it can only be accepted or rejected. The Hansard report is clear that I told Mr Durkan to re-read the Order because it contains many of the powers about which he spoke.
The Bill deals with the narrow issue of creating the corporate body that will be known as the victims’ commission, the powers of which are already outlined in the Order, even though they were originally meant for one commissioner. After the interview process and further consideration of the matter, the First Minister and deputy First Minister felt that the requirements of the post were so great that it was wrong to put such a heavy burden on the shoulders of one person. That, in turn, created the need for a commission. That is why the Bill is before the House and why we are asking Members to support it — it is necessary to make progress on the huge amount of work that is required in the victims and survivors’ sector.
The commission is only one part of that. A victims’ strategy will be introduced shortly, and it will be issued for consultation. Despite the criticisms that have been made in this House and in this debate, the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister does not believe that it has a monopoly on all knowledge and wisdom on these issues. We want to hear from the people who matter most — those who have to live daily with the consequences of being a victim — and we want them to be involved in shaping the strategy.
OFMDFM will also be bringing forward proposals on funding. Mrs Kelly mentioned the funding of £36 million and suggested that it was simply old money being recycled. It is regrettable that she said that; it is unfortunate when Members try to score cheap points on what is a genuine attempt to ensure that victims’ groups and individuals get the resources and support that they need. I say to Mrs Kelly that a lot of this is about healthcare. Of the proposed £36 million, £19·5 million is new money. Although the remainder has been allocated to the victims’ sector, none of it is being taken from the healthcare budget — it is new, additional money that is specifically for the victims’ sector. I hope that Mrs Kelly will at last recognise that this is a genuine attempt to provide resources for the victims-and-survivors’ sector. It represents more money than has ever been made available under any previous Administration, including the one that was headed jointly by Mrs Kelly’s party and the Ulster Unionist Party.
Whatever is being said about the amounts of money involved and about the intentions behind the establishment of the victims’ commission, I know and recognise that we — and I mean all Members — will be judged on results and on how effective the commission proves to be over time. This is about building a partnership with the victims’ sector to ensure that there is delivery, not just for the groups who work in the sector but for the individuals who are not associated with any group — they are often the people who are silent and who suffer in silence. Ways must be found to help those people, to identify their needs and to ensure that those needs are met.
Mr Attwood made similar points to those of Mrs Kelly on the powers of the commission — it really depends on what Members want the commission to do. It will have a role — but not an exclusive role — in looking at the past. Its role will be in partnership with that of the forum, which I know the SDLP has long called for. The commission will work in partnership with whatever emerges from the current discussions on how we are going to deal with the past. We recognise that the commission will have a role to play, but that it will not be the ultimate authority on how the past is dealt with. The way forward on that aspect has yet to be worked out.
Mr Ford described the Bill and the process as being flawed. He said that Sinn Féin had steamrollered the DUP. I assure Mr Ford that the DUP has not been steamrollered. I stand here of my own free will, as a Minister, with the full support of my colleagues, fully supporting this Bill and the amendments. Indeed, I moved the amendments. No one steamrollers the DUP. The DUP has made up its own mind on the issues; as has Sinn Féin. However, a responsibility exists within the system that Mr Ford and his party supported at its establishment — the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. I see Mr Ford shaking his head, but I recollect that he was one of the key proponents of the “Yes” campaign and the referendum that supported the institutions that we have today, albeit, thankfully, updated, improved and amended since St Andrews.
However, those arrangements are transitional, and I look forward to the day when we can have a proper, functioning, democratic system in Northern Ireland.
Mr McNarry: Proper?
The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson): Yes, Mr McNarry, you supported this system, too. Your party created this system, and your party is responsible for what we have today at Stormont, so do not try to walk away from it now and act holier than thou —
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. It is not normally necessary to ask the junior Minister to address his remarks through the Chair, but I ask him to do so.
The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson): I am simply responding to points that were made in the debate, and I will continue to do so. If Members wish to criticise the process, let them also remember that they fathered the process. They created the very process of which this Bill is a product, whether they like it or not. Therefore, we will not take any lectures on hypocrisy, double standards and how this process works. We are doing the best with what we inherited, and we are doing our best to make this process work for the people of Northern Ireland. We are doing our best to clear up the mess that others created in the first place. [Interruption.]
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. Allow the Minister to be heard.
The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson): Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.
In his remarks, Mr Kennedy described the Bill as a grimy compromise. He would know all about grimy compromises, because he belongs to a party, the First Minister of which resigned and then, all of a sudden, “un-resigned”. Talk about a grimy compromise.
Mr B McCrea: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. You have mentioned several times that Members must keep to the business at hand. Is there any chance that we could keep to the business at hand now, rather than be subjected to a history lesson?
Mr Deputy Speaker: I agree that it would be useful to keep to the business at hand.
The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson): Since Mr McCrea wandered all over the place during his remarks — backwards and forwards, inside out and upside down — I will listen to no lectures from him about avoiding history lessons. Of course, Mr McCrea does not have much history when it comes to dealing with the victims of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. As I reminded him last week, Mr McCrea is a ceasefire politician. He put his head above the parapet when the fighting was over — when the battle was finished, up popped Mr McCrea. He may well have won the BBC ‘Politics Show’ newcomer of the year award, but, as far as we are concerned, he is the latecomer of the year when it comes to dealing with the victims of violence.
My party has been dealing with this issue for years, and it will continue to deal with it, because it puts the victims first. It is our party that is bringing forward this Bill. It is the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister that is delivering for victims, where others failed to do so when they held those positions. They failed, and miserably so.
I recall that, when I was a member of the Ulster Unionist Party, I presented the then First Minister and leader of the party, David Trimble, with a paper on the need for a victims’ commission. That paper was ignored, and Mr Trimble and the Ulster Unionist Party failed to deliver for the victims. Therefore, we will take no lectures from Mr Kennedy or Mr McCrea, because their record of dealing with this issue is, frankly, lamentable — [Interruption.]
Mr Kennedy: Join the Provos.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Mr Kennedy, I ask you to withdraw that remark.
Mr Kennedy: The remark is withdrawn.
The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson): Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker. I remind Mr Kennedy that I put on the uniform of the Crown to fight the Provos, and that members of my family died in that fight. I am glad that we are in a better place today and that we have a relative degree of peace and stability. There was a dreadful incident last night in Tyrone, and we all pray that that young man — [Interruption.]
I regret that Mr Kennedy seems to want to interrupt my condemnation of acts of violence. Does he not at least have the decency to allow me to condemn an act of violence without interrupting me? We all condemn last night’s act of violence, and we do not want any more victims to be created in Northern Ireland.
Mr McNarry: You have lost the plot, Jeffrey.
The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson): I have not lost the plot, Mr McNarry. The people who lost the plot in 1998 were the people who voted to open the gates of the Maze Prison and let the murderers out on to the streets. Do not lecture me about losing the plot. The people who lost the plot —
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order, please. I honestly believe that this has gone too far. We are not talking to the Bill at all, and that is to be highly regretted.
The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson): I take your point, Mr Deputy Speaker, but I note that the continuous interruptions and interventions from a sedentary position go unchecked, and, therefore, somebody has to deal with them.
Mr Deputy Speaker: If you check the Hansard report tomorrow, I think that you will see that I have had to intervene a record number of times.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson): Well, Mr Deputy Speaker, I have been interrupted on a number of occasions, and it has been me who has been asked to come to order, not others.
Mrs D Kelly: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Is it not the case that, when the junior Minister speaks, he is speaking on behalf of OFMDFM, and not on behalf of the DUP or, indeed, himself?
Mr Deputy Speaker: Will the junior Minister please continue?
The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson): I would not be a junior Minister if I were not a member of the Democratic Unionist Party — and I do not divorce myself from my party, except when it goes the wrong way. [Laughter.]
There is much more that I could say about the contributions that were made — some of which, quite frankly, are unworthy of comment. Mr Basil McCrea spoke of a cosy coalition. May I remind the Member that the Ulster Unionist Party is part of the coalition Government in Northern Ireland — a coalition Government that it helped to design. [Interruption.]
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. Will Members please allow the Minister to speak?
The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson): The reality is that I am working in a joint office that was created by the Ulster Unionist Party, the SDLP and others. We do our best to try to reach a consensus on very difficult issues, and I regret that we were not able to achieve a broader consensus in this Chamber on these issues. I assure Members that that was our objective in the amendments that we tabled, which were designed to address concerns that Members had raised, and to do so in a way that enabled us to move this legislation forward with the broadest possible consensus.
I welcome the fact that the Ulster Unionist Party has indicated that it will vote for the Bill; the SDLP will abstain; and I am not sure about the Alliance Party, which, I believe, indicated that it will vote against the Bill at this Stage. We have achieved at least some degree of consensus, even if it is not the broadest possible.
What matters now is to ensure that the commission can deliver for the victims of violence. However, this House, too, has a continuing role in addressing the needs and concerns of victims, as have the Executive, the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, and other Ministers.
This has, at times, been a heated debate, but I recognise that this is an emotive issue that goes to the heart of where we have come from and how we deal with the past. I accept Mr Attwood’s points. I say to him, in relation to the Eames/Bradley process, that my party will co-operate fully, as it has done. We have met the Eames/Bradley Consultative Group on the Past on several occasions. I understand that Sinn Féin has also had a number of meetings with the group.
What the First Minister and deputy First Minister cannot do at this stage is pre-empt the outcome of the group’s report. We must wait for its recommendation and consider where we stand on them. The Eames/Bradley Consultative Group on the Past was established not by this House, not by the Executive, but by the Northern Ireland Office, and is, to a certain extent therefore, outwith the devolution process. Therefore, we have to see where that process goes in order to determine the role of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, and their Department, when it comes to implementing the group’s recommendations.
Mr Attwood: I did not suggest that the junior Minister’s Office should pre-empt the findings of the Eames/Bradley group. I asked the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, in a question for written answer, AQW 4703/08:
“to confirm that (i) it will co-operate fully and in all matters with the Eames/Bradley Consultative Group on the Past and (ii) it will encourage all groups and individuals to co-operate also”.
There was silence in reply.
I was trying to probe whether that silence endured or whether Mr Donaldson’s party, as opposed to OFMDFM, would now co-operate fully with the Eames/Bradley group. People are encouraged to co-operate with inquiries into criminal activity; therefore, does he not agree that it would be helpful if his party were to send out a clear message to the people by co-operating with the Eames/Bradley Consultative Group on the Past, without fear, favour or prejudice?
The junior Minister (Mr Donaldson): We are already doing that. I have nothing further to add on what we are already doing.
I thank the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister for its involvement in the process. There were problems because some Committee members were opposed to accelerated passage and would have preferred a full Committee Stage. However, we have now reached the stage where it is to be hoped that the Bill will be passed by the House and enacted as law. That will enable the commission to get on with its work.
We support the commission in its work. Members stated clearly that they will assist the commission, and that is important. We all represent constituencies in which there are victims and survivors, and people who are living with the legacy of more than three decades of violence. Dolores Kelly said that victims’ interests remain prejudiced by a lack of consensus and failure of leadership. We may not have achieved the level of consensus that we would like, but at least we can now go forward, showing leadership.
I hope that we can end this debate on a positive note. Despite our differences about whether the commission is adequate, we should all resolve to do our best to make it work for the good of the people who need its help. It is to be hoped that the commission, the strategy and the other work that is yet to be done will deliver for those who have waited for a long time.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Commission for Victims and Survivors Bill (NIA 12/07) do now pass.
The sitting was suspended at 12.58 pm.
On resuming (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClarty] in the Chair) —
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to two hours for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes 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.
Three amendments have been selected and published on the Marshalled List. The proposer of each amendment will have 10 minutes in which to propose, and five minutes in which to make a winding-up speech.
Mr B McCrea: I beg to move
That this Assembly, given high levels of public concern, calls on the Executive to create a Ministerial Sub-Committee to recommend appropriate regulations to govern post-primary transfer from 2010.
From the outset, I wish to explicitly outline that the motion is not about the policy options on post-primary transfer that the Minister of Education is pursuing. It is not about determining which system replaces the 11-plus, nor is it about the Minister’s belief that academic selection must be abandoned. It is about establishing a process to resolve a contentious issue.
Debates on the subject of matching pupils with appropriate post-primary schools take place throughout the United Kingdom and in many other jurisdictions — it is a normal part of politics. Such debate is good and healthy, and clarifies how proposals will progress. However, debate is not a substitute for action — that is the problem with the Assembly’s current position.
On 9 May 2007, within two days of the Minister’s taking office, she said:
“Over the coming months we will need to address major issues such as academic selection”.
The months passed until, in December 2007, seven months after the Minister’s pledge to address major issues, the House received a vague outline — and “outline” is the word that the Minister used — with no substantive proposals for the future. Almost one year to the day later, there are still no proposals. Loyal members of the Minister’s party — who are massed on the Benches, ready to retaliate — will, undoubtedly, inform the House that an announcement is imminent. Stand by your beds — all will be revealed shortly. The trouble with that is that it is all too late.
Few Members would be surprised if the Minister did not cobble something together at this late stage — almost anything in fact, to get us out of this debacle. It would not be a surprise if the Minister suddenly, and against all previous protestations, were to discover that the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) was capable of and willing to accommodate some form of academic criteria and would be able to formulate an acceptable transfer test. It would not be a surprise if the Minister decided after all that academic criteria, rather than being some form of inherent evil to be eradicated in 2010, could be allowed to continue for a period of transition. Frankly, there is no other way out of this mess.
It would not be a surprise, if having made that decision and wasted a year, the Minister suddenly decided that legislation would have to be pushed through by way of accelerated passage. If we are guessing correctly, that would be a tragedy — it would be a sad state of affairs for schoolchildren and their parents across Northern Ireland.
Bearing in mind all that has happened, it is no surprise that a recent poll in ‘The Irish News’ revealed that 93·3% of school principals did not obtain sufficient information from the Minister of Education to allow them to formulate their plans. That is an incredible figure — nine out of 10 principals. All the primary school principals whom I met during a recent visit to Cookstown told me of their worries about that lack of information.
If the Minister has failed the schools and their principals, she has also failed parents. A ‘Belfast Telegraph’ poll revealed that only 22% of parents had confidence in the Minister’s ability to deliver policies in time that would suit them. A full two thirds — 66% — of parents of children in the age group that was most likely to be affected said that they did not understand the Minister’s plans. Therefore, there is no understanding about what will happen in the very near future.
Parents have the primary responsibility for guiding their children through education. Ironically, the Minister told us in the statement that she made in the House on 4 December 2007 that parental guidance would play a significant role in any new arrangements. How can parental guidance be used if no one knows what the framework is? How can anyone be guided if they do not know where they are going?
The clock is ticking. It has been one year since the restoration of devolution. There is only one academic year to go, but the Minister has failed to provide the clarity that is necessary for parents to play their proper role in the education system. The figures that I quoted demonstrate unequivocally that the Minister of Education has completely lost the trust of two key groups — parents and principals. The competence of the Minister is being questioned not only in this House and in the Committee for Education, but throughout our entire society. In any other jurisdiction that would be cause for concern, but, apparently, that is not the case here.
The Minister said that she has been seeking consensus. Let me tell her, Mr Deputy Speaker, that she has achieved it. Everyone across society and across the education stakeholders agrees. Irrespective of their views on academic selection or post-primary transfer, people believe that the Minister is failing our children, their parents and their schools.
Perhaps the greatest indication of the abject failure of Sinn Féin’s Minister of Education is that she pledged to destroy academic selection, but is now presiding over independent academic selection in several academic schools. That happened on the Minister’s watch, but it did not have to happen. The principals of the post-primary schools that are involved in the move towards independent academic selection have done so with the utmost reluctance. One of them said that they had been:
“forced down this road due to the lack of movement and lack of information from the minister…I cannot emphasise enough that this is not the way we want to go but we feel we are left with no option because of a lack of information and the intransigence of the minister”.
Let me state clearly that I, and others, have previously spoken on the record about the issue. No-one wants independent entrance tests; they are a measure of last resort. However, the Minister has created that situation, the irony of which cannot be missed. The Minister has condemned the entrance-test plan as “elitist”, but it has happened on her watch; she is responsible for the emergence of independent transfer tests.
Like every Minister in the Executive, the Minister of Education has taken the Pledge of Office, which includes the obligation to serve all the people of Northern Ireland. Therefore, a Minister is not a mere spokesman for a political party. She or he has a solemn responsibility to put Northern Ireland first — ahead of his or her party. However, since the restoration of devolution, we have witnessed a Minister of Education acting as though her role was no more than that of spokesman for Sinn Féin following an exclusively Sinn Féin agenda.
Northern Ireland deserves better. The children, parents, teachers and schools of Northern Ireland deserve better. They deserve an Education Minister who will not allow her party political agenda always to trump her wider obligations and responsibilities.
An Executive subcommittee is merely a mechanism for ensuring that the Education Minister delivers on her wider obligations and responsibilities. I should be happy to hear of any other channels through which that might be done. It is telling that the Minister views the Executive subcommittee as a threat. Time and again we have asked her to bring her proposals for discussion. It is not as though that is abnormal. Executive subcommittees are routinely used to address significant issues that require political consensus. That is why they were used for the review of public administration and for Planning Policy Statement 14 (PPS 14). They are a perfectly normal way of dealing with such matters.
Using an Executive subcommittee would have several benefits. First, it would instil public confidence in a vital area of education policy, demonstrating that the Executive are determined to chart collectively a way forward that will have maximum cross-community support. Secondly, it would erase the impression that a narrow partisan agenda is intent on provoking discord and educational chaos. Thirdly, it would show that the Minister of Education has given up destructive solo runs, abandoned her hostility towards those who dare to disagree with her, and finally accepted that children and parents must come first, rather than her narrow partisan agenda. I urge Members to support the motion.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. The Member’s time is up.
Mrs O’Neill: I beg to move amendment No 1: Leave out all after “Assembly” and insert
“notes that the Minister of Education is to present proposals on post-primary transfer to the Executive on Thursday 15th May and agrees to await the outcome of those discussions.”
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Sinn Féin has proposed this amendment because, despite what Basil McCrea has said, it is not too late for the Minister to put forward proposals. Given that Caitríona Ruane, the Minister of Education, plans to attend the Executive on Thursday to share her proposals on the way forward for transfer, the motion is basically outdated, and there is no reason for it.
I do not agree with Basil that the Minister’s action is too late. She has gone through the process; she set out her vision and went through intensive negotiations and discussions with education stakeholders. As a result of that consultation, we have arrived where we are today, and the Minister intends to present her proposals to the Executive and, shortly afterwards, to the Committee for Education.
The motion detracts from the real debate. Instead of discussing the ins and outs of the post-primary debate, we are dealing again with the political games of the UUP, which simply does not agree with the direction in which the Minister is going. The Minister’s proposals will become clear, are visionary and will ensure that all of our kids have the best educational future and the best outcomes, whether of an academic or vocational nature. Sinn Féin recognises academic excellence, but it recognises equally that some children are more suited to vocational education. Let us not let those children down or deem them lower achievers as they travel down their paths.
It appears that the UUP wants to bypass the normal democratic process by setting up the ministerial subcommittee. One clear fact seems to be missing: Caitríona Ruane is the Minister of Education and has responsibility for introducing and setting policy on education.
UUP Members may not like that situation, and have therefore tried through the motion to weaken the position and powers of the Minister by establishing a subcommittee to bring forward regulations. However, all parties in the Chamber need to be mindful of the implications. Do they want to set a precedent on taking control away from Ministers by establishing, on a willy-nilly basis, groups that will take decisions out of Ministers’ hands?
Mr S Wilson: The intention is not to take anything out of Ministers’ hands. This is a tried and tested method within the Executive for resolving difficult issues. Arlene Foster used it in respect of the review of public administration. Indeed, as far as the Education Minister is concerned, her colleague, Conor Murphy, also used it in relation to water charges. This is not a case of trying to undermine anyone; it is simply a case of trying to find a more acceptable way of bringing things forward.
Mrs O’Neill: I have no problem with subcommittees being set up on cross-departmental issues; however, this issue relates purely to education.
The consequence of agreeing to the motion will be to take power away from Ministers. If the Members who proposed the motion were logical thinkers, they would accept amendment No 1, because that would send a message to the electorate that they are not playing games with the issue.
On Thursday, when the Executive considers the Minister’s proposals, I hope that we will move to the final stage in transforming the education system so that all children and young people are treated equally and given every support to succeed.
Mr D Bradley: I beg to move amendment No 2: Leave out all after “Assembly” and insert
“regrets the delay in decision-making on post-primary educational reform and the resulting high levels of public concern and damage to public confidence; and calls on the Minister of Education to publish forthwith her proposals on Transfer, Sustainable Schools and Area-based planning.”
The Minister has told us that changes in education have to be managed carefully. One way of doing so would be by providing people with clear information about the changes planned. When people know how change will be achieved, and the logical steps taking them to that point, they know where they are going. However, when people are kept in the dark and are denied information, or have information drip-fed to them, they naturally become anxious and begin to lose faith in reform. That is exactly what has happened in the case of education reform. There has been a dearth of information, detail has not been forthcoming and the public have lost faith.
More importantly, parents have lost faith: they are wondering what lies in store for the children who are in primary 5. Teachers have lost faith because they have not been in a position to answer the questions that parents ask them day and daily at the school gate. Sadly, that anxiety has filtered through to the pupils themselves.
Because of the information vacuum in which change is being implemented — or not implemented — the situation is being described, understandably, as a mess. The Minister has told us time and again that she has consulted with key stakeholders. However, the key stakeholders in this process are the parents who do not know what lies in store for their children — particularly the parents of the first cohort, the primary-5 children.
Supporters of reform have been bewildered by the way in which the process has been managed, and they can see clearly that reform has been undermined as a result. The history of the process has been that the Minister has only been forthcoming with information when the Assembly was demanded to know what was happening.
One wonders what the Minister’s plan was. It was certainly not to keep everyone informed with the maximum amount of information during every step in the process. Why has that been the case? I see no strategic advantage in the Minister’s approach. It has not convinced the opponents of reform and has only served to weaken whatever consensus existed already around transfer at age 14. It looks very much like the Minister is making things up as she goes along, and she cannot provide answers because she does not have them herself.
At this late stage, as we face another school year, major policy areas have not been clarified. The effects on local people on the ground following the ending of the transfer test will not be known for a considerable time because key policies are not yet in place.
In the emerging situation, the future of transfer is inextricably linked to area-based planning, and area-based planning is inextricably linked to the sustainable-schools policy.
However, we still do not have clear guidelines on those policies. When will we have those? Will the drip feed of information continue, creating more uncertainty and anxiety among parents and pupils?
On Tuesday 4 March, the Minister informed the Assembly that she was implementing processes and structures to take forward an area-based approach to post-primary provision — area-based planning. However, two months later, no significant detail is available. We have not yet seen the terms of reference or the guidelines for area-based planning, even though consultation is to be complete by 9 January. One wonders whether that target date can be met, given the fact that the local groups have not yet been established as we approach the end of another school year.
If previous experience is anything to go by, even after consultation has ended, we will have to wait for the Minister’s response. That response will probably come some time afterwards, and very late for parents to grapple with as they attempt to choose schools for the first cohort of children to transfer without academic selection.
There are many questions about area-based planning and sustainable schools that must be answered. The Minister is due to present a paper to the Executive on Thursday of this week. I believe that that paper is already in the hands of the press, before the Executive and Members of the House have seen it. I do not know what is in that paper but — for the sake of parents, teachers and members of the education community — I hope that it will contain the required detail on the areas of policy that I have outlined.
I appreciate the concerns of those who have proposed both the substantive motion and the Alliance Party amendment. However, I do not agree that the creation of an Executive subcommittee is the best way to deal with those concerns. The Minister is responsible for education, and our job, as Members of the Assembly, is to hold the Minister to account. We must ensure that she provides parents and teachers with the information on key policy areas that they require. To kick this issue into Executive touch would free the Minister of accountability, and allow her to hide under the skirts of an Executive subcommittee.
