Northern Ireland ASSEMBLY
Monday 19 May 2008
Matters of the Day:
Executive Committee Business:
Oral Answers to Questions:
The Assembly met at 12.00 noon (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes’ silence.
Death of Robert Dunlop
Mr Speaker: Mr Ian Paisley Jnr has sought leave to make a statement on a matter that fulfils the criteria that are set out in Standing Order 23A. I shall call him to speak for up to three minutes. 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 in which to speak. 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.
Mr Paisley Jnr: It is with great sadness that I bring to the attention of the House the tragic death of Robert Dunlop, whose name needs no introduction to the House or to Members. He was a legend in the sport of motorcycle racing, a true Ulsterman, a dedicated father and a dedicated husband. Some Members knew Robert Dunlop personally, and he was known internationally for his sporting prowess. As Members know, he tragically lost his life last Thursday evening, 15 May, in a practice run for the North West 200. His remains were laid to rest yesterday in Garryduff Presbyterian Church graveyard.
At the DUP party officers’ meeting this morning, we chose “God’s mercy endureth for ever” as our scripture reading. Without doubt, we can say to Robert’s family that God’s mercy will endure for them at this time of great and tragic grief and heartache. To Louise, Robert’s wife; to his three great sons, William, Daniel and Michael; and to his twin sister, his other sisters, his brother Jim and his mother, May, the House can say truly that God’s mercy will endure for them for ever in this lonely and dark valley.
To his tens of thousands of motorcycle-racing fans, of which I was one, as were many other Members, the sport has lost a superstar, legend and true hero.
Robert Dunlop was a man who carried the scars of motorcycle racing without complaint, and who conquered adversity and let his racing do the talking — he was the essence of a true champion. Indeed, his many wins at the North West 200 are unsurpassed. His international wins in Macau and on the Isle of Man tell their own stories and mark him out as a true champion.
I hope today that this House can truly rejoice in the wonderful memories that we have of Robert and say to his family and friends that his legend will endure for ever.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Mr McKay: I echo the Member’s comments, and, following the loss of one of motorcycling’s great heroes, I express Sinn Féin’s condolences to the Dunlop family. Robert Dunlop will be sorely missed, not only by people in Ballymoney and north Antrim but by the millions of people throughout the world who watched him race.
At yesterday’s service, the minister outlined how Robert was a great hero not only because of his sporting ability but because of the type of person that he was. Like Joey, Robert was an ordinary person — one of the lads — and that is why people loved him so much. He was a legend and a hero, and he will be sorely missed.
Rev Dr Robert Coulter: I join my colleagues in expressing my and my party’s deep sadness at the untimely death of Robert Dunlop, which is a great loss not just to north Antrim but to the whole of Northern Ireland and, particularly, to the sport of motorcycle road racing.
Although we all have fond memories of Robert and his elder brother Joey — who died eight years ago — we must remember that, first and foremost, Robert was a husband and father. I appeal to the entire community in the Province to pray for Robert’s immediate family, his wider family circle and his friends.
Over the years, we have lost many great bike riders — including the two Dunlop brothers. The sport that many enjoy watching and participating in can also be cruel in the way in which it takes from us our iconic aces and gives to us the loss of the brightest and best.
Robert will be remembered as one of the great legends of Ulster road racing, and his determination to overcome the injuries he sustained in a horrific crash in the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy in 1994 is an inspiration to people of all ages. His courage in recovering from those terrible injuries in order to return to the sport that he loved so much and his brave decision to continue racing after his brother Joey was killed in a racing accident in Estonia in 2000 must also be admired.
Perhaps, the most fitting tribute and memorial to Robert — which we can all share in and pledge to do — would be to exercise care every time we take our ordinary bikes and cars on the road.
Finally, I am sure that the Northern Ireland public will wish to erect an appropriate memorial to the two Dunlop brothers. The Province should be proud of those sons of Ulster and remember with fondness and gratitude their immense contribution to the sport of motorcycle racing.
Mr O’Loan: On behalf of the SDLP, I wish to be associated with all that has been said in tribute to Robert Dunlop, and I express my sympathy to his wife, Louise, their sons and the entire family, who are so shocked at this time. Robert’s death is all the more poignant, following as it does that of his brother Joey. They were similarly young at the time of their deaths.
The courage of bike riders — especially those who participate in road racing — is great.
Only last Monday, I attended an event in Armoy with fellow North Antrim Members Mervyn Storey and Ian Paisley Jnr to commemorate the Armoy Armada — four great riders from the past, including Joey Dunlop. Three of those riders are no longer with us.
The other most distinguishing marks of Robert Dunlop’s character were his modesty and total lack of pretension. Like many of our great sportspeople, he carried his greatness lightly — he was at ease with other riders and supporters. I hope that his family will derive some support from the many tributes that, properly, have been paid to Robert from around the world.
Mr Neeson: The news of Robert Dunlop’s death was a big shock not only in Northern Ireland but throughout the world. Robert was totally dedicated to motorsport and, along with his brother Joey, was a great ambassador for Northern Ireland over the years. Robert’s popularity and support were shown by the huge numbers that attended his funeral yesterday. The Alliance Party expresses its deepest sympathies to his wife Louise, his sons, his mother May and the rest of the family.
Ms Purvis: I join all my Assembly colleagues and members of the Progressive Unionist Party in expressing sincere sympathy to the Dunlop family. Robert was a great talent in motorsport and man of immense courage and strength — an inspiration to many. Robert’s talent is evident in his sons, and I hope and pray that his family gain courage and strength from the many messages and tributes that have been paid to him.
Further Consideration Stage
Mr Speaker: I remind Members that, under Standing Order 35(2), the Further Consideration Stage of a Bill is restricted to debating any amendments tabled to that Bill. As no amendments have been tabled, there will be no opportunity today to discuss the Libraries Bill. However, Members will be able to have a full debate during the Bill’s Final Stage.
The Further Consideration Stage of the Bill is, therefore, concluded. The Libraries Bill stands referred to the Speaker.
Prevention of Suicide and Self-Harm
Mr Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to two hours and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 15 minutes to propose, and 15 minutes for a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Mrs I Robinson): I beg to move
That this Assembly approves the Report of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety (27/07/08R) on its Inquiry into the Prevention of Suicide and Self Harm; and calls on the Executive to bring forward, before the summer recess, a timeframe for implementing the recommendations in the report.
The report of the inquiry into the prevention of suicide and self harm is the first of its kind to be debated in the Assembly since restoration last May. It is the culmination of an extensive investigation by the Health Committee, and it deals with a very serious and sensitive subject. There is probably no one taking part in the debate, or listening to it, who has not been affected by suicide, either in their own family circle or in their local community. Therefore, I am grateful to the Speaker for allowing some extra time to open the debate and to make the winding-up speech on such an important subject.
The Committee found that, each year in Northern Ireland, an average of 195 people of all ages and from all backgrounds and parts of the Province take their own lives. Each year, a further 4,500 people are admitted to hospital after attempting suicide or inflicting serious injury through self-harm.
The actual number of suicides may be greater, because families are often reluctant to have suicide recorded as the cause of death, due to concerns over the associated stigma.
There is no single reason that leads a person to take his or her own life, and the risk factors associated with suicide are exceedingly complex and multifaceted. Suicide is a worldwide phenomenon, and its total elimination is considered virtually impossible. Nevertheless, many suicides can be prevented through concerted action and through the implementation of the right strategy. In September 2007, following concerns about the number of suicides in Northern Ireland almost doubling — from an average of 150 between 1999 and 2004, to just under 300 in 2006 — the Health Committee embarked on an inquiry to examine a strategic approach to the prevention of suicide and self-harm in Northern Ireland.
Over a seven-month period, the Committee heard more than 16 hours of oral evidence and questioned 60 individuals representing around 30 organisations. Almost 70 written submissions were considered from a wide variety of individuals and organisations in Northern Ireland and further afield.
The Committee visited Scotland and the Republic of Ireland to learn from their experience, and we are grateful to all of those who helped with the inquiry, including those who gave oral or written evidence and those whom we met during our visits. I wish to acknowledge and thank the Committee staff and our researcher for their work throughout the inquiry. I particularly want to put on record my sincere appreciation of the sheer courage and commitment of those bereaved families who shared their intimate experiences and first-hand knowledge of living with the horrific consequences of suicide.
The suicide strategy ‘Protect Life: A Shared Vision’ is relatively new, and was published in October 2006. The Committee’s overall conclusion is that that strategy was developed after very extensive consultation and involvement, and represents a major step forward in an effort to reduce the needless loss of life through suicide.
The current approach to dealing with the issue can be divided into three parts: working to prevent suicide; dealing with attempted or completed suicides; and providing support and services to bereaved families in the aftermath of a completed suicide. The emphasis on prevention is certainly the right approach.
During the Committee’s visit to Scotland, the challenge was very well described. It was compared to a person in a river who is approaching a waterfall — how much better and easier it was to rescue them further upstream, before they reached the edge. In its submissions, the Northern Ireland Association for Mental Health (NIAMH), referred to the work of Professor Aaron Antonovsky, who took that analogy one step further. He questioned the emphasis on saving swimmers who are drowning downstream by heroic measures, rather than asking who or what pushed them into the river in the first place.
The many factors that can lead someone to consider suicide or cause them to seriously self-harm must be examined, and those issues must be tackled at source. It is also essential to put in place the necessary contract support and services to help people to cope if they reach the point of contemplating suicide.
Although the current approach is on the right lines and in keeping with international good practice, the Committee has identified a number of areas where it believes that the strategy can be strengthened and enhanced. Those matters are set out in the 26 recommendations that are contained in the report. I will not be able to deal with all of those recommendations in the time available, so I shall concentrate on a number of them. I am sure that members of the Committee will wish to highlight other issues.
Suicide is not just a health issue; it is an issue for wider society, and it cannot be addressed from a health perspective alone. Although the Health Minister must take the lead, the Committee accepts that it is not solely a matter for the Health Department. All other Departments have a role to play, and we are calling on them for a greater commitment and involvement — that is why many recommendations are aimed at other Ministers, and why the motion before the Assembly is aimed at the Executive.
We recognise that a number of other Departments are involved at present. For example, four other Departments are represented on the suicide strategy implementation body: Education (DE); Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD); Employment and Learning (DEL); and Social Development (DSD).
We welcome the establishment last year of the ministerial co-ordination group on suicide prevention. However, aside from the Department of Health, only the Education Minister and the junior Ministers are involved. I have some concern about the workings of that group. Membership of the group is the first issue; I want to ask the Minister whether he has taken on board the Committee’s request that the Minister for Employment and Learning be included on it.
Secondly, the group meets very infrequently. I understand that, to date, it has met on only three occasions, the most recent meeting having taken place in October 2007. That does not show a very deep commitment to cross-departmental working. Thirdly, the terms of reference indicate that the group is required to identify and agree a draft action plan for discussion at Executive level. The Committee believes that the Executive now have an opportunity to consider how the role of the ministerial group can be further developed and to ensure a greater commitment and involvement by all Departments.
The Committee examined the strategic approach set out in the Protect Life document and notes that it entails a two-pronged approach. It involves a targeting of the general population and a focus on specific priority groups. The Committee supports that overall approach but believes that the identified priority groups must be examined and redefined to include older people and those living in rural areas.
Age Concern told the Committee that, sadly, suicide and self-harm are also significant issues in later life. Others highlighted the difficulties faced in rural areas, with farmers and farm workers identified as being a high-risk group. It has been argued before the Committee that there is often a greater stigma in rural communities about mental-health problems. People in rural areas can also find it difficult to access suitable services in their areas.
The Committee believes that the structure for the implementation of the strategy can, and should, be strengthened and improved. The Committee’s main concern is that the current structure lacks an easily identifiable, dedicated organisation to manage and act as a central focus for implementation of the strategy. It relies on the suicide strategy implementation body (SSIB) carrying out that function. The SSIB performs a vital role in bringing together the many diverse stakeholders and helping to develop policies that must continue. However, the SSIB has more than 40 members and meets periodically, and it cannot provide that central management focus and point of contact on a daily basis.
The Committee is calling on the Minister to establish a designated suicide prevention directorate, along similar lines to the National Office for Suicide Prevention in the Republic of Ireland. The Committee believes that a dedicated suicide director and team would provide a direct central contact point for all stakeholders. It would help to build a higher degree of expertise and experience in planning and delivering the strategy. The Committee proposes that that directorate should form part of the proposed new regional public health agency. Linked to that directorate, the Committee is calling for a dedicated Protect Life website, which would be a key central resource and information point.
The Committee also examined the level of stakeholder involvement. I referred earlier to the SSIB, which comprises 40 stakeholders; that clearly represents widespread participation and involvement. However, the Committee believes that that aspect can be further strengthened and improved. We identified three major sectors that are either not involved in the SSIB or not as involved as they should be — Churches, local authorities and sports bodies. We are pleased that the leaders of the four main Churches in Northern Ireland came to give evidence to the Committee, and we welcome their commitment to playing their full part in addressing the issues of suicide and self-harm.
Members of the clergy have a fundamental role in dealing with people who might be contemplating suicide — they are, after all, among the first to be called on when someone takes his or her own life. They are deeply involved in caring for bereaved families in the aftermath of a suicide. I understand that the Churches are now represented on the SSIB, and that role could be developed and improved.
Local authorities assured the Committee that they are keen to be involved in the ongoing development and delivery of the strategy but that they have not been so involved to date. Some have taken significant action on the issue of suicide in their areas. The chief executive of the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA) summed up the overall situation when she told the Committee:
“some local authorities are doing a lot; others are doing something, while some are not doing anything.”
Local authorities must, as a matter of urgency, be fully and directly involved in the SSIB and the delivery of the strategy.
Sports bodies were the third stakeholder gap that was identified. The Committee heard compelling evidence about the positive role that exercise and sport play in combating stress, anxiety and depression, and has made a recommendation in relation to that. Again, however, we are disappointed that Sport Northern Ireland and the main sports bodies have not had any direct involvement in the development and delivery of the strategy, and that must be addressed. The Committee strongly recommends the Scottish model of involving sports icons and using major sporting occasions to raise awareness of the issue of suicide and to encourage young people, particularly young men, to seek help.
The Committee’s greatest concern about the strategy is that, 18 months after it was introduced, the planned review and evaluation of its key elements have not been carried out. The element of the strategy that gave most cause for concern was the decision by the Minister, at the end of January, to expand the pilot telephone helpline in north and west Belfast into a regional helpline without having evaluated the pilot exercise. Several community groups were concerned and critical about that development. A telephone helpline is an essential part of the strategy, but it must be able to cope with the expected number of calls and be supported by adequate and appropriate services. The Committee concluded that the Minister’s decision on that issue was rushed and premature.
Four issues should have been addressed before the helpline was expanded. First, a robust evaluation of the pilot exercise in north and west Belfast should have been undertaken in order to learn from that experience. Representatives of community groups and bereaved families had concerns about weaknesses that were identified during the pilot exercise and which should have been addressed before it was expanded.
Secondly, there should have been a detailed assessment of whether there are sufficient referral and support services to deal with the expected volume of calls. Thirdly, the Samaritans, which has an unrivalled reputation for care and compassion in dealing with people who may be experiencing despair, distress or suicidal feelings, and which has been working in that field for more than 50 years, expressed concerns about a possible duplication of services. Detailed discussions should take place with the Samaritans, and both helplines should work in close partnership.
Finally, the need for a helpline that is accessible to young people through mobile phones and other modern media should be considered.
Mr Speaker: The Member’s time is almost up.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety: The Breathing Space helpline in Scotland is supported by all the major mobile phone providers there, and similar arrangements and support should be allowed in Northern Ireland.
Ms Ní Chuilín: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom tacaíocht a thabhairt don rún.
I support the Committee’s motion; and, as a soon-to-be former member of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety, I express my gratitude and pride at having been involved in this inquiry, which is a fundamental piece of work.
I acknowledge the commitment and diligence of the Committee staff, the principal researcher, Research and Library Services, and the many witnesses who appeared before the Committee.
In particular, I pay tribute to the families and friends of those who have been bereaved through suicide and who gave evidence to the Committee and shared their experiences of the grief of losing loved ones through suicide. Given that they, more than most, live every day with the aftermath of suicide, we must therefore take on board their recommendations about how to improve services to families and those who are at risk of suicide and self-harm.
As Iris Robinson said, the report contains 26 recommendations, which are structured under the following headings: strategic approach; stakeholder involvement; services and support; experience elsewhere; and other issues. The report’s findings are crucial in determining how the Minister, the Executive and, hopefully, the ministerial subgroup will implement the recommendations and how they will be translated into priorities for action. As the Chairperson pointed out, suicide is not solely a health issue — it is everyone’s business.
We are fortunate to have the Protect Life suicide-prevention strategy. However, it has become obvious that it must be reviewed and redefined in that we must ensure that it includes older people and people who live in rural communities.