My amendment seeks to hold the Minister to account and to force her to face up to her responsibilities to parents, pupils and teachers. I ask Members to support my amendment. Ending the current transfer system affects — and is of concern to — people on the ground. We have still not seen the terms of reference for key policies. Even after the end of consultation, we will probably have to wait for clarity on those policies. I ask the Members to support amendment No 2. Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.
Mr Lunn: I beg to move amendment No 3: At end insert
‘, in the event that the Minister fails to bring forward detailed proposals for full consideration by the Assembly.’
The motion raises an important issue in its mention of “public concern”. Obviously, there is considerable public concern about what the Minister views as the way forward. The Minister’s proposals must be carefully thought out and capable of implementation. We reluctantly accept the Minister’s explanation for the long delay as she consulted with every interested stakeholder in the education sector. However, perhaps, enough is enough. As we know, the Minister will bring her proposals to the Executive in two days’ time. Therefore, the timing of the motion is unfortunate. The motion would have had more relevance if it had been introduced some weeks or months ago.
The unionist parties have used every opportunity to put pressure on the Minister. The proposal of this motion is another novel way of bringing this matter before the House. However, surely they recognise, deep in their hearts, that the Executive will not create another subcommittee for the purpose demanded by the motion — if for no other reason than it would allow the Minister to get away with not doing her job.
Furthermore, the amendment is impossible to implement without the Minister’s consent, and there is little chance that that will be forthcoming. The motion asks for the impossible, and it serves no purpose, except as an expression of frustration and righteous anger from the Ulster Unionist Benches. Basil McCrea was eight minutes and 40 seconds into his speech before he even mentioned the Executive subcommittee — until then, his speech was merely just such an expression.
The Alliance Party takes a more moderate approach. The delay has been frustrating for us as well, but how much more frustrating has it been for the pupils, parents and teachers whose interests should be at the centre of the debate? They deserve to know what is proposed, as 2010 comes ever closer.
The reason why the Alliance Party tabled the amendment may be found in the Sinn Féin document which came to light some weeks ago, and which raised concerns that the Minister might be considering an approach designed to bypass the Assembly. I do not know whether such a tactic is possible. I look forward to the Minister’s comments on that matter, and I hope for her reassurance that that idea has been discounted.
There is only one means of agreeing the way forward: it is absolutely paramount that, whatever the proposals are, they are laid before the Assembly for full scrutiny. Any attempt to avoid full debate — including a request for accelerated passage — is unacceptable and will not succeed.
Our motion sets no timescale, but the end of June marks the absolute time limit for action. I welcome the fact that the Minster will brief her Executive colleagues this week, and I look forward to her presenting the same proposals, very quickly afterwards, to the Assembly. If the Minister does that, she will prove that there is nowhere to hide for those who pretend that there is no need for change, no need for equality or no means of progress. If she fails to do that, it will appear that she is the one with something to hide. She must realise that.
I will comment briefly on the other two amendments. First, I shall address the amendment standing in the name of Michelle O’Neill. Mr Deputy Speaker, I have no wish to question your decision on this matter, but we have before us an amendment that removes all but the first three words of a motion, and effectively replaces the original motion with another. Having said that, the proposal that we should patiently await the outcome of the Executive’s discussions holds no appeal for my party. We have been patient long enough. The amendment is irrelevant to the original motion.
The amendment in the name of Mr and Mrs Bradley — [Laughter.]
That amendment totally changes the meaning of the original motion, and merely calls on the Minister to publish her proposals “forthwith”. We all want that to happen; we do not need to debate that proposal.
Our amendment seeks assurance from the Minister that full debate in the House will be facilitated. Such an assurance will be warmly welcomed by the Alliance Party. I could quote Winston Churchill, who famously referred to “the end of the beginning” and “the beginning of the end”. I hope that, whatever happens to this motion — which is not all that relevant — the Minister’s expected announcement will mark the beginning of the end of this process, and that we will achieve what we all want: a modern, fair, education system that is fit for purpose, relevant to the modern world and the needs of the community, and something of which we can be proud. If that can be brought about, all this will have been worthwhile.
We are seeking action and reassurance from the Minister about the post-primary process, and we want it no later than the end of June.
Mr S Wilson: I could use the debate for political knockabout, to which I know the Minister would immediately respond. She would get mad and jump up and down, and we could have a bit of fun with her. There is plenty of material: recent polls in the newspapers show that she is perceived as the worst-performing Minister, and there is a rich vein of imagery that could be tapped. It could be alleged that she and I are the Jack and Vera Duckworth of the Assembly. I could draw many parallels between the hectoring, lecturing, hen-pecking Vera — who has been written out of the script — but I am not going to do that.
As other Members have said, this issue is one that we need to address, and address seriously.
I have three things to say to the Minister. First, it has become obvious from opinion polls and other sources that although, by virtue of her position, she has the first degree of control on this issue, it is an issue on which this Assembly is going to be judged. It is significant that when, on the first birthday of this Assembly, people were making adverse comments, the one area that they zoned in on time and time again was education. Although that may be regarded as something of an accusation against the Minister, nevertheless the Assembly itself will suffer if it is not addressed. That is why it is imperative that all of us put pressure on the Minister to move in the right direction.
My second point is that there is need for agreement with other parties. The Assembly heard a debate earlier today on the victims’ commission, and we have previously heard debates about the RPA, councils, the Budget and a whole range of other issues. The one thing that strikes me about all those debates was that we had Ministers who were willing to engage with other parties; there has been the ability to reach agreement.
I am aware that the Minister and I are poles apart ideologically on this matter. The Minister wants a system based on economic and social selection, whereas I want a system based on educational merit and ability. Despite this, we must find a way of reaching an agreement. My position on academic selection has been copper-fastened in the St Andrews Agreement. As a result of that agreement, those schools that wish to retain academic selection will have the opportunity to do so and to apply it as they see fit. However, I would much prefer that we had a system, agreed to by the entire Assembly, that regularises in law whatever the transfer arrangements are going to be. That is something towards which we must work.
Reference has been made today to the Minister’s proposals. There are some things there on which we can work together, but, equally, the Minister has to give cognisance to those of us who believe that schools that wish to remain as specialist academic schools should have the ability to choose youngsters who best suit what they have to offer.
My third point relates to the motion put forward by Basil McCrea. This motion is not an attempt to snatch away responsibility from the Minister and give it to somebody else. Ministerial subcommittees have been tried previously on difficult issues in this Assembly and have succeeded.
Notwithstanding Michelle O’Neill’s response to my intervention, this is a good example of a policy that would fit into the Executive Committee, because it is cross-cutting — it affects the Departments of Finance and Personnel, Employment and Learning, and Education. Therefore, there are good grounds for taking a cross-party and cross-ministerial approach on this to reach agreement. It is quite clear that, after one year in office, the Minister has not been capable by herself of reaching agreement and bringing forward a proposal.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. The Member’s time is up, and he can go back to the Rover’s Return.
Miss McIlveen: It is perhaps worthy of mention that Sinn Féin is reshuffling its Education Committee members. Wednesday O’Neill remains, but Pugsley Butler has been deemed not naughty enough, and so the Adams family has now drafted in good old faithful Lurch in an attempt to disguise his Minister’s failings while she tries to prune the bloom of our education system.
Given the growing frequency of the Member for Upper Bann’s contributions during education debates and his predecessor’s inability to adequately defend the indefensible actions of his Minister — although he must be applauded for giving it a go — it comes as no surprise that he is joining the Committee for Education.
I congratulate the Ulster Unionist Party for tabling the motion. It clearly got the idea from a DUP Minister who suggested it at an Executive meeting. Since the Ulster Unionist Party is promoting DUP proposals, I have no hesitation in supporting the motion.
I have concerns, however, about the amendments, particularly those tabled by Sinn Féin and the SDLP. It is clear that the Minister is incapable of bringing the situation regarding post-primary transfer to a conclusion by herself. I appreciate the spirit in which the Alliance Party’s amendment was tabled, but it does not provide a definitive timescale. It will, therefore, allow the Minister to wangle her way out of a difficult situation.
It is apparent to me and, undoubtedly, to others in the Chamber and to the many dozens of constituents, teachers and parents that I have spoken to in the past year, that the Minister is hopelessly out of her depth. Sinn Féin is faced with a terrible dilemma: lose face by replacing her, or lose support by keeping her. If it were not for the damage that she is doing to the confidence of teachers and parents, and the waste of resources that she funnels into her pet projects, I would tell them to keep her in position.
Some 90% of the schools surveyed by ‘The Irish News’ said that they did not have enough information from the Minister on the future of education in Northern Ireland post-11, so it is obvious that the Minister has lost the confidence of teachers. Only 24 out of 90 principals said that they had confidence in her. I am surprised that the figure was as high as 24, since most of them felt that they were being kept in the dark. Perhaps they enjoy the Minister’s mushroom-farming approach to education reform. Only one quarter of primary school principals thought that a workable system would be put in place — that is hardly a ringing endorsement.
We are six months away from the final 11-plus test, but we are no clearer on what the Minister wants to put in its place. Confusion abounds. The Minister tells us about the wonderful public meetings that she attends, at which everyone tells her what a great job she is doing. They do not sound anything like the public meetings that I have attended. Perhaps she is sitting with an iPod and listening to her own reassurances on some kind of loop.
Parents, teachers and primary 5 pupils do not know what is happening. It is fortunate that a significant proportion of grammar schools has stepped up to the mark and taken advantage of the opportunity afforded to them by the DUP at St Andrews by proposing a new common entrants test. It is not an ideal situation or a perfect solution, but, in the absence of anything coming from the Minister, it is the best option on the table.
In response to that proposal, the Minister goes on the attack. First, she says that she will not fund the test; subsequently, she says that the schools cannot use departmental funds to defend any appeals; and, finally, she calls those schools elitist. That is no way to win friends and influence people. Of course, there must be one grammar school in Newry that is not elitist.
The longer that the Minister dithers and fails to achieve any form of agreement, the more she chooses to ignore the role of the Committee for Education. As uncertainty continues to grow, more schools will opt to set entrance exams, and the Minister may find that the decision taken by Lumen Christi is merely the tip of a large Catholic-maintained-sector iceberg.
We need action now and solid proposals that can be discussed. The Minister is unable to deliver consensus, and the best way of achieving that is by establishing a ministerial subcommittee.
Mr Deputy Speaker: For a while, I thought that I was going to be referred to as Thing. Speaking of whom, I call Mr Storey.
Mr Storey: I would not refer to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, in such a derogatory fashion; others might, but I would not.
Yet again, the motion being debated puts the Minister of Education at the crossroads. There is a sense of déjà vu; we have been here so many times, and the same arguments have been repeated many times, but, unfortunately, we still get the same response from the Minister. She does not listen, and she is not interested in taking notes when Members are speaking so that she can give a comprehensive, detailed response to what is being said. No doubt the Minister will again read from the prepared script, and there will be no deviation from that. That is how it goes with this Minister.
At the heart of the debate is the belief that time has run out for Caitríona Ruane after months of her prevaricating on the future of post-primary selection. That is why I have some difficulties with the Alliance Party’s amendment, which could be viewed as letting the Minister off the hook. I assure Members that that is the last thing that Members on this side of the House want to do, and I think that that is the general consensus in the Chamber. I suspect that it is probably the general consensus in her own party.
It has been one year since the restoration of devolution, and Caitríona Ruane’s scorecard does not read well. We have had a full year of her dithering, stalling, lecturing us about clarity, consultation and equality of opportunity, and making changes and revisions. The Minister has failed to impress because she has failed to lead and failed to convince anyone — even those in her own party — that she has the ability to lead. The recent poll in the ‘Belfast Telegraph’ clearly showed that 64% of Sinn Féin supporters believe that there should be some form of academic selection. The Minister will try to dismiss that and argue about it, but statistics can be very stubborn, and that statistic is one that she should not ignore.
My colleague Michelle McIlveen referred to the Sinn Féin reshuffle. That reshuffle was all about trying to save face for Caitríona Ruane and trying to spare her any embarrassment. We welcome Mr O’Dowd, the former chef, to the education kitchen. No doubt his party thinks that he can prepare a new menu that will be more palatable for us, but, alas, he will still be using the same ingredients, which will not include academic selection.
Mr Weir: Does the Member agree that that kitchen would be in grave danger of being closed down by environmental health for using those ingredients?
Mr Storey: I thank the Member for his intervention; I was going to go on to say that that meal would have to carry a health warning, and it certainly would not be supported by Jamie Oliver, who would come to the conclusion that it was a recipe for disaster. As the saying goes, you can rearrange the deckchairs on the Titanic, but it will still go down. That can be applied to what is, in this case, the wrong policy.
Sinn Féin has tried to give us all sorts of reasons to explain why Paul Butler has been sidelined and John O’Dowd has been brought in. We know that that is because Sinn Féin is divided on the issue, and the results of the ‘Belfast Telegraph’ poll indicate clearly that Sinn Féin does not have the support of its own community.
It is probably an insult to Basil McCrea’s ego that Sinn Féin has brought in someone who has more of an insight into education than he does. When one listens to Basil, one would think that he was the fountain of all knowledge when it comes to these issues. Obviously, there will be a bit of a contest the first time that those Members meet in the Committee for Education, and we look forward to that battle.
My advice to the Minister is very simple and very clear: if she cannot stand the heat, she should take off her head chef’s hat and get out of the kitchen. Doing so would be a service to education. Everyone knows that the Minister is opposed to the 11-plus, but no one knows what is she is prepared to put in its place. Reference has been made to the consultation that the DUP has undertaken on this issue — we have gone out to the country and have approached parents, school teachers and boards of governors. No one who has come to those well-attended public meetings has told us that the Minister is on the right course. But that is nothing new, because Sinn —
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. The egg timer has run its course, and the Member’s time is up.
Mr Storey: I support the motion.
Mr Beggs: I declare an interest as a governor of Glynn Primary School, where I and other governors work in a voluntary capacity to further the interests of the children, teachers and the school generally. It is important that our focal point in this debate should be the pupils who will be affected, their parents, those who work in the teaching community, and the turmoil that they currently face.
It is regrettable that, despite one year having passed since the restoration of devolution, no firm proposals about the future of post-primary education have been brought to the Assembly, or, for that matter, to the Committee for Education.
A child’s education is precious, and it is so for his or her parents. The degree of concern that exists is unsurprising. I — like all other Members, I suspect — have been approached by parents who, because of the current void, are concerned about their children’s futures.
As my colleagues highlighted, the Minister of Education has repeatedly delayed publishing definitive proposals about the future of post-primary education. Instead, we have been told of vague visions that contained very little detail. The Minister has often said that, over the coming months, she will take various actions. However, to date, nothing has happened. Time and patience have run out.
As other Members said, the public’s concern has been evident through the media, including in editorials, letters pages, opinion pieces and radio phone-ins. It is important that action is taken.
The Minister should be reminded that it is not simply a matter of her issuing a statement; the Assembly’s cross-community support for legislation is required. To date, little attempt has been made to garner the support that may enable the passage of such legislation.
As I said earlier, education is vital to every child’s future, but it is also vital to the future of the Northern Ireland economy. Therefore, the issue affects not only individual children, but the long-term future of citizens in Northern Ireland.
As I said, no serious attempt has been made to secure widespread support. Given that the Minister has a difficult relationship with the Committee for Education, a ministerial subcommittee would be a suitable forum in which to discuss the problems with post-primary education, reach some form of consensus and find a constructive solution.
Some Members are of the view that such a subcommittee is not required. I remind them that many ministerial subcommittees have been created over the past year to consider various issues, including domestic and sexual violence, children and young people, flooding incidents in 2007, a review of water and sewerage, the RPA, and PPS 14.
It is nonsense to say that post-primary education is not a cross-cutting issue. It is clear that interaction with DEL is required. Furthermore, given the impact that education has on the economy, DETI should also be involved. As others said, a huge financial cost is involved in reshaping the educational fabric and in how our young people are educated. A significant proportion of the Budget is spent on education. I contend that issues that involve the post-primary transfer have an impact on many other Departments, and it is, therefore, logical to include them in any discussions that take place. A degree of consensus would have to be reached in any ministerial subcommittee, and that could then be taken to the Committee for Education, and, ultimately, to the Assembly.
I went to Queen’s University, and I remember having to do a brief test that involved a team-building exercise. The outcome of that test was that the collective wisdom of the group was greater than that of any individual. I suggest that the Minister takes those thoughts on board.
Learning partnerships exist throughout Northern Ireland, and those often include the further education sector. Indeed, I am aware of a case in my constituency in which the University of Ulster is involved.
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Member’s time is up.
Mr Beggs: I urge the Minister to progress the issue constructively by establishing a ministerial subcommittee.
Mrs M Bradley: Having been charged with delivering a new Northern Ireland that is equal and better for everyone who lives here, Members are in a unique position to act.
The Minister said:
“equality is my watchword; equality of access and equality of educational opportunity.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 26, p7, col 2].
She also said:
“the draft Programme for Government is explicit in declaring that the watchwords of the Executive, in delivering all its policies and programmes, will be fairness, inclusion and equality.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 26, p10, col 1].
There has been no sign of inclusion in this matter, because the Committee has had to delve and beg for information in order to answer many questions from constituents. Fairness and equality are important in all the processes for which the Executive are responsible. It is vital that our children and their parents and teachers are informed about a process of change and the future of the education system.
The Minister stated that the transfer from primary to post-primary education should be as seamless as possible. However, thus far, the alleged blueprint has been elusive, and the missing programme for change has not been available. Regrettably, the fundamental necessities for achieving change without chaos are invisible in this saga. It is neither fair nor preferable that this situation of limbo is allowed to continue to trundle on without a resolution. That is what will happen unless details concerning the transfer procedure, area planning and sustainable schools are made available.
We are fewer than six weeks away from the end of term, which should herald a carefree few months for children, parents and teachers in Northern Ireland. However, the vibe — and I declare an interest as a school governor — that those of us who sit on boards of governors are getting is that the summer does not look anything like a period of relaxation, but a summer of discontent, with only more confusion to look forward to in the absence of key policies.
The stakeholders in education are parents, teachers and children. The Minister said that she had far-reaching discussions with all the stakeholders. She should be no stranger to the many concerns that teachers have. The very fact that area-based planning is to be the basis for post-primary entrants is of huge concern to educators.
Dominic Bradley — my colleague, not my husband — [Laughter.]
Dominic’s first profession was teaching, and he has been forthright and justified in his detailed approach to this debate. There is no need for me to reiterate his concerns. It is important to clarify that those concerns are not personal; they are a true and honest reflection of the concerns that have been put, on a daily basis, to us as public representatives.
An Executive subcommittee is not the way to resolve this issue. The Minister of Education is the person responsible — it is her responsibility to act, and urgent action is required. There has been too much delay thus far. The Minister must end the confusion and dispel the lack of clarity. She must publish the details of the future transfer procedure. Her paper to the Executive this Thursday must outline the details of the transfer procedure, area planning and sustainable schools. Without those key policies, the lack of clarity and the state of confusion will continue and will ferment. Parents, pupils and teachers will not be reassured — they will only be further disturbed.
I hope that the Minister has got the message by now. I hope that she will end the confusion by publishing her policies on all three important elements of reform without any further delay. Parents, teachers and children deserve that much, at least. I support amendment No 2.
Mr McCausland: In dealing with the issue of post-primary transfer, the Minister is facing her first major test. When one considers how she has performed in that test, her performance has been marked by delay, procrastination, confusion and confrontation. Her entire manner indicates that she is much more suited to be a Minister of confrontation than a Minister of Education.
The Minister talked, as did other Members, about a shared future. That is one of the positive measures that this Assembly is considering — how a cross-community consensus and an agreement for the future can be created. One can certainly say that Caitríona Ruane has contributed to that. Due to her attitude, she has created a consensus that is quite unique — teachers, principals, parents, unionists, nationalists, people in the east of the Province, and people in the west all share a common view. It does not matter to whom one talks or where one goes, there is a cross-community consensus that she is simply incompetent and incapable of doing the job. She has at least managed to create a consensus around her incompetence.
It must also be noted that in dealing with the issue, the Minister told us that she carried out consultation and sought to build consensus by going out and speaking to this person, that person and the other person. However, when the Committee listened to folk who came along to tell of their experiences, it found that there had been no genuine consultation. The Committee was given a presentation recently by a group from the education sector who, when questioned, said that there had been a meeting way back a year or so ago, but nothing since then. That meeting might have been with a political adviser, but there was no real engagement with the Minister. Nevertheless, those are people who hold important positions, as key stakeholders in the education sector.
Although there has been much talk about consultation and consensus, those who have been giving evidence to the Education Committee gave the impression that there had not been the effort, endeavour and commitment that the Minister suggests. Whom do I believe? Do I believe one deputation after another, or do I believe the Minister? It is pretty clear whom one would believe — all the deputations that come along and say with one voice that there has not been the engagement that there should have been.
If it were simply that the Minister had failed the test regarding post-primary transfer, that would be bad enough. However, when one looks at the Minister’s record right across the education sector, one sees that it is a record of failure after failure after failure, and some of the decisions taken recently have shown that to be the case.
The Minister is also responsible for the Youth Service, which should be complementing our formal education system, yet what did she do? She de-prioritised the Youth Service in her budget, when everyone else right across the board put more money into their budgets. That will result in less money going into the Youth Service in the coming years.
Funding had been put into some of the more difficult interface areas in north Belfast and parts of west Belfast to deal with the needs of schools in those areas — schools that have particular problems because of the legacy of interface and other sectarian violence over a number of years. What did the Minister do? She took away the funding. Nevertheless, teachers and principals who attended the Committee put forward a clear argument and said with a coherent voice that that was the wrong decision.
We see how the Minister is handling the issue of the proposed education and skills authority. Right across the board, issue after issue, the Minister has demonstrated her incompetence. The post-primary transfer issue should be put to a subcommittee of the Executive. Moreover, the Minister should acknowledge her incompetence and her inability to do the job, and do the right thing. For the sake of the children, we should see not only the establishment of a subcommittee but the resignation of the Minister.
Mr Ross: Today’s debate is necessary only because the Education Minister has, once again, failed in her role to introduce appropriate proposals for post-primary transfer. The only way to formulate a strategy in time is to establish a ministerial subcommittee — as my party called for previously in the Executive. The decision must be taken out of the Minister’s hands. The two Bradleys said that if we went down that route, the Minister would then not be accountable for the decisions. This side of the House wants to see the issue resolved, and if the Minister is not willing to do that, we must set up a group that will.
I have spoken on this topic in the Chamber on many occasions, and I have listened to the Minister deny repeatedly that there is any panic or confusion among the public, parents or teachers. In that regard, she is less of a Vera Duckworth and more of a Lance Corporal Jones in that her rhetoric keeps referring to, “Don’t panic, don’t panic”. I can assure the Minister that there is panic. Education is among the top three biggest issues that concern the people of Northern Ireland, along with hospital cleanliness and crime.
As has been mentioned, the DUP has hosted several well-attended public meetings throughout Northern Ireland on the subject of post-primary education transfer. The one clear message that came out of all those meeting is that there is utter frustration with the way in which the Minister is behaving and utter confusion as to what is going on.
That is reflected in the action of the so-called breakaway grammar schools, including Lumen Christi College, which have decided that, in the absence of firm and acceptable proposals, they will formulate their own test. They are perfectly entitled to do so; as we know, academic selection is safeguarded in law.
My party colleague Ms McIlveen, along with Mr Basil McCrea, mentioned the fact that the Minister’s popularity was the subject of a poll carried out by ‘The Irish News’, which gave the Education Minister the poorest rating of all Ministers in the current Executive. The ‘Belfast Telegraph’ ran its own poll, which revealed that most people are still none the wiser as to how she plans to transfer children from primary to post-primary schools, and that most people disagree with her so-called vision of ending academic selection. Importantly, that MORI poll for the ‘Belfast Telegraph’ reports that 70% of adults in Northern Ireland agree with some type of academic selection, including 64% of Sinn Féin voters. It seems that even more people wish to retain academic selection now than was the case six years ago.