There is a huge concern that the current structure lacks a dedicated team to manage and direct the strategy. The Minister must consider strongly the appointment of a suicide-prevention director as part of the proposed new regional public-health authority. The need for a director was borne out by the lack of any robust monitoring or evaluation of the Protect Life strategy. Although the arrangements for a review have been placed firmly in the strategy, they could have been actioned by a director. Furthermore, we must ensure that funding for the Protect Life strategy is ring-fenced for several years, as the constant insecurity and uncertainty about the future of funding for groups and services must end. The Committee recommended that funding be extended to cover three years, rather than being granted in one-year cycles.
We welcome the establishment of the ministerial subgroup, which is chaired by the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, and we commend the Minister of Education for introducing independent counselling and support services in post-primary schools. However, those services should be extended to all schools, as early opportunities for raising awareness and for providing coping skills, talking therapies and, above all, intervention, will no doubt increase people’s emotional well-being and promote good mental health.
The Committee was disappointed that Sport NI and other sporting bodies have not been involved directly in the development or implementation of the Protect Life strategy. As the Chairperson said, the main sporting bodies in Scotland have used sporting icons to promote good mental health and to encourage young people, particularly young men, to seek help. Perhaps the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure could work with the ministerial subgroup to find a way to close that gap. Training and awareness-raising programmes such as applied suicide intervention skills training (ASIST) should be incorporated into the strategy.
During the Committee evidence sessions, it became apparent that a major concern related to the hastiness of the decision to extend the pilot helpline in north and west Belfast into a regional helpline. Issues that were not taken into consideration included the lack of evaluation, assessment and consideration about backup services and support, and the inadequate consultation with groups that are working daily to prevent suicide and self-harm. A robust monitoring and evaluation process should have been carried out before the launch of the regional helpline and before any other mental-health support services are highlighted in a high-profile public campaign.
I support the motion, and I hope that the Minister will put the recommendations into action. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr McCallister: I thank my colleagues on the Health Committee for producing the report, and I thank the Committee staff for their support. I also reiterate the Chairperson’s words of thanks to everyone who took the time to give evidence.
The report is an example of how a Committee can contribute constructively to the work of a Government Department. Suicide and self-harm are two of the most serious and difficult problems faced by society. In recent years, the suicide rate has soared, and, although the 2007 figures show a decrease, Members will agree that any suicide is a tragedy that has far-reaching and damaging effects for family, friends and people with mental-health issues.
I acknowledge the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety’s Protect Life strategy and recognise the Minister’s hard work with other Departments and the community sector to reduce suicide rates by providing services and support for some of the most vulnerable people in society. However, this report, in conjunction with the recommendations in the ‘Bamford Review of Mental Health and Learning Disability (Northern Ireland)’ provides a unique tool to help the Minister evaluate and improve upon the progress that has already been made.
Mental-health problems and suicide are complex issues. The pressures of modern life can be overwhelming, and people who have limited social support, coping skills or poor mental health can become a suicide risk. Substance and alcohol abuse, social deprivation, and rural isolation are also factors. Suicide prevention is the responsibility of everyone in society, and we must adopt a holistic and integrated approach.
Although the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety has taken the lead on this issue, all Departments must work together to tackle that multifaceted problem. Therefore, I welcome the establishment of the ministerial co-ordination group on suicide prevention.
It is recognised that certain groups in society are at greater risk than others; young men aged 14 to 25 are high risk. However, we must focus our attention on all people who suffer from mental-health problems and who can become suicidal. More preventative action must be taken or we will be in danger of employing ourselves in crisis management. There is, for example, a great need for the development of coping skills and individual development at a young age. The development of such life skills must happen at primary and post-primary school level. The Minister of Education has a responsibility in that area, and, in consultation with the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety more can be done.
I welcome the Committee’s report, specifically the recognition that people from rural areas are at risk; suicide and self-harm is often considered an urban problem. However, many stresses exist in rural communities, and individuals are not given the attention that they require. Similarly, services and help are often not as readily available in remote areas. Older people can also be ignored in relevant strategies, and more must be done to make available to them the services that can help.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClarty] in the Chair)
I commend the work of the community and voluntary sector. However, there is a warranted concern, because charities and financially vulnerable groups receive funding annually. I understand that the Minister has been constrained by a limited budget. We must do more to guarantee the future of those groups, and I welcome the Minister’s recent —
Ms S Ramsey: Will the Member agree that the motion calls on the Executive to introduce a time-bound programme to implement the recommendations outlined in the report? Although the Committee recognises that there are budgetary issues, that should not hinder delivery on the recommendations.
Mr McCallister: I thank Ms Ramsey for that intervention. I agree, and I support Ms Ní Chuilín’s earlier point that funding must be cyclical. It should be delivered on a minimum three-yearly cycle. Groups that receive annual funding spend an immeasurable amount of time trying to secure funding for the next year.
The report highlights the need to take a more holistic and strategic approach to suicide and mental-health issues in Northern Ireland. The Minister has done a great deal of good work on the matter, and the report should be considered as an aid to his attempts to build on what has already been achieved.
I know what you are going to tell me, Mr Deputy Speaker, so to conclude, I commend the report as an excellent piece of work, and I support the motion.
Mr Gallagher: Many people have put a great deal of time and effort into the publication of the report. I thank the Chairperson, the Deputy Chairperson, my Committee colleagues, the Committee’s support staff, and, in particular, all those who responded to the inquiry either through written submissions or by participation in the hearings.
The report is intended to build on the Protect Life strategy. It is a detailed report that has been compiled against a background of growing suicide rates in Northern Ireland and a worrying increase in the number of incidents of self-harm. The report contains contributions from bereaved families who are trying to cope with their grief. They express anger about the absence of suitable referral services at those times that they were experiencing difficulties.
The evidence from a range of sources shows that suicide rates have been increasing. Victims come from across the age spectrum, from the quite young to the very old, and they come from both urban and rural areas. Presentations were made at the evidence sessions by psychiatrists, GPs, representatives of the Churches, local authorities, and voluntary and community organisations, all of whom had strong messages for the Committee.
Assistance for the bereaved is often poor or non-existent, as are the back-up services for those who self-harm. That is despite the fact that 51% of suicide victims will have self-harmed previously. As other Members said, the issue of resources was mentioned repeatedly in the evidence sessions, as were the need for better referral services and the lack of patient facilities for adolescents with serious mental-health problems.
The Committee agreed that the provision of specialist 24-hour support services at every accident and emergency unit for those with suicidal or self-harming tendencies was essential in any new strategy. Many community and voluntary organisations told the Committee that their work was constrained because they were funded on a year-to-year basis. John McCallister mentioned that a strong case was made for programmes to be funded on a three- or five-year basis.
The Committee heard about the strong link that exists between alcohol and substance abuse and mental-health problems. The experts confirmed that 50% of self-harm incidents involved either alcohol or drugs. That being the case, we cannot ignore the easy availability of alcohol to young people and the tendency towards binge drinking. The importance of education in promoting good mental health and providing young people with coping skills was also raised.
Although the Department of Education has taken some steps towards introducing counselling services, much more needs to be done. Counselling services should be available in all primary and secondary schools, and considerable resources must be invested to back them up. The people who deliver those services must be trained properly and must have the necessary resources available to them.
As we know, many matters require resources. However, given the devastating consequences of suicide and self-harm for individuals, their families and their friends — and given that that terrible problem is increasing — this issue must be prioritised if we are to build a humane society.
Dr Deeny: I am delighted to take part in this debate on the awful scourge of suicide as a member of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety, and I am proud and honoured to have had the privilege of working on the Committee’s detailed report. I also speak as a GP who has had to deal with suicide and its awful aftermath. Suicide is very much a family disease, because families often suffer the effects of a suicide for many years afterwards. Often, they never fully recover.
Much hard work went into producing the report, and I wish to thank the Committee Clerk, his team and our researcher, as well as my fellow Health Committee members. I reiterate what the Chairperson, Mrs Robinson, said about suicide being a societal problem. We need the support of wider society in order to deal with the awful disease of suicide. I welcome the Health Minister’s presence for the debate.
Although we health professionals will take the lead in dealing with the serious issue of suicide, we must have community support. I say that because I have experience of such situations, and although many people who take their own lives have serious mental-health disorders, such as depression, others do not. Some people who take their own lives are not clinically depressed, and neither their families nor health professionals considered them to have a mental-health problem. However, because of a life event that they deemed a life crisis, they felt that they should take their own lives. That is an important point.
I recall dealing with two recent incidents in which young men took their own lives. Both of those suicides were caused by relationship break-ups. Neither their families nor we, their GPs, knew about their difficulties. That problem relates to a lack of coping skills — an issue that has already been mentioned. Education can help people to deal with hardship. Although I do not wish to judge the younger generation, it seems that the more affluent we become, the less able we are to deal with hardship, and the fewer coping skills we have. Although some Members might consider something a life event, a young person might consider it a life crisis, out of which he or she can see no way.
I wish to make four points about the recommendations. First, as has been mentioned, the Department — albeit with good intentions — moved too quickly to extend the north and west Belfast pilot Lifeline scheme. Nonetheless, that helpline represents the way forward. We all make mistakes sometimes through haste, although our motives were right.
I like the name Lifeline, which is well known and well recognised. I do not know what the scheme’s phone number is, but I understand that it is long. I would prefer it to be a three- or four-digit number that is easily remembered, because when people are in despair, they cannot remember an eight- or nine-digit phone number. An easily remembered number, such as 444, might be better.
As a GP, I recognise that someone who has not previously suffered a mental-health condition can go through a vulnerable period. The Committee saw a wonderful facility outside Dublin, Pieta House, to which people can refer themselves — or they may be immediately referred by relatives, accident-and-emergency departments, the police or health professionals. That immediate referral is important, because we must reach people during that vulnerable period. There is no point in people waiting until they see their GP or can get a referral to a psychiatric outpatient unit — that simply takes too long, and they might take their own lives in the meantime.
Secondly, I am delighted that the Minister is in the Chamber, because I would like him to make a commitment on talking therapies. My fellow GPs and I find it frustrating to have to prescribe antidepressants because our patients have to wait for a year for talking therapies, such as cognitive behavioural therapy, and I admit that I have done that. Such therapies must have support and resources.
Thirdly, I am very interested in the benefits of sport and exercise. The Minister will see the Committee’s proposals on that. I played a part in drawing up those recommendations, and my fellow GPs will support them. Provided that they can select the appropriate patients, there is no reason why GPs in Northern Ireland should not prescribe sport for people with mental-health problems — it really helps. I have seen that for myself in the case of a patient of mine who suffers from depression and who attended my surgery on Friday. He goes to the local leisure centre.
One month’s membership of a leisure centre is not too expensive compared to the cost of very expensive drugs, and it really does work. Doctors have to lift and encourage people to get them to that level of motivation; that is our job.
Finally, I would like to hear the Health Minister giving his commitment to support health professionals, including myself and my colleagues, who are exposed to dreadful scenes when dealing with this issue. It is important that we are supported by the Minister and the Department.
Mr Easton: I know that all Members will welcome the Committee’s ‘Report on the Inquiry into the Prevention of Suicide and Self Harm’. I praise the Chairperson and Committee members for their work, especially the Committee Clerk and staff who spent long hours working on the report.
In this matter, the Committee was responding to support families and communities that have been devastated by the pain and suffering caused through the loss of loved ones through suicide. The Committee was recognising the need for a comprehensive strategy, made imperative by the scale of the problem across Northern Ireland.
Like many investigations, we found that the results confirmed what we already knew. However, those results did bring specific areas of required action into sharper focus. The report enables us to identify and prioritise the steps to be taken and establishes the structures and resources needed to tackle a problem that affects us all.
In particular, we must recognise the need for a multifaceted approach involving all Government Departments and community agencies. Close co-operation by community groups, churches, youth organisations, medical practitioners and outreach workers is vital. It is that close co-operation and communication that will help us to develop strategies that identify those at risk and provide the best possible response and targeting of resources.
We can learn a great deal from other jurisdictions, including Scotland, which has a similar demographic and social structure to Northern Ireland. Adequate funding that is sustained and ring-fenced for a determined period is vital so that a full range of support systems can be put in place for a defined period and so that we can evaluate the effectiveness of our response over time.
Our plans for local areas must acknowledge the different needs of rural and urban communities and include well-resourced suicide helplines and walk-in centres, so that those at risk can find help close at hand. The Committee visited a similar walk-in centre, Pieta House in Dublin, and I would highly recommend it as a good example of that service.
Dedicated drug and alcohol clinics need to be established across the Province. Those clinics should use and build on the expertise and experience of local people who have been dealing with vulnerable people over many years, often without recognition or adequate support.
A joined-up approach that engages the expertise and resources of all Government Departments, the PSNI, the media, and the communities we serve, is absolutely vital. Time is of the essence; another suicide is one too many. We recognise that our young people, living in these difficult and dangerous times, face pressure on all sides and from different issues. We must let them know through the actions that we take and by the support we put in place that they matter to us as people and individuals. I support the motion.
Mr Deputy Speaker: I remind Members to switch off their mobile phones as the sound system is experiencing interference.
Ms S Ramsey: Go raibh maith agat. I support the motion. It is a pity that members of the Committee, after months of hard work in bringing the report to this stage, get only five minutes to speak in the debate. I take on board that there is a need for a time limit, but there are a lot of things that most, if not all of us, would want to say.
As others have said, around 195 people take their lives each year, and 4,500 people are admitted to hospital following an attempt at suicide or self-harming. We need to take on board that those numbers are not just statistics, they are human beings, and their family members are part of our community.
I welcome the suicide prevention strategy that other Members have spoken about. However, we must ask whether that strategy is working, because statistics seem to suggest that it is not. A number of issues emerged during the Committee’s inquiry, including the recognition that a one-size-fits-all solution will not work. Various groups and organisations that gave evidence to the Committee called for the strategy to be refined to take into account the risk of suicide among older people and those living in rural communities. Age Concern stated that:
“Depression is the leading cause of suicide in older people...Other risk factors include sleep problems such as insomnia, and alcohol consumption, particularly for men.”
The Rural Community Network informed the Committee that farmers and farm workers have been identified as a high risk group for stress, depression and suicide.
I welcome the Minister’s personal commitment to tackling suicide and self-harm. I know that he received a copy of the embargoed report so I hope that he will update us on his position regarding the 26 recommendations. According to the British Medical Association (BMA), evidence shows that social changes are required to reduce the number of suicides. Those changes could include increasing the price of alcohol. That would reduce the harm caused by excessive use of alcohol, particularly among vulnerable groups. Indeed, the Minister made a statement on alcohol and drug misuse last week. However, as I said to John McCallister, the Committee accepts that this is not solely a health issue — the Executive, as a whole, have a part in play.
One of the main recommendations that other Members have spoken about is long-term and ring-fenced funding. That issue was raised repeatedly during our inquiry, and a number of groups expressed grave concern about the level of funding and the uncertainty surrounding it. Michael Doherty from the West Belfast Suicide Awareness and Support Group told the Committee:
“When the strategy was first launched, people lauded it and the additional money that came with it. However, funding has been totally inadequate, as well as the manner in which it has been handled.”
Philip McTaggart from the Public Initiative for the Prevention of Suicide and Self-harm (PIPS) told the Committee:
“I constantly hear about £3 million that is being invested in suicide prevention. However, the real figure for the money that goes to work on the ground is only £1·3 million.”
We must establish which figures are correct. I would welcome an update from the Minister on that because those are the concerns of people who are working at the sharp end of suicide prevention. There is a big problem if such people have difficulty finding out information and accessing funding.
I commend the families and people in the community and voluntary sector who have been involved in the inquiry. Their commitment to trying to prevent suicide and self-harm, whether directly or indirectly, has been particularly significant. They should take credit because, without their hard work, suicide figures would be higher. As Caral Ní Chuilín has done, I also welcome the ministerial subgroup’s involvement. There are a number of issues that the Committee will raise with the Minister over time.
It is important to quote one of the families that has been affected by suicide and self-harm. Bobby Cosgrove from the Families Forum told the Committee:
“We do not come at this issue from a professional background; the only hidden agendas that we have are lying in the graves. That is where we are coming from. With our hearts and souls, we want to help people through what we went through and to try to make life easier for them. We see the horrors that are happening, and we believe that we can make an impact.”
As the motion states, I hope that a programme will be produced to implement the recommendations before the summer recess. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr Buchanan: I, too, support the motion as a member of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety. I call on all Members to rally behind the Committee and lend their support to this important matter. As other Members have said, I thank everyone who participated in the debate on the prevention of suicide and self-harm that has brought us to this point. Given the detail in the report, it is unfortunate that we have been limited to such a short time in which to set the scene and to present the issues.
The number of suicides across Northern Ireland has been increasing in recent years. As Sue Ramsey mentioned, current figures reveal that 195 people take their own lives each year. That plunges families into unexpected grief and sorrow and leaves many questions unanswered.
Moreover, some 4,500 people are annually admitted to hospital, having either attempted suicide or inflicted serious injury on themselves as a result of deliberate self-harm. It is important, therefore, to recognise that suicide is neither an illness nor a condition but a final act to which many complex issues can contribute. Evidence shows that no single reason explains why someone takes his or her life. In taking evidence, the Health Committee learned that the factors linked to suicide are manifold: social pressures; low self-esteem; lack of opportunities; limited educational and employment opportunities; limited access to mental-health support; lack of communication; the impact of bullying; physical or sexual abuse; drug and alcohol misuse; and long-term medical conditions. All those issues must be tackled adequately.