The supposedly leaked Sinn Féin education position paper actually acknowledges the fact that the Minister cannot abolish academic selection, and that her guidelines can be ignored. That is why it is imperative that she bring forward proposals that are acceptable to all sides of the House. Because she has not done so, my party felt it appropriate to come up with our own proposals, and put those to the public in a series of public meetings.
The Minister, and the very few supporters that she has left, make much of the notion of fairness, and of ensuring that children are not penalised because of their social background. Of course, as my colleague Mr Wilson mentioned earlier, evidence shows that the fairest way to do that is through a system of selection, using criteria based on merit alone.
If we move towards a system that uses geographical criteria, as advocated by the Minister, or that involves all-ability or comprehensive schools, the result would be that parents with the most money would move closest to the most popular schools. That is already happening in areas of Northern Ireland, just as it happened in England and Scotland. In fact, last Wednesday, I met the Archbishop of Dublin in this Building, and he confirmed that it is also happening in Dublin, where parents with most money are moving closest to the best schools.
Grammar schools will never struggle to fill their places. It is the secondary schools that will suffer if the Minister does not react. Whatever proposals are made, we must ensure that those schools that are more vocational in nature do not suffer.
It is clear to all that the Education Minister is not listening to Members, to the teachers, or to the parents. She refuses to budge, despite the opposition to her stance, even in her own party, if the murmurings are to be believed. There is therefore no alternative but to establish a ministerial subgroup to examine the issue. Ultimately, the Executive will have the final say on the issue, but it would be beneficial, particularly in dealing with this controversial and important decision, if some type of subgroup could be established, such as was created to examine PPS 14 and the issue of water charges.
There are genuine differences in the House on how we should move forward, and that reflects the differing positions on both sides of the House. However, it is important that we recognise both the legal realities and the opinion of the vast majority of people in the Province, the majority of the Executive, of the Assembly, and of the Education Committee, and use that as a way through the impasse. The amendments tabled by Sinn Féin and the SDLP are not acceptable, because we have been waiting for months already, and have seen no movement from the Minister. I do not believe that people are willing to wait any longer.
As Mr Lunn conceded, the Alliance Party amendment denotes no timescale for the Minister to make her detailed proposals, and experience tells us that we have waited long enough. That amendment would, once again, allow the Minister off the hook. The original motion recognises that the Minister is refusing to move, and that the decision must now be taken out of her hands in order to see some progress.
Mr Kennedy: The Ulster Unionist Party proposed the motion without any desire to score cheap political points, nor with a desire to politically assassinate a Minister. The Ulster Unionist Party is not calling for the protection and promotion of some schools at the expense of other schools. We have been driven to this position by a growing and grave concern for the future of our education system, and, most specifically, concern about the immediate prospects for the post-primary transfer system.
An education system is the foundation stone of any society. A good education system is crucial to ensure our economic competitiveness and social cohesion. There is, however, mounting public concern in all communities in Northern Ireland that the Education Minister simply does not know what she is doing. The 11-plus ends this year, and in spite of being in office for over a year, the Minister has come up with no proposals for what happens next.
Widespread — and sometimes, apparently, informed — speculation suggests that she will bring a proposal for a graduated end to academic selection to the Executive on Thursday. However, the detail of that proposal and its long-term implications must be studied very carefully before it is endorsed.
The Minister has left schools with ridiculously insufficient time to prepare parents and pupils. Instead, we have had to watch — and I emphasise “watch” — a Minister on a destructive solo mission, which has seen her ostracise the vast majority of education professionals, parents and elements in the media.
The Minister has fashioned the enviable position of creating cross-community consensus. The only problem for her is that people have united to question her competence. In newspaper opinion polls, letter pages, editorials, public meetings, radio shows and parent-teacher associations, the Minister’s competence is being questioned.
There is no confidence in the Education Committee, the Assembly, or the Executive in the Minister’s actions. It appears that her own party is being strongly whipped to support her, but that support has become less enthusiastic, more begrudging and, on occasions, mute.
While the Minister has carried out her ideological crusade, she has also presided over severe reductions in extended schools’ funding that will see the disappearance of after-school and breakfast clubs, badly affecting the families and children who most need their services.
Equally, the Minister has overseen a budgetary allocation that widens the gap in funding between primary and secondary schools. Further testimony to her political failure is the fact that a Sinn Féin Minister now presides over a system of independent entrance tests. The Association for Quality Education made it clear that it did not want to go down that route. However, without dialogue and guidance its members felt that they had been forced into a corner.
That did not stop the Minister from using bullying tactics to attempt to batter them into submission. In Mafia-style language, the Minister said:
“They have a choice, people always have a choice. What I would say to them is think very carefully before you go down the route of bringing boards of governors into situations where they may find themselves spending their time in court.”
The Minister, as a tennis player, has been in more courts than Martina Navratilova. Her chilling words were not spared on Lumen Christi College either, when she said of its choice:
“The Board of Governors of Lumen Christi should be in no doubt the Department of Education will not fund, facilitate or in any way support a breakaway entrance exam.”
The Minister might be called Minister Ruane. She is, in effect, Minister of ruin. [Interruption.]
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order.
The Minister of Education (Ms Ruane): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the opportunity to speak to Members about the important issue of post-primary transfer and the 11-plus. However, this is just one part of the shake-up that our education system needs to bring it into the twenty-first century. Since I became Education Minister on 8 May 2007, my priority has been to achieve a way forward and to make the education system work for all our children.
Ó rinneadh Aire Oideachais don Tuaisceart díom, bhuail mé leis na páirtithe leasmhara uilig chun clár leasaithe ar an chóras oideachais a phlé, chomh maith le socruithe d’aistriú iarbhunoideachais in ionad an 11-plus.
I immediately set about meeting all stakeholders to discuss the wide range of education reform issues, including the question of replacing the 11-plus with new arrangements for post-primary transfer. The last 11-plus tests take place this year, and it is now difficult to find anyone who ever supported them.
Advancing that programme of reform requires strong leadership combined with a willingness to engage with people representing a wide range of views.
During the following six months, I initiated a process of policy review and development in all areas of education in which change is needed; and that development involved many more issues than the narrow issue of academic selection. The future of post-primary education is part of a holistic reconsideration of how that provision is organised, the curriculum it will deliver and the wider education system in which it operates. Underpinning all of that is the central issue of improving quality of learning and raising standards for all children.
Those issues have been taken forward through a new school-improvement policy called Every School a Good School, Gach scoil ina scoil mhaith, which will be implemented in September 2008. The Department will also do more to raise achievement levels, especially in literacy and numeracy. It wants to go far beyond measures of success in examinations by placing a high value on excellent pastoral care; on fostering a spirit of good citizenship, and on promoting in all pupils a strong desire for lifelong learning that will equip them for adulthood and make them confident, creative and articulate young people.
During the past 12 months, I have talked to hundreds of teachers, school principals, parents, children and people who are interested in education. I have engaged in extensive fact finding. I have carried out wide-ranging discussion and consultation on how to make progress. Some people have criticised me for not having instant solutions to the challenges facing the education system. I have been in office for just one year. During that time, I have worked on several progressive proposals and initiatives to transform a 60-year-old education system into one that is fit for the twenty-first century.
Aithním go bhfuil roinnt daoine go láidir i gcoinne na forbartha. Agus mé ag glacadh céime chun tosaigh, chaith mé cuid mhaith ama le teacht ar chomhdhearcadh ar an chur chuige is fearr.
I acknowledge that there is deep resistance to change in some quarters. I have taken considerable time to try and build consensus on the way forward. Having listened to and learned from a wide range of views, I have prepared proposals that will command support from as many people as possible. Frankly, on such an issue, it would be impossible to produce proposals on which everyone could agree. However, with the future of children’s education as my focus, I believe that my proposals represent the best way forward.
The main drivers of the changes are: the demographic trends that have led to there being 50,000 empty desks in classrooms — a figure that is set to rise; the obligation to deliver the entitlement framework with increased educational options for young people at age 14 and post-16 years of age; and the need to raise standards and tackle the long tail of underachievement — particularly in working-class communities. The system cannot stand still, and things cannot go on as they have in the past.
Delivering the range of initiatives and reforms, which include the entitlement framework; the Every School a Good School, Gach scoil ina scoil mhaith, policy; the new transfer arrangements, and area-based planning, are essential if we are to give every child the greatest range of education opportunities while tackling the serious problem in the education system of underachievement. They are also essential to how education will support long-term economic growth. It must also be recognised that to make a real impact on poverty and disadvantage, the education system must provide every child with access to quality education.
Members are aware that, particularly in the aftermath of the investment conference, more must be done to produce the talented individuals that the economy requires. That means extending academic excellence across all of the education system and not limiting it in any way, shape or form. The Every School a Good School, Gach scoil ina scoil mhaith, policy has been developed following discussions with teachers and young people about what they believe drives school improvement and characterises a good school.
That has reached consultation stage, and I look forward to its outcome. I will take on board what teachers — the reflective practitioners — propose. The policy will set out how we deliver improvement at every level of the education system. A targeted programme of school improvement will be rolled out to ensure that every school is a good school. Every school is capable of, and should actively strive for, improvement in teaching and learning. From talks that I have had with many teachers and school principals, I know that we have a workforce that is committed to, and capable of, delivering those improvements.
Tá a fhios agam go bhfuil na scileanna agus an tiomantas ag ceannairí le córas oideachais den scoth a sholáthar a fhreagraíonn do riachtanais gach dalta.
I know that school leaders have the necessary commitment and skills to deliver a high-quality education system that is responsive to the individual needs of every pupil. I want to see academic excellence across the entire education system. I do not want any child to be denied the right to an academic education, just as I want every child to be able to access the fullest range of educational pathways, including vocational excellence.
The revised curriculum was introduced here in September 2007. Its focus, in the early years, is on developing knowledge and skills at Key Stage 4 to ensure a greater range of educational opportunity and experience for young people.
At Key Stage 4, when children are aged 14, the introduction of the entitlement framework will ensure that all pupils, irrespective of their background or where they live, will have equal rights to choose from a wider range of courses and pathways. Pupils aged 14 will have the right to choose from 24 options, and pupils at post-16 level will have 27 options to choose from.
That process of policy development culminated in my speech to the Assembly on 4 December 2007 in which I set out my vision for education in the North, based on election at 14 and informed choice in an area-planned post-primary system that is designed to deliver the entitlement framework and meet the needs of young people.
At that point, I initiated a series of meetings with all the stakeholders, including: trade unions; the Association of Head Teachers of Secondary Schools; the children’s rights sector; the Governing Bodies Association, the Transferers Representative Council; the Catholic Trustees; and the chief executives of the education and library boards. I sought written responses from those groups and from the Committee for Education by 11 January 2008. Following that, I arranged a further series of meetings in February and March with the stakeholders that are most central to the transfer process.
Ar 4 Márta, d’fhógair mé beart pleanála atá bunaithe sa cheantar le díriú ar an oideachas iarbhunscoile; beidh an beart seo á chur i bhfeidhm ag grúpaí pleanála atá bunaithe sa cheantar.
On 4 March 2008, I announced a post-primary-focused area-planning exercise, which has been implemented by area-based planning groups. The job of those groups will be to introduce proposals for the best design of post-primary provision in each area in order to deliver the full entitlement framework of 2013. Some schools will be able to deliver, on their own, the range of courses that are required under the entitlement framework. However, many others will need to collaborate with other schools, further education colleges and other providers.
On the specific issue of transfer policy, I have developed a wide-ranging package of proposals that take account of the fact that some schools will need time to adjust to the necessary changes in order to provide a high-quality education. That is what we are about.
The extensive consultation on the new transfer arrangements is now complete. I will present my proposals to the Executive on 15 May, which is in two days’ time, and after that, I will engage with the Committee for Education.
It is my intention to prepare new admissions-criteria regulations for schools admissions for September 2010 and beyond. Replacing a 60-year-old system was never going to be easy, and there are no quick-fix solutions. My discussions with all sectors have been detailed and exhaustive. Throughout the process, I have engaged with people who represent all sides of the debate. I recognise that parents have fears about what will happen to their children. I rehearsed all those matters to make a simple point.
Since coming into office, I have conducted an inclusive and exhaustive process that is designed to deliver a resolution to the question of post-primary transfer and the wider imperatives for reform. That is the only responsible resolution to the issue of transfer, because it considers the issue as part of a bigger picture and through a consultative and inclusive approach. We cannot stay still; the world around us is constantly changing, and we must give all our children the greatest opportunities so that they can contribute positively to our community and to our society.
On 15 May, I will bring proposals to the Executive. Therefore, I see no need for a subcommittee to be involved in the issue. The issue has required, and still requires, leadership and resolve. I have provided both, and I will continue to do so. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr Lunn: To my disappointment, the Minister did not answer my question, and she did not even refer to it. I asked whether the Minister could assure the House that the proposals would be brought before the Assembly for debate without accelerated passage or any subterfuge or attempts to bypass the Assembly. I am particularly disappointed that she did not mention that.
The Minister said that the proposal will come before the Executive in the next couple of days and that it would subsequently come to the Committee for Education. However, she did not say when it would come to the Committee, and I am concerned by that. Without meaning any disrespect, I heard the Minister make the same speech a few months ago.
Mr Storey: That is a trait of the Education Minister: she regurgitates the same mantras that we have heard over the past few weeks. She talked about consultation. Does the Member accept that, on 4 March 2008, the Minister made a great play about area planning, and wrote to the chief executives of the education and library boards four weeks later, on 2 April? The Education Committee is still waiting for the terms of reference for her plans on area-based planning. The Minister wants to provide only the information that she wants us to have, and when she wants to provide it. We have no confidence in the Minister, and the best thing that she can do is resign.
Mr Lunn: That was some intervention; I will not comment on it.
The motion calls on the Executive to create a ministerial subcommittee, and perhaps one will be created. Basil McCrea and Sammy Wilson said — [Interruption.]
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. Comments are flying from one side of the House to the other, and I cannot hear Mr Lunn’s speech. Members on one side of the House are making comments; they could not have known what the Minister said because they were holding their own conversations. I call for order in the House.
Mr Lunn: The motion calls on the Executive to create a subcommittee. Basil McCrea and Sammy Wilson made that proposal sound as though it was intended as a helping hand to the Minister. I contrast that with the demands from Michelle McIlveen, Nelson McCausland, Mervyn Storey and others that the Minister resign. Alastair Ross put his finger on the matter when he said that he wanted to take the decision out of the Minister’s hands. One cannot have it both ways — that is not going to happen.
Much mention was made of polls and radio phone-ins, such as the ‘The Stephen Nolan Show’ —
Mr Ross: Will the Member give way?
Mr Lunn: No. I have fallen foul of the rule on interventions before.
Such polls can prove anything. A couple of years ago, a poll showed that 84% of people wanted their children to be educated in the integrated system. I was heartened by that poll, but I did not believe it. Michelle McIlveen mentioned a poll that was taken of primary school principals. In the past year, I have not spoken to a primary school principal who wants to retain academic selection. In common with the Minister, I can find hardly anyone who wants to retain it.
Although I do not go to DUP public meetings, everyone that I speak to —
A Member: Perhaps the Member should.
Mr Lunn: Maybe I should, but then nobody would be at ours. Frankly, one gets the reaction that one would expect from such people.
The people who take the trouble to talk to me, particularly the parents of P5 children, are frustrated and concerned, and we all know that. However, in two days’ time, hopefully, the process will restart. Talk about a ministerial subcommittee will not advance that process, except as a means of having the debate that we have had several times before — it was not just the Minister’s speech that sounded familiar; many of the other contributions did as well.
A Member: Including your own.
Mr Lunn: If you like.
I was concerned when Dominic Bradley said that the papers have already been informed. Danny Kennedy mentioned — I have done some harm to Mr McNarry. [Laughter.]
Danny Kennedy said that he had heard a leak about a graduated end to selection. I am concerned about leaks. The process is going on in a vacuum, and, in a vacuum, one gets leaks.
Like everybody else, I encourage the Minister to come clean to the Assembly about her proposals, and that is the thrust of the Alliance Party’s amendment. Even at this late stage and although our amendment does not stipulate a time limit, I hope that the other parties might accept it because it is realistic.
Mr D Bradley: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Mr McCrea began the debate by speaking, as I did, about the Minister’s delay in providing information, and I will address that in more detail later. He also quoted two surveys: one in ‘The Irish News’, in which 93·3% of school principals declared that they had insufficient information, and the other in the ‘Belfast Telegraph’, stating that 62% of parents do not understand the Minister’s plans. Mr McCrea said that that has led to the Minister’s competence being questioned far and wide and that the public perceive the Minister to be failing. He also predicted that, during the Minister’s watch, she would preside over unregulated academic selection. Mr McCrea suggested that the mechanism of an Executive subcommittee would ensure that the Minister fulfilled her wider obligations and bolster public confidence. I share Mr McCrea’s concern, but I disagree with his proposed solution.
On Sinn Féin’s behalf, Michelle O’Neill argued that the motion is already outdated because the Minister intends to present a paper to the Executive on Thursday — assuming that it is not in this evening’s ‘Belfast Telegraph’. However, she could not say what is in that paper. She claimed that, by proposing the formation of an Executive subcommittee, the UUP wishes to bypass the democratic process and, thus, take power from the Minister. However, the Minister’s colleague Conor Murphy had no such hesitation about giving his power to an Executive subcommittee in order to avoid a watery grave.
Trevor Lunn largely agreed with me about the need to hold the Minister to account and to ensure that she faces up to her responsibilities. I encourage him to go one step further and support my amendment.
As I said, the dearth of information is clear to the public. We have no policy detail about area-based planning or sustainable schools. We still do not know what the areas will be, how they will be defined and how boundaries will be established. In the post-selection era, education providers will have to live in a vastly changed education landscape. They will have to decide how education is to be delivered in their sector through existing schools and in collaboration with schools from other sectors. How can they make such decisions without knowing the areas in which they will work?
Naturally, various sectors will bring their interests to the area-planning table. Those interests will need to be reconciled with the overall vision for each area. What is the Minister’s advice on how to best achieve that? How will area-based planning operate in the context of open enrolment? The two concepts do not sit easily side by side — one could argue that they are mutually exclusive. Will open enrolment be ended? If so, how will that impact on parental choice in certain areas? On what basis will area boundaries be established? Those are all legitimate questions that must be answered. However, the answers have not been forthcoming.
The consultation on sustainable schools closed at Easter 2007, and the Minister has yet to announce her response. That policy is closely connected to the other reforms that are under discussion to address falling rolls and the effective use of funding. Area-based planning could have a significant effect on the sustainability of schools, but it will be impossible to reorganise education on an area basis without a guiding policy. More than a year after the consultation on sustainable schools ended, we have not had sight of a policy.
The motion would accommodate the lack of accountability that already exists and allow the Minister to shirk her responsibilities again. We are not here to let the Minister off the hook; we are here to hold her to account. On that basis, I ask members to support amendment No 2. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr O’Dowd: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Basil McCrea began the debate by telling the House what the debate was not about. However, in telling us what the debate was about, he outlined the same issues that he said the debate was not about. I know that I am in the presence of greatness and that Mr McCrea has recently received an award, but even I did not understand the context in which he was placing the debate.
The origins of the motion lie in a television debate during which Basil McCrea was challenged by the presenter to outline his proposals for post-primary transfer. He studied for a while and said that his party would pursue proposals. However, the motion does not constitute pursuing proposals — it is a waste of debating time and a waste of the Assembly’s time. The process has moved on from meaningless debates. The Minister will outline her proposals to the Executive on Thursday, which will be crystal clear in detailing the way forward. All the parties who have Ministers in the Executive will have sight of those proposals on Thursday.
In his contribution, Mr Basil McCrea seemed to speak on behalf of “everybody”. He claimed that everybody knows that the Minister does not know what she is doing, and that nobody knows what is happening. However, everybody does not agree with John O’Dowd. Members should not make such broad-based statements in the Chamber.
There is a perception among the parties on the Benches opposite that the eradication of academic selection is a plot that has been dreamed up by Sinn Féin. However, for decades, teachers’ unions, educationalists and other interested organisations have said that academic selection — particularly the 11-plus — is detrimental to the education of children. The list of people that are opposed to academic selection includes: the Association of Head Teachers; teachers’ trade unions; the vast majority of educationalists; the Catholic Church; some grammar schools, which have indicated that they are leaving the system; and, although one could not tell from its Members’ speeches, the SDLP. Therefore, ending academic selection is not simply a Sinn Féin plot — there is a large and growing body of opinion that we must move away from academic selection.
Although the education system in England is not the same as ours, the front page of ‘The Daily Telegraph’ carries the story that a Select Committee at Westminster, which some Members may hold in high regard, has stated that academic selection damages the education of children.
It is not simply a Sinn Féin plot.
Mr S Wilson: Will the Member give way?
Mr O’Dowd: I have only a limited amount of time, Sammy.
The comments of the Alliance Party are fair enough — I do not agree with them all, but at least the Alliance Party is allowing the Minister to present the proposals and is allowing them to be debated in a rational manner. That is the way forward.
Sammy Wilson — who was not speaking as the Chairperson of the Education Committee — made an informed contribution to the debate. Other Members were not so informed. As for Miss McIlveen’s contribution, if an argument has to resort to personal insults, there is no substance to it. I could trade personal insults with Miss McIlveen — she is a good subject to work on. However, I will not, because that would be immature.
Mervyn Storey questioned the Sinn Féin reshuffle. I will let Members into a secret: I was offered the opportunity to spend every Friday morning with Sammy Wilson, Mervyn Storey and Michelle McIlveen, and I jumped at the chance. How could I resist that?
The debate will progress on Thursday. Members have a responsibility to approach the debate and the proposals on post-primary education in a responsible and mature manner. Educationalists, parents and children are fed up of listening to the political battle that has been raging on. It is time to start debating education. Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.
Mr B McCrea: Perhaps unusually for me, I have sat quietly and listened to the debate. I am somewhat disappointed by some of the comments that were made by Members who feel that people are not moving on. The reason why I spoke in the manner that I did — and the reason why Sammy Wilson spoke in the manner that he did — is because we are actively looking for a solution. Tub-thumping does no good. I can make those types of speeches, and I am happy to take interventions and to stand my corner, but that is not helpful. I agree with Sammy Wilson, 100%.
People are looking to the Assembly to find solutions. If a solution on education is not found that is satisfactory to the majority of people in Northern Ireland, this Assembly, this Executive, and this body politic will fail and will fall. The situation is that serious. It is easy to say that the debate is just a bit of pat-a-cake, and that we can have a little joke, but education is important for the future of Northern Ireland and its people.
Today, I have endured jibes from the DUP, disappointment from the SDLP, ridicule from Sinn Féin and a complete list of misdemeanours from the Alliance Party. I must be doing something right because there seems to be a consensus on my comments from those parties. What really disappoints me is that words are being twisted. In trying to reach accommodation, one can be accused of having a change of mind. The UUP has not changed its mind. We are trying to reach an accommodation.
It is not fair to say that people argued for the 11-plus. No one, including the Minister, has been able to come up with a viable alternative. The UUP is seeking a fair, inclusive and rational alternative. That cannot be done in six months. The Minister talked of criticism of her for not having instant solutions, because she has been in the job for only one year. We are not doing that. We are saying that she should not have removed a working system until she had some idea of what was going to replace it. That has led to the panic and the disappointment that people are experiencing.
By all means, she should introduce proposals and ideas about which she wants to talk to the Assembly, but she must not throw the baby out with the bath water — she must first put some sort of solution in place.
John O’Dowd mentioned all the people who opposed academic selection — the unions and so on and so forth. It must have come as a shock to him to discover that a poll showed that only 8% of people of Northern Ireland think that the Minister is doing a good job. It must come as a surprise when he talks to people who ask if there is any information on developments. The issue is not whether we are moving in the right direction. The issue is that there is no way forward and there are no plans — that is what is unacceptable.
We come then to the twisting of words. The Minister of Education says that she knows that there are people against change. However, change for the sake of change is not the right way forward. Her party has been in existence for over 100 years. That seems far too long to me. It is about time that its members stopped going on about a united Ireland or whatever other principles it believes in. That is the logic that the Minister tries to apply to our position. I see that my remarks have caused some mirth. However, contrary to the argument that the Minister tries to make to us, the sophisticated argument that we try to put across concerns points of principle. Just because something has been working for some time does not mean that it is wrong. People are entitled to their views, and if there are efforts to build some form of consensus, then we must have something to talk about.
We are told that there will be an announcement in two days’ time; however, what happens when the Minister presents her proposals? That is the big question. I put that question to Mr Lunn or Mr Bradley. On the off chance that Sinn Féin is not correct and that it does not sweep all in front of it, then what? Just say those Members disagree with the proposals, will they and other Members have a chance to debate them or express their views? Mary Bradley talked about inclusion. The Education Committee has not been included in anything. Its members have had no sight of the proposals and are not engaged in the process. It is therefore hardly surprising that we cannot tell people outside what the way forward is.
Mr Lunn: Will the Member give way?
Mr B McCrea: As long as he does not take as long as other Members have done.
Mr Lunn: I would never do that. Does the Member not agree that the thrust of the Alliance Party’s amendment is that there should be time for full debate on the proposals, both at Committee and in the Assembly?
Mr B McCrea: I take Mr Lunn’s point. I understand the purpose of the amendment; however, I cannot support it, because we do not have time for full consideration of the proposals. We do not have the time to bring legislation through. We have wasted a year. Had we wanted to go down that route, we should have done so earlier.
I am not a great supporter of Executive subcommittees and so on, but I see no other forum through which the Assembly can thrash out a solution to this problem — and a solution is badly needed. If someone else can come up with some other approach, or if we can have a grand debate in the Chamber and sort this matter out in one day, fair enough. However, all that will happen is that people will restate their positions. I, too, have heard all the speeches. Through this debate, I tried to introduce something different. The people of Northern Ireland will not forgive us if we cannot find some kind of solution.
Mr O’Dowd says that this motion is a continuation of a television debate. To be frank, a television studio is about the only place that we can have any debate. It has come as some relief that the Member is now the party’s education spokesman because, for quite a long time, I thought that the Minister of Education was not talking to me personally. I do not know how to engage: I do not have the opportunity to talk about the issues, even though I have plenty of ideas that I want to put forward.
Sinn Féín says that those in favour of academic selection do not represent the vast majority of people, but that cannot be so — the DUP is the largest party in the House, and the UUP is the third largest party, so together we represent a large number of people. Moreover, I will even say to Members on this side of the House that a significant number of people from the Roman Catholic tradition share our concerns about academic criteria. We are not being prescriptive about how this matter should progress. To fly in the face of what the people want is absolutely undemocratic, and it ill behoves any of us here to support such a solution.
Some said that we were a little too late in bringing this motion to the Chamber. Frankly, we did the best we could: we submitted the motion and waited for it to be called. Suddenly — miraculously — the subject is now on the Executive’s agenda. Pulling a rabbit out of a hat is no way to run a country — that is kindergarten stuff. We need mature dialogue, reflection and debate, and to seek compromise, because not everything proposed is wrong. As things now appear, if this matter is not resolved before the summer, there will be a war of attrition. I hope that in the Minister’s proposals will be a better way of sorting out the next few years than having schools doing their own thing, because there are dangers in that. I hope, too, that the Minister will not cap the finances of those schools that do not go along with her way of thinking, because any such proposal amounts to bullying and would be unacceptable in a civilised country.
Surely there is a better way. Surely the Minister recognises, when she looks at the opinion polls and listens to Members’ speeches, that there is some small value in what we have to say.
Mr McNarry: What will be the Member’s impressions if the Minister, in making this challenge to us, fails to win Executive support for her proposals?
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order, the Member’s time is up. Your intervention was very badly timed, Mr McNarry. [Laughter.]
Before I put the question on amendment No 1, I advise Members that if this, or any subsequent amendment, is made, all other amendments will fall, and I will proceed to put the question on the motion as amended.
Question, That amendment No 1 be made, put and negatived.
Question, That amendment No 2 be made, put and negatived.
Question, That amendment No 3 be made, put and negatived.
Main Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly, given high levels of public concern, calls on the Executive to create a Ministerial Sub-Committee to recommend appropriate regulations to govern post-primary transfer from 2010.
Irish-Medium Schools in Dungannon/South Tyrone
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes to do so.
A valid petition of concern was presented on Tuesday 6 May 2008 in relation to the motion. The effect of the petition is that the vote on the motion will be on a cross-community basis.
Lord Morrow: I beg to move
That this Assembly calls on the Minister of Education to abandon proposals to establish primary and post-primary Irish-medium schools in Dungannon and the wider South Tyrone area where there are already a considerable number of long-term unfilled places; and expresses its concern at the detrimental impact the creation of such schools would have on both present and future education budgets.
Before I get into the meat of the motion, it has been brought to our attention that a petition of concern has been signed by more than 30 Members. That is quite significant, and it tells us something about those Members who are opposed to the motion. They know that they cannot win the debate by the force of argument, so they reached for the most blunt instrument in the box — a petition of concern.
The other significant factor is that the SDLP feels compelled to be greener than the shinners on this issue, and my constituency colleague Tommy Gallagher finds himself compelled to lead the charge. In an article in yesterday’s ‘Irish News’, Mr Gallagher talked balderdash and failed to address any of the issues. Instead, he opted for a sectarian rant, and that is to be deplored. I am sure that when he reads that article, he will hang his head in shame.
Mr Gallagher comes from a rural constituency, and he is a former teacher. Therefore, I fail to understand why he wants to pour millions of pounds into an Irish language school when many rural schools in his constituency are being closed down by the Minister. When the Member and his party reflect on that issue, they will have many regrets.
I wish to bring some important points to the attention of the House, and I look forward to hearing other Members’ opinions on the issue.
Mr Gallagher: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Will you clarify what issue is under debate? So far, I have only heard the proposer of the motion launching a bitter, personal attack on me.
Mr Deputy Speaker: That was not a point of order.
Lord Morrow: If Mr Gallagher holds on tight, he will hear all right. I am surprised that he had any difficulty in hearing me — I thought that I was quite clear. Nevertheless, I will speak louder, if that is the problem.
The Minister stated in a document that was published by her Department that some families in the Dungannon area have opted for Irish-medium education. She went on to say that there will be 17 pupils on the roll in September 2008. By my calculations, that means that there are three or four families who are interested in educating their children in an Irish-speaking school.
I see that the Minister is not in her place, which is a further example that she is not going to pay much attention to what anyone has to say. Nevertheless, I will pose the question: if three or four families get together on any educational issue, will special terms be set aside for them? It is a disgrace that the Minister is going to strip millions of pounds from her budget to pour into an Irish-medium school. There is an equality issue, which must be tested in another place, at another time. We will observe the situation carefully.
The Minister does not often answer questions that are put to her. She fumbles about, but she seldom, if ever, answers any questions that are put to her. My colleague Sammy Wilson asked her questions about the enrolment in that school in Dungannon. In her reply, she said that she could not estimate the number of children who would be attending that school. In a document that her Department produced on 7 May 2008, she stated that the review of Irish-medium education will not be completed until the end of May 2008.
However, she proceeds to open schools without demonstrating forward thinking or giving any thought to planning or strategy.
Mr S Wilson: Does the Member agree that the situation is even worse than he states? Many new Irish-medium schools employ people who are not qualified teachers. School inspectors’ results reflect that fact and highlight the quality of education being offered to youngsters.
Lord Morrow: My colleague Mr Wilson makes a succinct point. I am sure that the Minister is listening but paying little attention — that is sad. It strikes me and my colleagues on this side of the House that the Minister does not take her responsibilities seriously. If I were a member of Sinn Féin, I would ask how much longer we can tolerate Caitríona — given the position that she is in, she has outlived her usefulness. Mr O’Dowd has become the party’s education spokesperson, so he may be the Minister-in-waiting. To be fair to him, he could not do a worse job — no matter how hard he tried — than Caitríona Ruane.
Mr Weir: Does the Member agree that the Minister has become so much of a lame duck that she would be wise to avoid walking past Jim Shannon’s house? [Laughter.]
Lord Morrow: Yes. Mr Weir’s point is that Mr Shannon is an avid shooter, noted for shooting doves.
I suspect that Mr Gallagher will speak during the debate, because he is a former teacher from a rural constituency — the same constituency as me and my colleague Arlene Foster.
During the debate on post-primary transfer, the Minister said that 50,000 desks sit empty in schools across Northern Ireland. Within 10 years, that figure will have increased by 30,000, at which stage the number of empty desks will verge on 100,000. Despite that, the Minister feels compelled to pour millions of pounds into opening an Irish-medium school in Dungannon, even though she cannot yet guarantee the enrolment of 17 pupils.
Does anyone believe the opening of such schools to be anything other than blatant squandering of public funds? I suspect that the Minister will be pleased to open those schools to satisfy her naked sectarian agenda. She thinks that she is the Minister for Sinn Féin — she must realise that she is the Minister of Education. She is responsible for all Northern Ireland’s population, not only a dozen or so people dotted across the country. She has a responsibility to provide an equitable education system for all the children of Northern Ireland. However, she is failing miserably in that duty.
It is time that the Minister caught herself on — before others catch her on. Her party colleagues should already be telling her to respond to the needs and demands of children, parents and teachers. They are the real stakeholders in Northern Ireland, who want the establishment of a proper education system rather than the education system that the Minister offers. She must heed Members’ views. She may win today’s debate on the strength of tabling a petition of concern, through which she trapped the SDLP into following her sectarian agenda. Regrettably, the SDLP wants to demonstrate that it is as green as Sinn Féin. It is not necessary to demonstrate that; we were all aware of that fact before the debate, and, therefore, the SDLP has missed the boat completely. Tommy Gallagher has wasted his time and will, undoubtedly, waste his breath when he attempts to convince the House to the contrary.
I see that my time to speak is slipping away, so I will finish by saying to the Minister that she should devote her time to developing a quality education system in Northern Ireland that will stand the test of time — an education system of which she should be proud. Sadly, she is not interested in that. I see that my time is now up.
Mrs O’Neill: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I oppose the motion. The Irish language — the native language of this country — has been used as a spoken language for nearly 2,000 years, and it is an important part of people’s cultural identity and roots. However, as I have said before in the House, it does not belong to any one section of the community; it belongs to everyone, and we should take ownership of it and promote it as part of our shared heritage.
The promotion of the Irish language is an integral part of life in Dungannon and in the rest of south Tyrone. Gaelscoil Uí Néill is a very successful primary school in the Dungannon and South Tyrone Borough Council area, and it is an excellent example of the advantages that Irish-medium education can bring to a child’s development. I have spoken to many parents in Dungannon who are keen to have their children educated through the medium of Irish, but who are unable to do so because of the lack of provision.
It is for that reason that I oppose the motion in the strongest terms. It is a blatant attempt to discriminate in the guise of concern about the number of unfilled school places, which has no relevance to this argument. Irish-medium education will not rely on an increase in the number of school-age children, but will fill a gap for those children who wish to be educated through Irish.
For several reasons, not least the commitment that was given in the Good Friday Agreement, but also on the basis of equality, there is an onus on the Minister of Education to provide facilities and support for those who wish to be taught through Irish. I only wish that the unionist politicians in the Chamber would understand that this is not about giving more to one education sector. The Irish-medium sector was neglected and ignored under direct rule. Yet, despite that, dedicated Gaels have worked tirelessly and without any financial support from the Department of Education to provide Irish-medium education for those who wish to avail themselves of it.
The demand for Irish-medium education is increasing. It is the fastest-growing education sector in the North, despite the overall reduction in the school-age population. The Irish-medium education sector is in a healthy state. We should welcome that fact and not punish those who are involved. We should also respect the rights of parents to choose to have their kids educated in the Irish-medium sector, the rights of teachers to teach in the sector, and the rights of children to be educated in the sector.
There is an onus on Mrs Foster and Mr Morrow to represent all their constituents to the best of their ability and to be honest with those constituents. Mrs Foster and Mr Morrow signed up to the Programme for Government; in case they are in any doubt, let me draw their attention to objective 4 of public service agreement (PSA) 10, ‘Helping Our Children and Young People to Achieve Through Education’, which is:
“To maximise high quality Irish-medium provision for those children whose parents wish it.”
I would be grateful if the proposers of the motion would tell me what research they have done in Dungannon and the greater south Tyrone area to gauge support for, or opposition to, the establishment of Irish-medium education. If they have carried out research, what are the results, and was it carried out on a cross-community basis?
Minister Foster has a large portfolio, which includes the Planning Service. That agency has a serious backlog, and if we are to secure much-needed investment on the back of the recent economic conference, I am sure that the resulting planning applications from business will cause the Planning Service’s backlog to grow. Would the Minister’s efforts not be better placed in addressing —
Mrs Foster: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. The Member is, of course, aware that I support the motion as a constituency representative and not as the Minister of the Environment.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Point taken.
Mrs O’Neill: I am sure that the Minister of Education will examine the feasibility of the proposal to establish a grant-aided Irish-medium primary school in Dungannon from 1 September, and I am sure that she will treat the proposal as she would any other, by applying the relevant criteria without prejudice. When the consultation is completed and the Minister’s recommendations are made known, I hope that we will accept them, as a result of due process, for the benefit of the education of children in the Dungannon area.
Mr Elliott: I support the motion, and I have concerns about Sinn Féin’s view.
Given that pupil numbers are declining in Northern Ireland and that there are increasingly large numbers of vacant places in our schools, it seems strange that the Minister is opening new schools that will solely facilitate the Irish-medium sector. Those schools will have small numbers of pupils in comparison with mainstream schools.
The October 2006 Northern Ireland schools census highlights an estimated 36,000 surplus places in the primary sector and 18,500 spare places in the post-primary sector. Taking those figures into account, the desire to open more small schools that cater for a minority seems illogical. There are other ways for children and young people —
Mr Brolly: I thank the Member for giving way. It is important to point out that it is not necessary to build new schools in order to facilitate Irish-medium education. In my hometown, Dungiven, the Irish-medium stream is part of the main primary school, and that process is ongoing. We do not necessarily need new buildings.
Mr Elliott: I wonder whether Mr Brolly is clarifying the position in south Tyrone, in Dungannon and in other areas, such as County Fermanagh, where Irish-medium pupils may be facilitated in the Catholic-maintained sector, because it is my understanding that new schools are being built. There are other cost-effective ways of facilitating Irish-medium education, as Mr Brolly said, but I do not believe that the Department is taking that route.
I am also concerned that, in the past, someone from an Irish republican background said that every word spoken in Irish was like a bullet to the heart of unionism. Sinn Féin has used the Irish language as a political weapon. If Sinn Féin were to stop using the language as a political weapon, it might be more widely supported throughout the community. The Irish language might receive support that is much more practical and cost-effective, instead of Sinn Fein’s single-minded approach.
There are two types of Irish-medium schools in Northern Ireland; there are 21 stand-alone schools, and there are 12 Irish-medium units that are attached to English-medium host schools. The Ulster Unionist Party believes that the most cost-effective and best way for children to gain an education through the medium of Irish is for schools in the maintained sector to open Irish-medium units, if they so wish.
Recently, the Minister of Education has overseen severe cuts in the extended-schools funding, which will mean the closure of after-school and breakfast clubs right across all school sectors. That will affect children’s abilities to achieve at school, and it may affect families’ earning potential, as parents will have to look after their children for longer periods. The education system should be focusing on developing mainstream schools and ensuring that the best possible education is given to those who need it most.
In focusing on independent Irish-medium schools, the Minister will be in danger of, again, taking her eye off the ball simply in an attempt to appease some misplaced, ideological party goal. In the past seven years, £47 million has been spent on Irish-medium education, but that £47 million could have been spent much more productively elsewhere in education. We can speculate on how much money could have been saved had independent Irish-medium units simply been attached to existing schools.
We must also ask whether, if potentially only 12 children in Dungannon want an independent Irish-medium primary school, they have the right to take potential funding away from other education sectors. Their education could be facilitated in mainstream schools. That is the crux of the matter. Will such schools take significant finances away from other sections of the education system in the Province and actually discriminate against mainstream sectors?
Mr Gallagher: I will not waste time responding to Lord Morrow’s personal attack on me, but I wish to state, at the outset, that I submitted and signed the petition of concern because I happen to believe in the basic principles of fairness and common justice that Lord Morrow would like to sidestep in the debate.
An increasing number of parents are choosing to send their children to Irish-medium schools, just as there are parents who are choosing the integrated sector. That choice was recognised last year in the Bain Report. In relation to that trend, the report pointed out the Department’s legal obligation to cater for both forms of parental choice. The Department’s policy promotes respect for diversity, encourages the accommodation of different cultural traditions, and recognises the role that all schools, including Irish-medium schools, play in achieving those objectives.
The motion, in the name of the DUP, seeks to have Irish-medium schools treated differently and, therefore, fails to recognize the inalienable right that supporters of the Irish-medium sector have, to foster, develop and preserve our unique language.
An Ghaeilge is the indigenous language of the island and is a key element of cultural identity for many people who live in Northern Ireland. Irish-medium schools play a central role in promoting the language and should be treated in the same way as schools in all other sectors: maintained, controlled, integrated, or for those who choose, should there be a proven demand in the future, Ulster Scots. Parity of esteem between the main identities was a central part of the Good Friday Agreement and placed a statutory duty on the Department to promote Irish-medium education in line with integrated education.
The motion, in the name of the DUP representatives for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, the constituency that I also represent, is about the Irish-medium sector in that constituency. It makes no reference to the new Clogher Valley Integrated Primary School, which is presently in temporary accommodation. It is because the SDLP believes that the same support and rights should be available to both sectors that I have tabled a petition of concern.
Given the falling pupil numbers that have been mentioned, and the threat to the future of so many schools, in order to respond to the valid concerns of parents, teachers and children, we should, as elected representatives, be working together rather than working against each other.
The Bain Report, which I referred to earlier, dealt to some extent with the growing problems of the drop in school enrolments. Although I do not agree with all the recommendations, the report did highlight that problem and the importance of education providers, across the spectrum, making efficient use of resources. I think that we all want to see that being done.
Options for consideration by the Irish-medium sector, as set out in the Bain Report, include new builds and the adaptation of existing school buildings. The report even mentions, as another option, the housing of those facilities within the controlled sector, and similar options were suggested for the integrated sector.
The final say on options — and I am sure few people would disagree — should be left to the appropriate authorities; in the case of integrated education to NICIE, and in the case of Irish Medium schools to Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta.
Falling pupil numbers have crystallised for governors, parents and teachers the need for new thinking on possibilities for collaboration and co-operation among all sectors. In their endeavours, they deserve the support of all elected representatives in the planning of future education provision in new ways. There is too much at stake for the future of all our schools, and Members should not be engaging in divisive debates.
Mr Lunn: The motion raises an important issue and although it refers specifically to Dungannon and the wider south Tyrone area, the same argument could be directed to other areas in Northern Ireland. The sustainable schools policy is one of the fundamental issues on which we would like to hear the Minister’s views. The Alliance Party seeks an assurance from the Minister that, ideally, all schools will be treated equally and fairly, and that no preference will be given to any particular sector. If we receive that assurance, we will probably oppose the motion.
The issue is not solely about the education budget; it is about the quality of education to be delivered within that budget. Irish-medium education enjoys parental demand and has a fine record. If the opposition is genuinely based on budget concerns, why does the motion refer only to one sector? In an interview on Sunday 11 May, Gregory Campbell called for parity with Irish for the Ulster-Scots movement; presumably, he meant parity with regard to investment. That may or may not be a good idea. I have no problem with either movement. However, it would have a detrimental effect on the education budget, to use the terms of the motion. Why, therefore, is the DUP so keen on parity?
There is no disputing that — as has already been discussed at great length in another debate today — we need to know more details about the ministerial proposals. The case could also undoubtedly be made that the Minister appears to have a double standard regarding Irish-medium education. She seems to grant significantly greater leeway to Irish-medium schools than to those in the integrated sector. If she is committed to the policy outlined in ‘Every School a Good School’, she should be careful not to play sectors off against one another; rather, she should treat all sectors equally.
The real irony is the position of the party that proposed the motion. The DUP was part of the Executive that produced the Programme for Government that, effectively, gave a blank cheque for the provision of Irish-medium education. If the DUP is so concerned about the budgetary implications of Irish-medium education provision, why did it not raise those concerns at the Executive table, when the Programme for Government and the Budget were being prepared? It did not raise those worries because a deal was done with Sinn Féin at that time.
Mrs Foster: The Member may have some difficulty in understanding the Programme for Government and the PSA targets therein. Will he accept that PSA 10, objective 4, of the Programme for Government — referred to by Michelle O’Neill — could reflect Irish-medium units and not necessarily Irish-medium schools?
Mr Lunn: I seem to have missed the point of that intervention. I will let the Member have another go if she wants.
Mrs Foster: I will have another go. This motion is about an Irish-medium school — a new building, an opening. That is what we are against. The PSA targets can deal with units in existing schools.
A Member: Has the Member got it now?
Mr Lunn: I have got it, but I will not respond.
The point that I was making is that this is a good example of the deals that were done between the two parties to get the Programme for Government through. Therefore, there is no use crying about it now.
We are supporters of the Irish language — and, probably, of the Ulster-Scots movement — but also of a realistic, responsible sustainable schools policy. If the Minister can give us assurances on the latter, we will oppose the motion; failing that, we will probably abstain.
Mr I McCrea: I congratulate my party colleagues Lord Morrow and Arlene Foster for proposing this motion. I do not understand some of the comments made by the Member who has just spoken. If a deal had been done between Sinn Féin and the DUP, why would the DUP bring forward a motion opposing it? That does not even come close to common sense.
The motion calls on the Minister of Education to abandon proposals to establish Irish-medium primary and post-primary schools in Dungannon and the wider south Tyrone area. As the proposed post-primary college is to be based in Cookstown in my constituency; I feel that I must raise my concerns about this blatant attempt to sectarianise our education system.
I do not object to anyone who wants to speak this foreign Irish language. However, I do object to proposals to fund Irish-medium schools in Northern Ireland, especially when there are also proposals to close schools, many of which are in rural areas.
Together with other elected representatives, I am due to meet with the Minister regarding the proposed closure of Maghera High School, which has around 150 pupils: yet, the opening of another school for the Irish-medium sector with fewer pupils is being considered. That is a total disgrace, and I hope that the Minister will accept the need for Maghera High School to remain open to meet the needs of the local community. If the same time and money were spent on bolstering our education system as is being spent on the Irish-medium sector, there would be no need for that sector to exist, because those maintained schools that chose to teach Irish would be able to satisfy that need.
Much has been said about the need for Irish-medium schools in Northern Ireland, but — unless I have missed something — we live in a country in which the mother tongue is the Queen’s English. Moreover, it is also the main spoken language in the Irish Republic: Irish is spoken in everyday conversation only in small parts of the west coast of that country.
To whom will the pupils of Irish-medium schools speak? There is no town or village in the whole of Northern Ireland in which the people speak Irish as their first language. The Irish language is a minority language. I have no problem with people learning or speaking it, but I do have one with its politicisation, which is what is happening in the debate. Irish-language schools should not be prioritised in the way that they have been. Only a very small number of young people want to learn Irish, because it offers them no benefit.
As a young person, I had no choice but to learn GCSE French. I had no desire to do so because I felt that it would not benefit me. However, I accept that there is a distinct difference between a language that is understood by many people across the world and one that is understood by only a small number of people in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Unless I am mistaken, the money spent on teaching me the little French that I learnt was better spent than the expenditure proposed on the Irish-medium sector.