Suicide affects people from all walks of life: the young and old; the rich and poor; and those from urban and rural areas. Joined-up work at Government level is required, as is ongoing engagement with all primary stakeholders, particularly bereaved families. Although the Committee recognises the development of the ‘Protect Life: A Shared Vision — The Northern Ireland Suicide Prevention Strategy and Action Plan 2006-2011’ as a major step forward in the battle to reduce incidences of suicide in Northern Ireland, its members nevertheless believe that the strategy must be strengthened and redefined to include other priority groups. It must form part of a holistic approach and have a clear strategy, based on the Bamford Review’s recommendations and the Committee recommendations.
At the start of our inquiry, bereaved families’ representatives argued that lost opportunities at accident and emergency departments can be fatal, especially for those with alcohol and drug problems, who are six times more likely to commit suicide. Representatives called for a place of safety, or a chill-out room, to be provided at all accident and emergency departments until those who present with self-harm and suicidal tendencies can be properly assessed. That is one way in which to deal with the plight of people in rural areas, who so often feel isolated, with nowhere to go and no one to talk to. Kieran Deeny mentioned talking therapies, which is another measure that must be considered urgently. Like all other constituencies, West Tyrone has suffered from deaths through suicide. All its bereaved families are pleading for help, and ask what help and support is available for those who are left behind.
I hope that this report, which makes 26 recommendations, will see the dawning of a new day for those who suffer from depression and suicidal tendencies. I call on the Executive to announce a time frame for the implementation of the recommendations, as stated in the motion.
Mr Beggs: This debate is an example of how an Assembly Committee can make a reasoned, useful contribution to policy formation on a matter of significant public interest.
Suicide is both a personal and a family tragedy. In September 2007, the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety said:
“the onus is on us all, communities, voluntary organisations, the media, the statutory sector and society as a whole, to work together to achieve a reduction in our suicide rate.”
We all share a social responsibility to address the issue of suicide. The Committee’s report reflects the Minister’s call. The report recognises the role in suicide prevention of families, community groups, educational institutions, Churches and faith communities, sporting bodies and local authorities. It properly recognises that although Government have a crucial role to play, they do not hold the full answer. We all have an obligation to promote a culture of life.
The report states:
“The situation in Northern Ireland is congruent with the wider global trend of a growing number of people dying by suicide in almost every region of the world.”
That is a sad and significant comment, and it is a sad reflection on society and the modern world in which we live. However, it is not an excuse for inaction by society. The report states:
“the number of registered suicides in Northern Ireland has effectively doubled since 2004.”
Everyone — especially parents of teenage children — should be concerned about that. Teenage boys are considered to be at a higher risk of suicide.
There are many ways in which to measure a society’s progress, including its political stability, economic growth, and the way in which it treats its most vulnerable. However, society can also be judged by the strength of its commitment to preventing suicide, because the manner in which it does that demonstrates respect for human dignity and a determination to secure opportunity and equality for all.
I welcome the fact that the report highlights the need to focus on all people in society, not only those who are perceived to be high risk. The young and the old, those who live in rural and urban settings, and those who come from different socio-economic backgrounds must be given the support and help that they need to ensure good mental health. That diversity highlights the need to continue to develop a comprehensive, flexible and strategic policy that will address differing circumstances effectively.
There is a need for all Departments to tackle this issue. I commend the families who have come together to set up such organisations as Families Forum. The Minister should consider the invaluable insight, knowledge and commitment that they have channelled towards helping others — as did the Health Committee in its inquiry.
The report highlights the importance of the introduction of an independent counselling support service in post-primary schools, and I echo to the Minister of Education the call to extend that service to the primary sector as soon as possible. Available evidence suggests that early-years intervention on a number of issues is critical, proactive and preventative. The approach to good mental health should be no different. The emotional health and well-being programme should be extended to the primary-school sector as soon as possible. The complexity of children’s emotional development can often be sidelined and forgotten when their cases are being dealt with, and that must be addressed.
There has been much discussion in the media about Internet sites that promote suicides. I commend the Health Minister for his action in that area. As a society, we must listen more, and we must also facilitate the community and voluntary groups and health professionals who seek to help people with mental-health issues. It is important that adequate funding and a policy framework be in place to allow the community and voluntary groups and health professionals to help the vulnerable in society.
I commend the motion, and I look forward to the Departments and trusts implementing the recommendations to help those in greatest need.
Mr A Maginness: I am not a member of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety, but I have read the report — albeit not as fully as I would have liked. I welcome the report and the work of the Committee, and I commend the Chairperson and Committee members for producing it. The report is useful for someone such as me, who, for a number of reasons, is interested in the subject. I am particularly interested in this matter because North Belfast has one of the highest incidences of suicide and self-harm in Northern Ireland.
One of the main predictors of suicide is self-harm, and those rates are at an alarmingly high level. There have been 4,500 hospital admissions relating to self-harm in the past year.
That indicates that there is a great deal of potential for suicide in our society. The medical evidence quite convincingly indicates that those who self-harm are potentially suicidal. Many of those people are simply crying out for help. It is, therefore, important that we create a strategy that focuses on that link.
I am delighted that the report notes the work of the Mater Hospital, which is pre-eminent in dealing with psychiatric problems in the greater Belfast area. It has a team that concentrates to a large extent on those who have, unfortunately, self-harmed. I note that the member of the team who gave evidence, Dr Philip McGarry — a former Belfast City Council colleague of mine — emphasised that the unit in the Mater Hospital is only temporary.
Given the considerable success that that team has had with those who have self-harmed, I appeal to the Minister — and, indeed, plead with him — to consider making its funding permanent. The team provides follow-up help for a short period after an incident of self-harm, as well as active and intensive support, and it has produced encouraging results with those who have self-harmed. As I said, it is a temporary project, but it is producing work of a very high standard.
I also highlight the fact that 10% of those who self-harm are adolescents. That is an appalling statistic, equating to almost 500 young people who have been affected by self-harming and who are potentially suicidal.
One of the other points that Dr McGarry — among others — emphasised was the prevalence of alcohol abuse and its influence in creating situations in which people self-harm. Without alcohol, it is probable that those people would not self-harm. Dr McGarry emphasised the need for a more comprehensive approach to alcohol that would include dealing with its relatively low cost, its availability, alcohol brands sponsoring sporting events, and its being advertised as a glamorous product that makes troubles disappear. We know that that does not happen and that alcohol compounds a person’s troubles.
My final point relates to the use of cannabis. There is a high level of cannabis use in many parts of Belfast, particularly in my constituency. There is a culture of tolerance towards it and a belief — especially among young people — that it is not harmful. It is harmful, and we should, therefore, take a censorious and hostile view of its use.
Ms Anderson: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Although I am not a member of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety, I support the motion, and I welcome the fact that the Committee tabled it.
It is difficult to imagine an issue that exists in today’s Ireland that is more compelling than that of people taking their own lives. Last year, almost 300 — mostly young — people from across the North ended their lives. That is a rate of almost one a day. On the island as a whole, more people commit suicide than die on our roads. That represents a loss of life on an almost unimaginable scale. In my constituency of Foyle, I have spent too many days visiting homes where families have been literally torn apart by the devastation of suicide. There are no words of comfort that I, or anyone else, can offer to a mother, father, brother or sister whose entire world has collapsed in the wake of their loved one having committed suicide. No family should have to endure such trauma and heartache.
As a society, we need to examine what we are doing for today’s young people. What world are we leaving for them? We all know that it is a world of cut-throat, competitive pursuits. Furthermore, it is a world that is based on inequality and materialism, with communities plagued by drug pushers who are peddling poisonous substances into young minds.
When faced with suicide, we need to be careful not to fall into the trap of reducing the circumstances to the individual trauma. We must be sure not to dislocate the relationship between individual suffering and the societal context that gives rise to it. That is why it is good to note the cross-departmental recommendations in the Committee’s report.
We all have to do something about suicide. A serious problem exists in the under-provision of psychiatric and community services for children, adolescents and young people in the North. There is a clear need for help and support for families and others living with someone who is struggling and who may be contemplating taking his or her own life, self-harming, or suffering from mental illness. The Committee’s report highlights that, and has addressed such issues quite well.
The recommendations in the report highlight many of the problems that must be addressed if we are to have a serious impact on the issue. In particular, there is a lack of follow-up care and assessment for those who self-harm and are at risk of suicide. I recently attended a meeting with a number of groups that are involved in suicide prevention in the Derry area. One of the groups was Foyle Search and Rescue, which has conducted incredible work over the years saving countless lives. I was stunned to learn that there is often little follow-up care for the people whom Foyle Search and Rescue save. I can only imagine the frustration felt by its dedicated volunteers when they see a person whom they have saved, and whom they know is at risk of suicide, being released from hospital a few hours later, with little or no aftercare.
Such gaps in services must be addressed by the entire Executive. Greater access to treatment and therapies for people with anxiety and depression disorders is also required. ASIST programmes should be rolled out as widely as possible, and the concerns about the regional suicide helpline need to be addressed by the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. That has been articulated in many contributions today.
The recommendations of the report will help to address all such issues and more. I urge all Members to support the motion and all the recommendations, and I hope that we will see a programme of work and follow-up action as a result. Of all the responsibilities that we have been entrusted with as public servants, none is greater than our responsibility to protect life. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr Irwin: I welcome the opportunity to show my support for the Committee’s report on its inquiry into the prevention of suicide and self-harm.
Suicide has been a major source of concern in Northern Ireland for many years. Recent statistics show that, unfortunately, it has become more prevalent. Indeed, it is a major issue in my constituency.
We are all familiar with the village of Laurelvale, which is close to Tandragee in County Armagh. It is a pleasant, small village, which is home to many young people. Last year, it was, unfortunately, in the national news following a harrowing spate of suicides. The tragic deaths of four young men, who should be enjoying life to the full, shocked the rural community to the core. Our thoughts are still with their families.
There was a similar story in my home village of Richhill, which is a small, quiet rural village that is only a few miles from Laurelvale. The only difference was that the age range was more varied. Young, old and middle-aged men and women took their own lives. It is a sad story.
Families try to draw conclusions and attempt to reason why such tragedies occur. Based on comments following such incidents, the common theme is that it is very difficult to detect whether a person is having suicidal thoughts. How often have we heard that people did not see any signs that a suicide might occur?
The research in the report refers to the need for an increased roll-out of the ASIST programme. The report highlights how far we still have to go in order to get to grips with the problem. Four suicides in one small village — in such quick succession — are very difficult to understand. It was devastating for the area concerned.
I welcome the report as an attempt to redouble efforts to deal with this difficult issue. A big obstacle in reducing suicide rates will be the ability to detect any signs that such a course of action is being contemplated. I welcome the call for a designated suicide prevention directorate. Those in key positions — such as schoolteachers, nurses, doctors and members of the clergy — must be better equipped to spot any signs and must be able to intervene, using the correct procedures. The right services must exist in order to help the people concerned.
I welcome recommendation 21, which refers to responsible media reporting. After the Laurelvale tragedy, media reports referred to a “suicide pact list”. That turned out to be false, but it was deeply disturbing and unsettling for an already grieving community, and it should not have been reported.
We have a long way to go, but I welcome the report as a significant step in the right direction. I ask the Minister to give his full commitment to implementing the recommendations as soon as possible.
Mr D Bradley: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Fáiltím roimh an tuairisc chuimsitheach seo, agus tréaslaím leis an Choiste Sláinte as í a chur le chéile.
I welcome the report, and I congratulate the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety on the work that has been done in compiling a comprehensive document.
From my experience of teaching, I know that many post-primary schools and some primary schools have developed programmes of social and personal development and life skills. Those programmes are delivered to pupils through the schools’ pastoral systems of year heads and form teachers. Social and personal development and life skills programmes have had a positive influence in developing the emotional health and well-being of pupils.
Although those programmes are not solely devoted to developing emotional health and well-being, they usually contain a number of useful units that deal with emotional awareness and help young people to learn how to deal with negative thoughts and strong emotions.
Health education is another area of the curriculum in which to deal with emotional health and well-being. Traditionally, health has been largely considered in physical terms, and, to some extent, the issue of emotional health and well-being has been ignored. It is now time to expand our vision and change that outlook.
Some schools have already appointed either full-time or part-time counsellors. Such professionals have proved to be a tremendous asset to pupils during emotional hardship. Counsellors are at their most effective when working through, and as part of, the agreed referral procedure of schools’ pastoral systems.
Many schools report positively on the work of counsellors. I welcome the Department of Education’s initiative, which has introduced an independent counselling service to schools. That is a positive move, and it is reassuring that 95% of post-primary schools have accepted the offer of that service. I hope that the 5% that did not accept the offer already have their own counsellors in place or will become involved in the scheme in the future. I add my support to the report’s recommendation that the counselling service should be extended to primary education.
As with so many other issues in education, early recognition and intervention are essential in promoting emotional health and well-being. We subscribe to the notion that all children should be literate and numerate when they leave school. We should now subscribe to the belief that pupils should be moving towards emotional health and well-being from their earliest involvement in primary, post-primary, further and higher education and, indeed, on a life-long learning basis. We are not one-dimensional beings, and our education should reflect our many aspects in a holistic way.
In the report, the Children’s Commissioner said that the service should be developed in consultation with children and young people to ensure that it is designed to meet their needs.
This morning, I noted the results of a survey carried out by RTÉ and the ‘Irish Independent’ on cyber bullying, which revealed the alarming statistics that one in five teenage girls is subjected to cyber bullying. Modern life brings many challenges.
I welcome the work being undertaken by the Department of Education in developing its emotional health and well-being programme for pupils, and, as with the counselling service, agree that pupils’ views should be listened to and incorporated into that programme.
For far too long, the issues of suicide and self-harm have been shrouded in taboo and surrounded by stigma. I hope that the actions arising from the Committee’s report will enable us to face up to the situation so that it may be addressed by an effective implementation plan from the Executive. Go raibh míle maith agat.
Mr Shannon: I congratulate the Committee Chairperson, my colleague Iris Robinson, and the Committee for presenting a full and in-depth report. It is probably one of the best in-depth reports that the Assembly has debated.
Self-harm and suicide are emotive issues, and sensitivity is needed at all stages. Although the issues are separate, they are intrinsically linked because it has been shown that more than one third of the people who commit suicide have a history of self-harm. Dr Black from the British Medical Association has said that over half of the victims of suicide have self-harmed before their death. That correlation cannot be coincidence and, therefore, it makes sense that if we can reach those who self-harm, we will be able to prevent future suicides.
Self-harm, as an issue, has been covered in soap operas recently. Indeed, many young women in my constituency have come forward for help and counselling to youth facilities, such as the Link Family and Community Centre in Newtownards, after having watched such programmes. The staff in the centre are trained to deal with such situations and to counsel young people and help them to talk about their problems. The Committee report refers to the benefits that come from such programmes — and there are benefits.
It is essential that such groups are given committed funding to help them to continue with their work. I fully endorse the recommendations to ensure that funding is ring-fenced for a minimum of three years. I doubt whether there is any Member who has not been touched by the sadness of loss in his of her community through someone taking his or her own life — we all have examples of that.
The comfort that can be offered to families is limited, which begs the question as to what we can do in such a situation. The answer lies in the Committee’s report. We can implement measures and try to ensure that a support network is available to ensure that other families in the Province do not have to go through on their own the loss of a loved one through suicide.
Members have often quoted statistics. I will recount some of them. More males die as a result of suicide than in road traffic accidents, accidental falls or poisoning; more females die as a result of suicide than in road traffic accidents; and suicide rates tend to be higher in urban, rather than rural, areas.
Recently, Members debated the merits of a graduated driver licensing scheme to lessen the number of road deaths.
Therefore, it is fitting that today the Assembly should debate another problem that causes the death of young people. I fully support the report and its recommendations.
I hail from the Strangford constituency, which comprises urban and rural areas. Therefore, I am anxious to ensure that the inherently different concerns and problems of those districts are separated in order that they can be dealt with more comprehensively; the report clearly and helpfully takes that into consideration.
I wholeheartedly agree with the recommendation that DARD should ensure that crises that affect the rural community on a large scale, such as BSE or foot-and-mouth disease, are handled in a way that helps, rather than condemns, farmers. As noted in the report, the suicide rate rockets at such stressful times. On behalf of my rural constituents, I urge DARD staff, in times of crisis, to consider those who are most affected and pull together to adopt an approach that will cause less stress. It has been said that a problem shared is a problem halved, and it is, therefore, imperative that a structure be put in place to provide people with the option of counselling.
The opportunity to talk to someone is also why so many people turn directly to the Church and ministers in times of stress. I agree, therefore, that specific training should be available to the Churches to enable them to counsel those who turn to them for assistance. A link between the Churches and departmental bodies should be established to facilitate co-operation, so that people can be referred to other services when necessary.
I welcome the fact that Church leaders in Northern Ireland have expressed their commitment to tackling self-harm and suicide. In my area, many youth groups work with children from housing estates, who are more prone to self-harm. It is essential that youth workers be equipped to deal with young people who are confused, hurting and in need of help.