Not many people who learn Irish at school go on to use it in daily life. Patsy McGlone my constituency colleague is a fluent Irish speaker — at least I think he is, because I do not understand him when he speaks Irish. I respect his right to speak Irish, but I am sure that he will agree that it is not his everyday language. It is evident that many Sinn Féin Members stutter and stammer when they try to speak in Irish. That demonstrates that their interest in the language is purely political, and for that reason, their speaking it is offensive to many in the unionist tradition.
Irish-medium schools are nothing more than a drain on public money, which must not be allowed to continue. I therefore support the motion.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Merci beaucoup.
Ms Gildernew: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. The debate has been most interesting. Ian McCrea has just spoken about how the Irish language is being politicised — that is so, but it is being politicised by the DUP. It is regrettable that the motion has been tabled, for it is discriminatory. It is especially regrettable that a ministerial colleague has put her name to that motion. It is incumbent upon me, as MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, to represent all the people of my constituency. It is hugely regrettable that an elected representative should consider that she can exclude the Irish-medium education sector from her duty to represent.
I also wish to express an interest. I am a parent of a child who attended the naíscoil in Dungannon. My child was not able to progress to rang a haon because there was no Irish language provision in the town. I wanted my child to attend an Irish-medium educational establishment. It is hugely enriching for children to learn in Irish; it gives them an opportunity to have different ways of looking at the world and it broadens their horizons. A child who is taught bilingually has a much richer educational experience than one taught monolingually. That is also true of children who are taught through the medium of Irish.
Therefore, it was of great regret to me that my child was not able to go through Irish-medium education. I feel that, as a parent, my choice was not able to be fulfilled. I feel quite emotional about the issue of the Irish language and about the development of the Irish-medium sector in my constituency and across the island of Ireland.
We have been very lucky to have been set some very good examples. Michelle O’Neill talked about Gaelscoil Uí Néill, with which I am familiar. There is a new Irish-medium school in Lisnaskea, which is also doing extremely well. It is regrettable that this motion has been tabled at this time and in such a discriminatory way.
As I have already mentioned, Coalisland has the closest Irish-medium provision for children in Dungannon. If children from Dungannon were to travel to Coalisland, they would require a new teacher and the cost would be the same. Therefore, I am not sure why those who have tabled the motion are getting so exercised about the cost to the public purse.
Furthermore, long-term unfilled places are a difficulty only experienced by English-medium schools in that area. The Department of Education has a duty to facilitate and encourage Irish-medium education, where there is an appropriate demand. As Irish-medium schooling cannot be catered for in a classroom where instruction is through the medium of English, there is no other option but to establish Irish-medium provision. The fact that there may be long-term unfilled places in schools that instruct through the medium of English should not impact on Irish-medium education as a parental choice. However, that is the case in Dungannon.
It has been determined by the Department of Education since the Good Friday Agreement that P1 stand-alone school enrolment — in accordance with EU guidelines on approval for grant-aided schools — should be self-sustainable. That means that Irish-medium provision would not have a negative impact on the education budget.
Therefore, the approach taken by the Department of Education to grant-aided approval is economically sound. It places the onus on the school to prove its sustainability with little risk to the Department or the taxpayer because the Department cannot make a commitment until the school proves its long-term viability.
It is regrettable that we are having this debate, and the same would apply to post-primary Irish-medium education. I agree with much of what has been said by Michelle O’Neill and Tommy Gallagher about Irish-medium provision. If a language cannot grow and develop in its own country, where can it develop?
I do not know whether the DUP is aware that there is an Irish-language unit at Harvard University. Indeed, there are many examples of such units across the globe. Many people who may not have any connection with Ireland are taught the Irish language.
It is incumbent on us to protect the Irish language and to encourage it to grow. Bearing in mind young people who have the opportunity to learn in the Irish medium, it is hugely regrettable that anyone would try —
Mr Storey: Will the Member give way?
Ms Gildernew: No, I will not. It is hugely regrettable that anyone would get in the way of that —
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. The Member’s time is up.
Miss McIlveen: At a time when there are so many unfilled places in schools in Northern Ireland, it is quite reckless of the Minister to continue with proposals to provide grant aid to more Irish-medium schools. I know that Sinn Féin, et al, have lodged a petition of concern in respect of the motion.
Setting aside my — by now — well-known opinion of the Minister’s obsession with the Irish-medium sector, it is nonsense to press ahead with the opening of such schools in the absence of a full investigation into area-based planning. The draft terms of reference for area-based planning are under consultation, and we have been seeking those terms of reference since the Minister made her statement on this matter in March.
I would have thought that a ministerial statement would imply some form of progress, but that invariably is not the case with this Minister. When she made her statement on 4 March, I asked her what the terms of reference were. However, unfortunately, I received no answer. Therefore, I tabled a question on 7 March, and I am still awaiting her answer, 67 days later.
One would think that I and my colleagues on the Education Committee would have been given the opportunity to provide some input into the drafting of those terms of reference — or at least given a chance to comment on them.
However, as usual, the Minister seems intent on treating all of us with such a level of contempt and discourtesy as truly beggars belief. Concern is heightened because the terms of reference have still not been agreed 70 days after the Minister made her statement. At least the Minister cannot lay the blame on the Committee.
If Members cast their minds back to 4 March, they will recall that the Minister said that the area-based assessment was to be completed by October. Subsequently, it was to be consulted upon, and that consultation was to be completed by January 2009. Even if the terms of reference were settled today, there would be only five months to make the assessment. They will not be settled today, and, once again, we face the prospect of the Education Minister letting slip something that is of critical importance, which, again, will result in confusion and concern.
All Members should know that area-based planning is the linchpin of the Minister’s plans, but she is allowing development to take place without that assessment being made and without reference to an area-based planning assessment. How can she do that? It is another example of her favouring one sector. Continuation in that manner flies in the face of everything that the Bain Report is about.
My colleague Lord Morrow said that there are 50,000 surplus places in schools throughout Northern Ireland, and it is anticipated that there will be a further 30,000 in the next 10 years. Despite that, the Minister is making the problem worse by opening more schools — regardless of the type. At a time when the schools estate should be rationalised, it is sheer folly and recklessness to be wasting public money in that way, and, given the utilisation of the club-bank scheme, it is also inequitable.
We must not forget the large number of Irish-medium schools in which the enrolment figures remain below the recommended Bain thresholds. As I said in a previous debate, chapter 9 of the Bain Report, ‘Planning: a strategic approach’, recommends area-based planning and states that the Department of Education should proceed with it until the education and skills authority is established. It also states that:
“future school building projects should only be approved after area-based planning is established”.
It is also worth highlighting the cost implications of establishing new Irish-medium schools. Schools with 50 pupils cost 200% more than average schools, and that rises to 300% when there are fewer than 20 pupils. However, Irish-medium schools with less than 20 pupils are continuing to receive funding. The impact of that on an already tight education budget is obvious. I can think of many other worthy projects on which that money could be spent and which would be of benefit to all sides of the community.
The Minister is pressing ahead with the proposal to establish an Irish-medium primary school in Dungannon without knowing how many pupils there will be or assessing the budget. The school’s proposed opening date of 1 September 2008 epitomises recklessness. Sinn Féin should be concerned, but not about the motion; it should be more concerned about the policies of its Minister.
Mr D Bradley: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Níl aon amhras faoi, a LeasCheann Comhairle, ach go bhfuil éileamh an-mhór ar oideachas trí mheán na Gaeilge, agus tá sé de dhualgas de réir dlí ar an Roinn Oideachais an t-éileamh sin a shásamh.
There is a considerable demand for Irish-medium education in Northern Ireland, and the Department of Education is legally bound to provide for that demand. It is not the Department or the Minister who plan the development of Irish-medium education in County Tyrone or anywhere else; development is driven by local demand from parents who want their children to be educated through the medium of Irish. That demand is factored into the overall development of Irish-medium education by Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta.
The Department of Education is obliged to support any school that meets its criteria. Any school that does not meet the Department’s criteria will not gain recognition. Neither the Minister nor the Department have the power to abide by this motion and abandon any viable proposal for a school in any sector that meets the Department’s criteria.
Tá coiste réamhscolaíochta Dhún Geannain ag obair ó bhí 1996 ann ar fhorbairt na réamhscolaíochta sa bhaile, ag súil le Gaelscoil a bhunú ansin.
Since 1996, there has been an Irish-medium pre-school committee in Dungannon working on the development of Irish-medium education in that town.
Tá sé i gceist ag an choiste áitiúl bunscoil a bhunú má bhíonn go leor páistí acu le critéir na Roinne a shásamh; mura mbíonn, ní chuirfear an scoil ar bun.
The intention of that committee is to establish an Irish-medium primary school if there is a sufficient number of children to fulfil the Department of Education’s criteria. If there is not a sufficient number, the school will not be set up.
At the moment, Coalisland is the nearest provider of Irish-medium education for people who live in Dungannon. Irish-medium education is not offered in any primary school in Dungannon. If a new school is not provided for the children attending the Irish-medium pre-school in Dungannon, they will attend Gaelscoil Uí Néill in Coalisland. Therefore, those children will not impact on existing primary schools in any part of the Dungannon area. At present, there are no surplus places in the Irish-medium school in Coalisland. If the children from Dungannon have to attend the school in Coalisland, an extra teacher will be needed there; however, that is hardly a huge expense.
According to Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta the local committee is being advised by Cookstown District Council that post-primary Irish-medium education in Cookstown will be provided initially in the form of a unit in an existing school. If anything, that will strengthen a local school, rather than threaten it.
It is clear that the motion is misguided, and that the development of Irish-medium education in Dungannon and South Tyrone poses no threat to any other sector. The Assembly should be concerned about the number of long-term unfilled places in schools and the threat presented by falling rolls. However, the way to deal with that problem is not to attack other sectors, but to consider creative solutions that will help to ensure the survival of those schools, whether they are urban schools or small, rural schools. Schools would be better served by the House working in unity to solve the problems caused by falling rolls. The SDLP is ready and willing to engage in that work and I hope that other parties are so inclined.
Tá cúpla bomaite fágtha agam.
I have a few minutes left, and I want to take the opportunity to congratulate the Irish-medium sector on the amazing progress that it has made since the foundation of the first Irish-medium school in Belfast in 1971.
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Member’s time is up.
Mr D Bradley: It is a story of hard work and —
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order — the Member’s time is up.
Mr D Bradley: Go raibh míle maith agat.
Mr O’Dowd: Go raibh míle maith agat. Most of the arguments have been covered in the course of the debate. I want to touch on the point that Dominic Bradley made about the legal requirement for the Department of Education to provide Irish-medium education. Therefore, today’s motion, regardless of whether it is passed — and the petition of concern will ensure that it is not passed — has no authority whatsoever.
The parties on the Benches opposite — that is, the DUP and the Ulster Unionist Party — have claimed that the motion is not discriminatory against the Irish language. However, having listened to the debate, I can say that it is nothing other than discriminatory. That is unfortunate, because those parties understand neither the history of the language nor the movement that ensured that the language is alive today. Most of that movement was made up of Presbyterians from Belfast, who ensured that the Irish language is thriving. Many parents want their children educated in it. Therefore, whether we consider the provision of an Irish-language school in Dungannon, Belfast or in my own area of Lurgan, there is a requirement for that because there is a demand for it.
I recently visited the National Assembly for Wales in Cardiff, and I had a lengthy meeting with a senior Welsh Conservative. During that meeting, we discussed many issues, including language. Welsh Conservatives are unionists — they believe in the union between Wales and Britain, and their politics are more aligned to those of the DUP and the Ulster Unionist Party than they are to mine. I had an enlightening conversation with that member about the use of both the Welsh and the Irish languages.
Lord Morrow: I thank the Member for giving way. Does he ever ask himself why unionists, in particular, are not endeared to the Irish language? Is there a remote possibility that Sinn Féin has politicised the Irish language in Northern Ireland?
Mr O’Dowd: I will address that point later.
That member told me that 10 years ago at a Welsh Conservative Party conference, someone would have been booed off the stage for speaking Welsh. However, delegates are now expected to speak at least some Welsh in their contributions. That is a measure of how far the Welsh language has progressed. The hostility that existed 10 or 14 years ago is beginning to evaporate. The Welsh-medium sector is now thriving — small schools that have been set up in villages, rural areas and towns across Wales are flourishing because parents want their children to be educated through that medium.
Mr Morrow asked why unionism is so hostile to the Irish language. That is a question that he also has a responsibility to answer. He should not say that, just because Sinn Féin is pro-Irish language, the DUP will be hostile to it. That is the politics of negativity, and it does not make sense. I do not approach an issue and say that, just because the DUP supports it, I will oppose it. Any issue should be thought through, and its merits should be considered.
Were I to sit on the unionist Benches, and if I wanted to call Sinn Féin’s bluff, I would take ownership of the Irish language, I would learn and speak it, and I would get involved with the sector. Unionists should not be negative about Sinn Féin’s involvement with the Irish language.
The issue is related to the previous debate. It is not a Sinn Féin conspiracy; Sinn Féin is not responsible for ensuring that the Irish language thrives. We have played our part in it, it is part of our manifesto, and we will continue to pursue it. The SDLP supports it, and thousands of people who have no political allegiance send their children to Irish-medium schools. They want to continue to do so, not because of some sort of political plot against the Democratic Unionist Party or the Ulster Unionist Party, but because they have a passion for the language. Unionists should not fear the language; they should learn about it. I do not mean that they should understand the words; rather, they should try to understand what the language is about. Doing so would demystify the issue for them.
Clarification of the motion is required. Are the proposers opposed to Irish-language provision in Dungannon, or are they opposed to the provision of a school in Dungannon? My understanding is that there are no concrete proposals for a school in Dungannon. There is a request for Irish-medium provision in Dungannon, which is completely different.
I echo my colleague Michelle O’Neill’s comments. I am disappointed that Arlene Foster — who, no matter how she tries to separate her roles, is the Minister of the Environment — can afford to spend two hours and 30 minutes in the Chamber debating a discriminatory motion when there is more important work to be done in her Department.
Mrs Foster: Will the Member give way?
Mr O’Dowd: I am out of time, so I am finished.
Mr Storey: I support the motion, and I thank my colleagues Lord Morrow and Arlene Foster for tabling it.
I want to place on record our sadness that the SDLP tabled a petition of concern. It is sad that Mr Gallagher, whether the instigator or the fall guy, has grasped the wrong end of the stick. He has twisted the situation out of context for party political gain. He stated that the DUP is trying to turn the clock back, and he said that all elected representatives have a responsibility to show leadership and to adopt a positive approach to education issues. The Member should apply his own rules. By clouding the argument, he is defaulting on his duty to his constituency to fight for the sustainability of rural schools in the controlled, maintained and integrated sectors.
Members who signed the petition of concern were wrongly advised. The DUP does not attempt, and has never attempted, to deny parental choice in education. It does, however, believe in fair play. It believes that there should be equality on the issue, but the Minister is not giving us that equality.
Mr Gallagher: The Member raised the matter of fair play. I mentioned fairness in my contribution, and I am keen to see the preservation of all our schools and the development of the four sectors: controlled; maintained; integrated; and Irish medium. That is a fair basis, but the Member said that Irish-medium schools should be excluded in order to concentrate on integrated, controlled and maintained schools. That is not fair.
Mr Storey: The comments from John O’Dowd and Tommy Gallagher demonstrate that they do not understand the DUP position. This is not about the eradication of the Irish-medium sector. Remember that, each year, £20 million is spent on the Irish-medium sector in Northern Ireland.
Dominic Bradley said that that system has been in existence in Northern Ireland since 1971. It is 2008, so one would assume that the Irish-medium sector would be a large, thriving school estate that would vastly increased in numbers in the intervening years. However, Irish-medium schools have experienced no more of an increase than other sectors have, even the integrated sector. We need, therefore, to keep our feet on the ground. When considering the importance of the Irish language, the Irish Republic —
Mr D Bradley: Will the Member give way?
Mr Storey: Yes.
Mr D Bradley: Is the Member aware that statistics demonstrate that the fastest-growing education sector in Northern Ireland is the Irish-medium sector?
Mr Storey: I doubt that that is the case, given the small number of schools that we have in Northern Ireland. However, it costs £20 million a year to run those schools.
In the Irish Republic, a vote was held in Dingle. That is a tourist attraction, and a place that seeks to use the Irish language. There was a lobby to change the name, and this is probably the only Irish that I know, to An Daingean. Did the people of Dingle decide to go down that road? No, they decided to retain the English name.
Those on the opposite Benches continually rehearse the argument that, somehow, the DUP is against the Irish language. I shall make it abundantly clear that that is not the case. In my study at home, I have a book — a Protestant catechism in Irish — that was given to me by Éamon Ó Cuív’s father, who was a lecturer at Trinity College, Dublin. It is of absolutely no value to me other than that it was given to me as a gift. I need Éamon to translate it so that I might understand exactly what it says.
This debate is not an attack on the Irish-medium sector — it is about fairness. On 4 March 2008, the Minister told us that she would introduce a new sustainable-schools policy. We are still waiting to witness that.
Lord Morrow: The Minister makes many promises.
Mr Storey: Lord Morrow is absolutely right — the Minister has made a vast array of promises but has delivered nothing. However, when it comes to assisting the Irish-medium sector, the Minister is the first person out of the blocks. She will spend all her time, effort and energy in assisting that sector. She attended a conference in Dublin and spent most of her time speaking in Irish. Some people at that conference decided that they had had enough and left. They were not there to hear the Minister speak in Irish but to hear the issues being addressed.
My honourable friend Lord Morrow is absolutely right — Members are in this position because Sinn Féin has politicised the Irish language.
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Member’s time is up.
The Minister of Education (Ms Ruane): Go raibh maith agat. Cuirim fáilte roimh an deis seo labhairt faoi Ghaelscoileanna, nó is cuid luachmhar dár gcóras oideachais iad. Tá dualgas reachtúil ar mo Roinn oideachas trí mheán na Gaeilge a chothú agus a éascú, agus tá tiomantas don Ghaeilge i gCairt na hEorpa do Theangacha Réigiúnacha nó Mionlaigh i gcás ina meastar go leor daltaí a bheith ann. Tá rún agam a chinntiú go gcomhlíontar an dá dhualgas seo.
I welcome the opportunity to speak about Irish-medium schools, which are a valuable part of our educational landscape. Following a commitment in the Good Friday Agreement, a statutory duty was placed on my Department to encourage and facilitate Irish-medium education. In addition, the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, which came into force in July 2001, contains a commitment to education in the Irish language where the numbers are considered sufficient. I intend to ensure that both of those obligations are fulfilled.
The Irish language is one of Europe’s oldest indigenous languages. It is a common heritage for all the people of this island — the island of Ireland. The resurgence of the Irish language, particularly in the North but throughout the island, is a tribute to families, parents, teachers and Irish-language activists. I praise the work of Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta and Iontaobhas na Gaelscolaíochta on this subject.
The issue of Irish-language rights provides everyone with the unique opportunity to demonstrate real leadership and a willingness to embrace their neighbours who wish to use the Irish language. For example, many Presbyterians are proud of the role that Irish speakers from their Church have played in the preservation and development of the language. I hope to see a future where, once again, many more Presbyterians play a role. I was invited recently to an event in the Presbyterian Church about Presbyterians and the Irish language. I attended, and it was a wonderful event.
People from all faiths and none celebrate our language, along with those that were born in our country and those who have chosen to live here.
Agus ní amháin Preisbitéirigh, ach daoine ó gach aon chreideamh agus daoine gan chreideamh; daoine a rugadh anseo agus na nua-Éireannaigh.
Recently, I was in Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich, which was founded by a Presbyterian Minister. It is part of the Gaeltacht quarter. People made reference to the fact that the west coast of Ireland is the only Gaeltacht of Ireland. There is a Gaeltacht in west Belfast, and it is a Gaeltacht quarter. I was with people from the New York Comptroller’s Office in the Irish-language centre, and they saw the vibrancy and dynamism of the Gaeltacht — the cultural quarter.
Irish-medium education is a distinctive part of the education system and it aims to provide a range of vibrant settings, meeting the educational and linguistic needs of pupils. It is much more than simply English-medium education delivered through the Irish language. The desired outcome — high-quality education for children who are bilingual and who leave school competent and confident — is important at a time when value-added as a concept includes more than purely finance-related considerations. The enriching experience of having developed bilingualism provides an additional resource upon which those children can draw as they move forward in their lives.
More children and their parents are seeking the benefits of the Irish-medium experience. The Irish-medium sector is the fastest-growing sector in education here. The number of children receiving an Irish-medium education has increased by more than 10% in the past three years. Today, almost 3,400 pupils attend 34 grant-aided Irish-medium schools and units attached to English-medium schools. Those figures do not take into account the children who do not have a post-primary, Irish-medium school to go to. It is also a dynamic sector in the South of Ireland.
Such development has not taken place without significant contributions and sacrifices from children and parents alike. Despite that dedication, the sector faces serious problems as regards facilities and support structures because of systematic neglect since the foundation of Irish-medium schools. That position was recognised by George Bain in the strategic review of education, which recommended that there should be a comprehensive and coherent policy for Irish-medium education.
As a result of that recommendation, my Department has been undertaking a wide-ranging review of its policies on Irish-medium education. The review addresses legacy issues facing the sector and sets it on a more sustainable and equitable footing. Although I appreciate that it is not yet the case in the controlled sector, I also believe that learning Irish at an English-medium school provides a bridge to a more inclusive future. I have been delighted on many occasions, when visiting schools in the controlled sector, to have been greeted by children and their teachers in Irish. It happened to me last week on one of my visits. I would like to thank those schools for the generosity that they have shown; it is in stark contrast to the lack of generosity in the motion.
I appreciate the open-minded approach of all those schools, and their generosity of spirit to the Irish language. I hope that some day Irish will be taught in all schools here, and that its cultural benefits will be available to every child as they want it.
Molaim an cur chuige fadtéarmach sna scoileanna seo agus a n-oscailteacht don Ghaeilge. Tá súil agam go mbeidh an Ghaeilge á múineadh i gach scoil anseo agus go mbeidh a buntáistí cultúrtha ar fáil do gach páiste.
The motion relates to two specific development proposals for schools in Dungannon and Cookstown. There is a statutory requirement for a development proposal to be published when a school is being newly established, being closed, or undergoing a significant change that alters its character or size. Proposals can be initiated by the education and library boards, the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools, the Council for Integrated Education, Comhairle Na Gaelscolaíochta, an individual school, or other interested parties. It is important to remember that I do not initiate development proposals.
In this instance, the Southern Education and Library Board published two development proposals, relating to Irish-medium schools in Dungannon and the wider south Tyrone area, on 14 April. The proposals have been published at the request of the boards of governors of the respective schools. The proposals are to award grant-aided status to Coláiste Speiríní, which opened as an independent school in Cookstown on 3 September 2007, and to establish a new grant-aided Irish-medium primary school in Dungannon, to be known as Bunscoil Uí Chléirigh, from 1 September 2008.
Publication of a development proposal initiates a two-month period during which the public may send comments or objections to my Department. As soon as possible after that period, my officials will assemble all the relevant facts and pass them to me to decide on the proposals
Déantar measúnú ar gach togra forbartha de réir a thuilteanais agus déantar measúnú ar thograí do scoileanna nua maidir le comhchritéir inmharthanacha.
All development proposals are considered on their individual merits, and proposals for new schools are considered in relation to a common set of viability criteria. Once a proposal is published, the process requires that a decision be taken. There is no facility in that statutory process to provide for the deferment of a decision on a proposal or the placing of a moratorium on education authorities or others bringing forward new proposals. [Interruption.]
Everyone is getting very giddy; it is getting very late in the evening.
Each proposal must be considered carefully, taking account of the wishes of parents, the potential implications of the proposal, the availability of alternative suitable provision in the area, and the expected viability of the pupil intakes.