I do not have time to record my support for each of the report’s many recommendations, but I congratulate those who compiled it, and I wholeheartedly endorse it. I urge cross-departmental co-operation on the common objectives of lessening the incidence of self-harm and suicide in the Province and ensuring that advice and help is readily available from doctors, the Churches, youth clubs and so forth. People must know that they are loved and cared for and that someone is always available to listen to them. I support the recommendations.
Mr O’Dowd: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I too welcome the publication of the report, and I congratulate the Committee on its work on this sensitive subject. The Assembly will never be able to eradicate suicide. However, it must ensure that the rate of suicide, and its effect on families and communities, is minimised as much as possible.
Only this week, another young man — 17 years old — took his life in Lurgan, which is in my constituency. Perhaps no one will ever get to the bottom of why he reached that point; families in that situation are always left asking why. As politicians in a legislative body, our responsibility is to offer society the tools to deal with the issue, and we can empower communities to act.
The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety does not have sole responsibility. In such circumstances, the Investing for Health strategy springs to mind. The Assembly must ensure that services are spread across all Departments, whether in terms of the communities and society in which people grow up, educational resources, or support for facilities for young or elderly people. Although the majority of suicides are young people, it must be remembered that suicide affects all age groups, and the community sector must be provided with the skills and resources to enable those working with every age group to help to prevent suicide.
It is those people who do not come into contact with mental-health services who are the most marginalised, such as one young man from my community who took his life. He showed no sign that he was suffering from depression or that he felt that life was getting on top of him. To the contrary, he was a top sportsman and first-class student. Despite that, and without warning, one evening he took his life.
Schools, and the wider community —whether it be the GAA, the rugby or the cricket club, or other organisations — must be empowered and trained to spot the signals that a person is, in the crevices of their mind, suffering from a mental-health problem, and needs to talk. Especially with regard to the Irish male, who is not renowned for speaking about his feelings at any age, there is a need to ensure that that psychological barrier is broken down, so that people of whatever age — male or female — can come forward and speak to someone about their feelings, and that they do not take that dramatic step.
Much of the discussion and media concentration focuses on urban areas, such as north and west Belfast and Foyle. However, suicide is an issue that especially affects rural communities, because of isolation. One study pointed out Fermanagh and Leitrim as areas of risk, especially among single, male, farmers, who live an isolated lifestyle, working the farm, with no regular human contact. A way must be found of touching base with those people, to allow them the ability and the right to deal with the issues that affect them.
The stigma surrounding mental health has been mentioned several times today. That stigma must be removed. One’s mental health can become affected or ill, just as one’s physical health can, and, just as one would seek treatment for a bodily illness, we must ensure that mental illness is regarded in the same way. Someone suffering from a mental-health problem should not be isolated or stigmatised; it is an illness that must be treated, and people should be able to talk about it in the open and seek treatment.
I endorse the report published by the Committee. It is the beginning of a long, hard, programme for us all, and we must ensure that the necessary resources are made available to the various Departments that have to deal with the issue. I support the way ahead.
Mr McCarthy: I thank the Health Committee for bringing this detailed and important report to the Floor of the Assembly, and I commend it for its outstanding work on the issue. I know that the Committee has spoken to a wide range of bodies, both inside and outside Northern Ireland. It has recognised fundamentally that many things have an influence on mental health generally, and on suicide and self-harm prevention specifically. Given the range of evidence taken by the Committee, my party has no reservation in supporting the motion. It is important that appropriate action is taken, and that people know that it is being taken. For that reason, the call for a time frame strikes the Alliance Party as a very good way forward.
The report contains some 26 recommendations, and we hope that those are put into effect as soon as possible. One reason that suicide and self-harm present such difficulty for elected representatives is that there are so many aspects to the issue. There is no typical victim. It is sometimes uncertain whether modern technology is a cause or an effect. For every high-profile case, or set of high-profile cases, such as the recent series of suicides in Armagh, or in South Wales, there are others that one never hears about. Such problems can occur to anyone, anywhere, in any circumstance, sometimes without any apparent warning. Unfortunately, all of us in this Chamber have local experience, and words cannot describe how we feel at such a sudden loss of life. Our sympathies are with all of the families, and with all of those who are left behind.
The total number of suicides in Northern Ireland appears to be falling, and we thank God for that. We cannot, however, become complacent. How can we be sure that that is the total number? Often cases appear to go unreported. Two thirds of suicides appear to take place in areas with below-average living standards, but that still leaves one third occurring elsewhere in our community. Men are three or four times more likely to commit suicide than women; however, that still leaves a sizeable figure among women. The statistics are difficult to read, and the causes are very difficult to trace.
Two matters strike me as particularly important. First, Executive action must be properly directed. There is no room for competition among Departments or the usual silo mentality, which denies us properly joined-up government. The motion correctly implies that suicide and self-harm are issues not just for the Department of Health, Social Service and Public Safety but for all Departments, including those with responsibilities for education, social development, transport, social security, sport and employment.
Secondly, there must be an end to the tick-box mentality that inhibits access to funding for counselling organisations and other groups that work directly with communities to help to prevent suicide and self-harm. Those are not matters that should depend on the proper completion of a form. Suicide and self-harm are human-interest stories that require human management.
Organisations that are doing a good job must be assured of funds and resources, even if that means that the Executive must assume financial commitments that were previously met through the European Union or external peace funds.
I pay tribute to the excellent work of organisations such as PIPS, the Samaritans and other self-help groups. The Investing for Health programme, under its manager, Lorraine Lindsay, is doing an excellent job in respect of suicide and self-harm in my constituency of Strangford.
Although there is more to this issue than mental health, the motion once again links to the Bamford Review. I am glad to see that our Health Minister is in the Chamber. I ask him to outline the current situation in respect of the review and to provide a timescale for the introduction of its recommendations.
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Member’s time is up.
Mrs Hanna: On behalf of the SDLP, I endorse the Health Committee’s ‘Report on the Inquiry into the Prevention of Suicide and Self Harm’.
The report further develops and expands on the Protect Life strategy of October 2006, and builds on the recommendations of the Bamford Review. I thank the Health Committee’s staff for their hard work in preparing the report. I also thank all the people who provided written and oral evidence to the Committee.
I was humbled and I found it insightful to hear evidence from bereaved family members, counsellors and medical specialists. The families of people who take their own lives, particularly when the person who died was young, endure one of the most awful human experiences. Not one of us would want to be in their shoes.
A strategy based on the report will work only if it remains person-centred and recognises the unique value and dignity of each of us as individuals. There is no question of standardising solutions; each must be special and unique. Our community does not have a good record of valuing, protecting and respecting human life. The 35 years of the Troubles have corroded our society in a way that we are only beginning to fully comprehend.
Suicide and self-harm are not issues that are unique to Northern Ireland. We have learned lessons from methods of best practice that have been adopted in other jurisdictions, particularly in Scotland and the Republic of Ireland. We visited both of those jurisdictions in order to exchange views with people who are experiencing problems caused by suicide and self-harm and to talk to professionals who work in that specialism.
Although there has been much focus on the tragic suicides of young people, suicide and self-harm also affect older people and those who live in rural areas. In an increasingly materialistic society, with widening gaps between rich and poor, the effects of suicide and self-harm are not confined to any particular class. However, economic and social pressures exacerbate the vulnerability of people.
Prevention and early intervention are vital to ensure that all our young people receive an adequate and holistic education. Prevention is always better than cure.
Many years ago, when I practised as a midwife and delivered babies on the Falls Road and the Shankill Road — long before I heard phrases such as “early intervention” — I understood that the circumstances of some new parents meant that they needed more support than did others. Even in a conventional two-parent family, with extended family support, the early days with a newborn baby are daunting. However, not all babies come into the world with such support. The sooner that help is provided, in a sympathetic and non-patronising way, the better. The development of coping skills, self-respect and self-esteem must begin as early in life as possible. Appropriate programmes for emotional health and well-being must be provided in schools from the earliest years of a child’s education. Prevention and early intervention are essential.
I want to mention briefly the importance of recovery programmes and of seeing everyone as an individual. Centrality of respect for each individual is vital to help that person to get his or her life back together. Peer advocacy works. People who have experienced mental illness are often best placed to understand what someone goes through. There is no Assembly Member who has not, at some stage, felt that he or she was on the edge or unable to cope. One in four people is diagnosed with mental illness at some point in life. Statistics probably under-report the actual extent of mental illness, because no one wants to admit that he or she cannot cope. In many ways, society is competitive and dog-eat-dog, with emphasis on success, not showing weakness, and on putting on one’s best face at all times. Life is not a race with a prize for first place.
Mental health is still society’s big taboo, and no one wants to admit to mental illness. Its perception, in an increasingly consumerist society in which there are unprecedented social and economic pressures on individuals, is judgemental and skewed. To be human is to be vulnerable and to be vulnerable is to be human. No man or woman is an island. At certain stages of their journeys through life, people need the support of family, friends and community.
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Mr McGimpsey): I welcome the Committee’s report on its inquiry into the prevention of suicide and self-harm. I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in the debate. Committee members have devoted considerable time and effort to commissioning the report. There is always scope for improved efforts to tackle suicide and self-harm. I appreciate the Committee’s important contribution to those complex issues.
Suicide represents a tragic loss of life that leaves a terrible legacy for families and communities. It can be absolutely devastating for families and friends. Reducing suicide rates is, undoubtedly, a tough challenge for Government and for local communities. However, we must be prepared to meet that challenge.
In recent years, there has been a significant increase in suicide rates in Northern Ireland. In 2006, 291 deaths by suicide were recorded. That is almost double the number of deaths that were recorded annually in 2003 and 2004. Thankfully, in 2007, rates fell for the first time in three years: 242 suicides were recorded, which represents a 17% fall from 2006. Although I welcome that reduction, 242 deaths are still far too many. Northern Ireland’s rates remain above the UK average. Moreover, it is important to bear in mind that suicide rates have fluctuated greatly in the past. It is too early to determine whether that fall indicates a long-term downward trend in local suicide statistics.
The suicide prevention strategy, entitled ‘Protect Life: A Shared Vision’ was published in October 2006. Its target is a 15% reduction in suicide rates in Northern Ireland by 2011. That means that the Department aims to drive down rates from an average of 12·6 deaths per 100,000 of the population. That is, indeed, a tough challenge, particularly following the unprecedented rise in 2006, when the rate exceeded 17 deaths per 100,000 people.
We simply cannot allow so many people to continue to be consumed by the tragedy of suicide.
It is also important to acknowledge that in Northern Ireland there are substantial regional and demographic variations in the rates. In 2007, one in five people registered as taking their own lives was a young man aged between 16 and 34. Suicide levels remain disproportionately high in areas of greatest economic and social need.
Implementation of the suicide prevention strategy will therefore continue on the twin tracks of actions targeted at high-risk groups alongside broader population-wide approaches. Targeted actions are focused on those most at risk or in need of most support, such as young males; people who self-harm; those bereaved by suicide; and people in the prison system. Population-wide approaches recognise that suicide is a regional problem that affects people from all areas and backgrounds, and of all ages. The new regional crisis response telephone helpline service, Lifeline, is one of the population-wide actions.
Rates of self-harm among young people are also very worrying, with around 4,500 hospital admissions each year. That is likely to represent only the tip of the problem; we need better information to obtain a clearer picture of the scale of the problem. A pilot self-harm service project at the Mater Hospital and a self-harm mentoring project based at Altnagelvin accident and emergency department will provide valuable learning about the provision of self-harm services.
Overall, a great deal of work has already been undertaken, but there is much more that we all can do to reduce suicide and self-harm levels, and provide help and support for those who need it most. High levels of suicide and self-harm, particularly among young people, are a manifestation of poor mental health. In Northern Ireland, up to one in five people are believed to have experienced a mental-health problem during their life. It is estimated that Northern Ireland’s mental-health needs are at least 25% greater than those of England.
If we want to make serious inroads into tackling the scourge of suicide and self-harm, particularly among young people, we must become better at looking after people’s mental health. Suicide must be tackled as part of the wider strategy to improve mental health and well-being. That is why I fought so hard to secure significant additional funding for mental-health services in the final Budget allocation. This year, recurring funding for mental-health services will total £187 million. In addition, mental-health services will benefit from an extra investment of £46 million over the next three years.
In fact, by 2010-11, there will be an increase of more than 12% on current spending. Although that falls short of what the Bamford Review said was needed, it will enable me to implement a number of its key recommendations, including a maximum 13-week wait for psychotherapy by 2010; a 20% reduction in admissions to mental-health hospitals; an extra 200 staff for community mental-health teams; and allow us to recruit additional psychotherapists to improve access to psychotherapy interventions.
In tackling most major issues in society joined-up thinking and action is required. Such an approach is absolutely essential in tackling suicide. Through partnership working with all the key groups and agencies, my Department will continue to tackle suicide by driving forward implementation of the suicide prevention strategy and action plan. Government, the statutory sector, the voluntary and community sector and the private sector all have an input. Schools and colleges, charities, workplaces, hospitals, GP services, police and justice services, youth services, faith groups, care services, community groups and families must be involved.
In this financial year, a total investment of £6·5 million has been made available to implement the suicide prevention strategy. An additional £7·1 million invested in mental-health services for the development of community mental-health teams and psychological-therapy services will also help in the fight to reduce levels of suicide and self-harm.
I stress that, in our efforts to prevent suicide, partnership is not just an aspiration. Some £3 million of the total investment in suicide prevention is available for community initiatives and support services, either through the community support package or for wrap-around services to support the new regional helpline.
The suicide strategy implementation body, which oversees the implementation of the strategy, comprises a broad range of interests. Also at Government level, a ministerial co-ordination group on suicide prevention has been established to ensure that a cross-departmental response is in place and can be effective. I intend to arrange another meeting of that group to further consider how Departments can best contribute to the implementation of the Protect Life strategy and how cross-departmental working can be improved.
The Department owes a huge debt of gratitude to families who have been bereaved by suicide and to local community groups for the courage and determination that they have displayed to ensure that the issue has remained a key focus for health and social care. The active participation of families and community groups will continue to be integral to the implementation, review and evaluation of the strategy.
Implementation of the strategy is well under way. For example, the Lifeline 24/7 crisis-response helpline is already dealing with almost 200 calls a day from people across Northern Ireland. A depression-awareness training programme for GPs, a self-harm mentoring scheme, joint North/South public information campaigns, a crisis-intervention service and community support package funding, with associated local implementation plans, are in place.
I launched the Lifeline service at the start of May. I am aware of the concern over the decision to establish a regional service ahead of full evaluation of the north and west Belfast pilot helpline. I took that decision because of the high volume of calls that the helpline received and because clear demand emerged from elsewhere in Northern Ireland. Around half of the calls that the pilot helpline received came from outside north and west Belfast. However, I assure the House that the findings of the review of the pilot helpline will inform evaluation of the new service.
I was lobbied strongly on the issue, and I was determined to get the helpline into operation. It seemed that it was necessary by January 2008, not least because there is always a surge in the incidence of suicide after Christmas. I took the view that lives were at stake and, given the benefits of the pilot project, I was putting lives first by getting the telephone line into operation. The evaluation is ongoing, and we will learn from it, but I make no apology for launching the helpline. Lifeline operated without significant publicity from the end of January to the end of April, and, by the time of the launch, it was dealing with almost 200 calls a day, which clearly demonstrates the need and demand for that type of regional service.
As the public awareness campaign gears up, it can be expected that greater numbers of people will use Lifeline. It is essential to have sufficient capacity in the system to deal with the referrals from the helpline, and work with the trusts is ongoing to ensure that referrals can be dealt with and that services are provided within the targeted timescales.
Half of GPs have undertaken specialised depression-awareness training, which means that coverage has reached 80% of GP practices. Three television adverts have been aired to promote awareness and understanding of mental health. A fourth advert is currently being worked on, and additional funds have been made available to improve the trusts’ crisis-intervention services. Work is ongoing to staff those teams up so that 24/7 cover can be provided.
Suicide and self-harm respect no borders, and many of the issues that we face will also be challenges for our colleagues in the rest of the UK and in the Republic of Ireland. I will continue to ensure that we share learning and best practice with our close neighbours through arrangements such as the North/South Ministerial Council, the British-Irish Council and the five nations working group on suicide. That learning will be reflected in local approaches and in all-island actions that are developed through the suicide prevention strategy.
I am increasingly concerned about the Internet’s impact on vulnerable people, especially at times of crisis in their lives. I have met key stakeholders from the Internet industry, and I will continue to challenge the industry to take seriously the need to protect young people from the Internet’s worst excesses.
I met Dr Tanya Byron before the publication of her report on the risks to children from exposure to the Internet and video games. Her recommendations for a UK council on child Internet safety have been accepted by the Prime Minister. The council will lead the development of a UK strategy for child Internet safety, and it is essential that Northern Ireland is properly represented on it, because that will provide our opportunity to influence and shape the strategy and to press for tougher regulation.
The media also have an important role to play in helping to prevent suicide and self-harm and in promoting positive mental health and well-being. I met local editors about that matter, and they continue to report responsibly and sensitively about suicide and self-harm.