The consultations on the two current proposals will end in mid-June. I will take decisions as soon as possible thereafter, in light of the relevant factors in each case and the comments that have been made during the consultation. I hope that people understand that I have been fair in relation to Irish-medium and integrated education. My Department has a statutory duty; there is no favourable treatment. All that is happening at the moment is that the Irish-medium and integrated sectors are being treated in a fair and equitable manner. Go raibh maith agat.
Mrs Foster: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker; danke schön, merci, go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. [Interruption.]
I thought that that would get a reaction.
In reply to a point made by John O’Dowd, I want to refer him to the development proposals that are mentioned in the motion. They talk about the creation of new buildings, and that is the issue surrounding this motion.
I wish to be very clear, because Trevor Lunn and others have been confused about the motion, which Lord Morrow and I tabled after we were lobbied by a small controlled school in the South Tyrone area. Staff at that school were, and remain, concerned by the huge number of school closures in South Tyrone and Fermanagh.
Michelle O’Neill and John O’Dowd should know that, whatever my ministerial role, I will always represent the constituents of Fermanagh and South Tyrone. They might find that a difficulty, but I want to put on record that I consider my role as a constituency MLA just as important as my role as a Minister in the Executive.
In moving the motion, Lord Morrow said that it was not clear how many pupils would take up places in the new school buildings that are proposed for September 2008. He raised the issue of equality and said that that might be tested in another place. I regret to say that that will probably be the case. Lord Morrow also said that the review of Irish-medium education would not be completed until the end of May 2008, yet we are pushing ahead with development proposals for two new school buildings.
Sammy Wilson raised the issue of the quality of education that is being provided in the schools in question, and mentioned concerns raised by inspection reports. That should concern the Minister of Education, if she is interested in the provision of Irish-medium schooling.
The issue is how to deal with the huge number of empty desks at schools, and Fermanagh and South Tyrone have their share of them.
Michelle O’Neill talked about the Irish language as a native language. We are all entitled to our opinion, but how does opening new schools, when there are so many earmarked for closure in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, fit into a shared future? Most, if not all, CCMS schools teach Irish already, and provision exists to set up Irish-medium units in those schools, yet we are told that new buildings are needed to do that. At the same time, many other schools in Fermanagh and South Tyrone struggle to get the go-ahead for their new buildings.
That brings me to the subject of Devenish College in Enniskillen, which has been waiting for a long time for its new build. The school is trying to do the best that it can with what it has. The Minister should visit Devenish College to see how it has coped since the closure of the Duke of Westminster School in Ballinamallard, which was accepted by her as a development proposal.
The Minister knows, and my colleague Lord Morrow can testify, that Dungannon Primary School makes great provision for a large ethnic minority in the Dungannon area. I am amazed that buildings for Irish-medium schools are being given the go-ahead when finance is needed by schools that make such excellent provision.
Michelle O’Neill went on to say that Irish-medium schools are filling a gap in the school education system. That raises a question: where are those children at this moment? If they are not at school, social services may want to know why.
We heard about rights for the Irish medium, but absolutely nothing about responsibilities — but that is the norm for Sinn Féin. Mrs O’Neill said that she would support the development of schools.
Tom Elliott supported the motion. Francie Brolly made the same argument as I did when he said that there is absolutely no need to build new schools. I could not agree with him more. It is much more cost-effective to deal with the proposals by utilising units of existing schools. We also heard from Tom Elliott about the extended schools cuts.
The MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Michelle Gildernew, told us how emotional she was about the provision of Irish-medium schools in her constituency. I can tell her that I am emotional about the Minister’s extended schools cuts in Fermanagh and South Tyrone that mean that many children there have lost their after-schools clubs.
I must say that I have not heard the Minister of Agriculture — the MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone — raise her voice to object to that. She tells us that she is the MP for the entire constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone. Therefore, I look forward to her comments on that issue.
Tommy Gallagher explained why he put down a petition of concern: he believes that it is in the interests of fairness and common justice. I look forward to his support when the people in the controlled sector who have been discriminated against take their case to another place.
As I said at the beginning of my contribution, I am not against anyone’s learning the Irish language. Every year, thousands of people do so through CCMS. However, I am against the Department of Education ploughing money and resources into newbuild schools that may only have a handful of pupils, while on the other hand it is adamant, through the board, that it will close schools in my constituency that may well, as is the case at Carntall Primary School, have more pupils that they are allowed to admit because they are deemed too small by the board. Meanwhile, new schools are being opened with as few as 17 pupils.
Trevor Lunn discussed sustainable schools and said that he sought an answer from the Minister on whether all schools would be treated fairly and equally. He said that, otherwise, he would not vote against the motion. I hope that Mr Lunn listened carefully, because he did not get an answer on that issue.
Ian McCrea talked about how Maghera High School is under threat from the Department and referred to his constituency colleague Pasty McGlone, who, as Chairperson of the Environment Committee, has never once misused the Irish language to me as Minister of the Environment. I pay tribute to him for that, because there are other Members in the Chamber who politicise the Irish language. That is the fault of those who sit on the opposite Benches.
As I have said, Michelle Gildernew told the House that the motion is discriminatory. I am disappointed that, when controlled-sector schools are being closed across her constituency, I do not hear her voice being raised for the children who, as a result, must travel many miles to get to their nearest school.
Michelle McIlveen talked about the reckless nature of the Minister’s proposals and stressed that there was a need to consider area-based planning as the key to making progress. She acknowledged that the Minister favours the Irish sector. Dominic Bradley told the House that the Education Department is legally bound to provide Irish-medium education. I have no difficulty with that. However, it could be done through units, rather than through the provision of new schools with the associated capital costs.
During the debate on post-primary transfer, Mr Bradley talked a lot about sustainability, although — understandably, when one considers his standpoint — the House did not hear much from him about sustainability with regard to this motion. Children who must travel to from Dungannon to Coalisland for Irish-medium education do not have half as long a journey as children in Fermanagh and South Tyrone will have to get to their nearest controlled school when all of the schools in that sector have been closed.
John O’Dowd also referred to the legal requirement on Irish-medium education. He then went on to say that the motion would have no effect, which bemused me. If that is the case, what is the need for a petition of concern? There we are, Mr Deputy Speaker. He discussed the Presbyterian Church’s role in the Irish language. I thank God once again that I am an Anglican. He also mentioned the Welsh Conservatives and referred to the argument about the use of language as a political tool. He said that we should not fear the language: I do not. That is specifically why I used that small bit of Irish that I have picked up from the other side of the House during the past year. However, I will not allow the children of Fermanagh and South Tyrone to be treated as second-class citizens, which is what is happening at present.
Mervyn Storey debunked many of the myths that surround the issue. He said that the motion is about fairness. I firmly believe that it is about providing fairness for all of the children whom the Minister talks about from time to time. I want my three children to have the best possible education in Fermanagh and South Tyrone. I know that the Minister will understand that. However, I ask her to rethink her proposals.
Mr Deputy Speaker: I remind Members that the vote will be on a cross-community basis.
The Assembly divided: Ayes 34; Noes 29.
Mr Beggs, Mr Bresland, Lord Browne, Mr Buchanan, Mr T Clarke, Mr Craig, Mr Cree, Mr Easton, Mr Elliott, Mrs Foster, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Irwin, Mr Kennedy, Mr McCausland, Mr B McCrea, Mr I McCrea, Mr McFarland, Mr McGimpsey, Miss McIlveen, Mr McNarry, Mr McQuillan, Lord Morrow, Mr Newton, Rev Dr Ian Paisley, Mr Poots, Mr G Robinson, Mr Ross, Mr Savage, Mr Shannon, Mr Spratt, Mr Storey, Mr Weir, Mr S Wilson.
Tellers for the Ayes: Mr I McCrea and Miss McIlveen.
Ms Anderson, Mr Attwood, Mr D Bradley, Mrs M Bradley, Mr P J Bradley, Mr Brady, Mr Brolly, Mr Burns, Mr Dallat, Mr Doherty, Mr Gallagher, Ms Gildernew, Mrs D Kelly, Mr A Maginness, Mr A Maskey, Mr P Maskey, Mr F McCann, Ms J McCann, Mrs McGill, Mr McKay, Mr McLaughlin, Mr Molloy, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O’Dowd, Mrs O’Neill, Mr P Ramsey, Ms S Ramsey, Ms Ruane.
Tellers for the Noes: Mr Gallagher and Ms J McCann.
Total votes 63 Total Ayes 34 [54.0%]
Nationalist Votes 28 Nationalist Ayes 0 [0.0%]
Unionist Votes 34 Unionist Ayes 34 [100.0%]
Other Votes 1 Other Ayes 0 [0.0%]
Question accordingly negatived.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Molloy] in the Chair)
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment has written to advise me that he is unavoidably absent due to diary commitments. He regrets that he is not able to respond to the motion, and he has arranged for the Minister of the Environment, Mrs Arlene Foster, to respond on his behalf.
The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes. One amendment has been selected and published on the Marshalled List. The proposer of the amendment will have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes to make a winding-up speech.
Ms J McCann: I beg to move
That this Assembly notes the recommendations in the review of the Sustainable Energy Market; and calls on the Executive to ensure that there is closer co-operation between different Departments to ensure that sustainable energy, including renewable energy, is developed in such a way that benefits the environment, and tackles the socio-economic problems that face families due to fuel poverty.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I support the motion and the amendment. Although the motion was tabled before the recent increase in oil prices, the subsequent rise in gas prices and the anticipated rise in electricity prices, given the rising energy demand, the case already existed for the Government to reassess their options in relation to meeting their targets for reducing carbon emissions, and increasing energy efficiency and renewable energy usage. Those factors must be considered in the context of benefiting the environment, tackling climate change and combating the ongoing misery faced by people who live in fuel poverty.
Climate change issues constitute a debate in themselves. Therefore, I will only mention them briefly. There are strong moral, economic, social and environmental reasons why Ireland and, indeed, all countries must sign up to cutting global emissions. We are all aware of how climate change already destroys the lives and livelihoods of many of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world, and, as global temperatures rise further, that trend is set to continue. Climate change is a major threat to development and to the progress that has been made in fighting poverty in poorer countries. Unless countries, including Ireland, sign up to the targets required to reduce global emissions, they will be responsible for subjecting the world’s poor to greater vulnerability to disease, hunger and exploitation.
Although the review of the sustainable energy market found that efforts by stakeholders and delivery organisations have gone some way to improving energy efficiency and increasing the use of renewables, there are still opportunities and potential for further improvements. For instance, the electricity-generation fuel mix has changed, and continues to change, rapidly, and large-scale renewable energy resources are in operation, including onshore-wind- and wave-generated electricity and biomass; however, there is still no large-scale generation using offshore wind, solar or waste resources.
In the North, the domestic sector is still the largest energy user, followed by the industrial, commercial and public sectors. Furthermore, barriers to small-scale renewable energy generation must still be overcome, particularly barriers to ensuring the motivation and financial support for increasing uptake in private households.
That must be accompanied by raising awareness of energy-efficiency measures.
Once again, there has been a sharp rise in fuel prices; oil prices have soared, and the recent announcement by Phoenix Gas that it has increased prices by 28% has put low-income households at crisis point. One in three households in the North of Ireland is experiencing fuel poverty; the cost of living is rising, and people are paying more for energy in spite of earning lower than average wages. As people struggle to meet rising food bills and fuel costs, they are being told to expect another rise in the cost of electricity. It has been estimated that 42% of the population in the North of Ireland will soon be living in fuel poverty.
Households on low incomes and houses with poor energy efficiency and high energy costs create fuel poverty. However, fuel poverty does not exist in a vacuum: it is exacerbated by other forms of poverty and social and economic disadvantage. Pensioners; people with disabilities, and families with young children or who are on low incomes are most vulnerable and face the choice between heating their homes and putting food on their tables. More people are getting themselves into debt and some are losing their homes because they have not been able to keep up with increases in mortgage repayments. In my West Belfast constituency, I know people with young families who have had their homes repossessed and have had to live in cramped and overcrowded living conditions with other family members while they wait, on the social housing list, to be rehoused.
Through the Programme for Government and the fuel-poverty strategy, the Executive have set targets to eliminate fuel poverty in vulnerable households by 2010 and in non-vulnerable households by 2016. It is important that there is a joined-up approach to the problem, including the development of sustainable renewable-energy sources that will have a positive impact on economic, social and environmental factors. Energy companies also have a responsibility to keep their prices as low as possible. Unregulated fuel suppliers must engage with customers who are in financial difficulty, rather than disconnecting supplies when people cannot keep up with rising prices.
My colleague Martina Anderson was recently in Venezuela, and the Government there are willing to offer oil in return for expertise in areas such as agriculture and town planning.
Ms Anderson: The Member mentioned the staggering 28% price increase by Phoenix Gas, which is a disgrace. Oil prices are at an all-time high and are continuing to soar, which means that the situation for most families is becoming increasingly bleak. It is against that backdrop that Save the Children has called for the introduction of seasonal heating grants of £100 per child. The Housing Executive has also launched an investigation into the impact of rising fuel costs on child poverty. Does the Member agree that when the results of that investigation are published, and we have been told that they will contain proposals to tackle the problem, the appropriate Ministers should deal with the situation? The issue of rising fuel costs should unite all Members, because it is a disgrace that families who live in a so-called twenty-first century western democracy cannot afford to keep their children warm.
As has been stated, we have no power over the fuel companies and we are operating within a limited budget that will never be sufficient to provide a decent standard of living for all our people. Therefore, we must think outside the box. Does the Member agree that a focus is required on renewables and sustainable-energy sources as a long-term solution? I agree with the Member and call on the Executive to enter into a trade agreement with Venezuela.
As the Member mentioned, I was recently in Venezuela, where the Government have a proven track record of providing low-cost oil to areas of social disadvantage in the US and elsewhere in the world. I met senior members of the Venezuelan Government and oil company officials and have no doubt that they are keen to explore the possibilities of entering into an arrangement with the Executive. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr Shannon: The Member’s time is up. [Laughter.]
Ms J McCann: Mortgage lenders, too, have a responsibility. Homes are being repossessed, so the lenders have a responsibility to give time and latitude to people who cannot keep up with mortgage repayments and enable them to keep a roof over their heads.
Poverty can create other problems. Children living in homes that have no heating, or less food on the table, find it more difficult to concentrate on education. Their health and well-being is also at stake. The recent investment conference has been roundly welcomed, and it is hoped that opportunities will be generated for all — in particular the more disadvantaged in society.
The review of the sustainable energy market has made a number of recommendations. Those recommendations, coupled with Departments working together on the serious issues of fuel and other forms of poverty, and working towards targets to deal with climate change, will be a first step towards creating a sustainable-energy sector that will benefit the environment and tackle the social and economic problems faced by families because of fuel poverty.
I urge Members to support the motion and the amendment. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr Gallagher: I support the broad thrust of the motion. There is a growing awareness of the effects of global warming, and the rising cost of fossil fuels means that urgent action is required to diversify energy supplies and to look towards renewables in particular to meet some of our energy needs and to help reduce carbon emissions.
It is also clear that we must do what we can to improve conditions for those on low incomes and those burdened by ever-escalating energy costs. I welcome the review of sustainable energy that has been carried out, and I broadly welcome its recommendations.
We should not, however, adopt an isolationist approach on this issue; the consequences of global warming and rising fuel costs are too great. The matter must be examined on an all-island basis, and that is why the SDLP has tabled the amendment, which refers to an all-island approach. The concept of the single electricity market is now a reality. It is central to the development of the energy sector for the future. We must invest in and plan for our energy needs, including renewable energy, on an all-island basis.
There is a tremendous capacity for the development of wind resources. This island has the second-best wind resource in Europe, and it has the potential to produce much more of its energy from renewable sources. Tidal energy and biomass have much potential that can be harnessed to deliver sustainable, renewable energy. It is imperative that both Governments work together to develop and harness the full potential of renewables by addressing the restrictions that are currently in place.
Recently, I tabled a question to the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment — and I note the apology that the Minister has sent — about the development of renewables. It was disappointing to read in the Minister’s response that there are currently no plans to adopt a single approach to encouraging renewables development across the island. Much can and should be done to facilitate the producers of renewable energy in trading across the border — whether that is Northern producers trading into the South, or Southern producers trading in surpluses to the North.
The all-island grid study is the first comprehensive assessment of the capacity of the power system and transmission network on the island of Ireland to absorb large amounts of energy produced from renewables. The study examines the costs and benefits associated with sourcing increased electricity from renewable energy.
The creation of an accessible and viable all-Ireland market for electricity that is produced from renewables — which could be sourced on either side of the border — could pave the way for the two Governments not only to achieve their targets for sustainable energy and carbon reduction, but to exceed them.
There is no doubt that climate change is one of this century’s most serious long-term threats. The evidence suggests that increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases are a major contributor to climate change, which will have serious and wide-reaching effects on people, land and wildlife, including marine wildlife. The recent Stern Review Report on the Economics of Climate Change highlighted some of the threats and the need for action to address the problems. We may already be too late to reverse some of the consequences of climate change, but, if we do not act urgently, the cost will be even greater.
Earlier in the year, the National Trust warned us that the Giant’s Causeway is threatened by rising sea levels and coastal erosion. Indeed, that is not the only coastal area in Northern Ireland that is under threat. It is clear that we must take urgent action.
The motion also mentions rising fuel costs. Creating a diverse energy supply is important, given current energy costs. It now costs over £280 — which is almost £300 — for a minimum fill of oil for a household. Last month, Phoenix Natural Gas advised of its planned price increases of around 30%. Furthermore, electricity prices are set to rise later in the summer, with the possibility of further increases throughout the year.
It is no surprise, therefore, that the number of households that are considered to be living in fuel poverty has remained static. If there were no intervention programmes, that figure would be much higher. The growing energy bills, together with other demands on household budgets, will have a devastating impact on low-income households.
As we know, Minister Foster has responsibility for planning. She has made herself available for the debate, and she will probably be interested in my comments on planning. An urgent overhaul of the planning system is needed if we are to increase the amount of energy that is sourced from renewables. I take the point that the Department has already put in train a review of the planning process. Planning applications for wind farms and turbines are stuck in the planning system, some for as long as two years, others for even longer.
In response to a recent question, I was informed that the Planning Service had still not made a decision on more than 18 applications that were first lodged over 24 months ago. Another 16 applications have been waiting for more than a year. The outworkings of that are that companies that invest many millions of pounds in renewable energy may get fed up and look for other suitable locations for their wind-farm developments. There is no doubt that, in many other countries, those planning applications are processed in a much shorter time frame. We need look no further than across the border, where it takes around three months to process such an application.
If we are serious about developing sustainable energy sources and about meeting the climate-change targets, our planning system must be more responsible and must be capable of meeting the needs of the renewables sector in a more timely fashion.
Mr Shannon: I support the motion and the amendment. Only last October, in this Chamber, we discussed sustainable energy development and the need for bigger steps to bring the Province into line with the rest of the UK and western Europe.
Aa’ hae spauk o’ hoo in Strenferd we wur testing oot a tied turbine an this hiss’ bin pit in an we wull sinn’ ken hoo guid it is. It is cleer that we hae tae tak steps tae reduce oor kerbin futprint in Norlin Airlan. Tha duti lies in tha hauns o’ tha drive an poower providers an em pleased that DETI wull be puttin oan pressur tae tha poower kumpanies throo tha renewable obligation tae bring aboot 12% lectricity by 2012.
I mentioned in that debate the testing of a tide turbine on Strangford Lough. That has been installed, and we will soon see how successful it is. We must take steps to reduce our carbon footprint in Northern Ireland. Responsibility for that also rests with the energy providers, and I am pleased that DETI will be pressing the energy companies, through the renewables obligation, to source 12% of electricity through a renewable source by 2012.
I congratulate the Minister for Social Development, although she is not present, whose Department has installed solar panels in Housing Executive homes when the heating systems have been changed. As a result, during warm weather there is no need for electricity to heat water, and the saving for the household, as well as to the environment, is considerable.
I am no Einstein — no scientist, in fact — and some of the mumbo jumbo that we hear on this subject is hard to follow. However, all of us can understand the basic principle, which is that reduced CO2 emissions mean more help for the environment. Furthermore, I know that less energy use means more savings for my pocket. That simple theory has not been expounded upon enough for the ordinary man and woman: in saving the environment and playing their part in the reduction of emissions, they can offset the difficulty in making ends meet that increases in gas and energy prices have caused.
In my constituency office, we switched our supplier to Airtricity, a company that sources power from renewables. That resulted in significant savings, which can be replicated in other offices and in homes. There should be a concerted advertising campaign to make people aware of the basic facts, and of the organisations that offer help and advice to make homes more economical and more environmentally friendly. One of those is the Energy Saving Trust, which assesses how a home loses money and needlessly damages the environment.
For those with internet access, it is easy to discover that it is possible to save £9 per year per light bulb by using an energy-saving bulb that will last up to 12 times longer than a regular one. There are, therefore, savings all round. Similarly, it can be learned that up to two-thirds of heat can be lost through walls and lofts, and how cavity-wall insulation can substantially reduce such loss. In addition, a boiler is responsible for 60% of household carbon emissions, and a switch to an energy-saving boiler will save up to £200 a year in energy costs.
However, for those who are hit hardest by fuel poverty — those on housing estates, and the elderly — turning down a thermostat by 1ºC will save about £50 a year and reduce CO2 output. Those who most need that information are not getting it, and it must be made available to help people to save money and to eradicate fuel poverty, which is the aim of the Assembly.
DARD has said that it aims to “educate” 1,000 rural homes by 2009. That objective must be extended to include the entire Province by all Departments to ensure that people understand what can be achieved by changing the small things — and small changes lead to big savings. People must also be made aware that there is a grant scheme to help with the cost of such changes. Departments must work together in a concerted effort to educate the people of the Province who, by doing their bit for the environment, will make life easier for themselves.
Through the efforts of teachers, children now follow their parents, switching off lights and filling kettles with only as much water as is needed, because they have a genuine desire to save polar bears. That, however, is not enough. Families across the Province should be made aware of the dual benefits of helping the environment and saving money. That, as much as anything, will put Northern Ireland on an even keel with the rest of the United Kingdom and might even push us further up the energy-saving scale. People want to do their bit, and when they learn that that will save them money, they will be even more eager to relieve the strain on mounting fuel bills.
I support the motion and the amendment, and urge Departments to co-operate fully to ensure that we keep our beautiful country healthy for future generations to enjoy. For so many years, we have taken it for granted.
Mr Cree: I thank the Members who secured this important debate. Climate change is possibly the greatest medium to long-term threat to security. Equally, fuel poverty is one of the most immediate and pressing issues facing thousands of people in Northern Ireland every day. This winter, if fuel prices continue to increase, countless more people will be driven into fuel poverty. The two issues must be considered together, as they are interlinked. The long-term reduction in fuel poverty and the amelioration of climate change lie in the growth of sustainable energy sources in Northern Ireland, Europe and, indeed, throughout the world.
The Minister has had the opportunity to set courageous and innovative targets and to embrace inventive ideas. Society at large supports renewable energy and environmental issues. The Minister is in charge of a matter that should not fall prey to some of the unique politicking that exists in this place. It is for that reason that many people are disappointed that more has not been done. The target of having 12% of electricity generated from renewable resources by 2012 is welcome, even if it does not go beyond the direct rule targets in DETI’s strategic energy framework and in the Northern Ireland sustainable development strategy. However, that target is not very ambitious. Scotland has a target to produce 40% of its electricity from renewable resources by 2020, and that is matched by Germany and bettered by Sweden. Indeed, the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment admitted that:
“We must be more ambitious in setting future renewable energy targets.”
The publication of the review of the sustainable energy market, and this debate, provide a unique opportunity for the Minister to reaffirm his commitment, to outline the targets that he hopes to achieve above and beyond the targets in the Programme for Government, and to detail how he intends to achieve them.
Energy suppliers are crucial to Northern Ireland’s social and economic development. Northern Ireland is in a unique position, as its natural resources could help it to develop into a renewable energy leader in the European market. The grid study published in January 2008 showed that it is feasible to harness up to 42% of power from renewable energy and that wind is the cheapest and most readily available resource. Although there are some local issues with wind generation, we should do more to tap into that economic, environmental and social opportunity.
I welcome the steps that have been taken to introduce a single energy market with the Republic of Ireland. There have also been some innovative individual projects in Northern Ireland, yet there is still a lack of integrated, sustainable strategies in DETI and in the Executive at large to ensure the increase that is needed.
Fuel poverty is a serious and increasing problem that affects the most vulnerable in our society. The cost of fossil fuels is higher than ever, and the situation seems to be worsening. Pensioners and low-income families will face serious health problems this winter if the situation does not improve. The Minister for Social Development and the interdepartmental group on fuel poverty have done excellent work on grants and energy efficiency measures. In the short term, that is the only way forward, but more needs to be done. However, it is of paramount importance that the long-term energy security of, and competition in, our energy market is increased. Only that will ensure that fuel poverty is reduced in the long term, and Northern Ireland has the opportunity to do that while increasing our green economy.
We are in danger of not maximising our potential to develop a green economy. The Prime Minister estimated that the overall added value of the low-carbon energy sector could be £3 trillion annually worldwide by 2050, and it could employ 25 million people. We must ensure that we gain the greatest possible chunk of the market. That will have positive environmental and socio-economic consequences for everyone in our society, especially for those who suffer from fuel poverty. However, we need innovative thinking and ambitious targets. I urge the Minister to start taking the necessary steps to grasp the opportunity that the grid study has given us. I support the motion.
Mr Ford: At the end of a day such as this, it is a pleasure to achieve unanimity in the Chamber. I am sure that the Minister of the Environment’s contribution will not disturb that unanimity.
The motion mentions the environmental benefits of sustainable energy and the serious socio-economic problem of fuel poverty. Given the constituency that she represents, it is appropriate that Jennifer McCann concentrated on the latter. In the face of the current fuel poverty problem, and, as Leslie Cree said, the inevitability of continued increases in the price of fossil fuels, we must ensure that we do all that we can to tackle that problem. The Minister for Social Development recently outlined her role in tackling that problem to the House.
The problem will continue and it cannot be solved by the relatively modest measures that were funded under direct rule. The Assembly must make serious changes to deal with the problem of fuel poverty to satisfy the needs of our society. The Minister of the Environment’s response is interesting, although she is only one of several Ministers who might have been involved in the debate.
During recent media interviews, Lord Stern made it clear that if he were to rewrite the Stern Review today — only two years on — he would consider the problem to be more severe than he anticipated in 2006. If the Assembly does not tackle those major environmental issues, people who experience the greatest levels of poverty — whether in our own society or other parts of the world that are more affected by climate change — will suffer.
It is incumbent on us, as representatives of people who sometimes forget that they live in the European Union — the richest trading bloc in the world — to address the needs of our fellow citizens who experience the direst poverty. That fact is often forgotten during discussions about our requests to the Treasury for more funding. Moreover, we currently receive additional funding from Dublin for some of our infrastructure in the west. In reality, despite how we perceive our position in these islands, we are among the richest countries worldwide, and we contribute to the climate-change problems experienced by people elsewhere.
The key point of the motion is the need for co-ordination among Departments. It is a matter of serious concern that the extent of joined-up government has not reached the expected level. Each Department has a specific area of responsibility, and it is difficult to identify levels of co-ordination. The fact — dare I say it — that the second-largest party in the Executive wants an increase in joined-up government demonstrates that I am not making a cheap point on behalf of the opposition. How institutions are constructed and their level of co-ordination causes serious concern.
DETI has general responsibility for energy and, therefore, plays the leading role. I mentioned DSD’s specific responsibilities for fuel poverty. DOE has a wider environmental responsibility, and DARD is responsible for the co-ordination of areas of greatest potential for sustainable energy. DFP has input on matters such as building regulations. Of those five Departments, DFP is, perhaps, the one that has done the least to recognise those points.
The reality is that this island is surrounded by some of the best tides and waves in the world for generating energy, with virtually the best wind-power possibilities in Europe — with the possible exception of Scotland. Our climate is ideal for growing biomass, whether willow or miscanthus. We need to maximise those opportunities to benefit our people and the wider world. The motion and the amendment highlight serious intent about how society should progress.
I received correspondence today from Ministers on some of the potential issues in respect of job creation. I discovered that the World Wildlife Fund in Scotland commissioned a report five years ago, which highlighted serious potential for job creation and scope for tackling poverty and environmental concerns.
It is regrettable that nothing similar has yet been published for Northern Ireland. However, the motion sends out the message that we must do something, and unite around it.
Mr G Robinson: Sustainable energy is undoubtedly a growth area for the Northern Ireland economy. The price of oil has escalated over the past few months, and gas and electricity prices have also risen. It is inevitable that we should seek to encourage the design, development, production and usage of sustainable-energy technology.
Northern Ireland has a well-educated and well-trained workforce that wants to work and is willing to retrain in order to work. We should capitalise on that greatest of all assets for any country in order to attract firms that produce the latest technologies. Solar panels, wind turbines and wave power will develop as our finite resources run out. Northern Ireland is at the start of an economically prosperous future, and we should be attracting new technologies that will develop and power our economic future. Of course, I suggest East Londonderry as an admirably suitable site for any manufacturers of such technologies.
The Minister and the rest of the Executive have not overlooked renewables in their future plans, with ventures such as the SeaGen tidal project in Strangford Lough. Various wind farms have been established, and more are at the planning stage. The dubious blessings of strong breezes and powerful waves are sustainable sources that could produce some of the electricity that we will need to power — literally — our economic growth. Our atmospheric conditions may suit the production of renewable energies, and we also have some of the highest levels of air quality in the United Kingdom. The use of sustainable energy will ensure that pollution levels are kept low and that the unique quality of Ulster air is maintained.
Renewable energy has many environmental benefits for Northern Ireland. We must ensure that we produce the technology that will maintain that position, and, as a result, create benefits for the economy and our citizens. The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment recently said:
“Sustainable energy is a priority for government to ensure Northern Ireland has secure, reliable and competitive energy supplies for the future.”
The Moyle interconnector and the SEM are examples of how those words are becoming a reality. I congratulate the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment for ensuring that that is the case, and I know that he wants to keep sustainable energy high on the agenda.
The amount of energy produced by renewables is targeted to be increased from 3·8% in 2006-07 to 12% in 2012-13. That is an ambitious start, and the Minister will strive to ensure that it is met. I know that his Department stands ready to co-ordinate a concerted interdepartmental effort to maximise the energy produced from renewables, and I support him fully in his efforts. I support the motion and the amendment.
Mr McKay: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I support the motion and the SDLP amendment. The timing of the motion is apt, bearing in mind the soaring price of oil. The public will expect the Assembly to show leadership on this issue, because the availability of energy has a massive impact on our quality of life, the economy, the environment and our mobility. We must work towards a situation in which we are much less reliant on oil, and we must be much more conservative in our use of energy in general.
We already lag behind other parts of Europe when it comes to renewable energy, and there must be more investment in that sector. Energy must be more affordable for all parts of society if we are to combat growing problems such as fuel poverty. There must be more joined-up working when it comes to encouraging the public to leave the car at home and use public transport, especially in rural areas. Government must ensure that using public transport is more attractive financially, and they must educate the public in that regard.
As previously stated, electricity, coal, oil and gas prices are all rising. Families are struggling because of price increases in food, petrol and mortgage repayments, and they must make choices between having food and having heat and light. The Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment must set out how he will support renewable-energy installers and develop what will be a key market in reducing our reliance on finite fuels.
Climate-change targets must be met, and we can make a significant contribution to that by increasing the amount of electricity that is generated from local, renewable sources. A large percentage of energy use is domestic, and that is where we must change our old habits by ensuring that everyone can avail themselves of affordable renewable energy and reduce domestic reliance on oil.
We have some of the best wind resources in Europe, and we must ensure that electricity-grid and planning constraints are overcome. The Government in the South have set an ambitious target of generating 33% of their energy from renewable sources by 2020. There is no reason why that target could not be met across the island. Excellent R&D is taking place in our colleges and universities, and we have an opportunity to create sustainable jobs in the rural and farming communities by incorporating a renewables market into rural diversification and the rural economy.
Ireland could, and should, be a leader in renewable energy. We should build on some of the good work that has been done to date, such as the Renewable Energy Installer Academy, which has already received commendable reports. That project should be protected and built upon to ensure that our renewable technology remains of the highest standard.
Generating sustainable energy, reducing our reliance on finite fuels and protecting the most vulnerable in society from fuel poverty are not the responsibilities of any one Department. DETI, DSD, DRD and all the other Departments must show joined-up planning and leadership to ensure that the forthcoming energy dilemmas do not detrimentally affect the economy, the environment or the well-being of the public. I support the motion and the amendment.
Mr Hamilton: I support the motion and the SDLP’s amendment. At this late hour, and after so much has been said already, the respectable turnout for this debate is testimony to the sustainable energy of the Members who have stayed.
As has been said, this is a topical debate, given the recent 28% rise in the price of gas. As so much of our electricity is generated in gas-fired power stations, we anticipate that that price rise will have an impact on NIE’s prices. Concern has been expressed in the motion, and around the House, about the anticipated knock-on effect of such price rises on people living in fuel poverty. We already anticipate that about 150,000 people will be living in fuel poverty, and that is a grave concern, given the rising cost of fossil fuels.
All Members have acknowledged today that wider issues are at stake in the discussion on energy, not least climate change, which has been talked about at length. There are other issues, such as the ongoing need to secure our energy supply, how long fossil fuels will last, and how dependent we can be on unstable regimes in the Middle East or Russian oligarchs for oil and gas supplies.
We must also face looming issues, such as the proposed EU renewable energy directive, and its target of 15% renewable-energy consumption. Opting in to that, or being forced to meet such targets by the UK Government, will put a massive burden and strain on Northern Ireland.
Although we all agree that concerted action on the issue is required, experience shows that it is not a simple matter of saying that something must be done, and it will be done. We cannot simply click our fingers and find that the matter has been sorted out overnight. Many major challenges and hard choices characterise every aspect of the energy issue. It is apt that the Minister of the Environment will be responding to the motion in place of the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, because many of the issues that are constantly raised affect her when she is wearing her hat as planning Minister.
There has been much talk today about how wealthy this country is in natural resources, and how those might be harnessed. However, if we examine those options, such as wind energy, it is not a simple matter, as Mr Gallagher said, of proposals being stuck in the planning system for an eternity. Some proposals remain stuck in the planning system for what seems like an eternity due to local objections.
The SeaGen prototype wave-energy project is in my constituency of Strangford, although Jim Wells argues that, because it is in Strangford Lough, it is closer to South Down. He is not here to defend his position, and I will not do so for him. However, even that very good project has met resistance and criticism about the way in which it might affect marine mammals. Indeed, there might even be somebody who is on constant seal watch at that facility.
Moving on to biofuels, which have been mentioned; one argument states that it is good for farmers to diversify into biofuels, while another states that they raise food prices and cause food shortages.
Energy from waste is another example of a proposal for a solution to the energy problem that is already on the table. That proposal, which employs chicken waste material, is meeting local opposition. Indeed, any energy-from-waste plant that comes through the public-sector route is likely to meet some resistance at ground level.
Even if we could harness all our obvious renewable energy opportunities, there are issues relating to the grid, which is where the all-island grid study comes in. First, a major investment would be required to increase the level of penetration of renewable energy to 42%. Secondly, there are infrastructure issues, as we have seen with respect to the interconnector — where there have been objections to something that would be useful to have. Given that my time is running out, I will leave nuclear power for another day.
In the case of virtually each and every renewable or sustainable energy scheme, one could argue that there is a need for it, and that we will need to consider some or all of the options at some stage; but the issue is not that simple. We must proceed realistically and at the right pace as the technology grows. It is not simply a matter of clicking our fingers and it will be done; people will object in one way or another to various schemes of this kind. However, those objections, and even issues such as fuel poverty, will pale in comparison to the alternative.
Mr McFarland: Sustainable energy is a complex issue, as we have heard so far, and I hope to provide some clarification now. We are interested in sustainable energy because we have all been persuaded that if we do not change our ways, the world will come to an end — it is heating up due to global warming; our children will all end up frying if we do not do something about it now; and fossil fuels, we have been told, are running out.
Although we are panicking, the Americans do not seem to be troubled about the issue and they are refusing to sign up to the Kyoto protocol. China is building an extra coal-fired power station every day, and the Indian economy is expanding. Those countries should not be criticised for trying to make life better for their people, but while we are panicking about whether we need to downsize our cars, they are chucking all sorts of stuff into the atmosphere and making the problem worse.
There are two parallel ways to deal with this matter. On an individual level, we could, for example, insulate our houses better — and it is slightly weird that Reconnect, which was allowing people to do just that, has been pulled by the Executive. We could also fix solar panels to our roofs, but they are of limited value. We could downsize our cars and have the odd windmill outside our houses. Indeed, some Members may have seen the windmill that was on top of the hill close to here. It lasted for a while, but the owner has taken it down as it clearly was not profitable for him to have it working.
On a wider scale, we could have wind farms; we already have them on the Antrim Hills and in Tyrone. We could have tidal and wave power — and we have heard about SeaGen, which is probably the best option in the future for saving the planet. We could have hydro power — and Scotland has spent a lot of time flooding its highland valleys to provide hydro-electricity.
We could have biomass, where a lot of willow is grown and which may provide an opportunity for farmers who are worried about diversification. We could have biofuels — and there is a current craze for maize, which, sadly, is causing chaos in America because farmers there have started growing it for fuel rather than food, and they cannot now get maize to feed their cattle. Their production system is going bananas.
We could have that other word, which is not mentioned in the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment — nuclear. It is odd that France and England have decided to increase their nuclear capability, with France building five extra nuclear power stations. It must be a case of saying that because the interconnector is coming to us, North and South, we will be alright. The island of Ireland will not have to worry because we can get nuclear-generated electricity while pretending that we have nothing to do with nuclear power.
However, there are knock-on effects from each of those things. To meet the targets and the recommendations for wind power, we would probably have to cover great swathes of the country with windmills. One can imagine people flying in from America to see the beautiful Northern Ireland landscape — the Giant’s Causeway, and so on — and being greeted by wall-to-wall windmills. Is it proposed that the glens of Antrim should be flooded to produce hydropower?
I understand that a report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has found that biofuels are just as bad for the climate as fossil fuels. That is reminiscent of the margarine-or-butter debate — we stopped using one and started to use the other until another report stated that both were as bad as each other. If the nuclear option is adopted, live material is buried for millennia in Welsh caves, and so on. There is much confusion and many problems in respect of this matter.
As Simon Hamilton said, even if we could generate the extra electricity, there would be mega drama because the grid could not cope with it. Furthermore, such a scheme would require a major amount of money, and the Minister would require lots of planning permission. One only has to note the drama in Armagh, where attempts were made to put a few kilometres of wire in and the entire world was up in arms. It is fine to have targets, but mega problems arise in making those a reality.
Oil prices have gone up — I recently paid £500 for 900 litres of fuel oil. That affects people on the ground. Therefore, there is a social aspect to this issue. Why have oil prices gone up? Is it because of OPEC, is there a refining problem, or have the price increases been socially engineered to force us to deal with climate change?
Mr B Wilson: I disagree with most of the views expressed by the Member who has just spoken. However, I welcome this debate and the opportunity to highlight the potential benefits that renewable energy can bring to Northern Ireland, including protection of our environment, job creation, and helping us to meet the target of eliminating fuel poverty by 2016.
As Mr Ford pointed out, Northern Ireland has a vast potential for producing electricity from renewable sources, particularly wind, tides and biomass. Despite that, Northern Ireland is bottom of the relevant European league table, with a mere 1·2% of our electricity being produced from renewable sources. Figures from the UK Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform show that the average wind farm can produce electricity at a cost of 3p to 6p per unit. Why, then, should householders here pay an NIE tariff of 11p per unit for electricity? That must change.
Oil and gas prices are rising rapidly so we must start to invest in alternatives. Otherwise, fuel poverty will increase, rather than be eradicated. Last September, the price of oil was 35p a litre; it is now 55p a litre — a rise of over 50% in under a year. That rise is set to continue because peak oil production has passed and the worldwide demand for oil is increasing rapidly.
Wood-pellet boilers can provide home heating at half the cost of oil or gas. For example, wood-pellet boilers installed by the Housing Executive in Clough heat a three-bedroom house at an average cost of £9 a week. That is compared with neighbours in that area who pay £25 a week for oil. I am pleased that the Housing Executive has proposed to introduce schemes that will fit wood-pellet boilers in 30 more houses. I urge the Minister for Social Development to stop installing oil and gas boilers in social housing under the warm homes scheme and the Housing Executive’s heating replacement scheme. Wood-pellet boilers should be installed instead; there is not much difference in the respective costs of installation.
I congratulate the Executive on the installation of more than 2,000 solar panels since August 2006. That project cost £5·2 million and was funded through the environment and renewable energy fund. Unfortunately, that funding ended in March, and, therefore, the installation of solar panels in social housing also ended. However, £17 million from the environment and renewable energy fund’s energy from waste scheme remains unspent. That is not even a form of renewable energy, because it encourages the production of waste.
That money would be better spent installing solar panels on Housing Executive properties to reduce fuel poverty. The ending of the environment and renewable energy fund and the decision of the Minister of Finance to end the Reconnect grants and to remove the renewables obligation from the building regulations threaten to kill Northern Ireland’s renewable-energy industry, which employs 1,400 people and which could create up to 5,500 new jobs.
There is not the political will in the Executive to match Northern Ireland’s great potential for the expansion of renewable energy, nor is there sufficient co-operation between Departments to make the necessary changes. The Environment Minister announces that we must reduce CO2 emissions by 50% by 2050, while the Minister with responsibility for energy abolishes the Reconnect grants and the renewable energy fund. The Minister for Social Development adopts the code for sustainable homes at level 3, with a commitment to zero-carbon homes by 2016, while the Minister of Finance removes the renewables obligation from the building regulations. The Programme for Government states the intention to promote local entrepreneurship and to create sustainable jobs, while, collectively, the Executive threaten to strangle at birth the indigenous renewable-energy industry.
Northern Ireland could lead the rest of the UK and Ireland in renewable-energy production and help to reduce fuel poverty. We have the abilities and the knowledge to be a green light to others. I urge the House to support the motion and the amendment.
The Minister of the Environment (Mrs Foster): It is fortuitous that I respond to the motion, as many of the issues raised apply to my Department as much as to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment.
We have heard how the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment completed, in December 2007, a review of the sustainable-energy market in Northern Ireland in order to inform policy development on the issue. That review examined the market position and, among other things, assessed the options available to meet DETI’s 1% energy-efficiency target, the renewable-energy-consumption target of 12% by 2012 and other challenging targets arising from the implementation of the energy end-use efficiency and energy services directive. The review examined all sectors of the sustainable-energy market: domestic, industrial, commercial, the voluntary/community sector and public sectors. It looked at large- and small-scale renewables and energy efficiency.
In several areas, the review identified new options for consideration in the light of increased public engagement in climate-change issues: the strength of arguments presented in analyses such the Stern Review, to which Mr Ford referred; the emergence of corporate response to climate change; and UK-wide commitments to renewable energy and greenhouse-gas emissions. A key element in the review was the identification of gaps and barriers to the sustainable-energy marketplace and to identify actions to address those gaps and barriers in future.
To that end, the review generated recommendations that cut across the responsibilities of several Departments, as well as measures that DETI can implement immediately. Mr Ford spoke about joined-up Government: just because some of us are in Government does not mean that we do not recognise the need for work to be done in such areas. He probably knows that I wrote to the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, suggesting that it needed to form a subcommittee on sustainable development. That is important if we are to progress on the issues that he identified. He also —
Mr Ford: I appreciate the Minister’s reference to my comment. What is the position with regard to the subcommittee on sustainable development?
The Minister of the Environment: I have yet to receive a response from the junior Ministers, but I will let the Member know when it arrives.
Mr Ford also referred to jobs. He is aware that quite a few jobs were created by the SeaGen marine current turbine, and he knows that Invest NI is working to provide more jobs in the energy sector.
Mr Cree spoke of the need to raise the target from 12%. He knows that, under the European directive, there is a need to move to 15%, which, I am sure, he will welcome.
Jim Shannon welcomed the work of bodies such as the Energy Savings Trust and offered his support for a coherent joined-up message. That was very much a theme of the debate.
On the behalf of the DETI Minister, I acknowledge the work of sustainable-energy bodies such as the Energy Savings Trust, Action Renewables, the Carbon Trust and the Northern Ireland Energy Agency. I agree that a joined-up approach is essential, and I know that DETI is leading cross-departmental work on that issue. That Department has been speaking to my officials about many of those matters.
It should be stressed that the recommendations of the review represent only the first step. Minister Dodds has reviewed the recommendations and was pleased to note that the review recognised the dedication and expertise of all the organisations involved in the Northern Ireland sustainable-energy market. He was also pleased to see that Northern Ireland, on the whole, benchmarks well against not only other UK regions, but the regions of Europe that were used as comparators for the purpose of the review.
However, it is important to note that opportunities exist to learn from some of the activities undertaken by some of the comparator regions. DETI officials are evaluating the review’s recommendations, many of which require more detailed work — on issues such as cost and economic viability — before any decisions are made on which of the recommendations will be implemented. Many of the recommendations are cross-cutting, and relevant work is ongoing among officials from various Departments.
We are all aware — perhaps with the exception of Mr McFarland — of the need to act now to minimise of the amount of energy that is used in Northern Ireland and to minimise harmful emissions to help to protect the environment. No one can deny that our climate is changing, both globally and on a local scale.
I recognise the comments that were made by Mr McFarland about other countries. However, that does not mean that we do not need to do something about our climate-change commitments in this country. We need to get on with the game.
Mindful of that, DETI and the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources in the Republic of Ireland have carried out a study, which is referred to in the SDLP amendment. That study addresses how additional generation from renewable sources could be accommodated within the electricity grid. Results show that, although that is technically feasible, to accommodate a significant increase in renewable-energy generation, a significant investment in the electrical grid infrastructure would be required. Mr Hamilton mentioned the ability of the Northern Ireland electrical grid to transmit up to 42% renewable energy. A balance must be struck between improving the sustainability and security of our energy supply and — I can say this with my environment hat on — the protection of the environment.
Members will know that consultation on draft PPS 18 has just closed. That document deals with the criteria for renewable energy, and it has been welcomed by the wind-energy industry. It may be serendipity, but I held a meeting today with wind-energy industry representatives, and we had a good discussion about what action is needed to meet the targets on renewable energy.
Securing our future energy supply is high on the Government’s agenda as we seek to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. It is vital that we deliver a more cohesive and joined-up solution. To that end, discussions have taken place between DETI and DOE officials, but I recognise that there is still much to do.
Work has been carried out to promote wind energy — which is probably the most commercial and viable renewable technology that is available. However, there are other sources of energy such as marine-current turbines and — as the proposer of the motion mentioned — biofuels. I was going to be a little mischievous and commit the DETI Minister to nuclear energy. However, I think that that would be a bit much, standing in his place.
Wind is the most naturally available source of renewable energy in Northern Ireland, but it is also important to encourage the growth of non-wind renewables. The co-ordinated approach that is available should be grasped, and that will enable Northern Ireland to optimise the potential benefits across the energy, agriculture, enterprise, transport and environmental sectors, while contributing to renewable-energy targets and the reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions.
The proposer of the motion, and Martina Anderson a Member for Foyle — during a lengthy intervention — mentioned fuel poverty.