Our colleagues in the Irish Republic have established a media-monitoring system known as Headline, and the Health Promotion Agency is considering that initiative’s impact and will advise the Department accordingly.
Many factors can increase the potential for suicide, not least of which is the misuse of alcohol and drugs, which reduce inhibitions and increase the likelihood of behaviour that one might otherwise be able to resist. That includes the risk of self-harm or suicide; as I said previously, American research found that one in three adolescents who attempted suicide were intoxicated at the time.
Tackling and preventing alcohol and drug misuse is a major focus for my Department. A long-term strategy is in place to reduce alcohol and drug misuse, and I believe that that will have an impact on reducing adolescent suicide and self-harm rates.
Suicide and self-harm are highly complex matters, and the scale of the problem is daunting. I do not have all the answers — no individual or group has. Arrangements to evaluate the suicide prevention strategy are progressing, and evaluation will provide further information about the most effective approaches and actions. However, at this stage, it is also clear that suicide and self-harm are collective problems. Health and social services cannot tackle such issues alone — a collective approach is the only one that will work.
It is important to learn from the Committee’s report and from this debate. As the Minister for Health, Social Services and Public Safety, I will ensure that that informs the drive to reduce suicide and self-harm.
The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Mrs O’Neill): Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. The debate on this emotive and sensitive subject has been full and beneficial. Suicide and self-harm affects all but a few communities. I thank all Members who spoke in the debate, and I particularly thank the groups and organisations that helped and informed the Committee in its efforts to produce today’s final report. I also thank the Minister for his response.
I do not propose to summarise everything that Members said on the subject; rather, I will focus on the Minister’s initial response to the report’s recommendations. First, however, I will emphasise some points that were raised by Members. The ‘Report on the Inquiry into the Prevention of Suicide and Self Harm’ is the result of the Committee’s thorough examination of many matters relating to suicide and self-harm. Although the Committee cannot claim that the report is an exhaustive consideration of the subject, it contains 26 wide-ranging recommendations, most, if not all, of which were mentioned in the debate. I will highlight a few general matters raised by Members.
The Committee Chairperson dealt with the overall strategic approach and the structures that would be necessary to implement the strategy. The dual-population and targeted approach is welcome; however, the Committee wants the strategy to have a greater focus on the needs of people who live in rural areas. I come from a rural community, and I feel strongly about that.
The Committee received a presentation from the Níamh Louise Foundation, which pointed out that one size does not necessarily fit all, and that a different approach may be required in rural areas. Níamh Louise’s parents set up the foundation to address that problem because, when Níamh lost her life, there was nowhere for them to turn to for support in their local area. As a result, they established their excellent group, which provides support for people in rural areas.
The stigma attached to mental-health issues has been mentioned, particularly in respect of suicide. As some Members have mentioned, the true levels of suicide may be higher because not all suicides are recorded due to perceived shame or disgrace. There must be a culture change in attitudes, and it is the responsibility of the Assembly to achieve that.
Some Members referred to self-harm, which — as the Committee has seen — is a strong predictor of future suicide attempts. The BMA told the Committee that 51% of suicide victims self-harm before their death. The 2004 guidelines by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence on dealing with self-harm identified the need for a psycho-social assessment of those who self-harm. The Committee is concerned about the lack of availability of that type of assessment.
As the Minister and some Members mentioned, the Committee visited a project on self-harm based at the Mater Hospital, which we were all impressed by. The project is based on the premise that a comprehensive psychiatric assessment is therapeutic and halves the likelihood of repeated self-harm. The Committee calls for that pilot exercise to be urgently evaluated and extended to other areas.
Families Forum recommended a card-before-you-leave system to the Committee to tackle self-harm. The importance of such a system was repeatedly advocated to help those who are vulnerable and who seek emotional support. It is cruel to discharge someone who is at risk of suicide or self-harm without a definite follow-up appointment, and the Committee strongly recommends the urgent introduction of a card-before-you-leave system. Many of the groups that visited the Committee described that system as a much-needed lifeline for people when they leave hospital.
The issue of funding was also raised repeatedly. Although the overall level of funding compares reasonably well with Scotland and the Twenty-six Counties on a per capita basis, it must be used to its maximum potential. The Committee calls for funding to be ring-fenced for a number of years to sustain and implement the suicide-prevention strategy. We also recognise that full transparency and accountability on the use of funding is vital. The uncertainty that surrounds the funding for community groups that provide services was raised with the Committee on many occasions. We want more certainty and sustainability for those groups.
The Chairperson highlighted our concerns on the introduction of the helpline before the pilot scheme has been evaluated. Although I accept the Minister’s point, the Committee felt that it was wrong to establish the helpline in the absence of that evaluation. When the regional helpline was launched, the Minister said that it would cost around £3·5 million a year to run, which is a substantial chunk of the overall funding and should be investigated — it cannot be right to spend over half the total budget for suicide on a helpline. The provision of a helpline is vital, but the Minister must investigate other ways to fund it, which could include sponsorship from mobile-phone companies or other businesses.
It has been highlighted during the debate that suicide is a worldwide problem. That assertion is supported by World Health Organization figures, which estimate that one person in the world dies from suicide every 40 seconds and that one person attempts suicide every three seconds.
As well as the difficulties in the correct recording of suicides, there are other complications in measuring rates of suicide accurately. The Committee notes that there is often a delay between a death and the time that it is registered, because all sudden deaths are referred to the coroner for investigation. The targets of the strategy were a 10% reduction in the suicide rate by 2008, and a further 5% reduction by 2011.
The Committee listened to arguments for and against target setting, and has acknowledged the difficulties involved in measuring suicide rates accurately. The Committee recognises that the current targets are challenging and urges the Minister to review the figures for this year. The Committee also asks the Minister to consider setting targets for a reduction in the number of self-harm incidents.
Several Members referred to sporting icons, and how we can better equip young people with the skills they need to cope with problems and crises in their lives. That matter is dealt with in the report — and Dr Deeny and a number of other Members referred to it today. It is also well recognised that young people — particularly young men — are reluctant to talk about their feelings. During the Committee’s visit to Scotland, we learned how major sporting celebrities there have been used to highlight the issue successfully and to encourage young men to talk and seek help.
That example could usefully be followed here. Many heroes in different sports could be used at a local level, including GAA players, soccer stars and rugby players. The annual North West 200 has just taken place, which draws one of the biggest crowds of the sporting year. Unfortunately it has been in the headlines for the wrong reasons this year due to the tragic death of Robert Dunlop. I urge the Minister to explore how sporting occasions such as that could be used to raise awareness of suicide at a local level, and to encourage young people to talk openly about their feelings.
I welcome the Minister’s response to the Committee’s report, and his willingness to take forward the Protect Life strategy. The Committee’s overall findings were that the right strategy has been adopted, but that there are ways in which it could be improved to tackle suicide in a more robust way. Many respondents to the Committee’s inquiry were positive about the way in which the Minister is addressing the issue. The Committee welcomed the action that the Minister has taken in engaging with local media about more responsible reporting of suicide and related issues — that is a very important matter.
The Committee, and the witnesses who gave evidence to it, were concerned about the use of the Internet and particularly about social networking sites that are used to promote and encourage suicide, and welcomed the initiative taken by the Minister to meet with Internet providers to tackle that issue.
The Minister also spoke of moving the suicide prevention strategy forward, but the Committee would like to see how its 26 recommendations will be taken on board.
Ms S Ramsey: I have previously commended the Minister on his personal commitment to tackling suicide and self-harm. Does the Member agree that we should ask the Minister to return to the House as early as possible — before the summer recess — with a statement about how he and his Department intend to implement the recommendations? During the Minister’s speech, I did not hear him say that he was going to implement, take on board, or even agree or disagree with any of the recommendations that we, as a Committee, have made.
The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety: I thank the Member for her intervention, and I agree that I did not hear in the Minister’s response as to how he was going to take the 26 recommendations on board. He did speak about his intention to progress the Protect Life strategy, but we would be more interested to hear how our recommendations will be acted upon. The Committee is also interested to hear when the issue will be taken to the Executive, and when a full response can be expected on how the Executive mean to act. We are not disputing the good work that the Minister’s Department has already undertaken, but we feel that some areas need to be improved. That is why the Committee has suggested its 26 recommendations.
The Minister referred to joined-up thinking and the actions that will be needed to tackle suicide. The Committee has suggested recommendations around that and fully agrees with him.
The Minister also referred to concerns about the phone helpline, Lifeline. I am aware that he is awaiting the outcome of a review, and will take on board the points made in that review. The Committee eagerly awaits the outcome, as a number of groups raised concerns about the development of a project requiring substantial investment in the absence of a full evaluation of the pilot programme.
The Minister said that he does not have all the answers. We do not have all the answers, but we believe that the recommendations will enhance the Protect Life strategy. A collective approach is needed, and a great deal can be learned from the report, which is based on evidence that was gathered from all the organisations that appeared before the Committee, including community and voluntary groups.
The Committee Chairperson and many other Members highlighted the fact that suicide is not just a health issue; it is a social issue that involves wider society. If we are to tackle it effectively and reduce the numbers of lives that are needlessly and tragically wasted, a substantial response will be required from the Executive and all Departments. Many of the report’s recommendations are directed at the Health Minister, but others are directed at other Ministers and at the Executive as a whole. Indeed, that is why the motion calls on the Executive to draw up a framework for implementing the recommendations. A ministerial co-ordination group on suicide prevention is already in place, but to be effective, it must have substantial input from all Departments and it must report frequently to the Executive.
Suicide prevention must be treated as a priority. Carál Ní Chuilín said that it is crucial that the recommendations are translated into action, and that is exactly what must happen. I urge all Members to support the motion, and I thank them for their contributions. I look forward to the Minister taking on board the report’s 26 recommendations and reporting back to the House in due course. Go raibh maith agat.
Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly approves the Report of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety (27/07/08R) on its Inquiry into the Prevention of Suicide and Self Harm; and calls on the Executive to bring forward, before the summer recess, a timeframe for implementing the recommendations in the report.
Mr Deputy Speaker: As Question Time commences at 2.30 pm, I propose, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend proceedings until then.
The sitting was suspended at 2.16 pm.
On resuming (Mr Speaker in the Chair) —
Culture, Arts And Leisure
Mr Speaker: Question No 1 has been withdrawn.
2. Mr Cobain asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure what steps he is taking to make sporting excellence available to inner city areas and areas of multiple deprivation. (AQO 3508/08)
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure (Mr Poots): Sport Northern Ireland currently manages several programmes that deliver services in inner-city areas and areas of multiple deprivation. Those programmes include Community Sport, Sport in Our Community and Awards for All. In addition, Sport NI supports coaching, club development and child protection in sport.
During the past three years, 11 projects have received £1·27 million through the Community Sport programme. Moreover, 26 projects will receive £3·59 million over a four-year period — which we are halfway through — from the Sport in Our Community programme. Groups that will receive funding include the Clarendon Development Association, North Belfast Sports Forum, North Belfast Play Forum, Upper Springfield Development Trust, Strabane District Council and Derry City Council. Sport NI currently invests in 33 volunteer-based governing bodies of sport that are in operation across Northern Ireland.
Facilities development is funded by the Building Sport programme and the elite facilities programme, which have pre-established eligibility and assessment criteria. Each project is scored on new TSN, tackling social exclusion and regeneration.
Mr Cobain: Does the Minister agree that sporting activity is a key element in building a sense of achievement and self-worth among young people in deprived inner-city areas and is, in some cases, at the front line in dealing with antisocial behaviour among youth? Can the Minister access funding for sporting activities from other Departments?
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: The Big Lottery Fund project has been particularly successful. Numerous facilities have been developed though that project, such as multi-use games areas. The education sector and local authorities are working together to ensure that those facilities are widely used by schools and communities. I want that programme to be extended if possible, and I am prepared to discuss that possibility with the Big Lottery Fund.
Mr F McCann: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Bearing in mind the role that is played by Donegal Celtic Football and Sports Club in providing sporting opportunities for people in west Belfast — which houses some of the most socially deprived areas in the North — does the Minister agree that the Irish Football Association’s recent decision to exclude Donegal Celtic from its proposed new invitational premier league is questionable, especially because that represents the exclusion of the west Belfast community?
Mr Speaker: Order. As I have said on numerous occasions, it is vital that Members’ supplementary questions relate to the original question.
Mr F McCann: The question relates to deprivation and the impact —
Mr Speaker: It does not sound as though that is the case. Perhaps the Member can rephrase the supplementary question, because it seems to refer to a football team.
Mr F McCann: Of course my question refers to a football team. The team in question has been excluded from the IFA’s new invitational premier league. That football club provides a service for some of the most socially deprived communities in the North.
Mr Speaker: The Member must ask a question.
Mr F McCann: Does the Minister agree that that decision raises equality issues in respect of the decision-making process of the IFA — a body that receives substantial public funds?
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: I was delighted when Donegal Celtic entered the Irish League. The IFA made decisions based on the merit principle. That is a matter for the IFA, which is a self-governing organisation.
Mr Newton: Does the Minister agree that the Olympic Games and the elite facilities programme offer potential to address the problems in inner-city areas? Belfast City Council has made a bid for a velodrome, and I hope that the Minister will forgive me if I identify a potential site at Inverary in east Belfast. The location of an elite facility in an area of multiple deprivation offers both development and associated employment and education opportunities and, in an holistic way, addresses the problems of inner-city areas.
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: I agree, and I am delighted that the Department of Finance and Personnel has cleared the way for us to move to an outline business case on applications for elite facilities. I trust that that will proceed at a pace that will ensure timely delivery of those projects.
3. Mr Lunn asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure what plans he has to address the full range of language issues. (AQO 3512/08)
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: My Department and its public bodies have put in place already several measures that are aimed at addressing growing language diversity in Northern Ireland. The Department also supported the Northern Ireland Racial Equality Forum’s efforts to examine the language and communication needs of ethnic communities in accessing public services. The Department chairs and services the forum’s thematic group on language, and it facilitates ethnic minority language translations in addition to Irish-language quality-assured translations.
Mr Lunn: Will the Minister ensure that all funding provision for minority languages will be based on a clear assessment of need as the main criteria?
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: The Department has received several requests for translations. The Member is correct in asserting that, in the main, requests for translations come from the ethnic minority communities, as opposed to the indigenous language communities.
Mr D Bradley: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Will the Minister explore the possibility of transmitting BBC Scotland’s new Gaelic-language service in Northern Ireland?
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: That is a new one on me. I thank the Member for that suggestion. We should always consider extending to Northern Ireland something that happens in the rest of the United Kingdom.
Mr Storey: Bearing in mind the way in which some people tried to skew politically the outcome of the 2001 census with regard to the accuracy of the numbers of those who can read or speak the Irish language in Northern Ireland, what assessment has the Minister made of those census figures, and how will he deal with that issue in future?
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: The previous census figures on indigenous languages were deeply flawed, and efforts by particular groups did not help the situation. I recall a headline in one newspaper that said that if you can read or understand the words “tiocfaidh ár lá”, you can read and understand the Irish language. For the benefit of those Members on the opposite Benches who might not know what that means, it translates as “our day will come”. [Interruption.] However, sitting in this British institution in the United Kingdom, one understands whose day has come and whose day is still a long way away.
It is nonsense, Mr Speaker, to suggest that if you know and understand those three words, you know and understand the Irish language. I have had meetings with leading professors to examine how the situation can be addressed in future censuses so that levels of language use and need can be measured accurately and the generic nonsense that was demonstrated in the previous census can be avoided.
Derry City Football Club
4. Mr P Ramsey asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure what commitment he will make to work closely with Derry City Football Club to maximise the opportunities arising from the development of their facilities, which will include sporting, social and economic generation measures. (AQO 3496/08)
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: I am aware of the critical need to improve the quality of facilities at football stadiums generally. I discussed that issue recently with the football governing body, the Irish Football Association. I also know that several clubs are examining various options for addressing their facility needs. I am aware of Derry City Football Club’s proposals for the redevelopment of its facilities at the Brandywell.
I can confirm that DCAL has recently received an economic appraisal from Derry City Football Club for the redevelopment of the Brandywell stadium. We are considering that, in conjunction with Sport Northern Ireland, before we respond. As part of that process, I will consider whether it will be appropriate to engage with ministerial colleagues on the matter.
Mr P Ramsey: I thank the Minister for his detailed response. Further to that, and given the cross-border dimension of Derry City Football Club, which plays in the League of Ireland, will the Minister discuss the matter with his counterpart, the new Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism? That Department has given a gentleman’s commitment to co-fund the project if approval is given by DCAL.
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: The initiative rests with the football club, in the first instance. However, I discussed the matter with the previous Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, and I am happy to discuss it further with the new Minister.
Mr McCartney: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a fhreagra. Will the Minister confirm that Derry City Football Club is eligible for funding from DCAL? There have been media reports suggesting that, because it plays in the Eircom League, it is not eligible. Perhaps, tomorrow the ‘Derry Journal’ will have the headline, “Tiocfaidh ár lá”.