They will both know that DETI has no role in determining energy prices, but it strives at all times to create market conditions that, over the long term, will drive prices down. DETI is only too aware of the recent increases in world energy costs — global gas prices this summer are expected to be 100% higher than in the same period last year. Minister Dodds and his officials are conscious of the impact that increases have on the business community and on those who were mentioned by Jennifer McCann and the Member for Foyle Ms Anderson — the fuel poor.
With that in mind, DETI has sought over recent years to reduce the burden of energy costs on low-income families through the introduction of a new single wholesale electricity market; the mutualisation of energy assets, such as the Moyle electricity interconnector; the Scotland to Northern Ireland gas pipeline; the Phoenix Natural Gas transmission business; and the use of a £5·6 million grant to defray the 2007-08 energy efficiency level, which reduced the electricity tariffs to 1% below what they otherwise would have been.
DETI officials have also been involved in the interdepartmental group on fuel poverty, which is chaired by Minister Ritchie. I understand that she will announce her plans on fuel poverty very soon.
Ministers are keen to identify the best energy solutions for Northern Ireland in relation to sustainable energy, and to encourage us to become an exemplar for sustainable energy. It is important that all our future activities address gaps and barriers, as highlighted in the review. I hope that I have addressed some of the comments that were made in the debate, and I will inform Minister Dodds of any concerns that I have been unable to address.
Mr A Maginness: I think that peace has broken out in the Assembly after the rougher debates that took place earlier today.
Mr Cree: Will it be sustainable?
Mr A Maginness: It will be sustained in the Assembly for at least another hour or two. I am grateful to all parties for supporting the important amendment. As the Minister said, the amendment draws attention to the study that seeks to achieve an all-Ireland target of roughly 40% renewable energy in the production of electricity. That is important.
The Minister, succinctly, drew our attention to the fact that we are rich in the natural resources — such as wind, biomass and tidal power — that are required to generate renewable energy, and it is important to emphasise that.
There was almost unanimity in the Chamber, apart from Mr McFarland, who raised the N-word — the nuclear option. Perhaps his interest comes from his military background; I am not sure. He also tried to incite Daithí McKay by threatening to flood the glens. Nevertheless, most Members sang from the same hymn sheet and are genuinely committed to the development of renewable energy. It is imperative that we be so. We cannot sustain further dramatic and drastic price rises, which overburden the most vulnerable in our society and which will, ultimately, overburden the institutions. It is essential that we invest wisely in renewable energy.
I have one note of caution on biofuels. Mr Simon Hamilton referred to the problem with biofuels, and the World Bank stated recently that biofuels have contributed substantially to an 80% price increase in food throughout the world. That will have devastating consequences for tens of millions of people who live in the developing world. In addition, the European Environment Agency has called for the European Union to suspend its 10% target for biofuel use until more comprehensive scientific work has been done to assess their risks.
Therefore, problems with the use of biofuels arise not only because they inflate the cost of food, but because more scientific knowledge needs to be gathered and because of the impact that they have on the environment. It is important that that is taken into consideration.
It is also important that we express concerns about the renewable transport fuel obligation, which demands that petrol retailers mix 2·5% biofuel into the petrol that they sell to motorists. The obligation also demands that that amount rise to 5·75% by 2010. Such a policy simply encourages the unrestrained use and production of biofuels, which could — although I am not saying that it absolutely will — have a negative impact on our economy and our environment. That is a word of warning.
We are united in our efforts to get Departments to work together, and the Minister emphasised that attempts are being made to do that. Mr Ford also emphasised the importance of such work, as did Jennifer McCann. It is important that the Government make a united effort to bring about a revolution in the use of renewable energy in Northern Ireland.
Mr P Maskey: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank all the Members who participated in the debate. I hope that the motion and the amendment will put the spotlight on sustainable energy and fuel poverty, which are important matters. The motion calls for:
“closer co-operation between different departments to ensure that sustainable energy, including renewable energy, is developed in such a way that benefits the environment”.
At this stage in our history, we have the opportunity to make a difference.
The Assembly should show leadership in promoting initiatives that will benefit the environment. For too long, there has been no forward or joined-up thinking about sustainable energy. We must change that — we need to get it right for the sake of our future and that of our children, because they are the ones who will suffer.
Some organisations have done a great deal of good work on energy issues, and they have raised the profile of the matter at many levels. For example, the NI Energy Agency is a one-stop-shop-style organisation that is charged with the implementation of policy in the areas of renewable energy, energy efficiency and low-carbon transport advice. Those matters could and should be explored in greater detail. Such a body could act as a conduit for the many different Departments that are responsible for energy issues.
There is a great deal of confusion about the functions that each Department carries out on sustainable energy. We must change that situation and implement proper policies to ensure that that confusion no longer exists. Our party colleague Bairbre de Brún has raised the issue of sustainable energy in relation to the EU task force, and she also discussed it during her recent visit to Washington.
Jennifer McCann opened the debate eloquently — Martina Anderson tried to steal her thunder halfway through her speech, but Jennifer managed to get it back, so I congratulate Jennifer for that. Tommy Gallagher spoke on the amendment, and he made the point that investment must be made in the single electricity market in order to benefit all our futures. He also discussed planning issues for wind farms, and he mentioned how some planning applications for wind farms can take up to two years or sometimes longer to be processed. That is an important issue, and I am glad that the Minister of the Environment is here to listen to those concerns, as I am sure that she shares them.
Jim Shannon spoke about the Strangford turbine that has been installed. There has been a great deal of publicity about that, and it was important that it was raised. I hope that that scheme will prove to be a model for good practice.
Jim also spoke about energy-saving light bulbs, which can make a massive difference. It does not take much for us to get our heads round that. Again, that is an issue of awareness.
Leslie Cree talked about the targets for sustainable energy not being serious enough, and the need to be more adventurous. It was said that the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment realises that, so, hopefully, the targets will be much more challenging in the future.
David Ford talked about the huge environmental issues that have to be tackled, which is why the motion refers to closer co-operation between different Departments. I hope that that closer co-operation will enable the issues to be addressed at a higher level.
George Robinson spoke about new technologies and how he hoped that they could be developed in East Derry. Some Members may argue for the development of such technologies in their own constituencies, so we may not agree on that issue. Francie Brolly may have something to say about that during the Adjournment debate.
Daithí McKay spoke about the need for the Executive to show leadership, which is exactly what the public want. They want politicians to show leadership and take responsibility for the issue. It is too important an issue not to do so.
Simon Hamilton referred to Members having their own sustainable energy. If someone were to bottle the hot air that is produced in the Chamber, enough energy may be generated to power a small city. Perhaps we should consider that.
Alan McFarland talked about the American Government refusing to sign up to some environmental treaties. That is nothing new; they do their own thing without respecting the wishes of other people. That is an issue that the American Government need to take on board. Alan went on to mention, as did others, the nuclear option. I do not want a nuclear plant in West Belfast, or, indeed, on the island of Ireland. Perhaps Alan wants one in his constituency of North Down. That is an issue that he can raise another time.
Brian Wilson mentioned the worldwide demand for oil, which is increasing. He urged the Minister for Social Development to promote the installation of wood-pellet boilers instead of oil boilers in social housing. In recent weeks, many members of the public have talked about the increases in prices of fuel, which is related to the fuel-poverty issue. I hope that some of the Departments will take Mr Wilson’s comments on board.
Minister Foster, although responding in place of the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, said that many of the issues that were raised concerned her Department. Therefore, it was good that she was present for the debate, and she has assured the House that she will raise with the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment the issues that relate to his Department.
Alban Maginness, rightly, said that the amendment adds to the motion and that it was important that all parties support the motion and the amendment.
In West Belfast and other areas throughout the North, families face massive socio-economic problems in which fuel poverty plays a part. Such problems have to be tackled. We recently heard from the chief executive of the Authority for Energy Regulation, Iain Osborne, about ever-increasing energy prices. People on low incomes have many reasons to be concerned after the regulator published his most recent report.
Recently, many of my constituents have raised their concerns about fuel poverty. More and more of them are falling into the bracket that classes them as suffering because of fuel poverty. The Assembly must do all that it can to reverse that trend. In this day and age, if one family cannot afford to heat their home, that is one family too many.
Fuel poverty is an indictment on the society that we live in today. It is also an indictment on the direct rule Ministers, who, for many years, did not recognise the issue, and did absolutely nothing about it or about sustainable energy.
I hope that, with the motion and the amendment being passed today, the Ministers take the issue on board and that we move into the future in a more positive manner. Go raibh míle maith agat.
Question, That the amendment be made, put and agreed to.
Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.
That this Assembly notes the recommendations in the review of the Sustainable Energy Market; further notes the findings of the All-Island Grid Study in respect of investment and planning needed to allow the electricity grid to transmit up to 42% renewable electricity; and calls on the Executive to ensure that there is closer co-operation between different Departments to ensure that sustainable energy, including renewable energy, is developed in such a way that benefits the environment, and tackles the socio-economic problems that face families due to fuel poverty.
That the Assembly do now adjourn. — [Mr Deputy Speaker.]
Waste Management in East Derry/Londonderry
Mr Deputy Speaker: The proposer of the topic for debate will have 15 minutes in which to speak, and all other Members who wish to speak will have approximately eight minutes.
Mr Brolly: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I assure you, Mr Deputy Speaker, that my speech will not last for 15 minutes.
This debate concerns the small townland of Ringsend, near Garvagh. For those who do not know the area, it is along the Coleraine to Limavady road. It is a very pleasant, quiet, rural, forested area with a beautiful view of Lough Foyle and the Donegal Hills as one travels towards Limavady along the Craigmore Road.
That is a very picturesque and popular residential area, and I wish to highlight the very real possibility of the proliferation of landfill sites there. Proposed landfill sites are too close together — of the four potential sites, the two that are the furthest apart have a distance between them of just three and a half miles. Some of those sites clearly contravene the proximity principle for waste management.
The largest proposed site is on the Cam Road. That is the site that is preferred by the North West Region Waste Management Group, and it will serve seven of the current council areas. Planning permission is very likely to be granted for that site.
The second proposed site is on the Craigmore Road. That site was a former landfill facility that was privately owned but was leased for use by Coleraine Borough Council. That site has a bad history, because the original proprietor got into trouble with the law in respect of how the site was run. The site has now been properly refurbished, and it is due to open soon. It will be licensed for certain types of waste and it will incorporate a recycling facility.
The third site is being applied for by a private developer. It is on the Belraugh Road, which is between the Ringsend Road and the Dungiven Road. The site will be used mainly for the dumping of building waste. That should not give rise to the normal worries that are associated with landfill sites, where all types of waste are present.
The fourth possible site is on the Letterloan Road. That is a more remote possibility, but it is worth mentioning because of concerns about the cumulative effect of four adjacent sites. The people of the area would like to forestall those plans by being forewarned. The Letterloan Road site has been mooted as a possible site for mechanical biological treatment. That is a real possibility because the North West Region Waste Management Group is actively considering the development of such a plant.
If those sites were developed, they would be kept very busy. They would serve a large area of the north-west. They are very close together, and would be accessed via the small rural roads of the area. That leads to consequent concerns about traffic volume, site control, smell and leachates; not to mention the possible drop in the value of residences there, and the devaluing of the area’s residential popularity.
Although we accept that modern landfill sites are much better constructed and much better controlled, the concern is that the cumulative effect of even well-controlled sites will be excessive. The residents have good reason to be concerned.
A local residents’ committee is organising resistance to that possibility. Nobody wants a landfill site, and the people of Ballerin certainly do not want four of them.
The residents’ committee made a presentation to Coleraine Borough Council. A Sinn Féin proposal to approach the environmental health service and to write to the Minister was agreed by the council. Councillor Billy Leonard, who made that proposal, also raised the issue with Bairbre de Brún, and that is being developed. A petition will be taken to Europe on the question of proliferation. It is hoped that Bairbre de Brún, a Member of the European Parliament, will meet the residents’ committee.
I am simply expressing the concerns of the people of Ballerin. I hope that something can be done on their behalf to forestall the landfill sites that would completely change the face of such a beautiful rural area. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr McQuillan: I agree with much of what Mr Brolly said, but I do not recall Councillor Leonard proposing anything at the council meeting; perhaps that slipped past me. However, that is a story for another day.
I will refer to the same region that Mr Brolly mentioned — the Ringsend/Ballerin area — and go into the background of some of the dumps in that area. I hope that you will bear with me, Mr Deputy Speaker.
The waste management plan, which has been agreed by all seven councils in the North West Region Waste Management Group, identified the need for a regional landfill site to cater for the future needs of the area. Only two of the councils — Coleraine and Magherafelt — have landfill sites operating currently and the capacity in those sites is limited.
Through an EU procurement exercise, expressions of interest in providing a landfill facility in the region were solicited. The results of that exercise identified the site at the Cam quarry as the preferred option, and that was agreed by each individual council in the group. That is the only landfill possibility that the North West Region Waste Management Group has an interest in pursuing, and the owners of the site are preparing an application for planning.
The waste management plan identified the now closed landfill site at Letterloan Road, Macosquin, which was operated by Coleraine Borough Council, as one of a number of:
“Potential locations for the development of an MBT study, under the ownership/control of Councils”.
To date, no action has been taken with regard to those potential sites. Mechanical biological treatment is not a landfill operation: waste is taken to an enclosed space and suitable materials are separated for recycling. The remainder of the waste undergoes heat treatment to produce pellets for possible use in commercial boilers.
A site at Craigmore Road, Garvagh, exists with planning permission for landfill. Work is being carried out on the site to comply with the conditions necessary for the Department of the Environment to grant a permit to allow the facility to be used. The site has a long history of extremely poor operational conditions under the former owner, who served a prison sentence for operating the site illegally.
There is a substantial objection from local residents to that site being allowed to operate, and they are calling to have all illegally deposited waste removed. If that were agreed, it would go a long way to restore some confidence in the system.
An application for a site at Belraugh Road, Macosquin, to take inert waste — clay, rubble and such like — has been lodged with the Planning Service and as yet no determination has been made. If that site were to be granted permission to go ahead, it would be a disgrace, as it is a lovely green valley.
The North West Region Waste Management Group has no interest in either the site at Craigmore Road or the site at Belraugh Road. The proposal for the Cam quarry would reinstate an old quarry rather develop a greenfield site, as would happen for the proposals at the Craigmore Road and the Belraugh Road sites. The Minister will recall that I accompanied the residents when they met her. We had a forthright meeting at which the residents put their views to the Minister, and at which she outlined her views. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
Mr McClarty: Before I begin, I apologise to the House and to the Minister for being unable to remain for her response; I look forward to reading it tomorrow in Hansard. Unfortunately, I had to be in another place 20 minutes ago.
I will not go over what was said about the Ringsend and Ballerin area. There has been much debate in the Coleraine Borough Council chamber, and much has been said tonight. It is an area of beauty, and many of its residents have deep concerns about the use of the land, and its misuse in the past, as was mentioned by Mr Brolly. I hope that the Minister will consider those concerns.
Regarding the general issue of waste in East Londonderry, Northern Ireland, like the rest of the United Kingdom, has, for many years, been almost totally reliant on landfill for the disposal of its waste. The EU landfill directive, which came into force in 1999, set binding targets that restricted the amount of household waste that can be disposed of in landfill sites. Furthermore, the directive required member states to draw up plans to reduce the amount of other waste materials being disposed of in that way. Those states, therefore, have had to reassess their waste management practices, and to consider alternatives, such as increasing recycling and recovery levels.
Northern Ireland has tackled the issue of waste management in a very positive manner. Following widespread consultation with key stakeholder groups, we were the first part of the United Kingdom to develop a waste-management strategy, setting out a vision of Northern Ireland as a centre of excellence in resource and waste management.
The north-west region waste management plan, which has been agreed by seven councils, has identified the need for a regional landfill site to cater for the area’s future needs. However, as Mr McQuillan stated, only two of those councils have landfill sites currently in operation, namely Coleraine and Magherafelt, and capacity in those two sites is limited. In the waste management plan the — now closed — landfill site at Letterloan Road, Macosquin, which was operated by Coleraine Borough Council, is identified as one of several potential locations for the development of a mechanical biological treatment (MBT) study, under the ownership/control of councils.
I will briefly mention the importance of waste prevention in any waste management strategy for East Londonderry. That should be high on the agenda, and a key priority for waste management. Waste prevention includes all activities that reduce the amount of waste entering the collected waste stream — for example, avoiding waste generation; reducing the quantity and hazardous nature of waste at source; and re-using products before they enter the waste stream.
The pressure on global resources is a major challenge for Governments throughout the developed world, and was a key topic in the European Commission’s sixth Environment Action Programme. The thematic strategy on the prevention and recycling of waste strongly emphasises the increasing importance of waste-prevention measures in strategic waste planning. The landfill directive places stringent targets on the diversion of biodegradable municipal waste from landfill. Northern Ireland produces some 1 million tons of municipal waste annually, and that figure grew by 2·5% between 2003 and 2004. If the current rate continues, municipal waste arisings will increase by almost 50% by 2020, producing a significant gap between arisings and the amount we are permitted to dispose of in landfill. Waste prevention will help us to meet our targets by reducing the amount of residual waste requiring recycling and recovery.
Now that devolution has been restored to Northern Ireland, these are the problems that a functioning Executive can — and should — tackle head on. More specifically, I return to Ringsend and Ballerin, and I trust that the Minister will have ideas with which to tackle that particular issue.
Mr Dallat: I thank Francie Brolly for bringing the motion before the Assembly, and I express genuine thanks to the Minister for being here to take note and to respond. I attended a public meeting in Ballerin last Thursday night. I have known the people of that area for my whole life; they are the quietest, most inoffensive people one could meet, but they were very angry — almost hostile — at that meeting.
Perhaps no one could have envisaged what has happened here; that there are four potential sites. I agree with those Members who said that that is the nub of the problem.
I am pleased that Bairbre de Brún is now involved — I had to think for a moment who that was. The difficulty arose in the first place because of the nasty and horrendous history of what can only be called a dump on Craigmore Road. Coleraine Borough Council officers were slow to take appropriate action to stop it. I am not claiming that the Minister is responsible for history. She is not; the system was woeful.
On occasions I followed lorries and used my mobile phone to alert people about what was happening, only to be told that I had to stop because I was trespassing on private property. The site has been inherited by the Environment and Heritage Service, of which I must be extremely critical.
The Minister knows that in recent times there has been a policy to remove waste and return it to its source. It was decided at that time to cap up to, perhaps, 300,000 tons of toxic material. We have pictures to prove that some of the waste came from hospitals.
That is when the anger really began. Then, as Adrian McQuillan mentioned, there was another site on the Belraugh Road — an area that I would describe as one of outstanding natural beauty. To his credit, the present owner carried out a massive planting scheme on it 20 years ago and it is now home to a colony of wild animals. The site looks down on a beautiful plain. The last thing that anyone would dream of would be to use it to as a landfill dump, even for inert material.
As for the site that the North West Region Waste Management Group has chosen, I can now see a distinct disadvantage in joining such a group. If a site is proposed in one of the council areas, the other five councils will accept it, leaving the one pretty powerless to do anything about the decision. The fact that probably all political parties were involved in choosing a hole in the earth as a dump on our site means that there is no political capital to be made.
Anyway, people in that community are utterly devastated. One of the leaders called me today to suggest blocking roads, but I said such action was outside the law and reminded the caller of the example of the Parades Commission. We need to work with people.
However, at the moment the community envisage an area akin to East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is a tough task for the Minister, but one that we depend on her to undertake. I know that she has not yet met the group and I plead with her, on bended knee if necessary, to do so. Initially, we had every confidence that she would.
The Minister answered a question for me today on human rights and how they relate to the clustering of landfill sites. However, while her answer addresses the theory, I do not think that it will go down terribly well with residents.
Like David McClarty, I have a train to catch to Dublin, but I am so interested in this that I will try not to break the speed limit on my way to the station. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
The Minister of the Environment (Mrs Foster): I was a bit worried there, when the Member was getting down on bended knee, but I think that I am safe enough.
I thank Francie Brolly for raising this very important issue and for the opportunity to discuss wider waste management issues in his constituency. I would also like to thank colleagues who represent the north-west for their useful contributions to the debate.
Waste management is one of the many challenges facing Northern Ireland, and we must work together for a more sustainable future. The previous debate was on sustainable energy. Although EU landfill targets keep me focused on the big picture, I am also aware that, as with all other matters, local issues are just as important. The debate is a timely reminder that protecting the environment is everyone’s concern in one way or another.
I want to take a few moments to highlight the steps that are being taken to ensure that the waste management strategy for Northern Ireland, which was launched in 2006, will be implemented. That strategy is set in the context of the sustainable development policy, and its key aim is to help us to manage waste and resources effectively. That means using resources in a way that reduces the quantities of waste produced, which relates to Mr McClarty’s point about reducing waste, and, where waste is generated, to manage it in a way that minimises its impact on the environment and on public health.
When taken together with the other key policy instruments, the waste management strategy provides a framework for the development of a new integrated network of waste-treatment facilities that will not only ensure that EU targets for diverting waste from landfill are met, but will, with regard to sustainability and resource efficiency, increase recycling levels. Although there will be many hurdles to overcome on the way, perhaps the greatest challenge facing Northern Ireland is that it is driven by stringent European and national targets to reduce significantly the amount of waste that is sent to landfill before the first key landfill-reduction target date, which is approaching fast in 2010. I know that that you are aware of that, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Many Members will be aware that the £200 million strategic waste infrastructure fund, which I have worked hard to secure, has been allocated by the Executive to support local government in diverting waste from landfill and increase recycling and recovery. Not only will that enable Northern Ireland to comply with its EU obligations — thereby avoiding substantial fines — it will also create new construction, engineering and waste-management jobs.
The central Government contribution to the strategic waste infrastructure investment represents up to around 50% of the total investment required, with remaining capital investment being provided through local government and local authorities. In particular, the three regional district-council waste-management partnerships have a vital role to play in implementing the strategy and establishing the waste facilities required to deal with waste in a more sustainable way.
The north-west regional waste management group has been working closely with the Department to finalise proposals to identify the type and nature of facilities that are needed for that particular area and to progress the procurement process. Earlier, I mentioned the importance of dealing with local issues. Francie Brolly mentioned residents’ concerns in the Ringsend area of East Londonderry about applications for landfill sites in the area. I appreciate those concerns, particularly since the impression may have been given that there would be uncontrolled development of such facilities that would, as a result, have a negative impact on residents.
I assure Mr Brolly and, indeed, other Members such as Mr Dallat, that only after extensive consideration and a public-procurement exercise has the north-west group decided that provision of a local landfill facility should be located on the Cam Road at Ringsend, and that it is the only site in the area that the councils that comprise the group are interested to see progressed through planning.
The Craigmore site was licensed, as has been acknowledged, by Coleraine District Council in 1996. Planning permission was already in place for its use as a landfill site since the mid-1970s. In November 2006, my Department granted planning permission for engineering works at the site. Two further planning applications are with the Department. One is for a closure plan for the site and the other is for a waste-transfer and material-recover facility. Both are under consideration.
The Department will consider every suggestion it receives with regard to those issues. I acknowledge residents’ concerns. Indeed, Mr Dallat may remember that he arranged a meeting between some of those residents and me, at which we discussed their concerns. I am quite happy to continue to take evidence from them on those issues.
I note that Mr Brolly talked about a petition for proliferation. I must say that that is rather premature given the fact that the Department has considered only one of those applications. I recognise that there are four, but an application does not mean a determination. I want to make that clear.
Therefore, the strategic and regional approach to developing facilities is precisely what the strategy and the Department have advocated. I congratulate the group on the way that it has conducted business in that regard and for its plans to hold sessions at which representatives from interested parties can be present. Undoubtedly, people will attend those meetings to find about proposed landfill sites and, indeed, to make comments.
I emphasise that any applications for a regional waste facility must be considered against regional waste-management plans provided by the three regional groups; the waste strategy’s aims; and local residents’ needs and concerns. As the Minister responsible for planning, those issues are important to me. I reassure Members that I will take them into account.
Adjourned at 7.05 pm.