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: My Department will have to ascertain the situation, because the club does not belong to the Irish Football Association, which is the governing body for football clubs in Northern Ireland. I reiterate my desire to see Derry City come home and play in its home country with other home teams. Such a move would be good for football in Northern Ireland, and it would be good for Derry City Football Club, because much larger audiences would be attracted to its matches, and the club’s viability would benefit.
Mr Burnside: Further to that, would the Minister look even more favourably at helping out the Brandywell stadium if Derry City were to join the IFA? I remember seeing Derry City playing to big crowds at the Brandywell, and at Coleraine, in the north-west derbies. Is that not the right direction for the future? Would the Department look favourably at funding the refurbishment of the Brandywell if, and when, the club rejoined the IFA?
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: Others may wish to put guns to people’s heads. I have not been one to put a gun to anyone’s head, but I encourage Derry City Football Club to return to the IFA and play with local teams.
Support Structure for Museums
5. Mr Attwood asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure to outline the steps he is taking to ensure an appropriate support structure for museums after 2009 when his Department intends to cease funding to the Northern Ireland Museums Council. (AQO 3545/08)
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: The review of public administration (RPA) concluded that the functions of the Northern Ireland Museums Council should be transferred to central and local government. The Department is considering which functions should be transferred and where they should go. My Department will continue to provide financial support to the national museums in line with its legislative commitments. Financial support for local museums is, and will remain, the responsibility of local authorities.
Mr Attwood: I thank the Minister for his reply and for coming to the West Belfast constituency several weeks ago to see the excellent work being done by Gleann Amateur Boxing Club.
I listened closely to what the Minister said, but, given that the RPA has been put off until 2011, will his Department continue to fund the Northern Ireland Museums Council between 2009 — when I understand its funding is set to cease — and 2011?
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: My Department is considering that. It would be unacceptable to have a gap in funding between 2009 and 2011. Therefore, if we cannot transfer the Northern Ireland Museums Council’s functions by 2009, it would be logical to continue its funding until that transfer takes place.
Ms Anderson: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. What consideration has the Minister given to the establishment of community-based museums to record the impact of the conflict here? Is he aware of concern in the museums sector about consideration being given to the establishment of such a single-focus museum to record the conflict? Has he visited the Museum of Free Derry in my constituency? If he has not already visited it, I invite him to do so.
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: I have not received any requests on that particular matter. All I will say in relation to community museums that wish to reflect on the conflict is that I will not be supporting anything that would involve the rewriting of history. We have a very sensitive history and there are still a lot of open sores in Northern Ireland. All of those things will need to be considered very carefully in the future.
Mr Shannon: I am sure that the Minister would agree that the Northern Ireland Museums Council needs a strategy. Museums have an Aladdin’s cave of historical artefacts from the whole of the Province, and it is important that those artefacts are used to increase tourism. Will the Minister tell us what he is going to do in relation to developing a strategy for the council?
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: The Northern Ireland Museums Council has offered to do a considerable amount of work free of charge. That work will involve a considerable amount of departmental staff time; probably two members of staff for around 18 months, and it is something that we are considering.
Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games
6. Mr Hamilton asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure what discussions he has had with his counterpart in Scotland in relation to the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games. (AQO 3525/08)
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: I met with the Scottish Minister for Communities and Sport, Stewart Maxwell MSP, on 1 May 2008. At that meeting we discussed areas of potential co-operation concerning the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games, including maximising opportunities for Northern Ireland to host visiting teams at pre-games training camps. It was agreed that further work would be done to set out the mutual benefits that could be derived by Northern Ireland and Scotland, from not only the Glasgow games but the London 2012 Olympics and the World Police & Fire Games that are due to be held in Belfast in 2013.
Mr Hamilton: Although discussions are at an early stage, we welcome that they are happening at all and any benefits that will be derived for Northern Ireland from one of the biggest sporting events in the world. Will the Minister tell the House what initial assessment he has made of those benefits?
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: Clearly, a lot of the benefits rely on the establishment of elite facilities, which is something that we are continuing to work on and that would be of huge benefit to us. However, even without elite facilities, we have identified 27 sites in Northern Ireland which are eligible to host training. The London 2012 Organising Committee (LOCOG) is giving financial support for teams to come to Northern Ireland to train for the Olympics. We have a wealth of sporting opportunities here and given our close location to Glasgow, our nearest city in the Commonwealth, I think that we have a wonderful opportunity.
Mr Kennedy: Is the Minister prepared to negotiate with sporting authorities in other Commonwealth countries, with a view to having closer sporting ties? Countries such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand have close links with the people of Northern Ireland.
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: When this Parliament was originally opened, the wood in this Chamber came from Australia; the wood in the Senate Chamber came from South Africa, and the ebony pillars came from India. We have many close links with our Commonwealth partners that I would like to see continue. Who knows, maybe by the 2014 Commonwealth Games, the Republic of Ireland might even be participating as a Commonwealth country.
Performing Right Society
7. Mr O’Loan asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure what plans his Department has to consider the feasibility of the recent proposal to create a Northern Ireland Music Rights Organisation to take over the role of the Performing Right Society. (AQO 3544/08)
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: I support any initiative that will protect the interests of local musicians and songwriters and I am aware of the outline proposal for a local royalty collection agency. However, the proposal requires further work to provide the level of detail necessary to inform judgements on the feasibility of a local collection agency and any potential involvement of Government in the project.
Mr O’Loan: I thank the Minister for his answer and ask that he pursue that proposal with energy. Will he comment on the fact that royalty collection and distribution can provide a significant and sustained revenue scheme for the arts, without recourse to the public purse?
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: Although that is true, people who are involved in the hospitality industry, such as hairdressers, may not be as keen as music writers. However, it is my responsibility to represent the music writers, and I will make their case in Government.
Mr McElduff: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Has the Minister met Mr Richard Abbott and other active campaigners who seek the establishment of a local music-rights organisation? If so, will the Minister detail the outcomes of that meeting? If not, will he agree to meet those people?
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: Yes, I have had such a meeting. We identified work that needed to be developed before further meetings can take place.
Mr Brady: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Will the Minister confirm that local artists lose out significantly in the collection of royalties via the London-based MCPS-PRS Alliance?
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: Artists, in general, lose out in the collection of royalties in Northern Ireland because many people who play their music do not contribute. Royalties are collected more adequately in other places.
8. Mr Butler asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure what consideration he has given to the development of a multi-sports stadium without the involvement of the Gaelic Athletic Association. (AQO 3542/08)
11. Mr McNarry asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure what contingency plans he has in place to spend the money initially allocated by his Department for the Maze project if it is rejected by the Department for Finance and Personnel. (AQO 3502/08)
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: With permission, I will take questions 8 and 11 together.
The key criterion of the proposal for a multi-sports stadium is the involvement of all the main ball sports in Northern Ireland, namely football, rugby and Gaelic games. The outline business case demonstrates that that criterion is critical to the continuing operational viability of the project. Nevertheless, the outline business case on the stadium, which is being considered by officials from the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure and the Department of Finance and Personnel, includes the option to build a 30,000-seater stadium for football and rugby at the north foreshore site in Belfast. However, the operational costs that are associated with that option would not generate sufficient revenues to make it sustainable. Operational viability is a key criterion; without it, Government would be left with the difficulty of addressing deficit funding.
No other two-sport options are under active consideration. In any event, the outline business case, which was prepared by PricewaterhouseCoopers and presented to the Department of Finance and Personnel, identified the net present cost that is associated with the north foreshore proposal as being £51 million more expensive than the Maze/Long Kesh option. An indicative allocation of £70 million has been made in the current Budget period — 2008-09 to 2010-11 — for the proposed multi-sports stadium.
If a decision is made to not proceed with the stadium proposal, the Department will seek approval from the Executive to reassign that funding. If the Executive agree, the Department will consider other priorities to utilise the money, initially in sport and then in its other programmes.
Mr Butler: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom buíochas a thabhairt don Aire as a fhreagra. The proposed multi-sports stadium incorporates all three sporting organisations at the Maze/Long Kesh site. In the Minister’s view, is there a comparable site in Belfast on which a similar stadium could be built, accommodating all three sporting organisations?
Will the Minister also confirm that the GAA has been in close contact with his Department throughout the process and has been fully supportive of the stadium at the Maze/Long Kesh site? Go raibh maith agat.
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: Belfast City Council is working on presentations, and I am happy to examine them. However, to date, nothing comparable has come forward. If we do not plan to proceed with the development of a stadium at the Maze site, we must have an alternative plan.
All the sporting organisations have been in regular contact, and worked closely, with the Department. They have agreed a design and business plan with the Department. Therefore, the three sporting bodies that are involved have done a substantial amount of work.
Mr Speaker: Mr McNarry is not present in the Chamber. Therefore, Kieran McCarthy will be next to ask a supplementary question.
Mr McCarthy: The idea behind a multi-sports stadium is twofold: first, the need for a modern, safe sports ground; and secondly, it is part of the shared future policy that the Executive agreed. What direct discussions has the Minister had with GAA officials on the location of the multi-sports stadium? Does the Minister agree that, without the GAA’s support, a multi-sports stadium for Northern Ireland will not become a reality?
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: I have met officials of all three sporting bodies and can confirm that without the involvement of any of those three organisations — Ulster Rugby, the Irish Football Association or the GAA — there would be a deficit of funding for a stadium. If one of those organisations pulled out, public money would have to be ploughed into the stadium year on year.
Mr McGlone: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his answer. If the stadium were to go ahead without the GAA, what would be the impact on the public purse? Does such a proposition breach the strategic aim of creating a shared space? Could such large expenditure be justified on equality grounds, in view of the differential benefit to the communities, were the GAA not factored into that decision?
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: That remains to be seen. The GAA has received a great deal of funding from the Northern Ireland Executive. However, were we to develop a two-sport option for a stadium, I have no doubt that the GAA would make a case for substantial funding for a single-identity stadium. That issue will have to be taken into account in arriving at a decision.
9. Mr Gardiner asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure what new initiatives he is considering after his recent visit to the United States of America. (AQO 3505/08)
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: The primary focus of my recent visit to California was to support the work of Northern Ireland Screen in promoting Northern Ireland as a location for film production. I met several senior executives, representing such major industry players as Paramount Pictures International, Lionsgate and the Jim Henson Company, among others, and briefed them on the many factors that make Northern Ireland an attractive place to make films. Since the visit, I have held a telephone conference with the UK Film Council’s representatives in the US, the Northern Ireland Bureau in Washington and Northern Ireland Screen in order to develop the contacts that were made. Northern Ireland Screen will follow up on those leads.
Mr Gardiner: I thank the Minister for his in-depth report on the visit, and I welcome the advent of more cultural activities to Northern Ireland. We have sent the right man to the right place to encourage that; he is enhancing Northern Ireland’s image across the world.
2010 Quatercentenary of the Plantation of Ulster
10. Mr Bresland asked the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure to outline what progress has been made to commemorate in 2010 the quatercentenary of the plantation of Ulster. (AQO 3510/08)
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: The Ulster-Scots Agency intends to republish the Reverend George Hill’s ‘An Historical Account of the Plantation of Ulster at the commencement of the seventeenth century, 1605 – 1620’, first published in 1877. In CD format, it will be accompanied by digital images of the Raven Phillips maps held by the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland. Those maps will also feature in the Ulster-Scots Agency’s educational resources on the plantation, funded by the Special European Programmes Body. The Centre for Migration Studies at the Ulster American Folk Park has been approached by Trinity College Dublin to become a partner in a major project in commemoration of the plantation of Ulster. The plantation will be the theme of the centre’s literature of Irish exile autumn school in October 2010. The Linen Hall Library, which DCAL partially funds, is planning an exhibition of contemporary books and pamphlets, and at least one public lecture.
Northern Ireland Screen has agreed to part-fund a bilingual documentary series from the Irish language broadcasting fund, entitled ‘Dissenting Voices’. It is scheduled to be broadcast in January 2010 and it will illustrate what life was like on both sides of the Irish Sea at the time of the plantation.
Mr Bresland: I thank the Minister for his response. Will he assure me that in 2010 adequate funding will be made available to communities and cultural groups to commemorate the quatercentenary of the plantation of Ulster?
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure: The Arts Council for Northern Ireland has not funded any groups as yet, but it will consider funding applications related to the celebrations. The newly refurbished Ulster Museum, which is scheduled to open in summer 2009, will provide background to the plantation and its main features. It will consider the departure of the Gaelic lords and will present an account of the settlement of Ulster to 1615, covering the establishment of the Royal Schools, the development of towns and forts — including Londonderry and Coleraine — and the development, by the London companies, of the county formerly known as Coleraine.
Mr Speaker: Question 1 has been withdrawn.
University Capacity and Student Demand
2. Mr Weir asked the Minister for Employment and Learning to provide a comparison of the student capacity of Queen’s University, Belfast and the University of Ulster with the demand for places from Northern-Irish students. (AQO 3470/08)
The Minister for Employment and Learning (Sir Reg Empey): There were 14,868 Northern Ireland-domiciled applicants to Northern Ireland institutions for entry to full-time courses in the 2006-07 academic year. In that year, applicants to higher education could apply to six institutions through the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS). Consequently, a proportion of Northern Ireland-domiciled students who applied to Northern Ireland institutions also applied to — and were accepted at — an institution outside Northern Ireland. Analysis of the UCAS data does not show that a significant proportion of students is leaving Northern Ireland reluctantly.
In the 2006-07 academic year, there were 4,145 full-time first-year undergraduate enrolments at Queen’s University and a further 4,855 enrolments at the University of Ulster. Nine thousand places were therefore filled.
Mr Weir: I thank the Minister for his answer. I am sure that the Minister shares my frustration at the number of Northern Ireland students who cannot obtain places in Northern Ireland. Several years ago, the Dearing Report showed that 40% of those who studied outside Northern Ireland would like to have obtained a place in Northern Ireland. What measures have been put in place to deal with that problem since the publication of the Dearing Report?
The Minister for Employment and Learning: That is an issue of which I have been aware for some years. I commissioned a piece of work, which is near completion, to analyse why students were leaving Northern Ireland. That report will be available before the summer. The Member may be aware that a similar piece of work was completed recently by the Equality Commission. Early reports show that the chill factor experienced in earlier years when the Troubles were at their peak, for instance, was a reason why people left Northern Ireland, but that cause seems to have receded.
Other issues, such as course availability, now play a part in influencing students’ decisions, as does the type of experience that students want to enjoy; often, students want to feel that they are going away to university as opposed merely to going to a university up the road. There are many complicated reasons why students leave Northern Ireland, and that is why we felt it necessary to commission work on it. The report will be completed soon, and it will be available to Members as soon as is practicable.
Ms Anderson: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Will the Minister inform the House of the capacity at the University of Ulster campus at Magee and detail what steps his Department is taking to assist the expansion plan there?
The Minister for Employment and Learning: The University of Ulster is engaged with the Letterkenny Institute of Technology on a major project to assess what co-operation they can engage in. I have visited the Magee campus and informed the management that I will consider the additional places that it seeks if they are in economically relevant subjects; I have an open mind. I will look sympathetically at any proposals to the Department, but there are none at present. I will also look closely at the progress of the negotiations between the University of Ulster and the Letterkenny Institute of Technology, as, I am sure, will the Member.
In the autumn, the all-island skills council will be held in the north-west, at which the relationship between Magee and the Letterkenny Institute of Technology is bound to be discussed.
Mr Kennedy: What measures is the Minister taking to attract more graduates from Northern Ireland or other places to universities here?
The Minister for Employment and Learning: As the Member will know, I launched a campaign called ‘C’mon Over’, which is aimed at encouraging graduates who left Northern Ireland to study abroad to return with their skills and take employment here.
It is, primarily, the universities’ responsibility to encourage more students from Northern Ireland to study here. This year, Queen’s University Belfast is introducing a £1,000 bursary to encourage science, technology, engineering and mathematics students to study those subjects here. The irony is that, although there is a cap on the number of students who can study here, the number of students taking courses in subjects that are economically significant is lower than the number of places that are available. That is our big dilemma. There is a shortage of students in some of the major disciplines that are important to our economy, and there is an oversupply of students in other disciplines, so it is a matter of getting the balance right.
If we are going to meet the targets that have been set out in the Programme for Government and commit to the proposals recently published by Sir David Varney, over the next few years, we face an uphill struggle in matching the needs of our economy with the demand from students.
3. Mr McElduff asked the Minister for Employment and Learning to detail the outcomes of his meeting with the Royal National Institute for Deaf People on 27 February 2008 in relation to local training courses in sign-language interpreting. (AQO 3531/08)
The Minister for Employment and Learning: At a meeting on 27 February 2008, I agreed that my Department will continue to work closely with the Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID) on the training of sign-language interpreters. My Department has already secured £100,000 funding through the skills and science fund, which has enabled Belfast Metropolitan College to restart the introduction to sign language course, in partnership with the Royal National Institute for Deaf People. That course is now fully operational and will deal with the shortage of sign-language interpreters in Northern Ireland. A further £1·3 million to enhance the supply of sign-language interpreters and tutors has been secured in the comprehensive spending review.
Mr McElduff: Go raibh maith agat. I urge the Minister to keep going with that work, because the RNID needs that type of close co-operation. Will the Minister consider establishing an arrangement whereby a senior official from his Department liaises with the RNID?
The Minister for Employment and Learning: I will consider that proposal seriously. My Department already co-operates with the Royal National Institute for Deaf People. Over the past year, several Members have written to me about the issue, and I have also been concerned about it. Difficulties exist, and my colleague in the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure is interested in the issue.
I appreciate the Member’s comments, and I am happy to say that I think that we are now moving in the right direction. The funding is in place and great improvements will be made. Several thousand members of our community suffer from hearing impairments, and the least that we can do is to take some positive steps to ensure that they receive the assistance that they require.
I also want to make it clear that responsibility for the matter extends to colleges and universities; they must ensure that people with such difficulties have access to facilities that will enable them to participate properly in their courses.
Mr O’Loan: In my area, there is a heavy demand for lip-reading courses for deaf people, and many hearing-impaired people have indicated that lip-reading is their first, and preferred, method of communication. Lip-reading is also endorsed by the Royal National Institute for Deaf People. Given those factors, what provision does the Minister’s Department make for lip-reading courses, either directly supported by the Department for Employment and Learning or in conjunction with the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety?
The Minister for Employment and Learning: As the Member indicated, my Department has been responding to demand. When we worked with the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, our number one priority was to get the sign-language courses back in place, because there was a period when they were not available. I am happy to consider the other proposals that the Member has suggested. However, we must rely on the colleges to deliver the courses, which means that there must be a sufficient number of trained personnel who can deliver the courses. Therefore, although there may be a demand for such courses, there may not be a sufficient number of people available to deliver them.
I am happy to take the matter on board, and I will write to the Member with any updates, if that is acceptable.
Mr Gardiner: Will the Minister detail what further provisions are planned to address the shortage of sign-language interpreters and tutors in Northern Ireland?
The Minister for Employment and Learning: We have now secured funding, and the plans are to roll-out a supply of qualified people over the next three years. A gap did exist, and we made a successful bid to the Department of Finance and Personnel for funds during the comprehensive spending review.
In addition, as I said in my answer to the initial question, we secured a further £100,000 through the skills and science fund, and that has enabled the Belfast Metropolitan College to restart the introductory sign-language course. That is conducted in partnership with the Royal National Institute for Deaf People. Therefore, the mechanisms and funding are in place, and I am confident that over the next three years, we will meet the demands that have been placed upon us.
Stranmillis University College: Merger
4. Mr Attwood asked the Minister for Employment and Learning what concerns he has in relation to (i) how Queen’s University Belfast and Stranmillis University College came to the decision to merge; and (ii) the decision to merge itself. (AQO 3477/08)
The Minister for Employment and Learning: My main concern is to ensure high-quality and cost-effective teacher training that matches the distinctive needs of the Northern Ireland system, and that ensures that new teachers have the knowledge, understanding and skills to prepare pupils effectively for the economy.
The governing body of Stranmillis University College has made a decision in principle to merge with Queen’s University Belfast. I understand that that decision was based on the consideration of options arising from the Taylor Report on the long-term strategic options for Stranmillis University College, which was published in July 2007. The governing body voted unanimously for that option.
Any decision to merge will require the consent of my Department. We will conduct a rigorous evaluation process that will include the setting out of all options, and the decision will be subject to the consideration and approval of the Committee for Employment and Learning and the Assembly.
Mr Attwood: I thank the Minister for his answer, and I welcome his comment that all options will be considered. However, elements in Queen’s and elements in Stranmillis either did not consider all options, or did not consider them properly.
Does the Minister believe that he and the Committee for Employment and Learning were kept properly informed by Stranmillis about what was happening prior to the decision being taken? Given that one person has presented the decision as a done deal, does he agree that, at the very least, the decision should now be suspended to enable Queen’s, Stranmillis, his Department and St Mary’s University College to consider a strategic approach to addressing the future of teacher training in the North?
Finally, will the Minister explain to the House why his Department has proposed to slash the number of liberal-arts students at a teacher training college with one of the most successful records in the North — in fact, in these islands — in attracting students from the lowest social economic backgrounds? The college that I refer to is St Mary’s on the Falls Road —
Mr Speaker: Order. I know that on occasions Members want to ask multiple supplementaries. I can understand that. However, a Minister can decide to answer one, two, three or none. The Member should try to ask the Minister one supplementary question.
Mr Attwood: Finally, why is the Minister’s Department proposing to slash —
Mr Speaker: Order. I call the Minister.
The Minister for Employment and Learning: I said on a number of occasions that Members push the envelope. I understand that, and it is perfectly proper to do so. I may not have noted all the questions — there were quite a number of them — but I will do my best to work my way through them.
The governing body of Stranmillis University College is independent. The college is a legal entity and was established under a legal framework. I said that the governing body made a decision in principle, but it has been clearly explained to the college, and to the chairman in particular, that a process has to be followed.
That process requires the Department to decide whether it agrees with the proposal. A change in the status of the college is required if the Department agrees with that or any subsequent proposal. That, in turn, can only be achieved by appropriate legislation, which means that the Committee and the Assembly will have the final say on any proposals.
As the Member is aware, David Taylor’s report was proposed and sponsored by Stranmillis University College before devolution. That report was commissioned in early 2007, and it considered a number of options. When the Department makes its views known, it will have to consider whether other options are viable or are worth taking into account. If a proposal from the board of the college emerges, the Department must make a decision on it. The nature of the proposal requires appropriate legislation, which will involve the Committee and the House.
It was unfortunate that the phrase “done deal” was used. That was not particularly helpful to me, the Department or Members. I am extremely concerned about ensuring a strategic approach to the entire matter of teacher training. I raised that concern with Executive colleagues last August, and again in March. This is not an issue that has appeared from nowhere, and it is not purely an issue for my Department — it is an Executive issue, and I have made that clear on a number of occasions.
I am acutely aware of the performance of St Mary’s University College. I am proud that such good reports and ratings have been produced by the college. I am also proud of its level of participation on the part of students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds.
That is as much as I can say in response to the Member’s supplementary question without limiting the opportunities of other Members to speak.
Mr Ross: The way in which the announcement of the proposed merger was made was of great concern to the Committee, particularly because such a significant decision was taken without the apparent knowledge of the Minister. Will the Minister detail what discussions he has held about the potential impact of the potential merger, not only on St Mary’s University College, but on the ethos of Stranmillis University College?
The Minister for Employment and Learning: I am extremely aware of that issue. On the first occasion that I dealt with this matter, I made it clear that ethos issues would have to form part of the solution to any proposals. If any firm proposals are made, that is one of the matters that the Committee and the House will have to take into account. I assure the Member that every opportunity will be provided for that to happen.
I share the Member’s concern about the unfortunate way in which the announcement was made. However, he must not forget that the governing body of Stranmillis University College is independent. It is not the responsibility of the Department to prevent the members — whom we appoint — from making their views known. It is up to those members to make proposals, and it is up to the Department to consider those in the wider context of general public policy. Ultimately, it is a matter for this House to decide whether legislative intervention is necessary.
Mr Speaker: Question 5 has been withdrawn.
Skills in the Farming Community
6. Mr Bresland asked the Minister for Employment and Learning to detail the action he is taking to develop the skills of members of the farming community who are looking for employment outside agriculture. (AQO 3479/08)
The Minister for Employment and Learning: I believe that the previous question ended up with another Department.
Through the implementation of the Success Through Skills programme, my Department has made a wide range of training provision available to all employees, including those in the farming industry. That provision includes the Training for Success programme, management and leadership courses, and the training that is offered on a part-time basis by the further and higher education sector. Moreover, essential-skills provision is free and open to all learners. Colleges, especially in rural areas, work closely with the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise.
Mr Bresland: There will be several opportunities for the farming community to reskill through the new rural development programme. Will the Minister agree that there is a need for a joined-up approach between his Department and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development?
The Minister for Employment and Learning: I met the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development recently to discuss one or two issues about the availability of courses, and there is clearly a need for a joined-up approach. The Member will be aware that the number of part-time workers engaged in agriculture is rising as a percentage of those engaged in the first place. He will also be aware that rural proofing of public policy has been given a higher profile. Therefore, the concerns raised by the Member will be subject to considerable scrutiny as public policy, generally, is introduced.
There are several opportunities, including the Bridge to Employment programme, where we can work closely together with other employers in the areas. The Member should bear in mind that I mentioned earlier the all-island skills conference, which will look at whether the training available in the colleges in border areas is adequate and suitable for employers in those areas. There is no point in training people if there are no jobs available. The Member’s point has been taken on board, and it receives priority in several programmes that are the responsibility of my Department.
Mr W Clarke: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. What courses are currently available in local further education colleges to assist farmers to diversify into traditional trades, such as thatching and drystone walling?
The Minister for Employment and Learning: I do not have the statistics for drystone walling at my disposal, and I realise that that will be a shock to the Member. Seriously, many of those skills are important, and we are trying to retain them. During discussions about the proposed Mourne national park, people asked how we would retain the national park if we did not have the basic skills available to restore buildings with the skills that were commensurate with the times. It is a serious economic issue.
The colleges are flexible, and if the Member believes that there is adequate demand for any of those services then I have no difficulty in asking the colleges to see whether they can help. There is adequate flexibility in the funding that the colleges receive for that to happen. If the Member has identified the need for those skills, I will write to him if something is planned or already happening of which I am unaware. Those skills are important, and we encourage people to develop them in rural areas as it will keep people in those areas. They also have an economic impact and, therefore, I am entirely sympathetic to any proposals that the Member may have.
Mr Kennedy: Sinn Féin Thatcherite.
Mr McCallister: On behalf of the society of drystone wallers, I ask the — [Interruption.] At least the DUP recognises that it has come up against a stone wall.
Has the Minister any programmes specifically to retrain an individual farmer for work in another industry? [Laughter.] Did I ask the wrong Minister?
The Minister for Employment and Learning: The Member is living proof of the fact that the system works. All of our programmes are open to everyone. There is no specific programme that applies to farmers only. However, it must be said that particular difficulties and problems exist.
Diversification is an appropriate option and, following on from the previous question, the Member will be aware that that is particularly the case in rural areas. The Member will be particularly interested to know, from his constituency perspective, that when a Mourne national park was proposed, one question that arose was whether there would be enough skills available locally to deliver on some of the promises contained in that proposal. It is, therefore, perfectly sensible for the Member to suggest that relevant courses be made available. The skills concerned do not relate specifically to farmers, but I am happy to examine any proposals that the Member may have, and the colleges are flexible and are prepared to run such courses.
Conversion courses are already available at graduate level, whereby, after a period of study, graduates in one subject can convert to a different discipline. The principles are established, and I do not foresee any difficulties.
Education Maintenance Allowance: Absenteeism
7. Mrs McGill asked the Minister for Employment and Learning to detail the protocol involved in administering the education maintenance allowance in the case of absenteeism. (AQO 3536/08)
The Minister for Employment and Learning: The Department issued guidance to all learning centres on the administration of the education maintenance allowance scheme, including the reporting and monitoring of attendance and authorising absence. When a student is absent, the learning centre must determine the appropriate action in accordance with that guidance: the learning centre must, in line with its current procedures, use reasonable discretion in authorising absence.
If an absence is authorised, the student is entitled to receive the allowance as though he or she had attended, as long as there were no unauthorised absences during that week. In the case of an unauthorised absence, the learning centre cannot approve any payment for that week.
Mrs McGill: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his answer. I was told that it is possible for students to lose their maintenance allowance when they have been justifiably absent for one or two days. Does the Minister agree that it is unfair to a student who has been absent for a good reason to lose that allowance? It creates a degree of hardship and is unacceptable. Go raibh maith agat.
The Minister for Employment and Learning: I take the Member’s concern on board, but the system should deal with such cases. The Department sent guidance to the learning centres. According to that guidance, absence for a legitimate reason does not affect a student’s allowance for that week. If a student is absent without justification or approval, however, he or she loses the allowance for that week. If the Department is not careful, it could create an administrative nightmare, but any legitimate absence does not count against a student.
If the Member wants to draw a particular case, or cases, to my attention, my Department will be happy to consider them. However, the system should be satisfactory, because the learning centres have the right to authorise absences. My colleague the Minister of Education is aware that most of that authorisation, or otherwise, happens in schools, but guidance exists for the learning centres for which I have responsibility. Non-authorised absences result in students losing their allowances, whereas authorised absences, such as those due to bereavements, and so forth, do not. I would appreciate the Member drawing to my attention any instances in which the system has failed and caused hardship, and I am sure that a resolution can be found.
Document Accessibility for Visually Impaired People
8. Mr McCartney asked the Minister for Employment and Learning to outline the provisions in place for departmental documents to be made available to the visually impaired. (AQO 3528/08)
The Minister for Employment and Learning: On all its printed documentation, the Department advises readers that documents are available in other formats on request. During the past financial year, the Department received no requests for its publications to be printed in other formats. The departmental website was developed using best practice guidelines on accessibility. People who are visually impaired can increase the font size on the site and use Browsealoud, which electronically reads the text aloud.
Mr McCartney: Will the Minister consider extending those facilities to applications to further education colleges?
The Minister for Employment and Learning: I am certainly prepared to consider the Member’s request. I will not give a commitment now, but I will consider it, and if he wishes to write to me, I will be happy to receive his correspondence.
Paedophile Information Exchange
1. Mr Dallat asked the Minister of Education whether members or former members of the Paedophile Information Exchange are automatically prohibited from working in schools. (AQO 3491/08)
The Minister of Education (Ms Ruane): Tá cosaint páistí fíor-thábhachtach, agus caithfimid gach a dhéanamh ar féidir linn lena chinntiú go bhfuil gach duine atá ar fostú i scoileanna oiriúnach do bheith ag obair le páistí. .
The protection of children is paramount, and it is essential that we do everything in our power to ensure that only people who are suitable to work with children are employed in our schools. Employing authorities have a legal duty to ensure that that is so, and that is why the protection of our children has been on the agenda at North/South Ministerial Council and British-Irish Council meetings. If it were known that someone was a member of the Paedophile Information Exchange, she or he would be considered unsuitable.
There are currently two lists of people who are disqualified from working with children in the North of Ireland. However, a person need be on only one of those lists in order to be disqualified. A person can be automatically prohibited only if he or she is convicted of an offence listed in the Education (Prohibition from Teaching or Working with Children) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2007, is subject to a disqualification order made by the courts, or is on the disqualification from working with children list that the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety holds. If any Member has any evidence that someone poses a threat to children, that evidence should be brought to the attention of the police or social services.
Mr Dallat: Will the Minister advise whether any FBI-identified paedophiles connected to Operation Avalanche in the US or Operation Ore in the UK were found by the PSNI to be working at the Department of Education, or at any Department with which the Minister is familiar?
The Minister of Education: I do not have that information, but I can check it out, and I will write to the Member.
Mr Shannon: I thank the Minister for her response. She mentioned that teachers and those who work in the classroom are subject to checks. Are cleaning and grounds-maintenance staff subject to the same checks as teachers, and do those checks take place before employment is taken up?
The Minister of Education: As I said, the safety of our children is paramount. Before getting a job in a school, everyone must have a history background check completed. That check applies to everyone, whether working in a paid or unpaid capacity. The check must show nothing that raises concerns about their suitability to work with children. Where a concern is raised because of a prior conviction for any type of offence, or because of other information, the employing authority carries out a full risk assessment before a decision is made about employment. That risk assessment involves seeking professional advice from the PSNI, social services and the Probation Board. Having said that, if any Member has any information that could protect children, and thinks that that information should be in the hands of the PSNI, social services or the Probation Board, I urge him or her to contact those organisations.
Mr Kennedy: I thank the Minister for her reply. Will she confirm what engagement, if any, she has had with the PSNI directly on that issue?
The Minister of Education: My Department works with the PSNI, probation services and social services when various checks are run on people who work with children and young people.
European Language Portfolio
2. Mr Attwood asked the Minister of Education whether the European Language Portfolio will form part of her programme for primary languages. (AQO 3570/08)
The Minister of Education: Tá a fhios againn ó thaithí tíortha Eorpacha eile agus ónar nGael-earnáil féin gurb é an dóigh is fearr leis an dara teanga a fhoghlaim toiseacht go luath.
It is known from experiences in other European countries, and in our Irish-medium sector in the North, that an early start to learning a second language, regardless of what that language is, is key to ensuring success. Good work on teaching modern languages is happening in our primary schools. To support more primary schools in delivering that, I have introduced a primary-languages programme, beginning this school year, to support those primary schools that wish to offer Spanish or Irish. Spanish is an important global language, and Irish is the native language of Ireland, as well as being an official European language.
To date, 65 tutors have been appointed. They will begin working in schools this term, subject to child-protection clearance. Events to raise awareness were held on 12 and 13 March for 280 primary schools. Initial responses have been positive.
At those events, teachers participating in the primary-languages programme were alerted to the European language portfolio. It was suggested that teachers could use it to enable pupils to record, and reflect on, their progress in language learning. The portfolio can be used to record progress in any language, including Spanish and Irish. Southern Education and Library Board schools that teach French, Spanish and Irish piloted its use in 2003-04.
The European language portfolio is also a useful part of the Together towards Inclusion toolkit for diversity that was sent to every primary school on the island of Ireland as part of a joint project that I undertook with the Minister of State with special responsibility for integration policy in the South of Ireland. Its aim is to enable pupils to record their progress in learning English as an additional language.
I also expect to receive recommendations soon from the joint University of Ulster/Queen’s University Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies on a languages strategy for the North. That work will include methods of assessing progress in language learning that may provide further scope for a tool such as the portfolio.
I speak three languages fairly fluently, and I have found that immersion education, or tumoideachas as it is known in Irish, is among the best ways in which to learn a language. The more immersion education is available, the better, regardless of the language being taught. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr Speaker: I call Mr Alex Attwood to ask a supplementary question. [Laughter.]
Mr Attwood: Or a couple.
I thank the Minister for her reply. I agree with the sentiment that informed her answer.
Given that 65 tutors are about to be appointed and that 280 schools attended the recent seminar, how will the Minister ensure that a fully qualified teaching body will be established to enable schools across the North to implement the proposals? Does her Department have the resources to see that the plans are eventually rolled out, not only to 65 tutors but to 165, and then to 265?
The Minister of Education: We must make resources available, because language is a major part of our curriculum. In order to develop our economy, it is essential that our young people speak languages fluently. Many different languages are now spoken in the North, and our companies work in many parts of the world as well as at home. It is important that we deliver the best possible language teaching. Our provision is currently way behind that in other parts of Europe.
There are examples from which we can learn. The Member will agree that the Irish-medium schools network — the preschool, the naíscoileanna agus bunscoileanna — shows the way in learning languages.
Mr B McCrea: The Minister may be able to speak Spanish and Irish, but she clearly does not understand the language of consensus.
Would the Minister not be better — and do more good — focusing on opportunities presented by teaching languages such as French and German, spoken in countries with which we have clear economic and cultural ties in Europe, rather than politicising the issue and insisting on rubbing our noses in it by referring to Irish every single chance that she gets?
The Minister of Education: First, Irish is one of the languages spoken on this island. It is also a European language. Spanish and Irish are two of the most popular languages taught to GCSE level.
In my very early days as Minister, I recall that the Member declared in Committee something along the lines of “English should be the only language learned”. I suggest respectfully that we need to take a more open attitude to different European languages, including Spanish and Irish. It is important to be able to speak different languages.
The programme is opt in; nobody is being forced to do anything. Many people throughout the North want their children to be able to learn Irish or Spanish. We must celebrate diversity, look to our statutory duties on Irish-medium schools and be less insulting about the native language of Ireland.
Mr Boylan: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Can the Minister explain why Spanish, rather than French, for example, was chosen? Will she consider any other languages?
The Minister of Education: Spanish is one of the most popular languages that people choose to study at GCSE level. It is also one of the fastest-growing languages in the Americas, from the United States right down to Chile, and in Europe. Spanish is a popular and useful language.
Dundonald High School
3. Mr McCarthy asked the Minister of Education to outline her plans for maintaining and improving facilities at Dundonald High School. (AQO 3490/08)
The Minister of Education: The Member is aware that due to concern about unstable enrolments at Dundonald High School, my Department is not prepared to consider a major capital project for that school. Enrolment figures have decreased almost annually during the past six years. The admission numbers between 2002 and 2007 were as follows: 99, 90, 80, 53, 49 and 53 respectively. The overall enrolment for 2007-08 is only 332.
On 1 May, a site visit took place that involved officials from my Department’s building advisory branch and the South Eastern Education and Library Board (SEELB) in order to assess the condition of existing school buildings and to consider a way forward. Having seen the condition of the school at first hand, building advisory branch wants to have a further meeting with board officials in order to determine the priority areas of work to be undertaken and to agree a programme to take that forward. It is anticipated that that meeting will take place within the next couple of weeks.
Mr McCarthy: I am glad that the Minister has admitted that the state of the building is abysmal, to say the least. She must be aware that Dundonald is a growing suburb where housing development is taking place. Students from the area will need a high school in Dundonald. The deplorable conditions at Dundonald High School, which have been a problem for years, are an embarrassment to the Department. Can the Minister give a commitment that the school will be provided for immediately in order to make it suitable for twenty-first-century education?
The Minister of Education: I agree with the Member that it is unacceptable that any school is not in good condition. Many schools are not. That is why the Department is embarking on a programme of £3 billion investment in the schools estate.
The SEELB has indicated that it may make a bid for additional funding for work that may be deemed necessary. Any bid will be considered in light of competing priorities and the availability of resources. No guarantee can be given that any additional funding will be made available. It is not possible to determine the level of funding that may be provided until a further meeting between the Department of Education and board officials has taken place in order to agree priority areas of work, identify costs and plan the way forward. The future of any school is dependent on an assessment of its continued need, which includes consideration of its current and potential future enrolments. The Department will, of course, take into account the 1,300 new homes in the area when it considers the school’s long-term enrolments.
Mr Spratt: I have had close ties with Dundonald High School since my time on the South Eastern Education and Library Board. It has been treated disgracefully throughout the years. In many respects, it has been allowed to wither on the vine. Will the Minister visit the school in order to see the school’s needs for herself and to gain first-hand knowledge from its governors and staff about how the school has been treated by her Department and SEELB throughout the years?
The Minister of Education: I agree that it is totally unacceptable that secondary schools face such difficulties. I have said on record in the Assembly that current arrangements for transfer from primary education to post-primary education impact adversely on secondary schools. I look forward to future debates on that issue. Secondary schools are disproportionately affected by demographic decline. That is totally and utterly unacceptable. It is unacceptable that any school be allowed to “wither on the vine”, to use the Member’s words. That is one reason why I have brought forward proposals for transfer and secondary schools. I will be happy to the visit the school if it wants to send me an invitation.
Mr McGlone: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a thabhairt don Aire as na ceisteanna a fhreagairt.
I thank the Minister for her responses.Will the Minister tell the House how many improvement schemes and capital programmes have been delayed while we await the implementation of area-based planning and the sustainable schools policy?
The Minister of Education: I will bring forward both those policies very soon. Members will be aware that due to falling pupil numbers — which has resulted in 50,000 empty desks — I have set up area-based planning groups to examine the provision of post-primary education. We must plan for the schools estate strategically. I will write to the Member about the number of delayed schemes.
Mr Speaker: Francie Molloy is not in the Chamber to ask question 4, so I will move on to question 5.
5. Mr Weir asked the Minister of Education to detail the measures being taken to provide for safe roads near schools through the staffing of school crossings. (AQO 3471/08)
The Minister of Education: Tá freagracht fhoriomlán do shábháilteacht ar na bóithre ar mo chomhghleacaí, an tAire Comhshaoil. Ach tá ról le himirt ag na boird oideachais agus leabharlainne fosta, nó thig leo bearta a leagan amach i scéim a fhaigheann ceadú ó mo Roinn le cuidiú le páistí a chosaint ar thimpistí.
Overall responsibility for road safety rests with my colleague the Minister of the Environment; however, the education and library boards also have a role to play. Boards can set out measures in a scheme, approved by the Department, to assist in the prevention of accidents involving children.
That will enable boards to provide school-crossing patrols where particular traffic hazards have been identified. It will also enable them to remove crossing patrols where conditions have changed over time to the extent that a hazard has significantly reduced or has disappeared.
The boards can assess the most suitable location for school-crossing patrol sites by using the Local Authority Road Safety Officers’ Association guidelines. The guidelines were originally developed for use in England and Wales, but have been adapted by boards to suit local circumstances. The guidelines assess the extent of hazards through consideration of site lines, the volume of traffic, the width of a road, the availability of crossing aids, and footpaths.
I assure the Member that where a board has identified a hazard and has provided a patrol, it will not be removed while the hazard remains. Where hazards have been reassessed and found to fall below the eligibility criteria, the board may withdraw the associated patrols. The safety of pupils is paramount, and patrols are not removed simply to save resources.
On the wider issue of road safety, a programme of measures is being put in place to enhance the safety of pupils who travel by bus. More than 90% of all board vehicles are now fully equipped with seat belts and the practice of young pupils sitting three to a seat has been eliminated.
One of the most difficult days that I have experienced as Minister occurred recently when a young schoolgirl died in a bus accident on the Ballygawley Road in Cabragh. Despite the tragic circumstances of that day, it was clear that seat belts had saved lives. Therefore I hope to complete the process of equipping the remainder of the fleet with seat belts shortly.
I also met the Mallon and Murray families, whose children were involved in that awful accident, and my colleagues the Minister for Regional Development and Minister of the Environment. As a result of that meeting, my ministerial colleagues agreed to consider a range of road-safety improvements in the Ballygawley area. Furthermore, I have written personally to all school principals asking them to help to raise pupils’ awareness of the importance of wearing seat belts where provided.
Mr Weir: I thank the Minister for her answer. Will the Minister give an assurance that the Department will give greater co-operation on that vital issue, given that there has been a year-on-year decrease in the number of school-crossing patrol officers employed across the five education and library boards, and that compared to four years ago, the number of school-patrol officers is down 26%.
The Minister of Education: As the Member will know, there are 660 school-crossing patrols across the five education and library board areas. The Belfast Education and Library Board has 110; the North Eastern Education and Library Board has 148; the South Eastern Education and Library Board has 111; the Southern Education and Library Board has 152; and the Western Education and Library Board has 139.
At present, there are 29 vacancies for school-crossing patrol officers. The boards are looking at the difficulties experienced in employing staff.
Mr Burns: Does the Minister agree that school-crossing patrols are good value for money? Will she insist that the education and library boards find the money to replace school-crossing patrols that have been cut in recent years?
The Minister of Education: It is essential that young people can travel to school safely, and there are many different ways of ensuring that they do that. I look forward to increases in budgets to deal with all the different issues for which the Member would like me to find money, but safety is paramount, and I have said that to all the boards.
Mr Elliott: Although I recognise the difficult issues of safety at school crossings, has the Minister put in place any other measures to encourage schoolchildren to walk to school if it is safe and appropriate and if the distance allows? What measures have been taken to ensure that school buses do not drive past children because they are not allowed to pick them up because of some silly rule that has been imposed by the education and library boards?
The Minister of Education: The education and library boards have a tremendous record on school buses. At Craigavon Hospital, I spoke to Helen McClenaghan, the chief executive of the Southern Education and Library Board, who said that that was the first fatal accident for many years. Credit must given where it is due, and tremendous improvements have been made to safety on school buses and the provision of seat belts.
Society has moved towards children being driven to school in cars, and there are not enough initiatives for children to walk to school, but many of our roads are dangerous. My colleague Conor Murphy is considering safer routes for children to travel to school. The issue is bigger than the Department of Education; the infrastructure must be built, such as cycle lanes and walking lanes. Furthermore, children need not go to a school that is far away from their home. My proposals for transfer from primary to post-primary school will lead to a significant reduction in the number of children who use buses because, by and large, they will attend local community schools.
South Eastern Education and Library Board
6. Mr Craig asked the Minister of Education to give a timescale within which she will reinstate former members of the South Eastern Education and Library Board; and to detail the members with whom she has met to confirm their readiness to resume these responsibilities. (AQO 3552/08)
The Minister of Education: Ar mhaithe le freagracht áitiúil, ba chóir do bhaill Bhord Oideachais agus Leabharlainne an Oirdheiscirt filleadh ar a seanfhreagrachtaí.
In the interests of local accountability, it is appropriate that the members of the South Eastern Education and Library resume their former responsibilities. However, it is also essential to ensure that there is no return to the difficulties that the commissioners inherited when they were appointed in July 2006 and that the stability that has since been achieved is sustained.
On 8 April 2008, I held a meeting with the members of the board who are district council nominees to discuss their readiness and willingness to take up their former responsibilities and to deliver those effectively. On 21 April, I held a meeting with the non-political board members. During the course of those meetings, I reminded the members that they must respect their statutory duties, including those relating to equality, and their financial responsibilities. At both of those meetings, the discussions were constructive, and those who were present indicated a desire for the board to be reinstated. I said that I would consider what I had heard at both meetings and that I would come to a view in determining the way forward.
I have since concluded that there is a strong case for an early reinstatement of the board. However, a number of preliminary steps must be taken. At both meetings, members expressed a need for a full briefing from board and Department of Education officials on the state of the board’s finances and on any other significant emerging issues. They also expressed the need for an opportunity to refresh their understanding of corporate governance requirements.
I agree that steps are necessary and prudent, and I have asked that departmental and board officials facilitate those steps as a matter of urgency. In addition, I need to be sure — and it was evident from the discussions that many members feel likewise — that there will be no return to the previous difficulties before the board was suspended in July 2006. In particular, the future work of the board must be characterised by courtesy and mutual respect. Therefore, I have written to the chairperson of the board to ask him to provide a report that gives his assessment on that as soon as is convenient after members have opportunities to come together. If that report provides the necessary assurance, I intend to confirm the reinstatement of the board, preferably before the summer.
Mr Craig: I find the Minister’s answer intriguing. Due to their conscience, many board members could not vote in the way in which they were told. I would not like to think that the Minister would place undue restrictions on those members. Perhaps she might advise us on the matter.
The Minister of Education: Of course people must respect their conscience; however, they must also respect the environment in which we work. Every party agreed budgets that must be allocated fairly. Furthermore, an equality impact assessment was carried out on the budget, and I have instructed all boards to fulfil their statutory equality duties. I am sure that the Member is not suggesting that people should not adhere to their financial responsibilities and statutory duties.
Mrs D Kelly: Notwithstanding the obligation on SEELB members to follow through on their statutory responsibilities, has the Minister assessed the damage that the suspension of board members has had on democratic accountability in the South Eastern Education and Library Board?
The Minister of Education: Democratic accountability is an important reason for reinstating the board. For too long in this part of Ireland, direct rule Ministers made decisions, and democratic accountability — what local people want — is one of the reasons that the Executive are up and running. I share the Member’s opinion about democratic accountability.
It is essential that all board members fulfil their statutory duties. The board must act as a corporate body that is responsible for taking decisions that are necessary to ensure that SEELB meets its statutory obligations. Indeed, the same applies to members of any of the five education and library boards: they must operate effectively and live within budgets. The stability that has been achieved in recent times must be sustained and, in reaching decisions, the board must assess fully all relevant facts and evidence.
Furthermore, any board’s role is to ensure high standards of corporate governance; to provide leadership, vision and direction; to be accountable to the public; to adhere to ministerial and Assembly policy; and to ensure good management.
Mr Speaker: Question 7 has been withdrawn.
Selection at Age 14
8. Mr D Bradley asked the Minister of Education to clarify her statement in relation to selection at age 14 that “receiving schools will be able to consider the previous educational experience and performance of applicants and advise them on their selection”. (AQO 3494/08)
The Minister of Education: Luaigh mé i ráitis a d’eisigh mé cheana féin próiseas eolasach — ach ní roghnú — ag 14. Is próiseas é a thógas ar an chleachtas atá ann i scoileanna cheana féin i gcás ina gcinneann dalta de 14 agus a thuismitheoirí/a tuismitheoirí ar an chosán iar-14 atá an duine óg le glacadh.
In earlier statements, I referred to a process of informed election — not selection — at age 14, and that process builds on existing practice in schools by which a 14-year old and her or his parents determine the post-14 pathway to be taken by a young person. Such an election would be informed by advice from education professionals, including careers advice, the guidance of teachers at an applicant’s current school and the advice of professionals at the school that an applicant may attend in future. In order to provide such advice, and to ensure its high quality, everyone concerned will have access to information about the relevant applicant’s education experience and performance to date. The process cannot become selection by stealth.
I have always said that, by the age of 14, young people know what they like and where their interests lie, and, working with their parents, teachers and careers guidance advisers, they are capable of making choices. Candidates will choose their preferred pathway, and if that involves a transfer between schools, and the receiving school is oversubscribed, non-academic admissions criteria would be applied.
Mr D Bradley: The Minister referred to an applicant’s:
“education experience and performance to date”.
Furthermore, in her answers to questions posed by the Committee for Education, she used the word “selection”. It appears that the Minister’s answers allow for academic selection by the back door. Can the Minister assure Members that that is not the case?
The Minister of Education: I can. I have not sat on the fence on the matter, and Members know my position. I have been clear that, whether at age 11 or 14, it is unnecessary to select children by so-called ability.
The selection process has damaged our education system and, fortunately, the 11-plus will be abolished after this year. I have brought forward proposals, which were thoroughly discussed in the Education Committee. If any member of the Education Committee is confused about my position on selection, I am happy to continue explaining it — [Interruption.]
Mr Speaker: Order. The Minister has the Floor.
The Minister of Education: Academic selection is unnecessary and unjust, and we do not need it in our education system. Our education system is failing too many of our young people — the way forward is transfer at 11 and election at 14.
Mr Speaker: Order. That completes Question Time.
Mr McCartney: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Is there provision in Standing Orders to allow a Member to pretend that he is a Minister? If so, it is time to withdraw that provision.
Mr Speaker: That is not a point of order, and the Member well knows it. [Laughter.]
Adjourned at 4.01 pm.